Sue Rider is an award-winning director, writer, dramaturg, and actor. She has worked in Australia, New Zealand, Vietnam, Nigeria and the UK in opera, mainstream, independent and community theatre, theatre for young people and theatre in galleries. From 1993 to 2000 she was Artistic Director of Brisbane’s La Boite Theatre, leading the company to a national reputation with a distinct focus on the development of Queensland artists and the creation of contemporary Australian works.

She spoke to Australian Stage’s Simon Piening about her latest project, Brontë, with independent Brisbane company ThreeSisters – based on the lives of the famous Brontë sisters.

Sue Rider For more than 20 years, you’ve worked as a professional writer, director, teacher, dramaturg, and actor.
Can you recall the first performance you ever saw?

Yes, it was The Sleeping Beauty in a large tent in a local park in Birmingham, England, where I grew up. I must have been 4 or 5. I was spellbound – until we children in the audience were taken up to look at the baby in the cradle – and it was a doll! I was shocked and couldn’t get this out of my mind for the rest of the performance. My first experience of shattered theatrical illusions…

How did you first get started working in the theatre?
I had a wonderful primary school teacher who saw through my inhibiting shyness and cast me in a leading role (as a scarecrow) at age 9. I was terrified and worked like mad to get it right. But I was not prepared for the extraordinary electric connection between myself and the audience as I spoke my first lines. It was the most exhilarating release and sense of power. From then on I was hooked. I joined a youth theatre (where I worked momentarily with a young Mike Leigh who was experimenting with improvisation in theatre), acted in whatever I could and directed my first production, Ionesco’s 'The Bald Prima Donna', followed by ‘Waiting for Godot’. (I began with the easy stuff!!) I continued to act and direct in amateur theatre while studying English Literature at the University of York and finally made the decision to work in theatre when I went to Manchester to do a Graduate Diploma in Drama. I spent a year in Leeds mainly as an actor for MA student productions and then found myself in Kano, Nigeria with husband, Jim Vilé, assisting him to set up a community dance/drama company and teaching. 

After two and a half years in Kano, we went to Adelaide where, following some reviewing work and odd bits of acting and directing, I began The Acting Company of SA, a no-frills touring company dedicated to creating quality theatre for young people. I did this full-time for five years and it was where I really honed my skills in directing and began to test myself as a performance writer. From that time on, I have never worked at anything but theatre.

You’ve worked with mainstage companies like Opera Queensland, Queensland Theatre Company and of course you were Artistic Director of La Boite Theatre, but you also have a clear commitment to small-scale independent and community theatre.
Do you have a preference for working in large or small-scale theatre?
What do the smaller companies offer that you can’t get from the ‘big’ companies?

I love the scale and resources offered by the ‘big’ companies. It is very satisfying to have the full force of wardrobe, workshop, administration, marketing, etc in support of one’s vision, to let the imagination fly, to test one’s limits. But I have never been wedded to wealth and riches! Deep down, I’m a ‘bare boards and a passion’ sort of person. I believe that theatre can happen wherever there is a skilled performer with something to say and an audience prepared to give them a go. I think it was this belief that took us through the first couple of years at La Boite. When I was appointed at the end of 1992, La Boite was a very small company with barely any money and an uncertain future, but what it did have was a wonderful theatre space at Hale Street, small enough to support the tiniest detail, and in-the-round, which meant it didn’t need elaborate sets. We poured passion and imagination into our bare boards in those early years and built a style of Australian contemporary theatre that depended on the dynamism of the performer to explore a diversity of subject-matter and viewpoints. As we became more successful, the company graduated to ‘small to medium’ and the boards were not so bare. We probably lost sight of the passion from time to time, but our goal was still the creation of theatre that mattered.

That’s why I take on independent projects. They bring me back to earth, take me out of my comfort zone, remind me why I do theatre at all. People lay themselves on the line in independent theatre. Everyone is juggling outside work, trying to survive, and yet their belief in the theatre they are doing is absolute. Blood, sweat, tears and passion.

You’ve been a strong advocate for the arts in Queensland and there seems to be a common thread in your work of utilising arts/theatre to empower people – whether it be young people, women or community groups.
Can you tell us about that side of your work? Why are the arts/theatre so important?

