Who knew a trip in the city would spark an idea for a new Australian Musical based on local stories. For Katy Forde and her partner Aleathea Monsour, the chance encounter sparked a spiral of research into World War I history and birthed their joyous, loving and compelling production, ‘A Girl’s Guide to World War’.
Based on true events, the musical explores a group of women and their experiences on the frontline. Through their adventures they find freedom, power and passion, during a time of devastation. Inspired by the lives of Dr. Lilian Cooper and her partner Miss Josephine Bedford, ‘A Girl’s Guide to World War’ not only puts women in protagonist roles, but also at the core of an all-female production team and cast.
We were fortunate to catch up with Katy to hear all about her creative process, what inspired the story/sound of the new musical and what audiences can expect from a sell-out season and an evening of live music, tears and laughter.
What sparked the inspiration behind ‘A Girl’s Guide to World War’?
The first step on the road to ‘A Girl’s Guide to World War’ happened many years ago when my partner Aleathea and I were walking down George Street in Brisbane. We noticed a beautiful old building called “The Mansions”. A plaque out the front caught our eye – it said that Queensland’s first female doctor had once lived there: Dr Lilian Cooper. This piqued our interest – who was this woman? How did she come to be Queensland’s first female doctor? From there, Dr Lilian Cooper led us to her partner Miss Josephine Bedford. And when we discovered they were buried in the same grave at Toowong Cemetery, we realised that this was a lifelong love story. For a long time, we weren’t sure what part of their story to tell – these women were so incredible you truly could take any year in their lives and make a show about it! But when we discovered all the other amazing women who worked with Lilian and Jo on the frontline in World War I, we couldn’t resist telling that story.
‘A Girl’s Guide to World War’ is based on true events, how much research and development went into the idea? What was it about Dr Lilian Cooper and her partner Miss Josephine Bedford that inspired you?
We did years of research – years and years and years. Probably seven all up. But then it took us only a year to write the show. Aleathea and I were inspired by the authenticity and courage of Lilian and Josephine. But to be honest, we were also inspired by the injustice. These women had changed history but were forgotten. It is an obsession of ours to bring them back into the light where they belong.
Was there something you learnt about women in the World War that surprised you, that you didn’t know or that audiences need to hear?
The women never hardened. They saw terrible things and had to make ruthless decisions about who would live and who would die, but they never grew cold or callous. One of the stories we tell in the show is absolutely true: if the women saw a dying horse on the side of the road (and the road was littered with dying horses) they would sit with it until it had died, comforting it and keeping the wild dogs at bay. The women had a seemingly endless well of compassion that never emptied.
What was your process like turning real events into a musical for the stage?
The process feels natural to us. I can’t imagine doing it any other way. Songs can take you somewhere emotionally that dialogue can’t do. It’s as natural as daylight for us to turn moments into music. Basically, we just get to a moment in the scene where the emotion lifts into music. Like a plane taking off.
Why is this new musical and true story so important?
The new musical is important because we need more Australian stories on our stages. Australian audiences crave Australian stories. I think it is a fallacy that Australians only want American stories. Australian audiences want to find out about their history, they want to see their own voices and stories come alive on stage.
This true story is important because the women in the show deserve to be celebrated. How can we forget what they did? When the army told them they weren’t wanted, they refused to listen and went to War anyway. They created the first female-run hospital on the frontline. Their hospital was so advanced that other hospitals copied their processes – male doctors would come and watch Dr Lilian Cooper operate because she was so talented. And after the war, the women didn’t rest – they went on to change history in so many ways. We must remember them and celebrate them.
If you were a woman during the Wartime, where do you think you’d fit in?
As much as I would love to be a doctor, I think I would be an orderly! I would be the one digging the holes and putting up tents and emptying buckets! Although I play an ambulance driver in the show, there is no way I could be an ambulance driver in real life – I had a lesson in an old Model T Ford from the era, as research for the show, and those bastards are HARD to drive!
The production team is majority women, how important do you think this is in today’s performing arts industry? What’s the response been like writing a woman’s story, especially in our current political climate?
The response has been overwhelming. I think people really want to know about what women achieved in the Great War. We have had many men come see our show who fought in various wars, from Vietnam to more modern wars, and they have given us the most beautiful feedback about the show. People want to know about these women!
What has the audience’s reaction been like to the production?
The audience reaction has been overwhelming. We honestly couldn’t be more thrilled with the way it has been received. We have had standing ovations and cheering – it’s been so lovely!
There are many great new songs within the show and you’ve collaborated with Vix and the Slick Chix with music – what inspired the sound behind ‘A Girl’s Guide to World War’?
Aleathea is the amazing force behind the unique sound of the show. It is not a Broadway sound at all – it is something very Australian. It is sometimes rocky, sometimes romantic, sometimes dark, sometimes ethereal. Everything she writes is incredible. Then, once she has written the music, I add the lyrics. Then Aleathea works with Vix and Clare to bring the sounds to life. We couldn’t have done this show without them. Aside from playing lead guitar and supplying her rip-roaring vocals, Vix also narrates the show! And Clare has a very funny acting role at the end of the first half.
This is a bit of a family affair – your mum and dad are acting and director, your partner is co-author and musician – it must be special working with loved ones. What has it been like collaborating with family? Have you learnt a lot from them?
We actually changed the show to an all-female cast this year, so my wonderful Dad isn’t in it! He was so powerful and incredible in the show and it was a hard decision to make, but we needed to cut the cast size down to make it more economical for touring, so all the men got the cut! Dad entirely understands and was our chief supporter in making the show all-female. I’m directing the show this year. As for Mum, she plays so many fantastic roles, mostly villains, which is playing against type for her as she is so lovely! Her voice is a knock-out – she gets the final song at the end of the first half and it breaks my heart every time.
I think growing up in a theatre family has helped me so much. I have learnt technical things via osmosis over the years, but most of all it has shaped the way I write. Mum and dad have taught me that first and foremost, theatre needs to be entertaining. Yes, it needs to say something important- but the first box you tick is – “Entertaining”. Mum and dad taught me to respect the audience above all else – each beautiful person in the audience has left the comfort of their houses to come to see a show – you MUST make it entertaining for them.
Where do you hope to see ‘A Girl’s Guide to World War’? What’s the show’s trajectory looking like?
We hope to take the show to Brisbane next year, and from there onto the festival circuit. We have a five-year plan to take it to the Edinburgh Festival.
If you could briefly sum up the play in three words, what would you say?
Passion. Freedom. Power.
What’s next for Musical Theatre Australia?
We are thinking of writing a show about Lilian and Josephine’s first three years in Brisbane. J They were so popular back in the 1890s in Brisbane, despite being so out and proud – I really would love to know how they got the people of Brisbane onside!
Do you have any advice for aspiring playwrights or composers?
Gather a great team around you. You cannot do this alone. Find the people you want to work with, and stick with them.
‘A Girl’s Guide to World War’ performs at Maleny Community Centre until Sunday, 10 November 2019. While all tickets are sold out, you can stay up to date with Musical Theatre Australia via their Facebook Page.