Born in Horsham in 1941 and following primary and secondary education, Sue was sent to board at Korowa Anglican Girls’ School. In 1959, she commenced a Commerce degree at the University of Melbourne where she was distracted by the very lively student theatre of the time.
Although she was still a student, entrepreneur Clifford Hocking, somewhat reluctantly at first, employed Sue in 1962 as lighting board operator for Barry Humphries’ first one-man show, A Nice Night’s Entertainment, at the Assembly Hall in Collins Street, Melbourne.
No woman had filled this role in the professional theatre previously. In 1963, Sue was offered a job by the Union Theatre Repertory Company (later known as the Melbourne Theatre Company) as stage manager and electrician for a country tour.
Later that year she joined the Tivoli Circuit and became the first female in Australia to stage-manage major musical productions. This meant that from the age of 22 she was managing performers and large, all male crews, and taking responsibility for the on-going artistic standards of the productions on which she worked both in Melbourne and the other cities of Australia and New Zealand to which they toured.
In 1966, Sue moved to J.C. Williamson Theatres Limited where, over the ensuing seventeen years, she was the first woman in Australia to work in the following roles – Production Manager, Lighting Designer, Executive Producer and General Manager of a commercial theatre company. In these positions Sue was able to employ women, for the first time, in technical areas of the commercial theatre industry.
Late in 1983, Sue joined the staff of the Victorian Arts Centre Trust as Operations Manager, became Deputy General Manager in 1988 and General Manager in 1989. These positions were firsts again for a woman in Australia. While General Manager she was responsible for setting up the Association of Asia Pacific Performing Arts Centres a body which has improved relationships and enhanced co-operative cultural development in the region.
Sue was the first woman to be appointed Artistic Director of the Melbourne International Festival, for the festivals of 1998 and 1999, and joined Millmaine Entertainment as Executive Director Producer Services in 2000. In 2002, she was brought in as interim CEO and artistic director to save the troubled Adelaide Festival of the Arts.
Sue has sat on a large number of boards, foundations, trusts and committees in the areas of the Arts, health, leadership, education, international affairs, philanthropy, business and women’s affairs.
Amongst her many awards and accolades, she was awarded the 1996 St Michael’s Medal for Service to the Community and the 1999 Victoria Day Award for Community and Public Service. She was president of the AEIA/ Live Performance Australia (LPA) executive council from 1995 to 2003 and made a life member.
In the 2002 Queen’s Birthday Honours, Sue was made an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO), and in 2003 awarded the Centenary Medal. In 2006, Sue was the recipient of the Dame Elisabeth Murdoch Cultural Leadership Award from the Australia Business Arts Foundation, and in April 2007, the Green Room Awards Association presented her with a Lifetime Achievement Award.
At the 2014 Helpman Awards, Live Performance Australia (LPA) introduced the Sue Nattrass Award. This prestigious Award recognises outstanding service to the live performance industry in a field which may not enjoy a high public profile.
Image: Sue Nattrass AO – courtesy of Arts Centre Melbourne