Opening at Theatre Works next month, Betty is a powerful and unfiltered exploration of the mother daughter relationship and is the latest highly anticipated work by writer and social scientist, Jules Allen.  The work is also a comment on the complex secrets, lies and hierarchies within families and how these impact generations to come. A deeply personal journey for Allen who describes the question of the  genesis moment of the piece as a difficult one to answer.

“I was left reeling in the wake of losing my mother. It had been a very quick decline, marred by the impacts of Dementia and a rare form of Parkinson’s,” says Allen. “It takes a long time to make sense of the bizarre happenings when the mind betrays us. Sometimes it brings a clarity and allows insight into areas that have never been revealed. The latter definitely awarded me greatly with this.”

Allen knew there were parts of her mother’s story that needed to be told. “I was also aware that our complex relationship, as Mother and daughter, was one that many could relate to,” she says. “To be honest, I believe it was reading Eugene O’Neil’s Long Day’s journey in tonight that really inspired the writing of Betty. I now deeply appreciate why Eugene did not want this work published in his lifetime. These matters can be so deeply personal.”

Allen grew up in Melbourne’s suburbs in the 70s with a Thai-Australian mother and with that, she says,  comes a powerful cultural clash – particularly around customs and traditions of death and honouring /remembering those lost.  Allen is not sure if the writing of Betty was cathartic or a form of human torture saying she thinks it was a mixture of both.  Though, in writing Betty, she did gain a deeper understanding of her mother and why she approached the world the way she did.

“I also gained insight into intergenerational trauma and how family patterns and cycles become so deeply entrenched, she says. “Adding weight to this was my mother’s immigration from Thailand at a young age. The cultural disparities and the drifting between the two worlds but never belonging in one or the other, created such a sense of unease and disharmony. Something I only truly understood after she passed. In a nutshell, I needed to tell this story as it is worthy of being told. Furthermore, I promised her I would.”

For Allen, there are three prominent themes to Betty that, she believes, have the capacity for resonance with an audience.

“Often, we are all faced with caring for our parents in their various levels of decline,” she says. “I don’t recall anyone talking to me about this and I certainly wasn’t ready. It was harrowing. Hilarious, at times, but deeply challenging. I’m still struck by why we don’t talk about this more. I guess that’s what I’m trying to do here. When elements of dementia appear, you are suddenly navigating a very unpredictable and chaotic landscape. Once again, I didn’t know what this was.”

For the past 25 years Allen has worked as a therapist in various capacities. “It is my understanding that one of the most complex relationships in the world is the mother/daughter relationship,” she says. “I believe this is global. Adding complexity to this are cultural differences that arise from a parent who is an immigrant.”

Growing up in the 70’s in Melbourne, Allen remembers not knowing one other person who had an Asian mother. “I resented the difference this brought to my world. Further confusion arose as I did and don’t ‘appear’ Asian. My Anglo genes from my father being incredibly dominant. As a consequence, I too, felt ill at ease with my roots and sense of belonging. I now absolutely treasure my heritage. I know I am not alone in this. It’s another issue that is rarely discussed.”

Written and created by Allen, Betty is also performed by Allen alongside well known Australian actor Sally McKenzie – but which role has been more difficult for her from the perspective of initial creation through writing, versus the creation of the character on the stage?

“Great question! A few weeks ago, I would have said the writing posed the greatest challenge but now we are in rehearsal I’m struck by the enormity of the task as an actor,” admits Allen. “I find myself constantly pulling against myself to create distance between myself and my character.”

“The character I play is not me, however, our ‘emotional truths’ are incredibly similar. I’m still learning about her and she’s a little tricky at times. It’s a bit mind bending when you want to yell at the writer for the complex elements of a character and that person is you.”

When asked about any  challenges she encountered along the way, Allen quips it would be quicker to talk about what hasn’t been a challenge!

“The creation of the work has been my own Long day’s journey in to night. My naivety at the onset has created some very humbling moments and continues to. Given some of the personal elements in this piece, I have had moments of sheer panic about placing it in the public realm. To be honest, I still do at times.

“It has been a constant priority for me to be honest and vivid in the revelation of the utter madness of dementia and family dysfunction, whilst maintaining respect and integrity towards all parties involved. This has been a delicate balance and one I hope I have achieved.

“I am completely green to the world of producing so to say it has been a learning curve would be an understatement. I have fumbled along making mistake after mistake. Fortunately, I have been supported by a fabulous crew who have had endless patience with me. Furthermore, I would not have made it this far if it wasn’t for the incredible support from the team at Theatre Works. They’re ongoing diligence in supporting new works and all that comes with it is quite astonishing. They are truly brilliant, and I will be forever grateful to them.”

Covid has been catastrophic for us. The impacts have been profound. We were five days out from opening in June 2021 when the Lockdown was announced. Not only did we take a financial hit but it we lost some very valuable members because of having to reschedule. These people worked tirelessly and never got to see their hard work come to fruition. This was heartbreaking.”

Allen is a Social Scientist and advocate for adoption reform alongside Hugh Jackman and Deborah Lee-Furness. Her genesis began some 25 years ago when she fell, quite accidentally, in to fostering children. Thirty something children later and a few adopted, Allen admits it has had the most profound impact on her world.  In fact the topic inspired her first play; Slipped through the cracks.

Allen feels strongly that there is so much that needs to be discussed about children in out of home care in this country that it leaves her felling a tad overwhelmed at times. It is something that she knows she will be writing and talking about for many years to come.

As a story teller, Allen’s  desire is to tell stories that people are incapable of telling themselves. “I hope in doing so, I can give insight into the lesser-known parts of the human condition,” she says. “The things we don’t talk about but can all relate to.”

Betty is the second play by Jules Allen, whose professional career as a humanitarian (both in Australia and inter-nationally) was recognised in 2017 when she was awarded Alumnus of The Year at Southern Cross University. She has also been invited to deliver TEDx talks in Sydney and Melbourne and was featured on Australian Story in 2016.

In writing Betty it is Allen’s hope to reach people on a range of different levels. It’s a play where you find yourself laughing at the most inappropriate times only to be wiping the tears from your cheeks several minutes later. It’s honest and uncompromising and touches upon matters that can only be explored through one’s deep and complex relationship with another. “I have been told by those who have read it or sat in on rehearsals that it stays with you; a playwrights dream.”

16 – 26 February

www.theatreworks.org.au/program/betty

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