The life of Lola Reply

by Pat Cranney

The town of Morundah, in the NSW Riverina, has 22 citizens, a pub, some silos and a few homes. And an opera house.

Lola Wright at home in Morundah.

Lola Wright at home in Morundah.

In 2006, Morundah locals converted an agricultural pig shelter into a venue that has since hosted performances by companies such as Oz Opera (the touring arm of Opera Australia), South Australia’s Co Opera and the Victorian Opera.

Next year, it hopes to host a new musical based on the life of one of the town’s own residents, Lola Wright.

Ms Wright, who turns 88 in May, moved to the district in 1981 after an itinerant childhood in the Queensland bush during the Depression, followed by study at the then Armidale Teachers’ College during the war and a 35-year career as a teacher, musician and activist in the Illawarra.

Her eventful life story, as recorded by oral historian Rob Willis, and in her unpublished autobiography, is currently being adapted to the stage by Sydney-based musician Christina Mimmocchi.

“Rob Willis introduced me to Lola about 10 years ago by sending me an interview he’d done with her,” Ms Mimmocchi says.

“She was the first woman to play in a professional bush band, the South Coast Bush Band, which she founded. She was concerned with spreading Australian culture and Australian music as part of her work for the Communist Party.

The South Coast Bush Band in the 1950s. Lola is second from the right with piano accordion.

The South Coast Bush Band in the 1950s. Lola is second from the right with piano accordion.

“It seemed obvious to me from listening to all her interviews that this woman and her life and her amazing stories and her amazing spirit and resilience, this was a story that shouldn’t be kept in the archives.”

Rob Willis, who has worked in the area of folklore and social history for the National Library of Australia [NLA] for the past 30 years, first heard of Lola through “folkie” colleagues in the Illawarra and began recording interviews with her in 2001. He says Lola’s story is important because it’s about the role of women in making change.

“I mean, one of Lola’s songs that we recorded, the Equal Pay song, is in the Museum of Democracy in Canberra,” he says. “She was a pioneer in women’s rights.”

By the 1970s, when she was secretary of the local branch of the ALP, Lola hosted regular Friday night gatherings in their backyard at Oak Flats for her friends – teachers, wharfies, unionists and Labour Party members at which kegs were tapped and leftie songs were sung.

“She’d pop the words up on an overhead projector and if people wanted to have a drink, they had to sing first,” says Ms Mimmocchi. “So people learnt all sorts of workers’ songs, social justice songs, leftie anthems. And they had a good time while they were doing it.”

The stage version of Lola’s life, aptly titled Lola’s Keg Night, is described Ms Mimmocchi as a verbatim musical memoir.

“All the words used in the play are words that Lola herself has used either in the interviews or in her autobiography,” she says.

Work-in-progress readings with songs and music have been presented at the Illawarra Performing Arts Centre in Wollongong and at the Illawarra Folk Festival in Bulli.

Vashti Hughes, as Lola Wright, at Lola's Keg Night script workshops, Illawarra Performing Arts Centre (IPAC) Wollongong. Laura Bishop on piano.

Vashti Hughes, as Lola Wright, at Lola’s Keg Night script workshops, Illawarra Performing Arts Centre (IPAC) Wollongong. Laura Bishop on piano.

Sydney-based actor Vashti Hughes, who plays Lola on stage, met Ms Wright for the first time at the Bulli presentations. The real life Lola surprised even the cast when she spontaneously clambered up on stage to take the lagerphone and join in the show’s sing-along finale. She received a standing ovation.

“Having the person who the show’s about on the stage and participating is exciting and affirming,” Vashti Hughes says. “She loves it so much that she wants to get up and be a part of it – that was a major highlight.”

When asked how she feels about having her life portrayed on stage, the Lola says: “It worries me not at all because there’s no part of my life that I’ve lived that I wouldn’t do all over again.

“I’d even cop the rough times because they took some of the rough edges off me and taught me how to handle life.”

Two work-in-progress presentations of Lola’s Keg Night were most recently seen in Canberra at the annual National Folk Festival held over the Easter long weekend in April. Ms Mimmocchi says they were very warmly received.

The premiere season of the full production will take place with the support of the Merrigong Theatre Co. in Wollongong in October.

“We’re hoping to present the show in Sydney as well,” Christina Mimmocchi says, “and then take it on tour as far south-west as Morundah. The opera house has shown great enthusiasm for us taking the show down there.”

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