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The Theatre of Law: Suzie Miller and Heather Mitchell on Ruth Bader Ginsburg

She wanted to be up on the world stage, using her voice to change things, to change people, to change their feelings, to change.

Suzie Miller

From being the second woman appointed to the US Supreme Court until her passing, Ruth Bader Ginsburg's inspiring journey through the legal realm was characterised by her fierce advocacy for gender equality and justice, and provided the backdrop for an evening of conversation about the work, RBG: Of Many, One

Step into the captivating world of theatre and law as we bring together three remarkable women – playwright and legal luminary, Suzie Miller, and acclaimed actor Heather Mitchell in conversation with producer Jo Dyer – who have left an indelible mark on the stage and beyond.  

Hear them draw back the curtain on the alchemy that gave life to the mesmerising RBG. An engaging conversation that unites their unique perspectives, unveiling the delicate interplay of literary finesse and theatrical brilliance. 

Presented by UNSW Law & Justice, UNSW Arts, Design & Architecture and Sydney Theatre Company


David Gonski: Ladies and gentleman, I'm David Gonski. I'm Chancellor of the University of New South Wales, and it's one of the perks of my office to be given the honour to welcome all of you here tonight. In welcoming you, we also acknowledge the traditional owners of the land on which this theatre and, indeed, our university stands – the Bidjigal people, and I pay my respects, and yours in turn, to their elders past, present, and in the case of a university, emerging. 

For me tonight is extremely special. It's special firstly because two of my loves outside of family and general life is basically education and this university and Dramatic Art. And tonight, we're going to see a meld of the two here at the University of New South Wales. We're going to talk about and see two extraordinary women in conversation with another extraordinary woman. 

The second thing that's terribly special to me is 50 years ago, when I was a student, a very young student at the law school here, one of the lecturers gave me a paper by a woman called Ruth Bader Ginsburg. She was then a lecturer, I believe, at Columbia University, mid-70s. And I must tell you, it was quite a rough paper for a young boy. But it sure opened my eyes to things, and it is amazing to me 50 years later to have the privilege of sitting here or standing here to talk about her. 

And finally, it's special because I absolutely make no secret of the fact that I am each of the M's groupie – Suzie Miller, who is an alumnus of this university; that's the good people we produce. Great playwright. I've been to both the plays that I've been allowed to go to RBG and Prima Facie. I've loved both of them. You're extraordinary, and it is wonderful to be here. 

As for Heather Mitchell, well, Heather lives just down the road from me. I say hello to her pretty well every day, and she doesn't even notice me. I'm hoping that this is a special night, that a great actress, a really great actress will now say, “Hello, who are you?”. 

To all of you, welcome to being here. I'm now going to call upon Jo Dyer, and I've had the honour actually of working with Jo at Sydney Theatre Company many years ago. Whatever Jo does, she does well. I can read you all her accolades. But let me tell you, she will be an extraordinary interviewer tonight because I've never seen her do something half-baked. So Jo, I'll leave it to the two Ms and Jo. 

Jo Dyer: Thank you all very much for coming here today. It is a great honour for us all. I'm going to be your host with these two fabulous women, both of whom I would have to say are having something of a moment, really. I think before we begin, I'd like to acknowledge that our event tonight has been held on Bidjigal land. I think the weekend's referendum is a bit too raw for all of us to say too much, I think about white gratitude for Aboriginal custodianship of land. So perhaps I'll just cite one of Ruth Bader Ginsburg's more enduring quotes, which says “real change, enduring change happens one step at a time”. And we hope we take a step forward on the weekend. But alas, it was not to be so, a sad time for us in our relationship with our Indigenous brothers and sisters. 

It will take too much time to go through the very impressive and very full CVs of our two guests tonight, and David has done some of that for me anyway. So I'll simply say that Suzie Miller has had over 40 productions of her plays produced all around the world and has won many, many prestigious awards. Perhaps most excitingly and recently, the 2023 Olivier Award for Best Play for the global sensation that her play Prima Facie has become. She works across theatre, film and television, although we creatures of the theatre like to think that her real home is with us in theatre. 

And relevant to this audience, of course, as David alluded to, is that she has a background in law and faced her final career sliding-doors moment in 2009 when she had to choose between a job offer as a magistrate in Sydney and a one-year residency at the National Theatre in London. And now, whilst she hasn't looked back as a playwright, I will say she didn't entirely leave the law behind with it becoming key subject matter for some of her key works, including her recent suite of works that we'll be talking about. Tonight, the aforementioned Prima Facie which we will touch on because how could we not? And its follow-up, Jailbaby, which recently premiered at Griffin, and of course, her acclaimed bioplay of Ruth Bader Ginsburg – RBG: Of Many, One. She is a UNSW graduate, as David has already boasted.  

Now, Heather Mitchell is one of our most celebrated actors, a true doyenne of the stage and screen. With a career spanning over 40 years, she has appeared in literally hundreds of theatre, film and television productions, both here and internationally. She can currently be seen alongside her old mate, Hugo Weaving in Love Me, streaming on Binge for which she won a silver Logie last year. And in February, she will reprise her role as Ruth Bader Ginsburg for Sydney Theatre Company on a national tour. Her debut book, the memoir Everything and Nothing, which is a beautiful read, was recently published by Allen and Unwin.  

So let's get underway because we don't have anywhere near enough time for these two wonderful women. And I thought that we would start the night by talking a little bit about writing itself, and the writing process as we have a relatively new author on our panel in Heather. And one of the interesting things about Ruth Bader Ginsburg was the importance that she attached to words and writing, because it was a lesser-known fact that she was during her time as an undergraduate at Cornell, taught by Vladimir Nabokov. That one and she talked about the enormous influence that he had on her writing and how she wrote her judgments, saying that he illustrated for her that choosing the right word, and the right word order, could make an enormous difference in conveying an image or an idea. Now, Heather, you set out to write your memoir relatively recently. And you had lots of stories that you did want to tell because you'd been telling them to yourself for years by encasing your memories in snow domes? 

Heather Mitchell: Oh, yeah. 

Jo Dyer: Can you tell us a little bit about your snow dome collection, its role as an archive of key and important stories in your life? And I guess most importantly, the process that you went through to turn these key memories into this beautiful memoir. 

