WA theatre great dies

21 March 2022

Andrew Ross exits the stage after reshaping Western Australian theatre in a truer reflection of this land and its stories.

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Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander readers are advised that this article may contain images of people who have died.

Western Australian cultural leader Andrew Ross AM – the director of landmark musical Bran Nue Dae and co-founder of Black Swan State Theatre Company – leaves an enduring legacy on the national stage.

Ross died early on Saturday morning, March 19, after a long battle with cancer. He was 74.

Hailed as a visionary cultural pioneer over five decades, the award-winning director and educator was a driving force for bringing the stories of First Nations people to mainstream theatre audiences.

He is credited with founding not just one WA theatre company in Black Swan (BSSTC), but two – the second in the form of the children’s theatre company that later become Barking Gecko Theatre. His support and promotion of First Nations writers, actors and directors also paved the way for the formation of Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company.

Born in Melbourne in 1947, Ross left behind that city’s vibrant independent theatre scene in 1976 to move to Perth as the youth director of the National Theatre at the now demolished Playhouse Theatre in Pier Street. He founded Acting Out (later Barking Gecko), a small company of actors that toured throughout WA.

Ross was energised and inspired by the landscapes, stories, art and history of his adopted State, by the First Peoples culture of writers Jimmy Chi, Jack Davis and Sally Morgan, the art of Robert Juniper and the writings of Randolph Stow and Dorothy Hewett.

Returning to Western Australia in 1980 after completing a British Council fellowship in the UK, Ross directed Jack Davis’s seminal Western Australian works The Dreamers and No Sugar at the Perth Festival in 1982 and 1985. No Sugar then went on tour to Canada and the UK.

A black and white photo of a Andrew Ross AM and group of people sitting around desks. Everyone is smiling, as though at a joke. There's sound equipment on one of the desks.
Andrew Ross in rehearsals for ‘Corrugation Road’ 1996. Photo: supplied by BSSTC

BSSTC was conceived over drinks at the bar after the closing night of Ross’ landmark 1990 Perth Festival production of Bran Nue Dae by Jimmy Chi and Kuckles. Hailed as Australia’s first Aboriginal musical, Bran Nue Dae featured First Nations actors and musicians who became household names, including Ernie Dingo, Ningali Lawford, Stephen “Baamba” Albert, Chi himself and the Pigram brothers.

Thirty years later, Ross came full circle with a new generation of Broome collaborators, including co-director Naomi Pigram, for the Australian Opera’s 30th anniversary production of Bran Nue Dae at the 2020 Perth Festival.

The extraordinary vitality and success of Bran Nue Dae in 1990 inspired a push towards a new form of regional theatre company, one grounded in local stories but with a bold, international outlook.

BSSTC debuted in 1991 with a multicultural Twelfth Night, beginning a run of such acclaimed productions as Sally Morgan’s Sistergirl, Jimmy Chi’s Corrugation Road and Mamu with the Tjuntjuntjarra community from the Great Victoria Desert. Ross also directed adaptations of the Randolph Stow novels Tourmaline and Merry-Go-Round in the Sea, David Britton’s Plainsong and Christopher Koch’s The Year of Living Dangerously, collaborating with East Javanese Dalang and Gamelan artists.

A black and white photo from Twelfth Night directed by Andrew Ross AM. We see two men acting, one wears a singlet the other a coat and top. They hold excited expressions.
Cast photo 1991 ‘Twelfth Night’, directed by Andrew Ross. Pictured are Stephen Albert and Kelton Pell. Photo: supplied by BSSTC

During that time, Ross also brought to the stage Tim Winton’s Cloudstreet, securing a commission through Perth Festival under its long-time director David Blenkinsop and Sydney Festival in a BSSTC co-production with Belvoir Street Theatre under director Neil Armfield. Premiering at the 1998 Sydney and Perth festivals, Cloudstreet was an instant classic that toured to the US and Europe in 2001.

