Chrisjohn Hancock is retiring as artistic director of the Lieder Theatre in Goulburn, after 30 years overseeing more than 100 productions.
Covid-19 lockdowns last year, the cancellation of a show and addressing family issues had left him feeling as if he had been “hit for six”.
“I was thinking of retiring for quite a while, and thinking there are a lot of creative people around, and I have had a pretty good go of it. It’s time for me to step aside,” he said.
In Goulburn people were stepping up and taking on roles, giving him the confidence Australia’s longest-running theatre company was in good hands. Now he wants to support them.
“It was a difficult decision to make, I love the Lieder Theatre dearly, and the work we have created, the people I have worked with, the projects we have been able to put up,” he said. “I have been supported by an incredible family of theatre-makers who have joined me in my vision of what we could achieve at the Lieder.”
Now living at Toukley on the Central Coast, he is retaining his 1840s home in Goulburn, which he said was a fun house but not always easy to live in, whereas his parents’ home is five minutes from the beach.
“I have said to the Lieder, while I am retiring, I cannot stay away totally from the doors at the theatre. I’m hoping I will be invited to do projects with them in the future,” he said.
About 15 years ago Chrisjohn’s income was tabled at the Goulburn Council when few people would have believed it was $12,000. It’s a little more these days, a retainer and a percentage of the Lieder’s shows.
“It’s a love job, rather than for someone who wants to becomes wealthy,” he said. The company’s board of management must now decide how to replace him.
Having trained at the National Institute of Dramatic Arts, worked as an actor and director and toured the world, Chrisjohn set a new direction for the Lieder Theatre when he began as artistic director in 1991. His passion for theatre attracted other like-minded people committed to quality theatre, innovation and education.
He is stepping down at a time when the performing arts in Goulburn are thriving. He believes the opening of the Goulburn Performing Arts Centre (GPAC) has energised the community with people excited to see the variety of entertainment offered through the GPAC.
He welcomes the Rocky Hill Music Theatre and Bladwell Productions presenting different styles of theatre, and performers moving from group to group, happy to share their talent and energy.
“I’m proud the Lieder has given performers enough confidence to go and work in other groups,” Chrisjohn said.
Under his direction the Lieder performed big plays such as Cloud Street and collaborated with people including former art gallery director Jennifer Lamb on a weekend arts festival, the Goulburn Regional Arts Bash and another large event Forks n All (a feast for peace) in St Saviour’s Cathedral.
The Lieder toured Europe with The Colour Play, which led The American Association of Community Theatres to invite them to America and paid their airfares. “The production was the highlight of their festival and we have been invited back to America a number of times because of that,” he said.
Many primary school pupils began their theatre careers at the Lieder. On the other end of the scale, Doreen Mullen arrived at the Lieder in her 70s, saying she had never done any acting but wanted to give it a go.
“She became everybody’s granny,” Chrisjohn said. “Because of us she ended up in a film with Heath Ledger because we were getting film work occasionally. She passed away years ago, she performed all through her 70s and 80s.”
Reluctant to single out individuals, he did mention Pauline Mullen (no relation to Doreen) and Sarah Harris who supported him from the beginning of his tenure as artistic director. “Pauline and Sarah were very important, very strong supporters of me and my work and kept me afloat for many years,” he said.
He recalled Erin Williams starting as a young teenager at the Lieder, moving away and becoming a librarian and returning to become Goulburn Mulwaree Library manager.
“When she returned to Goulburn, she immediately joined the company,” he said. “She is a lovely performer, a fine performer.”
Many other Lieder students have gone on to roles in the arts throughout Australia and abroad, thankful of Chrisjohn’s interest in their development.