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Duerrigl-Knez, Bruno (1921–1995)

by Vesna Drapac

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Vally Duerrigl-Knez

Bruno Duerrigl-Knez (1921–1995), community leader and theatre director, was born on 16 April 1921 at Maribor, then part of the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats, and Slovenes (Kingdom of Yugoslavia from 1929), son of Croatian-born Alfred Dürrigl and his Slovenian-born wife, Elly. Bruno used the surname Duerrigl-Knez, combining the family names of his paternal grandparents. Raised at Zagreb, he began working in theatre during his teenage years. After matriculating, he embarked (1939) on a medical degree, but soon abandoned it to pursue studies in theatre and radio journalism in Vienna. On his return to Zagreb in 1942, he worked in radio. During the final year of World War II, he left Croatia as a refugee and lived in displaced-persons’ camps in Austria. On 18 May 1950 he married Zdravka (Vally) Meyer, also a refugee, in Salzburg. A widow and trained artist, Vally had been born on 25 August 1919 at Zagreb, daughter of Croatian parents Otto and Ana Meyer. The couple had first met at Zagreb. In Austria they worked together organising cultural events for the British occupation forces, including in the camp at Graz. Bruno and Vally migrated to Australia under the auspices of the International Refugee Organization resettlement scheme. They arrived in Melbourne aboard the Protea in December 1950, moving to Adelaide soon after.

Bruno was variously employed as a porter for the South Australian Railways, a salesman, and a painting contractor. He and Vally were active in Croatian community life. In 1951 he produced and participated in a folkloric performance by Croatian migrants as part of a ‘New Australian Festival of Arts’ at the Adelaide Town Hall. He liaised between arrivals and support organisations, including the Catholic Migration Centre and the Good Neighbour Council of South Australia, and later also trained producers and presenters of the Croatian community radio program. From the mid-1950s the couple became widely known by the shortened surname Knez. They were naturalised in January 1958.

Determined to pursue a career in theatre, Bruno taught drama in schools and acted in and directed many productions in the 1960s. He was involved with the Therry Dramatic Society, the Lutheran Seminary drama club, the University of Adelaide Theatre Guild, Adelaide Repertory Theatre, the Pioneer Players, and Theatres Associated. By 1964 he had founded the Contour Players and had won several drama prizes including at the Adelaide Eisteddfod. A proficient actor, he appeared in some of his own stage productions as well as the film Breaker Morant (1980), but was known primarily for his directing. Vally worked as an art teacher in high schools, devoting much of her spare time to the couple’s theatrical pursuits.

When Bruno and Vally founded La Mama Intimate Theatre in October 1972, they fulfilled a long-held ambition. He was artistic director, and she designed and created sets and costumes. La Mama became known as one of Adelaide’s smallest but ‘most indomitable’ theatres (Harris 1986, 17). Modest and sparse, it was situated in Crawford Lane at Hindmarsh, an inner suburb. It comprised a small cellar theatre, an art gallery, and, eventually, a larger theatre across the lane—The Shed. La Mama stood for alternative, experiential ‘theatre with a difference.’ Bruno conceptualised La Mama as a place where audiences would not be mere ‘spectators’ but part of an ‘aesthetic and theatrical’ event (Weekly Times 1972, 18–19).

Expressionistic, experimental, and often deliberately provocative, Knez’s direction was unmistakeable. He maintained an intellectual rigour that reflected his central European cultural origins. He had a sophisticated appreciation of music and used it to great effect in his productions. His energy and enthusiasm were boundless. By 1980, after twenty-five years working in Adelaide theatre, he had directed over one hundred plays. The annual program at La Mama generally comprised five or more major productions, special shows for the Adelaide Festival of Arts or Fringe festival, and children’s pantomimes. The repertoire was ambitious and the seasons long. He embraced Australian playwrights and acquainted audiences with the classics of contemporary American drama, as well as producing the works of Bertolt Brecht, Fernando Arrabal, Luigi Pirandello, Dylan Thomas, and Steven Berkoff, to name a few. The Glass Menagerie and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, both of which were staged multiple times, were among the most memorable La Mama productions. One of Knez’s last shows was the Croatian renaissance farce Uncle Maroje (1989).

The ‘curriculum plays’ (performances of set texts for matriculation English) catered to school-aged audiences. La Mama’s staging of The Crucible, The Caretaker, Death of a Salesman, Macbeth, The Club, and The Christian Brothers, among others, introduced thousands of students to live theatre. This program was hailed as one of Knez’s great achievements. His minimalist style, the innovative sets, and his easy rapport with the students were integral to the success of these productions. La Mama became an inclusive cultural centre. Vally gave lessons in design, and Bruno conducted (method) acting classes and workshops for children. The unemployed attended at no cost. Students often performed in the productions and Bruno provided opportunities for local writers, directors, designers, and theatre technicians. A ‘soft hearted disciplinarian’ (Harris 1986, 17), he imposed demanding rehearsal schedules and had exacting standards. He was known for occasional volatile outbursts, but he had a sharp wit and was much liked. Over the years he garnered a wide and loyal following that included the Labor premier and minister for the arts John Bannon.

Knez was the quintessential bohemian, instantly recognisable by his signature moustache and goatee, flowing mane, black skivvy, heavy pendant, and baggy, light tan slacks. Financially, he and Vally struggled to keep La Mama afloat and only managed to make ends meet with periodic government grants. Although he never enjoyed good health, he kept working after major heart surgery in 1980, retiring in 1990. He believed passionately and absolutely in the social function and transformative power of live theatre and had launched many careers in the arts. Survived by their daughter, and one of their two sons, Bruno died on 15 March 1995 at Woodville and Vally on 24 June 2000 in Adelaide. They were buried in North Brighton cemetery. Many recall fondly Bruno’s pre-show talks and his enduring catchphrase: ‘If you enjoyed the show tell your friends, if not, tell your enemies.’

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Addinall, Mark. ‘La Mama Founder Brought New Vision.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 17 March 1995, 8
  • Advertiser (Adelaide). ‘Bruno Knez: 25 Years in Adelaide Theatre.’ 7 June 1980, 26
  • Advertiser (Adelaide). ‘Mother, Teacher, Artist, Designer: She Loves Life.’ 29 September 1966, 30
  • Harris, Samela. ‘La Mama’s Papa Fights for Survival.’ Advertiser (Adelaide), 19 July 1986, Magazine 17
  • HR-HDA [Hrvatski državni arhiv, Croatian State Archives]. 1561 Služba državne sigurnosti Republičkog sekretarijata unutarnjih poslova Socijalističke republike Hrvatske, dossier Bruno Durigl Knez
  • National Archives of Australia. D400, SA1957/1380
  • National Archives of Australia. D4878, Duerrigl-Knez B
  • National Archives of Australia. D4878, Duerrigl-Knez Z
  • News. ‘Mr Knez Calls the C.I.B.’ 7 July 1965, 33
  • Performing Arts Collection, Adelaide Festival Centre. La Mama Theatre (Hindmarsh) Collection
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Weekly Times. ‘Theatre with a Difference.’ 11 October 1972, 18–19

Additional Resources

Citation details

Vesna Drapac, 'Duerrigl-Knez, Bruno (1921–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/duerrigl-knez-bruno-30888/text38626, published online 2020, accessed online 22 October 2021.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 19, (ANU Press), 2021

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