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Colin Sandergrove Ballantyne (1908–1988)

by Peter Ward

This article was published:

Colin Sandergrove Ballantyne (1908-1988), theatre director and photo­grapher, was born on 12 July 1908 at Wayville, Adelaide, second son of South Australian-born parents James Fergusson Ballantyne, corporation official, and his wife Emily Bbe, née Hack. Colin was educated at Westbourne Park Public and Adelaide High schools. His mother and her sister Stella Hack, both of whom read widely and were avid theatre-goers and professed Fabian socialists, influenced him and encouraged his interest in theatre. As a youth he acted in productions of the Workers’ Educational Association of South Australia Dramatic Society’s Little Theatre. At this time, as professional theatre began to decline under the impact of cinema, Adelaide’s little theatre movement embarked on a 35-year period of often spirited and accomplished activity.

Another youthful interest, in photography, led Ballantyne in 1927 to join the Register as a staff photographer. In 1931 he established his own photographic studio, while also employed as pictorial editor of the magazine Town Topics and later, briefly, as a news cine-cameraman. During the 1930s he worked in repertory as both director and actor, sometimes playing opposite a talented young actress, Gwenneth Martha Osborne Richmond. On 25 October 1934 he and Gwenneth were married in the North Adelaide Baptist Church. He was chairman of WEA Little Theatre in 1934-39; in his report on its 1935 season he said that he believed the society had `sufficient vitality to rise up and form the nucleus of a National Theatre’. In 1942-44 he served as a camouflage officer for the Department of Home Security in northern Australia. On his return to Adelaide he re-established his photographic business.

From 1945 Ballantyne worked hard to achieve a vigorous theatre life in South Australia. With John Bishop and John Horner, he helped to found (1948) the Arts Council of South Australia to lobby for government subvention of performing arts. In 1948-52, at the Tivoli Theatre, he directed a celebrated series of large-scale Shakespeare productions for the council. The future Labor premier Donald Dunstan was one of the actors; he also participated in the campaign for a state-funded theatre. Ballantyne was a local consultant to the British theatre director (Sir) Tyrone Guthrie, who visited Australia in 1949 to advise the Chifley government on the feasibility of a national theatre. In November that year the premier (Sir) Thomas Playford appointed Ballantyne South Australian representative on the board of the short-lived National Theatre Trust Fund.

Having read intensively during the war years about the Konstantin Stanislavsky method of acting, Ballantyne used it in directing more than sixty, mostly well-regarded, amateur and semi-professional productions of the classics and nineteenth- and twentieth-century European, American and Australian drama. The plays were mounted for a variety of incorporated theatre bodies, including the University of Adelaide Theatre Guild, Theatres Associated and the Adelaide Theatre Group, with which he founded the Sheridan Theatre in 1963. In 1960-68 he directed five major productions for the Adelaide Festival of Arts. Over the years he helped to train many actors, among them Keith Michell, Edwin Hodgeman and Leslie Dayman. His dream of a state-owned theatre company became reality in 1972 when the government took over the South Australian Theatre Company and began to build its home—the Playhouse—in the new Adelaide Festival Centre. As chairman of the board of governors (1972-78), Ballantyne helped to guide the company through its formation and many of its early successful productions. A Federal director (1966-74) of the Arts Council of Australia, he was president of the State division in 1972-73 and of the national organisation in 1974-77. He was founding chairman (1980-88) of the Performing Arts Collection of South Australia.

Ballantyne and his wife, a noted drama teacher and director, were dominant figures in an influential group of academics, writers, artists and actors, many of whom strongly supported Dunstan’s rise in the Australian Labor Party. They held a monthly open house in their North Adelaide home. In 1971 Ballantyne was appointed CMG. Given to florid phrasing, large gestures and sometimes colourful personal exaggeration, he was described by Brian Medlin as `maddening, rude, charming, pretentious, competent, dedicated and (by the hardy) lovable’. Dunstan said that he was `the outstanding pioneer of theatre work when there was practically none in South Australia’. Survived by his wife, and their son and two daughters, Ballantyne died on 2 July 1988 at Walkerville and was cremated. His three children have pursued careers in theatre, film and television.

Select Bibliography

  • Arts Enquiry Committee for South Australia, Report (1961)
  • A. D. McCredie (ed), From Colonel Light into the Footlights (1988)
  • P. Ward, A Singular Act (1992)
  • W. Prest (ed), A Portrait of John Bray (1997)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 24 May 1978, p 28, 21 Oct 1983, p 7
  • Australian, 5 July 1988, p 15
  • Ballantyne papers (Ballantyne Performing Arts Collection, Adelaide Festival Centre)
  • private information and personal knowledge.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Peter Ward, 'Ballantyne, Colin Sandergrove (1908–1988)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 17 April 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (Melbourne University Press), 2007

View the front pages for Volume 17

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