Thursday, November 7, 2013

Local stories

We are past the halfway mark of the Pyjama Girl’s premiere season at HotHouse Theatre and I’ve had word that the Pyjama Girl is the biggest selling show at HotHouse Theatre in six years.

Yes. Six years! Obviously I am utterly delighted, so I’ll take a bow now to get it out of the way.

Because the success of the show is not about my script. 

It’s due to two things: telling a local story, and community engagement throughout the development process. 

Why local stories matter
The murder mystery of the woman found in the culvert just outside Albury is an enduring part of the local history. No town, of course, wants to be known for an awful crime, so it’s a fraught history. It’s a story often told in hushed whispers, or left out altogether.

The nine actors involved in the show, all local and all under the age of 26, had never heard about the Pyjama Girl. At just a few years older than them, I had. I thought it was important that 79 years after the crime, we ensure the pyjama girl case doesn’t pass out of living memory. 

I don’t believe the murdered young woman ever got justice or recognition of her true identity. We forget also, the anguish that must have been experienced by her family and all the other families of missing people who are denied closure on what happened to their loved one, whether in the 1930s or today.

People often ask me why the play isn’t being performed in Canberra, where I now live. The answer is: the mystery happened in Albury. 

I’m not saying it’s only a story for the Albury/Wodonga region—in fact, we’d love to tour it—but I’m saying it is a story for that region first. 

In my day job, I work in public relations. Whenever I get a brief to write something, my first question is always: who’s the audience?

We often assume that one theatre audience is like the next. This is not true. Every performance is different, which is just one of many reasons why theatre is wonderful. Every audience brings their own perspective.

Touring a show to a regional city as a test run before opening in a major capital city, for example, won’t always be indicative of the audience response in the capital city audience. Also, it can be a little insulting, because it implies that the regional area doesn’t have its own stories. 

At the end of the day, the play is for the audience. That’s how we sell tickets and sustain theatre companies.

(In this case of course, the play is also about the actors, all young and emerging, who gained experience working with a writer through the workshopping process. But this ultimately is about them developing the skills to perform—on stage, to an audience, so you see, we are back at that argument again.)
As you can tell, they're a delight to work with.
This is especially the case when it’s a story the audience grew up with. Many people in the local region have a connection to the pyjama girl case, which makes them likely to come and see a play about the story.

The play has generated a huge amount of excitement for that very reason. 

The value of community engagement 
This is where community engagement came in. I was very aware when I began the project that many locals have a sense of ownership of the story. It wasn’t for me to take that story away and speak on their behalf. I wanted people to feel they had a bit of ownership in the play as well, and that meant hearing what people had to say.

I conducted innumerable interviews with local residents, historians, historical society members, and people connected in the case. 

At first, it was about research and gathering material. As the process continued, I realised that what I was doing was giving people the opportunity to tell their stories. 

So connecting with the community became an important part of the process. Jon Halpin, the Artistic Director at HotHouse Theatre also wanted to provide insight into the development process of a new work-in-progress, which worked hand-in-hand with this. 

We had public reading of an early draft of the script about a year ago. At the Q and A afterwards, a lady introduced herself as the granddaughter of one of the families accused (and later exonerated) of the crime. 

As part of the Write Around the Murray festival in September, we held another reading of the work in progress. 

I’d scripted a joke about Albury getting electricity before Wodonga (the rivalry between the twin cities is legendary). I’d been told this by an Albury based historian. A Wodonga-based historian wanted to correct the record and left envelopes with the theatre the next day, containing the news articles and legislation that proved Wodonga, in fact, had electricity first. 

I had another lady approach me because she wanted to talk to me about the depiction of Lucy Collins, the rather tragic local drunk. The audience member knew Lucy and wanted to make sure I knew Lucy had been a confirmed red wine drinker, because there was a line in the script about Lucy drinking beer.

