Diane Cilento

Our Muse and Mentor

Spirited, uncompromising and wild-at-heart, Diane Cilento won international acclaim as an Actress during the 1950’s and 60’s. Her career spanned six decades, and took her from provincial Brisbane to swinging London via New York and Italy.
She grew up in a household filled with noise; she once described it as a ‘milling-about kind of anthill’. With five siblings, both her grandmothers, her mother’s medical surgery, (Lady Phyllis Cilento) and its accompanying stream of patients, and a few young people nurtured under her mother’s wing, there was a lot of chatter and action in the family home. Ever the adventurer, she would hide herself in her mother’s car so as to accompany her on night-time doctors calls to assist with births, and evening galas, and all manner of events that excited her young mind.
After slipping into an audition at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art when she was wagging school as a teenager, she displayed a rare talent and was immediately accepted to study there. And so a tumultuous career began.

Diane was one of those bright, effervescent creative people who could fashion artistic projects seemingly at will.  She appeared in over 30 films, where she injected a much-needed dose of sexuality into the staid 50’s and 60’s film iconography. She was once described as a ‘lick of flame’,
She on to publish two stunning novels, The Manipulator and Hybrid, and an autobiography full of charming victories and delicious anecdotes.
In later years, the Oscar nominated and Tony Award-winning Actress established Karnak Playhouse. She first came to Far North Queensland in 1975. She was filming a documentary in the region and fell madly and deeply in love with the area, with its crystalline seas, jagged mountains, and existential rainforest
Giovanna Volpe, Diane’s daughter, offers the following recollections…
“Karnak life was fluid adventurous and never dull. Mum decided she would follow the path of Sufism a mystical sect.  Of course Mum’s brand of Sufism was dedicated to Ibn al Arabi, obscure, highly controversial, and very demanding. For my mother this quote from Ibn al Arabi was her mystical quest:
My heart can take on any form:
A meadow for gazelles,
A cloister for monks,
For the idols, sacred ground,
Ka’ba for the circling pilgrim,
The tables of the Torah,
The scrolls of the Quran.

My creed is Love;
Wherever its caravan turns along the way,
That is my belief,

“She loved Rumi the great Sufi poet and visited his Mazar in Konya, Turkey even making a documentary about him.  It’s probably not really known that she meditated every morning, and taught many people to meditate, she felt called to put people in touch with their own meaning whatever that might be, and that included artists, Indigenous people, and actors.
“Diane had such an intimate relationship with Douglashire, Diane loved the way the sea meets the rainforest. She absolutely adored living at Karnak, hated leaving except for short holidays, for her it was such a privilege to be able to live amongst such beauty, pretty much every morning she took a dip in the lake, she lovingly planted hundreds of trees, and looked after the Karnak grounds.  She fiercely defended the right of Douglashire to be independent of Cairns.  She was an initiated elder of the local Aboriginal tribe the Kuku Yalanji and supported them in performance and arts education, Karnak is one of the few places where the right to live there was granted to Diane by her tribe, she took that as a great honour and so do Jason and I. Far North Queensland was her life, she never regretted leaving Hollywood saying that she wasn’t prepared to sacrifice her ‘Self’ for favours.”
Diane fostered important opportunities for Artists in her home state of Queensland and mentored emerging industry leaders. Diane created the beautiful Karnak Playhouse using a bequest from her mother, Lady Phyllis Cilento. Tasked with making something practical, she dreamed up a beautiful 500-seat Amphitheater open to the stars.
Following Diane’s death in 2011, probate took a long time due to legal reasons. Now that access to the site has been restored, a new vision is arising. Out of this history and legacy, comes a vision of a performing arts house that nurtures the best of the emerging and established Australian cultural Arts scene.