“I guess I wanted the theatre to find local expression in the way painters and sculptors and poets and novelists had found a local expression, a universal expression that was through an unmistakably Western Australian lens,” Ross said in an interview to mark BSSTC’s 25th birthday in 2016.

Inaugural Black Swan chair Janet Holmes a Court and founding general manager Duncan Ord remember Ross as a creative visionary ahead of his time.

“He had a remarkable career as a teacher, director, producer and curator and was so far ahead of his time intellectually that he didn’t get the recognition or opportunity he deserved,” Mr Ord said.

Minister for Culture and the Arts David Templeman also paid tribute to Ross for his role in founding the State theatre company and for his understanding of the importance of telling authentic indigenous stories.
“When we lose a much-loved and much revered creative artist and magnificent human being like Andrew Ross, it’s always a sad time, but it’s also a time to reflect on the legacy he’s left the State,” Mr Templeman said.

Ross also promoted culture as a bridge for Australia to connect more closely with its regional neighbours, particularly Indonesia.

After 12 years as founding artistic director at BSSTC, Ross advanced this cause in his other key roles as head of Brisbane’s Powerhouse arts centre, arts consultant for Indonesia’s Ministry of Tourism and Creative Economy, and artistic director of the Darwin Festival. He also was a board member of the Australia Indonesia Institute, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade from 2016-2019.

A group of First Nations people from a performance of Corrugation Road directed by Andrew Ross AM. They are on stage, in a tableau. They lean on one another.
1998 national tour of Jimmy Chi’sCorrugation Road’, directed by Andrew Ross. Photo: Francis Andrijich

A strategic thinker as well as cultural leader, Ross argued that Australia’s future fortunes depended heavily on promoting the creative industries, education and tourism to ease our economic reliance on the resources industries

“We have a task in front of us to ensure that the cultural conversations we are having with our neighbourhood keep up with the economic, commercial and strategic conversations,” he said in a 2015 interview. “I am particularly interested in creating partnerships with our more immediate neighbours, Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, because all of those places have rapidly developing art scenes and festivals.”

Ross, who was artistic director at La Boite Theatre in Brisbane from 1982-84, also taught and directed productions at the Victorian College for the Arts and WA Academy of Performing Arts, where he was an Associate Professor.

In 2019, he was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia for his contribution to the performing arts industry.

A coloured image from a performance of Bran Nue Dae directed by Andrew Ross AM and Naomi Pigram. Pictured are a group of actors with joyous expressions, they appear to be singing with one actor in the back on a guitar.
The Australian Opera’s 2020 production of ‘Bran Nue Dae’ at Perth Festival, co-directed by Andrew Ross and Naomi Pigram. Photo: Prudence Upton

Andrew Ross was born in Melbourne on 15 October 1947 and died in Perth on 19 March 2022. He is survived by his daughters Effie and Jessie, and two grandchildren.

Composer, music-director and current Perth Festival Artistic Director Iain Grandage collaborated with Ross on many productions from the 1990s and said the director had given him his first opportunity in theatre when he was at BSSTC.

“This is something he did for so many – backing someone with no track record, and it is a rare trait. It is risky and filled with the unknown. But it is also the mark of a true leader.”

On a visit with Ross a couple of months ago, Grandage said his friend shared a quote from Thornton Wilder’s The Bridge of San Luis Rey: “There is a land of the living and a land of the dead and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.”

“I loved Andrew,” Grandage said. “He was a bridge for me into worlds of wonder.”

Pictured top: Andrew Ross, photographed in 2017 when he was directing Samuel Beckett’s ‘End Game’ for the Black Swan State Theatre Company. Ross was the founding Artistic Director of BSSTC. Photo: Philip Gostelow/The Australian

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Author —
Stephen Bevis

Stephen Bevis is a former Arts Editor at The West Australian from 2006 to 2016. His career at The West Australian included previous roles as Editor of the West Magazine, Deputy Foreign Editor, Night Editor, Canberra correspondent and state political reporter. He is often found warming the playground bench these days.

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