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. 

1 comment:

  1. Emma what a fantastic piece - my son Rhys Parton was one of your actors and we of course, went along on opening night - it was FANTASTIC. You are so right about the community engagement and local stories, Arts Funding the whole shebang. More power to you and thank you so much for putting the foundations in place to allow this magic to happen right where we live.