Gloria, a one-woman show performed by Amy Waller, tells the tale of her grandmother Gloria Stanford who made postwar headlines as 'The bride who wouldn’t leave NZ'. Renee Liang interviews Amy and Gloria (now 89).
* * *
You know that moment when you realise that your parents or grandparents did cooler things in their youth than you did? (Well, maybe some of us do.) Sisters Amy and Catherine Waller have one amazing grandmother. Growing up listening to family stories of her exploits, they decided to make a play about an infamous period of her life when, as a young 21-year-old bride, she refused to leave NZ and her close knit family to go to her US serviceman husband.
Amy, when did you first hear about your Nana's story?
Amy: I grew up listening to my Nana's stories from her and the rest of the family. And I was in my early teens when I discovered all the old newspaper clippings about my Nana's dash from the ship. That coupled with reading all of her poetry made me start to ask more specific questions. Then as I became closer to her age during WWII, I became even more interested in her experience and situation during that time.
How did you explore it and how long did it take you?
A: It has been almost two years in the making, between working on other projects and travelling, including ‘workshopping’ the idea as well as performing the show on and off. I started my research by hanging out with Nana and chatting to her about her whole life in detail for better part of a week. The interviews were recorded and transcribed. I then selected the verbatim text where I could potentially see the story taking shape. Style wise I’ve been really inspired by the work of Red Leap Theatre. Julie Nolan and Kate Parker mentored a group of us in an intensive workshop where we were able to explore numerous ways to tell our stories.
After a long hiatus from the project I started to work with my sister Catherine who is also a Toi Whakaari graduate. We really surprised ourselves at how well we worked together. In real life we tend to bicker, in a sisterly loving way, but it was exciting to have a common purpose and language. It probably really helped to do what we both love together, about a woman we both love and respect dearly. We ended up deciding that the solo format would best serve the story. Our first development season was at the 2011 New Zealand Fringe Festival and most recently a season at Orewa’s Centrestage Theatre earlier this year thanks to the support of Rodney Council. It was great to get opportunity to refine the piece before bringing it to the Auckland CBD area.
Gloria, when you made the decision not to leave NZ, did you have any idea what it would lead to?
G: Not really – the ship was supposed to sail that day but it stayed overnight…relatives were allowed to come on board for a little while, but had to leave. Many of the girls were very sad, and that’s when I realised I couldn’t leave my parents and sister.
Things have changed a lot since then. Do you think your granddaughters are different to how you were, or are their hopes and dreams still the same?
G: Of course things have changed. My granddaughters have their dreams and hopes, which they are able to fulfill due to the freedom of travel and career opportunities that women didn’t have back then.
How did you work with Amy and Catherine in making the work? Did you see it as it was being developed, or only after it was finished?
G: I spent a lot of time being interviewed by them and looking up old family photos. No I didn’t see the show until opening night. I really wanted to see it completed finished with costumes, lighting, sound, etc.
Were there any difficulties in turning a very personal family story into a performance?
A: None whatsoever. Nana and the rest of the family have been so supportive and encouraging, it couldn’t have been better. Nana is also a writer so she’s very creative and has always loved to sing and tell a good story. The only pressure I’ve had has been self-imposed – just trying to make the show the best I can, to honour and do justice to Nana's story. There have been a few factual elements in my nana’s past that we edited ever so slightly or changed for dramatic effect the show, something I was nervous about. But when you have to fit in 10 years of history into 70-80 minutes there are bound to be edits. I’m extremely happy with the show and after listening to the stories from audience members I know we’ve captured the essence of nana’s life during that era.
Has making this play brought the family closer together?
A: We’ve always been a very close family. I’ve always had a very close bond with my Nana. But even so learning in such detail about her thoughts and emotions has definitely created an even more special bond. I have the utmost respect for her – politically and creatively. She is a truly inspiring woman who made some very brave and bold decision way ahead of her time. The show is based around her time during the war but gosh I need to write a play about her life in the 70's!
G: I think so…as a family we are very proud of both Amy and Catherine…and with the way in which they’ve brought my story to the stage.
What is your favourite part of the play?
A: I love so many parts, but my favourite is the part is where I (Gloria) meet Jackie Cooper, who was one of the original Little Rascals who was a Hollywood that was part of a military band here in NZ during the war, at The New Criterion.
G: My favourite is Amy’s portrayal of that part of my life, and listening to the music of that era.
What was the most challenging part of the play?
A: The opening. There’s lots of dialogue, timing is very important, and each moment and step is as intricate as a choreographed dance piece.
Gloria, you don't seem to mind the 'naughty bits' as well as the fun bits coming out in the play. Why is that?
G: Living 5-6 during the war and losing friends in the forces we tended to ‘live for the day’ as we feared invasion – flirtations and romantic liaisons were part of life. Also we didn’t have TV, Facebook, the internet and drugs as influences back then.
Gloria, what's it like to see your life up on stage in all its glory? Is it as you remember it?
G: To witness Amy telling my story on stage is thrilling, although at times a little overwhelming. And yes it is mainly as I recall it.
What kind of responses have you got from audience?
A: The standing ovation on opening night was extremely overwhelming and unexpected! We’ve had such a great responses. One of my favourite has been coming out in the foyer and seeing Nana talking to all her fans about the bars, names and places that were mentioned in the play. We’ve even had a woman whose mother was on the same ship as Nana the night she demanded to leave. We’ve also received amazing reactions from the younger audience members. High School students have told me that they didn’t know theatre could be so mesmerising. They said they’d been expecting a play about the war to be ‘boring’ and ‘old fashioned’ but were absolutely buzzing as they left the theatre (in Orewa). My niece, who’s 5, walked out of the play saying "that was the best movie I’ve ever seen!"
G: From my point of view I’ve found people very interested in my story which has been very flattering. And even managed to link up with a first cousin I hadn’t seen for many years when she read about the show in the newspaper.
Amy, what are you working on next?
A: I do have a couple more projects that I’m casually ticking away at. But we’re really hoping to take Gloria on the road soon. We have our eye on festivals such as Edinburgh, Melbourne or the New York Fringe Festival. So that’s going to be a priority next year.