The National Theatre Schools were founded by Miss Gertrude Johnson OBE, a dynamic figure in the performing arts in both London and our city. Gertrude Emily Johnson was born in Hawksburn, in 1894. Her grandfather had been an operatic tenor and her father sang with the Liedertafel. Gertrude was only six when she made her first public appearance. Her later concert and opera appearances received glowing reviews, and because local training was limited, Dame Nellie Melba advised her to go to London to further her career.
She was 25, tall, dark and beautiful. A natural and affecting actress, she possessed a voice of remarkable richness, liquidity, and power. Soon she was tackling principal roles with the British National Opera Company and starring in the BBC’s first opera broadcast. In 1926 she sang with Melba in La Bohème, the great diva’s Old Vic Farewell. This was a fundraiser for Lilian Baylis’s pioneering attempt to establish a national theatre and training school in Britain. ‘I saw the wonderful work being done there for young artists,’ said Johnson, ‘and I thought how wonderful it would be to have something similar in country.’
In 1935, soon after her return to Melbourne, she formed ‘The National Theatre Movement, Victoria’, an enterprise dedicated to nurturing the talents of young country in the performing arts. Gertrude was the National’s director – an honorary position she held for the rest of her life.
With a solid body of subscribers and the support of several prominent citizens, Gertrude launched the venture in December 1936 with ‘A Joyous Pageant of the Holy Nativity’ at the Princess Theatre, where she had auditioned for Melba 25 years before. Six months later the National was presenting As You Like It and The Barretts of Wimpole Street, and its first opera, The Flying Dutchman.
In the church hall of St Peter’s, Eastern Hill, Johnson established schools of drama, opera and ballet, headed by, respectively, William P. Carr, Dr Herman Schildberger and Jean Alexander. The National’s initial ballet performance, at the Princess in 1939, included the first works created in by Edouard Borovansky, who later formed a company that eventually morphed in the Ballet.
During the war the National staged its student performances in the 350-seat hall at its Eastern Hill headquarters, giving young actors, dancers, singers, musicians and designers the opportunity to develop their talents in a professional yet fostering atmosphere. Ticket sales benefitted war charities.