Well, she wasn’t a Brisbane-ite. Born in Surrey, England in 1878, Barbara Sisley arrived in Melbourne at the age of 11 with her parents and two sisters. Her interest in theatre and literature was sparked from a young age by her father Thomas, who taught elocution (‘elocution’, now that’s a word we don’t hear very often!) and she was one of his pupils. Her ambition to become an actress was realised and she played a variety of roles with Australian touring companies. Until, that is, the sudden disbanding of the theatrical company she was performing with in Brisbane in 1916.
What to do? She’s stranded in Brisbane, down on her luck with no income, but with an enterprising spirit! She rented a house in Petrie Terrace, took in boarders, and set off by tram to Brisbane’s prestigious girls’ schools St. Margaret’s Anglican Girls School at Clayfield and Somerville House at South Brisbane, offering her services as a speech and drama teacher. Let me state now that Miss Sisley was well suited to this private school milieu and impressively well qualified. So, very soon she was snapped up and teaching regularly in elite girls’ schools in Brisbane and the Gold Coast. Financially secure, she decided to call Brisbane home.
Next she established a Speech Training and Dramatic Art private studio in the city and business flourished. And it was Sisley’s studio and her many productions of plays featuring her students, which shaped the first generation of Brisbane actors and an outstanding set of speech and drama teachers such as Rhoda Felgate, Daphne Roemermann and Jean Trundle. These women and their students went on to influence successive generations of actors and speech and drama teachers.
In 1923, feeling the need for a sabbatical and urged on by a desire to keep up to date with what was new in teaching and theatre, Sisley returned to England. There, she furthered her professional studies at Central School of Speech and Drama in London. Whilst in England, she experienced the British repertory movement first hand, seeing productions at the leading repertory companies of the 1920's. It may well have been during this stimulating break that Sisley conceived the idea of setting up a repertory theatre in her adopted town. And of course she would have been well aware of amateur repertory societies already established in Australia’s southern states.
Whatever the motivation, in 1925 she formed the Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society with herself as its Artistic Director (or ‘Senior Producer’ as it was then) and Professor Stable as its first President. Together they led the Society with great success for the next 20 years despite the setbacks of a depression and a world war.
But before we go to Prof Stable’s story, let’s dig a little deeper into Miss Sisley’ character and personality. Here is what we know. She was willowy and strikingly elegant in appearance with beautiful brown eyes and a deep, resonant and commanding voice with oodles of drive, energy and charm. The professional artistic standards she demanded from her many productions gave her a reputation for the cutting remark, balanced thankfully by a sense of humour and a capacity to reserve critical comments for the rehearsal room. Her intelligence, independence of thought and strong sense of herself as a woman with much to offer were attractive qualities; and coupled with her desire to make a contribution to the cultural life of Brisbane, it is no wonder she soon found herself the respected friend and colleague of the Brisbane intelligentsia, and one in particular, J.J.Stable.