Playwright Alana Valentine discusses the alchemy of turning letters and ledgers into the flesh and bones of drama, transporting our history into the artistry of universal emotional resonance.
Valentine was the Library’s Harold White Fellow in 2013 and devoted her time to researching the papers of Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton for her play, Letters to Lindy.
Supported by the Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust.
Transcript of 2016 Ray Mathew Lecture ‘Enter the Playwright: Pulling Drama from an Archive Box’
Speakers: Anne-Marie Schwirtlich (AMS), Alana Valentine (AV)
Location: National Library of Australia
AMS: Distinguished guests and dear friends, on behalf of the Library’s Council and all of my colleagues, welcome to the National Library of Australia and to the Ray Mathew Lecture, which celebrates the achievements of Australian writers. I’m Anne-Marie Schwirtlich, the Director-General of the Library. As we begin I would like to acknowledge the traditional owners of this land, I thank their elders past and present for this land that we are now privileged to call home.
This lecture honours Ray Mathew, who is chiefly remembered as a playwright, but who was also an accomplished poet and author of short stories, novels, criticism and nonfiction. He published three anthologies of poetry, numerous poems and magazines, many short stories, plays including the much-performed A Spring Song, a novel, studies of Miles Franklin and Charles Blackman, radio plays and film scripts.
Ray Mathew left Australia in 1960. Despite high praise from contemporaries such as Max Harris, who said that Mathew could write like nobody’s business, his promise was never fully realised. Although he kept writing until his death he had no new plays or books published after 1967.
Life in New York did bring him the friendship and patronage of Paul and Eva Kollsman, whose New York apartment he shared from 1968 until the end of his life in 2002, aged 73. The Library began acquiring Ray Mathews’ papers in 1977. After his death, the collection was enhanced significantly by additions presented by Eva Kollsman. Covering five decades, the papers include letters, diaries, observation books, literary drafts, programs, press cuttings and Pixie O’Harris’ art work. The Ray Mathew and Eva Kollsman Trust is a generous bequest made to the Library by Eva Kollsman in honour of her friend to support and promote Australian writing. Eva Kollsman’s legacy has enabled the Library to support Australia’s writing community and to bring to light some of Ray Mathew’s unknown work, to bolster our events program and to fund an online project to make accessible to researchers the papers of Australian writers.
We are delighted that Alana Valentine agreed to deliver the 2016 Ray Mathew Lecture. Alana is a celebrated and award-winning playwright. In 2016 alone, five of her plays will be performed around Australia, and one in Maryland in the United States. Ladies Day; One Billion Beats, which was co-written with poet Romaine Moreton; Cold Light, adapted from Frank Moorehouse’s novel; Tree Widows; and Letters to Lindy explore a range of Australian experiences. Reviewing Ladies Day, Theatre Now describes it as, and I quote, ‘going from incredible highs to devastating lows in short amounts of time. But then that’s what happens in life, and stands as testament to her ability to capture life as she sees it. She’s giving a voice to inhabitants of this world who may not always get the opportunity to speak.’ And I think that we can safely extend this estimation to all of Alana’s 38 produced stage plays.
Alana is also an award-winning radio playwright, with 28 produced radio dramas and features. Her script The Ravens, about a young woman trying to escape a life of prostitution, won the 2014 BBC International Radio Playwriting Competition in the category for writers with English as a first language. Judges acclaimed her work as ‘An ambitious play, admirably creating an authentic world of addiction with the naturalism of language and believability of character.’ This authenticity is explained beautifully by Alana herself, when she says ‘the kernel of my artistry is a refusal to rely on received wisdom from the media, history books or other secondary sources. I want to hold in my hand the walking stick topped with gold mined from the Ballarat fields. I want to touch for myself the items that rats pulled out from under the floorboards at the Hyde Park Barracks. I just don’t do well with second-hand information.’
And so it was inevitable that Alana and the Library would meet. In 2013, Alana used her Harold White Fellowship immersed in our collection, imaginatively researching the papers of Lindy Creighton-Chamberlain. This has resulted in the play, Letters to Lindy, which will be performed at the Canberra Theatre from the 9th to the 13th of August. The play explores the public’s relationship with one of Australia’s most well-known and polarising figures. Drawing on the extraordinary 20,000 letters written to Lindy that the Library holds in its collection. We are delighted that a further collaboration between Alana and the Library is in the wings, as the Library will publish the result of Alana’s transformation of Letters to Lindy into a book. I ask you to please welcome Alana Valentine to deliver the 2016 Ray Mathew Lecture titled ‘Enter the Playwright: Pulling Drama from the Archive Box’. Welcome, Alana.
