Home » Courtney nearly joined Hi-5. Now, at just 34, she heads up Queensland’s oldest theatre company

Courtney nearly joined Hi-5. Now, at just 34, she heads up Queensland’s oldest theatre company

Courtney Stewart compares the brutal audition process for children’s music group Hi-5 to singing competition juggernaut The X Factor.

Surviving a series of auditions in which a large group of hopefuls was culled by 50 per cent each day, she made it to the top 10 — but did not get the job: “I was so close! … It would’ve changed my life. It would’ve been amazing. [But] it wasn’t meant to be.”

Hi-5 was particularly close to Stewart’s heart: Filipina Australian singer and dancer Kathleen de Leon Jones, from the band’s original line-up, was her first Asian Australian role model in the media.

“Seeing her on stage meant so much to me … I really, really wanted to be her,” she says.

Stewart has become a role model in her own right, however, as an Asian Australian creative, rapidly ascending Australia’s theatre scene to become, at the age of 34, the artistic director of La Boite Theatre in Brisbane.

She is part of a wave of women who have taken on the top jobs at Australian theatre companies in the last year, including Kate Champion at Black Swan State Theatre Company of WA, Anne-Louise Sarks at Melbourne Theatre Company, and Frances Rings at Bangarra Dance Theatre.

Notably, Stewart is the only woman of colour to lead a major non-Indigenous theatre company. She is also the first person of colour to lead La Boite in its almost-100-year history.

Stewart will also direct the twice-postponed debut of Michelle Law’s Miss Peony at Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney later this year.(Supplied: STC/Prudence Upton)

Stewart’s relationship with La Boite started almost 20 years ago when she saw her first professional stage production, a new Australian work called James and Johnno by Margery and Michael Forde.

It was 2004 and she was in her penultimate year of high school: “I was just lapping it all up; seeing the power of live storytelling,” she recalls.

It was the first of many school excursions to La Boite to see new Australian works.

“I always was like, ‘Oh, it’d be so awesome to perform on this stage one day,'” Stewart says.

She did achieve that goal – in the premiere of Michelle Law’s smash-hit Single Asian Female in 2017, and then in Julia-Rose Lewis’s queer adult-gap-year rom-com Neon Tiger in 2018.

Three Asian Australian woman stand back-to-back on a podium under a disco ball with arms outstretched and beaming smiles.
Single Asian Female was the first Australian mainstage production with three Asian leads.(Supplied: La Boite/Dylan Evans)

This week, Stewart reveals the programming of her first season as La Boite’s leader, with a bill of new Australian plays — the kinds of stories she used to watch in high school at the very same theatre.

Three of the four plays are written by people of colour.

La Boite’s 2023 season includes the previously announced gold rush drama The Poison of Polygamy, by Anchuli Felicia King (a co-production with Sydney Theatre Company); doomed relationship comedy Capricorn, by Butchulla and Kabi Kabi playwright Aidan Rowlingson; interracial adoption drama Cut Chilli, by Chenturan Aran; and queer cosplay comedy IRL, by Lewis Treston.

A brown man with dark hair wears a grey t-shirt and winces at the camera while a white woman with grey hair dabs his face.
Cut Chilli unfolds over the dinner table, with Sri Lankan-born adopted son Jamie questioning where he came from.(Supplied: La Boite/David Kelly)

It’s a slate that reveals Stewart’s priorities: to uplift new Australian work by people from diverse communities.

From dance to drama

Stewart was set on becoming a professional dancer until drama class in high school opened a new set of possibilities.

When she first started taking drama, she was struggling academically. But she found that those 45-minute classes were a space where she could build upon the skills she already had from dancing, using movement, her voice and text to tell stories.

“Being in year 8, at a new school, as I was figuring out what my friendship groups were, that transition period is already such a moment of incredible vulnerability, and it’s really tough,” Stewart says.

“Drama was that one subject where I was like, ‘Oh, I can bring my whole self to this.'”

Asian Australian woman with dark hair wears purple dress with colourful splodges while seated in front of a yellow backdrop.
While drama was her new focus, Stewart never stopped dancing — until she had children.(Supplied: La Boite/David Kelly)

By year 10, Stewart knew she wanted to be an actor.

