Holden Street turns to Tallulah as it enters a new era

Holden Street Theatres is set to celebrate its 20th anniversary and the launch of a new home company with a play that will see founder and artistic director Martha Lott embody the iconic ­and often outrageous Hollywood star Tallulah Bankhead.

Apr 14, 2023, updated Apr 14, 2023
Tallulah Bankhead: 'If I had to live my life again, I'd make the same mistakes, only sooner.' Photo: Mary Evans Picture Library

Tallulah Bankhead: 'If I had to live my life again, I'd make the same mistakes, only sooner.' Photo: Mary Evans Picture Library

“She was the quintessential movie star,” Martha Lott says of Tallulah Bankhead, one of the first famous actors to be “swallowed by celebrity”.

“She was in that Bette Davis and Joan Crawford era, but she was naughty… she was very naughty.”

Bankhead starred in Hollywood films from the 1930s through to the 1960s – including Alfred Hitchcock’s Lifeboat (1944) – and also made a name for herself on Broadway. However, she was just as famous for her uninhibited private life. She had affairs with both men and women, had a habit of getting naked at parties, had an unfettered fondness for bourbon and cigarettes, was notorious for her excoriating wit, and is said to have inspired the Disney character Cruella de Vil.

It is Bankhead’s final movie role, as a religious fanatic in the 1965 B-grade horror film Die! Die! My Darling!, that inspired Looped, a Broadway play by New York writer Matthew Lombardo which Holden Street Theatres has chosen to present to celebrate its 20th anniversary and mark the debut of its first home company, the new Holden Street Theatre Company.

Looped focuses on an incident that occurred during the filming of Die! Die! My Darling!, when Bankhead was so inebriated that it took eight hours to re-record, or loop, a single line of her dialogue. Fittingly, this production will be directed by Peter Goers, who also co-directed Holden Street Theatres’ first show, Neil Simon’s California Suite, in 2003.

Holden Street Theatres founder and artistic director Martha Lott. Photo: Morgan Sette

“It’s a brilliant piece of theatre,” Lott says of Looped. “It’s really well written… and it’s something that he [Goers] has always wanted to produce.

“It’s full, rich, funny – a lot of fun to produce and a lot of fun to perform… it’s one of those pieces you come across and you just go, ‘What a great piece of theatre!’.”

Lott, who last performed on stage in That Boy during Holden Street’s 2022 Fringe season, is relishing the role of Tallulah and is perfecting the actor’s trademark husky voice, over-the-top manner and exaggerated used of the word “daahling” in preparation for the season opening on May 2.

Playing opposite her will be Chris Asimos (whose resume includes State Theatre Company SA’s Hibernation) as film editor Danny ­– who becomes engaged in a battle of wills with Tallulah ­– and Rob Cusenza as the (unseen) sound engineer Steve.

The play may sound like a farce, but Lott says there are hidden demons underlying Bankhead’s behaviour.

“It’s very sad, really, because she’s lonely… she could never be fulfilled and she’s staying in the studio for this period of time not only because she’s so out of it but also because she doesn’t want to be alone. And she’s always on, she’s always what they call press-ready; she’s always ready for an audience. So you never really get to see the real her.”

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As the play progresses, more is also revealed about the character of conservative, impatient Danny, whom Lott says Tallulah wants to set free: “The actual core of it is that you need to live your life as who you are and not hide away from being honestly who you are; you don’t have to conform, you don’t have to live your life by their rules.”

Holden Street Theatres now has its own home company but its performance spaces will continue to be available for hire. Photo: Morgan Sette

While Holden Street Theatres has built a strong reputation as a performing arts hub and hosted hundreds of shows in the 20 years since Lott established the venue in a cluster of former Anglican Church buildings in Hindmarsh, the new Holden Street Theatre Company will be its first home theatre company. It will present around three shows a year.

“The goal is for the theatre company to not only explore existing texts, and to support local South Australian artists to get on the stage, but also to create new work based on South Australian stories or stories from South Australians,” says Lott.

Holden Street Theatre Company’s second show is slated for around October this year, and Lott is writing a two-hander ­– a love story exploring the challenges of living in rural and remote SA ­– which is expected to come to the stage next year.

She says the performance spaces at Holden Street Theatres will continue to be available to other artists and companies to hire, including during the Adelaide Fringe, when it is an important hub for both international and Australian theatre shows.

The launch of the new home company coincides with the recent restructure of Holden Street as a not-for-profit organisation. As well as opening the door for more funding opportunities, the restructure will also see the introduction of a board and pave the way for exciting new directions, Lott says.

“It will bring in more energy, more ideas and support for me, support for the running of the theatre and the direction of it.

“A really strong, effective and passionate board will mean that Holden Street can grow and become more of a supporter and facilitator of theatre rather than just a venue for hire.”

Looped opens at Holden Street Theatres on May 2 and will run until May 20.

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