AV: I pulled a small blue Christmas card from the archive box. On the cover was Santa on his sleigh and inside there was a small concealed speaker with the words ‘PUSH FOR MUSIC’. You’ve got to wonder what compelled me to comply so easily, so readily with its instruction in the hushed confines of the National Library of Australia Manuscript reading room. It’s just that it was such a small card and I presumed it would have a pretty flimsy range not capable of much volume. No. Really, I was just so easily seduced by the promise of making something happen that I pressed softly on the indicated place. Ding ding da ding ding ding ding. The tinny but all too insistent tune of ‘Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer’ came blaring from the card. Other researchers in the room – stern-faced academics – looked up at me with scowling faces. I pushed the card again, harder this time, trying to stop it but the tune continued to ring enthusiastically out. Now others studying in the room were turning around to express their displeasure, like irritated commuters in the quiet carriage of a south bound train. But the little try-hard speaker in the gremlin-possessed card was taking this chance for all it was worth. It had been repressed in this archive for long enough and who knew when it would ever get a chance again. Now the librarian was craning her neck over the desk and twitching her face in strong disdain. In another moment she would actually have to get up and then I would be in real trouble. Spoken about in the staff room. Forever referred to as that playwright with the reindeer card routine. The butt of ho ho ho and Christmas choir jokes when I signed in each morning. All this flashed before me but prod as I might I could not gag the ebullient little tune coming from this deceptively frail card.
And since the card was part of Mrs Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton’s restricted access, special permission material neither could I run out of the room with it. I tried to muffle it under my Canberra-issue scarf so that the music sounded like it was in a very deep well. And now the librarian wasgetting up and coming toward me. Just as she neared my desk the tune came to a sudden end and smiling, I quietly opened the card to show her the Push For Music command ‘Oops’, I said, and hurriedly dropped it back into its blue manila folder. She went back to her desk, only the slightest shake of her head betraying how truly pathetic she thought I was for pushing it in the first place.
I know that the Ray Mathew Lecture has, in its previous incarnations, concentrated on the subject of exile and expatriation for the Australian writer. I was born in Paddington Women’s Hospital in Sydney and spent my childhood in the southern Sydney suburb of Kogarah when the CSR Sugar refinery at Pyrmont, where my grandfather worked as a fitter and turner, innovatively thought to provide housing loans to its employees to whom the banks would not lend. I went to Carlton South Primary School and St George Girls High School and I now live a literal stone’s throw from where my grandparents grew up in the inner city suburb of Redfern, so I can enthusiastically confirm that exile and expatriation are not subjects about which I can speak with any passion. Considering that there are already five erudite and stimulating former Ray Mathew lectures about this subject to enjoy, perhaps it is not too disappointing that I must abandon the field to their expertise. And instead say ‘Enter the Playwright: Pulling Drama from an Archive Box’ because Ray Mathew was a playwright, and I am the first working playwright to be invited to give this address. I have also spent the last three years working in the archives of the National Library of Australia and elsewhere, and it is this endeavour which I am honoured to use a lecture named after my esteemed playwright forebear to explore.
Playwrights may be a little different from other writers. Some say we’re more given to flamboyance than other writers, and have a greater need for social interaction, chattier then. Certainly there is a palpable desire to entertain and wring a laugh, a gasp, a tear, an abiding moment of deeply silent realization from our audiences. What am I talking about – a tear? I want people to have trouble breathing because they are sobbing with wild abandon, I want audiences to laugh so hard that they indecorously break wind beside their well-heeled companions, I want such a shocked and astonished silence to form that audiences forget to move their hands to clap, the world stops spinning on its axis, people leap to their feet and embrace their neighbour with forgiveness and understanding and I want them to do it in right this moment, in my presence, in a room where I can watch them. Do you think we playwrights are just that tiny bit more intense?
