Alana Valentine recently wowed Canberra audiences with Letters to Lindy, (CTC, August 2016). The Street Theatre has presented Head Full of Love (Drover Award winner 2016) and Alana worked with director Caroline Stacey previously on MP in 2011. Butterfly Dandy played Street 2 in 2005. Alana is again working with Bangarra Dance Theatre in 2017 as dramaturg on Bennelong (CTC 2017) after working with them on Patyegarang (CTC 2014) and ID (as part of Belong in 2011). In 2014 Alana won the BBC International Radio Competition and in 2013 she won three AWGIE Awards including the Major Award and the Inaugural David Williamson Award for Excellence in Writing for the Australian Theatre. Her plays Parramatta Girls and Soft Revolution are on the NSW Drama syllabus. In 2017 Barbara and the Camp Dogs, co-written with Ursula Yovich will be presented in the Upstairs Theatre at Belvoir and Dear Lindy will be published by the NLA.
Alana’s website is www.alanavalentine.com.
The Street talked with Alana Valentine before the world premiere season of Cold Light from the 4th – 18th of March 2017.
WHAT INSPIRED YOU TO BECOME A PLAYWRIGHT?
I have a sustaining faith in the power of live theatre to invoke empathy and community solidarity. I believe that live theatre is part of the fabric of a city and a nation where difficult truths can be confronted, curiosity can be inspired and justice and love can be celebrated. Theatre-goers are vital, engaged, and motivated people. Theatre is one of the great sacramental rituals of human life and it is a privilege to work with creative people who are so ambitious and dedicated. When it’s good, theatre can change lives in unique and astonishing ways. And there’s nothing like sitting in a room full of people laughing out loud.
WHAT IS THE WORK OF AN ADAPTOR?
The work of an adaptor is to make sense of the logic for distilling and culling and choosing. Many people say that adaptation ‘reduces’ the novel but I don’t see it like that at all because what the stage offers the novel is words made flesh. What the stage offers prose is the vitality and beauty of gesture and voice and intonation and the active silence of the actors. And the invention and imagination and surprise of the director. Live theatre offers all the remarkable unspoken and astonishing things that presence and relationship and subtext and situation give us. It is not a reduction but a liberation of characters from a page into physical reality. Imagination is not reduced by becoming more specific – it is focussed and augmented, it is dramatized and animated. The work of the adaptor is to convince an audience that all the accoutrements of the theatre – light, sound, costume, movement, breath, being and soul can embroider Frank’s conjured world into something riveting and affecting and transformative.
FRANK MOORHOUSE HAS NEVER HAD A NOVEL ADAPTED FOR THE STAGE. YOU WERE ONE OF THREE PLAYWRIGHTS ASKED TO PITCH YOUR APPROACH TO AUTHOR FRANK MOORHOUSE AND DIRECTOR CAROLINE STACEY. TALK US THROUGH THE PITCHING PROCESS.
I read the book in a fever of excitement and eyestrain and then went to have a detailed and quite rigorous conversation about it with Frank and Caroline. We talked about the work I have done in translating Australian history to the Australian stage and its relationship to the requirements of Cold Light and I think I talked rather a lot about lingerie.
YOU ACCEPTED THE COMMISSION FROM THE STREET TO ADAPT THE WORK. HOW DO YOU TRANSLATE A 700 PAGE NOVEL INTO A 90 PAGE DRAMATIC SCRIPT? WHAT WERE THE GUIDING PRINCIPLES?
It begins with the cold, hard, analytical work of how to find in Edith’s story the premise for stage adaptation. This is a disciplined, frequently ruthless process of privileging aspects of the novel, and sculpting out of it a slim, pacey work which cumulates the emotional stakes of the novel, but with an intense and elegant drive for the stage. I was challenged and confronted by Cold Light in ways I didn’t immediately understand – which is great for a writer – it intrigued and puzzled me. I needed to immerse myself in its wisdoms before I could be changed by the truth and beauty of what Frank has perceived about Australian culture and Edith as a person. As a writer you are always changed by deep engagement with a masterpiece. It’s what I want to gift to audiences who come and see it.
