All posts by Elizabeth Surbey

Elizabeth had a passion for theatre and performing from her youth and was a keen contributor to the joint school musicals- mostly the Gilbert and Sullivan romps. Once she headed to university this passion dominated with a 4 year stint at UNE in Armidale encompassing both performance and directing as major components of her Double Major in Drama and Major in English Literature. The year after graduation she found herself not only at the newly formed Actors' Centre but also teaching high school drama. She is still there, teaching, directing, writing for high school Drama and on the side across the years has performed in small season productions at Q theatre and directed several productions for the Short & Sweet program being a part of the inaugural group. Keenly she has represented other drama educators as committee member then President of Drama NSW also representing NSW on the National Committee at Drama Australia National Conferences. She completed her MA a decade ago also with a focus on Drana & Theatre at UNSW. She is now a mum of two younguns and recently directed her first two Musicals - perhaps now coming full circle in the scheme of things. She also fairly recently was contributing and consulting editor on a major Drama text for Cambridge Uni Press "Drama ReLoaded". More than anything she loves theatre and is very keen to share her experiences with this forum as well as with her children - developing their passions too.


Photography by Marcos Dos Santos

A story of love, loss and flight from playwright Joanna Erskine and circus artist Missy McKinnon. Lenka and Sam decide to make a new life together, but a devastating loss drives them apart. When a doctor diagnoses Lenka with “gravity”, she sets out to discover how she can be free. A playful and poignant physical exploration of the taboos in love, loss, conception and family.

So is the brief outline for the physical theatre production. Part of the tenth anniversary Sydney Fringe festival, this production was a many years dream for the director Missy. A personally resonant story of her own miscarriage, this narrative is recognition of so many more women’s lives. Captured here in a beautiful and heartfelt story of family and personal journey. 

The dynamic cast are built from the mould of circus and clown. The musician deliberately joins a parade of the developing characters. Her music adds to the path of the characters along with the audience response. Mama and Papa deliver the purpose of the narrative as any clown can in the circus ring. The parents’ dialogue in grummelot/gibberish that speaks to every member of this audience. They are our own families, or the neighbours over the back fence of the inner west, they are the invasive parents nosying into their child’s life in both a provocative and yet ultimately powerful way. They only want the best for their child. 

Pressure and encouragement from Mama and Papa lifts Lenka with a positive push and yet becomes a real part of the conundrum into which she finds herself falling. There is so much within this gently told visual, physical tale that every member of the audience can relate to. Beautifully filled with metaphor for new love and lifted spirits. For the romance and the loss each as sudden. Each knocks the young lovers from their feet. How can they get through this? 

The hour travelled seamlessly as the story unfolded. The lifts and love through trapeze, the loss through an almost magicians juggling toss of the apple ‘ball’ seed. The narrative is at once so gently resonant. We all hold our breath as Sam and Lenka are lifted by each other’s strength. They will survive is the message left with me. The circus, clowning, physical theatre is a perfect vehicle for a subject of so much nuance. Performances of all the talent no less remarkable than that of the initial storytellers, Joanna and Missy. Bravo!

DIAGNOSIS : GRAVITY was performed on the 1st & 4th September at the Legs On The Wall Hub, 91 Canal Street, Lilyfield.

Diagnosis: Gravity

Written by Joanna Erskine

Directed by Danielle McKinnon

Lenka by Catherine Wait

Sam by Sam Plummer

The Musician  – Kate Reid

Mama by Debra Batton

Papa by Ira Seidenstein

Photography by Marcos dos Santos



This adaptation by William Zappa after Homer, has been 7 years in the making. Zappa has researched 17 translations, travelled far and wide, testing the work. He always knew Homer came from a tradition of professional guilds of storytelling, the words were meant to be heard. So now with the start originally a commissioned radio drama, the four actors devote themselves to the storytelling with their voice their primary instrument but delivered as if a staged reading with script in hand, moving in and out of the central sand circle.

I must immediately acknowledge only a limited visit to Homer as a student of literature. It is the oldest western writing surviving, attributed to Homer (mostly – but that is the debate around many very old writers Shakespeare included). 3000 years old. Written in the mid eighth century BCE. Earlier than the festivals of Greek Tragedy with which we might be a little more familiar. So it sits, Epic, it is after all still 24 books told in 3 parts and 9 hours. But Zappa has allowed intentionally in his direction (supported by Sport for Jove and specifically Damian Ryan) to become a resonance of our very modern world. Attempting to make the world of Homer’s Iliad, at once, an Australian Soap Opera, an HBO series with recaps and reminders, and I thought inconsistently, a colloquialism that ‘played’ with his characters; be they kings, princes or indeed gods. Continue reading THE ILIAD – OUT LOUD…PARTS ONE, TWO AND THREE


This Australian premiere production is a  co-production involving Quiptake, Pandemic Theatre and the Theatre Centre, Canada. DAUGHTER, written and performed by Adam Lazarus and directed by Ann-Marie Kerr,   is a collaboration uniting the three organisations’ shared values of complex, challenging and aesthetically driven critical performance to provoke and hold space for civil discourse.

