Hills Musical Society - Betty Tougher - Part 2


Interviewee: Betty Tougher

Interviewer: Frank Heimans,
            for The Hills Shire Council

Date of Interview: 7 November, 2013

Transcription: Frank Heimans, November 2013

This interview represents the personal recollections, views and opinions of the interviewee

Now tell me a bit about your connection with the Hills Musical Society, let’s talk about that. Firstly, you said already that you had some experience with musical theatre in England. Tell me a little bit about that.

Well I was still doing concerts with my father in my teens anyway, still entertaining with him, and then when I left school I had a friend who was with the Putney Light Opera Group and she said, ‘Oh, come along we’re having a lot of fun’ and it was actually an evening class. In London you could do anything at evening classes, all you had to do was have eight people who were interested and the London County Council would provide you with a tutor. Well, the Musical Society ran as a singing class at one of the local high schools, the Musical Director was a teacher at the Westminster Choir School, so he was a very good teacher and the pianist we had was the rehearsal pianist for one of the famous ballerinas at the time, so we were really lucky that we had very good people working with us. In fact we did Vagabond King at one time and there is a Te Deum in it that is in eight parts, normally you sing in four parts, and we did it with eight parts, which was quite an achievement, so they were very good. I must have been with them for ten or twelve years altogether but after about three or four years they were short of people for a musical at Fulham, which is the other side of the river to where I was living, so I went over there to do that and that was a lot of fun too. Their Musical Director was a tenor from Sadlers Wells, so they were good people, people you could learn a lot from.

So this is all amateur theatre?

There is a lot of amateur theatre in Britain.

So after you moved to Australia how long did it take you to join the Hills Musical Society?

Well, I joined Parramatta first. I was with Parramatta probably for about six years and I was also doing things with the Blacktown Musical Society through one of the mothers at the kindy. Then one of the ladies I had met at Blacktown I really palled up with and she was my best friend until she died, and that was lovely. The first night I went to her house for a rehearsal and she asked for a song from Half-a-Sixpence that had been taken out of the amateur one. She said, ‘If you have it I will be your friend for life,’ and I did have it and she was.

She was one of the instigators of starting a group in the Hills. There were people from about four different musical societies who lived in the Hills area and it was put forward, we’d just chat about it, and we’d say, ‘What we need is a Musical Society over in the Hills.’ We wanted to make it a community one, some of the societies that we had done things with the same person played the lead in every show and the chorus people never got a chance to do anything. Shows were done that didn’t need many chorus people and that, and we said, ‘No, we want this to be a Society where everybody has got a chance.’ Anyway, at that time they built what was first of all called the North Rocks Community Centre and they were wanting it to be used and one of the people pushing this was Max Ruddock, Philip Ruddock’s father, and Don Moore and they were encouraging us to do it.

We met at somebody’s house and I can remember there weren’t enough chairs and most of us sat on the floor. We talked this over and we sort of said ‘Right’ and Max Ruddock said, ‘You must do this officially,’ so he suggested we rent the hall on Orange Blossom Week, all the halls were free on Orange Blossom Week. We had a meeting at North Rocks Community Centre and we elected a committee and decided on a show, and we sort of said, ‘It’s going to be open to everybody, even if they can’t sing, it doesn’t matter we just want to get the community together’, so that is how Hills started.

Now, are you a foundation member?

I’m a foundation member, yes, I am a Life Member now, there’s not many of the foundation people still around doing it, I am the only one still doing shows.

North Rocks Progress Hall in 1966

Tell me, in those early days, what sort of obstacles were you running up against and so on?

The first show we did was The BoyfriendThe Boyfriend is a very easy show, I always think of it as a non-singers show, really, because almost anybody can sing The Boyfriend tunes, they are very catchy and just very lively, it’s a fun show. My mother was wardrobe mistress for the first show, she had fifty dollars to make two lots of costumes for everybody. If you look at the sort of budget we have for costumes now you wouldn’t believe it, but that is what it was. We raised money with raffles and things and Max Ruddock got us the hall free for rehearsals, we only had to pay for the show and we paid a minimal amount for using it for the show. They really wanted to have the hall used.

This is the Council you are talking about?

No, what did they call themselves? Not the Neighbours Association, but it was an association around North Rocks, of the people who lived there.

Like a Progress Association?

Like a Progress Association, yes, and they wanted the hall to be used. Now it is very much used but then it was a case of getting it to be noticed and getting people to know it was there.

What were the challenges about lighting and sound?

