conversation, interview, intimate portraits

on unconscious flirting, tongues, being a man, julian blanc and making out with your dog

The second instalment in my new series of intimate, anonymous conversations with people about their gender, beauty and sex. I’m going with something different for images for this one. Enjoy Leonard Da Vinci’s beautiful anatomy sketches. It makes a sort of sense to me.

gabearms

Beautiful, beautiful

- Describe where we are right now.

- We are sitting on a beautiful, beautiful South Yarra park bench. It’s covered in bird shit. We’re in a park. It is warm. And we’re under a tree though! Which is amazing! And there are people out in the sun for some reason. I don’t know what she’s doing but she’s got amazing fluoro shoes on and there’s a big burly guy walking past with tatts and water bottles. I think that’s where we are.

- What do you think it means to be beautiful?

- I think ‘beauty’ is kind of the wrong word. I think ‘confidence’ is the word, isn’t it? That’s what we see. You know, physically people are more beautiful when they’re confident. Mentally people are more beautiful when they’re confident. And I don’t mean that they need to be brash but there’s a sense of togetherness and them being their own person when they’re…. FUCK! This sounds like a load of tripe!

- That’s okay. We’re warming up.

- We certainly are. I feel like it’s… Fuck. Fuck. I’m just trying to sound intelligent and I’m not.

- That’s alright. Next question.

- Well what do you think then! Because you’ve definitely got an opinion!

- I don’t know what I think. Last year, when we were working on ‘yours the face’, which was about modelling, one rehearsal the director turned to me and asked, “well, when did you first know that you were beautiful?” And I was like “I… still don’t. What?”

When I was doing… that stuff, people were never going “oh, of course you model!” It was always that “whoa! You look so different in the photos!” It was always with surprise.

- Of course. I remember years ago one of the jocks I was in class with, they’re like “oh yeah-no, that’s her! Yeah-no, you should see her on facebook! These photos! She’s very different! Really, she’s a babe!” I don’t know if that’s a compliment or if that’s a backhand or what is that?

- I don’t know. I think it’s not just confidence in terms of what you put out there. If I haven’t done any exercise for a long time and then I go for one run… Well then I’m pretty sure I lose four kilos in that one eight minute run.

- Oh you did. You definitely did. You lost all that weight and – God! – that defined muscle! I didn’t know I had that!

I went rock climbing the other day and I got back afterwards and I’m like “check out these guns!” And there’s just nothing there.

gabedavinci-butts-cropped

Flirting

- How do you flirt?

- How do I flirt? Terribly. With a drink or two in my system aaaand a cigarette in my hand. Um… that seems to be a pretty good way for me.

- Does that work?

- Sometimes.

- How do other people flirt with you?

- I’m terrible at noticing when someone flirts with me! I’m really bad at picking up hints. Then if someone’s flirting with me, and I realise someone’s flirting with me, well then game over. I become a klutz and I turn into the dag that I am. The best flirting happens when you don’t know it’s happening.

- When someone afterwards is like, “you two were getting pretty cosy!”

- Yeah totally! And you go “Oh really!” and you have a think and then the next time you see that person? Rubbish again.

- One night during a festival, this guy… I think… I don’t know. I don’t know.

- Go on! Go on!

- I don’t know if you can call it flirting or some – I think it was! It was! We were standing there talking for ages and my friend afterwards was like “so clearly you went home with that guy” and I go “no! Nothing happened so I walked away eventually.” And she was like “Nothing happened? You guys – that was like – you were like – all the signals were there!” And I’m like “were they? I mean he didn’t – he wasn’t attached to my face so…”

- That’s what flirting is, right? When you’re making out. When you’re actually in the act of doing it, that’s flirting.

- When you’re tongue is against theirs, that’s when I know! That’s a good signal!

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Girls and boys

- When did you first start becoming interested in girls? Do you remember a moment where you were like “that’s a girl: I want some of that.”

- “Now I’m ready! I want to be in and around you.” Ummm… I was a late bloomer I guess. I don’t think I realised what girls were until much later. Having sisters meant that they were just people and now we grow up in a world where we’re not just people. We’re men and we’re women. We’re blokes and we’re chicks. And that’s pretty instilled into the way we are.

But I don’t know if I learnt that until well after high school. I – I never went out with anyone. I never kissed anyone until my last year of high school! Sixteen, seventeen… Seventeen! And then I don’t even know if kissing them was a thing I was interested in.

