A boast post: Here I am as the winner of the Political Edge Award and a cheque for $500 (woo hoo!) for my short story ‘Savage Women’ at the 21st Scarlet Stiletto Awards. That’s Les Rosenblatt from Arena Magazine to my right and on my left is the sublime Marta Dusseldorp (star of the ABC TV series Janet King and SS special guest presenter). ‘Savage Women’ was published in the December 2014 edition of Arena Magazine. The awards were held at the Thornbury Theatre and you can read about all the winners here.
It’s official. I’ve joined the Australian Womens Writing Challenge. I’ve signed on for the Franklin Challenge (as in Stella Miles Franklin) which means reading at least ten books by an Australian female author and reviewing at least six of those. Below is the list of books I hope to both read and review (but it’s likely only the first of those lofty goals will be achieved). I’ve included a few memoirs as I’ll be reading them in preparation for the Reality Bites Nonfiction Literary Festival (July 25-28, 2013).
1. Like a House on Fire (Scribe 2012) by Cate Kennedy. I read this on a flight to Bali recently and am more than just a bit taken with Kennedy’s ability to craft a memorable short story.
2. Get Well Soon (UQP 2012) by Kristy Chambers. I’ve asked Kristy to be a guest author at Reality Bites Literary Festival this year. UQP recently sent me Chamber’s memoir which I picked up from the post office yesterday. I read a third of it last night and am loving it to pieces.
3. The Engagement (Penguin 2012) by Chloe Hooper. Better known for her investigative nonfiction with The Tall Man, I was intrigued to listen to Hooper talk at the Brisbane Writers Festival last year about her experience of writing fiction — specifically, a modern gothic novel set in rural Victoria.
4. Crim Wife (Black Inc. 2012) by Tanya Levin. Crim Wife is Levin’s second memoir. Her first, People in Glass Houses, was an account of her time as a member of Hillsong (the clappiest of the happy clapper mega churches). Crim Wife is a world away Hillsong and is about Levin’s experience of being involved with a convicted armed robber who she met while he was still in prison, and she was working as a drug and alcohol counsellor at Parramatta Jail. Tanya will be a guest author at Reality Bites this year.
5. Boy, Lost (UQP 2013) by Kris Olsson. Boy, Lost is a family memoir centred around Olsson’s brother who was kidnapped from his mother’s arms as she bordered a train. It’s due for release in April and, like Kristy and Tanya, Kris has also kindly agreed to be a guest author at Reality Bites this year.
6. Nine Days (Text 2012) by Toni Jordan. The composite novel structure Jordan uses for Nine Days is effective. That is, nine first person short stories detailing a significant day in each character’s life, all of whom are related across three generations spanning from the 1939 to the present. I found some of the characters more engaging and than others, and although there’s something quite satisfying in the way the stories expand and inform on the each other, there were times when it felt a little too pat and a little too contrived. It’s still a thoroughly enjoyable read though.
Among amateur theatre companies Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is something of a staple – the Brisbane Arts Theatre, for example, staged two productions within 10 years of each other. And with good reason, the roles – by virtue of Tennessee William’s exquisite writing – are virtually actor proof (providing the southern accent is mastered) and it is considered a perfect example of a classic three-act play. With the professionals – QTC and WA’s Black Swan State Theatre Co. – taking it on as a co-production you would hope for a lift in quality commiserate with the ticket prices, particularly in the production values, if not the performances and, thankfully, this production delivers on both fronts.
Setting the tone is Bruce McKinven’s design: it’s fresh, concept driven and delicious on the eye, as befitting a modern main stage production, but the reverence for time and place — William’s atmospheric 1950s Mississippi Delta plantation – is all pervasive. McKinven pays homage to the iconic 1958 film version with some carefully handpicked elements – Maggie’s dress design, for example, and Big Daddy’s cashmere robe – but he was not visually enslaved to it, either. Aficionados of the film will spot the markers, but hopefully appreciate the differences: Maggie’s dress, while modelled on the version Elizabeth Taylor wore, is dark green and it’s a stunning change (as per McKinven’s brief for the costume design). McKinven’s use of colour — greys, dark blues and greens – plays to the darker themes in the play, with his use of Spanish Moss is an inspired touch.