We had a few men who knew what they were doing who had come from other societies, people who were willing not to go on stage but would make scenery, or knew something about lighting. I remember one occasion, the man who did the sound, his wife was the leading lady, so people came out of the woodwork who knew how to bang a nail in or set up a lighting system, or what have you. That first show, it was amazing what went on, we managed to get a pretty good audience and I think we did letterbox drops around the area and everything, just so people would know we were there. After a few shows everybody knew, ‘Oh yes, the Hills show is coming up’ and we had people coming from other societies wanting to be in our shows, which was lovely.

Any dramas, anything that went wrong in those first performances?

I think we found the stage a bit small in the first performance because it wasn’t very large. The lighting was minimal because it was what we could afford, but I don’t think that mattered really. Things going wrong didn’t matter because we were just enjoying ourselves. At the time we had lots of barbecues to raise money and things to get everything on, but we did quite well with that first one. I am very proud to say that I was the first person on stage with the first line in the first show for Hills.

So how many shows did the Society put on every year?

To begin with we put on three shows a year. After a few years we cut it down to two, simply because we were in a low, every now and again we’d have a low where we didn’t have enough money, so we went to putting two on. Then we went back to three again, and then we went back to two again, it just depended on how we were doing that year, how many people we got. Now we are going back to three again.

So do you remember the names of some of the other shows that were put on in those first years?

We did The Vagabond King and we did White Horse Inn. We did Brigadoon.

Was it a struggle to build the sets and create costumes?

Sometimes it was. If we’d had a show that didn’t do very well, that only just covered its costs, then we wouldn’t have much money to spend on the next show. If we were very low on money we’d put on a variety show instead of doing a story show. We’d put on a variety show where we’d just do songs or dance routines, or comedy things, like going to the music hall, or something like that. We actually did a music hall one time when we were a bit low on cash because you can do that with whatever you’ve got in wardrobe usually and not many sets.

We did one like that when we had done twenty-one shows, our twenty-first show we called Coming of Age and we did songs from all the twenty-one shows that we had done and that was quite fun. Sometimes too, when you do a show like that somebody who doesn’t normally get a chance to have a big part in a show can do a solo, so everybody gets their go when we do a variety one.

What were the challenges in providing good lighting?

The lighting is very costly, you very rarely have your own lighting, although we do have some lighting, but we also have to hire some. Some stuff it is not worth buying because you are not going to use it enough to make that worthwhile. We’ve got basic lighting and the rest of it we get in a company to do it for us, that is much easier. They usually set it up and usually one of our people run it. It is the same with scenery, we do our own scenery, sometimes very well. The show we just did, the set was very unusual and very clever. Some shows don’t need a lot of scenery. Sometimes there is something specific that is really not worth you making, so you sort of phone round other musical societies, ‘Have you got a wishing well? Oh good, can we borrow it?.

You have got to do that when you are an amateur theatre. What about a good sound system, how did you get a good sound system going?

Well, there again, we get somebody in to do it, it is easier that way - sound equipment is very expensive. Over the years we’ve used different people. The fellow that used to do it when we first started, who had the wife that played leads, he sort of retired and they moved away and we got somebody else and the same sort of thing happens. Now we have a set-up that needs a professional to run it. I mean, sound has changed so much.

Now you were a performer, of course, in the theatre as well but what other roles did you play in the Musical Society?

I have painted back cloths, I have done a lot of props. I am handy with my hands, teaching preschool you get that way, so I have made a lot of props as well as used a lot. I have worked front-of-house, I have done ushering. I have worked on the lolly stall, the tea stall. If I am not in a show I am always front-of-house unless I am doing a show somewhere else. Mostly everybody mucks in. We have people who design sets, we have people who make costumes, I have done costumes too, I’ve had a finger in most pies.

How financially viable was the Society over its entire forty years’ period so far?

It came and went, sometimes we’d do very well. We did Oliver a few years ago and we did so well on it, I think we lived off Oliver for over a year, a year and a half shows were lived off of Oliver. Of course we had a lot of children in it and that makes a difference, shows with children in bring bigger audiences because mum and dad come, aunty and uncle come, grandma comes, so they are good for audiences if they have got children in. We have done a few shows over the years with children, we did Hans Christian Andersen, that had a lot of children in.

 Betty in costume for the production 'Music Hall'

So is there any other sort of form of support or sponsorship available to societies such as yours?

Not really. There was at one time. All the societies in and around Western Sydney formed a conglomerate group called Fringe Theatres and this was an idea given to us by Arthur Dicks. Arthur Dicks was the Scenic Designer for the Q Theatre when the Q Theatre moved out to Penrith and he was very interested in amateur theatre. He suggested that if we formed this group we could get help, we could get grants, that as a bigger group we could get, but as a small group we couldn’t. Through Fringe Theatres he got grants for things like lighting and that for the societies. We used to have two representatives from every Musical, or every Play Society, like Castle Hill Players had two and Dural Musical and Holroyd Musical, we all had two. We formed a group that was called Fringe Theatres and we’d have meetings at different society’s places and through that we got the grants.

