The Social Context of Parramatta Girls

Alana Valentine’s massaged verbatim play Parramatta Girls (2007) explores the experiences of women who were incarcerated into the Parramatta Girls Home. Through her eight distinct characters that she created, she gives a voice to over five hundred thousand other “Forgotten Australians” who were placed into institutionalized care between 1930 and 1970. Children were classified as either delinquent or neglected by the Children’s Court and then were taken from their friends and families and put into a home. As there were no legal barriers for a person to become employed at these institutions, male and female children alike were subjected to physical violence, sexual abuse, verbal mistreatment, and harsh punishments which had long-lasting psychological impacts. Due to its wide-spread effects, this issue has troubled the entirety of Australia, and its painful legacy continues to live on. The simple eradication of these children provided an easy solution for the Australian government, especially during the 1960’s, where the population at Parramatta Girls Home peaked. This is the social context from which Parramatta Girls was born, as the stories of the women and their personal experiences create the play itself. Through choice of dialogue, construction of the play, both in present times and in its flashbacks, and characterization, the play is defined by its social context.

Due to the verbatim nature of Parramatta Girls, dialogue must be chosen extremely carefully. Through my own experience in developing a workshop activity for my class, I now understand this process much better. In the task, articles about the Parramatta Girls Home from the 1960’s are to be handed out and students are to cut particular words from the articles and arrange them to form a verbatim sentence. This is a direct physical representation of how social context influences the writing of a verbatim play. Valentine, in an interview with Roslyn Oades for “Parramatta Girls: Verbatim Theatre about the Forgotten Australians”, discusses the difficulty to exhibit the reality of the horrors that the women faced without desensitizing her audience, stating of her major creative challenge, “I think just not making it a litany of miserable suffering…Perversely, also not lightening it too much; not making it too palatable; not… looking away from the horror and the utter shattering of lives.” The inclusion of Charlotte the Harlot Lay Dying within the play, a popular rhyme prevalent in the 1960’s in Australia, exposes the inappropriate things that the young girls were introduced to in the home. While the vulgar lyrics expose the gratuitous sexual acts, a young Melanie innocently sings the tune in a cheerful tone, which softens the initial impact upon the audience, but leaves them pondering its disturbing nature. When the play jumps to the present-day reunion, dialogue continues to reflect the hardship that these women faced, evident in Act Two Scene Twelve, when Gayle states, “I’m harder than the inside of a nun’s mattress.” Having watched this scene performed in front of me by my fellow classmates, I can admit that the use of an Australian idiom provides comedic relief for the audience, especially when the line explores a difficult topic- the long-lasting effect of a woman’s incarceration into a home. The audience’s personal social context, that of the 2000’s, increases the impression of the atrocities that the women faced, as it is difficult to imagine in modern society such horror occurring to young and innocent children.

Dissimilar to other verbatim plays, Parramatta Girls is constructed with narrative in mind, and includes constant flashbacks from the present-day reunion to the social context from which the play arose- the 1960’s, when the women were children and experiencing life in the home first-hand. When rationalizing her stylistic decision to avoid true verbatim theatre, Valentine states, “I didn’t need to capture their exact voice, I had to capture the spirit, the soul, the way of being in the world that the women were”. The flashbacks effectively achieve this, as the true and pure essence of the women, before they changed over time, are displayed. Act One Scene Six is the most powerful example of a flashback, as the strong, defiant nature of Gayle is presented to the audience, which makes the violence of her beating by the guard in the same scene all the more shocking. I have witnessed the absolute intensity of this scene, as students in my class performed it as part of a theatre workshop. As a spectator, I supported Gayle in her decision not to kneel and wanted her to defeat the guard, but she doesn’t. Stage directions imply the brutality of the beating: “GAYLE is forced down onto the ground. She reacts as if she is taking blow after blow to the head and legs and arms and back.” As there is no actor cast to play the guard, the director and the actor of Gayle must work together to exhibit the violence as realistically as possible, which is why the use of facial expressions and gestures in this scene is so important. If an actor can use expressions of horror and pain skillfully, and jerk their body as if someone is physically abusing them, then the impact of the scene upon the audience will be much greater. This brute force imposed upon the children at the hands of those who were meant to be protecting them is characteristic of 1960’s Australian society, where rules and legislations for working in child-care were nearly non-existent. Violence in general was more common during this time, with the use of school corporal punishment, and the prevalence of domestic violence within families. Observing this physical display of the social context of Parramatta Girls, of which the play is defined, is extremely difficult for an audience, considering the reforms of modern times.

One of the most moving aspects of Parramatta Girls is Alana Valentine’s characterization, as the audience can discover the characteristics of the women as children, and then chart their progress and development into adulthood. The characterization of the women, however, are completely defined by their social context, as the words that they use as children come from the vernacular of the 1960’s. Judi’s characterization perfectly explores the long-lasting effects of the trauma faced in the institution, as she eventually changes her name and struggles to remember the difficulties that she endured throughout her incarceration. Through the flashbacks, the audience recognize Judi as a character with considerable strength, most identifiable in Act Two Scene Two, as she tells Lynette and Maree of her sexual manipulation of the guard to gain a packet of cigarettes. Her use of 1960’s slang against Lynette’s naivety further proves her toughness, “Wake up, slag. Wake up. You’re in here. They can do whatever they want to you. Whatever they want.” Although the audience understand this harder side to Judi, they also are given glimpse of her true fragility, evident in her damaged character years after the traumatic experience of living in the Parramatta Girls Home. For a class workshop, I performed Act Two Scene Four as the character of Lynette. Just as Judi dominated the scene with Lynette in the flashback, she dominated this one as well, and as the character of Lynette I had to ensure that my role was to support Judi in her expression of emotional development to the audience. This scene presents the physical suffering of Judi due to her time incarcerated, “Eighteen and a half to twenty-four. That’s when I worked in the brothels. And five. That’s how many terminations I’ve had.” Judi’s enduring emotional pain is even more disconcerting for the audience to be confronted with, as her lack of self-worth has influenced her character, “I carried one baby full term, but it was stillborn. Which was a shame because I was going to keep her. Probably just as well for her that I didn’t.” Alana Valentine was aware of the vulnerability of the women her play would comprise of, and the delicacy with which she had to handle their authentic experiences, “…they are still very damaged. When I was talking to them, they would become a twelve year old child. So I had to be very careful.” This exemplifies the connection between the play and its social context, as the women continued to be affected by their circumstances in the 1960’s, and it is the women and their stories that create the play itself.