And lest you think it is just me listen to the beginning of Mr Mathews’s play A Spring Song. His stage direction is that ‘the beginning is to be played rhythmically, unrealistically, rather breathlessly’.
Kerry: It’s a spring day. There isn’t a cloud in the sky. The sky’s so thin it’s made of glass; if you touched it it would ring. There’s a breeze in the air. The sun’s getting hot, heavy as a hammer, but there’s a breeze in the air. It tastes in the mouth. It tastes like the mountains. It’s a spring day.
Geoff: It’s a spring day. The mist has lifted. The air’s so clear it’s made of glass; if you looked you’d see anything. The sun’s in the sky. The day has a tang, as heady as laughing; the sun’s in the sky. It makes you laugh. It tastes like wine. It’s a spring day.’
I also listened to Mr Mathew reading poetry in the Hazel de Berg collection. Introducing his poem Morning Song he said, ‘It’s a song which refers to the morning time in everyone’s life when you feel young and (considerable pause) happiness seems possible.’
Crucially different about playwrights is the fact that our work remains unfinished, unrealised, unmade if it is not embodied in the mouths of our greatest collaborators – members of the noble profession thespian. The foundation of our art form is the ambition to create a structure in which actors, designers and directors can actually play, can most rapturously liberate their imagination to wonder and invention. We are playwrights which means that our deepest most sincere belief is in the sacred nature of play, in the transformative abiding faith that empathy for another is the most enduring form of radical compassion and one of the most effective motors for change in the real world. For all the facades and masks, employed to render our craft, playwrights are exceptionally ruthless judges of human nature because playwrights believe not what people say but what they do. The material with which we draw is not costume or description or even dialogue. The substance of a play is action – not what the community or the characters or the society say of themselves but what they actually do. If all writers are the lie-detectors of our culture, then playwrights are quite literally the polygraph takers, sieving the words and thoughts of our contemporaries though the body, the brain and spirit in action to see what holds fast and true.
The kind of playwriting that I do, often based on interviews and verbatim transcripts, now archives and manuscripts, aims to reflect a community back to itself, trusting that a theatrically vivid community ‘selfie’ may both amuse and intrigue. That the observations of an outsider might compel self-reflection and self-knowledge in an interesting, sometimes uncomfortable, but hopefully enlightening manner.
For instance, Canberra people, I learnt, judge more than anything, inarticulacy, verbal clumsiness, lack of lucidity. This is a town where wit and the ability to speak cleverly are at an absolute premium. Canberrans are not impervious to physical attractiveness (they recognize its potency and respect it as a necessary foil) but I found that it is the ability to think, to make an argument, to play word games, that trumps all other assets here. This is not Melbourne where you have to dress well, or Sydney where you have to undress well, or Perth where you have to marry well. This is the National Capital and woe betide if you do not know how to speak well. And not only speak well, I say, but speak in generally low confidential tones some salient piece of seemingly cryptic news. There is something about the proximity of Parliamentary power that makes every whispered indication of intent scintillating, but I also noticed that there is something habitual, tactical about these apparently intimate offerings. Everyone in Canberra seems to speak in this way, this ‘I’m telling you personally something really special’. It’s was quite dizzying over the time I spent here.
That time began as a three month Harold White Fellowship in 2013 but I became so unreservedly besotted by Canberra, its residents and its impeccable archives that the Fellowship assistant, Beth Mansfield, quickly dubbed me a boomerang,, ‘One of those returning fellows who seem to come back year after year.’ And I did. Dredging the archives and renewing my respect for the data management skills and meticulous persistence of researchers and academics.
The Fellowship was gifted to me to explore, with her permission, the 199 boxes of letters, cards and other material sent to Mrs Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton during the 35 years since her daughter Azaria was taken by a dingo at Ayres Rock or Uluru as the local Anangu have always called it. More than 20,000 items in paper and card since 17th August 1980, thousands more emails and text messages still flowing in, two out of three of them now, apologies.
As a dramatist I was attracted to this collection because of the special relationship Mrs Chamberlain-Creighton has with the National Library and because it seemed to potentially be a rare snapshot of 1980’s Australia. An opportunity to move past the opinions of commentators and historians of the time, the many men of letters and public distinction held in the archive, and go directly to the source of hitherto uncelebrated Australian voices. A community not in the flesh, but in archive boxes, their voices, like my little ‘push for music’ gremlin, metaphorically struggling to get out.
