Suzie Miller quit her job at the Shopfront Youth Legal Centre for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to join the National Theatre in London in 2008. The multi-award-winning playwright of Prima Facie speaks about cultivating a creative career and having the law as your muse.
Forgiveness and human frailty, examined through the lens of the justice system, are themes Suzie Miller enjoys writing about. She never really left the law behind, even after quitting her job as a solicitor to focus on a playwright project over a decade ago.
Miller had been working at the Shopfront Youth Legal Centre for 10 years before she landed a chance to really launch her writing career. She was in her mid-30s, working as a lawyer in Sydney two to three days a week, and writing theatre every other day when she was offered a residency at London’s National Theatre. Her day job inspired her writing. Cross Sections (2005), one of Miller’s early plays, was performed at the Sydney Opera House and won an Australian Writers’ Guild Award for drama. It reflected on the experiences of homeless clients she worked with in Kings Cross.
“When the play was put on, it was interesting how many people came up to me and said, ‘I walked back through the Cross and saw the people on the streets, and had a sense that they could be my sister … I suddenly saw them as people’,” Miller says.
“I had always spoken about my work in law to anyone who would listen, but nobody felt the same [way they did responding to the play] … There was something about humanising these so-called criminals or drug addicts. It felt like storytelling was the best way to do that – to make change.”
The impact of Miller’s realisation – that theatre could invite compassion and understanding unlike anything else – made her decision. When she was presented with a chance to take playwriting and screenwriting to the next level and be mentored by renowned American dramatist the late Edward Albee, she decided to go all in. Today, more than 40 productions of her plays have been staged in theatres and festivals around the world, attracting awards by the dozen.
“Because you are in the same room and breathing the same air as the actors as they play out characters, [it] gets under your skin and makes you think differently about things,” Miller says.
Miller worked hard at the playwright’s craft before opportunity came knocking. She is a graduate of the Playwright’s Studio of the National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in Sydney and credits The Teletubbies for distracting two small children while she was busy breathing life into plays from her laptop.
In 2016, Miller wrote an opera, which she describes as an “adults only Snow White”, produced by Queensland Opera, La Boite Theatre and the Brisbane Festival. She has also eked out an enviable career writing screenplays, with a string of televised legal dramas, crime, and police thrillers to her name. Over the years, Miller says she has developed confidence in the rhythm of the dialogue she creates. She has also strengthened her sense of what she wants to say.
“I have written quite a few plays that have had a significant kind of legal framing because of things I have experienced. Other plays have been more about Australian stories, or stories about families and human vulnerability and failure.”
The former lawyer’s exploration of cruelty and kindness is informed by her interest in social justice and the human condition. This is evident in her 2018 play Prima Facie, which hinges on a longstanding feminist questioning of the legal system that Miller traces back to law school days.
The one-woman show, which follows the story of a barrister who is a victim of sexual assault, offers a dual take on justice. It illuminates the drawn-out legal process, intense scrutiny of a victim and accuser, and potentially misplaced faith that the system will be fair.
“While I firmly believe that ‘innocent until proven guilty’ is the bedrock of human rights, I always felt that its application in sexual assault cases served to undermine rather than uphold any real fairness,” Miller says.
“It has always been the victims, usually women, who are on trial, cross-examined and made to relive their humiliating experience, and then doubted as to their motives for reporting a hideous crime against their person.”
The 2008 play Transparency, which won the Kit Denton Fellowship for Writing with Courage, is a play Miller wrote about a child who killed another person when they were very young. It challenges the audience to think about how much faith they were willing to put in the rehabilitation of the killer.
“Because I was a defence lawyer and a human rights lawyer, I would argue in court that a defendant deserved another chance. It’s about giving your best to your client and giving them the best possibility in court.
“You get quite good at arguing and you get good results, and you question yourself: ‘Do I really believe this? Would I let my kids go and play with them?’ These are interesting questions,” she says.
Another play, Caress/Ache, was inspired by Miller’s involvement in a campaign to save Australian Van Tuong Nguyen from capital punishment for drug smuggling in Singapore. Before he was hanged in 2005, authorities refused to allow Nguyen to be touched by his mother.
Miller believes that if you have a passion, you will find your way. In her case, while it may have taken a bit longer to get there, being a lawyer proved fertile ground for her creative realisation. She adds that law gave her stamina for hard work, which has her served her second career well. She has no trouble sitting at her desk, opening her computer and getting to work.
“I got used to working really long, intense, and switched-on hours as a lawyer. I am still working lawyer hours and at lawyer speeds,” Millers says.
“[Law] gave me a great work ethic and a real sense that you can’t justify wasting time. You just have to keep going.”