After selling out shows in 2018 and 2019, the highly-anticipated ‘A Girl’s Guide to World War’ has returned to the Brisbane Powerhouse for a three-week season.
This new musical, based on a true story, celebrates the life of Brisbane’s first female doctor, Lilian Cooper and brings her wartime exploits to the stage.
Taking home the 2019 Lord Mayor’s Award for ‘Best New Australian Work’ at the Matilda Awards, the musical was crafted by partners in love and life, Katy Forde and Aleathea Monsour. Forde explains how the pair were compelled to write this musical, drawing parallels to their own lives as they navigated the content.
“As two women who love working together, and who love each other, Aleathea and I were inspired when we discovered two other women who also loved each other – and loved working together! These women were Dr Lilian Cooper and Miss Josephine Bedford,” said Forde.
“These two women were lifelong partners who changed the face of Brisbane forever. Their achievements are too many to name. For instance, Dr Cooper and her male medical colleagues started the RACQ and Miss Bedford started the first kindergartens. Our musical, however, focuses on the year they went to the frontline in World War One.”
Both Forde and Monsour began researching Cooper and Bedford’s story extensively and decided it would make a compelling musical. The process was long and tricky, especially when it came to finding information about Cooper’s partner, Miss Josephine Bedford.
“Several historians who had researched Dr Lilian Cooper did not like to view Miss Josephine Bedford as her partner. That meant huge parts of their lives and their relationship were missing,” said Forde.
“Our hunt for the truth took us across to New Zealand where the diaries and letters of Dr Agnes Bennett are kept. We knew nothing about Dr Bennett when we started the research process, but she has since become central to the musical. Her working relationship with Dr Cooper was a lot of fun to explore.
“They were both brilliant women, but very different in their attitudes. Dr Cooper swore, smoked, sat with her legs apart; Dr Bennett was restrained, quiet and shy. But my goodness – what they achieved together!”
While writing a brand new musical is no easy feat, once Forde and Monsour’s creative processes began, it came naturally. Collaborating on a project can be difficult, even with creative differences, but Forde and Monsour found a harmonious stride working together.
“Our creative process starts with a rough script and then [we] feel where the songs should go. Then we talk for ages about what the songs should feel like,” said Forde.
“Aleathea writes the music and I write the lyrics. That’s my favourite part. It doesn’t get better than writing songs with Aleathea.
“Working with Aleathea is magic. I just love it. We don’t have creative differences because Aleathea is entirely music and I am entirely words. We are no good at each other’s jobs.”
Unlike a work of fiction, where the characters are created by the writer, portraying real-life people on stage comes with its own set of challenges. This was one of Forde’s biggest obstacles when crafting the new work.
“The hardest thing is overcoming my own expectations and desire to idealise the characters,” said Forde.
“I have to keep reminding myself to allow the research to dictate the characters’ personalities. Nobody’s perfect. And these women from the past weren’t perfect so the hardest part for me is not idealising them, because I really want to! I love them so much, I don’t want the audience to see any flaws. But their flaws are what makes them so fascinating, and so human, and so relatable.”
Forde and Monsour managed to expertly portray the story of Dr Cooper, especially in 2019 when they won a Matilda Award for ‘Best New Australian Work’. Legendary musical theatre star, Susie French, also won a Matilda Award for her portrayal of the smoking, swearing lesbian surgeon, Dr Lillian Cooper. For the team at Musical Theatre Australia, the acknowledgement was completely unexpected.
“It was a complete surprise and a beautiful memory for us,” said Forde.
“We won it in February 2020, just before COVID changed the world. It was the last night I remember when I was innocent of what was to come. There was so much hugging, kissing, champagne and laughter.”
The musical, which is equal parts empowering, is about Australian women – and specifically Brisbane women – who have changed history. Though our COVID world is very different to Dr Cooper’s world 100 years ago, ‘A Girl’s Guide to World War’ still has profound relevance to audiences today.
“Grace Tame’s photo with Prime Minister Scott Morrison showed us how much the world still expects women to ‘nod and smile’. This musical is about what happens when women refuse to nod and smile,” said Forde.
“After the army rejects their offers to help, these ‘lady doctors’ go anyway, and run a hospital on the frontline with scientific brilliance, compassion and courage. What I find inspiring and relevant to today is how they made up their own rules: they extend the services of their hospital to not only the soldiers but the women and children who are displaced by war. Their kindness was even extended to the animals injured by war.”
‘A Girl’s Guide to World War’ is not Forde and Monsour’s first musical together. Another of their works, ‘Lottie’, is also based on real-life and discovers and illuminates the stories of forgotten people.
“Research is like a drug to me. The deeper the rabbit hole, the more I like it. I am obsessed with finding stories that have been lost in the darkness. There are humans, particularly female humans, who should never have been forgotten,” said Forde.
“We are committed to bringing them back into the light. During the research process (which is the longest part of the whole process) I become a woman possessed. I dig, dig, dig into diaries, letters, old newspapers, photographs, looking for gold – for the courageous, wonderful, eccentric, forgotten women of our past.”
Bravely etching a niche across the musical theatre scene, Forde advises those looking to carve their own path that the journey is quite simple.
“Take heart that musical theatre is the most popular art form in Australia, and it’s particularly popular in Queensland. If you’re a musical theatre nut like we are, then let’s all work together to create a thriving Australian musical scene here in Australia. We can make it happen together.”
Forde and Monsour certainly show no signs of stopping and are already making plans for staging their next show.
“The next musical we are going to do is ‘Lottie’, which is about Australia’s first silent film star! She also secretly wrote and directed the films at a time when women weren’t supposed to do such powerful things! Another woman who deserves our gratitude and love.”
Audiences can see ‘A Girl’s Guide to World War’ at Brisbane Powerhouse until Sunday, 20 February 2022.
For more information about both ‘A Girl’s Guide to World War’ and ‘Lottie’, visit Musical Theatre Australia’s official website.