And what a diverse community I found. Poets, supporters and viscous detractors. People sending apologies, advice, theories and frequent admonishments. People who have been touched by God to write, moved with fury to write, those who have had their lives changed or altered or indelibly affected by their encounter with Lindy and her story. Pornographers, eccentrics and hundreds of children. People who spent thousands of hours writing to newspapers and politicians and raising funds. People who have donated their savings and their time and every ounce of their energy. New Zealanders telling Lindy to leave Australia, and as the story penetrated internationally, thousands of International correspondents.
As my reading of these letters progressed, I began to mentally group letters into ‘types’, calibrating I suppose if I was copying and collecting enough of that type in my rummagings. It was not my ambition to be authoritative or comprehensive, as noble as those scholarly ethics are. I have also not tried to be especially fair or thorough as a chronicler of this collection – call it artistic prerogative or poetic license. I have taken Cervantes edict in Don Quixote, ‘….this belongs among those things which should not be investigated to the very end….’as my mantra.
So I have given myself to the contents of about one third of the material – 75 boxes in total – and I have been drawn to stories of shared suffering, vituperative accusation and spiteful conjecture as well as the breathtaking kindness of complete strangers.
I came to this collection to see what people really do reach for in times of confusion, trouble and helplessness. How human beings might struggle to understand the experience of someone whose own situation is so far from their own lives. In a tragedy such as that of Lindy Chamberlain, so radically outside the frame of the experience of any other living person, is it even possible to comprehend her? The poet WH Auden asked, ‘And how reliable can any truth be that is got, By observing oneself and just inserting a not?’.
I was not looking here only for the well expressed, the lucid sentiment, the colourful, humorous or engaging turn of phrase, though I can’t deny that I was always thrilled when I found it. I was in fact looking, as keenly, I may even say more keenly, for the clumsy, humble, sometimes tendentious, sometimes vapid platitudes that people reach for when they just don’t know (or don’t believe they can) find a way to express the deepest feelings of empathy they have. ‘Even madmen manage to convey unwelcome truths in lonely gibberish,’ says Auden.
What is it in human nature, I asked, that makes someone push past their own inarticulate, choked abilities and write to someone whom they have never met? And is the fact that they do, I conjectured, not a cause for genuine hope, not a characteristic of our species to give us sincere and durable reason for optimism? Is the beauty of this mercy, this tenderness, not a remarkable thing - even when it is crude and ill-shaped and gauche?
But more intriguingly still, what is it in Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton’s nature that has made her compile this remarkable collection? Was she a saver, a filer, a hoarder all along, or is this almost obsessive retention of every single piece of paper evidence of her having been marked by her experience? This is a collection that includes even a credit card receipt which Sam Neil had torn up and thrown into a bin, as well as the wrapping paper with which Meryl Streep had wrapped a gift to her. Nothing which had even the smallest relevance to this story had been discarded. Why?
You do not make drama out of information. You do not make drama out of facts or fallacies or even out of a pile of the most beautifully filed and annotated pages. You make it out of the conflict and contradictions and hidden, unexplained motives of being a human being. And so to make Letters to Lindy, I have conjectured a premise, a theory, a notion about what is happening in these 199 boxes. And Ray Mathew would I know understand this, that if I could explain that premise in a lecture I would not have to write it as a play. It is no perverse sales pitch to say that if you want to fully understand what I think the relationship between Lindy and these letters is you will have to come and see it played out in bodies in space in the moment in a room full of others on a night when the gift of inspired insight flows out of the performers. Because it is my belief as a playwright, a belief that I have given my life to, that we do not understand something because someone explains it to us in words, but only when we experience that realization for ourselves in a moment of insight into which we have been artfully led. Any great teacher will tell you that it is when a student makes the connection themselves that you have true pedagogy. Any neurologist will describe the synaptic leaps the brain makes across the tiny nerve cells, or neurons, in that moment of realization. Synapse, derived from the Greek sun ‘together’ and haptein ‘join’ – means the space across which nerve cells can join together. And in the theatre, that place where we join together as a community we embrace that synaptic leap as the moment when the audience suddenly realizes what the playwright and the creative team have been doing for the time you have given them, what they have been building toward, and when you are in a theatre and that kind of revelation dawns on you, and you see that insight, that perception that you can’t put into words but only know, like in life, when theatre is that good it kicks inside you like a second heartbeat. It overwhelms your rational experience, like awe, like joy, like love. It takes you out of your preconceptions and individuality and joins you to something elusively larger and more purposeful than yourself.
