Poster advertising Walter Howard's play 'Life's Revenge', Theatre Royal, Hobart, 1902 (Tasmaniana Library, SLT)
Theatre arrived in Hobart in December 1833, when Samson Cameron, an actor-manager, and his company staged 'The Stranger' at the Freemasons' Tavern. Such was the success of the season that plans were made to erect a proper theatre – the Theatre Royal – which opened in 1837. Before the new theatre opened, players at the Argyle Rooms provided theatrical entertainment but, after 1837, it soon became apparent that only one company could operate profitably at any one time. Unlike Sydney, Hobart's theatrical life was unrestricted (that is, licences did not have to be obtained for plays or buildings) except for an embargo on convicts taking part in, or attending, performances. In the 1840s the talented Mrs Anne Clarke, with a company recruited in England, provided Hobart with regular entertainment of a high standard for the period. The Temperance Hall, the Mechanics' Institute, the Masonic Hall, Del Sarte's Rooms, the Town Hall and, later, the City Hall were all venues for visiting artists. Launceston enjoyed theatre soon after Hobart, at the British Hotel, and in the mid-nineteenth century both towns were central to the professional theatrical touring circuit.
Visiting companies, playing short intensive seasons with star performers such as GV Brooke, replaced stock companies playing long seasons in one location. After the 1850s, slow growth in wealth and population increasingly distanced Tasmania from the mainstream of theatrical activity, although the mining boom in the west and north-east of the colony in the 1870s, and the opening up of the north-west coast and Huon Valley district for agricultural settlement resulted in more centres where companies could perform in newly constructed community halls. For example, a company would play a brief season at each north-west coast town on the outward journey and another when it returned a few weeks later and at Campbell Town, between Hobart and Launceston seasons. Amateur groups were also established, the Muffs Dramatic Club in Launceston being notable from 1889 for some years and the Hobart Operatic Society in the 1890s. Before the First World War, films became increasingly popular and met a need that had been filled by touring theatrical companies.
Theatres built in Hobart in the first decade of the twentieth century – the Avalon, the King's, the Grand Empire, His Majesty's, and the Prince of Wales – all began as live theatres but were soon converted to cinemas. After the First World War, a change in shipping routes made Tasmania even more inaccessible to touring companies. The Allan Wilkie Shakespearian Company was a notable exception, paying annual visits in the 1920s. The Hobart Repertory Theatre Society was established under the direction of Olive Wilton in 1926 and has staged classical and contemporary plays ever since in the charming Playhouse building. The Launceston Players have been active since 1927. A visit by the Old Vic Company in 1948 re-awakened public interest in live theatre and led to the renaissance of the Theatre Royal. Fifi Banvard and the National Theatre and Fine Arts Society in the 1950s and 1960s, and the Tasmanian Theatre Company and Tasmanian Theatre Trust in the 1970s and 1980s, managed the Theatre Royal.
Hobart has remained a small city and although it is a capital city, it has all the problems of provincial centres in financing high-quality theatre: isolation, a small theatre-going public, the competition of cinema, television and video and the cost of importing large productions. Government grants only partly alleviate these problems. Hobart venues, apart from the Theatre Royal, include the Derwent Entertainment and the Wrest Point Convention Centres, and the Peacock, Mount Nelson and University Studio theatres. The Silverdome and the Princess Theatre, both in Launceston, can well accommodate visiting entertainers. Polygon, Zootango and Mainstage were some of the local Hobart semi-professional companies that existed in the 1980s and 1990s. Amateur theatre flourishes quietly: Hobart's Gilbert and Sullivan Society as well as the Repertory Society; the Launceston Players; while each north-west town has a dramatic group and those of Burnie and Devonport are noteworthy. The towns of the north-east and east coasts, and the Huon and Derwent Valleys also have active groups. High-quality performing-arts bodies for youth give the greatest cause for optimism. Apprentice Theatre, followed by the Salamanca Theatre Company and Terrapin Puppet Theatre, have all played a part in stimulating another generation of theatregoers.
Further reading: G Winter, 'Hobart' and 'Tasmanian provincial towns', in P Parsons, Companion to theatre in Australia, Sydney, 1995.