Sheridan Harbridge began her love affair with the theatre by being among “the worst audience you can imagine”.
Brought up on a farm in country Victoria, one of seven children, she grew up without much theatre in her life.
When Bell Shakespeare toured a production of Romeo and Juliet to Melbourne, she busied herself making paper planes out of the programs with her siblings and flinging them at the stage.
“We were awful, like the worst. I just feel sick thinking it about now. I probably know those actors!”
Twenty years on, Harbridge is now an established theatre figure, thanks to her work in the premiere production of Muriel’s Wedding: The Musical, and acclaimed recent productions including Belvoir’s The Sugar House and The Dog/The Cat, Griffin’s Kill Climate Deniers and the hit Hayes Theatre Company production of the musical Calamity Jane.
Harbridge is now starring in a new Australian play, Suzie Miller’s Prima Facie, the story of a barrister who finds herself on the other side of the flawed judicial system weighted against women in cases of sexual assault and harassment.
The play won the 2018 Griffin Award and is directed by Lee Lewis (Mary Stuart, The Literati).
Thrilling and daunting
“It’s quite thrilling for me and a bit daunting because I know this one is going to be hard,” Harbridge says. “The content is very confronting but ultimately, I think it’s a call to arms, a call for change. And that’s always the hardest theatre to make because, if you get it right, it should be difficult to watch.”
Tessa, Harbridge explains, isn’t cut from the usual cloth. “She’s ambitious and driven but she’s also an outsider. She’s the only person in the building that hasn’t come from a family of barristers or judges. She’s come from the western suburbs and her background is lower middle class. She’s fought tooth and nail to get where she is.”
For Harbridge, her role in Prima Facie is also a continuation of her specialisation in creating new work.
“I trained at NIDA where you spend a lot of time being taught to be an interpreter as an actor. But maybe five years out of there, I realised what I really want to do is make theatre and focus on doing new work.
“I think one of my strengths is in helping new plays get onto the stage. It’s not a career choice – it’s the tougher road – but it’s something I’m good at.”
For example, Harbridge spent the better part of two years working with the creators of Muriel’s Wedding. “I would go in every few weeks to work on a song or help develop a character. The whole process was really rigorous and it was so rewarding to have had a hand in making such an iconic piece of work.”
Harbridge is best known for her comedy and musical skills (“Rock Eisteddfods taught me everything I know,” she laughs). Prima Facie is a showcase for her serious side.
“I feel a real responsibility to this one,” Harbridge says. “I don’t think there is anyone who hasn’t, in some way, been touched directly or indirectly by sexual assault. And I think it’s essential for people to see work articulating that experience, theatre that shows people having the courage to come forward with their stories. Hopefully, it will help others to come forward and tell theirs.”
Prima Facie plays at Griffin Theatre from May 17-June 22 and Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, July 3-6