Old Tote Theatre Company

The Old Tote Theatre Company (1963–1978) is a defunct New South Wales theatre that began as the standing acting and theatre company of Australia's National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) and was the precursor to the Sydney Theatre Company.[1] It was one of the leading Australian theatre companies of the period.


The Old Tote began in a converted tin shed on the campus of University of New South Wales in Sydney. The wood and corrugated iron building (originally an army recreation hall) became known as the "Old Tote" because it had previously been part of the group of buildings that had formerly housed the totalisator betting machine when the site had been Kensington Racecourse. The building still stands, and is now known as the Figtree Theatre.[2]

The company was founded by the University's Professor of Drama, Robert Quentin, and NIDA Director, Tom Brown.[3] The University contributed six thousand pounds to convert the building into a theatre and its debut production, which opened on 2 February 1963, was a highly successful production of Anton Chekhov's The Cherry Orchard, starring Sophie Stewart and her husband Ellis Irving, with Gordon Chater as Yepihodov, John Bell as Trefimov and Ron Haddrick as Gayev, which ran for almost two months. This was followed by a double bill of The Bald Prima Donna and The Fire Raisers, with a cast that including Brian James, Gwen Plumb, Neil Fitzpatrick, Anna Volska and Jack Allan. Other productions in the first season included Hamlet, with John Bell in the title role, and Playboy of the Western World. The first season was an outstanding success and was extended to 28 weeks, with an average nightly capacity of 95%.[4]

In 1967 it was proposed to replace the old building with a new complex housing NIDA, the School of Drama and a larger theatre, but this plan was never carried out. In May 1969 the company moved to a temporary venue, the Parade Theatre, on the western side of the UNSW campus on Anzac Parade, which was about twice the size of the Old Tote and had a larger stage.

In 1968 a decision was made to separate the Old Tote Company and NIDA. With a subsidy from the newly created Australian Council for the Arts The Old Tote then embarked on a policy of expansion and at the request of the state government it took on the responsibilities of a state theatre company, which led to commitments to stage productions at both the Sydney Opera House and the Seymour Centre as well as at the Parade. The Old Tote company went on to occupy the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House from 1973 to 1978 and also toured some of the shows around Australia, including Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead to the Canberra Theatre Centre. However these additional activities, compounded by lack of support from the New South Wales state government, overstretched the company's resources and in 1978 the Old Tote went into liquidation.

The Parade Theatre was subsequently demolished to make way for the development of a new complex to house the National Institute of Dramatic Art.[5]


Many distinguished and much-loved actors, such as Ruth Cracknell, Ron Haddrick, Neil Fitzpatrick, Jacki Weaver, John Bell, Dinah Shearing, Helmut Bakaitis, Robyn Nevin, Elizabeth Alexander, Reg Livermore, Dennis Olsen, Gary Files, Robin Lovejoy and Jennifer Hagan, appeared in more than 90 productions of the classics and contemporary plays from the international repertoire.[6] Jim Sharman became interested in directing experimental theatre and he soon made a name for himself in Sydney with his groundbreaking productions at the Old Tote Theatre Company many of which were designed by his long-time collaborator Brian Thomson. Renowned director Richard Wherrett also directed productions for the Old Tote.

See also


  1. The Founding of Sydney Theatre Company. Retrieved 20 April 2007
  2. Old Tote Theatre – Figtree Theatre – Parade Theatre – NIDA Theatre (Sydney)
  3. "Robert Quentin (1917–1979)" by Julia Horne in Origins, No. 6, UNSW Archives – https://www.recordkeeping.unsw.edu.au/documents/Origins6.pdf
  4. Ten on the Tote : an illustrated history of the Old Tote Theatre Company to celebrate its tenth anniversary, 1963–1973; compiled by Josephine South; text by Harry Scott (Old Tote Theatre Company, 1973)
  5. Old Tote Theatre – Figtree Theatre – Parade Theatre – NIDA Theatre (Sydney)
  6. The NIDA Paper Archive Collection. Retrieved 20 April 2007
  • Josephine South, Harry Scott. (1973). Ten on the Tote : an illustrated history of the Old Tote Theatre Company to celebrate its tenth anniversary, 1963–1973. Kensington, N.S.W. : Old Tote Theatre Company. ISBN 0-9599284-0-5.
  • Philip Parsons, Victoria Chance (Ed.) (1995). Companion to theatre in Australia. Sydney : Currency Press in association with Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-86819-357-7.CS1 maint: extra text: authors list (link)
  • Colin Bachali (1998). Jane St Theatre : Australian play season 1966 - 1977. Sydney : Katoomba, N.S.W. : Colin Bachali. ISBN 0-646-32652-X.
  • Jacki Weaver (2005). Much love, Jac x. Crows Nest, N.S.W. : Allen & Unwin. ISBN 1-74114-618-6.
  • John Bell (2002). John Bell : the time of my life. Sydney : Currency Press. ISBN 1-86508-640-1.
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