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 café 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. 

video

(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


WilliamMackay1932
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.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Who was Anna Philomena Morgan?

Philomena Morgan (left) and artist's sketch of the pyjama girl.
Anna Philomena Morgan was born in 1911, although her mother had lied about her age in Philomena’s age in a court case in which they accused a lodger at their home of having committed carnal knowledge—that is, relations with a girl under the age of consent. The lodger, Robert Seeney was charged, but it later came to light that Philomena was over the age of consent.

Philomena’s father is unknown and she spent time away from her mother while growing up, sometimes living with friends. She went by many names, including Philomena Franki, Anna Morgan, Phillys De Pierre, Ann Manganetti, Philomena Coots, Britz, or Morris. But her mother, apparently, called her Decimah.

Philomena left her mother’s home in 1930. She spent time living in Darlinghurst, but didn’t seem to have an occupation. It’s possible she worked as a prostitute and certainly it seems she was receiving treatment for syphilis. Other witnesses at the trial, friends of hers, said she had married, and was known as a Mrs Callow. Her mother said Philomena was being ‘kept’ by a married man.

Photographs and descriptions of Philomena suggested strong similarities with the appearance of the Pyjama Girl. When Philomena’s mother, Jeanette Routledge applied in the small claims court for her missing daughter’s estate (jewellery and the like) the possibility that Philomena Morgan was the Pyjama Girl became public.

It was here that Dr Benbow got involved, and he adapted his theory about the pyjama girl, slotting Philomena in as the victim.

Ultimately, Dr Benbow’s theories were discounted. This does not mean that Philomena conclusively proved not to be the Pyjama Girl. It is possible that it was her.

To provide further reason for striking Philomena from the list, the NSW police advanced the suggestion that Philomena could not be the Pyjama Girl, found dead in 1934, because she matched the description of another woman found murdered in sleeping attire—Jean Morris in 1932.

Jean Morris doesn't appear in the play--but she is nonetheless a fascinating side note.

Jean Morris
Jean Morris, probably not her real name, was murdered in 1932 in Ayr, Queensland. 

She was found by the electricity man, who had come to read the meter. Jean was found clad in only a nightdress and had been stabbed multiple times (some reports said 32 times). 

Jean Morris was known locally as ‘Stiletto Jean’ because of the small knife she carried. She worked as a prostitute for Vincenzo D’Agostino and Francisco Femio, who were rumoured to run the Northern Queensland ‘Black Hand’—the secret Italian crime organisation, also known as the Camorra.

Her real name was unknown. It was said that she was the daughter of an Italian opera singer. The case was never solved and her murderer never found. 

Jean Morris was a beautiful woman and her description was similar to that of Philomena Morgan—dark hair, attractive features and large blue eyes. Because she was found dead in 1932 and because Philomena disappeared from her mother’s home around 1930 and the police advanced a theory that Philomena Morgan was, in fact, the murdered woman known as Jean Morris. And this of course meant that Philomena could not be the Pyjama Girl. 

However, this theory was based on very tenuous evidence in which an acquaintance of Philomena’s remembered Philomena talking about her intentions to ‘travel up north and work for the cane cutters’. Other friends of Philomena Morgan gave testimony in the Pyjama Girl investigation that they had seen her as late as 1933—after the time Jean Morris was murdered.

Who was Antonio Agostini?

Antonio Agostini's tomb in Sardinia
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.

Photos of Tony can be viewed here. Here's one of him on the beach with his wife Linda.

Antonio Agostini was born in Altivole, Northern Italy in 1903. He moved to Australia in 1927 and met Linda, who was to become his wife, the following year. He is remembered as a waiter, as that was his occupation when he confessed to murdering his wife, but in reality he was far more ambitious than that.

Tony worked as a journalist and started an Italian language paper in Australia. He was a well-regarded member of the Italian community.

He was also a loyal member of the Italian Fascist party and because of this, in June 1940, he was one of 172 Italians arrested in accordance with the detailed plan prepared by NSW Police Commissioner Mackay. Tony was interred at camps in regional NSW for 3 years and 8 months.

Tony had a girlfriend who he wrote to, but it seems they never saw each other again after he got out of the camps, because his freedom was brief. He got a job working at the exclusive Romano’s restaurant after his release, where he was previously worked as a cloakroom attendant. There, he came into contact again with a regular client—MacKay. The way the story goes, MacKay noticed that Agostini didn’t seem the cheerful man he had met some 10 years earlier, and on asking Agostini why he seemed changed, Agostini confessed to killing his wife.

Agostini was charged with manslaughter, not murder, which at the time, carried a hanging penalty. He served 3 years and 8 months in prison. He was apparently a model prisoner, described as a quiet, gentle man, and worked in the Pentridge Prison Library. On his release, he was smuggled out in the middle of the night and put on a cruise liner to extradite him out of the country on the orders of the immigration minister, Arthur Calwell.