We also got something that was really useful to us. Arthur Dicks arranged for us to go out to Richmond Agricultural College for weekends to do theatre. He got people who were really well up in theatre to come and tutor us and they were really great, we learnt a lot of things, it put a bit of polish on all the societies. Not only that but there was an arrangement that if somebody was taken sick in your cast you could put an SOS to the other societies and if they had somebody who had done that part you could borrow them. That was also very handy. So the Fringe Theatres was a very good thing.

Up to that time societies had been isolated, they hadn’t had much communication between them, Fringe brought that out, it made people communicate and it let people know what other societies were doing, so that boosted the audiences of all the societies. This went on for a good few years and then it sort of became un-needed because people were going to other societies and people were exchanging ideas without needing the Fringe to do it, which is what Arthur Dick’s aim was, that we would get to know the other people so that we could interchange and that is what happens now.

Now can you tell me about some of the most popular shows that you have put on, what would they have been?

I think Pyjama Game was a popular one, we did that one twice. The Sound of Music too was very popular. Fiddler on the Roof was one that we got a good revue for. We did do Little Women. We actually changed the constitution so that we could do plays and we only ever did one, we did Little Women as a play and that went down well. I don’t know why we never did another one, but there we are.

Did you do Oklahoma?

Yes we have done Oklahoma twice. We did Into the Woods - that was very popular.

What were some of the plays that you were acting in that you particularly recall, had a nice part in?

Well, I loved the first one, I loved The Boyfriend, I had done it a couple of times elsewhere. The second time, at Hills I played the battle-axe in it, she’s one of the character’s wives and she bullies him all the way through it. I rather liked the old-time musical when we did it because I was brought up on old-time musicals, I had a couple of really funny songs in that which suited me.

We got quite serious when we did Into the Woods because that’s really a more complicated show. That’s all about fairy tales, just as you know them, with Cinderella and Red Riding Hood and all those. The second act is what happened afterwards when the giant came back, or the giant’s mother came back to get them, so it is really quite funny with the prince’s philandering in the second act. It’s very familiar to everybody, everybody knows the stories but the second act is just what happened after and it isn’t a bit what you expect, so that’s quite a fun one. It is a good one for a Society because there are lots of parts in it and that matters a lot for a good show, that there is parts for everybody.

Some of the shows that we haven’t done is because they may only have five or six lead parts in them and we are a fair-sized society, that means so many people don’t get a go and we like to do things where everybody gets a go.

At what locations or halls have you performed in the shire, have there been many changes of venue?

No, only the one. We’ve performed at North Rocks for forty-one years. It is only last year, when we had our AGM a lot of our young people got voted onto the committee and they have a different outlook to the older people and they’ve sort of revitalised the Society and they have moved us over to Castle Hill RSL and we’ve just done our second show there.

Was that popular?

We got a pretty good audience, yes. They did Rent this time and Rent is a bit different, very modern, not the kind of thing we have done very much of before and it went down very well. The previous one they did to that was Wedding Singer, there is a popular film out of that, and that went down very well too. I was very lucky that The Wedding Singer actually has a little old lady in it and so I got to play the grandma of the hero, which was lovely. I even got to learn to do a rap for it, I had to modernise, but it was a lot of fun.

Now before every show what are the preparations for the hall, what is required?

We usually ‘bump in’, that’s taking all the scenery and the lighting and set up, we usually do that a week before the show. We have a day that just everybody turns up and whatever job needs doing you do it. Setting up the set: sometimes you’ve made scenery and you take it up there, and oh dear, it is an inch too wide and that has to be fixed. We don’t rehearse at all the first day, we set everything up, we spend the whole day setting up. Then we will have another day when we have the orchestra there for the first time and we rehearse with the orchestra. Then we do two dress rehearsals without the orchestra because we can’t afford them for all of it. In those two dress rehearsals we find out what is working, what is not working. If you have a move to the right and you are walking into scenery, well you move to the left. There are two days for getting things right, for fitting in to the hall.

Then usually, in the old hall, the Friday afternoon when we are performing in the evening the ones of us who can get there set up the tables. Over the last ten years, probably, we’ve done a supper and so we have sat people at tables and done a supper, which was very popular, so we have gone to the hall and set that up. Now with Castle Hill RSL they do that, they set the hall up, we don’t have to do that, but we do have to set up the stage so it works the same way, more or less, that you are setting up the stage and sorting out the dressing rooms and that sort of thing, so you need to have at least two dress rehearsals to get it right.