Then you go through a thing where you go, “Oh, you’re a slightly effeminate, emotional male, you’re clearly gay!” So I allowed myself to think of that. That didn’t work.

- Did you try?

- I kissed a few guys. But it never went any further than that. And you know what? I think everybody would agree with this: kissing is awesome! Doesn’t fuckin matter who! I’m pretty sure makin out with your dog would be pretty awesome in its own respect. Just getting those canine teeth and just wrapping your lips around them! Brilliant!

- Eww!

- But there’s a big difference between that and taking it further and whether you’d want to be emotionally connected to this person, physically…

So… I don’t think I ever really was interested in girls as such until I fell in love with one. And then that changed it. Immediately it was like “that’s right! They – they are different and, God, they are different in ways that I want and I want to be involved in and I want them to be different and I love that they’re different. I love that they’ve got different body shapes and that the way they think is different. I love being… being the man in a relationship and feeling like I’m taking care of someone! And then – you know – the role reversal and letting them take care of you. Having someone that you can emotionally connect with! Again, being the emotional human being that I am, that’s where my intelligence is: I don’t know maths or science but I can connect pretty well and I understand thought processes and stuff so to have a woman as your partner? Oh man! That’s so good!

So yeah. It wasn’t until I fell in love – Like I mean actually in love. And now I regret that entirely. I just wish I hadn’t of. I wish I was oblivious to it still. It would be much easier if we didn’t fall in love.

Festival

- What does it feel like – because I’ve seen you at festivals when you become a total object of desire – and it is partly because you are gorgeous –

- Heeeey!

- And it is partly also because… because of that festival atmosphere and that position that you are in. What does that feel like when you’re in that mode and you’re so attractive to women? How does that feel?

- I just feel like how I should feel. If that makes sense. That’s the most natural. Again, I don’t recognise it when women see me that way but I just have a – my vocabulary increases ten-fold! The things that I’m usually terrible at, like small talk and – I hate small talk by its very nature! It is small! – yet when I’m in the festival world it’s like it expands and all of a sudden small talk is actually really profound and great and funny and all of a sudden I’m funny! My God! I’m the least funny person I know! I hate it that women always say on dating websites and in movies “what do you look for in a… “ “A guy with a sense of humour!” It’s like, “well there goes me! I’m out! I’m totally gone!” And yet in the environment of the festivals and I’m running from venue to venue and making shows happen and surrounded by art and people –

- Gorgeous people –

- Gorgeous people! I become one of them. It’s pretty much that. That’s why I’ve kept on doing festivals although there is no career in it long-term. I don’t feel beautiful onstage. I don’t feel beautiful in the rehearsal room. I feel nervous and I feel like I’m being judged and that I’m judging. But then when I’m doing festivals which is entirely practical – I’m surrounded by arts but I’m just a facilitator – that’s fuckin beauty.

Chain-smoke and that becomes part of it.

Wear a vest and that becomes part of it.

I have a sense of identity –

I don’t wear suit jackets in my everyday life and I do there and it makes me feel (puts on a growly voice) like a man. (Laughs.)

gabeskull

Difference

- What do you think the differences are between men and women?

- I don’t think we have enough time to talk about the differences. They’re huge! And then every relationship is different and every man and woman is different but… Oh God! It’s so stupidly diverse!

I want it to be – I want it to be like Julian says. I want it to be as simple as that. Not that I want it to –

- That there is a formula?

- Yeah! But there isn’t one!

- Do you want that?

- I think inherently we all do, to some extent. A plus B equals C. It’s that easy. In their minds. And this is what he’s trying to teach these young lads that are inherently alone and struggling with their masculinity and being a boy.

Society is a real mix bag these days of partially trying to teach guys to embrace their emotional side, neglect your masculine side and then the media tells us it is all about being masculine. And they have no idea! They don’t have any support. There are no networks for them. There’s no avenue. We don’t teach each other like we used to. Like the Indigenous people, they would have men’s group and they’d go out hunting. That’s fucking great! Let’s do that again!

So here’s a guy who comes in and professes to do what they used to do, professes that he has the knowledge… Fuck me! I wish he was right and I don’t think it’s wrong for these young lads to hope that.

- What should we be teaching them?

- A skill that I am yet to have, which is a sense of ‘comfortability’ within oneself. I think guys should be taught how to be men so they can learn how to be human.

I regret that I didn’t have a male role model. I regret that. I feel sad that I didn’t have a guy who would take me out fishing and go… wrestling. That stuff is really important. Because you go, you take it out and then you’re able to be part of every other day. You’re able to be with women and just be fucking human.

