John Clark AM
- John Clark AM
John Clark AM
John Richard James Clark was born in Hobart on 30 October 1932.
He was educated at the University of Tasmania. ‘It was a small community,’ he remembers, ‘and everyone knew everyone else. The staff and students worked closely together.’ This, it turns out was the model he adopted for NIDA.
From the ground up
‘I was at a difficult time in my life, late teens,’ said NIDA graduate Mel Gibson. ‘I really didn’t know what to do, and I needed some direction. I actually went to school, and I went to a place that gave me the tools to explore my own creativity. It’s Australia’s National Institute of Dramatic Art, where I was imprisoned for three years. You know, I was just some surf dude that was hanging around who knew a couple of speeches and I was going to, you know, spew out my stuff, as raw as it was, and see if I could get a place there. And they knew we were raw. But that’s what they were looking for: raw. They didn’t necessarily want to see anything too polished.
‘John Clark said, “It’s gonna be tough, it’s gonna be this, it’s gonna be that.” I remember he said, “This whole business of acting is one per cent inspiration and 99 per cent perspiration.” And I remember, I thought, “Wow! You just need a spark, and the rest of it’s just hard work.” And so he, in no uncertain terms, let us know we were in for it, and that we were going to put in some long hours and we’d be hungry and that there was going to be a lot asked of us and that we were going to go through, like, crises of the personality, you know.
Ego crises and all sorts of things… And, of course, all that happened. They gave me tremendous freedom, and they gave me the keys and the tools to explore what little talent I have. You know, to get it out there, and utilise it. The first year for me was about change. I wasn’t inclined to be too forward in expressing opinions. I didn’t jump to the front of the class, put it that way. I just kind of hung back and watched a little.
You’re encouraged to try and fail. I did, many times – almost every time. You had to have a hide like a rhinoceros. They’d roar into you sometimes. And they’d tell you the truth. I look at all the young Australians who’ve been through NIDA and are doing so well, and it gives me a lot of heart. It certainly left its mark on the industry and, to a degree, the world.’
If NIDA has left its mark on the industry, it’s largely because of John Clark, who steered it steadily for so many years.
John Richard James Clark was born in Hobart on 30 October 1932. He was educated at the University of Tasmania. ‘It was a small community,’ he remembers, ‘and everyone knew everyone else. The staff and students worked closely together.’ This, it turns out was the model he adopted for NIDA.
Clark’s first intention was to be an archaeologist, but somehow, in 1956, he finished up studying theatre at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and at Bristol University – where he not only designed the set for the first production of Harold Pinter’s play The Room, but met his wife, Henrietta, a future television producer. Back in Tasmania, he made his debut as a director with a production of Death of a Salesman for the Hobart Repertory Theatre Society in 1959. This led to job offers from the Melbourne Theatre Company, the ABC, and the newly-established National Institute of Dramatic Art in Sydney. NIDA won.
From 1959 to 1968 Clark tutored in theatre history at NIDA, working under, first, the founding director, Robert Quentin, and then his successor, Tom Brown. In 1963 NIDA established the Old Tote Theatre Company. Clark directed a notable production of Max Frisch’s The Fire Raisers in the company’s first season (1963). Among his other Old Tote productions were Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?(1964), which toured widely; Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane and Hochhuth’s The Representative (both 1965); Pinter’s The Homecoming (1967); and Thomas Keneally’s Vietnam War allegory, Childermas(1968). In 1966 Clark went to the United States on a Harkness Fellowship, completing an MA in Television Directing at the University of California (Los Angeles).
Clark became director of NIDA in 1969. He appointed Elizabeth Butcher as bursar soon after. She eventually assumed the role of administrator, and she and Clark worked together for more than 30 years. Clark’s NIDA duties left him little time for outside directing activities, though his 1972 production of David Williamson’s Don’s Party in the 1972 Jane Street Theatre season transferred to the Parade Theatre and toured Australia for eight months. In 1979 he directed Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle as NIDA’s contribution to the inaugural season of the Sydney Opera House. This was in effect the curtain raiser for the Sydney Theatre Company, which was established that year to replace the cash-starved Old Tote Theatre Company. Clark and Butcher were, respectively, the STC’s initial artistic director and administrator. They gave the new company its name and guided it though its first year.
Clark extended NIDA’s acting and technical production courses from two years to three, and appointed a new generation of teachers, notably reviewed and revised as theatrical times changed.
In 1984 work started on a new home for NIDA, a superb, purpose built complex in Anzac Parade, on the western campus of the University of New South Wales. The occasion was marked by a visit from Prime Minister Bob Hawke. After the students greeted him with an energetic chorus of ‘Advance Australia Fair’, he announced that they had just sung the country’s new national anthem. In 1988 Hawke was back to officially open the building. In his speech he adroitly alluded to the school’s earlier home in dowdy, recycled buildings at the old Kensington racecourse: ‘NIDA is no longer a gamble: it is an institution with a proven track record. It deserves, and is getting, its own stable.’
By the year 2000 NIDA was offering seven different courses. In 2001 Prime Minister John Howard opened the latest addition to the NIDA complex, the superb new 730-seat Parade Theatre. It was launched by Mel Gibson, who had contributed $US1 million to the building fund.
Gibson is NIDA’s most prominent ‘old boy’, but there are so many others – over 1500 of them – who owe their theatrical careers to their days at NIDA. Many packed the Parade Theatre to pay homage to Clark when he retired in 2004. Under his 35-year directorship, NIDA became Australia’s largest and most comprehensive centre of excellence for theatre, film and television, supplying the arts and entertainment industry with talented actors, designers, directors, stage managers, playwrights, administrators, technicians, craftspeople and movement and voice specialists, many of whom are leaders in their various fields, nationally and abroad.
One of John Clark’s last official projects was the compilation of a book telling NIDA’s story and celebrating its achievements. It is a remarkable and colourful chronicle and, typical of Clark, he let his students and his staff take centre stage. It was published in 2003.
John Clark served as president of the Producers and Directors’ Guild of Australia in 1983-84. He was on the Northside Theatre Company board from 1983 until 1989 and a member of the management committee of the Northern Territory Theatre Company during 1986-87. From 1976 to 1980 he chaired the NSW Government Advisory Council on Cultural Activities. He was made a Member of the Order of Australia in 1981. And John Clark served as president of the Producers and Directors’ Guild of Australia in 1983-84., in recognition of his outstanding contribution to excellence in Australian live theatre.
Frank Van Straten, 2007
Ron Blair: ‘John Clark AM’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
John Clark: NIDA, Focus Publishing, 2003
Peter Lavery: ‘National Institute of Dramatic Art’, in Companion to Theatre in Australia, Currency Press, 1995
Michael Shmith: ‘Music poorer for Challender’s death,’ in The Age, 14 December 1991