Journey of making ‘Ward of State’ – Part 3

Journey of making Ward of State

Part 3: Cast, Characters, & Rehearsals

After so much research came the planning and preproduction stage. That included location scouting, script development, creative development and sharing of visual references, costumes, finding the right people to shoot the project, not to mention casting of convent girls parts, scheduling rehearsals, finding studio space, and about a three page list of “to dos” in 8 point font! And last, but not least, there were rehearsals. For me, that is the most exciting part. Photo from day one of the shoot – photo by Bob Dobson.



The dancers had to be convincing performers, have the right look and movement style for the part. As I had decided to focus more on the story of the parents, Richard Causer and Libby McDonnell were cast in this role.

The Ward of State story was evolving to be that the father character would be a stepfather of the girl (and there wasn’t a step father in my family story).  Some aspects of my Nan’s father were kept (being a performer and entertainer mostly, probably suave and creative), but his character was developed from other people stories, which were told to me in confidence. Because I don’t know what my great grandfather was really like, I needed to draw aspects of this character from elsewhere, and it was good to create a character from a mish-mash of stories.

Chafia Brooks and Mariana Paraizo were cast as the hero girl (daughter/ stepdaughter) and her best friend who becomes a protective mother figure in the convent.

These four dancers formed the four lead characters (Richard Causer, Chafia Brooks, Libby McDonnell, and Mariana Parizo). Their biogs are on the Pozible fund raising campaign


Four photos below are from Bob Dobson’s behind the scenes photos:

Below: Richard Causer: Photo by Bob Dobson


Below: Libby McDonnell. Photo by Bob Dobson


Below: Chafia Brooks. Photo by Bob Dobson


Below: Mariana Paraizo. Photo by Bob Dobson


I first worked with Richard Causer and Chafia Brooks back in April 2002 when my brother Grant and I held an audition for Darren Hayes’ Crush Music Video, and I first worked with Libby McDonnell in 2005 in my “The Factory” Show. I’ve lost count of how many times we’ve worked together since, but there have been numerous projects. Over the years Chafia, Lib and Richard have become close friends, and It’s been amazing to watch their careers develop as well as also see them grow as people.

It was such a great thing to reunite with these three to work together again. There are always lots of laughs in rehearsal (even despite the serious subject matter of the work). The only gloomy thing about working together is saying goodbye at the end of the project. This time, Richard flew back to London, Chafia flew back to Melbourne, and Libby went back to the numerous creative endeavors she’s working on. Mariana Paraizo was a wonderful new addition to the team, and was an absolute delight to work with.


There were also four part-timers on board: (below photos are by FenLan Photography)

The work being a narrative required a few diverse and colourful characters including:

Below: Head Nun Liz Whelan, photo by FenLan Photography

Liz by FenLan

and doubling as Nuns, and older convent girls, were: Kirri Webb, (photo by FenLan Photography)

Kirri by FenLan

Sarah Fitzgerald in Nun fatigues (photo by FenLan Photography)


Below: Last but definitely not least, Frances Hannaway, who also doubled as Nun, convent girl, and as child’s services government authority figure. (photo by FenLan Photography


It was important to have a few parts understudies. Even Richard Causer jumped in as an understudy of the Nuns.  He called himself a “Nunderstudy”. More about the Nuns in another edition.

With all of the above dancers, sometimes I’d forget to tell them what a great rehearsal or take they have done… just because I assume they know. I’m used to giving a few more corrections I guess. Furthermore, this team was a genuinely lovely group to work with. They all helped out in ways beyond the call. They were aware of the limited time and workload I had. Most of them/ their families/ partners even contributed to the Pozible campaign. They worked ridiculously hard and long hours! They were spectacular!


Casting Convent Girls:

I’m sure some people were worried when I said I was casting children and teenagers, because it’s simply a given that a younger person (even a tertiary dance graduate) isn’t at the level of a professional dancer. However, the work is situated in a convent of girls, and it would have been very strange to have an entirely cast of professional adult dancers playing 7 year old girls.

The idea was to see the girls when they were younger, and take the audience on journey of the story – seeing them as younger girls and later as older girls.

A series of auditions were held for the convent girls. The girls were aged between 7 and 15 and were sourced from various training institutions in Brisbane. These girls formed two casts – a younger version and an older version of the girls.

The girls were cast based on variety of things. And this was based much more than on their dancing ability. The dancing wasn’t going to be hard core – that was for the leads. But they needed to be good dancers so that simple movement was done well. Secondly, the girls needed to have acting skills, and they had to speak to camera, and look suitable on camera. Thirdly, their suitability of their ‘look’ for the part. I wanted a variety of shapes and sizes and ages, from a mix of ethnic backgrounds (but they couldn’t be too tall either).

Two of the girls were cast as younger versions of the hero girl and her best friend because they (Chafia and Mariana) needed to be seen at a younger age.

