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Blocksidge, Pauline Jennifer (1932–1995)

by Christine Comans

This article was published online in 2019

Pauline Jennifer Luard Blocksidge (1932–1995), actor, director, and speech and drama teacher, was born on 22 July 1932 at Karachi, India (Pakistan), youngest of three children of English-born John Humphrey Blackwell, oil company manager, and his wife Jessie Pauline Luard, née Pears, who had been born in Burma (Myanmar); the tenor (Sir) Peter Pears was Jennifer’s uncle. Her early schooling was in Kashmir, where she performed her first stage role, as Milk in The Children’s Blue Bird. In 1945 the family returned to England. Blackwell boarded (1945–50) at Queen Anne’s School, Caversham, Berkshire. Encouraged by the headmistress, she developed a strong interest in theatre, acting in and directing school plays. In her final year she was head girl. From 1951 she studied in London, at the Central School of Speech and Drama, gaining a teaching diploma (University of London, 1952).

Exhibiting a spirit of adventure, in 1953 Blackwell travelled to Australia to teach at the New England Girls’ School, Armidale, New South Wales. She particularly enjoyed directing her students in such plays as Pygmalion and The Rivals. On a visit to Brisbane, she met Norman Bruce Blocksidge. In 1956 she went back to London, where she worked as a make-up artist in the British Broadcasting Corporation’s television studios. Blocksidge joined her, studying law and working as a negotiator with a real estate agency. The couple were married on 2 July 1958 at the parish church, Penshurst, Kent. They sailed to Brisbane in 1959 and Bruce entered his family’s real estate business, Blocksidge & Ferguson Ltd.

Jennifer Blocksidge joined the amateur Brisbane Repertory Theatre in 1962, beginning her acting career with the company in Romanoff and Juliet. In 1967 she directed her first play, Semi-Detached. The same year Brisbane Repertory moved into a converted cottage in Hale Street, Milton, one of four that the company owned at the site. Aptly named La Boîte, the theatre featured a small, box-like performance space, with seating on all sides, creating an intimate relationship between cast and audience. La Boîte’s inaugural production (1967) was Look Back in Anger, in which Blocksidge played the lead female role of Alison Porter. She acted in many more La Boîte plays, giving memorable performances in Eden House (1970) and The Sweatproof Boy (1973). Directing was her passion, however; between 1967 and 1986 she would direct fifteen productions for the company.

From 1969 to 1975 Blocksidge served as La Boîte’s honorary theatre director. Together with her husband (who presided over the organisation’s council in 1967–72) and the architect Blair Wilson, she organised the demolition of the building and an adjacent cottage and their replacement by a purpose-built theatre-in-the-round. In 1972 the iconic two-hundred-seat La Boîte Theatre opened with a production of A Refined Look at Existence, directed by Jennifer Blocksidge.

Under Blocksidge’s artistic leadership, La Boîte presented contemporary, experimental, and often risky Australian and international plays (alongside some for pure entertainment), earning it a national reputation as an alternative theatre company. The critic Katharine Brisbane described it as ‘the place to go … to see the red meat of theatre’ (UQFL109). The repertoire regularly featured the works of rising Australian playwrights, such as Michael Boddy, Dorothy Hewett, Alma De Groen, Jack Hibberd, David Williamson, Alexander Buzo, Jill Shearer, and Jennifer Compton. La Boîte attracted a new audience to theatre and young actors and directors keen to work with the company.

In 1975 Blocksidge established the Early Childhood Drama Project, La Boîte’s first professional wing. The following year the Australia Council’s youth officer, Michael FitzGerald, described the scheme’s innovative touring and in-house programs as ‘unique in Australia’ (UQFL109).  Blocksidge introduced further educational activities, including a Saturday morning children’s workshop and daytime classes in communication for women. For three years (1976–78 and 1981), Blocksidge was president of La Boîte’s council. In 1976 she succeeded in having Rick Billinghurst appointed as professional artistic director, thus furthering the organisation’s transition to a semi-professional community theatre. Her dream of a fully professional theatre company would finally be realised in 1993.

Between 1981 and 1992 Blocksidge’s professional acting career blossomed with TN! Theatre Company and the (Royal) Queensland Theatre Company (RQTC). For TN! she played the title role in Mother Courage and Her Children (1981) and appeared in Cloud Nine (1983). For RQTC she portrayed the central character in Mrs Klein (1991) to critical acclaim, and she had leading roles in A Cheery Soul and Hotel Sorrento (1992), receiving a Matilda awards commendation (1992) for her performances in the latter two. In addition, she directed TN!’s productions of The Death of Minnie (1983) and Rosy Apples Need Shining (1990).

Blocksidge was a renowned teacher. In 1979 she had established the voice-training program in the acting course at the Kelvin Grove (Brisbane) College of Advanced Education (Queensland University of Technology), teaching it for fifteen years. She also served on the Community Arts Board of the Australia Council (1983–85) and the board of the RQTC (1990–95).

A tall, elegant, and imposing woman, with a strong personality, Blocksidge carried herself with an air of confidence that could be daunting. She attributed this persona to her ‘British Raj background’ and ‘terribly proper finishing school’ but claimed that ‘a lot of it is bluff’ (Strong 1991, 22). In 1990 she was divorced. She died of cancer on 11 November 1995 at Paddington, Brisbane, and was cremated. Her son and two daughters survived her. An obituary described her as a ‘theatrical giant’ and as ‘a gifted performer with a reputation for touching audiences,’ who would be remembered as ‘a nurturing mentor, cherished second mother, good mate, valued teacher and respected colleague’ (Yallamas 1995, 17). In 2007 her family established the Jennifer Blocksidge Memorial Fund to provide an annual medal and cash prize to an outstanding Queensland University of Technology acting or technical-production student, the money to be used for postgraduate professional development.

Research edited by Darryl Bennet

Select Bibliography

  • Anthony, Delyse. ‘Jennifer Blocksidge.’ In Companion to Theatre in Australia, edited by Philip Parsons and Victoria Chance, 90. Sydney: Currency Press, 1995
  • Blocksidge, Bruce. Interview by Christine Comans, 28 September 2003. Audiotape. Christine Comans Private collection
  • Blocksidge, Jennifer. Interview by Jennifer Radbourne, 17 July 1978. Audiotape. Jennifer Radbourne Private collection
  • Comans, Christine. La Boite: The Story of an Australian Theatre Company. Brisbane: Playlab Press, 2009
  • Comans, Christine. ‘La Boite Theatre 1925 to 2003: An Historical Survey of Its Transformation from an Amateur Repertory Society to an Established Professional Company.’ PhD diss., Queensland University of Technology, 2006. Accessed 12 April 2018. http://www.eprints.qut.edu.au/16306/1/Christine_Comans_Thesis.pdf
  • Fryer Library, University of Queensland. UQFL109, Brisbane Repertory Theatre Collection
  • The Old ‘LA BOÎTE’ 1967–1971. Brisbane: La Boîte Theatre, 1972
  • Strong, Mark. ‘Jennifer Blocksidge.’ Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 3 April 1991, 22
  • Yallamas, Lisa. ‘Theatre Fans Remember Great Pioneer.’ Courier-Mail (Brisbane), 14 November 1995, 17

Citation details

Christine Comans, 'Blocksidge, Pauline Jennifer (1932–1995)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/blocksidge-pauline-jennifer-22701/text32245, published online 2019, accessed online 17 November 2019.

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