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May 29, 2024

Tiddas: from page to stage

Internationally published, award-winning author of 23 books, Anita Heiss, shares her experience adapting her novel, Tiddas, for the stage.

It’s opening night and I’m wearing an elegant, deep purple, sparkly wrap-around dress on loan from my friend Sarah’s boutique. Most at La Boite are wearing a shade of mauve, lilac and anything else that reflects the jacaranda theme of the play. The official Welcome to Country by Gaja Kerry Charlton under the stars follows VIP drinks and speeches, and we are formally invited into the theatre. As we walk the purple carpet I’d requested, a wave of ‘this is it’ washes over me. A rush of excitement carries me to my seat and then the real ride begins. 

The original process of adapting my novel Tiddas from the page to the stage was personally enriching but also professionally challenging; theatre is a completely different mode of storytelling, having to remove all the detail I’d researched and written for the novel, and turning it into dialogue for the script. 

It was over a glass of wine at QPAC’s Green Jam with executive producer and dramaturg Nadine McDonald-Dowd in November 2019, that this new writing experience began. My long-time tidda, soon-to-be dramaturg, and now deadly director of my first play, invited me to consider adapting my novel Tiddas (Simon & Schuster) for the stage. QPAC were working on a collaboration with La Boite, and I became the playwright-in-residence at the theatre in 2020. When the play was eventually produced, as the playwright, I received a percentage of box office takings.

I was originally inspired to write Tiddas after a visit to Mudgee, Wiradyuri country, back in 2010. I wanted to write about a group of women friends who came from there, but also wanted to pay tribute to Meanjin for the sense of peace it gave me when I would visit. The many walks along Maiwar, the thriving writing community, and the cultural precinct that has something for everyone. Tiddas is a story about contemporary sistahood, the challenges of life-long friendships, the unconditional support we have for the women we care about most in our lives, all wrapped up in a love letter to Brisbane.

With my original inspiration in mind, we sat outside QPAC again two months later, this time with the fabulous Sanja Simic, then Creative Producer at La Boite, and I knew there was no turning back. We immediately became a vibrant trio determined to bring the five tiddas from Mudgee, and their rich complex lives, to Brisbane audiences. We knew locals would love them as much as we do.

Dramaturgs / mentors

Sometimes I still pinch myself, that my play was produced and presented at La Boite Theatre (Brisbane, 2022) and Belvoir St (Sydney, 2024). Neither productions would’ve been so successful without my mentors. 

In letting go of the detail, I learned to trust the director and the cast as I began to understand the extent of their roles in bringing the stories of the five women to life. What a blessing to have so many years of theatrical experience between Nadine and Sanja. Then working with Jane Harrison as we moved into the final months before the Brisbane Festival season in September 2022, I gained more experience, and a tad more confidence in a space where I felt inadequate most days.

A year later, I relished working with Kodie Bedford as my dramaturg on the Belvoir St production, absorbing and actioning her suggestions on improving the script for the Sydney audience. Kodie taught me new ways of looking at the story. 

The blessings continued as Roxanne McDonald, a matriarch of Australian theatre and key cast member in Tiddas, playing all the ‘old girls’, brought more support to me as she took on the co-directing role with Nadine for the Sydney Festival production.

Being mentored by some of the industry’s best, gave me for the first time, an insight into something I previously took for granted when the curtain goes up in a theatre. All the work of the actors, the director(s), the crew managing the lights, sound, wardrobe, the set design and stage management. Nothing says teamwork like a theatrical production. 


My greatest surprise was coming to understand the level of work behind the scenes to create what we saw on opening night. I soon learned that the role of the director beyond telling actors where to stand and how to deliver lines, was phenomenal. 

Before the actors even entered the rehearsal studio, I worked with Nadine and Sanja as we mapped everything out on the wall of the La Boite studio. I’m a plotter when writing a novel but I had to let go of so many of my standard writing processes, and just free myself up to let go of all the words I painstakingly wrote for the play, because theatre as we know is show, don’t tell. How the actor delivers the line, in tone, their actions, the nuances, that is what I had to trust the director and the cast to manage. I had to let go!

It wasn’t until rehearsals began that I experienced the process of working through character backstories, learning about blocking, watching the intensity of the process married with the skills and commitment of the director and the cast, that I found it easy to relinquish the control over my words. Perhaps I attended too many rehearsals, something I thought all playwrights did, but apparently not. And everyone was too polite to tell me to just go away. For that I am thankful.

During rehearsals for the La Boite season, Nadine and I spoke early each morning and late every night for briefings and debriefings. It was during these conversations I came to understand not only the complexity of her role but the passion she took into the space every day. I’ve also seen the depth of respect each of the cast members -in both seasons of the play – had for Nadine’s work, and that’s been something very special to observe as well.


From day one, I had in my mind what the characters looked like on the page, and who I wanted to cast for the play. It turns out I had to let go of my wish list because for both productions those actors were unavailable, but everything happens for a reason and the cast in both seasons changed my mind. I witnessed how they became each other’s family and mine for the duration of the seasons, and watching their rituals before and after each show was extraordinary. 

Sean Dow played all ‘da mens’ in both productions, and it was joy to watch him switch characters, accents, and outfits. I am so grateful for what he brought to a play which was essentially by and for women, a story about Sistahood.

But it was watching the women on stage each night, in both Brisbane and Sydney where I found more strength in my own sense of Sistahood and how that plays out every day. Watching Roxanne McDonald, Phoebe Grainer, Shakira Clanton, Chenoa Deemal, Anna McMahon and Louise Brehmer on set every night in Brisbane, and then Lara Croydon, Jade Lomas-Ronan, Perry Mooney, in the Belvoir St season, raised the bar in terms of pride in our women. 

Being in the green room opening night (well many nights) as the actors warmed up and cooled down was like being in another dimension.

From audience member to playwright

Moving from audience member to playwright changed my perspective on the experience of going to the theatre. It was no longer about just turning up to a theatre and absorbing the story and the skill of the performance, but understanding what it takes to bring the written word to life.

I thought it was normal for the playwright to attend as many performances as possible, to support the cast and welcome theatregoers. Apparently that wasn’t the case, but there I was night after night for the Brisbane season, wearing various shades of purple; mauve, lilac, lavender. And I was glad to be there; I got to talk to the theatre-goers and find out who they were, why they were there. Some had travelled from interstate, others from across Brisbane and down to the Gold Coast. Many were there with their own tiddas, with their book club and some were loyal theatre subscribers. 

At every performance there was laughter, but also a lot of tears. There were women crying behind me, others crying in the foyer of the theatre afterwards. To make the audience feel something – that was my goal. And that was the benefit of writing for the stage over the page.

The difference between someone reading my book in private to sitting in a theatre with the ‘audience’ is that as the writer, I got to witness the emotional response and be part of their journey with my story. And I was surprised every night by the enthusiasm of the diverse audiences and their reactions to certain lines and moments specific to individual characters.

I saw the original production, I think 24 times, and every single show was different. Every audience laughed and gasped, but sometimes in very different place, because we cannot control the way people read or experience theatre. 

Overall, the real thrill is when the lights go up on opening night and the years of work come to life, and you share that moment with the cast and crew, friends and family, and hundreds of theatregoers, and you hope that everyone walks away with something of your original intentions. But as with the book, you have no control over how your work is received at all.

You can only hope the audience enters the theatre with an open heart and mind, and a willingness to feel the story.