The Australian Variety Theatre Archive is an independent, not-for-profit research website devoted to the period of theatrical activity in Australia that might be considered the “golden years” of minstrelsy and vaudeville. The motivation for the site has been the need to rectify the exceedingly poor amount of research directed towards this area of Australian history and thus address the many myths, inaccuracies and gaps that are to be found in the present historical record.
It is perhaps not surprising that variety theatre has never received sustained or rigorous attention from historians, given that popular culture entertainment has long been viewed as the poor cousin of “legitimate” drama and literature. A consequence of this lack of attention, however, is that our understanding of Australia’s developing national identity and social construction, especially during the pivotal Federation and World War I eras, is not reflecting the cultural processes that occurred.
The concept for this archive stems from post-graduate research undertaken by Clay Djubal at The University of Queensland between 1997 and 2005. While investigating the life and career of his great-great-great uncle, vaudeville entrepreneur Harry Clay, he became aware that the variety industry had been much bigger and more industrially complex than implied in the few publications to have been written on the area.
Dr Djubal’s research now argues that the variety industry, which reached its creative and commercial peak between the years circa 1915 and 1925, employed an enormous number of local performers and had a uniquely intimate relationship with audiences – not just in each city’s CBD, but perhaps more importantly in the vast suburban and regional areas of Australia. He has also shown that the increasing industry expansion during the first decade and a half of the 20th century helped pave the way for the development of the country’s first (and possibly only) original theatrical genre – the revusical (or one act musical comedy).
Dr Djubal’s 2005 doctoral thesis argues that the historian’s traditional research methodology is inadequate for the purposes of investigating an industry that was not only highly transient, widespread and ephemeral, but which also saw practitioners disappear and reappear in the major cities at infrequent and often unpublicised intervals. His methodology rejects the outdated notion of a historian “owning” their piece of history and bypasses the academic publication format, which still remains largely irrelevant to the general public. This new approach utilises digital technology to expand the research process by providing interactive access to the world-wide community of “unaffiliated experts.”
The AVTA concept is to provide an on-going research database that will not only regularly upload new biographies of the people once involved Australia’s early variety industry, but will also continue to update existing entries.
Many entries comprise an overview (entered in a relevant section – such as entrepreneurs or practitioners) which is linked to a More details PDF document. These more extensive insights can include an engagements chronology; lists of associated works, recordings and publications (if relevant); and a further reference section among other things. The archive also includes numerous images.
While the initial content development for the AVTA draws on the more than 2,5000 local practitioners identified to date by Dr Djubal, it is hoped that as time progresses more content will be provided by others.
It is important to note that all entries should be considered on-going, and thus always incomplete. Anyone with further information on any of the entries (including corrections) or who would like to contribute entries to the archive is invited to contact Dr Djubal. [see Contact page] All contributions will be acknowledged on the site.
The AVTA’s primary objectives are three-fold:
- To celebrate and advance our knowledge of the Australian variety theatre industry which operated between the mid-1800s and the late-1920s/early-1930s.
- To identify and correct myths, errors and gaps in the published history of Australian variety theatre.
- To provide an on-going information archive which will serve as the basis for further research by both academics and historians, as well as by the general public.
Variety entertainment during the period covered by the AVTA crossed many theatrical genres and media forms (including film and radio). The archive is primarily interested, however, in the following genres:
- minstrelsy (including minstrels farces)
- revusical (one act musical comedies)
The AVTA also includes details on works and practitioners which fall out side these areas, but which are nevertheless related in some way. There are, for example, a number of composers, writers and actors included within the archive whose careers are more associated with “serious” or “legitimate” endeavours. Research has discovered, however, that they were either at one stage involved in the production of variety entertainment (as composers, music directors, authors or actors in pantomime, for example) or had some of their work performed on the variety stage.
The variety industry between 1850 and 1930 comprised a wide array of occupations and associations. The archive is therefore looking to provide biographical details on the following:
- performers (individuals and acts)
- entrepreneurs and managers
- scenic artists, stage managers, front-of-house managers, costume and property-makers, choreographers
- writers, composers, songwriters, lyricists
- directors, music directors, producers
- associated industry practitioners (journalists/critics, advance representatives etc)
For further details see the attached document:
The Australian Variety Theatre Archive will now be preserved for future generations through Pandora: Australia’s Web Archive, an initiative of the National Library of Australia and participating agencies. Pandora will re-archive the AVTA on a regular basis, providing access to backdated versions of the website beginning with the first – dated 15 January 2014.
The AVTA’s Persistent URL identifier is:
For information regarding Pandora see the attached NLA Pandora Factsheet.
For details relating to copyright, including the AVTA’s own policy statement see the attached document:
Image details for this page are available from the Scope and Background PDF
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The Australian Variety Theatre Archive went public on 10 May 2011, the 146th anniversary of the birth of Harry Clay.