Inside Australia's Red Hot Sydney Theater Company

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A look into why the island nation was born to make theater—hint: actor Cate Blanchett and her husband playwrite Andrew Upton are just two reasons.

In the last 20 years, Australian actors have earned 26 Oscar nominations, a remarkable achievement for a nation with a third of the population of Great Britain and a reputation for brusqueness. To understand the phenomenon, one need look no further than the country's thriving theater scene.

Case in point, Cate Blanchett. The actress is responsible for five of those nominations and is all but certain to snag a sixth for her role in Blue Jasmine, itself strongly reminiscent of the Blanche DuBois she played onstage at the Sydney Theater Company's production of A Streetcar Named Desire.

Since 2008, she and her husband, playwright Andrew Upton, have been the creative force behind the renowned company, which counts among its alumni such top talent as Geoffrey Rush and Tim Minchin, the composer of the Broadway smash Matilda. As his and Blanchett's final season together comes to an end, Upton (who will remain through 2015) pondered the ascendancy of Australia's theater scene. "Theater is so language-driven," he said. "For the actors it's a beautiful combination of influence. English influence, which pushes toward...the whole story and the character's place in it. And then American influence, which is more classically associated with internal motivation."

Australia's theatrical tradition, Upton went on, encourages radical reinterpretations of classical works. The Australian term "larrikinism"a proud disdain for authority and bourgeois proprietyis key to understanding a national identity forged in defiance of rules and the bosses who would enforce them. Ralph Myers, artistic director of the rival Belvoir theater company, agrees. "We're a nation of thieves and shysters who arrived in a country populated by a mob with 40,000 years of storytelling experience," he said. "We were born to make theater."