Vale Sue Nattrass AO

Nattrass broke new ground for women in the performing arts.

Sue Nattrass AO, a pioneering woman and influential leader in the Australian arts industry, died on Saturday aged 81.

Remembered as generous, down to earth and an immensely supportive mentor, Nattrass was born in Horsham, Victoria, on 15 September 1941.

After secondary school, Nattrass commenced a commerce degree at the University of Melbourne in 1959, where she was quickly drawn towards the lively student theatre scene. She began her professional arts career when entrepreneur Clifford Hocking asked her – initially somewhat reluctantly – to operate the lighting board for Barry Humphries’ first one-man show, A Nice Night’s Entertainment, at the Assembly Hall in Melbourne in 1962.

She was the first woman to ever fill this role in Australia’s professional theatre industry, and went on to break similar ground in the commercial theatre sector, at Arts Centre Melbourne and in arts festivals. Throughout her career she provided leadership, mentorship and support at every turn.

Describing Nattrass as a ‘trailblazer for women in the arts and art itself,’ Victoria’s Minister for Creative Industries Steve Dimopoulos said: ‘Her contribution to the arts in Victoria was immense, and we are a different and better place for her being here. Vale Sue Nattrass, thank you for everything.’

Martin Foley MP, a former Minister for Creative Industries, added: ‘Sue was a trailblazer in so many ways. She led the way for women in the arts and cultural landscape of this nation. She was an inspiration. She will be greatly missed.’

Sector colleagues swiftly followed suit.

Melanie Smith, Arts Centre Melbourne Executive Director Performing Arts, said: ‘Our former General Manager and long-time friend will be sadly missed not only by our Arts Centre Melbourne family, but by the broader performing arts landscape that she shaped so indelibly.

‘Sue started her career with us as an accomplished technician and stage manager and later in her career flourished and impressed in senior leadership roles in the formative years of Arts Centre Melbourne, where she was much loved, respected and admired.

‘Sue was a pioneering leader in the sector, being one of the first women in our industry to take on the most senior of roles, firstly in our organisation as GM and as the first female Artistic Director of the Melbourne International Festival. Sue was tenacious, determined, kind and generous and long after her time with us came to an end, she has remained a great advocate, supporter and friend,’ Smith told ArtsHub.

Across her storied career, Nattrass worked as a stage manager and electrician for the Union Theatre Repertory Company (later known as the Melbourne Theatre Company) and on the Tivoli Circuit, where she became the first woman in Australia to stage-manage major musical productions.

After joining JC Williamson Theatres Limited in 1966, Nattrass became the first woman in Australia to work as Production Manager, Lighting Designer, Executive Producer and General Manager of a commercial theatre company. In her 17 years in these roles, Nattrass used her experience and seniority to offer work to other women in technical areas of the theatre, one of many examples of her generosity and support for others.

In 1983, Nattrass joined the staff of the Victorian Arts Centre Trust as Operations Manager, becoming Deputy General Manager in 1988 and General Manager from 1989 to 1996 – again, the first woman ever employed in these roles.

She went on to become the first female Artistic Director of the Melbourne International Arts Festival for the 1998 and 1999 festivals.

Natrass also served as Interim CEO and Artistic Director of the 2002 Adelaide Festival of the Arts after its US director Peter Sellars resigned following a backlash over his program.

In 2001, Nattrass was inducted onto the Victorian Honour Roll of Women, one of many awards and honours she received in her later life.

She was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia in the 2002 Queen’s Birthday Honours, received the Dame Elisabeth Murdoch Cultural Leadership Award from the Australia Business Arts Foundation in October 2006, in recognition of her ‘contribution to the arts, and her impact and authority in many aspects of Australia’s cultural life over four decades’ and, in April 2007, was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association.

The prestigious Sue Nattrass Award, presented by Live Performance Australia, is named in her honour and recognises exceptional service to the Australian live performance industry.

Funeral details have yet to be announced.

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's National Performing Arts Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on Three Triple R FM, and serves as the Chair of La Mama Theatre's volunteer Committee of Management. Richard is a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival, and was awarded the status of Melbourne Fringe Living Legend in 2017. In 2020 he was awarded the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Awards' Facilitator's Prize. Most recently, Richard was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Green Room Awards Association in June 2021. Follow him on Twitter: @richardthewatts