Agostini first returned to Northern Italy, where he had grown up, before settling in Cagliari, the capital city of the island of Sardinia. Perhaps this appealed to Agostini, where it was unlikely he would have acquaintances who knew about his life in Australia. He opened two clothing stores and married a widow Giuseppina Gasoni. He died in 1969.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Who was Linda Agostini?

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.
Linda Platt, 1930. State Records of NSW.

Florence Linda Platt was born in London in 1905. She disappeared in 1934 and in 1944 was officially identified as the murder victim who, until that point, had been known only as the Pyjama Girl. 

By all accounts, Linda was very independent, particularly for the times. She operated a sweets and tobacco business as a young woman and then, after a failed romance, moved across the world, first to New Zealand, then to Australia.

Linda trained as a hairdresser and worked on cruise ships for a while. When she settled in Sydney she got a job working as a cinema usherette for Hoyts. She met Antonio Agostini in Sydney and married him in 1930. 

There has been some speculation that Linda had a drinking problem and was an aggressive drunk—but this perhaps was just a tactic by Tony Agostini’s lawyer to make Tony seem more sympathetic during the trial. There is no real evidence that Linda had a drinking problem.

We do know that Linda had an independent streak and her family remembers her as hot tempered. She was also very sweet – she writes in her letters or nursing a sick pet canary back to health, and of Tony buying her a Pomeranian pup that had run away. Linda herself disappeared just days after her dog. 

Much has been made of Linda’s physical performance and the similarity with the pyjama girl. Linda has peculiar ears, freckles, brown eyes, a long nose, nice teeth and light brown hair. She was probably rather glamorous and well put together. The striking difference is that Linda had brown eyes but the bogy of the girl found in the culvert had blue eyes. Linda’s dental records at first did not line up with the dental work of the Pyjama Girl, although later, were found to be a match by the third dental examiner appointed to the case. The first two were not asked to testify at the final inquest.

Linda was artistic, which seems to be a family trait. She sold her first artwork at the age of 13, according to her niece Jeane, who is mentioned in one of the letters. Linda’s great-great-niece Rhiannon, now in her 20s, also sold her first artwork when she was just 13. 

Linda never had children, but still has relatives living in England and New Zealand. Some of them consider the case closed, and accept that Linda was the pyjama girl, murdered by her husband. Others wonder if this was so, but doubt that with the passage of time, they will ever find closure. 

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Playwriting odyssey


Half my lifetime ago (almost) I was in Year 10 at what was then called Wodonga High School and it was time for work experience. For some reason, I hadn’t organised what I wanted to do. This was out of character for me, because I was a disgusting overachiever. I was the kid with the waving hand who always knew the answer and had a ridiculous amount of extra-curricular activities—public speaking and debating, working on the school magazine, SRC, playing in three bands, doing speech and drama lessons outside school, performing in school plays and learning how to operate lighting, and writing in my spare time. Aside from my lack of interest in PE and my preference for writing poetry in my maths class—which eventually led to me being excused from maths lest I damage the bell curve—I was a good student and usually well organised. But here was something where I didn’t have the answer.

Work experience came around and I had no idea what to do. Some of my friends were doing practical things, like working at Target or McDonalds in the hope that it would lead to an after-school job. Others were doing glamorous things, like doing placements at the local TV station. Others had figured out what they wanted to do after school and were experiencing life as a vet or nurse or teacher.

The fact that I hadn’t yet figured out what I wanted to do with my life was probably behind my failure to act and find a work experience host in time. So, at the eleventh hour, one of my teachers put in a call to HotHouse Theatre. I was interested in acting, and had vague thoughts that if that didn’t work out, my ‘back-up career’ would be as a writer. I sometimes think I must have been equal parts arrogant and ignorant. And yet, for most of my grown-up life, I have made my living as a writer. And while playwriting takes priority, I still perform a bit too.

I was aware that HotHouse existed, if only because it shared office space with the Fruit Fly Circus, which friends of mine trained at. HotHouse management at the time was reluctant to take me on, because there had been an influx of work experience students so there were none of the usual type of work experience tasks left. But they agreed.

As it turns out, I was a terrible work experience student. I kept accidentally hanging up on people when I tried to transfer calls, and I was too shy to spruik the programs well at the matinee show I worked.

But then, on the third day, I was put in the theatre for the day. It was bump out time for the show that had just finished, Andreas Litras’ one-man show Odyssey.


