Despite a tough start in life, renowned Adelaide theatrical agent Ann Peters finally found her happy place on the stage. Since then, she has helped hundreds of young hopefuls realise their acting dreams through her agency SA Casting.
Ann Peters: Drama Queen
Even as a young girl, Ann Peters would immerse herself in the theatre of life. She recalls being 11 years old and wanting to be baptised several times just for the drama.
“I did it through the Church of Christ Girl’s Life Brigade,” she says. “They asked if I’d been baptised and I said no. So, I signed up and I was able to walk down the aisle in a white gown and I had an audience. I loved the theatre of it all. I asked them if I could do it again, but they said no.
“I had a Greek friend so I tried the Greek Orthodox church as well but my parents said no.”
Back then, Ann was known as Rita. She was just 17 years old when she married a man named Trevor Peters. “I didn’t like the sound of Rita Peters,” she laughs, so she began using her middle name, Ann.
Reinventing herself and playing a part have been constant themes in the life of this eccentric extrovert.
Ann grew up in Findon with her mother Anne, father Ferdinand and older brother Alan. The family were enticed to Australia from England by the 10-pound Poms scheme. Ann was excited by the prospect but, unfortunately, there was to be no happily ever after for the family.
Today, Ann, in her 70s, still works six days a week in the city offices of SA Casting, the theatrical agency she began in 1974. Since then, Ann has been instrumental in training, finding roles for and guiding many prominent actors and extras over 47 years.
SA Casting has also been involved in some of Australia’s most recognisable productions over the years, including Picnic at Hanging Rock, Breaker Morant, Wolf Creek, McLeod’s Daughters, Storm Boy, Shine, Neighbours, Home and Away and Snowtown.
“Mostly, all films and television series shot in South Australia, we’ve been involved with,” Ann says.
Business is still booming, as seen by the giant white board near Ann’s desk, outlining all the productions currently filming in SA, and many of her stable, currently on set.
“Have a look at it,” Ann says. “It’s the busiest it has ever been.”
The walls of the office are covered in posters, photos, newspaper clippings and television scripts, creating a jumbled installation paying homage to Australia’s film and television industry over the past five decades.
There’s Geoffrey Rush, arms spread, bare chest and head back, in the famous image from Shine, posters from the movies Gallipoli and Robbery Under Arms, and Home and Away scripts pasted to the walls.
It’s an enticing entree for the young hopefuls who come through the door for their acting lessons. Ann Peters & Co is the acting arm of the business and Ann is still hands-on with the lessons. She holds classes nightly, with students ranging from eight to 80-year-olds, taught by a crew of 20 teachers.
“They’re all specialists in their field, teaching the various acting methods; acting for theatre, acting for film, acting for radio,” Ann says.
“We take all of whom may be interested in the classes for the first 10 weeks. If they show no potential, we suggest they save their money and don’t continue,” says Ann, who started out as an actor in the 1970s.
“I remember [director] Bruce Beresford who was working on Breaker Morant said to me, ‘Why don’t you start an acting school?’. But I said, ‘I haven’t been trained so I don’t know how to teach’. He said, ‘But you know how to act. Just get people to understand what it is they do as a human being’. So, I did and I do.”
Running a business fuelled by lofty ambitions of fame and stardom requires a certain direct approach, a bluntness; something Ann is famous for. She is expert at offering encouragement while keeping expectations real.
“People say I’m intimidating, and I can see why,” she says. “I don’t mean to be, I think it’s just my natural, impetuous behaviour. People say, ‘I’ve been told to come here because you’ll tell me the truth’. And I will, I see no point in saying otherwise.”
Yet, scratch at the surface of this tough-talking theatrical agent and you soon discover an extremely caring person, and a life that has been shaped by an unstable childhood, punctuated by trauma, hardship and heartache.
As a young girl, Ann respected and loved her parents, even though her mother was often self-absorbed. Her father, a master plumber, was “a non-drinking, disciplinarian, a sombre and very clever man”.