Her parents – her dad an art teacher and her mother an architect and painter — were supportive of her creative ambitions, and the following year they drove her to Sydney to participate in a week-long musical theatre course at the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA).

“I think they knew from an early age that I would be pursuing something in the creative industries,” Stewart reflects.

Her approach to acting

After graduating high school, Stewart auditioned for Australia’s top drama schools, including NIDA and the Victorian College of the Arts. She recalls being the only Asian Australian in the room.

“I remember auditioning … and feeling completely dismissed,” she says.

While Stewart didn’t score a place at drama school, she did make it onto the reserve list at the University of Southern Queensland and ended up studying drama, not acting, at Queensland University of Technology (QUT).

“I was really disappointed, obviously … It’s only now that I fully understand and appreciate what that did for me; that course and the teachers that I had [helped me] to be able to step into a role like this [as artistic director],” she says.

The course gave her a different approach to acting than what was taught in more traditional drama schools: “[At drama school] you have to strip yourself down, so you can be a blank slate, so you can take on both the director’s process and your role.”

But at QUT, Stewart learned how to safely unlock parts of herself for a role.

“My approach to acting was all about bringing my whole self to it … That definitely informed my practice as an actor. It definitely informs my practice as a director and a story developer,” she says.

Now, Stewart is committed to putting measures in place that ensure that artists feel comfortable doing that personal work — including on The Poison of Polygamy, an adaptation of the first novel published by a Chinese Australian author (Wong Shee Ping, serialised between 1909-10), which she will direct.

An Asian Australian woman with red lips and rouged cheeks looks seductively toward the camera with one hand outstretched.
The Poison of Polygamy will star Kimie Tsukakoshi, who also led Stewart’s production of Top Coat at Sydney Theatre Company.(Supplied: La Boite/David Kelly)

“If the process is right and you’ve got considered measures in place to make that a safe thing to do, then you can make magic,” she says.

“Because I’m from a diverse background, the stories and the processes that I’m involved in are about talking about lived trauma, real oppression, things that I don’t think you can fabricate.

“Giving agency to actors and creatives to bring those parts of themselves [into the room] only increases the tools you have to tell the story and make it an amazing experience — for those people inside the process and for the audience.”

Saving grace

Stewart’s father is white and her mother is Chinese Australian, and she says there were limited opportunities for actors like her when she first started auditioning for roles after she graduated from university in 2008.

She auditioned for a role in the sequel to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and for very small parts for Asian characters.

Asian Australian woman with long dark hair wears purple dress with colourful splodges while standing against a yellow backdrop.
“There was such a great underestimation of what I might be able to achieve and the roles that might be suitable for me,” Stewart says.(Supplied: La Boite/David Kelly)

“It was a lot of martial arts movies. [And] I auditioned for Top of the Lake as a prostitute,” she says.

“It wasn’t just Chinese [roles], I was being put up for anything and everything that remotely had the word Asian in the title,” says Stewart.

She recalls that her agent at the time pushed her to learn Mandarin and to change her appearance: “He was like, ‘It would help if you did your eye make-up to make you look a little bit more Asian.’ Because I’m mixed!”

Stewart says her “saving grace” at that time was working in children’s theatre and TV.

At just 19 years old, she began performing as Tashi in the Brisbane-based company Imaginary Theatre’s stage adaptations of the well-loved books by mother-and-daughter authors Barbara and Anna Fienberg.

“[On that show] I learned so much about visual storytelling and how you can make whole worlds from very little,” she says.

She also starred from 2016 to 2018 in TV series Jay’s Jungle, with Samoan Australian actor Jay Laga’aia.

An Asian Australian woman wears an explorer's outfit and broad-brim hat, looking excitedly off-camera while holding binoculars
“There’s something about [children’s TV and] that audience that was the perfect fit for me,” says Stewart.(Supplied: Ambience Entertainment)

“I feel like the stories, the content and the audience [for kids TV and theatre] are more open, more empathetic, less judgmental. It would have been way more demoralising if I didn’t have that [experience],” she says.

A turning point

In 2016, Stewart performed for the first time in La Boite’s Roundhouse Theatre as part of a development reading for Contemporary Asian Australian Performance‘s Lotus Playwriting Project. It was a series of readings from five plays by Asian Australian writers, including Single Asian Female by Michelle Law.