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Felgate, Rhoda Mary (1901–1990)

by Jennifer Radbourne

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Rhoda Mary Felgate (1901-1990), speech and drama teacher and theatre director, was born on 31 July 1901 at Stoke Newington, London, daughter of Gordon Felgate, commercial traveller, and his wife Alice Maude, née Willson. The family migrated to Australia when Rhoda was 18 months old and settled in Brisbane in 1910. Educated at Brisbane Girls’ Grammar School, she studied speech and drama under Barbara Sisley [q.v. Supp.], gaining qualifications from Trinity College, London (ATCL, 1922; LTCL, 1923; FTCL, 1928). She taught elocution at BGGS in 1923-48. A founding member (1925) of Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society, she directed her first production, A Happy Family by Vance Palmer, in 1926. During the next ten years she directed fourteen more plays for the society, three of them Australian. In 1931 a review in the Telegraph congratulated her on her production of George Bernard Shaw’s You Never Can Tell: `Her judgment, her sense of stagecraft and the fruits of her coaching were everywhere apparent’.

By 1936 Felgate had her own speech and drama studio. Believing that she could help her pupils by forming another theatre society, she organised a new group of amateurs, the Twelfth Night players. In its first year the company presented nine 3-act and four 1-act plays by playwrights such as Maurice Maeterlinck, J. M. Barrie, Clemence Dane, J. B. Priestley and A. A. Milne. Felgate produced twenty-one plays for Twelfth Night Theatre during its first three years. In December 1936 A. H. Thomas, the Telegraph’s theatre critic, praised the `solidity and strength’ of Twelfth Night’s productions. Felgate attracted outstanding talent: her 1937 production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night included Stanley Hildebrandt as Feste and Lorna Forbes as Olivia.

Travelling overseas in 1939 and 1947, Felgate studied trends in stage production and secured the rights of plays, many of which had never been performed in Brisbane, including Shaw’s In Good King Charles’s Golden Days; George Washington Slept Here, by Moss Hart and George Kaufman; I Remember Mama, by John Van Druten; Dear Ruth, by Norman Krasna; and Gaslight, by Patrick Hamilton. Felgate acted and directed, sometimes in the one production, to widespread acclaim. In May 1940, for example, a review in the Telegraph of Emlyn Williams’s The Corn Is Green described her performance as the schoolteacher Miss Moffatt as the `characterisation which will live longest in the memory’. Elsewhere the play was said to be a `persuasive and touching piece of work’.

In 1948 TNT obtained the lease of a large two-storey building on Wickham Terrace. The upper floor became a rehearsal and play-reading space, and the lower housed speech teachers, including Felgate, and their studios. The Twelfth Night Speech and Drama School contributed to the strength of TNT, at times providing economic stability. A senior speech examiner for the Queensland section of the Australian Music Examinations Board (1948-75), Felgate planned theatre productions around her examination tours of country centres and her teaching duties. In 1949 she hosted in Brisbane a visit of the English theatre director (Sir) Tyrone Guthrie, who was advising the Chifley government on the feasibility of a national theatre, for which he had campaigned. An advocate for Australian playwrights, she produced many of their works and supported Eunice Hanger in particular.

Felgate was appointed MBE in 1955. Next year TNT acquired Gowrie Hall on Wickham Terrace, a church hall that was converted into a little theatre to complement the Albert Hall, where major productions were staged. Felgate marked her retirement from the theatre in 1962 by directing and playing the leading role in a twenty-fifth anniversary production of I Remember Mama.

Described in 1948 as a `poised, easy-to-talk-to woman, with greying hair and sparkling eyes’, Felgate was `a quiet, determined personality’. A commissioner (1960-72) of the Australian Broadcasting Commission, she expressed concern about the diction of some ABC newsreaders, but made her main contribution through her knowledge of theatre, her commitment to the performing arts and her encouragement of Australian television drama. She was a member of the Library Board of Queensland (1961-75) and of the Lyceum Club, Brisbane. In 1976 the AMEB (Queensland) named an annual scholarship after her. She continued to teach until the 1980s at her Kangaroo Point home, and was patron of Twelfth Night Theatre and of the Speech and Drama Teachers’ Association of Queensland. The University of Queensland awarded her an honorary MA in 1983. Never married, Felgate died on 14 September 1990 at Auchenflower and was cremated with Uniting Church forms.

Select Bibliography

  • Telegraph (Brisbane), 12 Sept 1931, p 13, 12 Dec 1936, p 20, 13 Mar 1937, p 7, 14 May 1940, p 12
  • Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 5 Feb 1936, p 25, 18 Sept 1990, p 22
  • Modern Times, Dec 1948, p 23
  • J. J. Rad-bourne, Little Theatre (MA thesis, University of Queensland, 1978)
  • B. Blackman, taped interview with R. Felgate (1986, National Library of Australia)
  • Felgate papers (University of Queensland Library).

Citation details

Jennifer Radbourne, 'Felgate, Rhoda Mary (1901–1990)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/felgate-rhoda-mary-12481/text22451, published in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 24 July 2014.

This article has been amended since its original publication. View Original

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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