WHAT WAS MOORHOUSE’S RESPONSE TO THE PUBLIC SHOWING TO YOUR DRAFT?
He stood on stage after the first public reading and enthusiastically endorsed it before a very appreciative audience. It was a humbling and what I can only describe as an intimate moment for me. Intimate because the novel is so stunningly deep and philosophical and true and retaining the living spirit of that in an adaptation, so that it lives and breathes but with now, a shared breath (as it were) was satisfying in a very earnest way. But really, you’d have to ask him.
EDITH CAMPBELL BERRY IS A MUCH LOVED FICTIONAL CHARACTER. WHAT DID YOU DISCOVER ABOUT HER THROUGH YOUR WRITING PROCESS AND HOW DOES YOUR STAGE ADAPTATION ALLOW US TO EXPERIENCE HER?
Edith is like the best friend that you adore but who also drives you to despair. There is something in her choice and need to get together with Richard that is truly dreadful and yet so utterly understandable that it makes me marvel at what Frank Moorhouse has perceived about women. It’s the way he ties that social ambition into her sexuality and her intellect, instead of separating and compartmentalizing them that makes Edith one of the most astonishing female characters in 20th Century fiction. Edith’s story is both tragic and cautionary and yet she herself is not at all diminished or victimized by it. I think what moves me most deeply about Edith is her commitment to participating in life, not standing on the sidelines or supporting someone else to be in it, but eating life up in giant mouthfuls of hope.
DESCRIBE WHAT THE FIRST DAY OF REHEARSAL IS FOR YOU?
The first day of rehearsal is when everything is possible! A small group of people have rearranged their lives to come together and try to say something full of beauty and pain about what they see in the world. The actors say let me use my body and my voice and my years of experience to bring these ideas to life. And the creative team screw up their courage and reach for the impossible to be made visible on stage. To use the water metaphor which dominates Cold Light both in the novel and the play, the first day is the gentle curiosity of wading from the shallows into the water – there is a deep, wide lake full of water to swim before they get to the opening. There will be times when they tire of the swim and feel as if they are sinking – it’s Caroline’s job to make them into the strong, confident swimmers they need to be to deliver this play to an audience.
THE NOVEL RESONATES WITH WOMEN WITH ISSUES STILL RELEVANT AS THEY WERE IN THE 1950S. WHAT RESONANCE HAS THERE BEEN FOR YOU AS A SUCCESSFUL WOMAN IN THE ARTS?
I say in my Writer’s Note for the program of Cold Light that I believe in the enormous capability of human beings. In their inventiveness, their resourcefulness and their creativity. I think that at any time, in any society, there are individuals who can solve the problems that a society has, can guide them toward justice and growth, compassion and success. I do not believe these individuals are always or even often given the power to enact their help or vision. I think too often, far too often, the voices of vision, compassion and justice are shunted to the margins to become voices crying in the wilderness, or in our 21st Century context, drowned out by the glut of competing information, opinion and lies. I think this applies to the arts as well as many other areas of life. There have been deeply visionary women and culturally diverse people who have been excluded and silenced, to our detriment as a nation and a culture.
WHAT DOES THIS WORK ILLUMINATE ABOUT AUSTRALIA IN THE COLD LIGHT OF DAY?
I can’t explain the play to the audience. If I’m lucky they’ll explain it to me. What it illuminates will be different for anyone who sees it. My profound hope is that it will illuminate a fireworks display of competing, possibly even conflicting opinions.
WHAT IS INSPIRING YOU IN THE PERFORMING ARTS?
Same as always. The courage of artists to be vulnerable and available and committed to a life which can be financially demeaning, psychologically brutal and full of unwilling compromise. And still we find a way.
WHAT ARE YOU CURRENTLY READING AND WATCHING?
Reading Bennelong by Keith Smith because I am working as dramaturg with Stephen Page on the Bangarra dance/theatre work Bennelong ((Canberra Theatre Centre 3 – 5 Aug). I went to see a screening of Kenneth Branagh in The Entertainer which was performed late in 2016 at the Garrick Theatre, London. I love seeing theatre on film, I go to as many of the NT Live screenings as I can.