The Jennifer Blocksidge Story

Born in Karachi (then part of India) of English parentage in 1932, Jennifer Blocksidge experienced her first stage role as a child at school in Kashmir. Her father was Manager of Shell for India. 

Towards the end of World War II the family returned to England where she attended Queen Anne’s School at Caversham and in her final year was Head Girl. Encouraged by her head mistress, she developed a strong interest in theatre and both acted in and directed school plays. Such was her talent in these areas that she went on to tertiary study, qualifying as a Drama teacher from the Central School of Speech and Drama in London. Perhaps she was also inspired in her artistic pursuits by her uncle, the famous English tenor Sir Peter Pears. Soon after, and in a spirit of adventure, she applied for and won a position in Armidale, Australia at the New England Girls School (NEGS). She loved her job at NEGS and stayed there until 1956. The headmistress, probably impressed by her training, elegant demeanour and strong personality, gave her free rein “and she had a ‘ball’ producing such plays as Pygmalion and The Rivals.[i] During her time at NEGS she visited Brisbane where she met her husband-to-be Bruce Blocksidge, delegated to entertain her during her city stay.

They both went to London, Bruce to study and work (for Mayfair Estate Agents), and Jennifer to work in the Make-Up Department at the B.B.C. They married in England, returned to Brisbane in 1959 and proceeded to produce a family of one boy and two girls. Jennifer became a Brisbane Repertory Theatre member in 1962 and in September of that year performed her first role in Peter Ustinov’s Romanoff and Juliet directed by Babette Stephens. The following year she had the lead role in Agatha Christie’s The Unexpected Guest directed by Gloria Birdwood-Smith. In 1967 she directed David Turner’s Semi-Detached, the last production to go into Albert Hall, and over the next twenty years directed fifteen more productions for La Boite. 

As its Theatre Director between 1969 and 1975 and Council President between 1976 and 1978, Jennifer was profoundly influential in shaping La Boite’s destiny during this crucial period in the theatre’s history. Significant outcomes of her leadership were the opening of La Boite Theatre, Australia’s first purpose-built 200 seat theatre-in-the-round; a dramatic change in repertoire leading to a national profile and reputation as an ‘alternative’ theatre company; the establishment of the ground-breaking Early Childhood Drama Project; and the accomplishment of La Boite’s first major status change, the historic transition from an amateur group to a pro-am community theatre.

It was after her involvement with La Boite ended that her professional acting career blossomed. Between 1981 and 1992 she was much in demand as an actor with TN! Theatre Company and the Queensland Theatre Company.  For TN! she won critical acclaim for her performances in Brecht’s Mother Courage and her Children, Hamlet , Romeo and Juliet (all directed by Bryan Nason), Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine directed by Rod Wissler, and Edward Bond’s Summer directed by Robert Arthur. Among the many leading roles she performed for QTC she was extraordinary as Melanie Klein in Nicholas Wright’s Mrs Klein directed by Sue Rider.

Jennifer also served on the Australia Council’s Community Arts Board between 1981 and 1985 and the Queensland Theatre Company’s Board for several years in the early 1990s. A renowned teacher of voice, she established the voice training program for actors at the Brisbane College of Advanced Education (later QUT) and taught it part-time for fifteen years.

A tall and imposing woman, Jennifer Blocksidge carried herself with such an air of confidence that she could have a daunting effect on those who encountered her. She herself put it down to “the British Raj background and the terribly proper finishing school” but claimed that “a lot of it is bluff”.[ii] She died of cancer on November 11, 1995 at the age of 63. In a Courier-Mail article headlined “Theatre Fans Remember Great Pioneer”, arts reporter Lisa Yallamas wrote of this “theatrical giant” that “the eternal quest of this passionate idealist to ‘walk right on this earth’ inspired others to achieve their best”.[iii] She was remembered by many in the industry, wrote Yallamas, as “a nurturing mentor, cherished second mother, good mate, valued teacher and respected colleague … a gifted performer with a reputation for touching audiences”.

Writer: Christine Comans

[i] Booklet : The Old La Boite 1967-71

[ii] Strong in The Courier-Mail, April 3, 1991, p.22.

[iii] The Courier-Mail, Nov.14, 1995, p.17.

Tell us your story

When La Boite first opened 'in the round" at Hale Street I was was in my last years of High School... I was a Speech and Drama student and was passion about performing...after some enquiry I started the Youth lessons that were being provided at the Theatre and yes I thought I had gone to life then for the next 2 or 3 years was nothing but La Boite....We formed a group called the MIDDLE STAGERS - purely to satisfy our teenage ego...and went on to perform, direct, and produce children theatre over the school holiday period...It was the best time of my life and my love for theatre was ignited and still on parents were members of the original Repertory Society from about 1956. Congratulations La Boite - 90 years and still performing - not a bad effort!!!

Roz O'Connor

I wonder if anyone remembers me. I worked with Jennifer Blocksidge and Ricki Bourke in the mid-60s and early 70s before taking off to live in South Africa. I have very fond memories of Jennifer, Ricki, Jane Atkins, Kathy Bourke and others like Barry Otto who went on to become a professional in film as well as stage. Babette Stephens was a strict taskmaster but through her we knew the meaning of being professional in our productions. Her bark was worse than her bite when you got to know her, but we were young and she did seem intimidating at first. Through Brisbane Repertory I learnt so very much - such as how to observe people and reproduce that on stage. I recall Ron Ray giving us voice lessons. He was an American from California. The one-act shows we toured with before the little house became La Boite and a theatre in the round where we were often in stitches. One night a props girl forgot to position the cigarette lighter. An audience member offered the lead a light! Barry Otto was in it but the lead's name has disappeared - It was Dinny and the Witches. We used the grass outside to change sometimes, as there just wasn't time to go far away. That's when one of the cast members started crawling around and whispering that she'd lost her contact lens! It was touch-and-go as we all sank down gingerly on the grass to help her find it - only just in time before our next entrance. I believe the days spent there were among the best of my life and I'm grateful. I went on to become a professional writer and am in the process of publishing my first book - Deep Talk. It's not fiction but the next will be a novel and I will apply the same training I learnt at Brisbane Repertory to produce believable characters. Thank you all for the part you played in the shaping of my life. Love to all the old members who knew me, Judy Barnes (nee Hawkins)

Judy Barnes (nee Hawkins)