Sandra Bates Stepping Down

Sandra Bates will step down as Ensemble Theatre’s artistic director at the end of 2015, having clocked up 30 years in the job. Her successor, the current co-artistic director Mark Kilmurry, will be only the third incumbent since Hayes Gordon founded the company 1958.

Bates is primarily quitting because she suffers from macular degeneration, an age-related medical condition in which damage to retina reduces sight in the centre of the visual field. “Both my parents had it, so genetically I had no choice but to get it,” she says, matter-of-factly. She was diagnosed some years ago when she began seeing “wavy lines”. Bates’s sister, who is three years older, has already gone blind, and Bates’s eyes entered the dangerous “wet” phase last November. “Normally you’d be blind with that within six months,” she says. A new treatment (relating, amazingly, to how bowel cancer is treated), however, has slowed the deterioration considerably. Nonetheless reading is already a challenge and she has to be close to see her actors clearly, so she is thinking 18 months ahead.

Frankenstein 1
Lee Jones as The Monster in Mark Kilmurry’s unforgettabel production of Frankenstein – a 2013 highlight under Bates’s watch. Photo: Heidrum Lohr.

“I’m fine while I’m rehearsing at the moment,” she says, “but I don’t know for how much longer. And it will be 30 years, and that’s probably long enough. I have to say there is a degree of reluctance because I so enjoy it. I’ve done a few plays a couple of times, including the [David Williamson] trilogy which I’m doing now, and I’ve realised I’m actually better at it. I’m actually more help to the actors now than I was when I first did it. So that’s a shame in way, because if your skills actually improve it’s a bit sad that you’ve got to stop. But if I can see well enough I will go on directing, maybe one play a year or something, just to keep me out of mischief!”

While Bates believes she leaves the Ensemble in good shape, she says the GFC aftermath continues to hit subscriber numbers of all performing arts companies. This is a particular concern for the Ensemble, which survives on box office receipts and donations, with no public funding. Bates explains that before she took over in January, 1986 Gordon had recommended she not seek funding, saying it would only cause her grief – advice she immediately dismissed. “And all it did was cause me grief!” she says.

She attended Gordon’s acting classes in 1968 while working as a pharmacist. He soon spotted other skills, and suggested she consider directing. “I thought, ‘Oh, he’s telling me I can’t act!'” she laughs. He made her artistic director of the offshoot Studios Rep Theatre, which, she says, gave her the right to fail. “I do feel a bit sorry for people coming in now, because no theatre company can afford for the director to fail.”

Pivotal to the Ensemble’s success over the last two decades has been David Williamson. “Williamson is our funding,” Bates says candidly. “You can’t argue with the fact that people really want to see his work. You look back over the last 45 years or however long he’s been writing: it’s a history of – admittedly white, middle-class – Australia.”

For Bates plays stand out in her memory more than particular productions, notably Tom Griffin’s  The Boys Next Door ,  Death Of A Salesman , Williamson’s  Jack Manning Trilogy  and his  At Any Cost? . “Just occasionally you do plays that you know make a difference to people’s lives,” she says. “If you look at Williamson’s plays pretty much every one of them is based on tolerance, on walking in the other person’s shoes. People come and they laugh their heads off, but they go home a little wiser.”

Bates recalls that when she was first tried to write a motherhood statement for the funding bodies she asked Gordon what the Ensemble stood for. At the time she found his reply – “Live theatre can and should be a civilising influence in our society” – pretentious, but now embraces it wholeheartedly. “It’s a huge privilege to be able to affect people’s lives in a positive way,” she says, “and I’ve so enjoyed it.”