So here we are. In the middle of #metoo and mens whiny #methree, cos they don’t want to miss out. Because really they don’t understand. Adam Lazarus in developing this piece of theatre with his training and background in the ‘buffon king’ and hailed as Toronto’s favourite nasty clown; has taken us down a very ugly nasty road upon which he declares we have all travelled – or indeed travel still. The Bouffon, or clown, the fool of Shakespeare’s Lear, are all a little too blunt and too honest and too real. Too real to be believed. Yet Lazarus takes us on this inane and simple journey of real truths. His truths. Credible and funny and relatable. Then he gives a little slap or a digging in the ribs hard nudge. Too hard and too fast. No that is not “us”, we would never, could never. No don’t do that, don’t say that – we gasp and wince and scrunch our faces in distaste. One man near the front leaves. The two women in front of me whisper and give each other looks, then they too exit.

So yes, the subject matter is intense. Grotesqueries and extraordinary experiences are Adam’s themes of choice. Yet he relay’s them in such a way, teasing his audience along. “You’ve done that? You know exactly what I mean?” Then quickly singling out someone with a deliberate finger point or a look and making it clear we are all in on it. Been there done that. But we haven’t. I haven’t. I can’t even stomach the ideas. Who near me can? I wonder. Fleetingly. Inside I ‘know’ this is theatre but Adam is telling a real story isn’t he. His story. I think. I don’t like it. I don’t like him. Continue reading DAUGHTER : CONFRONTING THEATRE AT ITS SHARPEST


THE MAIDS By Jean Genet (translation by Bernard Frechtman) – Downstairs Belvoir – Glitterbomb in association with 25A Belvoir

When Genet invested the time in his creation of the plotting maids, he was investing more in the idea of a theatre of power and ceremony. There is the master slave relationship between the two maids and their mistress, Madame.  The maids themselves are siblings, struggling with each other.

Tonight’s ceremony involves a sacrifice, as each character vies to play the queen and the willing victim. Roleplay forms the structure and devices of Carissa Licciardello’s The Maids. She is deliberate in her exploration of who holds the power in any relationship and how such power plays are exchanged and manipulated. Continue reading THE MAIDS: SIBLINGS STRUGGLE UNDER A WATCHFUL GAZE


Above- John Gomez Goodway in The Peasant Prince. Pic by Heidrun Lohr. Featured pic- Li Cunxin, the author of Mao's Last Dancer, whose memoir has now been adapted as a work for children by Monkey Baa.
Above- John Gomez Goodway in The Peasant Prince. Pic by Heidrun Lohr. Featured pic- Li Cunxin, the author of Mao’s Last Dancer, whose memoir has now been adapted as a work for children by Monkey Baa.


My son was entranced and my daughter was mesmerised. I was drawn in by the magical telling of a powerful story told so simply and so well.

Tim McGarry the director writes: ‘Li Cunxin’s life journey feels like a fairytale, a ‘rags to riches’ story about a boy who was propelled from a life of utter poverty onto the world stage to become one of the greatest ballet dancers of our time. It is all of this and so much more – a story of fate and agency, pain and loneliness, of an astonishingly determined spirit who overcame adversity; an emotional and physical struggle to simply survive.’

A powerful bookend – the grown Li Cinxin is waiting in the wings to dance, his parents out front. Front and centre. From then we revisit Li Cunxin as a child. So effectively, a boy and his kite and his father’s story of the little frog stuck down a well – and the writers have brilliantly, for their young audience captured a dream that lights a spark of a fire in a young boy – of hopes and dreams. If he fulfills these, he will bring so much happiness to his family. And yet he will lose his family as well.

Each scene transforms from the last in location, energy and pace by the mastery of David Bergman’s media design image backdrops. These too morph from time to time. From the allegory images of Mao and his young charges, that he will mould and own.

Clever devices of Designer Michael Hankin, that invite the actors into their world, spread and dissolving across the curtain – behind the proscenium box. A simple shadow play behind at times and interwoven effectively by a supportive score from Daryl Wallis. Within this box is a lifetime of story, a farm house, a school, a dancer’s torture and a dancer’s tears and fears.

Gliding effortlessly across the story box are the most dynamic and clever story-teller four. Jonathan Chan, Jenevieve Chang, John Gomez Goodway and Edric Hong. John as Li Cunxin, leaps from a frog boy through to the growing dynamic dancer, with his genuine awe of the inspired youth. Jenevieve is the aspirational mother who loves him more than her own life and then so masterfully reveals the school teacher revering Mao through the tough and dominating dance instructor and then the American philanthropist benefactor.

Jonathan Chan is a generous and mostly patient father, then almost unrecognisable as the bureaucrat. Edric is so light as the comic joke-about brother, the talent scout and then the American choreographer who sees in Li Cunxin more than the young Li see’s in himself.