Heather Mitchell: I wish I'd brought my collection. There are many of them. I have about 200. A lot of them are very mouldy now and leaking, but I started collecting them when I was a child. Now I had no intention of writing a memoir. It was only because of the incredible Malcolm Knox, who is a brilliant writer and journalist. He came and had a coffee with me one day and said, “I'm encouraging people to write,” and he said, “I think you might be good”. So he said, “Write me a story and send it to me within 10 days”. So I went home, and I rattled off one little image of something that had been on my mind for a long, long time. And I sent it to him, and he just said, “Good. Write another one”. So I had no idea I was writing a memoir; I just thought, “How nice that he's encouraging me”. And then it wasn't until I'd written about eight stories, and he said, “Write me six more and Allen and Unwin are going to publish it”. So I'm still a little taken aback that it is a book. And we call it a memoir, even though it's not, I don't think it’s an actual memoir, because it is just a collection of stories. It's certainly not my whole life story. That would be really boring. 

But the snow domes are that – once I began writing it, I discovered that it really occurred to me that what I was actually writing were memories which I have stored, and that in life what I have done when things have happened. So the book is very much moments of conflict, or moments that have instigated some action within me, and that was the premise of each of the stories. But I realised that from when I was very young, I would encase moments in a snow dome, and I call them a snow dome. Because I remember the first snow dome I was given, I would name the characters in the snow dome, and I would make them interact, and I'd shine torches onto them onto the wall. And they became little proscenium arches. 

So when I became interested in theatre, I realised that my snow domes were my first introduction to theatre, and that I could control the stories in them. So I put each of my incidents that happened in my life into these and I stored them on a shelf basically. So all I had to do was pick off each one and write them down. And to quote RBG – you know, I think it was a Professor who was Nabokov, who said, “Paint pictures with words”. And so that was in my mind. And I thought, well, all I have to do really is remember them visually. And just write that down. So that's simply what really, that's how I approached it. And it's not a literary work by any means. It's, you know, I identify as an actor, I suppose. That's my love. So it's an actor's memories of certain things, which are little individual stories. 

Jo Dyer: I’m surprised with that kind of impulse for control that you didn't move into the world of directing, rather than just writing wanting to be able to move the actors around inside the domes? 

Heather Mitchell: Yeah, I don't know. It's interesting – control. I didn't, I guess I didn't identify it as control, so much as working things out. It was more for me working out situations and for instance, my mother was dying for a long time while I was at school. And I had a couple, few, snow domes which were all about the progress of her illness and it was more about me, I would be one character, and she'd be another and I'd talked to her, and she'd talk to me. And so it was sort of a therapy, I guess, from a very young age. 

Jo Dyer: And Susie as alluded to before, you had that classic moment where you had to decide if you were going to go all in with your writing, and you decided that you would. And you've noticed that you're drawn to complex stories that often explore injustice, and that writing can be a way of examining and of taking apart systems in a human way. They're using storytelling to kind of spark empathy in people and try and make the story resonate with people that will hopefully inspire a different way of thinking. So is it the issue? Is it the system that you want to take apart that comes first, when you're contemplating the issue? 

Suzie Miller: Yeah, it's often the issue, or even just the spark of something, that juxtaposed against something else, there's a conflict and a conflict, not in terms of an argument, but just that there's a missing link. So in a way, like physics, the fact that you know, the fact that astrophysics and quantum physics both are exquisite, and amazing, but they can't both exist in the same world, even though we need them both. And so there'll be an overarching one eventually, that ties them together or knocks one out, I'm not sure. But I guess I look for that in human relationships and also in systems that are created by humans, and I guess adjudicate human relationships and human context within a society. God, I sound so, so boring. So I guess really… 

Heather Mitchell: It sounds better than snow domes. 

Suzie Miller: Look, you know, I did go to law school, I went to law school because I was absolutely passionate about finding a language to talk to the world in, and I found it at UNSW. It's like, the law school here is unique in the world, almost, with its small Socratic method classes. And I came from science, I wasn't a talker.  

In fact, I remember looking down my microscope when I was doing my honours year in immunology, and Chernobyl happened, we had the radio on, and everyone looked up and went, “Oh, that was must have been plutonium and whatever”. And, and I went, and I went, “Oh, can we talk about the human context of this and what's going to happen and, and you know, the refugees that have had to leave the area and what it means for the general zone and how the society is going to cope with this,” but everyone was still back there. And I thought, I can't do my PhD in science, I actually need to actually be in conversation and dialogue. That's how I have my ideas, and how I get passionate about things. So what a great choice. UNSW is all about dialogue. So it's no coincidence that from that law school, I really learned dramatic understanding of how a conversation actually explores an idea. 

Jo Dyer: Yeah, and then when you're making that decision to move from the law into storytelling, I think it's really clear that it's the question of the impact that writing can have and that stories can have, you know, a play like Prima Facie had much more of an impact, perhaps on the individual cases that you were dealing with when you were at Shopfront Legal Centre and so on, and eventually kind of got you, well, one of your goals, apparently taking theatre off the arts pages and onto the front of pages. It really gave you the vehicle through which to have conversations with lawyers and judges and a whole range of legal practitioners about the legal system itself and as your protagonists, Tessa Ensler says that “The law of sexual assault spins on the wrong axis and women's experience of sexual assault does not fit the male defined  system of truth. So there cannot be truth and therefore cannot be justice”. Can you talk a little bit about both the impulse behind Prima Facie, and then of course, the impact that it went on to have? 

Suzie Miller: It’s so weird having my character quoted to me. It’s like “She’s right”.   

Jo Dyer: She is absolutely right. And you know we have been having a moment about sexual assault. So to have it encapsulated so succinctly…

Suzie Miller: So I mean, when I was at law school, we had these conversations and quite passionate arguments. And I am a defence lawyer, I have to put that out there that my belief in innocence until proven guilty is fundamental to me, and it's the beginning of a civilised society. Once you have that, there's no longer arbitrary sending people to their death or to jail. So it's really that's a bedrock for me. Having said that, working as a defence lawyer, I thought, there's something a bit wrong about the way that we actually plan the sexual assault cross examination, which is basically to demolish the witness. And to point out that they're inconsistent statements, or the way they've remembered something, means they're lying, or that they've remembered it very wrongly. And I guess I had read, I've done and I've taken enough sexual assault statements from young people, that every single one of them did not want to tell me the statement, but in order to get some victim’s compensation for some social work, or some psychological counselling, they had to make that statement for the application, which they then did.  