I was stunned with the response and generosity of what people shared with me. People sent me newspaper clippings and old photographs. Historians squabbled over electricity. People made introductions to other people with stories to tell. I spent hours talking in a Sydney cafĂ© with a film-maker who lent me his thesis. The author of book on the pyjama girl dug through his own boxes of archived research to find a list of names for me. Relatives of Lind Agostini emailed me personal documents. I got letters, advice, and emails. People spread the word and the community remembered the Pyjama Girl again. 

Engaging with the community gave me a wealth of material and helped establish an audience (because if you don’t know the community, you can’t know your audience).

It helped get this story onto the stage. 

And then it helped the show to smash the box office.

The success of the Pyjama Girl is also strong proof for two funding arguments.

1. Regional arts funding cannot be underestimated. 
2. The importance of investing in the development of new work.

Without HotHouse Theatre, this story wouldn’t have been told. I wrote more about this in a ranty-pants letter last year.

So thank you HotHouse (and Jon) for programming the show and for all the support, including a director with a vision in Travis Dowling, and a cast of ridiculously multi-talented actors.

(Thank you for letting me have live music on stage, magic tricks, a magician’s box, tap dancing, a puppet show, and a hard-working follow-spot!)

Programming new work can be a risk for an arts organisation. Will the writer turn in the script on time? Will it be any good? Will it sell well enough to cover costs? New work is untested. It takes time to develop (in this case, about 18 months, which is on the short side). And of course, it costs money to develop, in a sector always cash-strapped.

The Pyjama Girl received a small amount of funding for its development. I think it’s well and truly proven the worth of that investment already. 

…Of course, I might be biased. 

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Meet Rupert Kathner and Alma Brooks

Trailblazing film makers Rupert Kathner and Alma Brooks made a number of films in the early days of Australian cinema, but are not well remembered. 

Film maker and historian Alec Morgan made Hunt Angels, a documentary-drama about the pair. He describes them as the Bonnie and Clyde of Australian film making. ‘Rupe’ Kathner was known to forge checks and operate under different aliases to get money to make movies. Alma often abbreviated her name to Al Brooks to disguise her gender, as the film industry was exclusively for men. They also invented names for the credits of their movies to make it look as though they had a large company. 

Rupe and Alma met when he was pitching a film to the National Studios, where she was working as a secretarial assistant in the hopes of becoming a filmmaker herself. Striking out with Rupe, she realised that dream. Rupe was married, but the two began a love affair that was to last until his death.

The Pyjama Girl newsreel is probably the best remembered of their work today (they also made The Glenrowan Affair, a Ned Kelly picture) and it established the crime scene re-enactment model that has been embraced by Australian true crime shows ever since. 

(You can also access the video at Australian Screen Online.)

Rumour has it that Alma and Rupe broke into the Sydney Anatomy School to film the body of the Pyjama Girl after the police declined to give them permission. But, failing to get the shot they needed, and knowing they wouldn’t be able to get in a second time, they instead hired a room at a bath-house and Alma posed as a ‘stand-in’ for the body. Both Alma and Rupe made cameos in their films, as they often couldn’t afford to pay actors. In the Pyjama Girl newsreel, Alma is the woman who models the dress, and Rupe is one of the men who views the body and shakes his head. 

Rupert Kathner once said ‘never let the truth get in the way of a good story’ and this was certainly true of the Pyjama Girl film, which claimed to show footage of the actual pyjamas found on the body. This was not true. Prior to the film’s release (and prior to the filmmakers obtaining permission from Commissioner Mackay, who had a say in film censorship) Rupe also went to the newspapers to say he had received a threatening letter, warning him not to make the film. This of course, resulted in a lot of publicity, and the desired cooperation from the police. Up until that time, films about the activities of police officers were limited to road safety—there was little depiction of the criminal underbelly of the era. Rupe and Alma’s ambition was thus achieved: Australia’s first serious newsreel.

Rupe died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage in 1954 when he was just 49. Alma largely disappeared from public life and never made another film.

Meet Grace Hopkins

Special Constable Grace Hopkins was one of the first female police officers in NSW. Prior to this, the attractive blond had a career on stage, working with the JC Williamson Company, a well-known light opera troupe of the time. She also appeared on stage with Noel Coward when he toured Australia.

