Sherryl- Lee Secomb is a Brisbane based Theatre Actor, Director, Writer and Marketer with over 35 years in the theatre industry. From 2011 to 2019, she was the Communications & Online Marketing Manager of Savoyards Musical Comedy Society and runs her business An Idiot On Stage. Her performance credits include Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes, Adelaide in Guys & Dolls and Anita in West Side Story. She has directed local shows including Chicago, Phantom of the Opera and How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.
I was fortunate to work with Sherryl- Lee when I was part of the Savoyard’s crew for the 2018 production of Chicago. This was my first community theatre show and Sherryl- Lee and the Savoyard’s family have taken me under her wing.
Sherryl- Lee’s motto is to “Expect More and Be Extraordinary”
Tell us about growing up as a young singer, dancer, actor; how old were you? Do you have any stories that stick in your memory?
Being born into a theatre family means you grow up with memories that revolve around rehearsals, performances, touring, bump-ins and wonderfully strange people called actors. I spent many years sitting through hours of local community theatre rehearsals, watching my grandmother direct large scale musicals. I learned to respect others, to admire commitment, celebrate the talents of others and fostered an emotional need to become part of this mad, mad world of theatre. I began studying classical voice with a wonderful Queensland tenor, Allan Jeffries, who taught me the importance of technique and this has carried me through many performance opportunities.
Your family is involved in theatre; did you meet your husband through your involvement with theatre?
My whole life has been wrapped around the arts. I met my husband when he became a regular musical director for the community theatre company I was working with. He came from a professional orchestral background, playing clarinet in concert orchestras and theatre orchestras in Brisbane. When we got married he was playing eight shows a week and we began our life together, figuring out the unique life of working in the arts. This has taken many forms over the years but it’s created so much joy and life has certainly never been dull.
Is there a specific moment in life when you remember watching a show and going “that is what I want to do as a career?”
I can’t remember a time when theatre wasn’t woven into life. I loved it with a passion but, even though I enjoyed my QPAC performance opportunity early on, it wasn’t long before I realised I wasn’t built for the lifestyle of an actor. The industry was very different to what it is today. There weren’t the musical theatre training opportunities, you COULDN’T stay in Brisbane if you wanted to succeed, and I wasn’t prepared to make the choices I needed to make to pursue this career. Ironically, this allowed me to develop the skills I needed to do what I do today, which is to show creatives how to confidently build an audience for their creative work.
Sherryl-Lee, you have been involved in the theatre industry for over 35 years now, you must have seen some big changes during that time but I want to know, what has stayed the same? What keeps the fire alive in you?
I spend my time in the community theatre sector. I am passionate about reminding community arts organisations that they exist to provide a place for their local community to participate in the theatre. Community theatre benefits from diversity, provides connectedness and a place to explore courage and grow skills. I love the artistic element but it’s the people element that keeps the fire alive in me.
You have experience in performing on stage and working as a Director among other roles, what knowledge do you take from on stage into the work of a director?
I’ve been directing large scale musicals for ten years but in community theatre, you must have good collaborative skills, be able to manage large groups of people and everything they bring to the table. You have to strike a balance between challenging people to achieve more than they believe they’re capable of with developing a project that makes the most of the skill base and resources available to you.
What I’ve found very valuable as a director is my experience working on the stage and backstage, taking the time to develop a working knowledge of the various technical departments of a theatre company. For instance, don’t ever ask me to operate a lighting desk (disastrous idea) but I’ve spent enough hours sitting with operators as they program an entire musical to have a better understanding of the impact their designing has on what I do. This knowledge allows me to block, rehearse and lead casts in a way that reduces wasted time and stress.
When picking a show, how does a company decide what production they want to put on?
My experience with this is with a large, well established theatre company. They perform in a 500 seat theatre and produce large scale musicals. My time in governance with this organisation taught me so much including the difficulty of choosing a season. Along with the limitations of licensing availability, you’re aiming to develop a season that will be attractive to audiences, achievable within your resources and artistically challenging for artists. It’s not an easy task.
What makes community theatre special?
For me, community theatre is about the people. You witness someone’s audition, walk with them through their development in the rehearsal period, then enjoy the privilege of being part of their opening night. People are willing to sacrifice so much to have the opportunity to express themselves on stage. I have so much respect for this community.
What advice would you give people wanting to work in the industry?
I think I would come at this from my professional position as a marketer and that is that you have to take control of your creative career. In addition to the obvious artistic skills you must have, understand the importance of developing networks and building audiences for your work. To say ‘my work will speak for itself’ is fine if you only want to perform to your family and friends but if you’re serious about sharing your creative works with the wider community (and you should be), learn the skills required to ‘speak for your work’ because no one else is going to do it for you.
Do you have any interests or hobbies outside of the theatre?
I’m a simple soul and my family and friends bring great joy. It always surprises people though when I say that I am keen to enjoy the rough and tumble of an ice hockey tournament or a monster truck rally.
You could have chosen to live anywhere in the world, what made you choose Brisbane?
It’s more that ‘life chose Brisbane’. I married my Geoffrey and we added children to our family, so it was always a case of building my creative life wherever we were, and it’s been beautiful.
What would be your dream holiday destination and why?
I love the UK. So full of history. Having time to explore that would be heaven.
How do you organise, plan and prioritise your life such as keeping a balance?
Balance? I’ve been chasing that my entire life. I think I’ve come to the conclusion that I will always be readjusting my life. Because I am excited by exploring and learning, I have a tendency to take on many projects. I think I’m getting better at focusing, learning to avoid the ‘shiny object syndrome’ but give me another thirty years and I’ll answer the question again.
How do you unwind?
I’ve learned to get out of Brisbane and hit the country to unwind. Scheduling a full day without my phone, sitting on a beach or walking in the countryside, allows me to reset. It takes the entire day but there’s a distinct difference in me on the drive home.
Tell us about your role as a marketer, how did you start? Why are you passionate about marketing?
I began marketing theatre just as social media became a thing. This allowed me to develop marketing strategies that theatre companies, with limited budgets, could take advantage of to successfully build awareness and sell tickets. Creatives tend to market to other creatives. I’m determined to change this and help theatre companies understand the untapped potential of their local communities who probably aren’t even aware they exist.
You also write a blog …
An Idiot On Stage began after an experience directing a major musical theatre piece for a regional theatre company. I was surrounded by passionate and talented people who worked so very hard to bring this massive show to their region but they were hugely under resourced and struggled through lack of leadership.
I came out of the experience (which was amazing) with a new understanding of the importance of leadership in not for profit theatre companies and began writing on the subject. It seemed to hit a mark because I soon began receiving communications from creatives all over the country enjoying the opportunity to discuss the same things. The mission of the Idiot is to ‘encourage and equip community theatre to expect more and be extraordinary’.
What is your favourite meal to cook for family and friends?
I love simple food that allows everyone to relax and concentrate on the conversation so I stick to old favourites like a roast or a big bowl of spaghetti.
What would you like to say to the Australian Theatre community during this challenging time?
Because I primarily market the arts, my business was decimated when the country shut down so I understand the grief, anger, and fear that came for many artists. I think I feel more comfortable sharing what I know for me and that is this: I am allowed to feel lost – for a time – but then I must remember that I have come through tough experiences before and I will do so again. I don’t know what the future looks like but each day I will make the choice to be positive for the sake of those that need it. Serving others takes my eyes off my problems and this has always helped me cope in life.