The Harkness Studio

The Harkness Studio was formed in Sydney in 1973. A full time training in Speech and Drama, following indications given by Rudolf Steiner, thus became available in Australia for the first time. The two archival articles on this page help to place the inauguration of The Harkness Studio within a chronological context.

Alice Crowther's Work in Speech and Drama

Excerpt from an article by Dennis Glenny in the Journal of the Anthroposophical Society of Australia, Vol. 2 No:4, August 1981

The introduction of Rudolf Steiner's Speech Formation, Dramatic Art and Eurythmy in Australia was the work of Alice Crowther. Although dramatic performances under the guidance of Marian Burley Griffin and Lute Drummond had been a feature of Anthroposophical work at the Open Air Theatre at Castle Crag for a number of years, Alice Crowther was the first teacher with a Dornach training to establish a Studio in Sydney. Many professional actors came to her and she gave a firm foundation to the first teachers in Rudolf Steiner education and curative education.

Upon learning of Steiner's work, Alice Crowther set off in the nineteen thirties to train in Speech Formation and Eurythmy at Dornach, intending to bring the work back to Australia. In Dornach she was one of the first group of English speaking people to train in Speech Formation and to work on framing English equivalents for Rudolf Steiner's speech exercises. At the Goetheanum she was able to take part in rehearsals and classes with Marie Steiner. She continued her speech work with Erna Grund and her Eurythmy work with Friedel Thomas.

Alice Crowther's intention to return to Australia after her training was diverted by a stroke of destiny. In 1936, Michael Chekhov, the Russian actor and director came to England to form a theatre company. He had known Rudolf Steiner before the first world war and found that his indications for the actor could extend and enliven what he himself had developed as a pioneer of new impulses of theatre under the direction of Constantin Stanislavsky and Gordon Craig in Russia, and had used this attitude to theatre in the Second Moscow Art Theatre. Alice Crowther was recommended to him as a speech teacher. From 1936 to 1941 they worked together in England and later in the United States. Another Australian working as a colleague with Michael Chekhov was Alan Harkness who had pioneered and artistic experimental theatre studio - the Ab Intra Studio with Kester Baruch, who had joined the Chekhov Studio as a writer.

Michael Chekhov gave his students a deep feeling of reverence towards the theatre and the actor's vocation. He made them aware of the origin of theatre in the mysteries and the function through tragedy and comedy of leading people to self awareness. When the students came to rehearse, they changed to a special rehearsal dress, so that one put aside personal interests and was concentrated on the work to be created together. The students worked on acting exercises given by Constantin Stanislavsky with the added dimension of an Anthroposophical training in concentration and perception. When a play was to be prepared, the main episodes and climaxes were improvised again and again before the actual text of the play was taken up. When the actors had their parts, each student had an individual private session with Alice Crowther to achieve in speech technique the qualities Michael Chekhov as director wanted brought through. Regular speech and eurythmy classes with Alice Crowther, as well as modern dance, gymnastics and music with other teachers were the basic training.

After the Munich crisis of 1938, the Chekhov Theatre Studio moved to the United States and opened their first professional season in New York with an adaptation of Dostoyevsky's The Possessed. Michael Chekhov chose this theme because he wanted to show the Western world what takes place when people give themselves over to destructive nihilistic forces. It came out of his own experience of living through the years of the Russian Revolution. The Theatre Studio toured as a repertoire of plays until the United States entered the war. In 1941 the Studio was disbanded. Michael Chekhov came to work in Hollywood. Alan and Mechthild Harkness and others carried the Studio way of working further in California.

It was then that Alice Crowther came to Sydney and established the Studio in Hamilton Street. Many and varied productions were performed between the years of 1941 and 1954 when the Studio was finally disbanded. From this time however, until her death in 1967, Alice Crowther continued to give speech and eurythmy classes at her house in Roseville. Her students were eventually to carry her work forward into the sphere of education. (Dennis Glenny)

The Harkness Studio - It's Growth and Work in Creative Speech and Drama
With thanks to Leslie Ford and Helen Greer for the use of this material

During the last year of her life Alice Crowther wrote to Mechthild Harkness and expressed how pleased she was that Mechthild was working so creatively with the art of formative speech in the English language - the realm of her own work. When Mechthild heard of Alice's death in 1967 she saw the possibility of coming to Australia to carry on some of Alice's work here. It had always been the intention of Mechthild and her late husband, Alan Harkness, to return to Australia bringing the fruits of their experience gained over many years of teaching, performing and producing in Europe and America. Two years later Mechthild arrived in Sydney.

Mechthild was surrounded by artistic activity from her earliest years, participating in performances even as a very young child. Her mother, Lucy Neuscheller, was one of the very early Eurythmists under Rudolf Steiner and brought the art of Eurythmy to the U.S.A. In her youth Mechthild attended a number of drama schools and trained in Opera. The family returned to Dornach for a few years where Mechthild first met Alice Crowther who was then doing her speech training with Erna Grund and her Eurythmy training with Friedel Thomas. Back in New York, Mechthild trained in Eurythmy and met her Australian husband, Alan Harkness, who was then working with the Chekhov Theatre Studio. When the Chekhov Studio disbanded, Alan went to California where Mechthild joined him. In 1949-51 she and Alan toured Europe and America with their duo performance of Great Moments from Shakespeare and spent time studying with Erna Grund in Dornach. They returned to America where Alan was tragically killed in 1952. In 1954 Mechthild returned to Dornach and received her Diploma in formative speech, graduating in the same year as Virginia Brett. She remained in Dornach for the next twelve years, teaching, performing and producing. In 1967 Francis Edmunds asked her to set up a Speech and Drama Department at Emerson College where she worked for the two years prior to her arrival in Australia.