Very few of them actually went to the police. The ones that did, a very, very few of them went to court, and they all lost. So I was like, when they were talking to me, the context of that conversation, there was no way those people were lying about what happened, those women were lying about what happened. I mean, obviously, I'm not the arbiter. As a lawyer, I can't be that arbiter. And that's fundamental to the system working. But it started to make me really interrogate the system in a way that I'd done at law school, and probably found a way to Band-Aid over that, it's better to have a system that works. And we have to believe that it works. And of course, because I came from a science background, it's hard to sort of believe in something that's been constructed. And I said, “Well, you know, it's like, well, this is human made, can we change it if it's not working?”. And it seemed that it was very entrenched.  

And so, I felt like I had to explore this idea in a piece of theatre, because most people don't understand how lawyers work. They think that if a lawyer is acting for someone, then they're just getting that person off, because they want to get that person off. Really, they are just a tool as part of greater system where they're telling the court a story, the best version of their client's story. And the other side does the same thing. And then the judge and jury, this sort of magical process of judge and jury, decides which story comes out through that system as having the most likelihood of being true. But I thought, that works in lots of cases, and it sort of always errs on the side of innocence until proven guilty. But the stats for sexual assault was so bad, and also the re-narrating of the case in court was so different to the statements that I'd taken. And I realised that, you know, reading all the psych reports that you know, the actual act of sexual assault, the scene of the crime is the woman's body. So it was like, you're asking someone, who their body is the scene of the crime to not just prove that it happened, and that they didn't consent, but also somehow to prove that the other person knew they weren't consenting. And it just felt really a bit back to front. And I thought, ‘Why is it like this?’. And of course, you know, having gone through the history of law, you think this is generations and generations of male heterosexual, wealthy, and men deciding how the best way to get a cut and dry answer from this is, and thinking of it from their perspective. I mean, these are men that don't do their own laundry.  

So you think, when are we going to feed in what the experience of the other versions? And I think the problem with that version being the predominant version is that, like all of us, even women that… like we consider ourselves strong feminists, we've been brought up in that system to sort of question things like, “Oh, maybe I shouldn't have gone back there, or maybe I shouldn't have walked home at night”. Or “Maybe I shouldn't have kissed the wrong maybe… I trusted him. I was stupid”, or “It's my fault, because I flirted with him”. So you internalise all that crazy stuff that is supposed to be allowing consent to be inferred by someone without anyone actually establishing it.  

So I thought I wanted to write a play that does it. But how can I do it, I need a character that understands the law, because otherwise I'm just buying into the same ‘Oh the law isn't us. And all the people that practice in it are too’. So I created Tessa, as you know, like, and also because I didn't come from like a wealthy family. I came from a family where no one had been to university. So I also wanted to double up and make a bit of a chip on my shoulder comment about the fact that everyone I met in law when I got there, I was sort of like I was being hyper vigilant about, ‘How do they know this stuff about how things work’ and ‘How to have you know, which cutlery to use’ and all of those sorts of things that come when you come from a certain family. And so, I wanted Tessa to inherit that from me and then to actually be someone that did defence law, but also did sexual assault, defence law, like representation.  

And then for her to be able to have that argument that so many people had. And then when you step on the other side, you realise, ‘Oh, the system actually isn't perfect at all’. And in fact, one of the High Court judges at the Old Bailey said to me, I mean, she said it in one line, I thought, maybe I didn't need to write the play. But she said, “Yes, basically, the courts are not fit for purpose when it comes to sexual assault”. No, I just wrote a whole play to say that one line, Oh, my gosh. I have to say that, you know, here, we had a great response. And we had so many different changes in terms of… The Law Reform Commission of New South Wales came to a matinee, which I thought, ‘Oh, yeah, they came to the matinee, they got paid to come to see my play. Everyone else had to buy a ticket at night’. But you know, in the UK, they've been fundamental changes to the system, which is like overwhelming on some level, because as a lawyer, I thought that I'd hung up those kinds of ‘change the system boots in that way’. But these were lawyers actually doing things after they saw the play or read the books so…  

Jo Dyer: Which is such an incredible thing. 


Jo Dyer: Yeah, and it does demonstrate really the power of the arts and Heather, it's interesting. It's interesting, isn't it really, that storytelling is so uniquely able to cut through and change the prism through which people look at an issue or act as kind of an inspirational source for people. And Ruth Bader Ginsburg, herself, had a passionate belief in the law, as a vehicle for change and we'll come to that too, but she was equally passionate about the arts and opera in particular. And she said, “The arts lifts me beyond myself, beyond my studies, beyond striving, beyond the difficulties of life, anxiety, fear, and I soar”.  

And it really seemed, but it really did seem to provide for her a salve from the day to day challenges or pressures of her leadership, and was also where she hung out with her unlikely best mates, Scalia. Did you find that, as you were doing your research that the idea of her having an inner life and having that great vision and imagination that came from that was very useful to her? 

Heather Mitchell: Absolutely, I think that one of the great things, I mean, the law side of it, obviously, I don't have any of the knowledge of Suzie. But what I so loved about what Suzie created with this play, was very much about equally, not only her professional life, but you know that her personal life, she turned the personal into the political in a way that her whole – she brought so much of her life to her work, and that she did have such an inner life. And which actually, I think was what gave her so much of her determination. And I can't speak for her, of course, but from the research I did, and from actually getting that amazing opportunity of saying her words, and each night, trying to recreate some essence of her was that her absolute love of language and music and the language of music, and particularly opera, and what she derived from that not only great pleasure, but I think that there was some fundamentals within the structure of music, and the communication of that. And it was her first experience of going to the opera that her mother took her – they only could only afford one ticket and the mother gave her a ticket for her 17th birthday. 

Suzie Miller: 16th birthday

Heather Mitchell: 16th birthday. Sorry, Suzie. Fact checking. And the mother waited outside…  

Suzie Miller: Don’t worry, I would have let it go.  

