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NIDA Alumna Sarah Hadley’s Directorial Career After NIDA

NIDA alumna Sarah Hadley (Directing, 2018) is a visionary director (In a Year with 13 Moons and ABC’s upcoming drama series Plum) whose journey from avid audience member to seasoned storyteller embodies a profound love for the arts. Reflecting on her time at NIDA, Sarah shares how her education sharpened her collaborative instincts and provided the tools to navigate both stage and screen.

What inspired you to want to study and work in the arts and entertainment industry?

I am always, firstly, an audience member. Experiences of expression on screen and on stage have shaped how I understand myself and others. Encountering Les Misérables on the West End at age 10, Holding the Man at the Stables when I was 15, and later at 21, the films of Douglas Sirk. Formative moments of engagement with life, that I experienced as performative. My natural inclination was to understand how these affective experiences work, and the mediums that work to bring them to life.

Why did you choose to study at NIDA and how was the process of applying for the Director’s course?

NIDA presented an interesting pivot from my film and TV work; a place where a directing practice might have some breathing room from the presence of the camera; a practice built on understanding text, performer, mise-en-scène entirely for an audience immediately present to the experience. My hope was I would learn on-the-ground skills working with writers, actors, designers and technicians, to realise something in space, rather than in the frame, for audiences.

I was thrust back into a way of working I hadn’t encountered since my high school days. Applying with a portfolio, attending the interview and then the audition (I did not know directors could be auditioned!) was a real trial by fire. But luckily, the head of course at the time saw something in my instincts and offered me a spot in the course.

Sarah Hadley on the set of The Picture of Dorian Gray at Sydney Theatre Company.\

What are some of the highlights from your time at NIDA?

Highlights from the time anchor firstly in the connections I made, and secondly on the body of work and practice I was able to create.

Fellow creatives, across writing and design specifically, opened my creative appetites in ways I had not anticipated. My similarities with other students, as well as my differences of interest and practice, helped me grow to appreciate the dexterity of a practice based on flexibility and understanding. Theatre has a way of sharpening your collaborative instincts in this way, and it’s a credit to the talented students in my cohort that my time at NIDA was so pivotal in pushing out the edges of my understanding of the medium.

NIDA alumni seem to find each other in the industry. I have some very close friends and collaborators who were in my year group, and others who graduated ahead of me, and after me. We connect out in the world, project to project, on the basis of having moved through the ebbs and flows of an institution like NIDA.

Since graduating from the MFA at NIDA, all consequent work has been connected to the relationships I developed during my time there. My two screen-to-stage adaptations as director You’ve Got Mail and Safe were co-created with Ang Collins (Writing For Performance, 2018), and designed by Cris Baldwin (Design For Performance, 2017) and Emma White (Design For Performance, 2019). Are We Awake? and Tongue Tied – both original works – showed at KXT and were written by NIDA alumni. I have also written and directed two experimental short films Last Night and Noli Me Tangere, both scored by Clemence Williams (Directing, 2016). Carry Me is a play currently in development with Thomas De Angelis (Writing For Performance, 2016).

In 2020 and 2023, I was attached to the STC’s productions of The Picture of Dorian Gray and Strange Case of Dr Jekyll  and Mr Hyde, as Live Camera Operator and Assistant Video Director under the guidance of Kip Williams (Directing, 2009), whom I connected with when he acted as mentor on my production of In a Year with 13 Moons, my graduate show at NIDA.

My time at the STC in production has connected me with the marketing stream at multiple companies around Sydney, where I now work regularly producing online promotional content for upcoming shows, behind-the-scenes trailers and archival content. My skills across screen production and knowledge of the language of the theatrical medium lend well to meeting the needs of these companies and keep the lights on between jobs that serve my creative practice.

NIDA’s 2017 Production of In a Year with 13 Moons, Directed by Sarah Hadley. Photo by Lisa Tomasetti.

What are some of the skills have you carried from your NIDA training into your career?

Egil Kipste (Directing, 1983) was the head of course during my time at NIDA, and a piece of advice he gave the directors at the time often lands front of mind when I begin on a new project; ‘always be the weakest link in the chain of creative collaborators surrounding you.’ This advice prompts me to enjoy and celebrate the contributions of fellow creatives during a project, to rejoice in their perspectives and approaches. It serves as a reminder to put the work first, to realise the limitations of one single viewpoint, to watch a work or creative idea flourish, in a medium that is at its most essential, collaborative in process.

NIDA gave me the tools to communicate with other artistic practitioners. I can pick up a script, discuss a mood of colour or lighting tone, feedback on a prop or relay my experience of a costume element, because of the education I received at NIDA. In a workspace where communication is paramount, especially in the pursuit of expressing something often non-verbal, I am able to navigate the experience of storytelling outside my practice, and that is an incredibly rewarding skill to be in possession of.

You have worked as a cinematographer and as a director across stage and screen what are some of your career highlights so far?

Early in 2023, I had the pleasure of working on Erotic Stories for SBS, assisting Director of Photography Tania Lambert ACS. Along with directors Madeleine Gottlieb and Leticia Caceres, Tania created an inspiring visual anthology for the project. This series is incredibly progressive in terms of the stories it is platforming, and the atmosphere on set was one of the most supportive and creative working environments I have encountered.

Late last year, I was the B Cam Operator on a new series Austin for ABC & ITV Studios. Working as a camera operator on a British/Australian comedy was a real highlight; the calibre of actors and writers involved was incredible. It was particularly memorable for my time working with actor Sally Phillips. The balance of professionalism and play she brought to set each day really left its mark on my practice.

I have recently completed a director’s attachment on ABC TV’s Plum Season 1, a new series created by Writer/Actor Brendan Cowell. Shooting in Sydney over the first half of 2024, I was on the production under the mentorship of Director Margie Beatie. Experiencing and observing the process from the director’s perspective has been invaluable; but more so the effect of working with Margie as she shared her process, thoughts, and intuitions throughout. Her guidance has had a lasting impact on my practice and it stands as a reminder for me to invite younger practitioners into the process, as I advance in my career.

Still from the SBS series Erotic Stories.

What advice would you share for anyone wanting to pursue a career as a Director?

Keep your eye on the ball. The industry on the ground requires diligence, compassion and endurance; the creative practice requires the same. Finding a balance between the two will sustain you during the more challenging times and prop you up when the opportunity comes to show your passion, talent and commitment to furthering the quality of Australian storytelling through your own unique vision.

What can you share about your next project?

In May of 2024, I will travel to Tasmania to work on Bay of Fires Season 2. I am part of a program that gives female mid-career DoPs the experience of shooting a full episode of a television drama, as well as the appropriate credit. This program is run by the Australian Cinematographers Society and Screen Australia. I am incredibly excited to begin this project and especially grateful to be working with Marty McGrath ACS, a friend and long-time mentor. Marty has continued to support me throughout my career across screen and stage and is a fantastic example of a more experienced generation of creatives who prioritise the growing diversity of our screen industry.