The Jewel by the Sea is a fascinating study about the genesis of Black Rock House by Charles Ebden. Although a creative interpretation by author and director, it is based on documented history. Cheryl Threadgold shares her passion, admiration and extensive knowledge about this time in our history with us as we travel alongside her towards the journey entitled, The Jewel by the Sea.

What is the historical significance of Black Rock House and how does it fit into our nation's historical landscape?

Black Rock House was built as a seaside  residence by Victoria's first Auditor-General, Charles Hotson Ebden.

Charles Ebden arrived from South Africa in 1832 and as a pastoralist was a member of the group which brought the first sheep overland from New South Wales to Victoria. He turned to politics and also made a huge profit from buying and selling land in Collins Street.

He purchased 122 acres of land 12 miles south of Melbourne in 1854 to build his proposed grandest of holiday retreats named Ebden Castle, to be surrounded by a castellated wall built by stone quarried from the local beach. Building started in 1856, but the stonemasons thwarted Mr Ebden's vision by downing tools to seek fortune on the gold fields, leaving Mr Ebden with 'half a castle'.  He then named his residence Black Rock House as a tribute to his wife Tamar, who grew up near Blackrock in Ireland.  The suburb of Black Rock then took its name from Black Rock House. 

Can you tell us something about The Friends of Black Rock House?

Black Rock House had various owners after the Ebdens and became a boarding house for many years. In 1974 the then Sandringham Council purchased the property and commenced restoring the House back to its original splendour for the community, in consultation with heritage architects.

In 1979 the Friends of Black Rock House group was formed to assist Council in furnishing the House and maintaining the property.

32 years later the Friends of Black Rock House group has a financial membership of 150 members and continues to work with Bayside Council to create public awareness of Black Rock House and local heritage.

Black Rock House is situated at 34 Ebden Ave., Black Rock and is open for public for inspection every Sunday between 2 and 4pm, from early February to mid December. Weekday group visits can be arranged.

Costumed Friends of Black Rock House volunteers conduct tours of the property, present four major events each year and conduct Ghost Tours during winter.

New members are always welcome, particularly those interested in being tour guides  – a great opportunity to share communication skills with the public!
We now have our own website www.blackrockhouse.org.au

How did you first form your involvement with this organisation?

I grew up in Black Rock and visited Black Rock House on a school excursion in Grade 5. The story told to us by the owner at the time, Mr Nutting, was fascinating.

In 1999, a friend whose mother was one of the original members of the Friends' group said they could do with some new members and so I joined and have been Publicity Officer ever since.

I also organise the annual Christmas Carols events at Black Rock House, write the quarterly newsletter, conduct tours etc.

As the writer of this piece, detailing the genesis of Black Rock House between 1854 and 1861, can you discuss some of the challenges that befell you and how long did the piece take to complete?

The 150th anniversary of Black Rock House in 2006 could not pass without celebration, so I sought permission from the  Friends of Black Rock House committee to  merge theatre with history and write a tribute production.  They kindly agreed, so I confronted the blank screen and a 90 minute production evolved.  I aimed to balance history with entertainment and included colourful, fictitious characters such as Cook Brogan, who belts out the  original song Stir the Pot, with the more formal historical characters.   I discovered that Georgiana McCrae had a good mezzo soprano voice, so Judy Sporton delivers a beautiful rendition of Schumann's Widmung at the farewell party for William Wills and this contrasts well with Cook Brogan's rousing song.
 
I already knew of the history of Black Rock House, but needed to thoroughly research the historical characters and lifestyles of the era. I had planned to do this in 2005 but ended up not starting until early 2006. Many hours were spent in the State Library and other resource locations and I certainly discovered the agony and ecstasy of research. The final draft was finished by the end of June, 2006, so it took 6 months, including many, many late nights, early mornings and lots of chocolate, to complete.

How did the decision to also the direct the piece come about for you?

With previous directing experience, I could visualise all staging aspects of the show and include them in the script during the writing process.   The committee has now decided that the The Jewel by the Sea will return every five years, so these stage directions will help future directors. I should also admit that being a control freak by nature, I needed to create my script into reality.

Can you talk about the audition process and what you were particularly looking for when casting actors?

The audition process for Jewel has been mostly undemocratic. I don't like wasting time – mine or other people's – when already knowing who would be ideal for the roles.  I also prefer to work with people who are not only quality performers, but who I know are also good team players. 

While writing characters into the show I visualised experienced performers whose work I knew and approached them while the script was being written. It was a huge honour that most agreed to join the cast of the first production in 2006, without seeing the script or knowing anything about Black Rock House! 

On Australia Day, 2007, the production won Bayside City Council's Community Event of the Year Award and we presented a return season in 2007. I am also very honoured that eight original performers have returned in 2011 for a third season of the production and also warmly welcome and congratulate our seven new cast members on their fine work.

