Writing for the stage, says Alana Valentine, “is about commanding the public space.”
“When I write a play I want to unite the audience as a group. I want to make them something other than a group of disinterested individuals. My motivation lies in the community perspective.”
“There’s always a temptation to look at my plays as just being about the subject,” Valentine adds. “But actually, the story is a lens to look at our community.”
Valentine’s critically acclaimed 2016 documentary drama Letters To Lindy, which is revived for a lengthy eastern states tour, is just one example in an award-winning writing career spanning more than 20 years.
Drawing on an archive of thousands of letters, poems, prayers, drawings and threats members of the public felt compelled to mail to Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton in the wake of the death of her infant daughter Azaria, the play is a fascinating collage of Australian attitudes to grief, justice, celebrity and women who do not conform to expectations.
“I never think about what the audience would like to see,” says Valentine. “Instead, I often choose stories that have had some kind of public exposure, stories that I can come at from a different angle and find another kind of truth inside.”
Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton’s story, arguably the biggest and most sustained media event in Australian history, is a case in point.
“It’s been 38 years since it happened, since baby Azaria was taken by a dingo, and there is still a huge amount of interest in the community. People want to know who Lindy is, and they want to understand the impact of that story on them.”
The play spans more than 30 years, from Azaria’s death near Uluru in 1980, to the 2012 coronial ruling that drew a line under a divisive legal saga. The story opens with Chamberlain-Creighton (played by Jeanette Cronin) rummaging through archive boxes.
Soon, the space around her is filled with the voices of admirers, sympathisers and haters selected from the thousands who felt compelled to send poems, sewing patterns, baby bootees, food parcels, and in one instance, a letter writer hails Azaria as a herald of the second coming of Christ.
Valentine spent many hours trawling that archive, one held since 2012 by the National Library of Australia in Canberra.
“Right away I was struck by the fact that Lindy had not only kept these letters but had filed them all so carefully,” says Valentine. “What does that tell us about her as a mother, a grieving mother?”
The trove forms a fascinating portrait of Australia, says Valentine. “There are amazingly kind letters, vicious detractors and people’s apologies. There are letters from eyewitnesses at the campsite, and one from a woman who gave birth in the bed next to Lindy when she gave birth to Azaria. Every day of her own child’s life is a reminder that Azaria isn’t there.”
Documentary material and works of journalism are often a starting point for a new play, Valentine says. “Those sources can put me touch with a character or a story. But so do things I hear from people over dinner.”
The finished play will sit somewhere on a sliding scale between documentary and “the completely made-up”.
“People think it’s easier to write those fact-based public stories but it isn’t,” says Valentine. “It’s so much easier to just sit down and make it up.”
Valentine, who is based in the inner-west of Sydney, says she is drawn to telling women’s stories, though not exclusively. “I think we need to build great vehicles for female actors but I’m just as interested in creating difficult and conflicted roles for male actors or non-binary actors. In my character descriptions I often write that the role can be played by any gender.”
Valentine has developed an international reputation as a playwright. In 2014, she won the BBC International Radio Play competition with The Ravens, the story of a young woman trying to extricate herself from sex work. In 2012 she collected the Stage International Script Competition prize for the best play about science and technology for Ear to the Edge of Time, which plays at the Seymour Centre in October.
Valentine’s best-known stage plays include Parramatta Girls, Run Rabbit Run and Ladies Day. Her writing has been widely recognised with the 2004 Queensland Premier’s Award for Best Drama Script, the 2003 NSW Writer’s Fellowship and the 2002 Rodney Seaborn Playwright’s Award.
Her latest play, The Sugar House, a story of the changes wrought in inner Sydney by the forces of globalisation, is part of Belvoir’s 2018 season.
“I see myself as a mid-career writer,” she says. “At least I hope I’m mid-career. We all want a long life in art.”
“Prolific” is a regularly applied description and one Valentine is happy to live with.
“The great thing about being a female playwright is that you have a lot of stories in the bottom drawer!” she laughs. “Plus you have to make a living. In the end, being a writer is about keeping going. Things don’t always happen when you want them to, so you always have to be thinking ahead of the curve.”
And as a playwright, the work is never done. Valentine has been working on revisions to the script of Letters to Lindy ahead of its revival.
“There’s a new speech in the play that wasn’t in there before,” Valentine says. “I met Lindy in a hotel room and we went through the speech and she had her input. She’s had a very close contact with all of the words in the play.”
Valentine says she’s been “overwhelmed” by the public reception to Letters to Lindy. “We get a lot of standing ovations. We know a lot of that is a kind of salute to Lindy and her extraordinary resilience, but I also think people have taken the stage play as a opportunity to let go of their guilt or anger toward her.
“It’s one thing to write a letter and say ‘sorry, I judged you and I shouldn’t have’ and it’s quite another to be in a room of 500 people letting go of the pain and guilt collectively as a community, as a nation.”
More surprising, adds Valentine, is the reaction to Lindy’s story from young audiences – people born many years after media interest in the case died down.
“I remember at our first preview in Wollongong, there was a group of 12 to 14-year-olds, about 30 of them,” Valentine recalls. “Our hearts sank! We thought they just wouldn’t care, but after a few minutes they were all leaning forward in their chairs – and these kids are the toughest critics of all.
“I spoke to their teacher afterwards, and she told me that she wanted them to learn that not everything they see in the media and in social media, especially, is true.
I thought that was great. It puts a different frame around the story and asks a really important question: why do we continue to believe in things even when the facts don’t support it?”
Letters to Lindy is touring nationally from June to September. It starts at Illawarra Performing Arts Centre (June 22-23) and travels to The Joan (June 26-27) and Riverside Theatres, Parramatta (July 12-14).