The hammer attack that stunned a community!

Reading like a Stephen King novel, Dan Walls’ newest play Meeka plunges into the murky depths of the hows, whys and most importantly, ifs, of a crazed unprovoked attack committed in his own back yard.

Walls talks about his research, challenges, aims and the outcomes:

I heard about the story from the mother of a friend, and she worked for the Department of Education. She was there on the day the incident occurred and it just struck me as surreal. A school headmaster smashing an education department auditors head in with a hammer, on school property, right before the school day began. How or why would that ever happen? What really hooked me though was that it happened in my hometown of Geraldton, at a school which is over the road from the house I was born in. So yes, the hometown connection was strong, even though I took some creative licence and moved the setting to Meekatharra. But that’s fine, because that’s where the real-life version began, with a school out in Meeka getting burnt down.

The challenge was presenting the story in a way that acknowledges the reality it’s based on, while also making it a self-contained, original piece of drama. Also, very importantly, legally sound. I first started putting it on the page in 2011 for my Masters of Writing at Swinburne. First as a feature article and because the story just stuck with me, later as a script. Most of my research originally came from media reports and my mate’s mum, and as a result, the first drafts were skewed a certain way. I tried to get my hands on the court transcript from the trial, just to find out what the witnesses and defence said, to balance it out a little.

I got very close, but then they decided to charge me for it and the cost of emailing a 500 page court transcript is nowhere near as cheap as you might think. It was in fact cheaper to fly to Perth to read the transcript, which I did. I also took a detour up to Meekatharra to have a look around. I’d been there before and many other small outback communities, but that was a long time ago and I wanted to make sure I got as much authenticity into the piece as possible. So after flying to Perth and spending two weeks in WA researching and rewriting I think the script is far more engaging and layered. I was able to get a sense from the witnesses what possible opinions and allegiances the teacher’s had, so I think all the characters are a bit more rounded as a result. I tried also incorporating advice from dramaturg Bridgette Burton, along with audience feedback from the public reading at fortyfivedownstairs that took place early last year. All this, coupled with strong support from Hoy Polloy’s Wayne Pearn and Shaun Kingma’s clear directorial vision have really helped shape the production.

MEEKA_Cast_CreditDanWalls

Just before the public reading, a Facebook post for the event got noticed by some teachers who had worked in Meekatharra around the time of the event and a brief little conversation took place. It touched lightly on the incident and life in Meeka in general. While it was reassuring that no one took great offence or set about to correct me on how the blurb had totally misrepresented the story, I realised at that point, now that the play was making its way into the wider world, the obvious notion that this was something that actually happened and impacted on people hit home. A need to back myself with facts became apparent.

‘Meeka’ fit into the true-crime genre and although my intention was to use the story as a basis for the play, I never set out to make a docudrama. Some events and dialogue is taken from reality but a lot is also obviously fictitious. But there’s a strong backbone of reality in there, so I wanted to find out what could cause this situation where a principal is charged with intent to cause serious harm on an education department employee. What could the stressors have been for both men involved? Was it a conspiracy like the principal suggests? Or an attack intended to stop the auditor discovering anything? So in listening to each side of the story, could I be open to seeing the truth in both versions? At first, it seemed pretty clear cut from the way the media presented it, but reading the court transcript I was challenged into thinking about it in a new light and I think that now comes through.

I’ve always enjoyed contemporary drama that speaks of big issues or themes. Arthur Miller, Ian Wilding, Will Eno. I enjoy seeing the beauty, nobility and the quiet tragedy, even, of everyday life up on stage. A simple story told well is fine, but for me, there needs to be substance to it otherwise you could just watch a soapie or reality TV. In Meeka, it’s the power, corruption, greed and violence at play that interests me. What makes it even more fascinating is that it’s not on a House of Cards or Game of Thrones scale, it’s just small time stuff in a remote outback town. Yet the way things get out of hand and the consequences are almost as big as they come.

I hope the audience is entertained. I also hope they feel like they’ve taken a trip to a little-seen part of Australia, and maybe learnt a bit of lingo. I also hope they walk away and ask each other and themselves, “Who do you believe?”

February 3 – 14
www.fortyfivedownstairs.com/events

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