Song Of The Twin Seekers

Song Of The Twin Seekers
Rosemary Sorensen | June 19, 2009
Article from: The Australian

BEING looked at is so much part of the experience of identical twins, according to Moyia O’Brien, that putting the story of her and her sister on to the stage is perfectly natural.

Moyia and Dorothy are the subject of a new musical theatre production, written and directed by Sue Rider. A “good local story”, Rider says, The Pink Twins is also a production that lets us look at the phenomenon of twinning, not just as the topic of the play but also literally. Two sets of twins will perform in the show starting in Brisbane next month: identical twin actors Anni and Maude Davey, and twin singer-musicians, Heather and Marjorie Michael.

It’s a situation that has composer John Rodgers salivating. He has long been fascinated by the way twins’ voices mimic and diverge from each other, and Rider’s Pink Twins has given him a rare opportunity to work that into his music.

“The notes start together, then veer out in a pattern,” is how Rider describes it. “It’s very bent, and that’s just what twins are like, a bit bent.”

Her twins, the O’Brien sisters, were eccentric in a genteel way, their nickname deriving from their obsession with the colour pink. But there is so much more to the slightly sweet and sanitised version which the women themselves put about and carefully exploited until Dorothy’s death in 2004.

It was precisely hearing the news of Dorothy’s death that galvanised Rider into action on her play. Aware of their story, and of the women themselves when they used to come occasionally to see plays at La Boite Theatre, where she was artistic director in the 1990s, Rider realised the jumping-off point for the play she had vaguely thought about writing for many years would now have to be the question: what happens to the twin left behind when the other dies?

“It’s about their life and work,” Rider says, “and the idea of interdependence, this same-but-different thing. Their story was like a continuing line of surprises, from their birth on, and they continue to do things to surprise.”

The O’Briens were born in Toowoomba and they have an older sister who still lives there. Their father died when they were three, as a consequence of being gassed in the trenches in World War I, according to the twins. The first surprise was their arrival, as the doctor had not detected two heartbeats, so only one baby was expected.

Their mother plays an enormous role, in the story as told by the twins and in Rider’s musical. As we move through their childhood years, when they would pinch flowers from gardens, horses from paddocks and even little boys from off the street to bring home and present to their loving mother – to make her as happy as they believed she deserved to be – we sense an intensity in their mother that is almost “bent” itself, to use the word in the way Rider uses it to describe twins. When a path is followed with such conviction and strength of purpose, it can seem, to a dawdling onlooker, to curve away from the simple and ordinary.

It was, in fact, the twins’ mother who brought them, quite late in their lives, to their guru, the controversial Indian spiritual leader, Sathya Sai Baba. That connection led to an ugly incident this year at the Sunshine Welfare and Remedial Association, which the twins set up in 1975. SWARA, the acronym by which the organisation has been known from the outset, is a place where intellectually disabled people, those deemed unfit by government agencies for rehabilitation into the workforce, are given “understanding, care and love”, with daily schedules of activities designed “for personal growth”.

According to the twins’ story as told to Rider, SWARA was set up a few years before their mother, still living in Toowoomba, asked them to accompany her to a film about Sathya Sai Baba. All three were smitten with the guru’s powerful presence and rhetoric. He embodied their beliefs about love as an invincible fount of happiness.

Swara is also the name of an Indian musical scale. Sai Baba’s group is one of those whose devotees wear sunshine colours, across the range from orange to red or pink. The sisters felt these coincidences were signs of the confluence of their work with that of their guru. But a previous manager of SWARA went public with claims that such signs were proof the Pink Twins were running a dangerous cult centre.

The storm, which included protests and finger-pointing aimed at uncovering the twins’ connection with their Indian guru, passed (Ref), Rider says, and SWARA is back to running as it has for more than 30 years.

