Focused on celebrating individuals 40 years old and under, the Emily Hensley Award gives past students of Melbourne Girls Grammar the opportunity to share what they’ve been doing since leaving school and inspire our current students and community to pursue their passions.
After receiving a great deal of interest and nominations this year, the School and selection panel decided to award the Emily Hensley Award to two recipients. We are delighted to announce that Sarah Giles (2001) and Dr Francesca Valmorbida McSteen (2005) have been selected as the 2022 Emily Hensley Award recipients. Please join us in congratulating them. Read more about Sarah’s award and her achievements below, and click here to read about Francesca’s nomination and award.
2022 EMILY HENSLEY AWARD RECIPIENT
In her pursuit of making theatre and opera her career, Sarah Giles (Class of 2001), has displayed all the School values in spades.
Since her first experience directing theatre during her time at MGGS, Sarah has committed herself entirely and passionately to the pursuit of being a director. She studied at The University of Melbourne, completing a Bachelor of Arts whilst continuing to pursue her dream of making theatre. She performed in plays at Union House Theatre, directed shows at Ormond College and La Mama Theatre in Carlton, assisted on professional productions at Melbourne Theatre Company (MTC) and performed at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. In 2007, she successfully auditioned for NIDA, where she was one of six directing students accepted to study in 2008. Her graduating production of The Bald Soprano by Ionesco was such a huge success that it landed her a placement at the Griffin Theatre in Sydney where she was their Affiliate Director in Residence.
In 2009 she was also given two notable assisting jobs, both with the Sydney Theatre Company (STC). One was assisting Director Michael Kantor on his production of Optimism, and the other was assisting American film Director Steven Soderberg on Tot Mom. Shortly after this, the Artistic Directors of STC (Cate Blanchett and Andrew Upton) appointed her The Richard Wherret Fellow at STC where she continued to develop her directing and dramaturgy skills. During her fellowship, she assisted many notable directors and continued to make her own work, both within STC and independently in Sydney. Sarah was nominated for a Helpmann Award and a Green Room award for best direction of an Opera for her production of Lorelei.
Sarah’s passion for feminist theatre and stories emerged and she boldly pursued work that shone a light on female protagonists in new ways. As a Resident Director at STC, her first main stage production, Mrs Warren’s Profession by George Bernard Shaw, had return seasons and the lead actress, Helen Thomson, was nominated for a Helpmann award. She began to expand her work to opera and music, working on new productions for Sydney Chamber Opera and Sydney Festival, and making a new work with the Australian Chamber Orchestra. Her interest in feminist theatre expanded to wanting to find an area of theatre that felt not only feminist, but also political and comedic. She co-adapted Accidental Death of an Anarchist by Dario Fo, which was performed at the Sydney Opera House to wide acclaim, and followed up with a new production of No Pay? No Way! also by Dario Fo that was widely lauded before being shut down mid-season by the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020. Her production of Lorelei for Victorian Opera, for which she was both dramaturg and director, toured to Opera Queensland and had a return season at Victorian Opera, performed at The Palais Theatre in St Kilda. In 2022 Sarah’s new production of La Traviata for Opera Queensland, South Australian Opera and West Australian Opera was greeted with wide acclaim and toured from Brisbane to Adelaide, and to Perth.
Sarah’s contribution to society has been made through her choices in the theatre she makes. Her work has been seen by lots of people across Australia and it is in the choices she has made about highlighting important issues that her contribution can be seen. She has pushed women’s stories and political works to the front in new ways. Sarah is a huge advocate for making theatre a place where an audience member can safely and gently be asked big, uncomfortable questions and perhaps have their opinions or prejudices challenged. She wants to make the theatre a place where those who have never seen themselves represented before can finally see their own stories reflected, bringing a greater sense of belonging to this sometimes lonely world. She believes theatre is a great place for discussion, for challenging conversations, and for asking people to look at humanity and each other with compassion. And she does this often through work that has humour placed front and centre. Her work has a specific political humour to it and often lulls the audience into a place of pure joy before asking them big questions about what it is to be human, what is equality, and why it is important to address the kinds of stories we’re telling each other. She has done work with students in WA developing immersive theatre projects in Mandurah, she has taught several years of NIDA open program and inspired countless young directors to pursue their dreams. She is a respected colleague and a generous audience member. She genuinely believes that the theatre and opera is a place where we can come together as one and look at some of the greatest problems we’re facing as a society squarely in the face, without feeling attacked or challenged, where we can grow together and emerge as better people.
The self-discipline required of directors is enormous, and the sheer amount of work required to make a production is staggering. From developing an idea and pitching it, to the tireless work that goes into creating the world and the design, to the hours of collaboration and discussion with her fellow creatives before and during rehearsals (lighting designer, sound designer, set and costume designer, writer, musical director, assistant director, marketing department, artistic director, actors, singers), the self-discipline and energy required is very significant.
The courage it takes to develop an idea for a show and pitch that work to a company is also remarkable, even more so when a director hears “no” and needs to keep pitching and working. In her personal and working life, Sarah has had the courage to challenge stereotypes and continues to do so. As a female director, she is breaking new ground in a relatively male-dominated sphere. In her work choices, she tackles issues that many would ignore. As a young mother, she has been a role model for the many young women who juggle motherhood and careers and has led the way in her own workplaces.
Her work always has a high degree of artistic integrity, as does Sarah as an individual in both the way that she makes that work and the content of the work itself.
Sarah always approaches each production with compassion and respect. Something as collaborative and challenging as theatre simply falls apart when a director does not have these attributes in spades. People want to work with Sarah, they are inspired by her, and her ideas and she respects everyone in the room, from the assistant stage manager, through to the lead actress – and they respect her.