Tell me something about the orchestra, what kind of orchestra is it?

They are always paid, the orchestra, but on the whole a lot of them have another job and play in the evenings. Some of them don’t, some of them are professional, but they are all professional, really, because they all get paid. Depending on what we are doing what kind of an orchestra - for Rent they only have a six-piece band because that suited the show. Sometimes you need three trombones or three something, it depends, it depends on the show what orchestra we have. A lot of the musicians that play in our orchestra have played in our orchestra before but you can sometimes find there is a musician in the orchestra who is playing for your show but also doing another show two days later, you might go to see something and ‘What’s he doing here?’ - they travel around a lot.

It depends on what instruments are needed for a particular show and how many - sometimes we have up to twelve or thirteen, fourteen people in the orchestra, sometimes we only need three. I know for Salad Days we had a piano, I think it was a ukulele and a drum, I think that was all we had for Salad Days because it didn’t need it, it was a very light-weight show and we didn’t need more than that. So it all depends.

So you are all volunteers, your Society, what sort of activities do your volunteers engage in before, during and after a performance then?

Before we usually have to get there fairly early because it takes time to get changed and get made-up and all that, so the performers are there at least an hour before the show. The front-of-house people are sometimes there earlier than that. While we were doing a supper people would be coming, say at six o’clock to start preparing the supper and those people were probably ushering as well, so there is quite a lot of activity in the couple of hours before a show starts. What we are doing now is we are doing six performances just over the one week, whereas when we were at North Rocks we were doing two weekends, sometimes three weekends, but in between time we had to pack everything up. There were dressing rooms that would lock up, we’d leave all the costumes in those, but we actually got dressed in the gym at the back because there was more room. It depends on the circumstances, how long you are going to be there.

Betty in a revue in the 1980s

Have you also performed outside the shire in other venues?

Yes. I’ve done shows with Woodstock Players, they do plays in a lovely old house. They just use what used to be the ballroom of the old house and that is quite an unusual set-up there. I have done plays with Castle Hill Players, I played Miss Marple over at Holroyd. Mostly it has been plays I’ve done outside of Hills, although I do sometimes do the musicals at Newcombe, the Normanhurst one, just if I am asked. I have done a few places over the years.

What about the Society as a whole, have they performed in other places?

It does happen, yes, that sometimes they get involved with something else, a lot of the younger people were involved in Sydney Youth Theatre. There are people who float from society to society. I have been criticised a couple of times for not being faithful to Hills, but I look at it that if you go somewhere else you learn something new and you bring it back, so I have done a few outside the Society.

What sort of contribution do cultural groups like the Hills Musical Society make to the community, do you think?

I think they bring the community together. I know we had, particularly at North Rocks, people who would be there every time, they’d see every show we did. They had no intention of ever performing but they liked to think that they could come and see a show in their own community. Some of the older ones definitely have not come over to Castle Hill, it would be too much for them. We always did a Saturday matinee at North Rocks and we would have people from the nursing homes and from the retirement villages come to that. So we thought of ourselves as a community theatre, most definitely.

Is there enough support for the arts and entertainment, do you think, in the shire?

Probably not as much now as when we first started, there is a lot of competition, what with television and all of the modern equipment that you can have now and stay at home and see all these things. But there are still people who would rather see a live show, there is something different about a live show, the atmosphere of a live show, even if it is only an amateur show. I mean, the theatres in Sydney are still drawing people in and some of the seat prices there are very high, but people still want to go. So that is nice that people want to see live theatre still.

Now does the Society have any part to play during the Orange Blossom Festival?

We used to, years ago we always had a float in Orange Blossom, but it doesn’t seem to have happened in the last few years, I don’t quite know why, I haven’t been involved in the committee over the last few years but at one time we always had a float in it. I think it tends to happen while we are in the midst of putting a show on and that makes it very difficult because we are performing at that time, so that might be why it is but we haven’t done it over the last two or three years.

How many performances a year, on the average, can the Hills Musical Society put on?

Well, we did three a year to start with - no, the first year we did two, but we have done three a year. Then we dropped it down to two a year because for that period we weren’t getting big audiences. Then we went up to three a year again when we began to get better audiences. It does depend on how much support we get. We went down to two again when we were a bit low and now we are back to three again, so it varies. It depends on how much money is in the kitty, what we can afford to do, how much support we are getting for the shows and that sort of thing so it does depend a bit on the finances.

How many plays do you think have been put on by the Society since its inception?

We have done ninety-seven so far, that’s a lot, that’s in forty-one years. Last year was our fortieth anniversary.

Well that is a great note to end the interview on, Betty. Thank you very much for this wonderful interview that you have given us