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Memories of Merrigong – Bob Peet

Bob Peet - First Director of Illawarra Performing Arts Centre

Image from the collection of the Wollongong City Libraries and the Illawarra Historical Society.

Bob Peet is an adored theatre maker and the first director of the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, at the helm of the organisation from 1987 to 1996.

Approaching the bicentennial, Bob Peet was looking for a change of scenery. Many Performing Arts venues were built across New South Wales and after successfully applying for the role of Director of the soon to be Illawarra Performing Arts Centre, Bob packed his bags and left Alice Springs to ‘set up shop’ in a rural town called Wollongong.

“I was at the Araluen Centre for Arts & Entertainment in Alice Springs and through a series of events I found myself alone in Alice Springs,”

“It was 1987. A number of venues were being built at the time – Riverside Parramatta, Laycock Street Community Theatre in Gosford and Illawarra Performing Arts Centre,” he said.

Bob was told many things about Wollongong, visited many times, and had relatives who called it home, but the most common myth was that the town was not interested in performing arts at all.

“People who weren’t from the area had told me it was a ‘working man’s’ town and people wouldn’t go to the theatre. Well that was quite wrong,” he said.

This was evident as crowds came to see just about anything the Centre put on and in a short amount of time IPAC was forging a reputation for raising the bar.

“There weren’t any touring companies, which meant finding things that were, firstly, able to come to Wollongong and secondly, appealing to audiences,”

“The Arcadians were strong in town and had been for almost 20 years, so we ventured into staging shows that they wouldn’t necessarily do like Operettas by Gilbert and Sullivan,” he said.

Under Bob’s leadership, IPAC did this very successfully, creating opportunities for performers and audiences looking for different creative outlets.

“It’s been interesting to see the similarities in dialogue to when IPAC first opened. It has happened in all the communities I’ve worked in,”

“There are the knockers and there always will be, but it’s been great to see IPAC go on to do wonderful things. Even though the direction has changed quite a lot since I was there, I wish the centre the continued success it deserves,” he said.

Bob recalls many fond memories of his time as Director, but the two that really stood out to him were, quite poetically, the opening of the centre and his farewell.

“In 1988 the building opened and it was very exciting. The Bicentennial Authority who had funded part of the build said it had to be January, when the royals were in Australia,”

“The construction was accelerated to be as ready as it could be, and Prince Charles and Princess Diana came to the premiere on the Civic Plaza (Arts Precinct). It was a lovely moment for us,” he said.

On the day of Bob’s farewell, IPAC’s rehearsal space was renamed “Bob Peet Studio” in his honor and it is a distinction that Bob is still proud of.

“I was – and still am – very touched by the gesture. The fact that there is a venue in my name, not many people get that,” he said.

Of all the memories and great successes over the years, Bob said he misses the people he worked with the most.

“I know Linda Hanbury (Box Office Manager) and James Clarke (Facilities Coordinator) are still there. They must be the longest-serving employees in any regional venue that I know of,”

“I also recall that in our little theatre company everyone was able to extend themselves. Everyone took on an extra role. The Front of House Manager worked as the Production Associate, the Technical Manager became the Project Manager for every show,” he said.

“We all did extra and we all received great personal rewards once the shows hit the stage. Suddenly, there was competition, which was good for everybody.”

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