A quick chat with Alana Valentine, playwright of Letters to Lindy
In Alana Valentine’s play, Letters to Lindy, the relationship between the Australian public and Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, one of the nations’s most iconic female figures, is examined. Accused of filicide but claiming her daughter was the victim of a dingo, Chamberlain-Creighton received thousands of letters from around the country between first allegation and final coroners report, forming the basis of Valentine’s play. Taking some time to answer my questions before the opening of the Merrigong Theatre staging at the Seymour Centre, Valentine talks below of reflection and reconciliation, and the power theatre has to make sense of our past.
Please introduce yourself and the work you do.
Alana Valentine, playwright.
Can you introduce us to the story and concepts within Letters to Lindy.
On August 17, 1980, nine week old Azaria Chamberlain was taken by a dingo near Uluru, Central Australia. Although cleared by an initial inquest, both Lindy and Michael Chamberlain came under suspicion and after a second inquest and trial, Mrs Chamberlain Creighton was jailed for three and a half years. She was released in 1986 but it was not until 2012 that coroner Elizabeth Morris, at a fourth inquest, officially declared that a dingo had taken the child. During the past 36 years members of the public have written letters, emails, and cards to Mrs Chamberlain-Creighton and I have made a play out of her words and these letters.
Why were you drawn to the story of Lindy Chamberlain-Creighton, and why have you gone so far as so write a play based on events surrounding her?
I believe that the Australian mainstage has a responsibility to tell stories from our lives and our past and to use the collective coming together of audiences as a tool for reflection and reconciliation. I also think it is revelatory to hear the real words of people who are rarely represented on stage because I think that human beings are fantastically complex, contradictory and unpredictable. I enjoy theatre which confronts us with a perspective on life that underlines the possibility of human resilience.
Looking back on Australian history, it’s clear that Australia (and our media) love to speculate against and demonise women going through a difficult time. Why do you think we love “trauma porn”, and to what extent do you believe Lindy suffered this public treatment? Is this something explored throughout the play?
I leave it to the audience to make up their own mind about what lens to view this story through. I think misogyny contributed and I think religious intolerance contributed and I think the legal system has questions to answer but I don’t think any of these lenses are sufficient to explain what happened, and that’s where we get into the territory of theatre. I found the collection of public letters surprising and I thought that Australian audiences would be fascinated to know how much kindness and support Mrs Chamberlain-Creighton was offered during her ordeal. We are often being told these days to live in fear – to fear others and to fear ourselves and to fear the spite and reductive cruelty of the world, but I think my play affirms hope in the beauty and and endurance of human beings too.
What was the most challenging aspect of researching and creating Letters To Lindy?
One of the biggest challenges has been finding people thirty years after they wrote their letter to Mrs Chamberlain-Creighton. I have been getting very familiar with the yellow pages online and the electoral roles in the NLA! I have tracked down almost all of them but there are a couple that still elude me and I hope will get in touch via Merrigong or my website, alanavalentine.com.
What was most enjoyable?
Oh, definitely the privilege of meeting and spending time with Mrs Chamberlain-Creighton. She is a seriously smart woman and profoundly wise. She is also a fantastic seamstress and tailor and, while I am not in her league, I do sew my own clothes so we have been trading patterns and design ideas. Having been to her home and seen Lindy’s artworks I can also say that understanding her visual aesthetic has been very enjoyable.
Was it difficult to write a show that includes so much emotional trauma?
Yes, there is always a cost to being exposed daily to the horror and pettiness and cruelty of human beings. But that is what artists do, we take on, with empathy, the stories of others and we handle them with courage and respect. My esteem for my colleagues Darren Yap, Max Lambert, Toby Knyvett, Jeanette Cronin, Glenn Hazeldine, Phillip Hinton and Jane Phegan, and frankly, for all theatre makers, increases with every show.
Do you hope to write more plays drawing from real life events?
I am often asked why I find Australian history and Australian communities an endless source of inspiration for my theatre making. I think it’s about affirming my perception that the awe-inspiring and the remarkable and the incredible in life are often right under our noses, but they go unrecognised. Artists are called on to be the truth-tellers and whistle blowers of our culture and still today that often means confronting hard and ugly truths about our society. But I also think that in a climate of fear-mongering and scandal-loving and public shaming that it is contingent on artists to affirm the capacity of human beings for generosity and connection, to courageously celebrate the power of community to defend and empower others. It is neither naïve nor blinkered to be hopeful in the face of so much cruelty, as Mrs Chamberlain-Crighton was.
What is your next project?
My next production is Cold Light, adapted from Frank Moorhouse’s novel, at the Street Theatre in Canberra in November 2016. In 2017 the National Library of Australia is publishing Dear Mrs Chamberlain, a book which will include more of the letters than I could include in the play and different ones that are visually striking, as well as my personal reflections on working in the archive. I am currently researching a play called Wayside Bride using the stories of people who have been married at the Wayside Chapel since it was established in 1967. In Australia at that time if you were a divorcee, a Protestant wanting to marry a Catholic or any other kind of interfaith couple wanting to be married the Wayside Chapel was ‘the only show in town’. I am finding the most incredible stories of defiant, cross-cultural love over 50 years and couples who throw a radical challenge to societal rules. People can upload their wedding stories (and photos please) at www.waysidebride.com.au
Lindy herself will be engaged in a Q and A session following one of the Sydney performances, has she endorsed the show? If so, what was her reaction to it?
I can’t possibly speak for her. During the Wollongong opening night she sobbed and laughed and whispered to Simon Hinton, the Merrigong AD who commissioned the work. Then when she came out into the foyer, during the speeches, she stood up and said, of the play, ‘It’s probably the most powerful thing that’s been done on my story… and the most true to the behind-the-scenes and what I lived through.’ I promptly burst into tears, with relief, and with her inimitable humour Lindy came over to me and said, ‘There you go. I got you back for making me cry during the play.’
Letters to Lindy can be seen at the Seymour Centre through 10 September. Season details including ticketing information can be found at seymourcentre.com.