Heather Mitchell: And the mother waited outside, and it was in that first experience that she had that she realised how much she wanted to use her voice. Initially, it was as an opera singer herself. She wanted to be up on the world stage, using her voice to change things, to change people, to change their feelings, to change... and it was so aspirational. And she had this unique and incredible experience. And then realised… actually one of her Professors who said, “You can do this with the law, that then through the law, you can create that. You can be on the world stage talking about how to change the world through the language of the law”. And that really, I think, inspired her so much.

Jo Dyer: It did take her a while to get there, of course, because she did have a hell of a lot of challenges herself as she sought to make her mark in the legal profession or even to get into it in the first place and get to university. You have a great story in your memoir, Heather, where you talk about people who like to stand in your light and stymie you as you're on stage and I liked it. So there’s a bit like, we'll just tell that a little bit quickly about some senior actors who don't like you having your moment. 

Heather Mitchell: Ah, right. I’ll just talk about ‘standing in the light’, what it is to ‘stand in someone's light’ and the different meanings that can have. But in the theatre or on film, when someone ‘stands in your light’, they're basically casting a shadow on you. And so therefore, if you, you often do it to someone else, and if that happens, by accident, you just shift, or you make sure that you know you can be seen. And that there was one particular actor I worked with who was so clever, and such a brilliant actor. But on stage, they would take one step back with every line, another step back until they were centre stage right at the back and everyone else was looking up at them, and they were not only in your light but you know, you were completely turn the other way. But I mean, I think it was relatively unconscious. But what was… is there a question? 

Jo Dyer: By way of an introduction to the fact that Ruth had people standing in her light, and she was trying to be, first of all, a student at Harvard Law School. And she had, you know, she was one of nine women of a cohort of 500. And there's the world, now infamous story really, where the Dean of the Law School, Suzie, you'd like to tell that… 

Suzie Miller: I think it sort of encapsulated so much about how she grew up in that sort of hostile world for women at university, but at law school, even more so because you're taking away an opportunity from someone who could be a great man, you know, and I think that what was interesting, sorry… 

Heather Mitchell: We had that quite recently, didn’t we? About, ‘great men’. 

Suzie Miller: In fact, the Dean said, “I need each of you to stand up and justify why you've taken this position,” like away from someone that a man could have had, you know, “You’ve taken up a position that a man could have had and therefore, hopefully much more wisely than you,” of course, according to him. But you know, she was very angry about that, that even it was being asked, but she also knew that she had to play the long game. And I think that's a really interesting thing and one of the reasons I wrote Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s story is, first of all, she was an icon to me. Like David, I mean, I read her at law school. And I thought, ‘Finally!’ and she's also a genius. So if you're actually someone that loves to think about things deeply, to read her arguments is just, you know, it's like catnip to a kitten nearly like, oh, my gosh, this is incredible. I'm learning. I'm so attracted to all her words. But I think also that idea that, you know, she was about playing the long game. And yet, what she's cut down for so often now is the fact that even though she seemed to be able to see 20 years ahead of everybody else, in terms of like planning out how the law could actually work for women, the one thing she didn't see coming was Trump, like most of us, yeah, in that way, she was a human like the rest of us. That was inconceivable. But you know, the truth is that if you do you almost have to see those things. 

Jo Dyer: Yeah. And we'll come to that because that issue around her… well, essentially her failure to retire. Yeah, I know. That I mean, the scene of that in the play was really powerful. So we will come to that because I still for that decision that she made, but before she made that error of judgement, some might say, You did put it very well, I think but I mean, she talked very freely, I think about the fact that she doesn't feel that she would have been able to achieve quite what she did if she hadn't had a very supportive husband. And she watched other colleagues of her in that cohort of nine, who didn't get to be the lawyers that they hoped to be because they married and had kids. 

Suzie Miller: I mean, I have to tell you a funny story just because I actually wrote Marty into it specifically as a kind of call-to-action to men, as a template of how it means to live as a feminist man. It's not just to sort of put your hand up as one but it's to actually cook those meals and help with those and be part of the raising of your children because that's what holds women back. 

But I had dinner with a female judge and her husband over the Christmas after it was on, and a very funny guy actually – nonstop chatterbox – when he said, “What was so great about RBG is all the women came out crying and really like ‘Oh, she was amazing’ and holding other women saying ‘Oh, we’ve got to keep her legacy going and fight for women’s rights’”. And he said all the men came out going, “I went to see a play about RBG and I think I’m a Marty!” And I went, “Of course, they did”. 

They all thought they were already a Marty because they are at the theatre with their partners. And it made me laugh so much because I thought I was offering you a template to almost show, “Oh, I should have done more of that”. But nope, they thought “I’m already there!”. 

Jo Dyer: RBG, I mean, it was thought her other great teacher from Cornell, Robert Cushman who said with the law, you can change things with words. So she went to law school because she thought… 

Suzie Miller: He was a great ally, that man. 

Jo Dyer: Yeah, yeah, an instrument for change. And it was, and we will come to some of the cases in a second. But was it slightly discombobulating for you, Suzie, to have come off a play where the law was kind of such an ambivalent force in the lives of women where they were depressed and erased, where she was all in for it to be this this realm of possibility. 

Suzie Miller: Not at all. Because I mean, that’s the beauty of the people that are trained in law, is that the whole idea is to be rigorous about every part of it to either sing the praises of it, that the parts of it that makes sense, and to constantly… I say in in one of my plays, I don't know which one, but the law is an organic thing. It's meant to change with contemporary society, we're meant to actually keep it alive in terms of precedent and the law and the changes of legislation. And it requires people that are prepared to actually point out its flaws. I think, I'm not talking about me, I'm talking about people in the profession and, and the community feeding back what its values are. 

And, and I felt that, you know, I was in the same vein, in a way like he was someone that had fought very hard to look at the way to make change. And she realised that the system is about incremental change, like slowly chipping away at the marble of issues that can't be seen. 

And I think, it was actually in Prima Facie that Tessa said, “Once you see, you can't unsee” and in a way that to me is what theatre can do. It creates empathy, where you actually are really barracking for a character. And then when you realise that, “Oh, actually, there's something wrong”. 

