Vale Lesley Hall (Hall-Bentick)

22 / 11 / 2013

27 November 1954 – 19 October 2013

In this edition of First Person, with permission, we reproduce Patricia Cornelius’ tribute to her friend Lesley Hall (Hall-Bentick), a feminist and disability activist. Patricia provided this moving tribute to Lesley at her memorial service in Melbourne recently.

I knew of Lesley a long time before I met her. I had first seen her in the newspaper and later I had that same picture which someone smart had made into a poster on my wall. So for awhile she was a kind of a pin up for me. The picture of Lesley is famous now. It has been reprinted in books and is used in gender studies at universities and I’m sure it dons the walls of many people who love its audacity and power. It’s 1981 and Lesley and some mates have stormed the Miss Australia Quest – I think Lesley later told me that she and her friends actually strategically bought tickets but I still imagine it as them storming through the doors of the St Kilda Town Hall. Lesley definitely stormed the stage. She stands there right in the thick of it, flanked by madly grinning beauty contestants who are doing all they can to ignore her and probably all they can do to stop themselves from beating her up for having spoiled their day. She holds a placard in her hand: “Spastic Society oppresses women.” It makes good use of the SS reference.

It’s a fantastic picture. It made me laugh out loud when I first saw it because of how wonderfully and creatively defiant it was. It was the International Year of the Disabled Person. Historically, disability support had come under the auspices of charities which were a bone of contention to disability activists like Lesley who objected to the charity/institutional perspective of segregation, of being projected as objects of pity and of an odious emphasis on some kind of physical perfection. This radical protest was the first public act to place disability as a feminist issue on the agenda.

There is something else about this photo which makes it even more powerful to those who know Lesley. It captures the very heart of her. Her act is in your face, her poster is unequivocal, its statement is extreme and true. It’s daring and bold and challenging. She’s dangerous; because she’s not afraid to take on anything, she’s going to take on the world if she has to.

I first met Lesley when she joined Melbourne Workers Theatre to work in admin. When I heard of her appointment I was excited. I thought what a coup to have Lesley Hall work with the company. We were in our second year with a play under our belts which had been a huge success. Our backing from the unions and the work force at Jolimont Railways Depot where we had been given residency had given us some clout with the funding bodies. There was a bar-b-que to celebrate and to welcome Lesley. We were flush with pride and excitement for this new company that wanted to make theatre about and for the working class, to tell the stories that were rarely told. Years later, Lesley told me of her dismay that afternoon. She had sat in our company at the bar-b-que wondering what had she done, and how could she get out of this job with a whole lot of arty farty wankers.

Either we got less arty farty or she got a bit arty farty herself because luckily Lesley stayed. The company was already volatile. We fought about almost everything. We fought about class, about gender, about style, about content. We fought loudly and rudely. It was exhilarating – most of the time. Lesley soon participated in the fights, she loved a good fight, and even took them to new heights. Irine Vela, composer and musician with the company remembers thinking of herself as someone who was political and progressive and then meeting Lesley and feeling that Lesley opened up her mind, that she challenged her, that she had been no way as progressive as she thought. Lesley did that for most of us at MWT. She took us on, she called us to account, she questioned decisions, she broadened our understanding of oppression, encouraged a more inclusive perspective. Lesley played a vital role in the politics of the plays but also in the practical life of the company. We wanted to create more shows, to do more developments, to engage more actors. Lesley would inevitably say, with great authority, she’d find the money. And she did. She was daring with the funding and consequently there were more works created and the company grew in profile and reached greater audiences. Lesley worked with the company and was on the board from 1988 to 2002. She was there for Dusting Our Knees, The Aftermath, The Ballad of Lois Ryan, Nidjera, Black Cargo, No Fear, Last Drinks, Daily Grind, Deadlines, Great Day, Hard Times, Home of a Stranger, Oh My God I’m Black!, Up the Ladder, Road Movie, Little City, and more.

One night at the pub after some show Lesley, Irine and I were talking about sex, as you do, and we came up with a plan to create a work about women’s sexual fantasies. We knew it was most certainly going to be outside the MWT brief so we embarked on an independent production based on the Odyssey but from Penelope’s point of view. It was an all female cast; it was to evolve from research in the form of interviews with women from all kinds of cultural backgrounds. It became Opa! – a Sexual Odyssey. Lesley was both co-creator and producer. The research and the workshops leading up to production was pure joy for the three of us. Sex is all sorts of things for all people but what we discovered is that it’s also funny. We laughed a lot. We laughed at own fantasies and at others. The show went up in 1992, an exhilarating, vital and radical production about women and desire.

