by Jackie Keast
“I find it hard to describe myself as a writer as I’m still sort of learning the process, but apparently I am!” Leah Purcell says, with a laugh.
The audience laughs too, because while Leah may be best known as one of Australia’s leading actors, it’s her writing that has helped to pull the crowd to her recent lecture, ‘From Page to Stage, The Scouse, the Murri and my Dilly-Bag’, at the University of Technology, Sydney.
In a career spanning over 22 years, Leah’s never shied away from a challenge, bouncing from medium to medium and often juggling several at once: actor, singer, director and writer. This year, she has held the esteemed position as the Copyright Agency’s Non-Fiction Writer in Resident at UTS, a position she says she took on with some trepidation.
She says the education system scares her and that she was an average C-grade student at school. “I wasn’t very good with grammar, punctuation and I couldn’t spell. I still can’t spell.”
However, she’s pleased that she can now say that she’s taken it on. As part of her role she has mentored UTS’s creative writing and animation students to improve their story-telling techniques and find their “voice”.
“I’ve loved working with the young people and seeing their lights click on,” she says.Gif
Leah’s first foray into writing was in Grade 7 when she entered a competition that asked students to write about their neighbours. Leah described the Aboriginal family on one side, whose house was often her second home, and grumpy Mr Mullen on the other, a considerably less welcoming man who stabbed her netball with a pocketknife when he found it in his yard.
“I did the story and when I got it back there was red everywhere and a big “see me later” from the teacher,” she says. Used to running into trouble at school, Leah steeled herself to have to make an apology. Instead, the teacher sung her praises.
“I remember walking home feeling really proud, thinking ‘wow, I can do something’,” she says. She went on to win the competition and her story was published in the local newspaper.
It’s the stories of her life growing up in the small town of Murgon, Queensland that continue to inspire. Her opening slide in her lecture presentation is titled ‘Home is Where The Stories Begin’.
As a child, she recalls listening at the feet of the elders as they drank beer and told her of their lives. Some stories were of good times and some stories were of bad times, but they were always told with large servings of “blackfella” humour. At family barbecues, she’d take these stories and turn them into performances, directing her cousins to play the different roles.
“All my stories are based on fact and then creatively fictionalised for whatever medium I’m trying to put it in,” she says. “With Box the Pony, we told people it was ‘semi-autobiographical’. Well, there’s only one thing that’s a fib in it.”
Box The Pony was a one-woman stage play that put Leah Purcell on the map during the late 1990s. It opened at the Sydney Opera House to five standing ovations, before touring the world to critical acclaim. It was the story of three generations of women – Leah’s grandmother, who was a child of the Stolen Generation, her mother, and herself. Leah played 15 characters.
Co-writing with a white male, Scott Rankin, she describes an emotional writing process that at times better resembled therapy or confession.
“When you’re writing for theatre, it’s all about the truth of the story,” she says. “Ninety-nine point nine per cent of my paying audiences are going to be non-Indigenous. I want them to come and connect to the story and feel they are a part of it, although it’s coming from the eyes and the voice of an Indigenous woman.”
Black Chicks Talking was Leah’s next endeavour, a project that started as a book, expanded into a documentary and finally, a stage play. Having already told her own story, Leah sought to find the stories of other contemporary Indigenous women from all works of life. She found nine women with “mighty voices who need to be heard” and the process was no less emotionally difficult, with some interviews moving her to tears.
“I was very honest with the girls, because as a blackfella I don’t own these stories. I’m just the guardian, I’m the custodian they’ve trusted. So I had to keep going back to them to get their permission. I let them read it. My publishers nearly fell over when I said I’m going to let them read the book and have the final edit,” she says.
More recently in 2011, Leah wrote and starred in with the Sydney Belvoir Theatre stage adaption of Ruby Langton’s book Don’t Take Your Love To Town.
To the audience’s delight during her UTS lecture, Leah took the opportunity to give an insight into her adaptation process. She read an excerpt from the book, then acted out how the same scene was developed for the theatre, with added rhythm, transforming it into a monologue in a slam poetry style.
Having known Ruby personally, Leah explains that she put so much into the role that she became “spiritually sick” and for the time being has had to step away from it all. When Leah speaks of Ruby’s story, it’s as clear it has developed as much personal meaning to Leah as any of her other stories. She knows she will come back to Ruby’s story eventually, with hopes to turn it into a mini-series.
“I love writing black on black issues. There was a time and a place where there were all those plays, all those books and all that historical stuff where we looked at white history and its impact. But now, we as blackfellas, we have to turn it around, question who we are and what we want for the future,” Leah says.
The ABC’s award-winning Redfern Now does just that. Having acted and directed during the first season, Leah jumped at the chance to write an episode during the second, her first time writing for television.
On set she was given the opportunity to workshop with ‘the scouse’ Jimmy McGovern, BAFTA-award winning scriptwriter. She credits him with helping her to find the emotional truth in her script-writing. She laughs when recalling how he’d often send drafts back to her covered in red ink, taking her back to her primary school days.
“Lucky I love a challenge,” she says. “It was a beautiful process. He’s blunt, but then you have the beauty of sitting in a room and getting the banter going back and forth. You’d get the excitement, the young spirit that would jump out of him and he’d start shuffling around like we were two prize fighters.”
Having now made her television-writing debut, Leah says she constantly has new ideas floating around in her “dilly-bag of things”. She’s just finished filming on her debut feature film Netball and is in the process of writing a play, Seven Deadly Gins and a script called Darby, based on Aboriginal jockey Darby McCathy.