Andreas Litras applying white face paint in his Odyssey. Sorry I did a crap job selling your programs Andreas.
I got to explore the fascinating backstage area of the Butter Factory Theatre and Andreas made conversation with me and showed how he had kitted out his prop suitcase—with white greasepaint that he applied mid show. I remember asking him how he put on the makeup without a mirror and he joked and said ‘with little success’. 

My supervisor that day was Rob. He’s still working tech at HotHouse, including for The Pyjama Girl. He doesn’t remember me from back then, but when I was on work experience, he tricked me into vacuuming and sweeping all of the theatre, and then tutored me in the invaluable craft of ‘wrapping leads’.

I loved it. I was already a believer in the magic of theatre, and now I felt I was entering a secret world that gave me a glimpse into a hidden world.

Little did I know that, 10 years later, I would finally discover what I wanted to do with my life—to inhabit that world and create theatre. 


Having The Pyjama Girl come to life on that very same stage I once swept so enthusiastically is therefore pretty special. 

Me, circa 1999. 

It has taken me a long time to figure out I want to be a playwright (when I grow up). Unlike my teenaged self, I don’t think I’ve got all the answers, and I’m glad I’ve had to take a journey to find this one.

Saturday, September 28, 2013

The play-in-progress preview reading

After I visited the Pyjama Girl at the cemetery in Melbourne, I jumped on a train and napped all the way to Albury. Then, it was straight to rehearsals in preparation for the staged reading that was happening two days later. Being in the theatre, and seeing the immense amount of work that the director, Travis, and cast had done while I’d been away in Italy was really exciting, not in the least because I’d made some script revisions before I left Australia and this was my first opportunity to see the changes. 

On Thursday 5 September HotHouse presented a public staged reading as part of the Write Around the Murray festival. This was followed by a Q and A session. I, of course, was still jet-lagged, and arrived at the theatre an hour and a half before the actor’s call, because I got the time wrong. Continuing my habit of sleeping in things that are not beds: planes, trains, my Mum’s Winnebago, I had a kip on a couch in the dressing rooms, which as it turns out, is an excellent place for napping, especially when the delightful production manager turned off the lights and put on the gentle blue backstage lights instead. 

Everything moved quickly after that and before I knew it, audience members were appearing in the foyer. My Mum and sister came along, as did my Dad, who by amazing coincidence was in Albury that week. That was an exciting moment for me personally, as he has never seen a play I’ve written because he doesn’t live near me. (And also, he’s not really a theatre type. When I was 18 and told him I was going to university to study a Bachelor of Arts he said, ‘Why Emma? You can’t draw.’) 

The reading went very well—except for a technical hiccup. 

While the first reading held in December last year had been quite static, with actors sitting or standing in a row and reading from a script, this time, movement was included, and even live music. Travis read a few stage directions as needed, for example, when scenes hadn’t yet been fully choreographed, or set pieces (like a magician’s box) weren’t on stage. A few songs were even performed live, and keyboard and drums were used to underscore parts of the performance. 

The keyboard, which had worked in rehearsal and when it was tested 10 minutes before the performance, stopped working. The actors, kept going, as good actors should, and the MC even began singing the first song a capella before the technical director called a halt to the show. 

The pianist brought out a second keyboard—but this one didn’t connect to the same power supply. Rapidly, another keyboard was brought out (I think it might have been the first one coming back again) and there was some amusing slapstick as the two keyboards were swapped around) and then finally, a third, much smaller keyboard came out, which had the audience in hysterics. A lady sitting behind me whispered to her friend ‘Oh, I think this is part of the show.’

Finally the keyboard was connected, and technical director Rob took a bow to uproarious laughter and applause.

(As we all know, techs usually spent their time sitting in confined spaces in the dark, so I think Rob enjoyed his moment on stage).

The MC made a few jokes as laughter subsided and the show resumed from the start of the song. 

From there on in, everything went smoothly. Pleasingly, some audience members even joined in singing an old musical hall sing-a-long called ‘Oh Oh Antonio’ (link), which was exactly what I’d hoped for. People laughed in places we hadn’t expected, as well as places we had expected.

After this, I joined Travis, HotHouse Artistic Direct Jon, local historian Bruce, and some cast members on stage for a Q and A facilitated by Jenni Munday. We spoke about the development process and got some good feedback from the audience. We were even able to ask a few of our own questions to see what worked for the audience.

My Dad had asked me, the day before, why I was writing the play, and I said that I had remembered hearing him and Mum talk about it in the car when we were driving along the Howlong road when I was a small child. He said he didn’t think so. 

So either I misremember, or he does, but my Dad doesn’t think he was ever aware of the spot on the road where the Pyjama Girl was found. 

This means that much-used answer I give when people ask me while I’m writing this play may not be true after all. This is strangely fitting in a play that throughout its development, has led me to observe how our memories are so vulnerable to being eroded by mythology.

