A unique new musical is coming to Canberra with the showing of The Hello Girls from local theatre company, Heart Strings Theatre Co. The musical is set in 1918, as the US Army is struggling on the World War I frontline. Drastic times call for drastic measures – and at this time, that meant hiring women!
I had the pleasure of speaking to Kaitlin Nihill, actress, and Ylaria Rogers, producer and actress, about the upcoming production. Although the show is about war, Rogers and Nihill said the production is anything but bleak. The performance is intended to embody hope and empowerment, with its lively soundtrack of “folk and pop earworms.”
Speaking of her first impressions of the show, Rogers said, “I read the synopsis and thought, ‘a piece about war, really?’, but it isn’t a piece about war! It’s a piece about women’s history, which was completely erased by men.”
The Hello Girls focuses on telling the piece of history (or more appropriately, her-story!) about five real women who struggled to be recognised for their contribution and achievements.
Nihill said the mere involvement of women in World War I was surprising to people. “I’ve spoken to so many people and everyone has said, ‘oh, but there weren’t any women in World War I’, but there were!”
When the US entered World War I, the speed of their military telephone communication in Europe was inadequate. Rogers and Nihill said the telephone connections made by the service women were much faster than the men. An inexperienced male military operator took six minutes to connect a call, whereas women recruited with telephonist experience could connect a call in one minute.
Despite their impressive performance, the contribution of these women went undervalued. When the war came to an end, they were not considered veterans, receiving no pension or financial compensation. Very minimal recognition was given, as the female telecommunications leader, Grace Banker, was awarded the Distinguished Service Medal. Amongst 16,000 members of the Signal Corps, 18 received this honour, but Banker was the only female recipient and the contributions of the women were largely neglected. Eventually, in 1975, 23 of the 273 who had served survived to be given formal recognition.
Unfortunately, this is not an isolated story. There is a history of non-existent or inadequate recognition for the service of those in marginalised groups. During our discussion, Rogers and Nihill mentioned the Australian War Memorial has only just erected their first female statue. The statue depicts Lieutenant Colonel Vivian Bullwinkel AO, in what the Australian War Memorial describes as “…the first of an individual nurse or woman.” Similar experiences have occurred for Indigenous Australians in their push to be recognised equally and appropriately.
Rogers has expressed marginalisation as a key theme of the show.
“Strong, funny and relevant, this piece feels like a call to arms to anyone who has ever felt left behind, forgotten, and unacknowledged for the part they play in this world. It shows that if we fight hard enough, we can change the course of history,” Rogers said.
The Hello Girls is the second musical from the Heart Strings Theatre Co, after their very successful production, Urinetown.
Rogers founded Heart Strings Theatre Co in 2021. It is a Canberra-based, semi-professional production company, with a focus on exciting contemporary productions and harnessing the creative talent in Canberra.
“Paid opportunities for professional performance artists in Canberra are few and far between. I founded Heart Strings to create a platform for professional artists to work together to create high quality theatre and create professional opportunities. I want to see artists paid a living wage for their time and work.
“One of the struggles has been how do we grow our industry in Canberra and support our young artists who are going off into an incredibly challenging industry to be part of,” said Rogers.
The Hello Girls is proudly supported by Canberra Theatre Centre through its New Works and Sector Development Program to support local artists and producers in the commissioning, creative development and presentation of live performances.
This exciting production is showing at The Playhouse, Canberra Theatre Centre from the 7th to 9th of September 2023.