10 things you didn’t know about Australian theatre

It’s not just Kangaroos and ”Neighbours”, the theatre scene down-under is more important than you may have previously thought

To celebrate the Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts taking place in London over the next two months, we take a look at some of the quirkier facts about Australian theatre.

1. Australian theatre is 225 years old

Australian theatre began just a year after the establishment of Sydney as a penal colony. In 1789, a play was staged to celebrate the birthday of King George of England. It was The Recruiting Officer and was presented by a cast of convicts in bleak surroundings and observed by an audience of around sixty including the Governor. The incident inspired a novel by Thomas Keneally, which in turn was the inspiration for Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play Our Country’s Good.

2. Olivier is a hero

While touring with the Old Vic theatre company in 1948, Sir Laurence Olivier saved The Theatre Royal in Hobart (the country's longest running theatre) from becoming a car park.

3. To wish someone luck you say 'Chookas'

Australian actors share their British counterparts’ superstitions about wishing one another good luck, instead, they say 'chookas'. This dates to the 1900s, when a full house meant that the cast would be given chicken to eat after the show. Before curtain up, someone would count how many people were in the audience. If there were a lot, the counter would yell 'CHOOKAS!' to let the cast know they wouldn't go hungry. So 'chookas' came to mean 'good luck'.

4. They gave the world Priscilla

Australia’s most successful theatrical export to date is the musical Priscilla Queen of the Desert, which has toured all over the world, including successful runs on Broadway and in the West End, where it won four WhatsOnStage Awards in 2010.

5. Their actors are pretty cool

Michael Blakemore
Michael Blakemore
© Conrad Blakemore/National Theatre

Legendary Australian actor and Tony award-winning director Michael Blakemore (born 1928) has dolphin-like swimming abilities. He is also an ace surfer and is presenting his Personal History of Australian Surf in London next month.

6. They have the most theatregoers in the world

Melbourne's Recital Centre theatre
Melbourne’s Recital Centre theatre

As a proportion of the population more people attend theatre in Melbourne than London or New York.

7. And strange ways of paying for the theatre

Australian Bundaberg Rum
Australian Bundaberg Rum

The admission price for the first theatre to open in Sydney in 1796 was a bottle of rum.

8. The French got there first

The first play to ever mention Australia was a French satire about equality performed during the revolution.

9. Tom Stoppard is a legend there too

Legend has it that when Tom Stoppard attended the Australian premiere of Arcadia in 1992 he lit up a cigarette in the Drama Theatre of the Opera House & the smokers in the cast were thrilled & joined him. And because he was Tom Stoppard no one told him it was a non-smoking venue.

10. Dame Edna is a prankster

Dame Edna on stage at the Palladium
Dame Edna on stage at the Palladium

Dame Edna’s alter ego Barry Humphries once presented a show in Melbourne called The Audience. When the audience were seated, the curtain drew back to reveal another audience on the other side waiting for the same show to start.

Australian theatre events in London next month:

Holiday and the Eisteddfod at the Bussey Building. 14 May – 4 June.

Going Bush – Australian new writing event at the Bush Theatre. 23 & 24 May.

Michael Blakemore and Kathy Lette: On Puberty and Surfing in Australia as part of Australia and New Zealand Festival of Literature and Arts. King's College, London. 31 May.