Centre stage in Lightning Ridge
A unique piece of outback theatre entertains visitors to NSW’S famous opal fields
A LARGE and lustrous black opal, shot through with streaks of red, yellow, green and blue, hangs from a simple chain around the neck of Gale Collins, the Black Queen of Lightning Ridge.
Aside from this stunning gem, she is clad all in black, with dark hair and eyes, but Gale’s smile is sunny as she welcomes our group of about 20 to the home she shares with her husband, Roger, on the opal fields that surround this small mining town in outback NSW, about 60km south of the Queensland border.
Roger, who has collected us from our various motels and camp sites in a courtesy bus, fades into the background as Gale takes centre stage, quite literally, for we are here for a unique theatrical performance, Legacy: The Gift of Light. And while the star oozes confidence, I sense the audience is a little nervous, for we really don’t know what to expect.
It is the start of an evening full of surprises and the first is that the Collinses’ home — three separate buildings on a mining lease about 3km from town — is constructed of 14,000 coloured bottles set into concrete.
Gale ushers us into the main cottage and I’m charmed by this tiny space, which is both home and theatre. There’s a small kitchen, a cosy living room with an open fire, and a bedroom, and all is neat and in its way remarkably stylish: it is no surprise to discover she was once a successful Sydney designer.
We listen mesmerised as Gale launches into the couple’s extraordinary story: of how they stumbled upon the cottage seven years ago while exploring the opal fields on a holiday; how they were invited inside by its feisty elderly owner, Joan Andrews, who was eager to sell; and how Gale realised, with absolute certainty, that this place had figured in her dreams since her teenage years in Wisconsin, US.
Gale makes us laugh, describing how she persuaded Roger to swap their city lifestyle for a bottle cottage on a Lightning Ridge backblock, and makes us cry when she describes her recent battle with life- threatening illness. And she sends shivers down our spines recounting the parallels between her life and that of Andrews, who in 1982, although desperately ill, built the house in an act of self-healing.
The audience decamps to an adjoining building for the show’s second act. Act three, with an abrupt change of mood, takes place in the museum of light, which houses the couple’s collection of antique lamps.
Thanks to Gale’s eloquence, the lamps, which span 4500 years, reveal not only their fascinating histories but their exquisite beauty. And, with darkness falling over the silent opal fields, she brings down the curtain on a performance that has received numerous tourism awards.
I spend the rest of the evening with Gale and Roger, savouring the delicious meal he has cooked while she has been entertaining us, and watching the firelight flicker on the bottles set into the walls. It’s strange and wonderful and I feel a long way from home.
Andrews told the couple that a magnificent opal lies beneath their home, and of this Gale is sure. The search is beginning, with old diggings on their lease about to be re-explored. Perhaps another chapter in the life of the legendary Black Queen is about to be written. Sue Milne was a guest of Destination NSW.
Gale Collins performs Legacy: The Gift of Light