Saturday, September 21, 2013

A grave pilgrimage - part 2


Visiting the Pyjama Girl’s grave at Preston Cemetery in Melbourne was a very different experience to visiting Antonio Agostini’s grave in Cagliari, Sardinia.

I had just arrived back in Australia, flying from Venice to Dubai and then Melbourne. A dear friend of mine, Petra, had volunteered to pick me up, and we met at Southern Cross station and then began driving to the cemetery. It was before peak hour and we were going against the flow of early morning traffic so we got to the cemetery much earlier than we expected, and stopped at a nearby McDonalds to kill time and have breakfast, and catch up. We talked theatre and music and life and I raved about Italy and talked more about how the Pyjama Girl play was developing.

We went to the cemetery, and I, with the slight tremors of sleep deprivation settling in, wondered if I would be nervous, and, realising I wasn’t, wondered if I should be.

But the experience was easy, the landscape was familiar, and with Petra at my side, there was a lightness to the experience. There were even a few laughs.

There was an information office clearly marked at the entrance to the cemetery, but we consulted the map closest to the car park first. I had a grave number this time, but the map didn’t give an indication of grave numbering. But just then, two groundskeepers, in fluoro vests walked past and said hello, and we enquired about the grave number. The men said we could get better directions at the office, but the men reckoned they knew which section was likely and explained how the numbering system worked.

‘Give us a yell if you get lost,’ they said, as we thanked them and wandered away.

‘Oh, but however will we find you,’ Petra joked, referring to the high-visibility vests.

Laughs all round, and quite relaxed, we wandered up a gentle hill towards the section the men had pointed to. We lost the numbers briefly, and I thought maybe the grave would be in the pauper’s area, which was missing many of the helpful bricks numbering each grave—and, more challengingly, missing headstones. The Pyjama Girl (buried as Linda Agostini) was recorded as being in an unmarked grave.

We decided to start working our way towards to information office, but then found the numbers again, and soon, the numbers were leading us to the row the Pyjama Girl is buried in. We walked, calling out grave numbers to each other.

‘She must be just down here,’ I said.

And she was. I saw the number before I saw the grave, but registered that it wasn’t, in fact, unmarked as I had expected. A simple white cross, made by hand, and not quite symmetrical with the name Florence L. Agostini handwritten in lipstick red. We stood quietly at the grave for a moment.




It was a warm day in Melbourne. The third day of spring. The sun was starting to creep up. I smelled gumtrees. Heard magpies calling.

There were even some artificial flowers left at the grave, and they hadn’t been discoloured by weather so it was hard to tell how old they were.

Either way, someone cared. Someone remembered. Maybe more than several someones. We spent a few quiet minutes at the grave. 

I had an impulse to leave something at the grave. A token of respect. It seemed unfair that I had left a badge at Agostini’s tomb in Cagliari, but nothing here.

I wished I’d thought to buy flowers on the way. In Cagliari, the cemetery had flower markets out the front. Here, no such convenience (we thought; we later saw there was a florist a block away). 


Hat flower in Venice.

I suddenly remembered the white fabric flower I’d been wearing in my hair. 

I bought it the week before I went to Albury to clip my fringe out of my eyes. I wore the flower in my hair, or pinned to my hat all throughout my time in Italy. It became my signature item at the playwriting retreat. I have photos of myself wearing it in Florence, in Venice, in Sardinia. It’s become imbued with me, with Italy, with this adventure I’ve been having as the play nears the stage.

It’s now nestled on the stones at the Pyjama Girl’s final resting place. 


Then, because Petra was curious, we went into the long brick mausoleum near the car park and it was like going back to Italy. Notices not to light candles or leave fresh flowers (ersatz only, due to occupational health and safety regulations) written first in Italian and then in English. Tombstones adorned with flowers and pendants of saints and photographs of the deceased. Some, still bearing handmade cards or letters from father’s day. An old Nonna, tending to the plaque of a loved one. We were quiet, hushed, as we walked through the hallways of the dead and tried to figure out how the artificial candles worked.

Thinking about it afterwards, I found it curious that my emotional response was so much stronger when I found Tony’s tomb in Sardinia.

In part, I know that’s because of the quest to find it. The journey. The possible failure. The high stakes, knowing I wouldn’t easily have a chance to revisit.

I was in an unknown place, an unfamiliar landscape,

Tony’s tomb was untended, forgotten, unlike the others around it, which were adorned with flowers.

I was relieved to see the Pyjama Girl’s grave was marked and not forgotten, even if it did have the wrong name on it. I think the name on the cross may also have affected the way I responded to it. I wasn’t there to mourn Linda Agostini, and it’s hard to pay your respects to someone when you don’t know their name.

Mostly, though, I think it’s because I knew what to expect when visiting Preston Cemetery.