Does the process we theatre makers are trying to conjure sound mystical? Of course it is. Is it an ultimate act of faith in our audience that they will make that leap, that they will concentrate toward that perception, that they will go with us and reach for that kind of involvement. I went into the Letters to Lindy rehearsals at the end of last week and I found what is usually to be found at the midpoint of any rehearsals, namely doubt and barely contained terror. In the middle of rehearsals the actors and director are beginning to close down the myriad possibilities that loomed at the beginning of the process and commit to decisions, and so they are literally mad with the volume of choices. My profound esteem for actors has so many dimensions but chief among them is their ability to believe in the work of another and take it, bodily, into their voice and their heart, the sheer courage of facing down their own demons, and not only on the playing stage but at every part of the process. Much is made of the narcissism of actors – George Bernard Shaw said once that the trouble with a certain player was that he was ‘in love with his wife and an actor can only afford to be in love with himself.’ Personally I think that narcissism or self-belief may be a precious antidote to the daily practice of putting on the voice and soul of others.
Mrs Chamberlain-Creighton recently told me that several people have begun to look at these letters and, in her words, ‘been overwhelmed and given up’. When I went to Lindy’s house, late in my research, she showed me a letter from a publisher who had spent ‘a day’ looking through the collection and had then written to Lindy expressing the opinion that there was not much of an emotional range in there, that it was, substantively, too dull to publish. I looked at Lindy and sort of sputtered ‘a day!’ and we laughed hard together. And that is the only moment in the entire three years that I have been working on this collection in which I felt that I had glimpsed the smallest shard-like glint of what this has been like for her. For perhaps a second I shared with her an understanding of the presumptions, the ignorance, the misinterpretations, the divergent views that this story rouses in each person.
It is the beauty of Mrs Chamberlain-Creighton’s individuality that I, as a dramatist, have found utterly dynamic and complex and inspiring. Not that she has said she forgives, but that she does it, not that she says she won’t be a victim but that she lives it. Not that she refuses to inhabit this story as a tragedy but that she persuaded me to believe it as both a grief and a triumph. Yes, we can still be astonished by the plot twists and turns of this appalling story, but what I hope I can bring to this work is my particular perceptions into the uniqueness of Mrs Chamberlain-Creighton’s character, a uniqueness for which she has been cruelly punished, an individuality that continues to wriggle out from any box anyone, including me, cares to put her in.
As my research moved from weeks into months I have to admit that there were days when I would get overwhelmed by the righteous sermonizing of some in the collection. It was on those days that I really could understand exactly how Mrs Chamberlain-Creighton could, as she honestly told me, laugh about or be perversely entertained by some vituperative missive, some nut job with a bizarre theory or some crank with a marriage proposal. The sheer volume of compulsive blurting which manifested in endless pages of almost unreadable longhand about what Lindy meant to someone (though they had never met her) or how they understood her deeply (because of their own situation) or how they pitied her intensely, which was also common, really does start to grind you down. And I wasn’t locked in a gaol cell with no certainty of how this would end.
At those times the sheer innocence and beauty of the letters from children was a balm to the soul and a joy to the eye. Often they would be filed in groups, as Mrs Chamberlain-Creighton had received them, and it was apparent that some you-beaut Sunday school teacher or passionate pro-Lindy school teacher had told the children that the activity for the day was to write to Mrs Chamberlain in prison. But as is consistent with children, no matter how much they are being ‘guided’ in their perspective by the adults present, the real feelings of the kids bubble beautifully out in unexpected and humourous ways such as this one from Paula, aged 9.