You can't unsee what the stumbling blocks are. And I think, you know, people come out of RBG, and they can see the stumbling blocks, but they can see the human. And Heather does her so beautifully, that they really feel the human being. And they can see the dilemma and also the part of human nature that sometimes fails you. And in fact, that's why we have the system, because all of us would want to go and kill the person that does XYZ into our children. But the system is there to say, “We will have a system that does the judging and the sort of dealing of punishment or retribution out so that you don't have to take that on yourself”. And so that it's actually a better community decision. So we're all part of the system, and we feed back into it, whether we like it or not just by either partaking of it or by resisting it and speaking out or voting, like we did on the weekend. 

Suzie Miller: And so, you know, I mean, the thing is, is it's actually about a democracy. So I am a very, very big believer in democracy. And I think Ruth Bader Ginsburg would have said very strongly that the institutions of democracy, the separation of powers, which I know I go on about a lot, but that is, you know, that is the thing that wobbled with Trump. 

He tried to interfere with judges, he tried to really put undue pressure on judges and the system and speak across it, and basically those institutions wobbled. Like that was where you could almost see America going down, just if that all crashed and burned, that she was a big holder of that – those institutions. 

Jo Dyer: And she was very strategic. And as you say, she was playing the long game. So it was like this accumulation of cases and precedents that she did one step after the other. So starting with the tax case… 

Suzie Miller: Yeah, which I love. And that came from Marty. 

Jo Dyer: From Marty, yeah. 

Suzie Miller: But you know, of course, you never ever create a gender argument. In the first instance about women, you go to the dominant power and say, “Oh, look how this is affecting you just because you're this gender”. And they go, “That's terrible!” Because they could see that one and then once you’ve done that, you've created a pathway or a corridor through which you can start weaving. And I loved that about her that you know, there's something very, you know, I'm such a passionate kind of fighter. But I felt that there was something very sanguine about that, about recognising, “I'll just put foot after foot”, even though she knows what she wants in the end game. She's prepared to make those small steps to get there. And then possibly when she got there and started making change, one of the real issues was that she'd made a big leap and maybe she didn't do the increment, she didn't have the same perspective. 

Heather Mitchell: But she did have that very early prescient perspective on Roe v Wade as well, which… 

Suzie Miller: She did. She got really hammered for that actually. 

Heather Mitchell: Yeah. But she understood that it didn't offer the same protection. 

Suzie Miller: Exactly. It wasn't a fundamental human right. It was the right of doctors which were predominantly male, to have privacy with their patient. It was based on, you know, it wasn't an inalienable right for women. 

Jo Dyer: So for someone who was so strategic. 

Suzie Miller: Yes. 

Jo Dyer: Let’s come to it. She knew that Obama basically wanted her to retire. And Heather, you'd said that, when you first read those scenes in the play of that lunch with Obama and that kind of intellectual parrying that went on… 

Suzie Miller: Although I have to say that, that’s fiction. I don’t really know what they spoke about. 

Jo Dyer: No, I know. 

Suzie Miller: I wasn’t there. 

Jo Dyer: But there was a lunch. 

Suzie Miller: Yeah, there was a lunch and two people were there and one of them no longer is alive… 

Jo Dyer: No, no. I understand, I didn’t think you were literally. As powerful you may be Suzie, you were not quite there… That may come. But I mean, you did articulate that very well. And I guess that's what you were responding to when you first read that, that kind of the parrying and the encapsulation of that fundamental question, which does now come up with RBG all the time. 

Heather Mitchell: Yes, no, yes, I agree. I read the first draft that Suzie… and it was a really long play, but those scenes really just jumped out at me. They're incredible. And just talking about what you're doing, but in terms of her strategy, it was also that she… it was like she could determine what was immediate action needed to be taking, and what was the long – she was very clever it seemed to me at knowing what was for the future. She had great, the intelligence of the future, was what she talked about was… she had great faith and enormous faith that one day things could be changed if not right now. And I think that's why also she couldn't stand down. 

Suzie Miller: Yeah, when she talked about her judgments being letters to the future, which was sort of fantastic. 

Heather Mitchell: I think that’s actually a beautiful… I mean, I guess that was the thing that I was finding in conflict is that Obama is making laws for right now. And she is actually writing for… she's preparing something for people that are yet to be born. So that is the juxtaposition of the legislature and the judiciary, really. 

Jo Dyer: And in many ways, I mean, I know you didn’t know exactly what was said. I did wonder, is there anything on the public record about? 

Suzie Miller: Nothing. I searched, and searched and so yeah, and then I thought you know, like I want to make it theatrical anyway. Like you kind of get to know the characters a bit, I mean people recognise Obama in that scene, and they recognise her, because by the time Heather comes up with that scene, she's laid the groundwork for who she was. 

And I mean, it really, to me, it was about showing that separation of powers. And I guess the playing around of that. Like, if you believe this, if you enacted my thing, it’s my judgement on Ledbetter – it’s not because I told you to so you can’t tell me… so you know, and I think Obama is a really intelligent man so I think he would have understood it but it didn’t serve his purpose. 

Jo Dyer: No, it kind of undermined his own case, the fact that he used his minority judgments in Ledbetter, because she said, “I don't need to be in the majority to be making the impact. Now, you are using my words for major legislative unnecessary reform in the case of equal pay”. But we do live with the consequences of her decision. And I always speculate, you know, I mean, I think like everybody, she just never assumed that Trump would win so she made the judgments that she could afford to stay. 

Suzie Miller: I mean, if I'm being honest. I feel like, you know, the cases that she made judgments on between the time of her refusal with Obama and her death, absolutely. Those letters to the future, they're roadmaps for how to change the law, and how to make a more equal society that one day, well, when we have the right lineup, you'll go back and read those and think these are works of genius, and they actually apply to hopefully 2050 or whatever. 

But I think what she lost was her incremental change. Actually, she was so caught up because she knew if she left these legacy letters to the future, that she would be affecting something way down the track, hopefully. But she also thought she was preparing the ground for the moment that her and Hillary could just go bang, yeah, like change everything. 