Her police career spanned 12 years. Grace is best remembered for her role applying makeup to the corpse of the Pyjama Girl in preparation for the identification by witnesses. 

Women police officers were paid far less than the male officers and were required to provide their own uniforms. Their duties included ‘women’s matters’ and in particular, looking after women and children. Nicknamed the ‘glamour girl of the NSW police force’, Grace also promoted road safety and was a popular public face for the police force.

She was instrumental in helping arrange the marriage of two teenage runaways, who had been recovered by the police. Once given permission by their parents to marry, the young lovers were married in a ceremony with members of the police force fulfilling the roles of the bridal party. Grace played piano.

When it came time for Grace’s own marriage in 1955, she was forced to retire from the police force because of laws prohibiting married women from working.

She lived until her 80s, and had children and grandchildren. Grace died in a car accident in 1994.

Meet William 'Big Bill' MacKay

MacKay in 1932
WJ MacKay began his career in the Scottish police force before migrating to Australia and joining the New South Wales police force in 1910.

He climbed the ranks in the NSW police force quickly, in part due to his role in stamping out the notorious Darlinghurst razor gangs in the 1920s and became the Chief of the Criminal Investigation Branch (CIB) in 1928.

He is also remembered for his role at the opening of the Sydney Harbour Bridge in 1932. Francis de Groot, a member of the right-wing paramilitary organisation, the New Guard, attempted to upstage the NSW Premier’s official opening of the bridge, by riding in on a horse to cut the ribbon himself. MacKay tackled the man off his horse and arrested him.

MacKay became NSW Police Commissioner in 1935. He was dogged by accusations of incompetence and corruption in the force, particularly by tabloid newspaper The Truth, which ran a series about the NSW police department’s growing list of unsolved crimes, including the Pyjama Girl.

MacKay was well-versed in the art of ‘verballing’ or verbal intimidation. It’s quite likely that while interrogating Antonio Agostini, he implied that if Agostini were to confess, he could avoid the gallows.   

MacKay suffered ill-health in his later years, but remained NSW police commissioner until he died suddenly, in 1948, while entertaining colleagues. He was 63.

Who was Lucy Collins?

Lucy Collins was a well-known member of the Albury community in the 1940s and 1950s, but unfortunately for the wrong reasons, living a life of destitution and alcoholism. Lucy gained a short-lived national profile for her claim that she had witnessed the Pyjama Girl murder—which she later denied.

Lucy was married to an orchardist and had five children. After leaving her husband, she camped at Lavington and Monument Hill. She also lived at a shack owned by the Quin family. It was while she was living at this shack that she accused the Quin family of murdering the pyjama girl—but more about that in a moment.

Lucy was a triple-certificate nurse and worked for a Doctor Patton. She was diagnosed as iron deficient and was suggested to drink red wine. She became severely alcoholic, yet was still known to deliver babies for other people living on the fringes in the shanty towns of Albury. She was imprisoned at least twice, once for vagrancy and once because ‘her mind had gone’.  

Lucy’s moment of infamy came when she met Dr Benbow, a medical man from Sydney and self-styled forensic detective who had developed a theory about the murder of the Pyjama Girl.

Lucy told him a story about a girl who had visited from out of town—and then related a story about having seen a man she called Quin attack the girl. There was some question about who she was referring to, whether Tom Quin, or a man nicknamed ‘Ginger Quin’, who was in fact named John Overend, but was very close to the Quin family, but both men were later found to have had alibis.

Quin's shack

In court Lucy retracted her statement, saying that she had been influenced by Dr Benbow. Lucy said the first time he visited her, he had brought a gift of chocolates to her, and the second time, a bottle of beer. (A lady who knew Lucy said that Lucy was a confirmed red wine drinker, and was never known to drink beer, but we can surmise that poor Lucy was happy to take what she could get). Lucy couldn’t remember the conversation in which she supposedly described the murder. 