“I’d do my homework and everything had to meet his standard. If I didn’t get the answer correct, I’d start crying and he would say, ‘Okay go into the bathroom, wipe your face, stop crying then come out and we’ll do it again’,” Ann says. Consequently, Ann says she learnt early on never to give up.
When she was about 12 years old, Ann remembers her mother going to England for several weeks.
“I’d look up at the ornamental pattern on my ceiling and I’d imagine a section of the ceiling being the ship leaving England and I would work out where she would be and when she would be home,” Ann says.
“I was young and I distinctly remember being in bed the night before she was due home. I was so excited, looking up to the ceiling and realising the ship was about to reach, where I had imagined the dock to be.
“The next day, my father and I went to meet her. When the boat pulled into the dock, I ran up the gang plank and threw my arms around her. Then she said, ‘Don’t touch me, you’ll crease my skirt’. I couldn’t understand why she was like that. I later found out why. My mother had met a Welshman in London.”
Ann’s mother eventually left the family home to be with the Welshman, who had followed her back to Australia.
“So, in later life, I understood the guilt she felt getting off the ship. I was 12 and my brother was 18,” Ann says.
The chain of events after Ann’s mother left was devastating for the family, with Ann’s father eventually taking his own life later that year. To this day, Ann has a visceral recollection of the circumstances around her father’s death.
“I came home from school and I made dinner. My father wasn’t home, so I put his in the oven” Ann says. “When my brother arrived, we both thought it odd that our father still wasn’t home but his car was in the garage”.
“I remember hearing my brother walking around on the gravel towards the garage and then I heard the sound of him running back to the house, so I knew something terrible had happened.”
With a fractured family, Ann tried living with her mother and the “Welshman”, but says it was a party house with plenty of alcohol, and no longer felt like home.
Ann ran away and ended up staying with friends and got her first job at the age 13 in a deli (she told them she was 15). Her brother Alan eventually married and offered to take her in, but Ann says she was happy floating from house to house with friends.
“I always had somewhere to go, I wasn’t living on the streets,” she says. “But I think because of the lack of guidance, and being free of any rules, I turned a bit wild.
“It was the bodgies and widgies era and my girlfriends and I would hang out on Port Road in the fish and chip shops and billiard halls and we could often be seen on the back of our boys’ motorbikes. We had many exciting and dangerous times.”
By the age of 17, Ann met and married a handsome young brick maker named Trevor Peters.
The babies came quickly and by the age of 20, Ann had three children under three. She admits she was so young and ill-equipped she felt like she was just “playing house”.
“Trevor was from Mallala and he was a really nice, hardworking man. I was in love,” she says. “But things were a struggle. We had Mark in 1960, Roger in ’61 and Lee-Ann in ’62.”
With mouths to feed, Ann worked in a variety of jobs including the night shift in a hamburger shop in the city.
Trevor and Ann’s marriage lasted seven years, eventually crumbling under the pressure of youth, financial hardship and ambitions unfulfilled.
“After we separated, I would write the kids cards from him and put money in the envelope and put it in the letter box,” Ann says. “He wanted to be involved in their lives, but I kept pushing him away. It wasn’t his fault, it was mine.”
Needing to support three children as a single mother, Ann took on whatever work she could: making toilet paper at Detmolds, as a saleswoman at Blacks Shoes, making car dashboards at SA Rubber Mills, as a travelling saleswoman for Red Tulip chocolates and as a switchboard operator at Suburban Taxis. She filled in the gaps by driving trucks delivering soft drinks to suburban areas. She also worked as the manageress of a slimming business called The House of Dawn. But it was a move to an apartment in Brighton that would ultimately provide the path to the world of acting.
“I was driving down Brighton Road and I noticed a sign on the St Jude’s Church,” Ann says. “They were producing a play, and were holding auditions.” After auditioning, Ann landed the lead role in the production of The Hairdresser. Harold Minear, an advertising man, was the director.
“A lovely man, to whom I am always grateful, he set me up for my lifetime career,” Ann says. The role in The Hairdresser led Ann to other roles, and she began to hone her craft. She had finally found her stage.