And that, in a way, is her forgetting what she knew when she did the Moritz case, which is the man who didn't get a tax break as a carer because he was a man. So she forgot that you know, people don't like change, as we sadly found out on the weekend that visionary change seems to be frightening for people. So you do it little by little. And I think that she got to that point where she could just see a female president and a female, like her in the in the Supreme Court, writing these amazing judgments. And it could just be you know, I mean, I can't but think, “Oh my god, imagine that”. Yeah. So how could she not imagine and see this perfect kind of finale to her work? So there is ego in that though, there's no doubt about that.

Jo Dyer: There is, but you know, I guess we can forgive her for having an ego after all that she achieved. I mean, what was interesting as well is that, you know, lawyers in the room, there are reasons, passionate reasons to love her. But she weirdly became this pop cultural icon as well, in her later years, which you represent so well in the play as well. I mean, she's… Notorious RBG, and then now there's been a Hollywood film made about her life. And there's also a feature documentary, what was it about the theatre as well that you thought lent itself to her life? And in particular, I guess, a one person show, because, we'll come in a second to just like the technical difficulty, that bar of difficulty that Suzie set you by playing 30 characters. 

Suzie Miller: I think there were two things. One is that no matter what I write, and I've loved writing prose, I might have even really enjoyed writing for screen. But theatre is in my DNA, it's like who I am as a human being. I never went to the theatre before my 20s, believe it or not. My parents were not… even though my grandmother was an actress. By that stage, it was not spoken about, like my grandfather didn't want any of his other offspring ever thinking of doing something like that. So he's rolling in the grave somewhere. But, you know, so when I went to the theatre, I was just like, “Wow, this is, I mean, you know, once in a lifetime moment where you just know, this is your language, this is these are your people”. And they still are, I mean, I talk about it, because I grew up Catholic in a very convent based Catholic background. And I say, it's like being Catholic without the church, like you all get together, without the religion, you get together, and you know, watch something together, and then you talk about it outside about the ideas, and then you kind of bitch about each other. But you're the first person there with a bowl of soup when someone's sick. So it just feels like this community of dialogue and discussion and politics. I mean, not that that's Catholic, necessarily, but certainly theatre has everything that I love in it. 

So the minute I have an idea or I'm excited about something, my first place is to go to theatre. Having written Prima Facie, I felt like I, I knew a way of putting a woman on stage alone, that where she got everything, like it was all about her. And I really loved doing that with Jodie. Because the reason I did it with Jodie was more that I didn't want to show the sexual assault on stage. Well not Jodie, Sheridan and Jodie, but with that play. And so I found a way to have her inner thoughts and play every other character. And so there wasn't any ambiguity about what happened to her. But then once I had that format, I thought, “I'm gonna do this grand, amazing play about someone who I just cherish”. And I have this fantastic friend, and it was lockdown and I went, “Hey”, and we were like, “Let's do it together. This is amazing. Like, why don't you be RBG”. And then I pitched it to STC saying, “Only with Heather”. 

Jo Dyer: And that really was I mean, it is about 30 characters that you portray in that 90 minutes, which is an incredible feat. I mean, being there holding the space on your own, but then having to, you know, slip between characters in that way. 

Heather Mitchell: I remember originally, I think when we did the first read it was a suggestion to that I would play all the characters originally, it was her relaying conversations she'd had, wasn't it? 

Suzie Miller: No, no. But certainly… 

Heather Mitchell: Anyway. Yeah. Look, the thing about doing a monodrama, which is what Suzie calls one person – this one-person show is that it's never about, firstly, the writing is so wonderful, and there's the very personal and then there's also the very professional woman, but you know, any theatre production, it's never one person, because there's not really the writing, which is the blueprint print for everything. And if the writing is good, and it excites you, then it's just gold. 

But there's also you know, extraordinary costume designer who created… David Fleischer, who I've never done a costume fitting like this before, where he sourced patterns that were as close as possible to the clothes she actually wore, and fabrics that was close to and he'd done such detailed research. So, so much was given to me through the costuming. The wig was extraordinary that Lauren had created. The lighting, Alex Berlage, that certain lighting would help me enormously, create the physical attributes of her and Paul Charlier who did the music which was extraordinary, which was so much of the emotional content of the piece, and then you've got a brilliant stage manager – you've got Priscilla Jackman, the director and Sharon Millerchip, so it's a real team who created this. So yes, I was alone on stage but I never felt alone because I was with all these thoughts. And that's what's so wonderful about playing a person who so much to think about. 

Suzie Miller: Heather said something amazing where she was on stage… you say it. 

Heather Mitchell: I was on stage and I was doing the scene with… there's a wonderful scene with Clinton where she… 

Suzie Miller: Do Clinton, just do Clinton quickly. 

Heather Mitchell: She's waiting so she's having a meeting with Clinton. And, and I was doing this scene as “Mr. President”, and he said, “Ms Ginsburg, thank so much for coming in”. And she said, “Thank you so much for seeing me, President Clinton”. And then I was standing on stage and I’d said my line and I’m looking at him and I was thinking, “Oh come on, say your line”. And then I thought, oh fuck, it’s me. And then I said, “Oh Ms. Ginsburg… blah blah blah”, but I was so sure of the other actor had dried but that just shows it’s the quality of the writing. 

Suzie Miller: No, no. it’s the quality of the actor because she was so… 

Heather Mitchell: A well written piece will allow you to immerse yourself in it. Because sometimes, no matter how hard you work as an actor, no matter how prepared you are, if the writing doesn't carry you, it feels awful. 

Suzie Miller: But you know, as a writer, hearing that is astonishing, because I just thought, “Oh, now she's gonna say this”, but I didn't realise she was actually going to step into the role. 

Jo Dyer: Step into the role. I know. 

Heather Mitchell: But yeah, it was a unique preparation for this show. Because it was just such an exciting piece, but the voice work, I really miss, I remember at the end, when the show closed, I really grieved her. And I grieved almost the way she spoke, because, you know, we talk about step by step and how strategic and how clear thinking and how precise, and how methodical, and how patient and how much she listened, and all these extraordinary qualities. And I miss that, because I'm not so good at all those things. 

Suzie Miller: But so much of your personality changed to be a bit… 

Heather Mitchell: Enormously, I’m just so grateful to get to do it again, not only as an actor, because you always want another opportunity to get things, just take them to the next level. But more because I really miss, I miss her company. Yeah. 