Below: Savannah Foran-McDaniel and Kahlee Wadell.


I was more interested in matching their movement style and expression, gesture, body types, rather than having identical faces to their older selves. There’s no point having an identical face if they can’t dance.



Inspiration from images researched:

In so many photos that I researched from the 1930’s line and repetition were noticeable traits. Here’s some examples:

Photos are of St Vincent’s Nudgee in 1928 (

nudgee girls 1928

Small children waiting to be immunised at Nudgee Orphanage Brisbane ca-1. 1928


Photo above – inspiration from images filtering into rehearsal by incoprorating the sense of  line, and repetition in the work, as well as including some simple canons. For the convent girl line cannons, I wanted to focus emotional content and and simplicity in the movement rather than pack it full of new-fangled moves.


Experience of the project for the younger girls:

Given the girls who were on board for ‘experience’ as the budget was far from a commercial budget and the girls were not paid (and keep in mind I didn’t paying myself either), I thought it would be more valuable for the girls to have a holistic experience of such a project. Rather than just spoon-feed them the movement (although things were locked down later), there was character development workshops, phrases learnt that I showed them how to convert to a simplified wall phrase, and gave them examples of how they might be put on the spot, or need to learn something quickly on the day. Much of what I developed with them was culled or simplified (which is always the case). I wanted them to experience the whole process of being on board such a project.

They experienced lots of waiting around and late nights, but hopefully enjoyed observing the professional dancers work and rehearse. I hope it was a unique and valuable experience for them. I was impressed with their decorum and enthusiasm.

Below is a photo by FenLan – rehearsing the girls prior to a take on day one (there’s some older girls in these photos too)



Below: Two of the youngest girls: Lucy Chin (6 years old) and Molly Neal (4 years old) who were super cute and also very professional for their years!


In terms of the cast, there were extras when we shot in Toowoomba, but I’ll mention them in a later blog.



Rehearsals occurred over a very short but intense period of 14 rehearsals prior to a 6-day shoot. We rehearsed at The Judith Wright Centre mostly, as well as at other 4 other rehearsal spaces in Brisbane, as well as on location. Rehearsing back at the Judith Wright Centre was fantastic, and Ausdance Queensland’s Making Space programme meant the rehearsal space was more affordable. Some of the rehearsal spaces were much more costly, so I was appreciative of the Judith Wright Centre and Ausdance Qld’s support.

Rehearsal time is valuable. It’s costly, and often there are other things that encroach on rehearsals. Sometimes people expect to do press, photographs, costume fittings; schedule various meetings, phone calls, or visits during this time.  Not only does this use up valuable rehearsal time, but also it can be hard to jump from ‘creative brain’ to ‘admin brain’. So aside from some necessary hair extension testing (which went in the creative brain category anyway), rehearsals were uninterrupted. We even had time to have discussions about character and intention too! I also allowed time for rehearsal on location, which was an important part of the choreographic process.

iphone snap rehearsing at the Judith Wright Centre:




In working with the leads, there was a lot of discussion of character. Brian Lucas also came in and cast his eye over the work and did some work shopping with the characters in context to the movement in mind. As most sections of movement were developed in context to the part, or manipulated in context to the characters and narrative, having Brian look over this was incredibly valuable.

Working with dancers that I’ve worked with numerous times before, meant that we could make the work over a shorter time frame. They all knew my style of movement, knew a few of my phrases were drawing from. The flip side was that I could trust them with tasks on these phrases, and that I could come back and continue to manipulate this or create a duet from this such was the case with the Chafia and Mariana dorm room duets. Some parts were redeveloped from other choreographic developments or work that I wanted to re-visit.

There was lots of manipulation of movement for the space. For example, a duet that was created for against two walls in a studio, had to later be translated to a room with two beds, and lots of bird poo. That was something I enjoyed most (translating the movement and working with the space)

Below: 7am rehearsal on set – translating the section from the above (in rehearsals). These three photos were snapped by director Sarah-Jane Woulahan. Given the amount of bird poo, I think Chafia and Mariana were thinking ‘you’ve got to be kidding’. But it was nothing compared to other projects in the past! Chafia and Mariana were good sports about it.

SJ 4

SJ 6

SJ 5

I also enjoyed choreographing with the camera, lens, and framing in mind, thinking about how it would look in the space and on camera. Rehearsal footage after most rehearsals was uploaded to Director Sarah-Jane Woulahan and DOP Kevin Holloway, who were not based in Brisbane.


Below are a few more behind the scenes photos from the first day of shooting – photos by FenLan:




In the next blog I’ll focus on the collaboration with the creative team  who work behind the scenes (producer, director, DOP, Production design, 3rd AD, Sound, hair make up, costumes etc etc) with more behind the scenes photos too.


