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A lost Sydney theatre and a forgotten American film director come together in a piece of Library ephemera.
The Library’s vast ephemera collection holds everything from press clippings to political pamphlets, menus and expired pizza vouchers. Even though most of these things were intended to be used then thrown away, they have become markers of social history and culture, perhaps even more significant than some objects that were created with an eye to permanence.
In 2019, as a volunteer at the Library, I helped sort a collection of programs of the now closed Marian St Theatre. In one of the boxes, I came across a 1995 program for Death Defying Acts — the umbrella title for three one-act plays by US writers Elaine May, David Mamet and Woody Allen.
Program for Death Defying Acts
As a fan of the director, screenwriter, actor and comic Elaine May, I was thrilled by this discovery. May’s characters are funny and neurotic — they are endearing and easy to relate to in their unlikableness. Her films are morosely charming; her humour a coping mechanism for the melancholy of the everyday.
I liked the idea that May’s work had been performed on stage here in Sydney. But looking at the program, with her name next to Mamet and Allen’s, I also felt a sense of frustration.
It hit me that in the mid-1990s May’s success might have been viewed as on par with these peers. But since then the success of May’s prominent male filmmaking colleagues has far surpassed her own.
May rose to fame in 1961 with the comedy-sketch show An Evening with Mike Nichols and Elaine May before the duo both went on to become Hollywood directors. Nichols directed more than 20 films, including the Oscar-winning Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf ?, while May directed four: A New Leaf (1971) in which she also starred, the dark romantic comedy The Heartbreak Kid (1972), Mikey and Nicky (1976), and finally her widely publicised box-office flop Ishtar (1987).
May and Woody Allen, another of her esteemed colleagues, are both Jewish-Americans born in the 1930s (May 1932, Allen 1935), both began their careers in the 1950s, and they share a similar brand of neurotic humour. Allen has released at least 67 films — about one a year since the 1970s — some of which are critically acclaimed, while many are not.
Is Allen’s output prolific or profligate? Regardless of the quality of each of his films, he has had the opportunity to continue making them, sustaining a high level of acclaim in the industry while May’s career was immobilised after one flop.
Decades later, May is finally receiving the recognition she deserves. In 2013, President Obama awarded her a National Medal of Arts, and in 2016 she received a lifetime achievement award from the Writers Guild of America. In the same year, she returned to acting in Allen’s miniseries Crisis in Six Scenes, and last year she won a Tony award for best actress for the Broadway production of Kenneth Lonergan’s The Waverly Gallery. It has been reported that, at age 87, she will return to directing with a film called Crackpot.
Like May, the Marian St Theatre, which closed in 2013, has received some recent recognition. After a unanimous vote by the Ku-ring-gai Council in 2018, it is scheduled to re-open in 2021.
Whatever the reasons Elaine May stepped out of the spotlight, I can’t help feeling that we have all been deprived. But stumbling upon that theatre program reminded me not to throw away hope, so I look forward to May’s future projects and a new generation of talent at the Marian St Theatre.
Grace Winzar is an occasional volunteer at the State Library and is Collection Services Officer at Mosman Library.