Barry Kay – Biography – 1956-1965

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Barry Kay always designed at his own studio at home, where choreographers and directors would view his set models at various stages of progress and discuss their requirements with him. During the final stages, after the models had been transferred to the theatre, work would continue there in close liaison with the workshops. Whenever Kay was engaged abroad, he needed to set up temporary work space in or near the theatre, at times also at the hotel where he was staying.

As it takes far more time for theatre workshops to construct the scenery and props than is required by the wardrobe and ancillary departments to tailor costumes, the sets and props were usually designed first. Occasionally, when suddenly struck by an idea, he would design costumes concurrently.

In creating costumes, Kay’s mother and an aunt, both extremely fashion-conscious ladies, were an endless source of inspiration. The way they dressed provided him with a wealth of ideas. They keep recurring in a great number of character costumes he designed.

It was not uncommon for him to scribble an initial design concept on a napkin, a restaurant menu, a discarded envelope, or even on the back of a matchbox.

Apart from the extensive research Kay undertook in designing sets and costumes – by consulting his own and external libraries, archives, collections and museums – he also listened to ballet and opera music over and over again to get inspired by the mood they convey. As an accomplished pianist, he often played the scores himself.

Occasionally, Kay visited other countries to study local architecture and its settings, indigenous dresses as well as equipment and utensils. For on-the-spot orientation and inspiration he travelled to Greece, Morocco and Spain prior to designing the stage and movie versions of Don Quixote, making sketches and taking photographs. He visited Nuremberg in Germany to get the feel of the town for designing the sets for Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. There, the Germanisches Nationalmuseum provided him usually restricted access to original designs for this opera, dating from 1868.

1956

January 10
Première of The Thieves’ Carnival; comedy, romance; assignment scenery and costumes [?], probably as assistant designer to Anne Fraser; direction Wal Cherry; Melbourne University Student Theatre, Union House Theatre, Melbourne; intermittent seasons January 10 to October 15, 1956.

February – Day [?]
Barry Kay creates the décor for a commercial stand at the Melbourne Ideal Home Exhibition. As the inscription of his drawing held at the Archive is illegible, the name of the enterprise for which it is designed cannot be established.

February – Day [?]
Kay exhibits his paintings at the Peter Bray Gallery, Melbourne; in a statement, dated 30 June 1956, the gallery records the sales of “Decor for a Tableau Vivant”, “Three-Fold Decorated Screen” and Daphnis and Chloé. Kay’s theatrical set design for Badinage, dated 1956, also appears to be one of the exhibits, as revealed by the information accompanying its donation [ibid] to the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, in 1997.

Month – Day [?]
Kay designs the front cloth or backdrop for what appears to be Circus Polka; ballet for fifty elephants and fifty human dancers; photograph of design stamped verso: Visual Aids Department, University of Melbourne; venue unknown.

February – March – April
Kay settles in England, making London his home. Not losing any time in making it known who he is, and in seeking professional introductions hoping to be commissioned to design for the theatre, he writes to Frederick Ashton and The British Council. Their responses are favourable, both granting Kay interviews and the chance to present his portfolio.

April 10
A letter written to Kay by a friend, Harold Holt1, the Australian Minister for Immigration, seems to indicate that prior to leaving Australia Kay asks Holt, or Holt offers Kay, to exercise his influence in recommending him to professionals with connections to the performing arts in England. It appears that Kay provides Holt with a statement of his skills and experience, which the latter distributes among those he knows. In his letter Holt notes: “I have sent copies on to Mr Armstrong and Mr Alfred Stirling [presumably the Australian barrister-at-law, writer and diplomat; ed], so that they will have forward notice of the possibility of you contacting them.”

June 18
Première of Pulcinella; ballet; assignment scenery; costumes Phyllidia Law; choreography Elizabeth West after Léonide Massine (Leonid Myasin); Western Theatre Ballet2; Theatre Royal, Bristol.

December
Following his stay at various London locations since he moved to England, Kay takes up permanent residence at Hertford Street in Shepherd’s Market, Mayfair, London, where he also establishes his studio for may years to come.

December 20
Not only out of interests, but also to supplement his income, Kay is working as a graphic artist as well as a textile designer. He creates a Christmas card with a semi-mythical feel to it and, as for his ideas for fabrics3, the press notes that “the young artist’s designs have been snatched up by none other than the celebrated and most advanced of English enterprises – Ascher Fabrics”.