Journey of making ‘Ward of State’ – part 2

The journey of making Ward of State

PART 2 – Research and development of the idea.

In June 2012, I visited the Abbotsford Convent in Melbourne.  It was suggested it as a potential location for the ‘next project’ by someone who knew I like old buildings.


I’m a terrible photographer, but here are photos I took on my phone when i visited… just to give a sense of the space.

IMG_1997Abbotsford Convent was definitely an eerie place. I was given a guided tour of various parts of the convent , which is now mostly in use by artists and community groups. I wasn’t interested in the newly refurbished spaces, but rather in the older parts that were decaying and that smelt old and musty.


I didn’t know that much about the history of the space when I visited. It wasn’t until I did more research that I became aware of some things that had happened to children at the Abbotsford Convent when it functioned as a convent and industrial school. You can read more about that here:


“The Victorian Government estimates that more than 100,000 children were placed in institutional or foster care in Victoria between 1928 and 2003 and over half of these children were made wards of the State… A large number of Victorian State Wards have experienced ward-ship that has had a profound influence on their health, well-being and disconnection from their families”

 “Most were not orphans. They were removed from their families when poverty, parental separation or neglect resulted in family breakdown, or because their parents were not married, or because they were deemed by social workers and police to be in ”moral danger'”.   – Kate Gaffney – The Age October 29, 2009.


Strange timing:

Strangely timed, the week that I visited Abbotsford, my Mum and her cousin Judith, who have been doing research into our family genealogy, had learnt that my Nan’s Grandmother “Sarah” was a ward of the state in Victoria in the 1860’s and 1870’s. Judith had found the records of Sarah and her brother John. This is Sarah’s record which commenced from 1864 (when she was 8 years old) and details where she were stationed and information about her “sentence”:


sarah buckland3 copy


Victoria had no legislation relating to the ‘care’ of ‘neglected’ children until 1864. Before this date, under the Criminal Law (Infants) Act 13 Vic., No.21 1849, children could be assigned by the Supreme Court to persons willing to undertake their ‘maintenance and education’. The Immigrants’ Aid Society was responsible for the ‘care’ of hundreds of ‘neglected’ children before the 1864 Neglected and Criminal Children Act came into being.

Sarah had spent her childhood in numerous convents and institutions in Victoria (including Princes Bridge mentioned below). Given the timing of this discovery and my visit, I became more interested in making work around this subject matter.

The Immigrants Home was the name early colonists gave to ramshackle buildings on either side of St Kilda Road at Princes Bridge. Over time, the Immigrants Home came to serve a similar function to an English workhouse, operating a night shelter, convalescent hospital and providing shelter for deserted wives, single mothers, and the disabled and ‘neglected’ children. In 1865, conditions at the buildings at Princes Bridge were very poor and unsuitable. An Inquiry described the buildings as ‘crumbling into decay, infested with bugs and so dried up that a single spark might execute a conflagration…’


A lengthy sentence:

I didn’t realise how much like a prison sentence Sarah’s records read (and all children who were wards of the state for that matter). Although the children had nothing to be sentenced for, and had done nothing wrong (neither had their parents in so many cases too), but many were raised to feel as if they had done something wrong – like criminals. This was often reinforced by the institutions where they were placed. But in many of  the worst cases, it was the  institutions, and people who were supposed to care for the children who displayed the criminal behaviour toward the children. In my wider research, I looked at many stories and examples. This is one of the more disturbing stories that I read:

For most children, the  social stigma of being a ward of the state had long lingering ramifications later in life. For a girl to want to become a nurse (in the case of my Nan’s sister), if you were a ward of the state, it was simply not permitted. And that is ridiculous.

In many ways being a ward of the state was similar to having a prison sentence or criminal record. Through my research I’ve learnt that things that a child could become a ward of the state were:

  • Following the death of parents or guardian
  • Following divorce and the mother could not afford to support to care for them
  • On the advice of a local community member (or neighbor)
  • Brought here against their will by extended family members
  • As protection against a family member
  • After having a child out of wedlock
  • If parents were imprisoned
  • For loitering
  • For vagrancy (living in poverty without employment)
  • Children of parents who failed to keep a tidy house
  • For being too attractive and considered at risk of being taken advantage of
  • If over developed for their age & considered at risk of being taken advantage of
  • New migrants would leave their children in institutions whilst they got on their feet
  • They were children of mixed race parents

 I wondered why Sarah was a ward of the state. I was somewhat surprised to learn that Sarah’s brother’s records stated that their mother was in Pentridge Prison, noting ‘a lengthy sentence’.

In February and March I made two visits to Melbourne. One was to continue my research into my family history at the Public Records Office in Victoria, and the other was to attend Dance Massive. I continued to do research while in Melbourne, and I spent a few days at the Public Records office of Victoria looking at the female prison records, trying to find out who Sarah’s mother was.  Some progress was made with that research, but that’s a whole blog in itself.


