A letter from Suellen Maunder, Artistic Director and CEO

2023 – a busy year of developing work, skills, and capacity

After an incredibly busy and formative year for JUTE, nature’s wrath had other ideas, adding Cyclone Jasper (the seventh cyclone in JUTE’s 32-year history) and one in 100-year floods into the mix. It’s not over yet.
While Far North Queenslanders are a resilient bunch, this extreme weather event and widespread flooding took many of us by surprise.

It’s not the run-up to year’s end that any of us expected, and our heartfelt good wishes and support are extended to the many hundreds of people who have been caught in the storm, cut off from roads, water, power and telecommunications, while suffering loss and damage to their homes, cars, businesses, and so much more.

These events bring our community spirit to the fore as we rally and do what we can to help others. It is the human condition at its best. And rather strangely, it is these canon events that, in time, culminate in the seminal Australian stories that are delivered on our stages. Our vital work is to help people share their stories and take them from a lived experience or lightbulb moment into an engaging and powerful performance.

For now, 2024 looms large. We have an even bigger year ahead with programming that will drive the growth of regional theatre across Queensland through training and workshops, internships and pathways, creative developments, industry events, performances, and tours.
We will undoubtedly need all our energy and look forward to re-energising over the festive season – be it travelling to far-flung places, relaxing at home with a book or spending time with family and friends.

So, before we say a fond farewell to 2023, here is a snapshot of JUTE’s 31st year in review.

When you read this, you will see the multiple threads of development work that weave together to create fantastic outcomes for young and emerging regional artists.

Our year began with hosting an open day for JUTE Actors Studio (JAS). This event was a fantastic way of showcasing JUTE’s range of quality, experience-based training and performance opportunities. We also used it to announce NIDA Connect – JUTE’s unique collaboration with the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) which supported regional facilitators to deliver a series of free training modules for young people spanning set and costume design, acting and technical production.

Talking of young people, 2023 has been a fantastic year for our JAS Pathways program students, culminating in this month’s graduation performance of Koalazilla by emerging Cairns playwright Keziah Warren. Delighting audiences with much laughter and hilarity – in the very best way – this was a sparkling highlight of 2023.

From shy to extrovert, it is incredible to see the growth of our JAS students in the period of just one year. For children and young adults with a sense of play, whose imagination and intelligence are sparked by a desire to act, write, or work in theatre, our engaging curriculum equips students with a whole raft of life skills to help them deal with whatever life dishes up.

The JAS Pathwas students’ exuberance and development of craft skills have been spellbinding to watch, and special thanks to JAS facilitators Elizabeth Slattery and Amber Grossmann for sharing their love of theatre with our next generation of theatre makers.

Special congratulations to young actors Braithe and Adria – who have been accepted to study theatre at QUT in Brisbane in 2024, bringing their dreams of a performing arts career one step closer.

It is worthy of note that Overall Arts and JUTE creatively developed Koalazilla throughout the year, with Amber directing the final graduation performances.

Also deserving special mention is our NIDA Connect participant, Marli Smedts, one of the few students across Australia accepted to study Set and Theatre Design at NIDA in 2024. Marli’s set design and costume smarts were also on show in Koalazilla, thanks to expert guidance from Hailey Gillespie. This is one of those lovely examples of how JUTE brings all the pieces together to achieve big-picture outcomes.

2023 was a big year for creative developments. In January, we held the first of three development showcases with our Write Sparks alumni Dennis McIntosh’s (I is Maggie) bold and uplifting new work, Who Took The Fall. This incredible story inspired by Melbourne’s catastrophic West Gate Bridge collapse in 1970 will ignite our audiences when it premieres on the JUTE stage.

While long-established, our Write Sparks program continued to deliver excellent work in 2023. Without Write Sparks, JUTE could not produce plays or share the stories that must be told. Within this scaffold, we support emerging playwrights and take them through the many steps, including creative development showcases, from that tiny spark of an idea to stage production.

Another one of our established programs doing great things in 2023 was Dare to Dream. In May, we launched I Gut This Feeling, the first of two regional and remote touring theatre programs visiting the Indigenous communities in remote centres throughout Far North Queensland.

Forming the centrepiece of the Westpac Safer Children, Safer Communities program, I Gut This Feeling by Isaac Drandic is a compelling narrative that blends beautifully with First Nations storytelling to sensitively address and prevent childhood trauma.

