Australian Dictionary of Biography

  • Tip: searches only the name field
  • Tip: Use double quotes to search for a phrase

Pannell, Nita Veronica (1904–1994)

by David J. Hough

This article was published online in 2020

Nita Pannell, n.d.

Nita Pannell, n.d.

Nita Veronica Pannell (1904–1994), teacher, actress, and theatre director, was born on 1 July 1904 at Wellington Mill, Western Australia, eighth of nine children of Victorian-born Patrick Hanrahan (d. 1920), saw filer, and his Tasmanian-born wife Emily, née Connolly. At the local primary school, Nita was exposed to the linguistically diverse population of the small timber town, benefiting her later career as an actress: she developed an uncanny ear for accents and their attendant speech rhythms. Encouraged by her theatre-loving mother, at nine she began learning music at the Sisters of Mercy convent at Bunbury, twenty-five miles (40 km) from Wellington Mill. In 1918 she won a government scholarship to the selective Perth Modern School, from which she graduated in 1922.

Hanrahan taught infants at Bunbury (1924), worked (1925) as an assistant teacher at Collie High School, and was then appointed to Subiaco State School as assistant to the headmaster (1926–27). She learned to teach by classroom observation, and taught classes in eurythmics, folk dancing, music, and acting. In 1927 she moved to Bunbury, where her mother and two sisters were living, and worked (1927–29) at Bunbury Senior School until she married William James Pannell, an English-born doctor, on 1 June 1929 at St Patrick’s Catholic Church, West Perth. They were to have three children.

After a period at the wheatbelt town of Goomalling, where William had a general practice, in 1933 the couple moved to Perth, and lived at the hills suburb of Darlington. While William served in the Australian Army Medical Corps in World War II, Pannell was involved in amateur productions of Noël Coward’s Hay Fever and Design for Living, staged at the Darlington Hall. She joined Edward and Ida Beeby’s Patch Theatre, a speech, drama, and dance studio that offered the city’s only organised theatre training. Her performance as Maggie in Hobson’s Choice (1943) led to parts at the Repertory Club, the principal amateur dramatic group in Perth. Because of a shortage of directors, she was asked to direct more than perform, ‘which broke my heart, but at least I went on and did it’ (Pannell 1976, 16). In 1950, with the actress Dorothy Krantz, the producer Sol Sainken, and the speech teacher Lily Kavanagh, Pannell initiated the Company of Four, the State’s first professional theatre company, which amalgamated in 1956 with the Repertory Club to form the National Theatre Company. She directed its first production, The Teahouse of the August Moon, at the Playhouse Theatre.

Pannell came to national attention in 1958 after the director Robin Lovejoy cast her as Momma Bianchi in an Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust production of Richard Beynon’s The Shifting Heart. The play toured the eastern States for ten months, Pannell appearing in some 250 performances. After a series of roles in Perth, Colin Ballantyne cast her in his 1960 Australian premiere production of Errol John’s award-winning Moon on a Rainbow Shawl at the Adelaide Festival of Arts. Lovejoy then invited her to take the part of Dot Cook in the first professional production of Alan Seymour’s The One Day of the Year, which opened at the Palace Theatre, Sydney, in April 1961. The play was controversial for its critique of Anzac Day, and the dress rehearsal was interrupted by a bomb scare. When the play was staged later the same year at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, London, the cast was told: ‘They won’t appreciate this in London, they won’t understand it’ (Pannell 1976, 20). Nevertheless, it received a standing ovation on opening night and achieved a successful London season.

The novelist Patrick White had seen Pannell in the Sydney production of Seymour’s play and, having read the London reviews, cast her as Miss Docker, ‘an old lady who charges through the community, leaving a trail of disorder’ (Akerholt 1988, 66), in the stage adaption of his short story ‘A Cheery Soul.Night on Bald Mountain, White’s next play, opened at the Union Hall, Adelaide, on 9 March 1964, with Pannell as Miss Quodling, ‘an eccentric woman who lives in a hut on Bald Mountain with a herd of goats as her only companions’ (Akerholt 1988, 99). She considered it one of her best parts. White told her that solo roles—monodramas—were her forte, advice repeated by the English director Sir Tyrone Guthrie, when Pannell delivered scenes to him from her play Swan River Saga. In the play Pannell collaborated with the author and historian (Dame) Mary Durack to present the story of the Irish pioneer Eliza Shaw at the Swan River Colony. Her ‘superb portrayal’ (Barron 1973, 3) recreated Shaw’s experience of migration and settlement in the nascent colony over a thirty-year period. The play opened at the Hole in the Wall Theatre, Leederville, Perth, in May 1972, played in Hobart, Launceston, Canberra, and Melbourne in 1973, and was revived at the Effie Crump Theatre, Northbridge, Perth, in February 1993, Pannell’s last professional performance.

Appointed OBE in 1977, Pannell was Western Australian Citizen of the Year, in the category of arts, culture, and entertainment, in 1981. In 1989 she was appointed AM. Over her professional career she appeared in nearly sixty stage productions. A devout Catholic, she would scatter holy water on the stage before her performances, ‘to the bemusement of less devout members of the cast’ (McIlwraith 1994, 21). A colleague, Ray Omodei, recalled her ‘formidable technique,’ her voice like ‘a Lyrebird in that it could take on many forms and guises but remained itself essentially sweet, clear and of effortless carrying power’ (1994, 3). Predeceased by her husband, and survived by her two sons and one daughter, she died on 29 September 1994 in a nursing home at Claremont and was buried at Karrakatta cemetery.

Research edited by Malcolm Allbrook

Select Bibliography

  • Akerholt, May-Brit. Patrick White. Amsterdam, Netherlands: Rodopi B.V., 1988
  • Barron, Paul. ‘Pioneer Portrayed Superbly.’ Canberra Times, 30 May 1973, 3
  • Marr, David. Patrick White: A Life. North Sydney, NSW: Random House, 2008
  • McIlwraith, John. ‘Thespian Held Theatre Sacred.’ Australian, 11 October 1994, 21
  • Museum of Performing Arts, Perth. Papers of Nita Pannell
  • Omodei, Raymond. ‘Obituary.’ State Alliance (Perth), November 1994, 3
  • Pannell, Nita. Interview by Chris Jeffery, 7 April 1976. Transcript. State Library of Western Australia
  • Parsons, Philip, and Victoria Chance, eds. Companion to Theatre in Australia. Sydney: Currency Press in association with Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Additional Resources

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David J. Hough, 'Pannell, Nita Veronica (1904–1994)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/pannell-nita-veronica-29916/text37034, published online 2020, accessed online 6 December 2020.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020