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Joan Ellen Rayner (1900–1999)

by Nicholas Brown

This article was published:

This is a shared entry with Rhoda Elspeth Rayner

Joan Rayner, [seated, with her sister Betty], 1958

Joan Rayner, [seated, with her sister Betty], 1958

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L24893

Rhoda Elspeth (Betty) Rayner (1907-1981), theatre educator, was born on 16 May 1907 in Wellington, New Zealand, youngest of five children of Welsh-born Frederick Richards Rayner, artist, and his New Zealand-born wife Rhoda Blanche, née Duckworth. Her elder sister Joan Ellen Rayner (1900-1999) had been born on 8 December 1900 at Dunedin, New Zealand. The children’s education alternated between public and private schools according to available finances. In 1920 the Rayners moved to Sydney, where Betty attended Abbotsleigh Church of England School for Girls, Wahroonga. Joan travelled to London to study social work but was drawn instead to dramatic training through contact with Constance Smedley, her godmother and a cousin of her mother. Returning to Sydney in 1923, Joan found Betty a ‘shy, embarrassed’ 17-year-old who leaped at the chance of benefiting from the same experience. In 1925 the sisters sailed for Britain.

In London the Rayners studied—and worked to support themselves—at Smedley’s Greenleaf theatre, learning techniques of symbolist performance and theatre design. Travel in France and Germany extended their interest in folk arts, which Joan also pursued at the British Museum. Following a rupture with Smedley, they returned to Australia via New York, and in 1929 established a Theatre of Youth near Circular Quay, Sydney. Their small company offered programs of stories, plays and songs for adults and children, although the challenge of attracting young audiences into the city forced them to abandon the latter shows. Over two summers, in the first of their purpose-built caravans, they toured rural New South Wales, offering shows as they went.

These ‘skinny years’ of pioneering new forms of performance confirmed the sisters’ ethic of simplicity, and preference to build their programs only around themselves as players. A successful season in Melbourne in 1931 provided sufficient funds for them to travel again, first to New Zealand, then to Canada, and on through Europe, performing and accumulating folk-songs, poetry and stories. Basing themselves in Britain, they attracted appreciative audiences and reviews. They were publicised as ‘troubadours’ or the ‘Strolling Players’, and their caravan gained them acceptance in small villages where they played and gathered material. Back in Sydney in 1935, they toured all of Australia except for Queensland, and in 1936 decided to try the United States of America. There they won further acclaim and—as Betty remarked—found the USA ‘a marvellous country for women’. In 1943 they joined the Entertainments National Service Association, playing in Britain to armed-service personnel until 1945, but then returned to the USA and considered taking up American citizenship.

In 1948 the Rayners made what was intended to be a temporary visit to Australia. With support from the Victorian Council of Adult Education, and with agreements that they could perform in schools, they decided to stay and launch the Australian Children’s Theatre as a not-for-profit company, taking their work to local communities. Over the next twenty-three years ACT became a highly respected and popular company, the sisters making caravan-based tours around Australia. In 1952 they acquired land at Kew, Melbourne, and built a workshop, office and studio.

The sisters undertook to visit any town if guaranteed an audience of four hundred, although often they performed to fewer. Months of rehearsal lay behind their performances, but the staging itself comprised a few carefully chosen costumes, masks and props, and no scenery. In publishing some of their materials, they encouraged children to ‘act them courageously and sincerely’, and ‘not to think about yourself, but to put all your thought into the character’. Regular travel overseas, including in 1961 to South-East Asia, fed new ideas into their work, as did contact with Aboriginal communities. They also supported tours by innovative, international artists, ranging from the British Hogarth Puppets, to the Viennese dance mime artist Cilli Wang. The Rayners’ audiences were children, but their work was never childish, and their performances left enduring, delightful impressions.

Admiring press coverage described Betty as the ‘pretty one’, Joan being more ‘business-like’ and proud never to have asked for a subsidy. Both were ‘bright eyed and vivacious’, and inseparable in their work and lives. They withdrew from touring in 1968 and announced their retirement in 1971, calculating their audience to have reached two million children. Leaving their ninth caravan, they settled in a house they had built in 1965 on a bushland block at Vermont, Melbourne. They continued to direct and publish the songs and plays they had accumulated. In 1978 they were each appointed AM. Both were Christian Scientists. Betty died on 10 October 1981 at Mitcham, Melbourne, and was cremated. In 1993 Joan established the Australian Children’s Theatre Foundation to continue their work in disadvantaged schools. She died on 11 March 1999 at Wantirna South, Melbourne, and was cremated.

Select Bibliography

  • M. T. Clark, Strolling Players (1972)
  • H. de Berg, interview with J. Rayner and B. Rayner (typescript, 1967, National Library of Australia)
  • Rayner papers (National Library of Australia).

Citation details

Nicholas Brown, 'Rayner, Joan Ellen (1900–1999)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 2012, accessed online 15 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 18, (Melbourne University Press), 2012

View the front pages for Volume 18

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Joan Rayner, [seated, with her sister Betty], 1958

Joan Rayner, [seated, with her sister Betty], 1958

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L24893

Life Summary [details]


8 December, 1900
Dunedin, Otago, New Zealand


11 March, 1999 (aged 98)
Wantirna, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.

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.