1957

June 24
Première of The Prisoners; ballet; assignment scenery and costumes; choreography Peter Darrel; Western Theatre Ballet; Dartington Festival, Dartington Hall, Devon. The fruitful working retlationship between Darrell and Barry Kay, evolving from designing this production, establishes Kay as principal designer of Western Theatre Ballet for many years to come. This staging represents a benchmark production in that it paves the way for Kay’s career in England.

July 25
Première of Non Stop; ballet; assignment scenery and costumes; choreography Peter Darrell; Western Theatre Ballet; Arts Theatre Club, London.

Summer
First night of Pulcinella; ballet; revival; assignment scenery; costumes Phyllida Law; choreography Elizabeth West after Léonide Massine (Leonid Myasin); Western Theatre Ballet; Dartington Festival [?], Dartington Hall [?], Devon.

November 19
Première of Measure for Measure; drama, comedy; assignment scenery, costumes and properties; production and direction Margaret Webster; Old Vic Company (dissolved in 1963); Old Vic Theatre, London; 1957-58 season.


1958

January 21
Upon the recommendation of Charles Landstone, author of plays, Bryan Bailey – first director of the newly erected Belgrade Theatre, Coventry, to be opened in March of this year – approaches Kay, proposing a meeting to discuss design work in connection with the theatre’s inauguration season. Their meeting results in Kay being invited to design Picnic: A Summer Romance by William Inge, Romanoff and Juliet by Peter Ustinov, and Saint Joan by George Bernard Shaw.

April 14
Première of Picnic: A Summer Romance; drama, romance; assignment scenery, costumes and properties; direction Peter Dews; Belgrade Theatre Company; Belgrade Theatre, Coventry; first performance in England, second production of the Belgrade Theatre’s inaugural season.

April 20 – May 2
Kay exhibits “Designs for the Theatre”4, showing scenery and costume drawings he created for productions in England over recent years; Brummel’s Gallery; South Yarra, Melbourne.

April 28 – May 10
Première of Romanoff and Juliet; play; assignment scenery, costumes [?]; direction Peter Streuli; Belgrade Theatre Company; Belgrade Theatre, Coventry; inaugural season.

May 12 – 24
Première of Saint Joan; drama; assignment scenery, costumes [?]; direction Peter Streuli; Belgrade Theatre Company; Belgrade Theatre, Coventry; inaugural season.

July 22
World première of The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore; madrigal fable, dance, opera5; assignment scenery and costumes; choreography Peter Darrell; New Opera Company; Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London; revised version 1962.

August 12 – 22
First night, revival of Pulcinella; ballet; assignment scenery; costumes Phyllida Law; choreography Elizabeth West after Léonide Massine (Leonid Myasin); Western Theatre Ballet; Lyric Opera House, Hammersmith, London.


1959

June 27 – season June 19-28
Première of A Purcell Cabaret; musical entertainment; assignment setting, costumes; devised by Raymond Leppard (harpsichord) and Colin Graham (direction); English Opera Group Ensemble; venue Workman’s Hall, Thorpeness, Suffolk; event Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts. Recording and airing [date ?] by BBC Radio; subsequent airing by KPFK Radio, Los Angeles, CA, 19 January 1960.

November 18
Première of Bal de la Victoire; ballet; assignment scenery and costumes; choreography Peter Darrell; Western Theatre Ballet in conjunction with Béjart Ballet; Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels. Performance presented as part of a quadruople bill together with Chiaroscuro [as below] and The Prisoners, first premièred in 1957 at the Dartington Festival, Devon. [ibid]. – Filming of Bal de la Victoire for BBC TV, “Music for You”, to be shown on 27 April 1960 [ibid].

November 18
Première of Chiaroscuro; ballet; assignment scenery; costumes Peter Cazalet; choreography Peter Darrell; Western Theatre Ballet; Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels.


Mayfair studio, London ca 1956
photo News Chronicle

Mayfair studio, London ca 1956
photo News Chronicle

Melbourne ca 1965
photo The Herald & Weekly Times

London 1967

London 1971
photo Shirley Danglow


1960

April 27
Airing of Bal de la Victoire; ballet; BBC TV, programme “Music for You”.

