The past few weeks have been an education for singer-turned-actor Christine Anu.
Performing in her second theatre production, Anu is only now getting over the feeling she's ''robbed'' a more experienced actor of an opportunity.
''You know, someone more experienced, better-spoken. But at the same time I'm learning so much from the amazingly gifted performers I get to work with every day.''
Anu is starring in a revival of Alana Valentine's documentary drama Parramatta Girls and says she is learning a great deal about one of the most troubling aspects of Sydney's past - the treatment of the estimated 25,000 girls and women who did time in the various incarnations of the Parramatta Girls Home.
''Before this I'd never heard much about Parramatta Girls Home. All the media stuff about the royal commission into what went on in places like that kind of eluded me somehow,'' Anu admits. ''But through the studying of it, I've been pretty much mortified.
''I didn't always have time to really process it during rehearsals and it would come out in these really vivid dreams. They were nightmares, really.''
Also known as the Industrial School for Girls, Girls Training School and Girls Training Home, Parramatta Girls Home ran from 1887 until 1974.
Today it stands as a bricks-and-mortar symbol of the emotional, sexual and physical abuse suffered by its inmates - girls committed to the institution as ''delinquent'', ''neglected'' or as juvenile offenders. A large proportion were state wards. Many were indigenous, taken from their families.
Often it didn't take much for a girl to end up a Parramatta girl, Valentine says. ''You could be charged with things like being 'exposed to moral danger' or doing anything a young girl wasn't supposed to do.''
Valentine interviewed 35 former residents of the home, collapsing their personalities and their stories into eight characters for what she describes as a ''massaged'' form of verbatim theatre.
''It's real voices and research put through the brain of a playwright,'' she says. ''I've shaped and edited personal testimonies into a drama, and I employ the tools and craft of a dramatist, but it's all absolutely real. The women themselves recognise those parts of their own experience in the story.''
The creation of composite characters also provided a layer of protection around her interviewees. ''There's difficult stuff in there. If one of the women is talking to you confidentially about having passed on the kinds of abuse she suffered to her own children … you don't necessarily want that to be identified with one person. Composite characters protect the intimacy and the privacy of their disclosures.''
Since the play's 2007 premiere at Belvoir, the federal government has issued an apology to the Forgotten Australians in 2009 in which then-prime minister Kevin Rudd asked forgiveness on behalf of the nation of more than 500,000 Australians who experienced exploitation or abuse in out-of-home care during the past century.
''There are times when you are proud to be a theatre-maker, and that was one of them,'' Valentine says. ''I don't for a second believe I'm responsible for more than a little chunk of work that helped create a sense of awareness, but I was so proud that day when the apology was delivered.''
Staging the play in Parramatta is important, she says, for the local community and for former inmates. ''This is a really big deal for them. Having the wider community listen to and accept and believe what happened to them is incredibly important.''
The play has been on the HSC syllabus since 2010, and that is a source of pride for the women whose stories are being passed on to younger generations.
''It's a delight for them to see young women take so much interest in their lives and their experiences,'' Valentine says. ''They used to feel they would never be believed and every time someone does, it's like a revelation.'' Parramatta Girls is not an easy night in the theatre, but it's not all doom and gloom either, she says. ''There is confronting stuff here. But you have these people on stage, right in front of you, showing how with community, with love and support we can rise above very destructive experiences.
''These women are fighting to be heard and working together all the time, and they're bloody funny. There is so much humour when you listen to these people. One minute you're crying your heart out, the next you're laughing your head off.''
Parramatta Girls plays at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, until May 17; $25 to $30, 8839 3399.