I’ve travelled the road where the body was found. I’ve smelled the sterile antiseptic in the case where the death mask is kept at the LibraryMuseum. I’ve touched the lead-lined box where the Pyjama Girl spent ten years preserved in a formalin solution.

But still, as I farewelled Petra at Southern Cross station and boarded the train to take me to Albury, it was with a sense of disquiet about my response to the two experiences.

What did my experience say about feminism?

After all, it’s reasonably possible that Agostini did kill his wife. It’s just that she wasn’t the Pyjama Girl.

Yes, he would have been guilty of a crime, but if it hadn’t been the woman who became an icon—the equivalent of the unknown soldier for female murder victims—he wouldn’t have become a household name for all the wrong reasons. So what am I doing sympathising with him?

I think it’s because the storyteller part of me is upset at people getting the story wrong. The way Agostini is remembered is not necessarily true to his life. The man – now commonly documented as a waiter – also had highly ambitious, intellectual career as a journalist who started an Italian language paper in Australia.

While I was in Italy I saw other tombs. Machiavelli, Michelangelo, members of Florence’s Medici family, popes, martyrs. It wasn’t deliberate tombstone tourism, but history and memorials were everywhere I went.

So I’ve been thinking about how we memorialise people.

And I realise a play is a way to do that. I think that’s partly what the Pyjama Girl is all about – what drove me to write about it; that this story is about to pass out of living memory. The actors, aged under 26, had never heard of it, despite growing up in the area. Somewhere, in the few years between their age and mine, the story has faded.
When Petra and I were heading back to the car at the Preston Cemetery, one of the men wearing high-visibility vests waved to us.
‘How’d you go? Did you find what you were looking for?’ he asked.
I think I already had it. I don’t think I needed to go to the grave—to ask permission from this girl, to make sure I am doing the right thing by here—because I think that’s why I wanted to visit. I’m glad I went there all the same.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

A grave pilgrimage - part 1

Earlier this year, I found out I’d been accepted into the La Mama Umbria playwriting retreat. I was quite excited about the prospect of 10 days to write and experience the Italian countryside.
 
(I could rave for days, but I’ll simply say that it was pure bliss and far beyond my wildest expectations. The people, the creative nourishment, the obscenely large home-grown tomatoes atop delicious food and the beautiful surrounds, in part mythic, rugged, and tranquil; all had me in a kind of mad bliss. Inspiration grows in the hills of Umbria. After almost two years working on the Pyjama Girl, and more than two years working on my play before that, Widowbird, I’d spent so much time on revisions, I wasn’t sure I could remember how to tackle a first draft. While I was with La Mama I wrote the first draft of a new play, and somewhere between Dubai airport and the train back to Albury on the way home, I finished the first draft of another project I’d been struggling with.)

At a creative development at HotHouse Theatre, I was talking to the Pyjama Girl cast about my plans for Italy and one of the actors asked if I planned to visit Tony Agostini’s grave. The thought hadn’t even occurred to me. Within a few days—after figuring out the difference between the islands of Sardinia and Sicily—I had booked my flights to visit Cagliari, the town where Tony Agostini lived the final years of his life.

Sardinia is a strange place. D.H. Lawrence thought so too:
 
“Cagliari: a naked town rising steep, steep, golden looking, piled naked to the sky from the plain at the head of a formless hollow bay. It is strange and rather wonderful, not a bit like Italy. The city piles up lofty and almost miniature, and makes me think of Jerusalem: without trees, without cover, rising rather bare and proud, remote as if back in history, like a town in a monkish, illuminated missal. One wonders how it ever got there. And it seems like Spain or Malta: not Italy. It is a steep and lonely city, as in some old illumination. Yet withal rather jewel-like: like a sudden rose-cut amber jewel naked at the depth of the vast indenture. The air is cold, blowing bleak and bitter, the sky is all curd. And that is Cagliari. It has that curious look, as if it could be seen but not entered. It is like some vision, some memory, something that has passed away." (D.H. Lawrence, Sea and Sardinia - 1921)

Closer to Tunis than it is to Rome, Cagliari, the port-side capital, is a melting pot of culture. North African street traders try to entice you to buy cheap sunglasses or knock off bags beneath ancient white buildings. The city is built into cliffs so steep there are elevators for pedestrians in some parts. Narrow cobbled streets sometimes have vast gaps where part of a building has crumbled away, allowing a view of the sky between tall stone apartments where people go about their lives. There’s graffiti, but not as much as Rome. Hardly anyone speaks English. The bus service is efficient and has live information on the next bus at almost every bus stop—far more sophisticated than public transport in Canberra. There’s a lively shopping strip where I stumbled upon a street band playing steel drums, banjo, cello and trumpet. Nearby, there’s an excellent gelataria I visited multiple times for lampone e limone—raspberry and lemon—gelato. At night, the moon hangs bright and enormous. From the top part of town, the ancient Castello area, it seems like the moon is lower than you are. The whole experience made me think vaguely of the Star Wars cantina where Han Solo blows off that guy’s arm. Bizarre and vibrant and otherworldly.
A street in Cagliari.