“I played Nina at the Adelaide Rep in a production of The Devil’s Advocate with Brenton Whittle and an English director. The director asked if there was any way I could go to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, and I always wanted to, but I couldn’t.”
Other productions included the Adelaide Repertory’s Wait Until Dark and Run Run Away, where a local reviewer wrote that, “Ann Peters breathes life into every scene she is in – even those in which we can’t be certain she is alive or dead”.
At La Mama Theatre in Hindmarsh, Ann played the title role in Anne Kleiber, where reviewer Harold Tidemann wrote, “Ann gives a virtuoso performance” and her scenes “burn with conviction both at the heights and depths of passion”.
“I remember Harold used to write lovely things about me all the time,” Ann says.
Television work soon followed in a variety of 1970s shows including Division 4 and Boney.
Through her growing network of contacts, Ann was soon being approached by interstate directors needing help to find local talent for commercials, films and television.
“For a television series called Dr McLeay, [script writer] Betty Quin and I were asked to help find people,” Ann says. “After that we worked on the extras for the original Picnic at Hanging Rock.
“That’s how SA Casting started and initially I worked from home and it all just grew from there. The kids were teenagers by then.”
Ann’s personal life was also on the rise after meeting an accountant named Terence Denton.
“I remember someone asking Terry what he saw in me and he said, ‘potential’,” Ann laughs. Sadly, Terry passed away in 2014 from cancer.
“He was a lovely, gentle man, well-educated and wise. He taught me so much,” Ann says.
Over the years, SA Casting has continued to grow and today Ann has many actors and extras on her books, and a waiting list for her acting classes.
She says the success is due to her unwavering passion to unearth and guide the current and next generation of South Australian actors. Over the years, she has learnt there are two kinds of actors: the word actor and the instinctual actor.
“The instinctual actor is what we look for and how we train; thoughts first, words follow,” she says.
However, Ann feels South Australian actors have not been able to put their craft into practice as much as she would like.
“The interstate producers, being encouraged to shoot in South Australia, must bring their actors with them and mostly our actors are used as ‘50-worders’,” she says.
“I am able and determined, with support, to rectify this matter. South Australia has all the necessary ingredients for film-making – the modern studios, the light, the climate, short distances to many and various locations – therefore we have the potential to make South Australia the hub of the Australian film industry.”
Reflecting back on her life, Ann says she still feels heartache around the early years, but there is plenty to celebrate now, including five grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.
Her children are all doing well; daughter Lee-Ann lives between Lisbon and London and runs a cake making business called Beyond Imagination.
“Lee-Ann is married to a Portuguese fine arts dealer and they have two sons, Michael who works in finance, and Jorge who is an entrepreneur,” Ann says.
Ann’s sons and their families live in Adelaide. Roger works as a head chef and has a son Max who is a doctor, while Mark deals in wines and has two daughters Madilyn and Tiffany.
“Madi and Tiffany did the acting classes when they were young and Tiffany, although now a vet, works as one of our voice-over artists and has done since she was young,” Ann says. “Madi has two young children, Jalen and Leon, and works with us when we need her.”
Despite her reputation for tough love, Ann says she’s only had 11 staff over 47 years at SA Casting because she is “not a boss”, but more of a friend.
The business will likely be taken over by one of her staff when Ann finally bows out, but there are no plans for that just yet.
“My son always says, ‘When are you going to retire, Mum? Stop coming up with these new ideas’,” Ann says. “I don’t want to stop – my actors have always suffered, but never more so than the last few years and in particular now with all the films being shot in our state. So, I want to ensure that my actors can be a big part of this new wave of filming here in South Australia.
“To be teaching at my age is great because it keeps me mentally fit and gives me a purpose. I work with all ages so I’m kept young at heart.
“It’s never been about making money, though; we’ve never made a lot of money. But I guess I know how to survive – I always have.”
This story was first published in the July 2021 issue of SALIFE magazine.
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