Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Sisley, Barbara (1878–1945)

by Delyse Ryan

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

Barbara Sisley (1878-1945), teacher of speech and drama, was born on 19 March 1878 at Streatham, London, one of three daughters of Thomas Alexander Sisley, civil service clerk, and his wife Susan, née Sisley. Barbara was educated at Queen's College, Tufnell Park, and about 1899 came to Melbourne, where her father taught elocution. She attended Manuel College, Hawthorn, and, having been trained by her father, began working as a professional actress, touring Australia with George Rignold and the Robert Brough comedy company. A friend later recalled her as 'long legged, eager' with 'pretty brown eyes' and a deep voice.

Arriving in Brisbane in 1916, Sisley became one of the first professional instructors in speech and drama to work there. She began teaching 'Speech Training and Dramatic Art' in a private studio and at such Brisbane girls' schools as St Margaret's, Stuartholme convent and Somerville House. Her interest in encouraging women to participate in drama influenced the establishment of several theatre companies. She trained Rhoda Felgate, Jean Trundle and Daphne Roemermann, who became significant figures in Brisbane's theatrical life and teaching institutions.

Sisley helped to establish the Young Women's Christian Association Drama Group during World War I and, in the early 1920s, the Brisbane Shakespeare Society, encouraging her students to perform extracts from plays at its monthly meetings. They also produced a complete play annually. She organized performances by her younger students under the banner of the Barbara Sisley Juveniles, and was a foundation member of the Dickens Fellowship, formed in 1921. Each year the group studied a different novel by Dickens and held a reading competition that encouraged people to perform short extracts.

In 1923 Sisley returned to England to study with Elsie Fogarty. Inspired by the work that she saw in repertory theatre companies, and armed with new teaching techniques, she decided to form the Brisbane Repertory Theatre Society in 1925. Her primary role was as a director, but she was also an executive member of the organization and occasionally acted. Sisley remained the artistic head of Brisbane Repertory until her death. She produced fifty-seven of the 125 plays performed. She also organized tours of repertory productions to regional areas, including Ipswich, Toowoomba, Stanthorpe, Rockhampton and Townsville. One of her main objectives was to encourage the production of Australian plays and to this end she ran playwriting competitions. The most famous winning entry, George Landen Dann's In Beauty it is Finished, scandalized Brisbane's theatregoers in 1931 by dealing frankly with issues of Aboriginality and prostitution. Sisley was a founding member of the Speech and Drama Teachers' Association and its inaugural vice-president in 1939.

Sisley died on 18 November 1945 in Brisbane hospital, after having been struck by a taxi in Adelaide Street, and was cremated with Anglican rites. She had not married. Brisbane Repertory produced Dann's Caroline Chisholm in 1946 as a tribute. In 1947 the Speech and Drama Teachers' Association of Queensland established the Barbara Sisley scholarships for the best students in the State in public speech and drama examinations. Traditionally the awards were presented at the annual Barbara Sisley recital. The Brisbane Repertory Company was still operating in 2004 under the name La Boite.

Select Bibliography

  • T. D’Arcy and D. Roemermann (eds), The Turning Years (Brisb, 1989)
  • J. M. Cook, Ponder The Path of Thy Feet (Brisb, 1992).

Citation details

Delyse Ryan, 'Sisley, Barbara (1878–1945)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/sisley-barbara-13197/text23893, published first in hardcopy 2005, accessed online 26 November 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Supplementary Volume, (MUP), 2005

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