From Verse Biography to Radio Drama / Podcast

Falling is a radio drama in which Minnie Dean is brought to life by actor Eilish Moran. Listeners become party to Minnie’s thoughts and feelings, hear her wrestling with her past and present circumstances and the injustice she believes has befallen her. The drama allows us to explore the mind of a person who knows she is about to die, perhaps wrongly convicted.  

Radio series and podcast episodes:

from 18 August 2022.

How this play has come into being is a story in itself. It commenced in spring 2017 in a cool café in the Christchurch CBD, sipping coffee with Ross Gumbley and Roanna Dalziel.

At that time, Ross Gumbley was the Artistic Director of The Court Theatre. He had seen a copy of my new poetry book, The Trials of Minnie Dean: A verse biography, published by the Submarine imprint of Mākaro Press a few months earlier. Ross recalls standing in Scorpio Books “imaging” the opening poem being spoken by a chorus. He was taken, he said, by the intensity of emotion in the book, and the “voices” of the characters.

Set in Victorian times, The Trials of Minnie Dean presents many points of view that fit together like pieces of a jigsaw to create a whole: the views of Minnie Dean, the Police, lawyer Alfred Hanlon, judges, jurors, reporters, members of the community, those who care for children, those who forsake children, as well as anthropomorphised characters, such as a hat box and knitting needles. 

Ross Gumbley says now that “the truth is elusive at the best of times,” and that the controversy surrounding Minnie Dean seemed reason enough for this collection of verse to be turned into a play.

The book had been well received, in a quiet way. Due to both its subject matter and its difference of form and layout, it had mixed reviews – people were either engaged by it, or thought it should not have been written.

I was not to know until some months later that several pages would be devoted to The Trials of Minnie Dean in Paula Green’s ‘Wild Honey: Reading New Zealand Women’s Poetry’ (Massey University Press, 2019). Green’s commentary has supported my confidence in the why and the how of the story I chose to write.

At first I found it hard to believe that Ross was offering me the support of The Court Theatre while I developed a version of The Trials of Minnie Dean for theatre. At first I thought it an impossible undertaking. How could I turn a jigsaw into a play? I couldn’t do it – no way – despite having had two previous plays produced. Not to seem ungrateful, I said I would think about it. If I could find a structure and a way to write the story, maybe …

But, what could the story of the play be, when many people already knew the basic facts? Minnie Dean was ‘a baby farmer’ and the only woman to be hanged in New Zealand. No dénouement, no big reveal. What could I write that might say something more, or new? How could I create a play for Aotearoa New Zealand today?

Still, it was a challenge and an opportunity I couldn’t ignore. Impressed by Ross’s confidence, I said I would try. With The Court Theatre alongside me, how could I fail? Away I went on a long, arduous and meandering journey. The project was also exciting for me because it was about being able to draw upon the whole of me (psychiatrist/psychotherapist/ expert witness, as well as woman/ mother/ writer/poet) to inform the process.

Like all good mentors, Roanna Dalziel and Ross Gumbley avoided telling me what I should do or how I should do it. They were very good at Socratic questioning. Early in the piece, misinterpretation (by me) of a comment about relevance of the story to a present day audience sent me off down a side path overgrown with wild, snaggly, prickly berries and I could not find my way out. I had a play, but I was lost in it.

This first version contained two intertwining stories – one Victorian, one present day – and a meeting place in the mind of a present day character/woman; it had a “cast of thousands” and a Greek-style chorus. Lara Mcgregor was the director and Eilish Moran read the part of Minnie Dean. Kathleen Burns was a 21st Century lawyer. It was performed in The Court’s Fresh Ink 2018 series of readings of plays under development – exciting, although, I could see that my play, as it was, had no future.

But I had learnt an enormous amount. And I was extremely grateful. I went away determined and committed to fighting my way out of the brambles.

I became clear that it was Minnie Dean’s story I wanted to tell. So I chopped out the present day story. I wanted the play to focus on Minnie, her emotions and motivations. What drove her. Her interface with society. Gradually, as I wrote versions 2 and 3 and 4, the number of characters dwindled, God entered and then was struck out. 

Eventually, the play was honed to a monologue, with all the action taking place in Minnie Dean’s head, as she struggled to come to terms with her life. With every word I wrote, I could hear Eilish Moran’s expressive voice and Scottish accent.

In the course of adapting The Trials of Minnie Dean to a play, I have had to search for the essence: what is the story of the play, as opposed to what is the story of Minnie Dean’s life?

As I searched and revised and honed, I discovered that the core is not so much about whether Minnie Dean was or was not a murderer, as about how our society (past and present) cares for its children – and its women – the responsibility it does or doesn’t take for their wellbeing.

In some respects, New Zealand has been ahead of its time on the world stage – eg the right for women to own property, the right for women to vote, the abolition of capital punishment.

But in some other respects our country has an abominable record, despite the ongoing efforts and dedication of many individuals, groups and Governments. It is very easy to look back from the 21st Century and criticise, even though our current statistics regarding the welfare and care of children, youth suicide, domestic violence, child poverty, and racial inequality persist. We are repeatedly reinventing the wheel, knowing the ‘what’, having some idea of the ‘why’, but still grappling with the ‘how’ of remediation.