The grand-daughter of the Quin family, Kath, has also been able to shed some light on the motivation for Lucy’s accusation. It turns out, Lucy hadn’t been paying her rent, and Mr Quin told her she would have to move out of the shack. In retaliation, it seems, she connected them unjustly to the murder.

Lucy died in 1955. She was remembered as a ‘colourful local character’.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Who was Dr Palmer Benbow?

While there are fictional elements in this dramatization of the Pyjama Girl mystery, it is based on true events, facts, and people.

I’ve put together these biographies from a variety of sources, including research by Richard Evans, Bruce Pennay, Alec Morgan, and Robert Coleman, as well as interviews, old newspaper articles and court documents.

Born in Ararat* in western Victoria in 1885, Dr Thomas Alexander Palmer Benbow spent enough of his life in America to have developed an accent. He graduated from Jefferson Medical College in Philadelphia in 1914, and then worked in England, Australia and overseas, including on cruise liners.

He was a rich man and there was some mystery about how he came into money. Caroline Ford, from the Ford car manufacturing family left him money in her will—although before she died she sought legal help to reduce to amount she was to leave to him. It does seem possible that was a conman, or at the very least, a gold digger. He had a persuasive personality, which we can see in his dealings with Commissioner MacKay, Lucy Collins and Jeanette Routledge. His time working on cruise ships would have allowed him to make friends with elderly people, who may have given him money, or agreed to leave him an inheritance. 

On returning to Australia, Benbow worked in Potts Point Sydney and took an interest in forensic science. Becoming something of an amateur detective, proposing a solution to the pyjama girl case. For some reason, he impressed MacKay and was given a car, men and war-time petrol rations. Benbow settled on Quins shack as the murder scene, and found Lucy Collins, who provided testimony about having seen a girl beaten. Later, after tracking down Jeanette Routledge, Benbow advanced the theory that the girl was none other than Philomena Morgan. Benbow’s evidence included a broken bedstead that he claimed was the murder weapon (what he said was blood was in fact rust) and photographs in which he showed the similarity in geometry between the face of Philomena Morgan and the Pyjama Girl, but there was little evidentiary value.

Transcripts show an argument between the two in which Mackay more or less accuses Benbow of fabricating evidence to suit his theory and Benbow responds that the detectives aren’t doing enough. 

But Benbow would not give up; even in the final trial, when the court found Linda Agostini, and not Philomena Morgan was the victim, he asked to present new evidence—but the judge would not hear him.

*Incidentally, my parents are both from Ararat. But my Grandma checked and there's no relation to Benbow.

Who was Jeannette Routledge?

While there are fictional elements in this dramatization of the Pyjama Girl mystery, it is based on true events, facts, and people.

I’ve put together these biographies from a variety of sources, including research by Richard Evans, Bruce Pennay, Alec Morgan, and Robert Coleman, as well as interviews, old newspaper articles and court documents.

Jeanette Routledge was the mother of Philomena Morgan. Philomena was born when she was just 19, and the father was unknown. 

Jeanette Routledge was married a number of times, and lived under many names. In 1919 she married Audra de la Pierre and then married bigamously to Benjamin Nagel in 1923. When she was caught, she was already living with Ronald Routledge. Jeanette’s own mother had been married multiple times and lived under many names, and so too did Philomena.

While staying in Canberra with a friend, Jeanette was supposed to have screamed in in a drunken hysteric that she had killed her daughter. However, this is hearsay only. It does seem she was a disaffected mother. But she did say that the reason for her split from her daughter was that Philomena being kept as the mistress by a married man, and she didn’t think it right. This is ironic, for a woman who had committed the act of bigamy herself.

Jeanette admitted in court to having previously committed perjury, including lying about her daughter’s age in a carnal knowledge case against a lodger, Robert Seeney. She had also given an incorrect description of Philomena to the police when first approached in 1934. In 1937, she viewed the body of the Pyjama Girl at the Sydney University and was adamant it was not her daughter. But in 1944 she changed her mind at the Pyjama Girl inquest.

This may well have been as a result of the influence on her by Dr Benbow. We'll meet him next.