In July 1969, the first classes commenced in Sydney with Mechthild teaching Speech, Eurythmy, Greek Gymnastics, Improvisation and Drama. Marj Waugh, who had been carrying the Eurythmy work after her many years with Alice Crowther, and Doug Waugh, connected with the early drama work of Lute Drummond, came along to give their blessing. A much appreciated and continuing support has come from an early student, Garry Richardson. Among the first students were Alan and Susan Whitehead, Eva Fieck, Dennis Glenny, Ruth Marx, Annika Jaensch (Benson), Ian and Mark Scrivener, Graham Dixon, Thomas Ludescher and Pat Brett. The early classes were held at Inala School and then at Thornleigh. Performances were offered as part of the Society's festival celebrations and workshop demonstrations were given at some of the schools.

In 1970 the Studio was officially formed and named Boama - Man in Art. A home for the new Studio was found in Chatswood where, in addition to Mechthild's classes, Ruth Ainsworth taught History of Art, Thomas Ludescher - Bothmer Gym and Marj Waugh - Eurythmy. The Studio gave a performance of Scenes 4, 5 and 6 of The Portal of Initiation. This was the first time any of Rudolf Steiner's Mystery Dramas had actually been staged in Australia.

The Creative Speech work has also left its mark in the realm of professional theatre in Australia. At the request of Robin Lovejoy, Mechthild became voice coach for the Old Tote Theatre and continued in this work for four years until Robin Lovejoy resigned as artistic director. John Bell, Ruth Cracknell, Drew Forsythe, John Gaden, Rod Haddrick, Ron Falk, Damien Parker, Dinah Shearing and many others were among the actors who worked with Mechthild during this time, and some later returned for private tuition.

As the Studio work grew, classes were given at Warrah and Inala, some of which were given by the more advanced students such as Annika. Mechthild herself was also busy again preparing for her inspired solo performance of Sophocles' Antigone, which she performed in Sydney and Melbourne.

In 1973 the Studio moved to Willoughby and was renamed The Harkness Studio, thus associating it with Alan Harkness who pioneered the very beginnings of experimental theatre in Australia. Work continued at Willoughby and later at Cremorne supported by Dennis Glenny (improvisation and drama), Graham Dixon (drama) and Robin Labron-Johnson (Speech, Drama and Greek Gymnastics). Both of the latter completed their diplomas with Mechthild. Avril Drew taught Eurythmy at this time. In June 1979 the Studio moved to its present premises in Manly.

1980 was a very full year with three major dramatic productions. There was an anthroposophical seminar at Mittagong in May, the theme of which was Man as a Threefold Being Active in Science and Art. The Studio spent the first term preparing a series of scenes from Rudolf Steiner's Mystery Dramas relating to the theme of the conference. The scenes were performed in Sydney and then at Mittagong. The second and third term were spent preparing a full programme with chorus work and scenes from Sophocles' Antigone.

As the years have gone by the school has grown and consolidated. Originally and for many years the bulk of the teaching of Speech, Drama, Eurythmy and Gymnastics as well as all of the administration was carried by Mechthild. Now some of those who have been her students in the past have returned to teach beside her. Mechthild's health has been poor this year but fortunately there is now a strong team of teachers working with her who are able to carry the work. Mechthild is at present teaching students in the final year of the training and taking the Speech chorus work which prepared a production of Steven Moore's play The Star and the Branch, performed at a seminar at Mittagong in September.

In 1981 the school has 18 students spread over the four years of training. Apart from Australia students have come from the U.S.A. (3), South Africa (1), Canada (1), England (1), Switzerland (1) and New Zealand (3). The school is the only school working with Rudolf Steiner's formative speech and dramatic indications in English, which teaches drama as well as speech. When Virginia Brett closed her English speech school in Dornach at Easter this year, several of the students came to continue their training here.

Students who complete the course receive a Diploma in affiliation with the Section for Speaking and Musical Arts at the Goetheanum School for Spiritual Science. Students do the course for a variety of reasons. Some want to work in professional theatre, some do the therapeutic work or teaching and others for their own development.

In 1980, the Harkness Studio became a non-profit company and is now entering a new phase of its life as a registered charity with supporting membership. In July this year, members and friends were invited to a workshop performance of Steven Moore's play, The Star and the Branch, followed by a meeting, to discuss the possibilities of fund raising. Apart from the rent, all running costs and wages must be met by students' fees. These are at present inadequate to afford the teachers a living wage. The logical solution would be to raise the fees, but the students receive no financial assistance from the Government, and hence must work to support themselves and their study. Last year, a scholarship fund was initiated, and at present lends money on a monthly basis enabling students to pay fees on time. It is hoped that this will expand to carry students, at least through their final year, by way of loans repayable after completion of the training. A nucleus of friends is emerging as a support group, to raise funds to cover expanding needs of the Studio. We are now faced with the task of presenting this work to a wider community, and inviting support from those who recognise the need for a drama with spiritual content, and a technique capable of bringing that content to life. The Harkness Studio continues to further the speech and drama impulse first brought to Australia by Alice Crowther, and strives to strengthen and carry that impulse into the future.
(Article by Leslie Ford and Helen Greer - assisted by Mechthild Harkness) © 2005-2023 by various authors (of is licensed under Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International