Sue Nattrass AO, 1941–2022

FL18980220Sue Nattrass in the 1980s. Photo by Rennie Ellis. State Library Victoria, Melbourne.Excellent eulogies, by people more distinguished than I, are already published and I intend neither to emulate nor embellish them. This is my personal recollection of one of our most illustrious colleagues.

I first met Sue Nattrass at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne in 1979. I was a casual mechanist, as green as grass, on Dracula and she was the Production Manager. It was my first properly paid gig and I’m not sure whether I was eager to make a good impression on her or just fearful of making a bad one. Everyone was in awe of Nattrass, and we always made sure to look busy when she was around.

The Director was Sir Robert Helpmann, on a plane of exaltation shared by few. I overheard Nattrass disagree with him over I don't know what:

‘Oh no, Bobby, we aren’t going to do that...’ whatever it was.

The late, great and much-loved Frank Goldsmith was the Head Mechanist, and in those days, no-one knew who, of the bump-in crew, would be asked to stay for the run. Most of the mechs were just knocked off at dinner, and Goldie asked a lucky few to come back that night for the first tech run.

I was one of the lucky few, surprised and thrilled (the more experienced were as surprised but less thrilled) and I will never forget Nattrass’ expression when she saw me that night. She had this look, a tilt of the head, one eyebrow arched above that big craggy nose and a crooked smile.

‘So, you’re young Matt, right?’

‘I prefer Matthew.’ There was a trapdoor nearby and I wished it would open and swallow me.

‘All right then, Matthew.’

If it seems like I’m making this all about me, it’s because the Nattrass I remember is not the trailblazer, the General Manager, the First Woman, the Shaper of the Performing Arts Landscape. She was all that and more, but I remember a true and total professional who knew that the third mechanist from the left was a person with a role, a name and a contribution. I’m just one example of that and it’s a lesson I'll never forget.

She inspired me to seek a living in the Theatre, and when I reflect on her life, I can think of no-one else to whom so many of us owe our profession, no-one who has had so great an impact, or so positive, on the careers of so many. She was an inspiration, but so much more—she opened doors, created pathways, elevated the status of work in live theatre. She helped make jobs into professions.

Many of her accolades refer to Sue’s gender—she was, to be sure, the first woman to occupy roles that custom had made male, but somehow, she seemed, to me at least, to make it irrelevant. She just was she just did. I'm not sure she ever saw a glass ceiling or smashed one—I think she just went upstairs and opened the door.

Trailblazing is so much more than being the first, it’s calling others to follow. I look around now, and I hope I am not merely blinded, but I see Virginia Lovett, Claire Spencer, Anne Frankenberg, Libby Hill, Robyn Nevin, Louise Withers, Toni Glynn, Jane Millet— these are just a few I have known and worked with, or for. I find it hard to imagine any sane person showing dismay, or surprise, or even interest in whether their sex is relevant to the roles they play.

Sue Nattrass cleared the path they tread.

Over the years my path crossed hers only seldom, but when they did, Nattrass always remembered me. When I was appointed Technical Manager at a grand Melbourne theatre where she was a member of the Artistic Advisory Board, she greeted me with real pleasure. I was so overjoyed that I spontaneously embraced and kissed her (I don't think she found the experience to her liking).

At opening night functions, she would ask me to introduce her to the crew, never forgetting that her own career began at the lighting console on a Barry Humphries show before most of them were born.

My last real contact was when I rang to ask if she might wish to speak at Garry Ginivan’s funeral—his was another career that, but for her, might have been much diminished. She spoke with difficulty and declined. Though I knew already that her health was poor it was disturbing to so clearly hear mortality in her voice.

It was at Garry’s funeral that I saw her for the last time, and though she looked ill, almost frail, those near her were bathed in the unyielding strength that seemed always to emanate from her like an invisible aura.

Her wisdom, her understanding, her generosity, were matchless. No-one could be more deeply admired, respected or missed.