Whether your ancestor was an actor, circus performer, magician or opera singer, the State Library holds a number of resources that can help you research your performing ancestors in Australia.
To get started, try searching for the name (or stage name) of your performing ancestor in our online catalogue. You may discover pictures, photographs, posters, biographies, theatre programmes or other interesting items.
We also hold many books that may assist you with your research. The Dictionary of the Australian theatre 1788-1914 and The dictionary of performing arts in Australia are two such examples. For those with opera singers in the family, Bravo! two hundred years of opera in Australia may also be worth a look. If your ancestors were circus performers, you may wish to try the Genealogical database of Australia’s travelling showpeople CDROM, which is available to search in our Family History & Newspaper Room.
The Library also holds a fantastic collection of theatre programmes. Theatre programmes can be of great use to family historians, as they often include the names of performers, directors, producers and companies as well as information about the production. The majority of items date from the 20th century, but some programmes from the 19th century are also held. If you’d like to search this collection, start by searching our online catalogue for the phrase theatre programme with the name of your performing ancestor. For example theatre programme Joan Sutherland brings up several results for this opera singer. Unfortunately, not all of our theatre programmes are indexed by performer’s name, so it’s also worth searching our catalogue for the name of the production (if known) that your ancestor appeared in (eg. theatre programme Summer of the seventeenth doll). If you find a theatre programme you’d like to look at, please contact Library staff to arrange a viewing time.
If your ancestor was a magician, you may wish to search the Magician files in the Library’s Alma Collection. These files were compiled by the Australian magician Will Alma and include information and ephemeral documents on individual magicians. These files are not yet included on the Library’s online catalogue, but you can request a search by contacting Library staff.
Our in-house indexes may also prove useful for your family history research. The online Australiana Index provides references to Victorian biographical and local history information in published sources such as newspapers, journals, pamphlets and books as well as unpublished files held by the Library (such as our local history files and biographical files).
It is also worth checking the Library’s onsite indexes to see if you can find references to your performing ancestors. The SLV Biographical Index includes information on individuals gathered from journals, magazines, newspapers, books and other material in our collection. The Library’s Periodicals index references a selection of Victorian magazines ranging from the 1850s-1930s. The SLV Biographical Index and the Periodical Index can both be found near the La Trobe Reading Room information desk (open between 10am – 6pm every day).
There are also some very good online resources you could use to further your research.
Trove’s digitised Australian newspapers website is a great resource for finding your performing ancestors. Try searching for your ancestor’s name (or stage name) to see if you can find reviews and advertisements of productions they starred in. Once you discover the name of a production, try searching our online catalogue to see what material we hold on it.
AusStage is a database of live performance in Australia. You can find information on performers and other contributors, events, venues and organisations. While not exhaustive, it is still well worth checking to see if you can find an entry for your ancestor.
If your ancestor was involved in variety entertainment, The Australian Variety Theatre Archive website is definitely worth a look. This website includes information on both works and practitioners ranging from the mid-1800s into the 1930s. Areas covered include burlesque, pantomime, vaudeville, minstrelsy and more.
For more information on researching your performing ancestors, you may wish to consult our online research guides Performance in Victoria and Magic and Magicians. These guides provide expert advice on their topics and will help guide you through the research process.