Old Maps

1871 map

Maybe I have watched The Goonies too many times, but in wanting to know more about my Nan’s grandmother Sarah, I found an old map of Melbourne in the 1870’s and found the street where she had lived for a short while. The reason for the old map was that the cross section of streets no longer exists, so I had to find an older map. The first map I found was an 1850’s map, but it didn’t even have the street drawn in yet. However I found a map from 1871 that had the streets shown as existing (above). It was exciting to spend some time walking around Melbourne and trying to find the street where she was listed as living and to imagine life back then. I have to admit, it was all pretty hard to imagine. A DeLorean with a flux capacitor (fluxing) would have been much easier.

Photo above: the old 1971 map. Photo below: me on my expedition (yes, i used the old map to find the location, rather than an iphone).



Closer to home:

My experience of visiting Abbotsford Convent, and later researching Abbotsford played on my mind a lot. Initially I was interested in my Great Great Grandmother’s life as a starting point for the film, and Abbotsford Convent seemed like an ideal location, especially given the reaction I had to the space there. But as I mentioned in the previous blog, I wasn’t successful in any of the submissions to make the project happen, but I’d kept developing the Ward of State project (in my head anyway), and my research continued.

Closer to home, and not as far back in time, I knew that my grandmother (who I called Nan) had been raised as a ward of the state in Queensland in the 1930’s. It was quite strange that my Nan’s grandmother had been a ward of the state too. But my Abbotsford visit led me to wonder about my Nan’s time as a ward of the state. It was something she didn’t talk about. The ramifications for her and her sisters lasted a lifetime. I also researched the street when my Nan lived before she was a ward of the state. And that was in West End in Brisbane. So much closer to home, and very surreal to think about.

Paralleling this, my ideas for the dance film were evolving to be more about the story of the parents of the girl. I started considering why my Nan’s parents (Emily and Charles) were not able to look after their children/ and why my Nan and her two older sisters were taken. This significantly impacted on the development of the story. I also became interested looking at thing from both sides of the story –  from the children’s perspective, as well as questioning what must have been going on for the parents. I made a few interesting discoveries with researching my Nan’s father Charles Thyer, which I blogged about in an earlier post here:

Compared to my Nan’s father’s story, what I have learned of my Nan’s mother was definitely more tragic and ties in a lengthy struggle with mental illness after the event of her children being taken, which may have existed before that.  Sadly, Emily (my Nan’s mother, ie. my great grandmother) died in the late 1950’s in Toowoomba’s Baillie Henderson Hospital. My Mum recently shared the records she obtained a few years ago. It was a very surreal thing to read, and I felt very sad for Emily.

I wondered how differently things would have been for Emily today with so much more support and understanding of mental illness. To put things into perspective, this is an interesting link about Mental Health in the 1930’s.


Secrets of the past can’t escape Google.

Even the deceased can’t escape the era of modern digitisation! A search on can produce some interesting results. I found some newspaper clippings detailing accidents reported of my Nan’s sisters. The clippings I found suggest that neglect may have been a factor.  But then again, the incidents may have been just typical childhood accidents. But maybe the fact that the two accidents reported had occurred quite close together, as well as the injuries being quite significant, suggests that neglect was the case. That was somewhat sad to contemplate.

I started creating character profiles for Emily and Charles, trying to understand what went wrong. But just like trying to imagine like in the 1870’s, I also found it hard to imagine life in the 1930’s. It’s not that far back. They were just like us, but society was different. There were different attitudes towards lots of things – particularly mental illness.

While I fail to understand the reasons that things happened in the case of my grandmother’s parents, research and other people’s personal stories infiltrated the development of the script. It didn’t seem right to base the entire story on people when I didn’t have the entire facts or know the full story. It’s a bit unfair on them. Below: discoveries of above mentioned news clippings on the site. It was quite an interesting but sad thing to read these because my family has never really had any conclusive information about why my Nan and her two sisters were taken. I wasn’t sure about posting these. But given things were never spoken about back in the day, and  that I’m making a film based on the subject matter, I think it’s an important discovery to mention.


violet thyer 30 december 1927 courier mail copy Violet thyer accident wednesday 16 may 1928

Other peoples stories and additional research:

Adding to this was the continued research with some people sharing their stories. This continued to impact on the project right through to when we were shooting.  And there were also some really valuable resources on the internet and links that were recommended by people. Here are some that were particularly valuable in my research:

The time researching and developing the idea definitely resulted in richer story with greater depth of the characters than if I’d created the project in 2012. All the above research had been simmering away in my mind, and I put together a draft of a story (with lots of pictures and references) that I sent to director Sarah-Jane Woulahan, which she translated into a more  formal script, and helped develop it further.

In my next blog, I will share more about the making of the project!