My journey to visit Agostini’s grave was both simpler and more challenging than expected. My host at the Bed and Breakfast had helpfully printed me a Google map with stop locations, line numbers and schedules. Using my best Italian, I bought a daily bus ticket from the nearest Tabacchi (news stand/cigarette/bus ticket vendor on almost every corner) and jumped on the bus. There my Italian failed when I asked the bus driver if he could tell me when we reached Cimitero San Michele. It turns out I was mispronouncing the word for cemetery and he wanted to let me off at the San Michele markets a stop before. But, with the Google maps telling me I had another stop or two, plus a group of old Sardinian ladies carrying flowers and wearing black who figured out what I was trying to say, the whole bus agreed that I needed the next stop, taught me how to pronounce it properly (CHimitero), and we smiled and laughed, and then the old ladies walked me across the road to the Cimitero lest I get lost.
Cimitero San Michele, Cagliari, view from main entrance.

At the Cimitero, another challenge. I’d checked before I left Australia the opening times for the cemetery and the information office, but once inside the vast cemetery I couldn’t find the information office. Finally, I found the groundskeeper’s office, and inside, among 1970s décor, two men smoking and listening to the radio. Neither spoke English. One went off to see if they had a map for me, while I tried to explain to the other that I was looking for a grave. ‘Dove la tomba per Antonio Agostini-‘ I began while he waved his hands and shrugged and said something about a computer. I wrote down Agostini’s date of death on a piece of paper, because I never really managed to learn how to count past 10 in Italian. He pointed to a piece of paper. The computer with grave locations was in the information office. They didn’t have a computer here (of course they didn’t have a computer. It was still the 1970s in their office). And the information office was only open lunedi, martedi, mercoledi, giovedi and venerdi.
And today was Saturday.

Bugger.
(Now that I think about it—that was probably the perfect opportunity to use a new Italian swear word I’d learnt a few days before, but I didn’t).

I said okay and explained (with the aid of universal pantomime) that I would just go looking. He shook my hand and wished me luck.

So, slightly panicked, I set off to look for a needle in a haystack, anxiously checking my watch, and kicking myself for poor scheduling. For some reason, even though it was the most important activity—indeed, the very thing that had brought me to Sardinia, I had left it to my last day. I’d already toured pristine aquamarine beaches along Sardinia’s rugged south coast, visited Phoenician ruins near the town of Pula, seen wild flamingos in a lagoon near a windmill farm, and eaten sardines in Sardinia at a fancy seafood restaurant. Now, I had six hours before I needed to go collect my bags and get to the airport and I had no idea where to start in the huge cemetery. If only I’d come yesterday!

I told myself to calm down. ‘It doesn’t really matter if I don’t find the grave. It’s about the journey. I’m still here.’ I tried to be Zen about it. At the playwriting retreat, which I had just left the day before, Erik Ehn, playwright, facilitator, sage, had told us that we were always in the middle of the process of writing a play. We learnt to embrace ‘being in the middle’ (again, I could write a thesis on this, but I utterly agree. As a playwright, my creativity shrivels when I spent too much time thinking about the end point, rather than being busily engaged in the creating).

I started walking. In the centre of the cemetery are large walls of tombs—an outdoor mausoleum, in some sections two stories high. Early on, in an L-shaped wall, I noticed the tomb of a woman called Guiseppina, which was the name of Agostini’s second wife, a widow he had married upon settling in Cagliari. I wasn’t sure if she had the right surname, but her date of death was just three weeks from his. (I later found out that it was the wrong Guiseppina after all.)

Certain he would be interred nearby, I started exploring all the nearby walls. I found many tombs from 1969, but there also didn’t seem to be a logical order of dates.

‘Surely he won’t be far away,’ I thought. But he wasn’t in that large L-shaped wall, nor the next, nor the next after that. My neck began to hurt from craning to read inscriptions. I was sweating (it was about 35 degrees that day at 11 am) and I was starting to get sunburnt. I was starting to worry that he wasn’t in one of the mausoleum walls at all but in the vast burial grounds, where I’d seen handmade crosses and graves that weren’t marked at all. But then, 45 minutes later, having resigned myself to the possibility of not finding him, and after covering about a third of the walls, I found myself looking at the name Antonio Agostini. My B and B host, who I’d told about my quest, said that Agostini was not a Sardinian name, so he would be easy to find in a cemetery. She was right; I didn’t see anyone else called Agostini. Now, I did a double take to confirm I wasn’t imagining it. It was him. Strangely, I felt like I was about to start crying.