I think we’re taught to be human first and then anything else after that. I think the fear with that is…

Did you ever watch Community? 

- Yes.

- You know the ‘Human Being’?

- Yes.

- That’s what we’re taught to be. That’s really wrong. That seems so wrong to me because we’re only going to get lost because we’re not that and yet we’re told that’s what we’re supposed to be. Then we get angry and annoyed and then that’s when we seek out people like Julian because this isn’t working.

- This isn’t working and this guy has a formula that says, “this is what it is to be a man, this is what it is to be woman and this is how these two things come together.”

- Again, I say all of this from a male perspective –

- From a heterosexual male –

- A heterosexual male perspective. And everything I say, again I cannot over-emphasis how fucking diverse everything is.

What about you?

- What about me in terms of Julian’s thing?

- Because when I said, “I would love a formula but I don’t believe there is one,” you kind of – you reeled. Because… you don’t believe in formulas?

- I don’t know. I – I don’t think I do. But I see why we want it. I think in a lot of ways it is actually easier to be female then male at the moment. And in a lot of ways it’s not. Like walking down the street yesterday and having a guy lurch towards me jerking his hand like he was masturbating. That’s not easy. That’s horrible. But I think perhaps it is easier to be comfortable in myself, in some ways.

- To be by one’s self. Within one’s self and female.

- I think at the moment we might have more complex ideas of what a woman can be than what a man can be. We do have a bit more multifaceted understanding of femininity. But I’m sure I say that as someone that is quite stereotypically feminine. I’m not remotely butch and I’m sure if I had been as a teenager than I would have a very different understanding of what “femininity” meant and what it means to be shut out of that club. But I think masculinity, the doors are… heavily bolted and the bouncers enforce the code with vehement paranoia.

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conversation, intimate portraits

on flirting, mirrors, sex, tummies and being really, really ridiculously good looking

I am fascinated by conversation. Two weeks ago I decided to start a new project where I record and transcribe conversations that aren’t about theatre (for once). Rather, they are anonymous conversations about gender, beauty, sex and sexuality. This is the first one. Enjoy. 

selfear

Flirting

- Describe where we are.

- We’re in your bedroom. I’m trying to lie down without putting my feet on the bedspread so I’m going to take off my shoes so I’m using my abdominal muscles less. We’re on your bed in your apartment. The curtains are closed. The bed is covered in clothes.

- I put some things away yesterday. So. Um… how do you flirt?

- I don’t know! I think this was the thing I just missed the class on. I was so busy at high school being good at school and doing extra-curricular activities and – and I just never –

People I know figured out how to talk to boys and I just didn’t. I was friends with some boys but we just did things like talk about Vivaldi and be in musicals together and awkwardly lust after each other but not be able to do anything about it.

There was a boy that went – That was in a high school near me and we sort of – Would sort of flirt at each other awkwardly on MSN and then I remember he drove me home from a party or something. He walked me to my door, hugged me and then left and then later sent me a message saying “Why didn’t we kiss?’ And I said “Well because you – When you want to kiss somebody you kind of have to hug them for longer than one second. You’ve gotta kinda hold on for a bit.” And he was like “Ahhh. Yeah. Right. Yeah.” And then we just never – nothing ever happened. He dated one of my friends and then – and I’ve never got better at that!

I got to uni and I was just like “What are these things with penises?” I don’t know! I just… Every time I’ve ended up hooking up with somebody or dating somebody or anything it’s been because I’ve just been really awkward and then somebody’s kissed me. And usually it’s like “How did this happen? Why am I naked? You’re touching my boobs! What?” Yeah.

- How do you think you’re meant to flirt? Do you have a conceptual idea of what’s meant to happen?

- I feel like you are meant to sort of hold eye contact with people and smile at them in a sort of sexy way. You’re meant to be a little bit mean to them but not too mean.

- I think you’re meant to touch them like –

- Oh yeah, yeah! Apparently if you touch people… Yeah.

- Just like “Oh you’re so funny that I’m touching your thigh.”

- Yeah. And I – And I think I’ve experienced that as a person being flirted at where someone’s touched me and I’ve been like “Oh! Yeah, that’s nice! Being touched by people’s pretty good, hey!” Yeah.

The Mirror

- The days when you look in the mirror and you think “Yeah! I’m smashing it today!” Can you articulate – Like, at the time are you aware of the things that are working? What makes you feel more attractive than other days?

- Some part of me is pretty sure it is just the light.

- Oh totally!

