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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Forbes, Ada Lorna (1890–1976)

by Mimi Colligan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

Ada Lorna Forbes (1890-1976), actress, was born on 1 February 1890 in North Melbourne, second of three children of Victorian-born parents Wilson Duff-Forbes, actor-producer, and his wife Ada Emily Windson, née Lawrence, actress. A fourth-generation actress, Lorna Forbes (as she was always known) made her stage debut at the age of 5 as Little Willie in East Lynne. She was educated at Methodist Ladies' College, Kew. After taking her first professional part (as a 15 year old) in Two Little Sailor Boys, staged at Ballarat, she travelled throughout Australia as an understudy in her father's company. On 20 October 1910 at St James's Anglican Church, Glen Iris, she married an English-born musician, Frederick Charles Chute Chapman, whom she had 'looked [at] across the footlights, and loved'.

Having a strong interest in Shakespeare, in 1916 Forbes was invited to join the Allan Wilkie Company with which she first appeared as Queen Elizabeth in Richard III. Olivia in Twelfth Night was her favourite role, but she also played a wide range of other Shakespearian characters, including Portia, Cleopatra, Mistress Page, Goneril and Hermia. She performed in Greek drama and took character roles, playing Madame Arcati in Melbourne's first production of Blithe Spirit.

Between 1924 and 1957 she ran the Lorna Forbes School of Drama in Melbourne. When Wilkie disbanded his players in October 1930, she formed a company with Alexander Marsh and toured Tasmania, staging melodrama and farce. During the 1930s Forbes played character roles in musical comedies such as The Vagabond King, Du Barry and The Student Prince. From 1934 she appeared in radio plays and serials produced by the Australian Broadcasting Commission and by Dorothy and Hector Crawford. She was noted for her part in the series, Coronets of France.

In 1941 she established the Lorna Forbes Repertory Players which performed drawing-room comedies at different venues. Four years later, with the amateur producer and engineer Sydney Turnbull, she founded the Melbourne Repertory Theatre Group at the Middle Park theatre where one of her pupils, Ray Lawler, produced his first play, Hal's Belles. She acted in and directed several productions until the group's demise in 1949 when she became involved in a teaching venture called Theatre Workshop. In 1955 she understudied Dame Sybil Thorndike during her tour of Australia in The Sleeping Prince and Separate Tables. Aged almost 70, Forbes scored success in the small part of Mrs Burnside in the American comedy, Auntie Mame. Further character parts came in The Music Man and The Sound of Music before arthritis forced her to retire in 1962. Predeceased by her husband, she died on 26 May 1976 at East Camberwell and was buried with Catholic rites in Boroondara cemetery.

Forbes's stage career was limited in its success. Despite her stage presence and deep, richly expressive voice, she had been overshadowed in Wilkie's company by his star (and wife), Frediswyde Hunter-Watts. From 1942 Lorna was affected by intense grief at the death of her only child, the actor Russell Chapman, on active service with the Royal Air Force. Her greatest contribution to the theatre was in repertory, and in teaching voice and stagecraft at a time when there were no formal state-run drama schools.

Select Bibliography

  • H. Porter, Stars of Australian Stage and Screen (Adel, 1965)
  • Listener In, 5 Nov 1938
  • Examiner (Launceston), 28 Nov 1930
  • Mercury (Hobart), 6 Jan 1931
  • Age (Melbourne), 5 Sept 1953, 1 Feb 1976
  • Melbourne Repertory Theatre papers (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Citation details

Mimi Colligan, 'Forbes, Ada Lorna (1890–1976)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1996, accessed online 26 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 14, (MUP), 1996

View the front pages for Volume 14

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