Lesley knew the power of the arts, how it can be transformative, that it can radicalise, that it can move people in profound ways. She was passionate about the representation of our multi-cultural community, of our indigenous community, about gender and disability. She had been the Chair of Arts Access. Veronica Pardo says, ‘Lesley was instrumental in driving an ambitious and transformative strategic agenda, to change the way the arts and cultural sector engages with people with a disability, as both practitioners and audience.’ Lesley was smart. She could smell out the mawkish, the patronising misuse of disabled people in community productions. She demanded better and more powerful representation of artists with disabilities. She was on the board of The Art of Difference and involved in presenting a gutsy and edgy and again, radical, festival of works performed by artists with disabilities. She worked for many years as arts and cultural officer with the City of Darebin. Mark Wilkinson, her ceo then, says that Lesley is responsible for a 2 day music festival being developed to it’s now 10 day music feast, that she played a vital role in the formation of Platform Youth Theatre, and she was the chief instigator behind the Darebin Writer’s Festival. She organised a group of Walpiri women to come to Melbourne and allowed us the privilege and experience of seeing them dance at the music festival.

But Lesley was also hands on. She was a fine editor. She did the first edit of my novel, she read scenes and full plays and gave me invaluable feedback. Usually I would’ve given her this speech to edit. She was making more and more time for her own writing. Her stories are published in Unusual Works, and she was in the process of writing her first novel. During her long service leave she would write in the morning and then set off for the State Library or to the Gay and Lesbian Archives to research. She was incredibly disciplined but not rigidly so. She allowed herself to be taken on wonderful and creative tangents and came home full of fabulous stories and information. I believe it would’ve been a magnificent novel. She had the craft, she had the story, and she was ready to write it, and having just resigned from AFDO, she had the time.

Lesley was fierce. She was fiercely independent. She had a fierce intelligence. She was fierce in defending her beliefs. In early days when she used sticks she could wield them with fierce accuracy. She was fiercely political. She was fiercely and unromantically working class. She was a fierce advocate for the rights of all disenfranchised people.

She was fierce.

And she could be fierce with her friends. She was strong willed, had strong opinions and asked something of you. She’d put you to the test sometimes because she needed to know that you were true, that you were in there for good. And the payoff was great because just as she was fierce, she was generous to a fault, she was big hearted, empathetic and would do anything for you. Lyndall Grimshaw, an old and dear friend of Les, says that Les made you a better person, that she was there in the hard times, that when the heartbreaking things that life sometimes throws your way can seem insurmountable, Les never turned away. If you were Les’ friend she loved you no matter what and was loyal to the end. Lesley’s love was huge. You only have to meet her mum, June to know where she learned to love that much.

On the Thursday night before Lesley’s heart first failed her she and Terri Soumilas, another dear friend of Lesley’s, met at one of her favourite haunts for dinner. They had a great night, Terri says. Lesley had seemed relaxed and happy, happier than she’d seen her for a long time. They made plans to travel together to Tuscany next year. At the end of their evening Terri watched Lesley drive off on her scooter at top speed and thought, my god, look at her go.

Lesley was a good friend to people with kids. When my son, Lucci, was little, Lesley would turn up often twice a week and bring a chook with her for dinner. I actually wonder now if she isn’t responsible for Lucci’s height. She came to keep me company, to have company and to read to Lucci. 10 years ago we bought a property in Thornbury together where Lesley built a second house. Her house is beautiful and a courtyard away from mine. We shared a yard between us, we shared a garden and shared its produce, we often ate together. Lucci took more than his fair share of Les’ foxtel and the basketball coverage.  We shared books, news, Eugenia Fragos’ mother’s oil. We had a good life, we had each other for company whenever we liked. I felt very loved by her. She loved Lucci dearly and they enjoyed a relaxed, lovely relationship. It has been a wonderful ten years.

In the first half of last year Lesley had a hip replacement. Before she could have the operation she had to fight to convince the team of doctors to allow it. They feared it would be life threatening. Lesley was adamant that this was a matter for her to decide. I was with her at an appointment with the top anaesthetist at St Vincents where yet again the risks were explained and their reluctance expressed. Finally Lesley leaned forward and told the doctor, that he did not know her. She said, “You have no idea how tough I am.” The operation went ahead. She was tough. I’d sometimes think, if I could just take a little bit of that, that amazing strength she had. She toughed out her hip replacement, she toughed out a further 2 operations, she toughed out a pernicious form of staph, and had been steadily regaining her mobility and strength. And she was pain free.

But Lesley had been saying she felt tired for awhile now. It was not like her to talk of how she felt physically. She rarely complained so I think she was really really tired. 

I hope Lesley wouldn’t mind me ending my speech in a kind of oratory style but I think the legacy she has left calls for it. Her legacy is an important one, I reckon, especially in these times. It’s a call to continue to fight, to storm the gates of the institutions, to attend the rallies, to lift our voices and our fists up high against what’s not right, to resist, to resist with all our might, to demand decency and equity and for all, a better life.

We will miss you terribly, Lesley. The world does not feel as good a place without you.