Parramatta Girls

My return to Sydney theatre received a belated start last week at a preview of Company B’s new production, Parramatta Girls, courtesy of an invitation from the comely Miss E. Consumed by the vibrance of the 2006 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and ordained with a cheap ticket to best-playwright-ever Tom Stoppard’s latest phenomenon Rock’n’Roll (not a bad West End initiation), I had stern words with myself at the end of last year. I can’t divulge their exact contents (threats were made, which to repeat here would open the possibility of self-litigation) but the nature, the gist, the vibe, was one of greater theatre participation once I got back home to Sydney.   

Parramatta Girls is based on the experiences of girls who were committed to The Industrial School for Girls, a home created to care for troubled young women. The production’s inspiration is a reunion that took place at the school last year, and this is the setting for the play: afflictive tales are recounted in flashback as characters recall the abuse and neglect during their terms.

Many of the encounters retold are harrowing, the conditions reducing even the most strong-willed to their most primal instincts for survival. The stories are told with a uniquely local humour: the ballsy sarcasm, the ironic wit that distinguishes the Australian underdog perspective, managed to infiltrate even the most traumatic of recounts throughout the production. 

Unlike its celluloid compadres, theatre is a living thing. It is born at lights up every show, and breathes through the presence of an audience. When done well it is an amazing collective experience. And an audience has its own voice, rhythms, energy, and is unique to each performance. What moves them to laughter or tears one night might not the next.  

As an actor I’ve often worked with fellow performers who’ll curse audiences because they’re not responding as well as a more vocal crowd from a previous night. “It’s a shit audience tonight” is a common backstage barb regarding a less responsive audience (interpretation: ‘I suck out there tonight’). Mind you “Great crowd” gets thrown about too when the performers are in the groove, and the audience is in simpatico (interpretation: ‘they love me … err … the show’).  

The audience for Parramatta Girls was remarkable for the presence of many women who had been incarcerated at the school, and who had contributed to the play through their dialogues with playwright Alana Valentine. They received a warm acknowledgement when introduced by director Wesley Enoch prior to the performance, and it wasn’t long before they became participants. When characters gave a bit of lip to a warden, the girls roared with approval. When tales of abuse were told, they offered rousing endorsements – “You show ‘em girl.”  and “That’s tellin’ it like it was.” 

During one scene a girl discovers a gate unlocked in the perimeter fencing. Frozen under a cold spotlight, she measures the risk accompanying escape against the chance for freedom. The dramatic pause was pierced with a throaty hiss from the 5th row –  “Ruuuuun, girl”. 

Being in the presence of these women, and sharing their story, heightened the events unfolding on stage. The girls’ flouting of theatre conventions was a delight, and added a unique layer to the performance. The intensity of their experience, as spectators to their own stories, surfaced throughout the performance. One left towards the end of the play. In a state of distress she was being consoled afterwards, apologising to friends – “Sorry love, too much, it was just too much” in between ravaging her pack of ciggies.  

She was a dead ringer for Queen Bea. I wanted to say something comforting, something about the indomitable spirit of the play’s characters, something that said ‘good on you for being here, for sharing your story’. But the moment wasn’t mine. It was the Parramatta Girls’. 

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