Flying solo as Jean Batten

Alex Ellis plays the role of glamorous aviatrix Jean Batten. Photo: Supplied
Alex Ellis plays the role of glamorous aviatrix Jean Batten. Photo: Supplied
Alex Ellis opens up about her Arts Festival Dunedin performance of Miss Jean Batten

Relying on her skill and wits, working alone without the safety net of other people, and feeling the exhilaration of flying solo could equally describe New Zealand actor Alex Ellis, and the woman who inspired her solo play about New Zealand's most famous aviator, Jean Batten.

"Working solo is terrifying but exhilarating," says Auckland-based Ellis of her play, Miss Jean Batten. "It's all on you and there's something wonderful and satisfying about achieving that. It can be incredibly scary, but amazing if it works."

In 1936, Jean Batten may have had a similar feeling, when, after years of headline-grabbing flights, she became the first aviator to make a direct flight from England to New Zealand.

Leaving Kent, England, on October 5 1936, Batten flew day and night, stopping only to refuel at numerous locations across Europe, the Middle East and Asia. She arrived in Darwin after five days and 21 hours.

Miss Jean Batten picks up the story in Sydney, as an exhausted Batten prepares for the final push to Auckland, receiving weather reports while fending off reporters and ignoring impassioned pleas to abandon the final leg amidst concerns for her safety.

For all the fame and her reputation for beauty and glamour, in her later life Jean Batten disappeared from the public gaze. It was this mystery that intrigued Ellis and Flaxworks Theatre Company partner, writer and producer Phil Ormsby.

"We went down the Google spiral, as you do, which revealed amazing stuff and we realised this was the perfect idea for a play to tell her life story," Ellis said.

Miss Jean Batten is the third solo show that Flaxworks has presented. An early play, Biscuit & Coffee, examined the mythical properties of coffee and one woman's obsession with finding the perfect bean.

"I had to drink six espressos in the course of the play."

The other solo show, which Ellis brought to Dunedin in 2011 as part of the Fringe Festival, was Drowning in Veronica Lake.

"Phil was looking at old movies, including one starring Veronica Lake, and went down the research road again, uncovering an amazing and terrifying story. She was a 1940s femme fatale who had that sharp Hollywood rise to fame followed by a massive fall from grace, long before Lindsay Lohan and so many others. She had a pushy Hollywood mother, three marriages and a decline into alcoholism."

A feature of Miss Jean Batten and Drowning in Veronica Lake is the importance of costume design.

"As Veronica Lake, I wear a spectacular dress which evokes a lake. It's about six metres in diameter and is anchored to the stage with me in the centre. It epitomises her glamour, as well as evoking a straitjacket and a woman isolated and alone.

"For Miss Jean Batten, the costume had to convey her super-star quality. She had a reputation for her beauty and glamour, so the costume needed to be gorgeous, but in certain lights, look like overalls and her flying suit. We were so lucky to be working with designer Elizabeth Whiting for both plays, who took the concepts and made them into something amazing."

Since Flaxworks was established in 2005, Ellis and Ormsby have enjoyed the freedom of being on the road with very portable productions.

"It's quite a shock to be travelling with a set for Miss Jean Batten, when previous plays have packed up into a bag."

Ellis always knew that she wanted to pursue acting, and rather than going to drama school, she opted to learn on the job.

"I figured that three years on the road was equivalent to drama school and by the end of that period, I would know whether it was going to work.

"Some might say that solo shows are a hard way to work. I love it. Theatre is a collaboration between cast and audience, so even while I am on stage alone, if the audience jumps in and comes with me, it feels like we are discovering things together."


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