Now I knew where I was going and I had a play emerging, a stage play, that is. Most of the poetry was absorbed or converted into “poetic” prose. (Minnie Dean was a literate woman, who left evidence that she could write rhymed verse, so it felt legitimate to have poetry in the script.) I felt the play at last had substance, but was far too long. I applied for and received a free manuscript assessment through the NZ Society of Authors, with the support of Creative New Zealand.  

Playwright and Director Jo Randerson of Barbarian Productions, Wellington, was the assessor of my manuscript. She recognised the script as being “poetic” – and suggested it might increase the dramatic experience to have actual poetry in the text!

Help! Dejà vu! I was on a loop track.

But I followed her view, and re-lineated some of the prose and resurrected a few key poems.

Jo Randerson was the first person to suggest producing Falling as a podcast. It seemed a good idea. We were in the grip of Covid 19, with restrictions on congregating in enclosed places. I could not envisage trying to produce a stage production and encourage an audience to attend in that climate.

So I adapted the script of Falling for radio/podcast, and, wanting to find out whether Radio NZ might have any interest, contacted the Producer of Drama early in 2021, only to be told that there was currently no allocated budget for purchasing drama. He sounded as gob-smacked as I was. This knowledge pointed me more strongly in the direction of producing the work myself as a podcast and, subsequently, to find a platform for it.

The next stage would be a Script Development Workshop. I was very fortunate to have Imagine Theatre Trust apply for a grant from the CERT Foundation to enable this.

Martin Howells, who had directed my first two plays – Geography of Loss, 2014; Poverty and Muse, 2016 – was available for the workshop. Martin had always been committed to ensuring his interpretation of my scripts matched my vision, and we have worked very well together.

Actor Eilish Moran again agreed to read Minnie Dean. Yes! I felt doubly blessed. Each piece of “good luck” seemed an endorsement of the play and spurred me on.

Workshopping Falling in February 2021 turned out to be helpful in many ways, particularly in identifying sections of script that could be cut or edited down, ensuring the dramatic tension and the forward movement of the story of the play.

It is so easy to fall in love with your own words! Or rather, your protagonist’s words. But once they are heard aloud, out there, instead of in my own head, I find it easier to judge their worth.

So with sweeps of the cursor, the script was reduced to a manageable size.

The workshop also confirmed for me that Falling was a more manageable undertaking as a radio play than a stage play. As a stage monologue, it would be a huge undertaking for a single actor, though I was told it could be done. And I could see a single actor playing both sides of recalled conversations could become inappropriately comedic.

But I could see Falling as a podcast and started to explore that possibility. 

I had heard that the community radio in Christchurch, Plains FM 96.9, was interested in joint projects with groups in the community, and in hiring out their recording services. I phoned Station Manager Nicki Reece and had a very constructive conversation. It seemed all I had hoped for was possible! And the Canterbury Communications Trust, which runs Plains FM, was supportive of the project.

What would be helpful in the first instance, Nicki Reece suggested, would be to have a list of all the required sounds. So I had to switch my thinking from words to sounds and, in effect, write a “sound-track” for Falling from creak of chair to flutter of bird’s wing, to distant whistle of train – an interesting undertaking and the beginning of a fascinating ride, a venture I had not foreseen. How do you create the sound of a bird trapped in a chimney, yet remain able to say, ‘No pigeons were harmed in the making of this podcast’?

We needed to go outside the studio to capture or create some of the sounds required. Most notable was our visit to Elizabeth Wood and her grand piano, to record ‘The Skye Boat Song’ and music from Victorian times, such as ‘I Dreamt I Dwelt in Marble Halls’. And to discover Elizabeth could play ‘The Moonlight Sonata’ four different ways, to convey the attitude or competence of the character we wanted to portray.

Of course, we also needed the voices of actors.

Eilish Moran, having become more deeply invested in the role of Minnie Dean over time, agreed she could be available to play the principal character.

Yvonne Martin was available to direct and to bring her many years of experience to the task.

The requisite actors to speak the parts of recalled voices in Minnie’s head were engaged – the final group included Kathleen Burns, Roanna Dalziel, Cameron Douglas, Geoffrey Heath, Tom Trevella, as well as the young poet Rosie Cruikshank. (Roanna, Eilish, Kathleen and Tom had been involved with The Court Theatre Fresh Ink reading two years before.)

How fortunate I was – I, the playwright and I, the producer – to have them all!

In early October 2021, during the school holidays, two days of rehearsals were held, followed by a weekend of recording at the Plains FM Radio Station in Madras Street, Christchurch, bringing the whole project alive.

So much was achieved, and it felt like the beginning of the end, but I discovered it was, instead, the end of the beginning: I learnt there is a final process – Post-production – in which the sound track and music are mixed with the many segments of voice recordings into one seamless file that sounds real and immediate and authentic.

Post-production has proven to be an exciting and satisfying process; complex and taxing; another huge learning curve.

Nicki Reece has collaborated with Yvonne Martin and me, using her considerable skills to weave together vignettes of story, marrying sounds and music with voices into an engaging whole that reflects our dramatic intentions.

It has been amazing to work closely with Nicki and Yvonne and to discover how the integration of sound effects and music with speech can lift the words from the page, give them a context, and enable the listener to “see” the scene, even experience movement/actions of characters. Emotion is heightened, and the intimacy of a voice may be intensified – things I have previously taken for granted when listening to radio drama over the years.

So now the finished product is to be released, accessible to anyone who wishes to hear it, at their convenience.