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Walter John (Wal) Cherry (1932–1986)

by Gus Worby

This article was published:

Walter John (Wal) Cherry (1932-1986), theatre director and professor of drama, was born on 10 May 1932 at Ballarat, Victoria, son of Victorian-born parents Walter Joseph Cherry, commercial artist, and his wife Vera Gladys, née White. Educated at St Patrick’s College, Ballarat, and Geelong High School, in 1951 Wal entered the University of Melbourne (BA, 1954) and was soon active in student theatre. On 4 January 1956 at St John’s Church of England, Geelong West, he married Marcelle Lynette (Peg) Mathieson, a schoolteacher. That year he was appointed manager of the Union Theatre at the university.

In 1956 Cherry became director of the Union Theatre Repertory Company. His productions were energetic, meticulous and stimulating, introducing audiences to Bertolt Brecht and contemporary British and American playwrights. He also began advocating a `national drama’, although he was critical of aggressively nationalist, under-prepared or poorly conceived work. In 1958 he returned from a study tour of Europe with renewed determination (as his successor, John Sumner, recalled) `to raise the standard of his work and stretch the imagination of his audience’. For UTRC’s next season he lengthened the runs of a challenging selection of plays—an initiative that failed to achieve commercial success. He resigned in 1959, becoming a freelance director and establishing his own Theatre Workshop and Actors’ Studio.

After a series of ventures to develop an ensemble company, in 1962 Cherry and the actor, director and teacher George Whaley established the Emerald Hill Theatre Company. In the 1960s this company became Australia’s most celebrated quasi-alternative theatre of ideas and style, recognised for its intimacy of space and actorly discipline, its left-progressive politics, its commitment to touring and reaching young people, and its exploration of connections with folk music, vaudeville, dance and film. It provided impetus for a `new wave’ of Australian plays, playwrights and performance that surged in Sydney and Melbourne from the late 1960s. Yet EHTC was unable to pay its way and the company closed in 1966.

In 1967 Cherry was appointed foundation professor of drama at Flinders University, South Australia. He began building a department based on his company-workshop model, integrating the teaching of theatre, film, radio and television under a broad concept of drama as `a complex changing communal activity’. He was soon immersed in teaching and other university duties as chairman of the school of language and literature (later school of humanities) in 1968-70 and of the theatre management committee in 1968-78, and as dean of University Hall in 1970-74. His aspiration to link the drama program with a major theatre company escaped him: overtures to the South Australian Theatre Company were not reciprocated, although his work for New Opera, State Opera of South Australia and the Festival Centre Trust—combining professionals, departmental staff and students—was of the highest standard. He formed the Australian Stage Company, an occasional ensemble including several now-famous performers.

Impatient with those `owing their eminence to the flatness of the surrounding countryside’, Cherry was a provocative figure for audiences, practitioners and students, and was often kept at arm’s length by the professional mainstream for his visionary approach and personal style. Visits to the Berliner Ensemble and Schiller-Theater (Germany), the Theatre Royal Stratford East (Britain) and the Habima ensemble (Israel) inspired him to incorporate new ideas into his own innovative and eclectic work. He experimented with epic-presentational, naturalistic, expressionistic and absurd drama, masking and mumming traditions, theatre forms from 1930s Germany and contemporary America, and aspects of Australian vernacular style.

During his career Cherry directed at least eighty-six plays, revues, operas and music theatre pieces, wrote a novel and two plays, collaborated on film scripts, published incisive articles, delivered papers in Australia and the United States of America and served on over thirty university and industry committees. He won the 1958 and 1961 `Erik’ awards in Melbourne and the 1959 Western Australian General Motors Holden award for best production, and travelled to the USA on Fulbright fellowships (1972, 1976) and to Japan on a fellowship from the Cultural and Social Centre for the Asia-Pacific Region (1973).

In 1980 Cherry was appointed professor of theatre at Temple University, Philadelphia, and spoke of entering `the most creative period’ of his life. In 1985 he also became associate-director of the Boston Shakespeare Company. He enjoyed these new challenges too briefly. On 7 March 1986 he died of ischaemic heart disease at Boston and was cremated. He was survived by his wife and their two daughters, Kate and Anna, both of whom pursued careers in the theatre. The Wal Cherry play of the year award is sponsored by the Victorian Arts Centre.

Select Bibliography

  • G. Worby, `Emerald Hill and the Ensemble Ideal’, in P. Holloway (ed), Contemporary Australian Drama (1987)
  • L. Radic, The State of Play (1991)
  • J. Sumner, Recollections at Play (1993)
  • G. Milne, Theatre Australia (Un)Limited (2004)
  • private knowledge.

Citation details

Gus Worby, 'Cherry, Walter John (Wal) (1932–1986)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 13 June 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

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


10 May, 1932
Ballarat, Victoria, Australia


7 March, 1986 (aged 53)
Boston, Massachusetts, United States of America

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.