Despite the fact that she’s one of our rare pioneering aviation heroes, I don’t really know much about Jean Batten. There are so many stories about her, but they often seem to reveal more about general attitudes toward women in her time, than shed light upon her personality. At The Basement this week, a one woman show by Flaxworks, starring Alex Ellis as Miss Batten, is here to re-frame the story of the incredible woman who flew herself, solo, from England to New Zealand in a tiny Percival Gull. Writer Phil Ormsby gives us the inside word.
Why tell this story? Why now?
A couple of years ago we were waiting in Auckland International Airport looking at her plane which hangs from the roof and wondering why someone who flew such a tiny plane such a long way isn’t more celebrated. She was so gutsy and smart but these days, although people have an idea about who she was, they’re not clear about exactly what she did (and often confuse her with Amelia Earhart). We’ve been talking about the idea of a play ever since, and as 2016 is the eightieth anniversary of her flight from England to New Zealand (Mangere) it seems the perfect time to revive her profile.
How did you go about writing the play?
There is a ton of information about what she did (books, docos, exhibitions and lots online) but not a lot of reliable stuff about her actual personality. There are plenty of conflicting opinions by people who knew her (but not always well), and some juicy gossip by people with an axe to grind, as well much speculation about her private life. We had some great insights from a woman we met who knew Jean in the 1970’s and also from a huge collection of newspaper clippings at MOTAT which projected this complex character who played the press beautifully to publicise her achievements but simultaneously maintained her privacy. So what we created in the script is a sort of compendium of bits we could glean from different places of a young, intelligent, driven, no-nonsense, quick witted character, pursuing her ambition against what would normally be considered impossible odds. She was a girl from Auckland in the 1930’s with no money or experience who decided she would learn to navigate, maintain and fly a plane with a normal range of 700 miles, all the way from England to New Zealand
What things have you learned in the process about Jean Batten that you didn’t know before?
Her absolute attention to detail – which makes sense when you think of it; she was risking her life every time she got in her plane. But that quite nerdy infatuation with aeronautics and navigation which she clearly had is at such odds with her glamorous public image. And her unflinching self belief. And her bravery; almost all her peers died in plane crashes.
How true to her character/life story is the play?
The events are true, the character is an invention, we don’t actually have Jean, but it’s a best-guess invention. (or at least a most interesting invention)
What do you hope the audience gets out of it?
I hope people are thrilled and inspired by Jean Batten. I hope they find her a revelation. I hope everyone dashes home and googles her and discovers all the things we haven’t or couldn’t put in the play and then runs downtown and takes a selfie of themselves on the corner of Jean Batten Place.
See Miss Jean Batten at The Basement until the 9th of April. GET TICKETS >>