Tony Agostini’s tombstone is simple, unadorned, and almost illegible. The engraved letters in the rock haven’t been filled with gold or lead like most of the other inscriptions, so in direct sunlight, the stone appears blank. I pulled a ladder across and climbed to get a better look, although I stopped a few rungs from the top, because I’m scared of heights and I was more than 10 feet high, because it was windy, and because the ladder was on wheels and I was on a gentle slope.
Mausoleum wall. Agostini's tomb is third from the top, near the centre of the photo.
I left a small piece of metal that my Mum had given me before I left Albury—an offcut from a plaque, I think—engraved with one word: Australia.
Then I caught the bus back to the B and B to collect my camera.

‘Did you find him?’ my host asked, ‘Did you find your man?’
She was delighted I had. I felt shell-shocked. I think because I had spent so long talking about, writing about and reading about this man that he had passed into mythology for me.

After some time sightseeing and eating gelato, I went back to the cemetery again and found my way to Agostini’s tomb easily this time.
I wondered if I was doing the right thing by leaving the small Australia badge. Would he want to be reminded of his time here? Would he want to be remembered?

Antonio Agostini's tomb.
 
 
 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Jet-lagged video blog

I'm sure I meant to post this earlier. Anyway, here's me, talking about a new word I learned while in Italy.

Another post to come soon on my quest to Sardinia to find Antonio Agostini (well, his tomb) and the recent public staged reading of the Pyjama Girl that HotHouse put on as part of the Write Around the Murray festival.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

From Mum's Winnebago

Ciao! I'm in Italy, where I have not been thinking about the Pyjama Girl at all.... well, until a few nights ago. More about that next time. First, here's a video blog recorded just before I left Australia.

 

Friday, July 26, 2013

Video blog #2

I know in the last video I left you with a teaser and a promise to talk more about the 'behind the scenes' elements in the script, but more about that next time. Instead, I wanted to give you an idea of what I've been doing in my many hours at the National Library of Australia, reading newspaper articles like this:


'Truth' newspaper, 1943 subtly juxtaposes the similarities between Philomena Morgan (L) and the Pyjama Girl (R). Note: Philomena's photo may have been doctored, and the image of the Pyjama Girl is one of several different artist's impressions.

So, here's a video I prepared earlier. If you like you can pretend it satisfies the 'behind the scenes' promise because you can see what I look like without makeup, good lighting, adequate sleep. (Which to be honest, is what I look like normally). Also, the NLA café sells ginormous soup bowls of coffee, so I might be talking a bit fast...

Thursday, July 18, 2013

A video blog

 
Turns out I'm hopeless at keeping up a blog, so here's a video of me talking about where I'm up to with this project. I've just finished another wonderful creative development with the HotHouse ensemble, and after a research binge, handed in a fresh draft of the script.



While driving back from Albury I had an unfortunate side adventure when my car ran out of petrol because a major service station on the Hume Highway, which shall remain nameless, was already closed at 10 pm. As someone who regularly travels the highway, this was a surprise to me.

As someone who has completely memorised the statement of Antonio Agostini, the man who confessed to murdering the Pyjama Girl, who details how he had taken a tin of petrol with him when he drove the body from Melbourne to Albury because he knew he wouldn't be able to get petrol overnight, the irony wasn't lost on me. Also, because y'know, it's not the 1930s any more. Luckily we have mobile phones, so I was able to phone a friend to rescue me.

Nontheless, I spent some post-midnight hours in my car, on a lonely, pitch black country road (to Binalong, not Howlong, as in the Pyjama Girl case) I decided to use my time sensibly by taking in script revision while I waited for assistance. After I got my car started again I discovered I had been parked on a culvert (a drain under a road).

The Pyjama Girl was found in a culvert on the Howlong Road, and I can now imagine, much more clearly, just how lonely that place must have been and the sheer luck that the body was discovered as soon as it was.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Why writing a play is like finding a door in a fairy tree


I’m writing this well-overdue post from the Winnebago at my Mum’s place, on the banks of the Hume Weir. It’s where I stay when I’m in near Albury, at the site of what used to be a railway station long ago. 

 Earlier, on the way to the toilet block (things are basic here: no connection to the town water supply, next to zero phone reception, and if I can get enough electricity to charge my laptop and my phone I consider it a good day*) Mum showed me a little project she’s been working on.

It’s rather delightful and it’s also a cute (possibly twee) metaphor. There’s a tree near the picnic area of the reserve that has a knot in the trunk that resembles a door. It reminded Mum of something from a fairy tale. So she and her partner found an antique door knob and attached it to the tree. It was a simple thing, but it made Mum happy. The excitement of some visiting kids sparked her off on another mission—to source a small ceramic fairy and a set of toadstools to add to the tree.