Parramatta Girls is utterly and undeniably defined by its social context. Alana Valentine successfully takes the stories of real women, all of whom lived in the Parramatta Girls Home during 1960’s Australian society, and creates a poignant and healing play. For the thousands of men and women who suffered in institutionalized care, Valentine becomes a voice. Though her play is not true verbatim, but altered slightly to create a storyline, the horrific experiences presented are authentic and accurate, plucked straight from a dark period of Australian history. Through dialogue, construction, and characterization, the relationship between social context and the play become inextricable. Without the bravery of over forty women that Valentine interviewed for the purpose of writing Parramatta Girls, who fought through the pain of their trauma to share their experiences, the play would not exist.

Verbatim Style in Parramatta Girls

Verbatim theatre can be best defined as “true people’s stories… something that’s at the heart of the community… a piece of theatre out of that by interviewing people that are touched the most”, as Eliza Logan describes it, and Alana Valentine’s Parramatta Girls distinctly reflects this. Drawn from a dark period in Australia’s history, the careful construction of the verbatim, assisted through choice of dialogue as well as inclusion of dramatic action, the play manages to present the authentic, if painful legacy, of this particular period.

Due to the verbatim nature of Parramatta Girls, dialogue must be chosen extremely carefully. It is for this reason that Valentine constructed the play through her unique form, massaging the dialogue, and I found that doing this with my own Verbatim script that I had to write for school was of significant help. Within my script, I included a narrator, with whom I could be creative and who could tie the dialogue together, as well as the storyline and action. This difficulty for Valentine extended to the problem in exhibiting the reality of the horrors that the incarcerated women faced without desensitising her audience, stating of her major creative challenge, “I think just not making it a litany of miserable suffering…Perversely, also not lightening it too much; not making it too palatable; not… looking away from the horror and the utter shattering of lives.” The inclusion of Charlotte the Harlot Lay Dying within the play, a popular rhyme prevalent in the 1960’s in Australia, exposes the inappropriate things that the young girls were introduced to in the home. While the vulgar lyrics expose the gratuitous sexual acts, a young Melanie innocently sings the tune in a cheerful tone, which softens the initial impact upon the audience, but leaves them pondering its disturbing nature. When the play jumps to the present-day reunion, dialogue continues to reflect the hardship that these women faced, evident in Act Two Scene Twelve, when Gayle states, “I’m harder than the inside of a nun’s mattress.” Having watched this scene performed in front of me by my fellow classmates, I can admit that the use of an Australian idiom provides comedic relief for the audience, especially when the line explores a difficult topic- the long-lasting effect of a woman’s incarceration into a home. The audience’s personal social context, that of the 2000’s, increases the impression of the atrocities that the women faced, as it is difficult to imagine in modern society such horror occurring to young and innocent children.

One of the most moving aspects of Parramatta Girls is Alana Valentine’s characterization, as the audience can discover the characteristics of the women as children, and then chart their progress and development into adulthood. Judi’s characterization perfectly explores the long-lasting effects of the trauma faced in the institution, as she eventually changes her name and struggles to remember the difficulties that she endured throughout her incarceration. Through the flashbacks, the audience recognize Judi as a character with considerable strength, most identifiable in Act Two Scene Two, as she tells Lynette and Maree of her sexual manipulation of the guard to gain a packet of cigarettes. Her use of 1960’s slang against Lynette’s naivety further proves her toughness, “Wake up, slag. Wake up. You’re in here. They can do whatever they want to you. Whatever they want.” Although the audience understand this harder side to Judi, they also are given glimpse of her true fragility, evident in her damaged character years after the traumatic experience of living in the Parramatta Girls Home. For a class workshop, I performed Act Two Scene Four as the character of Lynette. Just as Judi dominated the scene with Lynette in the flashback, she dominated this one as well, and as the character of Lynette I had to ensure that my role was to support Judi in her expression of emotional development to the audience. This scene presents the physical suffering of Judi due to her time incarcerated, “Eighteen and a half to twenty-four. That’s when I worked in the brothels. And five. That’s how many terminations I’ve had.” Judi’s enduring emotional pain is even more disconcerting for the audience to be confronted with, as her lack of self-worth has influenced her character, “I carried one baby full term, but it was stillborn. Which was a shame because I was going to keep her. Probably just as well for her that I didn’t.” Alana Valentine was aware of the vulnerability of the women her play would comprise of, and the delicacy with which she had to handle their authentic experiences, “…they are still very damaged. When I was talking to them, they would become a twelve year old child. So I had to be very careful.” From my own personal experience in creating a verbatim script upon the premise, “Healing on the Inside”, the content was very sensitive to the individuals who offered their story, and so just like Valentine, I had to be extremely careful with the questions I asked and the way I handled their responses when constructing the play.

In conclusion, Parramatta Girls is an extremely moving text, and one that is made even more powerful through its authentic verbatim style.