'Till The Boys Come Home came into existence after the writer/director, Sally McLean, attended the ANZAC Day Dawn Service for the first time in 2004.
"I had always intended to go to the service, but never seemed to find the opportunity. My then partner was in the Army Reserve, and was marching that year, so I decided that it was time for me to attend," she explains.
Despite losing a Great Uncle in WW2 on the Kokoda Track and having a close family friend serve as a Wing Commander in the WAAAFs, the thought of writing about war in the 20th Century hadn't entered her head. Until she saw a woman in the crowd who waved to every unit of veterans that passed by and in some cases ran out and hugged some of the men.
"She brought to mind the images we've all seen on old newsreels of those young women running out to greet soldiers marching in the returning home parades during World War Two. I was fascinated by her and eventually went up to talk to her."
The woman turned out to be a War Veteran herself - a retired member of the Australian Women's Army, with whom she'd served as a Gunner from 1941 to 1945.
"I was amazed. This was the first time I'd heard of women in active military service during the War, let alone met one. I'd grown up in an era when women had fought for the right to stand alongside men in many areas, including the Defence Forces, and yet, here was a woman who had already done it 60 years earlier. When she told me that some of her mates had served as Gunners in New Guinea as well, I was absolutely determined to learn more about this time, and more importantly in my mind, about these women."
And so began a huge research effort that focused on women on the Home Front during WWII. Through her research, McLean learnt a lot that opened her eyes to wartime in Melbourne.
"Really, we were just like London, but thankfully, without the bombings. Everyone dealt with food, fuel, even clothing rationing, the general public grew food to send to Britain and the troops fighting overseas, knitted socks, worked in ammunition factories, dug air raid shelters, did air raid training and air raid drills and carried gas masks in case of attack. Melbourne was plunged into black-outs every night (known as brown-outs), anti-aircraft gun towers and posts were on every building with a vantage point, spotlights lit up the night- it must have been a very difficult time for everyone, especially considering that most, if not all, families had someone fighting overseas as well."
It was during this research that McLean began to realize the importance of May 1942 to Australia, but in particular, Melbourne.
"May of 1942 was the when the latter stages of planning for the Kokoda Track campaign took place and the month of the Battle of the Coral Sea - two very important events to the war in the Pacific. But it was also the month that a murderer was walking the Melbourne streets, killing women in the black-outs. This presented a fascinating premise for a play - the juxtaposition of death on a massive scale on the warfront, and death on a very personal level (in the form of individual murders) on the Home Front. At a time when women were given unprecedented freedom (due to the men having to leave to fight in a war), they were being stalked and killed by a man on their home streets - it would have been a frightening time, but had all the perfect ingredients for a dramatic story."
She found a personal connection to the "Brown Out Murders" as they became known, when speaking to her father, an Economist and Historian.
"I spoke to Dad about the period, due to his interest in Military history. When I brought up the Brown Out Murders, he mentioned that, as a child, he remembered his mother (my Grandmother) being very nervous during that time, as the first body was discovered just metres from their home in Albert Park. He remembered how abuzz the city was as each girl was discovered - and he was only six, so it must have made a strong impact on Melbourne's citizenry."
"The Brown-Out Murders" were the first of their kind in 20th Century Australia - during one of the darkest times in our history we were also dealing with our first serial killer.
"With this discovery, I decided to build the story around ten characters - 7 women and 3 men - most at home, some overseas, to tell the stories of those who stayed behind to keep the home fires burning, as well as explore the idea of women being given all this freedom for the first time - only to have someone take advantage of their new-found independence by killing them in the Melbourne streets."
The killer turned out to be not a local, but an American G.I., stationed in Melbourne.
"As soon as the American's discovered it was one of their own, they arrested him and organised a court-martial. It was rather controversial, as he had committed murder in Australia, which should have meant the Australian police arresting him, but the American forces insisted on handling it themselves and, interestingly, Canberra agreed to let them. They cooperated with the Australian law enforcement officials quite closely, unheard of today, and eventually, the American Military found him guilty and, again controversially, he was hanged in Melbourne at Pentridge Prison later that year."
In addition to her general research, McLean also discovered more about her family's connections to the Home Front work in Melbourne.
"A close family friend, Doris Carter, was a Wing Officer in the WAAAF towards the end of the War, which I knew. What I hadn't known was that she worked in Intelligence - deciphering the Japanese codes for MacArthur and the Allied Generals. Also, my Grandfather, Jim Woodlock (my mother's father), served as an Air Raid Warden in Melbourne, due to being unfit for active service, because of poor eyesight and a bad back. He was such an honourable man, and I'm sure it upset him greatly to not be able to serve as all his mates were. But he did what he could. I also lost a Great Uncle, Frank Dolphin (my mother's uncle) on the Kokoda Track in July of 1942 as a member of the 39th Battalion - so I found some close ties to that time of our history in my own family. I've tried to honour all three of these people in the play - along with every one else who served in one way or another."
'Till The Boys Come Home was presented as a workshop performance under the title PS I Love You, using McLean's acting students as the cast in July 2004 at Mt Martha House, Mt Martha (a property that was used by the American Marines as an R & R venue from 1942 to 1945). The two performances played to full houses and received warm and enthusiastic feedback from the audiences.
"I think the most gratifying aspect of those performances was the reaction from those who had actually been there during the time we were portraying - who had lived through May 1942." says McLean. "We had a lot of veterans come along to the show, as well as those who had served at home and had lived through the war as children. All of them said that it had brought back many memories of the time - some sad, some happy - and thanked me for exploring it on stage. I felt so humbled and touched and so grateful to all those I had interviewed and talked with, that I had managed to capture somewhat the mood and feeling of the time. All, without fail, asked if we were going to do the play again, so they could bring their friends and family and show them what life was like during that time."
After a hugely successful two seasons with their first web series, Shakespeare Republic, Incognita Enterprises is now in the process of also bringing 'Till The Boys Come Home to the small screen as their first fully original web series production.
Says McLean, "I am so delighted to have Billy Smedley and Christopher Kirby joining me in Producer roles - both of whom have been heavily involved in Shakespeare Republic. And truly thrilled to have Cinematographer, Shaun Herbertson and Sound Recordist and Editor, Tim McCormick return to work behind the lens with me on our fourth creative collaboration to date. Having such a strong team behind the work is a great comfort and I'm really looking forward to getting my teeth into this new venture!"
'Till The Boys Come Home is part of Incognita Enterprises' current crowdfunding campaign. If you'd like to support the creation of new Australian female-helmed screen work, you can find out how here: https://australianculturalfund.org.au/projects/shakespeare-republic-the-next-stage/