SUDS’ Orlando promises a much-needed space for gender diversity

Orlando will be SUDS’ first main production of 2020.

“This one person is male; is female; is both; is neither. This one person lives for five centuries but is only 36, and that’s normal. This one person loves poetry but sucks at writing it.”

It would be difficult to give a play as enticing of a description as Sean Landis did for Orlando, his directorial debut for SUDS. I sat down with him and designer Rosie Wylie on Friday afternoon, as the first week of auditions and interviews drew to a close.

Not only does he paint a humorous and multi-faceted portrait of the play’s protagonist, but he also touches on the play’s immeasurable significance to the queer community. According to Landis, this production will be a breath of fresh air to Australia’s longest-running theatre company.

With performances dating back to 1883, Sydney University Dramatic Society (SUDS) has long been a welcoming hub for artistic expression and diversity.

Many active members of the society, however, feel that there is still work to be done in ensuring the inclusion of creatives from a wider scope of backgrounds – specifically, those of a non-cisgender identity.

This lack of representation is what the team behind SUDS’ first main production of 2020 – ‘Slot 1’ – are hoping to rectify as they bring Sarah Ruhl’s stage adaptation of the seminal novel Orlando to the Cellar Theatre.

Describing the play as a “celebration of plurality”, Landis wants the production to showcase the beauty of fluidity. “People are many things, and that’s fun, and that’s a good thing.”

Written by Virginia Woolf in 1928, Orlando is a satirical ‘biography’ of its eponymous character, who undergoes a sex change at the age of thirty-six and proceeds to live at the same age for several centuries.

Throughout the play, Orlando encounters a number of fictional and historical figures, becoming romantically involved with several of them, all while attempting to finish a poem about an oak tree.  The eccentric and larger-than-life qualities of the text are what Sean and Rosie, as well as producer Emily Henderson, want to emphasise through this production.

Landis and Wylie both performed in this year’s Sydney University Queer Revue at the Seymour Centre. Both found it to be “the best sense of queer community” they’ve come across and are endeavouring to create a similarly camp and exuberant atmosphere with Orlando.

When reading the book, Wylie found it to be “amazing to have this queer text that is fun, and shows what the queer community gave to me,” with Landis adding that queer stories in the arts can often be “really depressing”.  This aspect of the play has been a major selling point for the overwhelming amount of people who have already applied for acting and production roles.

Landis finds the notable amount of people outside of the usual SUDS crowd responding to callouts to be greatly encouraging, noting that “diversity is something that comes when you open up applications to a wider range of people.”

He and the team can see the play providing an opportunity for trans, non-binary and gender diverse people to “play their own gender diverse experience on stage.”

Wylie wishes to continue the inclusivity encouraged through auditions/interviews throughout the building of the play by ensuring a connection between cast and crew from the very beginning of the process.

“I don’t want there to be a disconnect where you put in so many hours of work and yet the cast don’t really know you… I want [the production team] to be included – that’s what the show’s about.” 

There was a moment during my conversation with Rosie and Sean in which the two seemed to come to a mutual realisation about the play’s ending. “Things will happen to you in life that are beautiful if you can see those things,” Wylie noted, to which Landis soon replied ecstatically: “The play’s about Orlando searching for beauty, and they find it!”

It was an emotional moment that cemented the crux of what they had been getting at – Orlando will not just bring about the inclusion of those who have not had their voices heard in SUDS, but it will strive to affirm and celebrate those voices.

Orlando will be performed from the 26th of February to the 7th of March. You can find links to forms for auditions and production interviews below.