Sarah Morrison on donning her black dress again for the Sydney Festival

Landing the plum role of Lisa in last year’s world premiere of Ladies in Black was a dream come true for Sarah Morrison, who received critical acclaim for her performance. Now, Morrison is set to reprise the role of the young, starry-eyed school-leaver when the show finally hits Sydney next month. I started by asking Morrison whether she still looked at department stores the same way…

Ladies in Black is based on a novel by Madeline St John, called The Women in Black, which tells the stories of the sales women who used to occupy the fashionable department stores of Sydney’s past. Has your opinion of department stores changed since doing the show?

Absolutely. So much of the shopping we do nowadays is online. No-one goes to the shops anymore. But this show is about a time when people would go to a department store, pick a frock and then they’d tailor it to your exact measurements – that’s something I’ve never experienced myself.

It really was the peak of customer service. It wasn’t just high-end boutiques that operated that way, it was the norm.

There are times when I’ve found myself wandering around a store aimlessly, not sure what I’m looking for, and that’s when you really do crave that help. You want someone to come up and take over, because they have that level of expertise.

And that’s something that really comes out in the show – these women were experts! There’s a number in the show called ‘Sales Talk’ and it’s actually really empowering because it highlights how these women knew their jobs, knew their products, and they expertly navigated their store on behalf of their customers.

The show is finally coming to Sydney after playing in Brisbane and Melbourne last year. What’s your message to Sydney audiences who are getting to see this production for the first time?

I would implore Sydney to get along and see this show. It’s a story about Sydney. But it’s also an Australian story, put on by Australian (and Kiwi) creatives. It’s incredibly close to home and it’s once in a lifetime that a show like this is built from the ground up, right here on Australian soil.

This is a Sydney story, so the fact that we’re kicking off the tour there is just perfect. The timing is also great because the show’s got the themes of Christmas and sales.

Yes, it’s called Ladies in Black, but there are some men in black too! It’s a story for everyone.

What did you know about ’50s Australia before the show?

Not a whole lot. It’s been a real learning experience!

Back in 1959-60, when the show is set, Aboriginal Australians didn’t even have the vote, and the role of women was so different. The idea that someone would say to a girl in those days that, no they couldn’t go to university because tertiary education is for boys – that’s crazy to me! Luckily it’s so far from my reality.

We’re talking just 50 years ago! I have had a number of women approach me after seeing the show and tell me they saw themselves on stage. They say: “My dad made me go to secretarial college,” or “I had to drop out of school.” For Lisa, the fact that she even finished school was remarkable in itself! It’s absurd that it wasn’t considered necessary for girls to finish their high school education because there was no point to it. And the fact that she wanted to keep studying, and go on to university, that was just outrageous! Lisa is such an important character to have up on stage, from a really important book that more people should know about.

I understand that right before the show premiered in Brisbane there were changes to the script and production. Has the reprisal process been any different?

It’s certainly a very different approach this time. Last time the show was still, in some ways, a work in progress, because Simon (Phillips, the director) has such an incredible mind and he would see different ways to do things so there was a bit of chopping and changing right up until the end.

Now things are pretty much set, but we’ve got five new cast members, which is effectively half the cast. It’s lovely seeing those new people discover the work for the first time. It makes you think about it all over again too, in a different way. They’re bubbling with excitement about stepping into this whole world for the first time which is just beautiful.

Time for a little Character Assassination. Describe Lisa in three words:

Brave. Insightful. Loyal.

What is your favourite line to deliver as your character and why?

“I can’t wait until tomorrow becomes today.”

What’s your character’s favourite flavour of ice cream?

She’s pretty vanilla (laughs)! At the beginning of the show, she’s very vanilla. But of course we see her be taken under the wing of this crazy Continental Magda and she tastes salami for the first time. So I’d say vanilla but probably by the end of the show, it’s some kind of fabulous fruity gelato!

If you could give your character one piece of advice, what would it be?

Keep going, no matter what. Don’t give up. Girls can be heroes too, and they don’t have to be wearing latex.

Finally, if you saw your character in real life, would you kiss them, kill them or cross the street? Kiss, kill or cross the street?

I’d probably kiss her. How could you bear to hurt her?!


Ladies in Black opens in Sydney on 3 January as part of the Sydney Festival. For tickets, visit here.


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