Suzie Miller: Aww, but Heather also said, you know, she called me one day. We're having a conversation about something that's a bit tricky and she said, “You know, Ruth would say this, so let’s do this”. I’ve created a monster. 

Jo Dyer: Now, we are going to have the opportunity to go to questions from the floor, either through the microphones or via slido – if you've been using this. Hello, everybody. Gosh, oh, there's already a few. Well, one of them. We've just touched on a little bit about the process in crafting the physicality and the voice of the author and how it changed throughout the play with a character growing older. And just to add to that, as well. I was also interested, you know, normally she says not an actor, creating a character can be about kind of excavation, kind of finding the character through, you know, the weeks in the rehearsal room. Does that change somewhat? When you're recreating a person who exists? Is there more external research rather than internal exploration? 

Heather Mitchell: It's interesting. No. So I think the great thing about playing someone who was alive, who had a life and the wonderful thing about Ruth was that there is so much material. There are so many books, so people have written about her. You can listen to wonderful audio of her. And through the ages as well as she gets older and there's a wealth of information about her so, but it's a very similar process because the things about her personal life, and that's why I'm so grateful that Suzie has put in the show. So much interwoven her private and personal life, which informed so much of her political and not political, her judicial life because the things that were important to her and her personal life were the things that she fought for. The things that she had had to fight for her in her own life, being a woman, a mother, Jewish, all the things, dealing with cancer, having a mother who died when she was young. 

Jo Dyer: And weirdly, there were some similarities in key life moments with you as well. 

Heather Mitchell: Well, when I was researching her, I said to Suzie, “Suzie, this is so amazing”. I feel very in touch with her emotionally because, well, I have an American citizenship as well as Australian. I was brought up with a Jewish mother, my mother died my last exam at school, so did her mother, her husband's sister died of meningitis, my youngest son had meningitis, and lived, thank you. She married a man called Marty, who she was with for life. I'm married to a man called Marty, who I'm with for life, when he's around, and he cooks sometimes. But he's always there for me. And she had two kids, I had two kids, she's had cancer multiple times, I've had cancer a few times. And there were just things that I felt I could tap into. And I felt it was such a privilege to be able to feel this identification with her on a private level. And I thought, ”Oh, I think I get some of these things. And that was wonderful”. Yeah. 

Suzie Miller: And you know, Heather didn’t just have to learn Ruth. She also had to learn, well, the President and… 

Heather Mitchell: Well Jennifer White, she’s an amazing… 

Suzie Miller: Can you just do the Trump for us. 

Heather Mitchell: Well, alright. So, I worked with this wonderful voice coach, Jennifer White, she's absolutely fantastic. And she really helped me find images for each of the other characters. So you know, Clinton was like sitting back on the porch with his whiskey. Obama was sort of very specific thinking and never finished, always paused in the middle of a sentence to get his idea across. So you wouldn't interrupt him and then finish the sentence, and a certain melody in his voice, and then Trump, we saw Trump as this, you know, those things outside car yards? Those kind of balloon people. So we kind of had this image of Trump like… *imitating trump* … I fucked up.., It’s so long since I’ve done it. *Imitating trump* … I fucked up, she was a slut… But  anyway, so Trump was always this character, so we weren't trying to mimic these people, we wanted to find some sort of essence about them, rather than try and mimic them. Find one little one little key to them, which was more about their personality as much as their vocal quality, you know, so that was what we went for rather than to mimic. 

Jo Dyer: Suzie, a question for you and about your decision to change careers. Can you share any memories about the factors in your life that are in play at that moment of decision making? 

Suzie Miller: Sure. It’s very vivid for me actually. So I’ll be as quick as I can. But basically, at that stage, I'd already worked around the human rights sector at the Public Interest Advocacy Centre, which was run by Andrea Durbach, who's an Emeritus Professor at this law school who is amazing, and still is, and is a very close friend. And then I'd been at the Aboriginal Legal Service, and I'd been at, you know, Children's Rights. And then I was at the Shopfront Legal Centre and I realised that I was doing a lot of sentence matters for young people that have been convicted. And what I would do is, I realised that I just had to give the magistrate a reason that they could tick box to not send them to prison without it being their fault. 

So I would create a story where I would say, “Your Honour, this person…” and also most people when they do it, and this is something that law students should know – when they do a defence matter, they go, “My client is very sorry about this and my client this, and my client that” but you’re actually the voice of your client so I would say you know or they’d say, “I've been instructed that they didn't say that, and I've been instructed that,” so I would just say, “My client like you know, John. Your honour, I just have to give you some background but when he was three, he was found in an abandoned car in his street, having been assaulted by a stranger and then taken by the police back home to his mother and his father, who were both drug users and he was left there for the next 12 years, the state did not intervene”. And I said, “And then when he was at school, and all these things happened to him, the state did not intervene. When he left school, and he had all sorts of issues and problems. No one had his back. This is the first time he's before the state and if you send him to prison, you're ending his life basically. And so you have an opportunity now”, and then I would turn around and say, “I have a Rolls Royce of a system that he can tap into today, which is social work, rehab, some counselling this, us at our centre, but if you send him to prison now that goes away,” and then I would say, ”and the public purse will be paying for him for the rest of their lives. So you're doing the public a favour by giving him this opportunity that I have laid out that is free”. And then they’d go, “Alright”. 

And so I realise that storytelling and creating empathy where someone's got power, and it's not going to cost them to tick the box. I mean, yeah, I worry about the whole ‘yes, no’ vote, because in fact, it wouldn't have cost anyone to tick the box of ‘yes’. But I just felt that when I was in court, I was learning to tell stories where, you know, where you could say, ‘If this was your kid, how would you feel like the state did not help? And now you are the state, and we have an opportunity to do something’. And I feel I feel like you can create empathy in anyone. I really do believe that. I hope that anyway. And I feel that once someone has empathy for something, it actually that people have a natural desire to, to lessen that unfairness. And so it starts conversations. 

And I mean, I hope, you know, at this point in global politics, it just doesn't feel like that's even possible. But having said that, I just think that if the right people see the right story, or read the right story, or the right words, it doesn't have to be a didactic, convincing legal argument. It can just be the story of one human. And I feel like maybe that's the only thing we as a community have control over – how we tell the stories of human by human. 

Jo Dyer: And it was telling those stories, then you thought you had a better opportunity to... 