Moyia was recognised last year by the Queensland State Government with a lifetime achievement award for her work in disability services (Ref). Being the focus of a television expose-style current affairs program appeared not to faze her: she told an interviewer at the time the suggestions were rubbish. “SWARA is not a cult, it’s a service organisation.”

Rider’s play picks up, and delicately handles this intensely personal but fascinating side to the twins’ experience, suggesting this was a kind of secret part of their lives. They chose not to share it because they must have known it could be misunderstood. In her 60s, Dorothy, the twin who had always been the blue one, ever since her parents dressed her thus to distinguish her from her pink sister Moyia, decided to swing across to the pink side. The decision may have been influenced by their increasing interest in the spirituality of Sathya Sai Baba.

Moyia, now 85, puts the story more simply. Wearing pink was simply something they liked to do. Towards the end of Dorothy’s life they became a kind of local oddity, admired but smiled at, the couple of elderly twins who dressed in pink, furnished their house in pink and drove about in a pink car.

“The pink thing marked them out,” Rider says. “They became aware of the advantage of it, when, as funds for their centre became scarce, they needed the promotion, and they were quite canny really, at playing the game, but in a different way from everyone else.”

When her final illness made it clear she was dying, Dorothy was taken to India by Moyia, to spend her last days near their guru. She was cremated and her ashes scattered in the Ganges. It would take a very different work of art to interrogate how this sits alongside the family’s strong Catholicism, and their “spiritual journey” which they also described in an autobiography, written in 1999, called The Touch of the Lord.

Rider says Moyia, who knows the theatre production is a fictional development of their lives, is “overwhelmed with excitement” about this project. Both women were pioneers in occupational therapy, moving to Sydney when they were young women to train in the first courses of a branch of medicine they could see would become important.

When they moved back to Brisbane Dorothy went to work at the Commonwealth Rehabilitation Centre, Moyia at a hospital and then at the Queensland Spastic Centre. Their determination to set up SWARA, how they managed first to secure, then gradually improve, the facilities, and how their city-edge premises became the subject of huge frustration and eventual compromise for a string of state governments, is all part of Rider’s storytelling in The Pink Twins.

But she uses the facts as the mere bones. Around the real lives, she has spun a weave of ideas and themes: about interdependence, about faith and transformation and, most excitingly, about “appreciating difference”.

Early on, Rider says, she had the thought, half-formed, that her music theatre piece would have to involve the people who attend SWARA.

“The people the twins worked with as occupational therapists were, like them, seen as different from the rest of the community, but at SWARA they were exploring what is the same about them or, on the other hand, getting them to appreciate their own different-ness.

As twins, Moyia and Dorothy were always stared at. They couldn’t not be the centre of attention, and a lot of the people they worked with are in the same position. So they learned to accept that, and to understand that’s who they are.”

Rider’s first thought was to use footage from SWARA, particularly of the group singing, which is a big part of their daily schedule, but eventually she realised they needed to become part of the show.

“There’s a really moving song they sing,” Rider says, “which is about how I love myself the way I am, there’s nothing I need to change. I realised it would be dishonest, in a play that is about embracing the work they do at SWARA, not to have the people from the centre there. It would be sanitising it.”

Getting The Pink Twins to stage has been an immense labour of love for Rider, who has had to be producer and director. The play is being presented by Queensland Performing Arts Centre as part of the Queensland Music Festival, which provided good foundation support, but Rider was still following up on various small grant applications right up to the last minute.

In keeping with the “spirit of transformation” theme which threads through the work, she headed into the rehearsal room this week with an open mind as to how her two sets of twins would transform the script she has worked so hard, over several years, to get to its final draft.

“A long time ago, when I started out as a director,” Rider says, “I thought I had to plan everything, to tell everyone exactly what to do. Thank God I’ve relaxed over the years. The collaborative meeting of minds in the rehearsal room is so exciting.”

The Pink Twins, presented by QPAC and the Queensland Music Festival, is at the Cremorne Theatre, QPAC, Brisbane, July 22 to August 1.

The Australian Reference

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