Jo Peoples: First Lady of the South Australian Stage

After 35 years at the Adelaide Festival Centre, Exhibition Coordinator Jo Peoples leaves the Centre with the perfect parting gift, the exhibition Peoples’ Choice.

After 35 years at the Adelaide Festival Centre, Exhibition Coordinator Jo Peoples leaves the Centre with the perfect parting gift, the exhibition Peoples’ Choice. In the foyer of the Festival Theatre, Jo Peoples is rummaging through a pile of boxes. She’s just begun the installation of her latest exhibition with the Performing Arts Collection, aptly called Peoples’ Choice. The surrounding glass cases already sport an assortment of curiosities: there’s a mask from the State Theatre Company’s acclaimed Oedipus, the headdress worn by the Indian from the Village People, and several large canvasses still wrapped in plastic. The exhibition may not have a distinct theme, but each item has been carefully handpicked to showcase Peoples’ term as Exhibition Coordinator. It’s like an album of her greatest hits. It’s a swansong too. After 35 years with the collection, much of those spent at its helm, Peoples will take her leave at the end of the year. Peoples abruptly surfaces from the boxes, holding a placard that lists even more of the items to be exhibited. Geoffrey Rush’s shirt from Shine, Dame Edith Sitwell’s garish jewellery, Cate Blanchett’s costume from The Seagull. Peoples peers through thick-framed glasses, her trademark pink lipstick offsetting a shock of slate coloured hair. “How did I start out in the arts?” she repeats. “I was eight, and I was absolutely smitten.” In her hometown of Broken Hill, young Josephine Peoples was enveloped in creativity . Her parents, Patrick and Joan, dabbled in theatre and visual art – talents their middle child quickly inherited. After watching a production of Salad Days at the old Crystal Theatre, Peoples was lured to the limelight. She joined the local Repertory Society, where her performances earned her the title ‘First Lady of the Broken Hill Stage’. After moving to metropolitan Adelaide, Peoples began performing with the University of Adelaide Theatre Guild. In the turbulent and exciting 1970s, Adelaide claimed the nation’s first multi-purpose arts centre, followed closely by a performing arts archive established by the Dunstan Government under the aegis of the State Theatre Company. Tom Dermody, fellow Theatre Guild actor and friend, had already been recruited as project officer, and Colin Ballantyne, a heavyweight of the local arts industry, became the founding chairman. Not long afterwards, Peoples joined as secretary and cataloguer. “I fell into the job, really,” recalls Peoples, who had previously only worked in hospitality and at her father’s pharmacy. “I would never get my job now – I’d have to have four degrees. But, this was the way things happened then.We were all feeling our way, but it worked really well.” Museums are usually associated with mouldy journals and dusty skeletons. But in the bowels of the Adelaide Festival Centre, where the Performing Arts Collection is currently housed, it’s all about sequins and tulle. Walking through the subterranean rooms, which contain over 150,000 items, it’s hard to believe that the collection had just a handful of programs when it began in 1979. Even though it ranks second in the nation, the collection employs just three full-time staff members and has an operating budget of approximately $6000. Its small exhibition space is like an afterthought amidst the vast arts precinct. By comparison, its Victorian counterpart has a strong presence at Arts Centre Melbourne. At the beginning of the millennium, it received a $7 million injection as part of the Kennett Government’s Southbank Cultural Precinct Redevelopment Project. As part of the overhaul, the Victorian collection was entirely digitised and relocated to its own special lodgings. “The Performing Arts Collection runs on the smell of an oily rag, it has to be said,” admits Douglas Gautier, CEO and Artistic Director of the Adelaide Festival Centre. “I think it could be supported better, but the basic elements are there. I don’t know where that [funding] comes from in tough times – we really need to think about it.” When the Performing Arts Collection first moved to the precinct in 1985, then General Manager Tim McFarlane declared that it would need to find alternative accommodation, as it wasn’t part of the Adelaide Festival Centre’s core activities. Even though the current management are more obliging, the fight for survival still rages on the eve of Peoples’ retirement. Friends say that she might have lacked charm and tact at times, but that she has been exactly the right person to carry out the crusade. “It’s been a constant struggle to have it recognised in the way it should be,” says Peoples. “I do sometimes jump in and say things that I regret, but you won’t get anything done otherwise. If you’re too nice, people will walk all over you and nothing ever happens.” Peoples fights for the collection not just because it provides a resource for academics, a work placement for volunteers and students, or an exhibition for the theatre foyer. The Performing Arts Collection represents South Australia’s rich culture and heritage, and defines our society. As the American thespian Edwin Booth said, “an actor is a sculptor who carves in snow”. Without an active campaign to preserve and document the local arts industry, the only thing to remain would be a fading memory. As she finishes fossicking through the pile of boxes, Peoples walks towards a nearby counter. On top, there’s a long timeline of photographs that will eventually feature in the exhibition. One glance of the montage is worth more than a thousand words. There’s a sepia snap of Peoples’ long-haired 70s self, another with her alongside American actor Mickey Rooney, and towards the bottom there’s a photo of her huddled next to Barry Humphries. “She’s been there so long she should be part of that collection herself,” says Peoples’ close friend and local media personality, Peter Goers. Goers worked as a historian during the collection’s early years, although both agree that he just sat around reading concert programs. “I love her to pieces and I have enormous respect and admiration for her. She has created that collection and she has made it work all these years. Every single Australian should be grateful for what she’s done.” This is a sentiment shared by many of Peoples’ friends and colleagues. To Helen Trepa, who is Collection Coordinator, Peoples is irreplaceable. Peter Webb of the Unley Symphony Orchestra, with whom Peoples’ has played double bass since the 1980s, considers her a “stalwart – unflaggingly loyal to me personally, and to the orchestra itself”. To those who know her, she is also loving, smart, vibrant. Peoples received public recognition in December, with the Adelaide Critics Circle Lifetime Achievement Award. It was a well-earned accolade for a woman whose community contribution has been made with enthusiasm and dogged determination. Peoples maintains her modesty, simply taking pride in the collection’s constant growth and current calibre. In the coming years, the collection will move to the Dunstan Playhouse, before eventually relocating to a more permanent storage and exhibition space at the renovated Her Majesty’s Theatre. “Maybe now that I’m not there, things might move along better,” Peoples says self-effacingly. But in reality, her departure signals the parting of phenomenal knowledge, passion and drive. “The future is bright and the Performing Arts Collection will continue very ably under Helen Trepa,” says Douglas Gautier. “It really needs to be front and centre. We often forget that things that we do and aspirations that we have are built on the shoulders of those in the past, unless somebody like Jo and the people at the collection actually spend time respecting that.” It’s been a while since Josephine Peoples first stepped into the Broken Hill limelight, but surely now she has earned the title ‘First Lady of the South Australian Stage’. What will come next, when she walks away from the Performing Arts Collection for the last time? There will be painting, orchestra performances, French lessons, and many overseas trips. “I’m not going to be so busy doing other things,” she says. “It’s time to relax I think.”

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