A box, a theatre in the round; it was an amazing choice. How did it all happen? Although Brisbane Repertory Theatre had been going strong since 1925, it had never had a home of its own. Then Bruce Blocksidge had a good idea: why not convert the Hale Street cottage owned by the theatre into a performance space? And there it was - La Boite - theatre in the box!
In June 1967, one of the most significant 'openings' in Brisbane's theatre history took place: the opening of Brisbane Repertory Theatre's first mainhouse production in its own tiny theatre. This first 'La Boîte ' was an intimate, 70 seat, box-like space created for the purpose of theatre-in-the-round in a converted cottage in inner-city Milton. With its interior walls ripped out and benches placed around the remaining walls, a performance space of exactly 22 feet 3 inches square was created. With the opening of this tiny theatre-in-the-round a dramatic change had taken place for this organisation, and one that set in train a process of experimentation and calculated risk-taking that has continued to characterise La Boite's development ever since.
The issue of finding a home of their own had come to a head in early 1967 with news of an impending closure and demolition of Albert Hall, which subsequently occurred in 1969. Albert Hall had been Repertory’s rented theatre space since 1942. During Babette Stephens term of influence as Council President and Honorary Director (1957-1968) the Council was dominated by respected business men such as Brisbane City Council Alderman Lex Ord and Real Estate Director Bruce Blocksidge. Acting on their good business advice, Mrs Stephens and her Council acquired a real estate portfolio of four adjoining properties in Milton. The free services of her husband, prominent solicitor Tom Stephens (their Honorary Solicitor), was an extra boon.
It was Brisbane Rep's Council President Bruce Blocksidge who had the idea that one of the old houses in their property portfolio could be converted into a theatre space. He had recently been to Hayes Gordon's Ensemble Theatre in Sydney with his wife Jennifer Blocksidge and had been very impressed with what he saw - an old boat shed converted into a theatre-in-the-round with audience sitting on all four sides of the stage. Very economic in design, he realised this idea could translate perfectly onto one of their properties. Initially Babette Stephens opposed this idea seeing it as a retrograde step into rough theatre - her dream was of owning a magnificent place in the heart of downtown Brisbane. Once convinced of the efficacy of the project, to her credit Stephens 'very strongly identified with it', embracing the notion and selling it enthusiastically to the membership.
At some point in the lead-up to its opening, the space was christened 'La Boite'. French for 'the box' it was an apt description of the old house's box-like space. It was Bruce Blocksidge who thought of the name. When studying in London, he lived in the Victoria League Student's Club in Bayswater. Close by was 'La Boîte, a coffee house, which he described as 'a little place frequented by well known theatricals - I think Sir Laurence Olivier was one, to drop a name!'.
The first La Boite opened at 57 Hale Street on June 23, 1967 with a production of John Osborne's harshly realistic English drama Look Back in Anger directed by Babette Stephens starring Bille Brown. In stark contrast to the essentially conservative fare generally offered up by Brisbane repertory, this choice of play signalled a change in programming that slowly progressed to more non-mainstream and even Australian plays, as the influence of new Theatre Director Jennifer Blocksidge took hold. Certainly, the repertoire did not change overnight; rather, with each new season, she slowly introduced more challenging, contemporary works by Harold Pinter, Peter Shaffer, Brian Friel, Edward Albee, Jean Paul Sartre and Peter Handke et al, as well as the occasional Australian work. In 1970 for example she programmed Hal Porter's Eden House, the first three act Australian play to appear in a Brisbane Repertory season since the 1962 production of The One Day of the Year.
Except that it did not have an unchanging ensemble of actors and no-one was paid, La Boite began its life very much like a professional English repertory company: it played every week including Christmas and Easter from Thursday to Saturday. When one play was in rehearsal another was in production. Babette Stephens joked that with the demise of the famous Windmill Theatre in London, La Boite could with impunity adopt their famous slogan 'We Never Close'. During the short span of its life (1967 to 1971), thirty-eight productions were mounted in this first La Boite. Very much an actor’s space, it attracted talented performers many of whom went on to have successful professional stage careers such as Barry Otto (who took roles in eight plays), John Stanton, Hazel Howson, Judith McGrath, Muriel Watson, Kaye Stevenson, Frank Gallacher, Jennifer Blocksidge, Jane Atkins, Russell Kiefel, and Trevor Smith.
Sadly, I've not been able to locate many photos of this first tiny theatre. If you have any of the exterior, the interior, of production shots or informal photos, please contact me through this website or La Boite Theatre Company.
Writer: Christine Comans
Acknowledgement: Bruce Blocksidge Interview with the writer October 31, 2002.