For the actors, the spectre of the film is arguably harder to discard. Audiences don’t want imitation, but there’s only so much room for deviation when characters are so deeply ingrained in a collective psyche. The casting of Cheree Cassidy as Maggie the Cat – coming via television’s Underbelly: The Golden Mile and Paper Giants: The Birth of Cleo – has been well-publicised and, no doubt, Cassidy felt the weight most keenly. Elizabeth Taylor may have made the most indelible mark on this career highlight of a role, but it’s also been played by such luminaries as Ashley Judd on Broadway and Francis O’Connor in London’s West End.
Cassidy opened the play in battle mode. She tackled the first act – essentially a monologue delivered to her unresponsive husband, Brick – with all the right lines and actions, but you could see the rehearsal process. Conceding opening night nerves, she wasn’t quite there to begin with. Her accent was too restrained, as though she feared drawling out her vowels in case of exaggeration. She needn’t have worried, when she dropped in and relaxed – about twenty minutes in – the hard working actress disappeared and a convincing, sympathetic and enchanting Maggie emerged.
As Brick Pollitt – the dissolute ex-footballer, drunk and younger son of plantation owner, Big Daddy – Tom O’Sullivan (Cassidy’s fellow Underbelly: The Golden Mile alumni) serves the role well. Playing a disengaged character is difficult – while Brick is indifferent to his wife’s emotional and sexual needs and everybody else around him, the actor must still be engaged with the ensemble and the audience. O’Sullivan managed this dichotomy nicely, delivering his best moments in his lengthy scene with John Stanton as Big Daddy.
Stanton’s Big Daddy hit all the right notes, so it seems picky to point out his lack of ‘stature’, however, it was hard to dislodge the feeling that he just wasn’t big enough to play a character called Big Daddy. Perhaps it’s the very large shadow of Burl Ives, but silver-fox Stanton looked altogether too trim and healthy to be a man on the verge of death as the result of his appetites.
It’s a minor gripe in otherwise perfectly cast play. All the support roles were well cast with the actors easily finding the cadence and lyricism of William’s dialogue. Hugh Parker and Caitlin Beresford-Ord portrayals as Gooper and his wife Mae, respectively – whether intentionally or not – were very close to the film version, but they worked well. Likewise their four no-necked monsters: they didn’t have a lot to do, but it’s important to the play’s continuity that the children are convincing, which they were.
Carol Burns as Big Mama, however, was the standout. All the usual superlatives apply to what was a flawless performance by this veteran of the stage. Maybe unfairly, but not surprisingly, she received the loudest round of applause at curtain call.
For film and theatre buffs, the plot of Cat needs little elaboration. It is a play relished for its characters and themes, not for cathartic resolution or an unmasking of who dunnit. However, for those who are only familiar with the film version, the stage version can be a revelation. The references to homosexuality – namely Brick and Skipper’s ‘friendship’ – are far more overt in the play, whereas the film is so obscure about the issue it’s easy to miss what the problem at the heart of Maggie and Brick’s marital discord actually is, such was censorship in the 50s. Ironically, it’s this very censorship that contextualises how taboo talking about homosexuality was at that time and which aids understanding of Brick’s self-destructive behaviour.
Ultimately, Cat is a play that demands fidelity to its setting and the time in which was written. Like performing Shakespeare, embracing the language of the play is paramount. On all levels this production is faithful enough to please purists – especially lovers of the film version – without kowtowing to a preconceived idea of how it should be. Director Kate Cherry’s reverence for this play and Williams’ writing is evident, but it’s her intimacy with its characters and her ability to nurture the relationships between them that make this a must-see for lovers of Tennessee Williams’ plays.
If Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is already one of your favourites, you will have every reason to enjoy – and relish – this production. For younger generations who may be unfamiliar with Williams’ seminal work, there will be no better introduction. QTC/Black Swan’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is quality theatre which has landed on its feet running.