Dear Mrs Chamberlain,
I hope you’re feeling well. I think of you very often. We all believe in you. We give you all the hope we’ve got. There are a lot of people who would love to be your friend. Whatever I can send or give you that will help with your appeal I am going to empty my money box and purse, pillow and send it to you all the love, kindness and helpfulness I can give to you and your family. My Brothers and Sisters are well. There (sic) names are Jackie, Danelle, Damien There are two girls and a boy. Jackie is 5, Danelle is 2, Damien is 11, I’m Paula I’m 9. There are eight people Mum, Dad, Jackie, Danelle, Damien, Me, Grandma and my Uncle David we all live in the same house. We live in the bush. It’s fun the main animals we find are Koalas, Kangaroos, Wallabies and frilly necked lizard. We have a puppy a cat we had a guinea pig but it died we are going to get another one when we get the cage fixed. I hope you like my letter Please write back to me I’ll write again when I get your letter. Don’t forget the love that I am giving you.
Love From Paula Age 9
On the days when the rage and fury that this story had happened at all, on the mornings when the utter absurdity of the prosecution’s case ground away at me like pendulous mill-stones of misery and anguish, when the idiocy of journalists or the blood lust of the mob filled me with horror and sober, irrational fear – I would return again and again to the children’s letters for a laugh and a smile and their elusive elixir of hope. On the days when I would become thoroughly apoplectic about the vested interests and sheer commercial barbarity of what was done to make money out of this tragedy, the many, children’s letters exhuded a power that went far beyond sentimental cuteness or distracting simplicity. It is the force of unadulterated affection among them, the abandon of their creative artworks and hand-made cards, and the easy generosity of their offerings to this woman in jail, suffering. And yet it was also by being so achingly engaged with the profundity of what these children’s letters represented that I also remembered the loss of Azaria and Lindy’s loss of contact with her own living children while in prison. Including the removal of Kahlia soon after giving birth, and then when she was briefly let out on bail there were T-shirts printed in the Northern Territory, ‘watch out Kahlia, Mummy’s coming home.’
Last year Mrs Chamberlain-Creighton very generously invited me to her home to look through a batch of letters before they were sent to the National Library. Sorted and filed in the usual manner, but here in Sanitarium sultana boxes rather that the NLA issue archive boxes, it was infinitely easier to access them than via the relatively simple but still protracted NLA retrieval process. Here I only needed to bend to the floor and select the files of interest, which I did. And that’s when I felt an alarming tearing of the centre back seam of the self-made dress that I was wearing. Lindy had already commented on a small gap in the side seam when I came in. ‘Did you do that on the way up?’ she asked and I had to admit that no, it had been like that when I got in the car, it was just that I was fully dressed when I noticed it and ‘didn’t want to change’. Now, with the dress split right down the back, you can be sure that I deeply regretted my tardiness, and my face flushed red with shame that it would be noticed by Lindy, not just a seamstress herself but a qualified tailor.
I needn’t have worried. Lindy of course immediately noticed the gaping tear and I immediately confided my horror of her disapproval. She talked for a short time about the likelihood of the problem being located in the bobbin and then, as often happens when one exposes a vulnerability of one’s own in these situations, Lindy proceeded to tell me her own wardrobe malfunction moment on her flight to the second inquest.
I was all dressed up because I knew there would be reporters the minute we left the plane and I was sitting next to Stuart because we were going over stuff. He asked for grape juice and then he knocked it in my lap. Red grape juice and I was wearing a white dress that was starched. I spent half the trip in the toilets down the back with the hostesses who gave me soda water to get it out. I had to wash it about eight times but I got it all out and somebody had a hair dryer and the hostess is going like this because we couldn’t iron it and whenever one or other would come from up the back, one or other would grab the other side and try and dry it tight.
‘Was it linen?’ I asked.
It wasn’t linen but it was starched and now it just looked like it had been squashed in the centre, runched up. I mean, I felt self-conscious…. it didn’t turn up in any pictures. But the look on Stuart’s face was priceless.
We laughed and laughed. Lindy is, without doubt, among the smartest people I have ever met, whip smart, she doesn’t miss a trick, doesn’t misremember a detail. And she is fully alive in the present, able to see the funny side of turning up at an inquest, accused of murder, in a white dress with the ghost of a red/purple stain down the front!
