Australian playwright Suzie Miller has been on campus in Theatre and Performance Studies (TAPS), where she immersed herself in the rehearsal process of her latest play, Jailbaby, produced by Griffin Theatre Company. The development of new plays is part of an artist-in-residency program offered by TaPS, giving students and staff the opportunity to see how theatre is made, and to observe professional actors, writers and directors working together in the rehearsal room.
Miller, a playwright and former human rights lawyer, recently won the Olivier Award in London for Best Play for Prima Facie, a one-woman show about a criminal defence lawyer who faces the legal system as a victim of rape herself. Her new play, Jailbaby questions why we turn a blind eye to sexual violence inside the prison system. Both plays were developed in TAPS in the Rex Cramphorn Studio space.
“It’s been so lovely to welcome Griffin Theatre and Suzie Miller back to the Rex Cramphorn Studio to develop and rehearse her new play, Jailbaby,” said Associate Professor Laura Ginters from TaPS. “We’ve built a long-standing relationship with Griffin, which has had significant benefits for our students both in the course of their studies, but also with post-university pathways – many of Griffin’s current staff are Theatre and Performance alumni!”
New Australian plays are vital, Miller said, because they are a “conversation with the community” and they are made with input from actors, directors, and dramaturgs.
She recalls how Prima Facie was put on its feet quickly, with a fundamental theme of the play emerging on the second day of rehearsals in the Rex Studio. The correlation between the "one in three" law students who won't make it as a practising lawyer and the harrowing statistics of "one in three" women experiencing sexual violence was a crucial insight that shaped the play. Tinkering with scenes, Miller was able to highlight this number, ensuring that the audience would remember the concept of “look to your left, look to your right, it’s one of us”.
The Rex Studio holds a special significance for Miller, as it was where she rehearsed her very first play, Cross Sections, years ago, making her return to it for Prima Facie a deeply meaningful homecoming. The same sense of connection resonated as she rehearsed Jailbaby, which begins previews at Griffin on 7 July.
“The actors in Jailbaby are playing multiple roles so it has unique challenges,” she said. “The questions the actors asked along the way were brilliant, only actors with their remarkable ability to 'feel the script in their body' have the capacity to realise certain inconsistencies or moments where the character needs to say more or do more.”
The presence of students in the rehearsal room brings special insights and perspectives, Miller said. “Theatre Studies students have the unique situation of being close to the study of the work as well as the experience of the work,” she said. “The slight arms-length distance from the production means they can offer honest and true feedback as a first audience, but so too can they comment on specifics like dramaturgy in the space, the way the script resonates, and specific questions around characters' arcs and insights.”
“When students are present, it keeps us all on our game,” she said. “Students often offer clarification and insights that, because the artists are so close to the work, we haven't seen yet. I like to remind the students that we are all part of the same theatre community, so everything is relevant, and no question is too simple.”
Through the artist-in-residency program, Griffin Theatre Company opens their process up to students taking either Rehearsal Studies in Semester 1 or Dramaturgy in Semester 2. In addition, Honours students have written casebook analyses on several Griffin projects (from Mark Friend’s 1998 casebook on The Monkey Trap by Glenda Adams to Hayden Moon’s 2019 case book on Splinter by Hilary Bell.)
Undergraduate theatre student, Apsara Lindeman says she saw Prima Facie’s opening night at the Griffin Theatre back in 2019. “I loved it so much that I did excerpts from Prima Facie for my Year 12 IB Theatre performance.”
Millers believes established theatre artists owe it to the next generation to pass on the culture of 'making theatre' so students can observe the amount of trust, respect and deep-thinking that is required between creative collaborators.
“Once you have been in a room and you 'see' this in action, you are thereby someone who is part of the theatre industry,” she said. “I love my profession so much, I want the students to feel the magic of the space when we are creating something new. To see how much work is involved, yet how much fun and excitement there is in it also.”
“I know how hard it was to break into theatre, and I think being trusted in a space where the art is being created is the first step to learning how to be part of professional theatre,” Miller said. “The careful thinking, honouring of each other and time as a group is on display and the respectful interactions that take place within that space. This is a great learning experience for theatre students, and a great way of continuing to break down barriers between academia and the profession.”
“I feel privileged to think that my work can offer something that informs their professional creative practice.”
Top photo: Associate Professor Laura Ginters from Theatre and Performance Studies (TaPS) with playwright Suzie Miller. All photos: Stefanie Zingsheim/University of Sydney.