Suzie Miller: Oh sorry, I forgot the question. And I would go to dinner parties, and people would talk about well, most of us were lawyers, I'm married to a lawyer. And if people would talk about what their cases were. So they get to me, and I would just talk about my cases. And my husband would say, “You can't talk about your cases, it's like social death,” like basically, everyone just goes, “Well, can’t really compete with that. It sounds really awful. I feel bad now talking about my copyright contract”. 

And I realised that you know, that these were really quite unique human stories, and then I had to find a way to talk about them. And, you know, the thing is, I was so passionate about writing, and I was passionate about law, you know, people think I left because I didn't like it. I was doing very well, I loved it. But it's almost like I got to that stage where I had reached the level of my influence. I didn't want to be a magistrate. And I thought, well, that's the natural progression. If I don't want to start working in the judiciary, then really, I'm not passionate enough. So and the other one, I did want to go to London as well, so I mean, I've never looked back. 

Jo Dyer: I think we've got time for one final question. And there's sort of two here that I want to ask. But I think we've really got time for one. Just hearing you talk there about, about your experience in the law, and actually having seen Jailbaby, which is kind of where you do represent that moment of, one this way your life's over, this way it isn't. And you do represent that very well, are there any other features of the law? the question asks, in Australia, that you'd like to focus on in the future? 

Suzie Miller: Absolutely. The poor law is going to have another Suzie Miller interrogation. Now, I’ve actually written another play that’s actually been commissioned by the National Theatre in London that is like at the moment, they're just basically putting it together for a season. 

And that is really a very different conversation about a mother who's a judge, whose teenage son is accused of a sexual assault, and how we actually… because my thing is also that we're doing our sons a disservice by not educating young people about consent or not teaching mutual respect of genders or all genders, really. 

And so, I feel like, you know, people often make it a kind of, an argument between… I have a son and a daughter, I don't want my son accused of something, either. So I want him to know exactly what he's doing and what it involves. And I want him to know what the law is. I also want him to know what compassion and respect is, and that it's not a big deal to say, “Is this, okay?” And to recognise his power in that situation, his physical power over somebody is actually present, whether he likes it or not. 

And I think that, you know, it's actually just about a communication about respect, and how we actually have that conversation. But those three plays will talk to each other. Because if you go, “Yeah, I think I might have done that. And I want to plead guilty”, you're going to end up in jail, baby. So that whole system is not supporting any… it's so binary that it's very hard. 

Jo Dyer: Ladies and gentlemen, RBG was a trailblazer in the law and was a powerful, passionate legal writer – a woman, a lawyer, a judicial officer at the very top of her game. For those of you who haven't seen the play, I encourage you to buy tickets to the return season in February, but get in quick, because I'm sure it will sell out again, and it's going on the road so there'll be no opportunity to extend. We have been joined today by two very passionate women at the very top of their respective games. And please join me in thanking Suzie Miller and Heather Mitchell. 

UNSW Centre for Ideas: Thanks for listening. For more information visit And don't forget to subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. 

Suzie Miller

Suzie Miller

Suzie Miller is a contemporary international playwright, screenwriter, novelist and librettist, drawn to complex human stories often exploring injustice. Miller’s plays have been produced in over 40 productions around the world and won multiple prestigious awards. Her drama Prima Facie won the 2020 AWGIE for Drama; the 2020 David Williamson Award for Outstanding Theatre Writing; the 2020 prestigious Major AWGIE; and the Griffin Award 2018. It has now been translated in 20+ languages. Most recently Prima Facie enjoyed extraordinary acclaim marking Miller’s West End debut produced by Empire Street Productions and starring Jodie Comer winning the 2023 Olivier Awards for Best New Play and Best Actress, and the Onstage Awards 2023 for Best New Play and Best Actress. The production transferred to Broadway in 2023 and won a 2023 Tony for Best Actress. Two new commissioned plays of Miller’s premiered in 2022: Anna K, for Malthouse Theatre; and RBG: Of Many, One for Sydney Theatre Company; and in 2023 Jailbaby at Griffin Theatre. Miller’s first novel, Prima Facie, has just been published in Australia with rights sold around the world including the UK and  America. Suzie holds a Bachelor of Laws, Master of Arts and Master of Laws from UNSW Sydney, and Honours Degree in Science, and a PhD in theatre and maths.  

Heather Mitchell

Heather Mitchell

Heather Mitchell is one of Australia’s most acclaimed actors. With a career spanning four decades she has performed in hundreds of theatre, film and television productions. She has won awards both here in Australia, and in the US. Her acting credits include the soon to be released Ricky Stanicky starring Zac Efron, and Stan Original film Jones Family Christmas. Other credits include Gold Diggers, Love Me, Upright, The Unusual Suspects, Rake, A Place to Call Home, Spellbinder, Palm Beach and The Great Gatsby. Heather recently received the Sydney Theatre Award for her performance in the Sydney Theatre Company’s RBG: Of Many, One by Suzie Miller and the Silver Logie for Love Me season 1. She is on the Board of the Sydney Theatre Company and a Director on the Foundation Board. Her book Everything and Nothing was published by Allen & Unwin in 2003. She was awarded an AM in the 2019 Australia Day honours.  

Jo Dyer

Jo Dyer

Jo Dyer is a writer and literary curator, and producer of film and theatre. Through her production company Soft Tread Enterprises, she has created and presented theatre projects across Australia, Europe, the US and India in venues including the Sydney Opera House, the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the National Centre for Performing Arts in Mumbai and the legendary Tropicana in Las Vegas. She has held significant roles in the Australian cultural industry, including as Director of Adelaide Writers’ Week, CEO of Sydney Writers’ Festival, General Manager of Bangarra Dance Theatre and Executive Producer of Sydney Theatre Company. Jo is also a two-time AACTA nominee for Best Film for her debut film, Lucky Miles (Michael James Rowland) (2007) and Girl Asleep (Rosemary Myers) (2016). Her films have screened in cinemas and at Festivals and won awards worldwide, most notably at the Berlin International Film Festival. Jo is a regular contributor to the Chaser’s The Shot and her first book, Burning Down the House: Deconstructing Modern Politics, was published in February 2022 by Monash University Publishing.