Some called the institution a social experiment, others a training school. Playwright Alana Valentine believes it was a house of horrors, a place of consistent mental, emotional, physical and sexual abuse for the girls who were forced to live there.
The house is the Parramatta Girls Training School, which operated from the early 1900s to the late 1970s, and is now the subject of a new play by Valentine. Like her last play Run, Rabbit, Run, the work is verbatim theatre -“ a drama based on interviews with those involved.
It’s a style of theatre currently undergoing a renaissance in the UK (the latest is Guantanamo), although there have been successful examples of the form for decades.
Events as disparate as the murder of Matthew Shepard (The Laramie Project), the Newcastle earthquake (Aftershocks) and the rebirth of the South Sydney Rugby League Club (Run, Rabbit, Run) have been cut, pasted and staged, with considerable impact and success.
Valentine found the inspiration for writing Parramatta Girls watching Stateline last year on the ABC.
I thought it was one of the most moving stories I’d ever seen, she said. It was basically about women who were put into a state home because they were charged with being uncontrollable. Or the other popular charge is -˜exposed to moral danger’ which means a child is in a situation where they have an alcoholic parent.
The women were uniformly poor and frequently indigenous according to Valentine, and she met with women who lived there in the 1930s, and some from the 1970s. Surprisingly, there was no resistance when asking for interviews.
These women are aching to tell their story, she said, but noted that every interviewee said a sense of shame prevented them from speaking out earlier.
They talk about things and go, -˜Do you believe me?’ And I’d be like, -˜I believe you! I believe you!’ There was a woman Coral who said, -˜I was told every day for nine months that I was a bad girl. And I’ve carried that for my whole life.’
The big question is: how was this allowed to happen?
There has been a Senate inquiry into children in care -¦ A lot of the welfare people were saying, -˜It was really different times. There were really different standards for how you treated children.’
It was 60 or 70 years ago, it wasn’t the Jurassic, as one of the characters says -¦ I just think it’s about a long history of Australia incarcerating children and people who are poor and displaced in society, she said.
This excuse that it was a long time ago just doesn’t wash with a lot of kids. I think it’s really exciting that we’re saying that very loudly.
Parramatta Girls (a work in progress) is being read at the Downstairs Theatre, 25 Belvoir Street, for one night only, on Monday 26 July at 7:30pm. Tickets are $10. Phone 9699 3444 for bookings.