One of the thing that did happen to me from having daily contact with these letters was an increase in my levels of caution, oh alright, let’s say my anxiety. I hesitated to use that word because it seems somewhat melodramatic and my anxiety was, I’m sure, specifically related to being in almost constant contact with a situation that was at least appalling, at worst perversely and maliciously unjust. Cognitive behavior therapists will tell you that ninety percent of what we worry about never happens….but here I was….exposed every day to situation where the worst case scenario, for the Chamberlain family, comes true.
I don’t think it helped that in recent years my work has been concerned with children of prisoners, child sexual assault victims, train crash survivors, and incarcerated teenage girls. As well as marine pilots negotiating a shipping disaster, gay domestic violence survivors, people grieving the loss of relatives in war and the massacre of Aboriginal people in Western Sydney. Therapists might call it transmitted trauma – the way it manifested for me was to make my already fastidiously wary nature go into hyperdrive. On any project of this nature I do take legal advice. Much of what is in the archive are orphan works, that is, works for whom the copyright owner cannot be found. But still I posted, combed the electoral rolls, the yellow pages, every avenue possible. In the end I have to hope that anyone who wrote to Lindy will want to be publicly acknowledged for their thoughtfulness for taking the trouble to write and will give me the benefit of the doubt.
But then the anxiety began to leak over into the rest of my life. Turning off all the power points when I went out of the house. Making sure I knew where all the insurance documents were kept. Putting a cover over the built in camera in my laptop.
I think that there is a legacy in doing work that involves daily empathy with the pain and suffering of others. I think that is the work that artists do for the community. We hear these stories again and again and again. People may think that it is out of respect that I always involve the communities that I work with so strongly in the work that I do and certainly, respect is part of the equation. But the far greater truth of this work is that these community members, the people to whom these things have happened are the ones who can most safely and sympathetically guide you through it.
And so it was here. Without having long conversations about it or placing any more demand on her time than I thought was reasonable, Lindy herself became my exemplar of strength with regards how to deal with the anxiety I was feeling. I never asked her, or told her of the effect on me. I simply watched how she coped with the material, how she reacted and responded, how she resolved to go on. In my copy of her autobiography, The Dingo’s Got My Baby, Lindy wrote a very beautiful dedication. When I read it I thought to myself ‘she will never know how much that means to me.’ But the point about Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton is that she does know. She does know the value of a line or a verse or a thought and that is why she has filed them here, all so meticulously.
Letters to Lindy will open at the Merrigong Theatre in Wollongong before touring to Canberra, Sydney and later we hope, everywhere else. Who knows how many thousands of people will then see and hear that along with the horrific, small-minded and shameful behaviour of that time there was an outpouring of kindness, understanding and faith that justice would finally be done for this grieving mother and the rest of her family. If they do it is testament to the way in which the collection has been protected with such care and dedication. Margy Burn, Robyn Holmes, Catriona Anderson, Kylie Scroope. To every archivist who has helped me here – I esteem you as the custodians of this bounty.
In fact, Letters to Lindy ends with a scene between two librarians, cataloguing the collection. I won’t give it away but one of them does say to the other,
This collection is testament to one of the most devoted mothers in the history of Australia. Unfeeling? Because she didn’t perform the waterworks of hysterical grief for six months and then move on? This mother is still cherishing this baby and will go on cherishing her and enshrining her till her own death. And Azaria and every piece of paper associated with her and every emotion that she has inspired will be housed here, entombed here, enshrined here forever.
I recently heard an Australian filmmaker say that in her office, in the edit suite they joke that ‘You should never call the film important.’ It is a sentiment with which I utterly disagree. My work is earnestly, indelibly important. I would not waste your time in asking you to come and see it unless I thought it was among the most important work I have ever done, or am every likely to do. Indeed I would shamelessly argue that theatre is one of the most enduring art forms precisely because it allows us to come together as a community to reflect and decide what our civic responsibilities and responses are. An opportunity to show who we are by taking an action, not mouthing platitudes. We must go to the theatre as a community to reconcile our response to Mrs Chamberlain-Creighton because as a community we not only did her and her entire family a great wrong but we did a great wrong to ourselves. We wounded ourselves with shameful mob mindlessness and we belittled ourselves with crass, ill-informed spite and we need to understand that there are those among us who did not do that and who now take the time and trouble to amend that. Mrs Chamberlain Creighton told me how, when the 2012 inquest finally declared that a dingo took Azaria, the comedienne and writer Wendy Harmer apologized to her. Lindy said, I asked her why she apologized after all these years and she said, ‘Because I’m better than that.’