I ask my 9 year old daughter how she connected with the story and she completely grasped the young boy and the fathers frog story and being stuck in a well. Also for her most memorably the scene of Li Cunxin being tested for the ballet – could he jump high enough – could he balance – could he ‘steal’ himself to be chosen. chosen for opportunity no matter what that was.

For my son, 11 year old, himself a young actor and dancer, he was delighted in the telling and the technique, but I asked him about the emotions he shared, in his words, “even though it seemed the impossible for him to do, the impossible, he did it.”

The pace was perfect, a story so full, told in an hour. We all held our breath as Li Cunxin’s story unfolded, and then finally again with the dancer before his parents and the boy leaps to become the curtain image of light and he becomes like the kite – so powerful in flight, so bright under the sun. Lifted right out of the well.


Prehistoric Aquarium @ Carriageworks

Erth_Prehisoric Aquarium.Kronosaur + kids

Erth and their puppets are back! Having been several times to visit Erth’s Dinosaur Zoo, we were looking forward to the latest incarnation.

Our host Drew- casually interacts with his audience as they settle. The target group, the younger audience, are encouraged to sit on the carpet area at the front before a ‘live’ giant screen that takes us into the prehistoric aquarium world.

Drew disarms and makes new friends. He is brightly coloured and his demeanour of the informal is also linked to his lack of real knowledge. Then as the show begins he is interrupted by Catherine the resident marine biologist to secure the facts. This attempt at layering the information is quite effective. Continue reading Prehistoric Aquarium @ Carriageworks

The 52-Storey Treehouse @ Sydney Opera House

Drew Livingston as terry Johnny Nasser as Edward Puppethands and James Elliot as Andy
Drew Livingston as Terry, Johnny Nasser as Edward Puppethands, and James Elliot as Andy. Production photography by Branco Gaica

This is the ultimate kids’ theatre and enlivened even more by the theatre bringing to life Andy and Terry’s ‘Storey’ books.

The audience  is a mix of fans, those between-age (mostly boys like my son) who read or have read the books, and then there is a younger brood (whose parents in tow enjoy the targeted jokes). These younger crew are spellbound by the physical stage action, songs and characters.

Such characters who might not exist outside the darkened realm, are cleverly revealed in multiple role playing of the versatile four person cast. They expertly justify each need to change and be changed that the audience goes with each transition without a blink. Of course the disguising machine “Diguise-a-tron-5000” can make so much more of transformational acting of the minimal cast, and adds an element of fun with Jill appearing yet Terry’s voice being heard to her lip synch.

Richard Tulloch (adaptor), himself once a teacher, really ‘gets’ writing for this young audience (and their parents). He has adapted the latest book well and filled the stage with effective puppetry and catchy songs and all the obligatory content of the books for context. There’s stupid Terry, Andy on his birthday, Jill and her expertise and another fellow who is all things in between including Mr Big Nose.

Tulloch layers the piece with significant important green messages appropriate to a Theatre -in-Education genre that he has traditionally written for. The hungry caterpillar eats all in his way- including the flying fried egg car but all for a purpose on its way to cocooning chrysalis and its metamorphosis into the magnificent butterfly.

Jill is ever present as the expert and most knowledgeable clear thinking device. The standard young people’s dilemma’s remain, a sleeping beauty might be awoken with a kiss – Terry is degusted and Andy ‘coolly’ offers to do the deed – the readers of the books understand his ‘crush’ on Jill (my son whispers this to me as we witness ‘the kiss’).

My boy loved it, he loved knowing the narrative and the characters and enjoyed the telling, including the fun and adventure.

My daughter is a little younger and hasn’t read the books, though she’s seen the earlier live on stage ‘storeys’. When I asked her about the best bit, she loved the junior humour- “when they tested for his fingerprint (fingerprint recognition) and it didn’t work, and his face didn’t work, but the machine knew them both by their farts”. She got right into the pantomime fun with a chase sequence through the audience to her delight.

At an hour this is precisely the length and depth of content for a range of younger viewers. The books themselves take considerably longer to read with manifest young person indulgences along the way. But with this performance we never got lost across the changes is time and space and were enticed and intrigued throughout. What more could we ask for?!

THE 52-STOREY TREEHOUSE is playing the Playhouse at the Sydney Opera House until Sunday 4th October.


A play by Richard Tulloch
Adapted from the book by Andy Griffiths & Terry Denton
Artistic Director: Julian Louis
Director: Liesel Badorrek
Set / Costume Designer: Mark Thompson
Lighting Designer: Nicholas Higgins
Sound Designer: Ross Johnston

James Elliot
Sophie Kesteven
Drew Livingston
Johnny Nasser

Production Manager: PJ Gahan
Company Stage Manager: Sharna Galvin
Production Technician / Assistant Stage Manager: Jeremy Page
Assistant Stage Manager / Audio: Olivia Benson