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Syron, Brian Gregory (1934–1993)

by Gerhard Fischer

This entry is from the Australian Dictionary of Biography

Brian Gregory Syron (1934–1993), actor and director, was born on 21 November 1934 at Balmain South, Sydney, fifth child of New South Wales-born Daniel Syron, a Biripi (Birpai) man who worked as a general labourer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Murray, from Newcastle-upon-Tyne, England. In later life Brian told the story of how his parents met; his mother had not seen an Aboriginal person before and when she realised that the colour of Daniel’s skin was not the result of working in an underground coalmine it was ‘too late … she had fallen in love’ (Syron and Kearney 1996, 16–17). For some of his childhood, Brian lived with his paternal grandmother at Minimbah, near Forster, learning about his Aboriginal heritage and gaining insight into the deprivations Aboriginal people endured. A good student, he dreamed of becoming a physician; however, without money for school uniforms, let alone university fees, the only option was trade school. Ambition turned to rebellion and his teenage years were spent in and out of reformatories.

During the 1950s and 1960s, Syron did not identify as Aboriginal. He moved to Kings Cross, Sydney, where he worked as a waiter and model. With Jack Thompson, Reg Livermore, and Jon Ewing, he began acting lessons under Hayes Gordon at the Ensemble Theatre in 1960. Modelling took him to Europe and the United States of America, where, in 1961, he joined the renowned Stella Adler Theatre Studio, New York. Training alongside Robert de Niro, Warren Beatty, and Peter Bogdanovich, he became a confidant of the principal and a teacher in his own right, while performing with regional and metropolitan theatre companies.

Syron returned to Australia in 1968 conscious of a wider black political struggle. He directed Fortune and Men’s Eyes at the Ensemble Theatre in Sydney (1968) for which he won the National Drama Critics’ Circle award for best director, and two plays for the Old Tote Theatre Company, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1969) and The Merchant of Venice (1969). Hailed as one of Australia’s ‘leading producers’ (Canberra Times 1969, 21), he began teaching master classes in acting in 1969. That year he also taught a group of Aboriginal actors the principles of the Stella Adler method, which stressed the importance of imagination and research. His students included Denis Walker and Gary Foley.

Between directing This Story of Yours (1970) at the Parade Theatre and The Seagull (1972) at the New Theatre, Syron returned to the United States to work on the feature film What’s Up Doc directed by Bogdanovich. Back in Australia in 1973, he co-founded the Australian National Playwrights’ Conference and worked as a children’s acting coach on the award-winning television series Seven Little Australians (1973).

Following the formation of the Aboriginal Arts Board within the Australian Council for the Arts (1973), Syron, who had by then publicly acknowledged his Aboriginality, was appointed a theatre consultant. With Bob Maza, Gary Foley, and others, in 1974 he co-founded the Aboriginal Black Theatre Arts and Cultural Centre. With Justine Saunders he also established the National Black Playwrights Conference (1987) and the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust (1987). None of these organisations lasted more than a few years owing to a lack of continuous funding. Between 1987 and 1988, Syron and Saunders co-presented a series of films on the Australian Broadcasting Corporation that showcased Aboriginal issues and ideas. Syron sought to avoid representing Aboriginal people as victims, presenting ‘positive images’ instead (Canberra Times 1987, 24). The ABC appointed him producer of its new Aboriginal unit in 1988.

In the 1980s Syron’s major project was a feature film, Jindalee Lady (1992). A cross-cultural triangular love story and glamorous Hollywood-style melodrama, it starred Lydia Miller as a successful Aboriginal fashion designer who left her philandering white husband for a young Aboriginal cinematographer. Syron wanted to show Aboriginal people, particularly women, in a variety of professional roles in contemporary society. He also wanted to make a film that employed as many Aboriginal people as possible to provide professional skills training and experience. With the exception of the writer–producer Briann Kearney, most members of the cast and crew were Aboriginal. The Indigenous composer Bart Willoughby wrote the score and Bangarra Dance Theatre featured in a fashion show sequence. The film was shot on a shoestring budget of $60,000. Syron’s application to the Australian Film Commission for a post-production grant of $300,000 was rejected, the AFC maintaining that the characters were stereotypical and one-dimensional. The producers lodged a complaint with the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission; subsequently, the AFC reversed its decision and established policies and guidelines for future Aboriginal film projects. Jindalee Lady was successful on the international film circuit, but was not generally released in cinemas.

Syron’s last work in the theatre was a cooperative production with the West Australian writer Mudrooroo and an all-Aboriginal cast led by Justine Saunders—The Aboriginal Protesters Confront the Proclamation of the Australian Republic on 26 January 2001 with a Production of The Commission by Heiner Müller. Due to illness, he was unable to direct the play beyond a staged reading of the script in 1991. When The Aboriginal Protesters premiered at the Sydney Festival in 1996, the Sydney Morning Herald called it ‘a call to arms, for all of us as a people’ and ‘a call to our theatre, to show it where it might go’ (Bennie 1996, 14).

Recognised as a great teacher and actor, Syron was proud of his achievements as a pioneer of Aboriginal theatre. He was a passionate advocate of Indigenous self-determination who angrily fought the bureaucrats of arts funding bodies when he felt they only supported projects that fitted their stereotyped views on Aboriginal Australians. He died in Sydney on 14 October 1993 and was buried in Botany cemetery, Matraville. His struggle to make films for and about Aboriginal people is documented in his co-authored memoir, Kicking Down the Doors (1996).

Select Bibliography

  • Bennie, Angela. ‘Call to Arms on Eve of Republic.’ Sydney Morning Herald, 15 January 1996, 14
  • Canberra Times. ‘First Australians Are Positive People Doing Positive Things.’ 18 October 1987, 24
  • Canberra Times. ‘Work by Leading Producers.’ 2 July 1969, 21
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Theatre Pioneer Had a Career of Many Firsts.’ 19 October 1993, 24
  • Syron, Brian. ‘The Problem Is Seduction: Reflections on Black Theatre and Film.’ In The Mudrooroo/Müller Project: A Theatrical Casebook, edited by Gerhard Fischer, 161–71. Kensington, NSW: New South Wales University Press
  • Syron, Brian, and Briann Kearney. Kicking Down the Doors. Edited by Sue Binney. Sydney, NSW: Donobri International Communications, 1996

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Gerhard Fischer, 'Syron, Brian Gregory (1934–1993)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://ia.anu.edu.au/biography/syron-brian-gregory-27637/text35085, accessed 19 December 2018.

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2012