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof runs from 15 August – 3 Sept. Tickets are available through QPAC.
Granted it’s not the snappiest of titles, but I’m not in the mood for puns and I hate seeing the word ‘hope’ in newspaper headlines. Anyway, this week’s post — yes, that’s right we’re going weekly (from now on, more or less) — is an article I wrote last year on STEMM — Supporting Mothers with Education, Mothering and Mentoring — located at Burnside High School on the Sunshine Coast. This is the same program that was featured on 60 Minutes a couple of months back, but I wrote this long before then. I knew about STEMM because my roller derby team, the Coastal Assassins (CARD), made STEMM their charity of choice to sponsor with a percentage our profits. I hope you’ll agree it’s a worthwhile cause.
Adrian Nightingale gave birth five months ago to a baby girl, three days shy of her own 17th birthday. With her cherubic features and school girl inflections, however, Nightingale seems younger. Typically, for a teenage mother, she won’t be able to finish high school with her peers at Chancellor State College because she has to look after her daughter, Kira, instead. Nightingale is fortunate, however, because in addition to living at home with the full support of her parents, she has a chance of realising her goal to become a primary school teacher thanks to a program on the Sunshine Coast with a revolutionary approach to educating teenage mothers.
Nightingale is endearingly optimistic as she talks about her future while jiggling Kira’s dimpled legs on her lap. She is also a besotted and devoted mum and she insists she has no regrets.
“It’s one of the best things that has happened to me,” she says. “And most people are becoming a teen mums these days, anyway,” she adds with no intentional hyperbole.
Statistically, there is some relative truth to this assertion as Nightingale is part of recent trend towards a slight increase in teenage births – the first in almost 40 years. Prevention, in the form of quality sex education and readily available, reliable contraception, according to sexual health experts in a 2004 report released by Family Planning Australia, has been effective in reducing the incidence of teenage pregnancy (and the spread of STIs) since the early ’70s. And while access to safe abortion might be considered to be at the cure – and controversial – end of things, it has also played a part in the steady decline of births to teenagers from an Australian Bureau of Statistics reported peak of 55.5 births per 1000 in 1971 to 16 births per 1000 in 2007. It 2008, that figure began to rise and while ABS figures for 2009 – released this week – show the national rate has since lowered again, back to 17 births for every 1000 in Australia, Queensland is the only state (with actual figures set for release next month) that did not report a decline in teenage fertility for 2009.
Some cite this increase as evidence, reported in a 2008 La Trobe University study into the sexual health of secondary school students, that teenagers are more sexually active than even six years ago. Others accommodate the increase as part of general baby boom that has happened amongst all women of childbearing age. What isn’t in dispute, according to a 2004 Queensland Government report, is that teenage mothers – whatever their numbers – are more likely to experience, “… long term unemployment, poorly paying job options, lack of school qualifications and poor psychosocial outcomes”.
It was to that end, in 2008, that Jacqui Deane, a former high school teacher, recognised a real need on the Sunshine Coast to provide a program for young mothers to reengage with education and assist them with mothering and life skills.
“There’s whole generation of alienated youth and this is just one group we can help,” Deane says. “They know about contraception,” she insists, “but often these girls just want someone to love and to love them.” What they needed, Deane believed, were mentors to show them how to be good mothers and engaged women. What she also found, by talking to young mothers, was that they wanted to be able to finish their education.
Deane raised the issue one day at a meeting in which the principal of Burnside High School was present and as a result STEMM – Supporting Mothers with Education, Mothering and Mentoring – was born. The program, which has been running for almost two years, currently has 42 girls enrolled – of which Nightingale is one – with more on the waiting list and is based in classroom block at Burnside High School near Nambour. The numbers prove there is a need for this type of program, according to Deane, and while STEMM is not the first school-based program in Australia designed to assist young mothers to continue with their education, it is unique in that it does not put the girls back into uniform and into mainstream classrooms.
“That wouldn’t work here,” says Deane. “They wouldn’t come if we forced them back into a regular classroom.”