May 8
First night of Bal de la Victoire; ballet; assignment scenery and costumes; choreography Peter Darrell; Western Theatre Ballet; Royal Court Theatre, London.

June 25
Opening night of A Mendelssohn Soirée, vocal-orchestral recital; assignment setting and costumes; production and direction Colin Graham; English Opera Group Ensemble; Workman’s Hall, Thorpeness, Suffolk; Aldeburgh Festival of Music and the Arts

October 21
Quadruple ballet première in the Netherlands: Non Stop and The Prisoners (both designed 1957), Bal de la Victoire and Chiaroscuro (both designed 1959); assignment scenery and costumes; choreography Peter Darrell; Western Theatre Ballet on tour; venue Stadsschouwburg, Haarlem; season 1960/61.

November 13
Première of Sound Barrier; ballet; assignment scenery and costumes; choreography Peter Darrell; Sunday Ballet Club; Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, London.

November 18
Première of Bal de la Victoire; ballet; assignment scenery ans costumes; choreography Peter Darrell; Western Theatre Ballet and Béjart Ballet; Théâtre de la Monnaie, Brussels.

December [?] – 15
As one of eighteen modern Australian artists, Kay participates in an exhibition of summer dresses painted with original designs. He displays a fabric of blue and gold treatment throughout. His design, along with the contributions by his colleagues, is praised as commendably planned in relation to the simple form of the dress. All designs are auctioned on December 15. Museum of Modern Arts, Hicks Gallery; Bourke Street, Melbourne.


1961

March 22
Première of The Cunning Little Vixen; opera; assignment scenery, costumes and properties; direction Colin Graham; conductor Colin Davis; Sadler’s Wells Opera Company; Sadler’s Wells Theatre, London.

Spring – Summer
As co-designer, Kay is working on ideas for setting and costumes for Peter Darrell’s Salade, a ballet to be presented at this year’s Edinburgh International Festival.

Lord Harewood, Director of the Edinburgh Festival, invites Barry Kay to artistically oversee the staging of a triple bill of ballet works, including Salade. In this capacity, Kay collaborates with two other participating Australian artists: Arthur Boyd, painter and sculptor, designing the set and costumes for Igor Stravinsky’s ballet Renard; Ian Spurling, stage designer, providing the scenery and costumes for Kenneth MacMillan’s The Seven Deadly Sins, a ballet based on the Brecht-Weill co-production – both for Western Theatre Ballet.

September 4
Première of Salade; ballet; assignment scenery and costumes; co-designer Peter Cazalet; choreography Peter Darrell; Western Theatre Ballet; Empire Theatre6, Edinburgh International Festival, duration September 4 – 6. The ballet is presented as part of a triple bill.


1962

June 28
First night of The Unicorn, the Gorgon and the Manticore; madrigal fable, dance, opera; revised version; assignment scenery and costumes; choreography Peter Darrell; Theatre Royal, Bristol.

November 6
World première of Engaged! or Cheviot’s Choice; opera version based on W.S. Gilbert’s farcical comedy ‘Engaged’; assignment scenery and costumes; music Arthur Sullivan; adaptation George Rowell and Kenneth Mobbs; selected cast; Theatre Royal, Windsor. Four-week season as of première date.7

Autumn – Winter
In search of commissions to design for Australian theatres, Kay pays his hometown, Melbourne, a visit. Undertaking his own public relations, he initiates an interview with the local press. In the brief announcement, he declares that “there isn’t enought theatre work here just yet”.


1963

May 16
First night of The Prisoners; ballet; design 1957 [ibid], assignment scenerey and costumes; choreography Peter Darrell; Western Theatre Ballet on tour; sponsors British Council and Theater Impresariaat Internationaal Ltd; venue Rotterdamse Schouwburg; event Ballet Festival.

June 24
World première of Solitaire pas de deux; third ballet of a quadruple bill; assignment costumes; choreography Kenneth MacMillan; Western Theatre Ballet; Theatre Royal, Bristol. – Kay’s first collaboration with MacMillan who, impressed by the work he has done for Peter Darrell, commissions him to design this piece.

World première of Observations; last ballet of a quadruple bill and danced to Darius Milhaud’s “Le Carnaval d’Aix”; assignment costumes; choreography Peter Darrell; Western Theatre Ballet; Theatre Royal, Bristol.

