Happy New Year to all of our readers! We’re starting off 2012 by looking at one of our newer collections- the Cary Ellison Theatre Programme Collection.
Cary Ellison started his career as an actor in 1939, spending many years touring in theatrical productions. On one such tour he met actress Olive Milbourne, who he married in 1944. Eventually Ellison decided to move on from acting, and joined the staff of casting directory Spotlight in 1953.
When Ellison joined Spotlight (initially as a temporary member of staff) he was asked to improve the number of subscribers- within a few years the directory more than doubled in size. As part of his work Ellison would tour repertory theatre companies twice as year, making notes on the cast, director and play, to help match the actors with suitable parts, and to identify future stars. Actors he spotted include Derek Jacobi, Richard Briers, Judi Dench, Patricia Routledge and Leonard Rossiter. He also made notes on such well known actors as Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and Vivien Leigh. His influence was not confined to Spotlight, he also held an advisory service for performers looking to improve their career prospects, and founded ‘12’- an association for those interested in supporting the future of the acting industry.
He retired from Spotlight in 1980, at which time a tribute concert was held in his honour. After his ‘retirement’, Ellison continued to advise potential new actors at Guildford School of Drama. He died in 2002.
The Cary Ellison Theatre Programme Collection consists of theatre programmes he collected on his tours of repertory theatres from 1953 to 1980, with his notes on the cast and plays. The notes are very detailed and in some cases run to great length, and provide insight into the detail of a performance that a casting director would notice- for example for one actress he noted that her hands were ‘too red’. He was very generous with his praise where he felt it was warranted, but could also be extremely critical- even of extremely well known and popular performers. In one production he notes that he ‘could barely understand a word’ that Laurence Olivier said. He would also be very critical of plays, complaining in his notes at great length about Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.
Overall, the collection provides a history of British repertory theatre for the latter part of the twentieth century, as well as providing a glimpse into the early careers of some well known stars. The Collection is currently box listed and can be accessed in the Archives and Special Collections- please email firstname.lastname@example.org to make an appointment or to ask any questions. Full cataloguing of the Collection will begin this year.