As STEMM’s coordinator, Deane, along with assistant coordinator, Janelle Logan, has designed the program to be what she calls “a one stop shop” that provides courses in parenting, relationships and life skills, including cooking and fitness; health services, involving visits from a doctor, midwife and child health nurse and courses to cater for academic learning and career goals. Along with literacy and numeracy, girls can choose to complete a Certificate III in Children’s Services or participate in the Tertiary Preparations Pathways (TPP) course, designed specifically for STEMM by staff at the University of the Sunshine Coast. It is this partnership in particular that marks STEMM as being unique in its approach to meeting the educational needs of young mothers.
Involved since its inception, Emma Kill – a mother of two young boys herself – is the teaching face of TPP at STEMM and relates to her charges more in the manner of an older sister than a teacher. Keeping to university schedules and maintaining consistency in the face of pregnancies, births, sick babies and difficult domestic situations is Kill’s biggest challenge, but she tackles those things with patience and humour.
“She goes out of her way to help us, even on her holidays she will come in,” says Tabitha Kidd of Kill. Kidd, mother to 3-year-old Andrew and Jordon, 18 months, is a mature and engaging 21-year-old with a ready smile. She is one of 12 girls currently enrolled in Kill’s program and came to STEMM in April this year, specifically to do TPP. With ambitions to become a nurse, Kidd attempted a bridging course to get into university on her own when her first child was 14 months, but had to put things on hold when she fell pregnant again.
“I thought you couldn’t study and have kids at the same time,” Kidd says. “If I could have done it, I’d be finished by now.” Kidd promised herself she’d go back and get and education one day. It was on a visit to the child health nurse that she found out about the TPP program at STEMM and realised it could be the way to achieving her dream of studying nursing much sooner than she thought possible.
While the ultimate aim of TPP is to provide students with an alternative entry pathway to university and to develop the skills required to realise their study and career goals, Kill knows progress can be slow. This year saw the first four girls graduate from the program and enrol in higher education. Two have since put their studies on hold to have another baby. Kill is circumspect about to the pressure to prove TPP’s worth with numbers, but she believes the program is valuable in ways that can’t be put into in a graph.
“Don’t get me wrong, I’ll be crying when the first girl graduates [from university], but for me it’s more about seeing that they’re being loving mums … that they’re engaging with reading and education and that they believe one day they can do it.”
For Deane, too, the whole program is about seeing the transformation in the girls who come into STEMM, often with very low self esteem and no confidence, grow to a point where they’re independent and are “ready to fly”. And Nightingale, who has been with STEMM since the beginning of the year and who has her sights set on doing TPP, is just one young mum STEMM is helping to find her wings.
My first foray into the world of online surveys regarding my consumer habits – and the chance to win ‘easy money’ – came 18 months ago via an invitation from that trusted national institute, Australia Post, after I applied to get my mail redirected. With $5000 for the taking, I signed on under the conditions that all I had to lose was my privacy, my opinions and – in hindsight – a lot of time that could definitely have been used more productively. Besides, I knew winning cash for surveys rendered wasn’t an urban myth – a good friend had won $10 000 that way. I set myself three months to win that $5000.
I blithely signed and waited for the surveys to come. And they did, but this was not going to be money for nothing. The first survey asked me to watch a series of yet-to-air television commercials. As the first three ‘What’s New’ ads were ‘annoying’ and ‘do not make me want to buy the product’ by numbers 4 – 9 they were ‘even more annoying’ and ‘made me want to boycott the product on principle’. The comment box invited me to say that ‘sticking pins in my eyes would be preferable to sitting through another product endorsement by the smarmy mum type in the ‘What’s New’ ads’. This was going to be harder than I thought.
Then I did some research. Who knew there were so many online research companies (ORCs) wanting my opinion and promising all sorts of goodies in return? Take me to your login page. Then it started in earnest. My inbox became flooded with invitations to join a plethora of ORCs offering cash, points, vouchers, $50 000 lotto prize draws and whatever other shiny trinkets they think might appeal to the mindless consumer out there. So I signed on and signed on and signed on again. The tedium was mind numbing as only data entry can be and I was also now anxious at how many ORCs now knew level of education, employment status, annual income and a host of other personal details I wouldn’t even share with my boyfriend. No I don’t suffer from irritable bowel syndrome thanks, but I was happy to report that another member of my household does.
