Well-known by STC audiences for her work as an actor in plays including Black is the New White and A Cheery Soul, Shari Sebbens is making her directorial debut as our Richard Wherrett fellow with a vivid new production of the Australian classic The 7 Stages of Grieving.
What was your first experience of The 7 Stages of Grieving?
I read it in high school and then I used the monologue “Murri Get’s a Dress” to get into NIDA. I then did “Nan’s Funeral” to get out, so it’s been a part of my life for almost twenty years now. It was my first time reading a story that was voiced by an Aboriginal woman. I remember thinking “Wow, the actor who performs this must be so amazing” and at the time it was Deborah Mailman, so I wasn’t wrong.
You’ve described this play as an almost rite of passage for Indigenous women performers. Why do you think this is the case?
Oh, look, the sad and immediate reason is because nothing has really changed. It came out of a desire to be heard, a call to arms, a Black woman using a theatrical space to make her demands for a better country for her people – that is still so immediate. Speaking technically, this play demands a certain dexterity of its actor, it demands you to show off, to show us why you’re up there. It’s a great play for great actors. I think that’s why it’ll never go away, it’s an open, warm way to say “look how phenomenal Black women are.”
You’ve worked with Elaine Crombie before. Why did you want her to play this role?
Elaine is such a natural on stage and screen. She is one of the funniest people you’ll meet and she’s been killing the comedy game a lot over the last few years. I was really excited about mixing that skill with her ability to tap into absolute truth and pathos. Not to mention she’s fierce and extremely fun to be around! Her energy is infectious, her warmth radiates and she’s not afraid to challenge the people around her. I reckon if this play was a person it’d be Elaine.
The 7 Stages of Grieving first premiered in 1995 – almost 25 years ago – why has it turned into such a classic of Australian theatre and how are you planning to broach everything that has happened in those 25 years?
Black theatre is an excellent way to track the changes this country has made. I think when people come to this script they see a need to keep saying what Deb and Wesley were saying all those years ago. Sad but true. It’s a classic because it also has such an iconic form to it that’s able to be interpreted so many different ways by each team that approaches it. As for the last 25 years, I think it will be a real filtering process. What are the biggest things that have happened? What do Elaine and I feel strongly about? We can’t possibly as two women speak for the whole of Aboriginal Australia, we can only speak for ourselves and hope that people relate to our experiences and find the inspiration for change in our humanity.
What do you love most about stepping into the director's chair?
It’s been quite liberating to get out of my own head, my own ego and start thinking big picture – that’s not something that is required of you as an actor. The directors that have left the greatest impact on me are all excellent collaborators and that’s what I love most about theatre, the collaboration. I admire the effort and skill it takes to keep a room inspired and excited so they can offer up a complex conversation to audiences with absolute clarity.
The 7 Stages of Grieving, 23 May – 13 Jun, Roslyn Packer Theatre.