July 23
US premières of Solitaire pas de deux and Observations as above; venue and event Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, Becket, Massachusetts. – In a review of the local Berkshire Eagle, Barry Kay’s costumes for Observations are described as “strikingly original”.


1964

April 2
World première of Images of Love; ballet; assignment scenery and costumes; choreography Kenneth MacMillan; The Royal Ballet, Royal Opera House, London. – An avid champion of pioneering fundamental change in ballet design, Kay achieves his notable breakthrough with three-dimensionally constructed sets for this production.

June 9
Gala Première of Divertimento; ballet; assignment costumes; choreography Kenneth MacMillan; pas de deux for Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev; solo violin Yehudi Menuhin; music Bála Bartók; Theatre Royal, Bath, Somerset; Bath Festival of the Arts. – To promote the festival, Kay also designs a street décor to be displayed in Bath Street, Bath, city centre.

July 2
Première of No Why; drama, comedy; assignment scenery and costumes; direction John Schlesinger; Royal Shakespeare Company; Aldwych Theatre, London. This and the next play are part of a triple bill.

July 2
Première of The Keyhole / Le Serrure; drama; assignment scenery and costumes; direction Garry O’Connor; Royal Shakespeare Company; Aldwych Theatre, London.

August 5
Première of Victor; drama; assignment scenery and costumes; direction Robin Midgley; Royal Shakespeare Company; Aldwych Theatre, London.

December 3
Première of Chaganog; revue; assignment scenery and costumes; direction Alfred Rodrigues; production Peter Bridge; selected cast; venue Vaudeville Theatre, London.8

Month / Day [?]
At some stage in the course of this year Barry Kay is designing for the Royal Swedish Ballet, Stockholm, apparently performing in Copenhagen; assignment [?], [subject [?].9

Also, sometime this year, Barry Kay and the director Colin Graham are jointly compiling a document outlining a ‘Project for the Formation of an Opéra Bouffe Company’ – a scheme envisaged for 1965. So far, however, no records have surfaced as to the progress or outcome of their planned venture.


1965

March 1
First night of Chaganog; revue; assignment scenery and costumes; direction Alfred Rodrigues; production Peter Bridge; selected cast; Theatre Royal, Brighton.

March 17
Première of Kindly Monkeys; drama, play with dancing; assignment scenery; direction Krishna Shah; New Arts Theatre, London (today: Arts Theatre). In his review in the Financial Times, John Higgins describes Kay’s setting – the interior of a Brahma temple – as magical.

April – day [?]
First night of Chaganog; revue; assignment scenery and costumes; direction Alfred Rodrigues; production Peter Bridge; selected cast; St. Martin’s Theatre, London.

July 5 – 20
Debut of Darling; drama, comedy, satire; movie; assignment consultant designer10; costumes Julie Harris; scenery David Ffolkes; direction John Schlesinger; starring Dirk Bogarde, Julie Christie and Laurence Harvey; venue 4th Moscow International Film Festival; USA première 3 August 1965; UK première 16 September 1965.

Summer – Winter
Having spotted Kay’s refined skills and potential for creating three-dimensional sets, evident in Images of Love, Rudolf Nureyev commissions him to design the scenery and costumes for two ballets – Raymonda, act III, for the The Royal Ballet Touring Company, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London, and Tancredi for the Wiener Staatsopernballett (since 2010 Wiener Staatsballett), State Opera House, Vienna. Both productions are scheduled to be premièred mid next year.

December 13 – 24
“Barry Kay: Stage Designs”, an exhibition of scenery and costume designs created for Kenneth MacMillan’s Images of Love; also on view are initial drawings outlining Kay’s ideas for Rudolf Nureyev’s forthcoming productions of Tancredi and Don Quixote, both for the Wiener Staatsopernballett; venue Grosvenor Gallery, Mayfair, London.

December 15
Coinciding with above exhibition, the BBC is presenting a dialogue in which Kay discusses his work with the ballet critic and author Nigel Gosling; venue BBC Radio, Network Three, “New Comment”, a weekly review of the arts.

Month / Day [?]
At some stage during this year Barry Kay is designing the costumes for Georges Feydeau’s play The Birdwatcher, possibly intended for Richard Cottrell’s production to be premièred at the Hampstead Theatre Club in January 1966.