I wonder if we too are better than that now? I do think that we are still better than the need to demand that in all theatrical encounters we are merely distracted and entertained. I trust that are not yet so decadent that everything we do must be motivated by what we will get rather than what we might give. I believe that we are not yet so broken that we need to cripple our arts industries and impoverish our public institutions to punish them for their lucidity and diversity. Can we really not afford to lavishly funds our culture, or are we short-changing ourselves for other reasons?
I know from personal experience that Australians are among the most generous people in the world. My evidence for that statement is this. In 2010 I worked with the Western Desert Nganampa Walytja Palyantjakt Tjutaka Aboriginal Corporation or Purple House, the Alice Springs Beanie Festival as well as the Ngaanyatjarra Pitjantjatjara Yankunytjatjara or NPY Womens’ Council on a play about a friendship between an Indigenous Central Desert woman and a Non-Indigenous woman from Sydney. After show donations from two seasons of the play netted $60 thousand dollars which was used by the Purple House to fund a mobile dialysis unit, allowing Indigenous elders to remain on country for their treatment rather than languish in Alice Springs, away from home and family and fretting about not fullfuling their cultural duties and obligations to pass their knowledge to the young. When the play toured to 23 venues, including to Canberra last year, audiences gave directly to the Purple House again. Sarah Brown their CEO told me two Novacastrians, moved to make a sponsored bike ride to the centre turned up to present them with several hundred dollars raised by their charity trek. Australians are among the most generous people in the world. In the 90 minutes it took for those actors to play out their drama, audiences realised the issues and were moved to act on them at the play’s end.
I am not suggesting that all theatre can directly address health issues we face but I want to finish by acknowledging the increasing recognition that artists are skilled communication experts whose empathetic art forms must be harnessed as part of the suite of ways to approach future change. I have recently been commissioned by the Charles Perkins Centre, a world-leading scientific research facility at the University of Sydney, exploring obesity, diabetes and cardio-vascular disease. Taking the lead of their maverick and visionary namesake, Charles Perkins, they perceived that to communicate their profound and difficult cultural, health and scientific research to the public they need to collaborate with skilled, effective communications experts. Artists who can quite literally rummage around in the bowels of not only our bodies and minds but also our spirits and our psyches.
From here on it is going to be necessary for artists and Companies to connect with our communities of interest, intellect and innovation. It is always going to be like this now, for some of us it has been like this for all our career. In 2010 the Australia Council’s economic study on professional artists in Australia found that more than half of all artists (56 percent) earned less than $10,000 from their creative income. And still they’re cutting. There will now always be a fight, we must learn how to draw a line in the sand and suit up for it. We are not defeated, we are only always going to have to argue for the change we want to see and the culture we want to be. We must resist the indulgence of despair and the balm of self-pity not because it is rousing to say so but because it is destructive not to do so. It is a fallacious estimation of where we are and the chances we still have.
I don’t say this in the flurry of the circumstances of the present.
I only I judge myself as I judge others, not by what I say but by what I do. And what I have done all my writing life, for thirty years is to write the story of the power of collective action. I wrote it in my play Run Rabbit Run about the triumph of the South Sydney Rugby League Football Team, I wrote it in my play Parramatta Girls about the struggle for recognition of the sadistic abuse that was visited upon teenage girls in a State institution in Sydney. It is present in this story of the Letters to Lindy. If I have used my work to interrogate a point of view it is the belief that where we have real hope is in our capacity to act together as a community, to be steadfast in our purpose and our will. We are not defeated, we are not reduced, we must be emboldened and infuriated and committed to action to defend artists and culture and learning and scholarship and history.
There are honest and yes, noble men and women who are working to make our arts and culture worthy of our belief and we are among them, we support them, we are what stands between them becoming hollow and broken. We charge our artists, our writers, our dramatists with the burden of tearing the veil away from our collective delusions, but we ask them to do so in order to reaffirm our striving to make our communities equal to our belief.
In the spirit of Ray Mathew, in honour of his legacy, in esteem of his patrons and their generous bequest, I want to express my gratitude for letting this playwright into this National repository of our history.
[End of Recording]