Student-led theatre on campus
We spoke to Daisy Semmler and Danny Yazdani, President and Vice-President of Sydney University Dramatic Society, about theatre life, opportunities for students to get involved and what's next for the Southern Hemisphere's oldest continuing theatre company.
Formally established in 1889, Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS) is the oldest continuing theatre company not only in Australia, but in the Southern Hemisphere.
SUDS has cycled through many changes and many notable alumni – including Virginia Gay and Gough Whitlam – and put on thousands of shows in its over 130 year history. Today, the student-run society and theatre company puts on 10–15 shows a year, as well as hosting open mic nights and theatre workshops.
For current President Daisy Semmler and Vice-President Danny Yazdani, SUDS is an opportunity for students to pursue their love of theatre and the creative arts in an environment where there's space to try things out and learn from a supportive community.
Daisy: I did a production in Year 10 of 'When the Rain Stops Falling,' by Australian playwright Andrew Bovell that involves everything I love about theatre. It really inspired the way you can use a space, and sort of changed the way people who enter that space and become part of it think about their own worlds.
Danny: I thought of Year 11, when my drama teacher introduced us to the Glass Menagerie, a play by Tennessee Williams, and Daisy is laughing because I finally got to realise my love for the gospel rhetoric when I directed a version of it. When I read that play and when I studied that play, that was when I realised I really love theatre and what it has to offer.
Danny: Lots of messages, lots of admin, lots of emails. We run pretty much like a theatre company, I would say.
We do 10 to 15 shows a year, occasionally more, as well as a major production, and all of them need our attention, at least administratively. And then on top of that, working with the other portfolios. SUDS has 12 executive members, all with different responsibilities, and we collaborate with them to create initiatives and events, and to cater to new interests within the society.
Daisy: It's a careful balance managing this annual season that we've built for ourselves. Previously, it was 12 shows a year, meaning every two weeks there was a new show in the space. With COVID, our number of people took a hit. A lot of older generations of SUDS members had graduated, so we had to change the shape of the year a little bit. Yet we're still doing a lot – this year we have 10 shows, a film festival, workshops, summer seasons.
I also think something that Danny and I have really enjoyed about this year is changing the way we communicate with the University of Sydney Union (USU). It's been really great to build a relationship with USU and the University, so we can all work together to highlight the importance of the theatre society.
Danny: A lot of people think that SUDS is just an acting space, but that's totally wrong. We often see actors on the stage and they're the mascots of an entire production, but behind the scenes there's all these other roles contributing to the final piece.
Every show needs a full team. Every show requires set design, costume, lighting, sound, graphics, videography and photography. So, for those who aren't necessarily interested in acting, there are plenty of opportunities – writing, directing, producing – that we need.
Daisy: Even for people who are in their first year of uni and think "I can't make a commitment to a show", they can be audience members, or attendees at fundraisers, meetings and open mic nights, to name a few. We notice the people who are in the space and we definitely feel their energy and support.
There is a sense of belonging here, even if you're not actually in a production. Turning up and and being present, talking to people and engaging with things that we're doing, especially in the democratic process of voting, is important. If you're a SUDS member, you can vote and take part in deciding what shows come on stage, and that's a huge thing to do. Any member can do that. So yeah, there are many, many tiers of of involvement.
Daisy: Danny mentioned it before, but we are a theatre company – we're doing the kind of work that people eventually go into careers and are paid for, but we're doing it at a more grassroots level.
And I think beyond learning how to make a commitment to a show, if you're part of any team that's working towards something, it really teaches you how to cooperate with a shared vision.
Danny: For people who are wanting to go into the industry, whether the performing arts or creative industry, this is very much the space to try it out, and to fail. The stakes are much lower, I would say, because we are a grassroots community who just want to encourage people to try new things.
I had never directed or written a play or acted at this sort of level before coming to SUDS, and I tried all these things and worked out what I was good at what I wasn't good at and learned from there. This is really the place to do that.
Daisy: Absolutely. The process of trying and failing is a communal experience. There may be people who have done a couple more shows than you but it's an ongoing cycle where some people will have more experience and others won't.
I remember when I came in, there were people who could recite shows from the last three years and I felt so lost and out of place. But suddenly, I've become that person, because in the nature of being at university people graduate and people leave, and then you sort of pass it on to the next group. It's community teaching community.
Danny: As a former archivist, that's a tough one, because you look through the archives and you see already how much it's changed. The society used to be this very ad hoc, sort of scattered thing that didn't seem to have a sense of community, and there were different theatrical groups or performing arts groups on campus.
Then suddenly, there was a turn in history where SUDS was birthed as a whole entity. From then on that sense of community grew. So, in terms of an evolving legacy, I hope that sense of community continues as part of it.
I also hope it continues to be a real foundation for future Australian artists, as it has been in the past. If this space can continue to inspire people from all walks of life, present and future, I think that's the kind of legacy I would like to see.
Daisy: There's a show currently on at Sydney Theatre Company directed by Kip Williams and adapted for the stage by Tommy Murphy – both of them were presidents at SUDS. I like to think they probably made a lot of mistakes at SUDS, or they tried things that didn't work or fell a little bit flat, but look at what they're doing and how they're making an impact now.
I think SUDS has created its own essence as a theatre company. I think about theatres that are around us, and I can sort of predict what kind of productions they're going to put on. SUDS has its own energy too, and I think it will continue to have that, as new executives and new creatives come and go.