There is a challenge in casting historical characters because each audience member has their own expectations. An excellent actor is required to portray the enigmatic Charles Ebden and we have been privileged to have Roy Mears as Mr Ebden for the first two seasons, Kirk Alexander to read the role for the radio series on Southern FM early this year and award-winning Keith Hutton splendidly heads the cast in the 2011 theatre season.

This year some roles needed to be recast, so Debbie Keyt (Beaumaris Theatre) and Sandra Davies (CLOC) very kindly provided some contacts. On two occasions the casting process was a little offbeat – Jason Ashley Mill was cast on the spot as Adam Lindsay Gordon when meeting him outside a Collingwood theatre stage door and Max Panagiotopoulos successfully read for the role of William Wills after being spotted waiting for an audition at Beaumaris Theatre. Contrary to earlier policy these performers were previously unknown, but my instincts proved correct and both are not only good in their roles, but first-class to work with. I have also always admired the work of James Robertson, Rita Crispin, Brigitte Wise and Chris Hunter and was thrilled when they accepted an invitation to join the cast.
                 
What personal satisfactions have you gained from the creation of this work?

It has been terrific to merge theatre with heritage and, while sharing creative energies and community spirit with a wonderful cast, crew and committee, achieving a successful result which entertains audiences by bringing alive the history of Black Rock House and early Melbourne.

I also adore the quirky challenge of creating theatre in a non-theatrical environment.

A marvellous aspect of the project has been to observe the hidden talents of Friends of Black Rock House members who mostly have never been actively involved in a theatre production before.  Shirley has created a lovely program, our President turned Wardrobe Mistress, Carolyn and her assistants Elizabeth and Kieran have sourced, sewed and organised beautiful costumes, Pat is a top Ticket Secretary, Gudrun and Helen our Props Co-ordinators are superb working backstage and have greatly impressed our stage manager David Dodd with their work. Helga and Deirdre are organising the front of house roster for members to act as ushers, program sellers etc. Most have never undertaken this sort of thing before and I take delight in seeing individuals' satisfaction and pleasure at discovering new skills and talents.

I was also thrilled to be asked last year by Southern FM 88.3 presenter Terri Adams to adapt The Jewel by the Sea into a radio series. The cast recorded the series earlier this year at Black Rock House under the technical direction of Raymond Simms and the seven episodes were broadcast on Southern FM in May.  The series is now available on podcast on the Southern FM website.

If there is one major theme or message that the play holds, what would that be?

From an overall perspective, that history and theatre can successfully merge in a site-specific, non-theatrical environment to entertain audiences.

From a narrative perspective, the main message of the play is to celebrate the 155th anniversary of Black Rock House by providing a window into early Melbourne history.

What is your hope that audiences take away after having viewed the play?

An experience  that  Black Rock House and its history have come alive in their minds to remember for the future and also the urge to tell others about this unique, historic seaside holiday house, situated by the Bay and gracefully protected by 155 year old Moreton Bay Fig trees.

The Friends of Black Rock House also host something incredibly fascinating – Ghost Tours. Can you talk about what this involves?

Last year, our President, Carolyn Brown, contacted mediums from the Spookspotters, who conduct Ghost Tours at Como House, and invited them to visit Black Rock House.  They conducted an overnight vigil and encountered so much activity that they returned for a second vigil.  They had an interesting challenge sorting between spirits associated with 'brought in' objects (donated or purchased) in the House and spiritual life connected with people who actually lived and worked at the House from 1858. The reports from the Spookspotters mediums and researchers are now presented during Ghost Tours by Friends of Black Rock House volunteers. The winter Tours have been most successful and will return next year. Some visitors take the Ghost Tours very seriously and of course we respect that, while at the same time ensuring that everyone enjoys the experience.

And finally, what is next for Cheryl Threadgold?
 

Life remains constantly busy with community and committee activities, reviewing shows, compiling and presenting theatre reports for 3AW and the Melbourne Observer and studying for a Master of Arts (Writing).

Am also collaborating on another site-specific performance project, training in tap dancing three and a half hours per week and performing with Isabelle Ryan's Golden Tappers at various fund-raising events around Melbourne. Isabelle's choreography is great, the ladies are gorgeous and it's good exercise. Oh yes, then there's the housework …


 

The Jewel by the Sea is a 90 minute play presented in intimate theatre style by the Friends of Black Rock House and written and directed by Cheryl Threadgold. Fifteen actors will portray 16 roles. Performances: September 15, 16, 17, 22, 23, 24 at 7.40pm for 8.00pm performance and September 24 at 1.40pm for 2.00pm performance. No interval. Tickets: $20 Full Price, $18 Concession. (Ticket includes pre-show sherries, performance and post-show supper/afternoon-tea.) Bookings: Call Pat 9589 3707. http://www.blackrockhouse.org.au/
 

Photographs: Malcolm Threadgold
 

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