When I was in Nigeria I saw for the first time that the arts could be a part of everyday life. Before that, I’d always loved the arts, but thought of the fine arts in galleries and theatre closed away in a darkened auditorium. In Nigeria beautiful pots were made to eat out of – if they broke, you made another. Theatre was on the streets, in people’s compounds, celebrating the living as well as the past. This had a profound effect on me. I began to see accessibility to the arts as every person’s right and became increasingly conscious of how our theatre was failing to reflect the depth and diversity of society. This influenced my choice of projects and my writing and when I was in a position to program plays I tried to include works about or involving people whose stories were not usually represented in the mainstream.
{xtypo_quote_right}What I love about Polly Teale’s play is that it takes the Brontës out of the museum and turns them into living, joking, squabbling human beings, a family like any other{/xtypo_quote_right}
In your time as Artistic Director at La Boite Theatre, you focussed on the development of Queensland artists and the creation of new Australian works.
How has the Queensland theatre scene changed over the past 20 years?

20 years ago marked a turning-point in Queensland when Brisbane woke up to the world and realised its own potential with World Expo 88. Besides Expo itself there were projects in celebration of the Bicentennial, like my own The Matilda Women (a play about nine early Queensland women) and a wonderful festival of Australian plays at QPAC. Aubrey Mellor came to the helm of QTC, brought a new emphasis to Queensland artists and shifted the programming balance towards more Australian – and Queensland – works. In the next ten years there was an explosion of energy as Queensland performing artists found a new confidence and companies like Street Arts, Rock’n’Roll Circus, Kooemba Jdarra, La Boite, Access Arts, Expressions Dance Company, Zen Zen Zo, Frank, Contact, Backbone Youth Arts, JUTE in Cairns, Tropicline in Townsville – and more - either sprang up or strengthened. It was an exciting time.

Ten years later, some of those companies have gone or changed, more have sprung to life and Brisbane Powerhouse and Metro Arts have taken on important roles as supporters of new and developing works. Metro in particular provides hundreds of independent artists with space for all stages of creative development, and it is in their Independents season that Brontë is playing.

You are currently directing the Australian premiere of Brontë – which explores the private lives of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne Brontë. Can you tell us about the play?
What I love about Polly Teale’s play is that it takes the Brontës out of the museum and turns them into living, joking, squabbling human beings, a family like any other, full of sibling rivalry, parental favours, expectations, disappointments and a fierce love that can tip over into fury at any moment. What distinguishes this family is its love of ‘the word’. Centred around the solidity of a kitchen table, the play blurs the edges between past and present, interrogating the creative friction between the pressures of living and the compulsion to transform the events of the day into that whole other timeless world of the word.

What attracted you to the project? Were you a fan of the Bronte sisters’ writing?
When ThreeSisters Productions approached me, the Brontë connection first piqued my interest. In my York Uni days, when I needed time to myself, I’d travel by train, bus and foot to walk around the Brontës’ house in Haworth and out over the moors, imagining myself as one of them! I’d usually be Emily – her poems and novel, Wuthering Heights, held special attraction for me - and, would you believe, my first child was born on Emily’s birthday, 30 July. A boy, though!

But the script had to be right. I knew Polly Teale’s work with Shared Experience in England. I read and loved the play, so all that remained was for me to meet ThreeSisters. I’ve already indicated that I have always preferred to work with people for whom theatre really matters. Rebecca, Hannah and Kathryn impressed me with their passion and sheer professionalism the moment I met them. That has continued right through the production and to every member of the company. Everyone is giving their all. It’s been a joy.

What’s next for you?
Last year I completed an Arts Queensland Creative Fellowship during which I researched and developed a theatre work The Pink Twins drawing on the rose-coloured lives and work of Brisbane identities Dorothy and Moyia O’Brien, identical twins who lived together all their lives, wore pink, lived in a pink house, drove a pink car and founded the Sunshine Welfare and Remedial Association for people with disabilities. Following a creative development workshop, composer John Rodgers is extending the work musically and the production is planned for next year with twins Anni and Maude Davey and Heather and Marjorie Michael as performers, together with a choir from SWARA.

ThreeSisters' production of Brontë opens this week at Metro Arts, Brisbane. Further information»

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