This enterprise needed some organisation about it. Usernames and passwords were scattered throughout notebooks and miscellaneous bits of paper. A list was drawn, each entry containing the name of the ORC, my login and password. Seven seemed quite manageable and not too time consuming, I hoped.
But it didn’t stop there, more requests dropped into my inbox – in for a penny, in for a pound of flesh – I was now signing up for practically anything that threw the words ‘prizes’ and ‘give-aways’, tentatively linked to the words ‘paid’ and ‘surveys’ at me. And as one ‘paid surveys’ link invariably leads to another, the labyrinth got more convoluted the more I filled in vital statistics and rehashed the same password. This particular maze has no exit and I was now at the point of being invited to sign on to sites I’d already given every scrap of personal information to – short of when I had my last pap smear – only the day before. Lucky, I had my list or wouldn’t know what side of the survey hedge I was on.
My virus protection piped up to warn me that, ‘A recent attempt to attack your computer was blocked’. Phishing and hacking aside, I knew this was getting dangerous, a concerning number of ORCs now had me in their advertisers’ sights, so there could be a hefty price to pay for that maybe prize money.
Of the surveys themselves, my consumer habits with regards to beauty products, snack foods, fast food, print media, TV programs, electrical goods, groceries and wine have been dissected and analysed to rigor mortis-inducing tediousness. I’ve rated and compared cars, ads, spreads, telecommunications, internet and energy providers, banks and supermarkets with a repetitiveness to rival Bill Murray in Ground Hog Day. I even offered up my teenage daughter for a 35 minute flogging on her brand preferences in sanitary protection. ‘They keep asking me the same questions, just in another way,’ she groaned. ‘Yes, I know, but could you just finish it. I might win $5000 dollars.’
I was suffering the first signs of survey fatigue syndrome. They were so relentlessly alike, sometimes identical, which my powers of deductive reasoning led me to believe they were – gasp – designed by the same market research teams. Just when I thought I couldn’t take anymore, I was invited to participate in the daddy of them all – a four and a half hour marathon lifestyle survey by Nielsen (breaks permitted). As far as I could ascertain the whopping 1700 points for taking this survey – which left no personal or spending habit, lifestyle choice or whim unturned – was about as good a reward as you were going to get for the four and a half hours of your precious time. Regardless, I pressed on.
By the beginning of the third month I was feeling like a seasoned survey pro. The invitations were still coming with some regularity, but often my participation was not required after scanning on the basis of age, gender, occupation (the only thing I was not 100% truthful about), location or the fact that I don’t eat peanut butter. A year into this enterprise, it was pure relief to be excluded, especially when the topic was washing machines and the estimated time to complete the survey was 40 minutes.
Occasionally a survey would come along that wasn’t related to consumer goods and piqued my interest and sense of civic duty. I was only too happy to give up my views on global warming, politics and water conservation strategies. My favourite, however, was being asked to rate the likeability of approximately 600 Australian television personalities. There’s something quite satisfying about using an official forum to say who I ‘don’t like’ or ‘tolerate’ (barely) on the box.
Eighteen months, 100 plus surveys and more hours than I care to recall have not yielded the big cash reward I’ve been clicking mouse for. Not that I’ve come away with nothing. Some ORCs, rather than lure you with prize money, pay you what they think your time is worth. My biggest haul – after earning 1000 points for 18 months work – from the international GlobalTestMarket, was a cheque for $50 ($49.06 after exchange rates). Valued Opinions dispose with a points system altogether and offer actual cash amounts, ranging anywhere from $1 – $5 for a completed survey depending on length. At $3.50 for a 35 minute survey, rudimentary maths says the occupation of survey taker has limited earning potential. I cashed in my first $20 earned for an iTunes voucher. I’m thinking I’ll get a liquor store voucher for my next $20, given my opinion on cheap red wine continues to be highly sort after.