Sue Nattrass AO, 1941–2022

Sue Nattrass VACT 1990s 2012.002.1203Sue Nattrass holding a Victorian Arts Centre magazine c.1990s. Australian Performing Arts Collection, Arts Centre Melbourne.As the news of Sue Nattrass’s death reached the theatre community the response was immediate and heartfelt.

So many spoke of her as ‘a trailblazer’, ‘a legend’, ‘a generous leader and a role model’.

And, indeed, she was all these and more to many in the theatre industry throughout this country. 

She was also, as Brett Sheehy wrote so poignantly, ‘a moral compass to so many’.

As the first woman lighting technician, stage manager, production manager, lighting designer, executive producer and general manager of a commercial theatre company and later the Victorian Arts Centre (now Arts Centre Melbourne) she radically changed the landscape for women wanting to work in theatre technical and technical management areas and, crucially, in time, ensured that women were offered work in these areas on an equal basis to men.

This commitment to forcing a radical change to longstanding and entrenched work practices and to do so, as Sue did for all of her professional life, can be a tough, often lonely and thankless task and there were times when Sue felt this acutely, but she never wavered for a single moment.

She was, indeed, a moral compass for us all.

Sue began her professional life in the theatre in 1962 when she was asked by Clifford Hocking to light Barry Humphries first, one-man show, A Nice Night’s Entertainment, at the Assembly Hall in Collins Street. Later she explained, “Clifford Hocking took a gamble and broke tradition by allowing ‘a girl’ to do this job when his lighting man remembered he had a university exam!”

So began the series of ‘firsts’ that set the trajectory of Sue Nattrass’s remarkable life.

Sue moved on to join the Tivoli Circuit where she worked as the first female stage manager. It was considered such an ‘oddity’ at the time that Lloyd Martin, then the Tivoli’s Sydney Managing Director, stole into the back of the Dress Circle to witness the phenomenon of a 22 year old woman working on stage with 35 or so stage staff, all men. As Sue said later, ‘I learnt a lot about the theatre, people and life from these guys—they were tough but once they had accepted me they were very supportive and protective.’

Sue then moved on to J.C. Williamson, as a stage manager and later lighting designer and executive producer of many memorable musicals among them Mame , Oliver, A Little Night Music with Jill Perryman, and How to Succeed in Business starring Nancye Hayes.

It was here at ‘The Firm’, in the course of countless productions, that Sue worked alongside the much loved choreographer and director, Betty Pounder. They shared a deep friendship that lasted until Pounder’s death in 1990. It was their belief that Australian artists were as good as any of the artists the impresarios of the day were importing that saw the extraordinary rise in popularity of artists like Jill Perryman, Nancye Hayes, John Diedrich, John O’May, Julie Anthony and Caroline Gillmer among many, many others.

In 1983, after 17 years with J.C. Williamson, Sue joined the Victorian Arts Centre. George Fairfax had been trying to lure Sue to the Arts Centre for a while but with ‘The Firm’ in difficulties by this time she was reluctant to join. At a later meeting, when their discussions came round to the vision that was held for the Arts Centre and what it might do for the arts and artists in this country Sue was finally persuaded to join and became its Operations Manager.

Shortly after, at the opening of the Theatres Building in October 1984, Sue teamed up with John Truscott to stage one of the great theatrical moments of the Arts Centre’s life. That night, as the dancers of the Australian Ballet took their final curtain call in the State Theatre, the great scenery doors rolled open and twelve hundred people led by a group of Mardi Gras musicians and dancers poured onto the stage. These were audiences from the Playhouse and the Studio, whose shows Sue had timed to finish ten minutes earlier. They had then been led through backstage doors to the scenery dock of the State Theatre where they made a spectacular entrance.

Actually at the time Sue and John Truscott had no idea whether all these people would fit on the stage but they both knew instinctively what a spectacle it would make to have everyone in the State Theatre at the same time for the opening celebrations.

In the weeks before the opening of the Theatres Building Sue also created the lighting design for Graeme Bennett’s magnificent lyrebird front curtain for the State Theatre, a lighting design that continued to be used for many years.

With the legacy of those years with J.C. Williamson, Sue played a key role in launching the Arts Centre’s annual summer musicals. The first, in the summer of 1984, was Pirates of Penzance with Jon English, Simon Gallaher and June Bronhill and an unknown twenty-year old singer, Marina Prior. Much to everyone’s delight Sue also, at this time, brought Betty Pounder into the Arts Centre family to establish the perennially popular Morning Melodies.

It was Sue’s pivotal role that secured funding for the Arts Centre to establish its own orchestra. Relations between the Australian Elizabethan Theatre Trust and its Melbourne orchestra had been strained for some time. Now the orchestra came under the auspices of the Arts Centre and became the State Orchestra of Victoria. Fortuitously this also enabled Sue to explore the possibilities of developing new Australian musicals. Initially there were some necessary negotiations with Actors’ Equity to make it financially possible to spend time on developing new work that might not be produced commercially. The first of these works, Macbeth, with music and lyrics by David Hobson and Graeme Hodge spent three years in development and was successfully recorded.

In 1989 George Fairfax stepped down from his role as General Manager of the Victorian Arts Centre and, as he had always intended, handed the reins to Sue Nattrass.

For the next seven years Sue carved out her own distinguished role at the helm of the Arts Centre but in 1996 having faced, yet again, the slings and arrows too often directed at a woman in a leadership role, this time, specifically, from the President of the Arts Centre’s Trust, she decided enough was enough and stepped down from her role as General Manager. The timing was not good. George Fairfax had been ill for some time and was dismayed by this development though he understood only too well why Sue had come to this decision. George died two months later.

Sue went on to become the Artistic Director of the 1998 and 1999 Melbourne International Festival with an extraordinary line-up of theatre, music and exhibitions in theatres, outdoor spaces and galleries all over Melbourne. After 40 years of creating great events for Melbourne Sue Nattrass knew exactly what to bring to this city.

In 1996, in spite of many long-standing political animosities and, as she remarked, ‘to the fascination of the Department of Foreign Affairs’, Sue brought a group of people from arts centres around the Asia Pacific region to Melbourne to discuss the possibility of setting up exchange programs, training and touring. The outcome was the formation of the Association of Asia Pacific Arts Centres. In a fine legacy to Sue’s innate diplomacy the Association today comprises a robustly innovative family of 76 members from 20 countries.

2002 saw Sue step in to revive a struggling Adelaide Festival when its American artistic director, Peter Sellars abruptly left four months out from its launch. In the same year Sue’s prodigious contribution to the arts was recognised with an Order of Australia. In 2015 Deakin University established the Sue Nattrass Arts Management Fund Scholarship and, to her great delight, awarded her an Honorary Doctorate.

As all her awards attest Sue Nattrass life’s work has become the way we do things now but this moment of reflection on her long years of dedication and deep affection for the theatre industry in which she played such a critical and indispensable role reminds us that it was not always so.

Sue Nattrass, the legend, the trailblazer, the moral compass, the steadfast friend always believed there was more and we could do better. For her love and her commitment to this remarkable human endeavour we call the theatre we have so much to thank her for.

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