One day a lady came up to the house to ask Mum if she knew who had adorned the fairy tree, and if they’d mind if she made her own contribution. A few weeks later, another set of campers asked Mum if the owner of the fairy tree would appreciate some landscaping.

The fairy tree now has some solar lights, a cross-bar of branches in the ‘window’, a path of pebbles around it, and geraniums planted around the trunk. It is inhabited by four fairies, an ornamental worm that reminds me the worm from the Labyrinth, and a hedgehog. 

It continues to grow and change. One of the fairies fell out and broke its wings a few weeks ago. Mum glued the wings back on, and it is sitting on a lower branch temporarily, while Mum figures out where to put it. This is exactly what I’ve been doing lately while I puzzle over how to put this play together.

At the tree, some of the pebbles have disappeared from the fairy’s garden, changing the boundaries, but someone will probably replenish them soon.

The best thing about the fairy tree is that it’s organically evolved into a collaborative art project, and there’s just as much enjoyment in the process of making as there is in viewing.

In today’s workshop, I worked with a combination of new actors and actors I’d worked with on the previous draft of this script. With my director Travis, we had a table read and then started the feedback portion by going around the table and hearing each actor’s contribution. From this gentle start point the conversation built up until we were throwing around new ideas, finding solutions to problems, finding problems, finding opportunities—and finding things we hadn’t seen before. Things that, like the door in the tree trunk, were already there, just waiting for someone to add a doorknob. Most pleasingly, Travis and I were quite literally on the same page; comparing notes afterwards, we’d marked the same parts to cut or move.

It was one of those workshops that makes me realise why I do this—and why I enjoy collaboration so much.

Mum’s motivation to put that door knob there was simply because it seemed like fun. ‘I just had to,’ she said. ‘It was perfect. How could I say no to the opportunity?’ (Insert pun about opportunity knocking….)

For me, it’s the same thing—writing a play seems like a good idea. We all think that to start with, then inevitably hate the project for a while. But more to the point, we do it because—well, why wouldn’t we? We are compelled to create. Just as my Mum couldn’t keep walking past that tree, I cannot deny my urge to write.

And while we can do it alone, there’s so much to be gained by collaborating. In fact, that’s what has made me focus in on playwriting as a form above others.


So, the moral to this story, if there is one, is this:

Building a play can be a lot like making a whimsical fairy tree. All it take is an idea and imagination.

(Sometimes a suspension of disbelief.)

And as people get involved and share your vision you create something that can be shared and enjoyed by others.

And that feels pretty good too.



*I actually wrote this post on Saturday, but haven’t had an internet connection since then. Or reliable electricity.





Sunday, March 17, 2013

What's happening with the Pyjama Girl?

I realise it's been a while since I gave you an update. So here's what's been happening. Redrafting, mostly.

In December, I revised the script based on the reading we held in Albury with the HotHouse ensemble.

Following this revision, I worked with some Canberra-based actors (Ben Drysdale, Cathy Crowley, Joanna Richards, Gill Lugton, Ben Crowley and Janine O'Dwyer) and director Cammy T to workshop the script and consider new possibilities for staging. Cammy T's brief was to take the script in unexpected places, which he did. This helped me get out of the mindset of the convention of actors directly addressing the audience, which is often used in verbatim and gave me ideas about how to tell the story, one which is very heavy on detail and information, in a more theatrical way.

In February I turned in a new draft, moving further away from the notion of true verbatim theatre--but at the same time, incorporating other research elements.

The next step is to go down and spend a few days doing creative development with HotHouse Theatre with the actors who will be cast in the play later in the year. It's a great opportunity to work with them throughout the process.

In the meantime, I've been performing a trilogy of short monologues called Dead Beauty Queens. I've created three different characters: the ghost of a murdered beauty queen, a killer, and a wannabe. Dead Beauty Queens is being performed at the Ice Age Theatre festival, as part of the You Are Here festival.

Photo of me by C. Jackway.

Unsurprisingly, this is a side project that has been inspired by the work I've done on the Pyjama Girl project. In the course of research I was struck by how many beautiful women were murdered.

The public reading held at HotHouse was in the week following the violent murder of Jill Meagher. Earlier this week, as I prepared for my first performance of Dead Beauty Queens, I was driving in to work listening to the news on the radio. The first story was the latest on the court case of Oscar Pistorius, the South African athlete on trial for murdering his model girlfriend. The second news story was about beauty queen and murder victim Alison Baden-Clay; her husband's murder trial was underway.

This all makes me think that not only is the Pyjama Girl's story important to tell; it will always be important not to forget.