Interview: Sarah Giles, STC Resident Director

By Donna Duggan

Sydney Theatre Company
Sydney Theatre Company
Donna Duggan interviews Sydney Theatre Company’s Co Resident Director Sarah Giles on her new play Mrs. Warren’s Profession.

How are you feeling about the production?

It’s a huge play and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever done. The amount of words, the language and ideas. I’m excited.

How did you decide on Mrs Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw as your first production in your new role as Co Resident Director?

Cate [Blanchett] and  [Artistic Director] Andrew [Upton] approached me last year after I finished the Richard Wherrett fellowship and said they were interested in continuing the relationship and they asked me what I was interested in. Something I’m getting more and more interested in is the history of women and feminism. There is something about this play that really spoke to me, and it shined a light on something that I see as deeply relevant to now and deeply fascinating. They were thrilled as they had just done Pygmalion and I think they saw it as a bit of a test with doing Bernard Shaw differently. There is a notion that you play it very cute with giant gestures, but I’m interested in doing this text in another way that is more subtle, that feels more now.

How do you see the play which was written in 1893 and centres on the relationship between Mrs Warren, a brothel owner, and her daughter Vivie, a college graduate to be relevant today?

First and foremost it’s kind of frightening to think the play was written 120 years ago and some of the things you hear in the play you’ve heard someone say in your life. Then there are themes like the virgin/whore dichotomy that still goes on today. The notions of generational conflict still exist, where you can work your way out of poverty and educate your children but they don’t always live the life you want them to. Also themes of money and ethics and the concept of clean money is still relevant. 

How does feminism come in to the play?

Well it was written at a time when women were gaining independence. The play also looks at how women choose to live their life, and the choices that they are faced with. We are still faced with the same questions of whether you can have a child and a career, and when are you suppose to do this and at what level of independence. It kills me that people think that feminism is about a word. If you think of feminism as saying yes to the following questions how could you not be a feminist?

Do you think that women should have the right to vote?

Do you think that women should be paid the same as men for the same work?

Do you think that women should have the same human rights as men?

This play is an excellent exploration of double standards for men and women in society.

Does the play reflect where you are at in your life at all?

Definitely. I’m astounded at how open people are at asking me “so when are you going to have children?” I’m 28 and I’m just starting to figure out what it is to be a woman. I’m playing with the question of whether you can be feminine and have power? Can you wear and dress and have power? There is a great book called How To Be A Woman by Caitlin Moran and she talks about that women can find it difficult to get dressed in the morning because women are judged more harshly than men on how they appear. They find it difficult to find an outfit to represent who they are going to be that day. It’s interesting when people tear to shreds what Julia Gillard is wearing. I don’t think we ever did that to any other Prime Minister. It is a political play and I haven’t done a political play before, but it also has a lot of heart. It moves me to tears in the rehearsal room. It’s heart wrenching to watch two women who are fighting for independence both want to reject society so they can have their own life. And it is devastating to watch to women who have so much in common feel they have to turn away from each other because of societal conditioning.

With clothes being such an important statement, how did you go about choosing the wardrobe?

How do you approach the text, do you set it now or when it was written? Designer Renee Mulder and I decided to set it in 1890 was preferable as it says something more profound about now. It is interesting that these period costumes with their corsets so something very similar to what we do to ourselves through the gyms and dieting in terms of body shaping. It’s also interesting to watch how these period costumes affects the way the actors walk and talk. It’s another reason we left to play in England because I think it’s useful to look back to understand how we go here.

With this being your main stage debut as Co Resident Director do you feel any added pressure?

I just feel more supported. There is more people around you to support you. It’s extraordinary to have the resources to explore something. It’s great not to be restricted with your vision because of money.

Mrs Warren’s Profession By George Bernard Shaw, Sydney Theatre Company, Wharf 1, February 19. Tickets $55-$95. Bookings (02) 9250 1777. Until April 6. Season extended to July 4-20 July. At Illawarra Performing Arts Centre from April 10-13; Riverside Parramatta from April 17-20.



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