Along with a second, 10-week tour of Back on Track, also written by Drandic, Dare to Dream continues to deliver beautiful outcomes for young people in regional and remote communities of Far North Queensland. Since launching in 2016, this award-winning touring initiative has touched and transformed the lives of over 20,000 young people.

We passed the halfway mark of 2023 in August with the world premiere of our fast and furiously funny production of Higher Faster Louder. Our audiences were ready to jump aboard, buckle up and enjoy the high-flying story about one woman’s quest to become a commercial pilot way back in the day. This heart-warming play about chasing dreams and breaking through glass ceilings was written by Cairns playwright and another Write Sparks alumnus, Marilyn Marsh-Booth. Along with Julia Allman, Elizabeth Slattery, and Kyle Walmsley, I loved returning to the stage as a member of the acting team. And last, but in no way least, deserving of many accolades was our impeccable and talented crew: JUTE’s Senior Creative Producer, playwright and dramaturg, Kathryn Ash, director Matt Scholten, Peter Keavy on sets, props and costume design, lighting designer and production manager Sam Gibb, Russell Milledge as projection designer and Wil Hughes as a composer and sound designer.

Returning to our young people, Higher Faster Louder also formed the runway for three young creatives, Esther Elder, Brennan Ridge, and Adria Cunningham, who embraced the chance to be part of the production team and gained valuable experience. After completing a Bachelor of Theatre degree, Rockhampton-based Esther was fresh from completing JUTE’s Build Back Better regional training pods (covering all theatre disciplines) delivered earlier in the year. This was all the confidence she needed to secure a stage manager’s role for Browns Mart theatre in Darwin and, subsequently, JUTE’s Higher Faster Louder.

Joining Esther Elder on this same production was 18-year-old Innisfail-based Adria Cunningham, who stepped up to assist the production’s director, Matt Scholten. At the same time, Brennan Ridge received valuable mentoring in sound design from Wil Hughes.

September was another busy month with two creative developments: Keziah Warren’s Koalazilla and O, Ophelia, by Amber Grossmann – the latter, a modernised adaptation of William Shakespeare’s classic text, Hamlet, that explores the role of the tragic heroine, Ophelia and will be produced by JUTE in 2024.

Skip to November and another watershed month. JUTE, in partnership with Townsville’s TheatreiNQ, Gympie’s Perseverance Theatre Company and Yeppoon’s Midpoint Theatre Company, delivered a regional tour of the fierce and irreverent roller-coaster ride of the one-woman show Chewing Gum Dreams.

Through JUTE’s Build Back Better Project (which I mentioned earlier), we have made real inroads into the growth of regional theatre, from upskilling 253 practitioners through 46 workshops to the ultimate prize of supporting regional touring.

We know that Queensland is a hotbed of considerable skills and creativity, and the only way to realise this potential is through collaboration, of which this tour was a fabulous example and coming of age – and for this, special thanks must go to investment from the Regional Arts Fund.

And on that final note, let’s not forget the Australian Theatre for Young People’s (ATYP) playwriting program Fresh Ink brilliantly showcased our next generation of playwrights at a live and free play reading event in November.

Kudos to our Cairns-based participants, Amber Grossmann (Seeking a Vape for the End of the World), Adria Cunningham (Hailey), and Lena Bwami (Echoes of Resilience), who met regularly with JUTE’s mentor Kathryn Ash to develop and hone their skills.

After 31 years at the coalface of regional theatre-making, JUTE Theatre Company’s future has never looked brighter. The security of recently announced funding for programming and productions is set to propel Cairns and Queensland’s cultural landscape to new heights in 2024 and beyond – specifically through the three-year Strategic Partnership (Arts Queensland – State) funding under the banner of Driving and Activating the Regional Theatre Sector (DARTS).

JUTE is also proud to have secured important federal investment that will be expended in Cairns and throughout regional Queensland to develop theatre-making, training, and employment.

As a result of Queensland Government initiatives we have been able to appoint two fabulous full-time industry placements, Jess Lamb (Creative Producer DARTS based in Yeppoon) and Serena Thompson (First Nations Production Assistant).

Thank you for being a part of the JUTE family this year. Your unwavering support brings us so much joy and confidence in what we do and bring to the community.

We are looking forward to seeing you all again for another extraordinary year. Until then, stay safe, take care and, of course, take a breath, live, laugh, and love!

Suellen Maunder



In the photo: L-R back: Serena Thompson, Jess Lamb, Nadia Thompson, Kathryn Ash / L-R front: Gaby Thomasz, Monica Stevens, Suellen Maunder