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Thursday 23 July 2015

Guest Post: Wendy Blaxland on Bringing History Alive through Stories on Stage

Kids' Book Review is delighted to welcome well-known Australian writer Wendy Blaxland. The author of more than 100 books, mostly written for children, Wendy also has extensive experience as a children's playwright. We asked Wendy to share about her recent historical theatrical plays based on early Australian explorers and pioneers.

I love sharing stories in different genres, and have been hooked on theatre all my life. And I’m lucky enough to have been writing for Australia’s oldest children’s theatre – Marian Street Theatre for Young People – most of my writing life, with my own original stories, and also adapting fairy tales.

But recently I have discerned the joys of bringing real stories from the past to life in the theatre. It was prompted by the recent bicentenary of the crossing of the Blue Mountains, which I wanted to help commemorate, since one of my ancestors was part of the best-known expedition in1813. So began Blaxland and Daughter, a production company formed to mount CROSSING with my daughter Jess, who is as passionate about theatre as I am.

During the past three years CROSSING has been seen by over 20,000 people, both at schools and at performances for the general public, in a slightly longer version. It investigates not only the early crossings of the Blue Mountains, from the Aboriginal crossings to the founding of Bathurst, through story and song, but also the whole notion of history: what we decide to remember, and who we listen to. CROSSING shows the discoveries as a process, not just one event, and highlights the excitement and apprehension, dangers and puzzlements and humour of those early journeys.

Though everything is rooted in the facts, to bring people alive not only meant finding out how they might have spoken but also making them live as characters. Puzzling back from the raw material of events to people’s motives and characters made this a tremendous learning tool for me as a writer, and has helped me create far more interesting and complex characters. And the challenge and responsibility of including the Aboriginal side of the stories has been a deep pleasure.

The play had three seasons over the three years of the Bicentenary commemorations, travelling not only around Sydney and the Blue Mountains, but down to Wollongong, up to the Central Coast and out West to Bathurst, Orange and Dubbo. We have rehearsed and also performed at Brush Farm House in Eastwood, my forebear Gregory Blaxland’s restored home, as well as at Bathurst’s Memorial Entertainment Centre and Penrith’s Joan Sutherland Arts centre. Cast and crew were all paid professionals – quite an economic challenge. And we now have a strong nucleus of people who work well together, many of us from the MSTYP network.

Then Pioneers in Petticoats was born, because CROSSING focused more on the men explorers, and I wanted to tell some of the women’s stories too. Eventually it became a one-woman play telling the stories of four very different women: Mary Bryant, convict escapee, Fanny Macleay, unsung scientist, Eliza Hawkins, girl pioneer and Lola Montez, goldfields performer. Pioneers has performed in several lovely historic homes, including Lithgow’s Eskbank House, as well as the Avoca Beach Picture Theatre to a home-schooling network. Everyone comments on the skill of our actress Brigid O’Sullivan, who transforms herself from one character to another onstage. Again, we have purpose-written songs by a professional composer to provide a change of pace and form.

Now that the company is a reality, my daughter and I are continuing to bring stories alive in theatre. Our next projects are well underway, with another historical play, GOLD, as well as a version of Alice in Wonderland. All plays have comprehensive teachers’ notes for schools. Pioneers in Petticoats, GOLD and Alice in Wonderland will be offered to schools in Term 2 and 3 in 2016. The shows come into the schools and require just a space for performers and audience to come together and bring history to life again.

For more information about Crossing and Pioneers in Petticoats including including performance details and curriculum links, visit the Blaxland and Daughter website. You can find out more about Wendy Blaxland and her writing at Wendy's website.