- Like I’ll do my makeup and be like “YES!” And then I’ll move to another mirror and be like “NO!” And I’m just like, “is my entire self-worth entirely lighting?”

- I think this often. When I’m putting on makeup in my room, I don’t have lights anywhere near my mirror so I use a light sort of reflected into the mirror and it’s always really unflattering and I’m always like “Goddamn it! What am I doing?” Then if I move into natural light or just top lighting I’m like “Aw yeah! Look at ma chin! Look at my jawline!”

- There’s a time of the day when I just shouldn’t go into the bathroom because the light -

- What time is it?

- It’s – it’s like late-ish afternoon. I’ve just recently figured this out! Don’t do that! Because the light just shines through at such a way that it makes me just appear immensely hairy.

Both laugh.

- That’s brilliant.

I think sometimes um, like if I’m side lit it just makes me really aware of having hair on my face which I’ve never – It’s not a thing I think about! And I often think about this about movie stars because they have to be lit in all sorts of ways and I wonder if they just – What’s it called? De – delip – delipadating – dilapidating – dilapidated – epilating?

- D – d –

- It definitely starts with ‘d’. You can buy de- delapitory?

- Delapitory? Yeah. Yeah. (Guys, it is totally depilatory. That went on far too long.)

- Whatever! But no I wonder if they have to – like – wax their whole faces all the time! Or they put creams on them to – like –

When I was young I went through a period of shaving my (inverted commas) ‘sideburns’. Like, that area in front of my ear where hair grew. Cos I just – was like “Uh! I don’t think there’s meant to be hair there cos that’s kinda my face” and I’d shave it and it would get all stubbly and someone once asked me if I shaved it – a girl at school – and I was like “NO! Of course I don’t!” Well yes, I do. But I wouldn’t tell anyone about it. Yeah.

It’s a funny thing.

selfempty

Being really, really good looking and skin

- What does it mean, do you think, to be really attractive?

- I don’t want to be one of those people who are like “Uh! I’m so unattractive!” but, you know, I’m not – I’m not conventionally – No one would ever look at me and be like “What a beautiful person that is!” But for people who are quote-unquote ‘conventionally attractive’ – The sort of people that my brother dates! These women! They just look like they model for – like – Ripcurl! They’re just exactly what you’d expect an early-twenties boy to like. They’ve got long hair. They’re tiny! They’re always tall and have these legs that go on forever and boobs but not huge boobs and no hips to speak of and they just flounce about wearing anklets and tiny shorts and yeah. I wonder what it would be like, being the sort of person who would walk down the street and have people look at you and know that what they were thinking was “that person’s attractive.” Not even in the way that women experience people being like “You’re a woman, therefore I have the right to comment on your body” but just someone being like “Wow! What a babe.”

This guy I know has a blog and he talks on the blog sometimes about “I locked eyes with this girl at Uni today, had a bit of a perv, knew it was mutual.” And just him knowing that I find so fascinating. I’ve never known – Never known that someone was looking at me and thinking I was a babe. Even when someone is like sitting on me and saying, “I think you’re a babe” I’m like “Ahh, they probably don’t though.”

That knowledge! I wonder if that would fuck you up a bit! I think those beautiful people must find it really hard to age. To stop being that person.

- I – See – I was so unattractive as a teenager. Just – so unattractive.

- You discovered eyebrows and I feel like that’s really changed your life.

- It really – It really did. I think it must be a very different experience being someone growing up knowing they were beautiful.

- I think you’d be so self-conscious. When you looked in the mirror as a teenager, did you look in the mirror and think “Oh my God! I’m so unattractive” or did you just go like, “Oh yeah, that’s my face”?

- I don’t think I ever saw my face. For a decade I only ever looked in the mirror to look at how my skin was doing that day. I never took in the entirety of my face. It was always, “where are they today?”

Both laugh.

- Yeah, I remember that!

- I don’t think I pieced together my face as a whole. I remember after our school formal we were looking through the photos and there was a photo that literally had half of my face in profile just peaking into the edge of the frame. One of my friends was like “Whose that? Oh it’s you! You’ve got a really nice shaped nose!” And she was surprised and I was surprised and I feel like I wasn’t the only one that never looked at my face as a whole. I… And maybe this is totally incorrect because of course I can’t know what other people were thinking and seeing but I – my self-image was so caught up in my skin that I feel that no one else ever looked past that either.

And my skin wasn’t even as bad as I’m sure I’m making it sound! Like, my face wasn’t out of shape or disfigured!

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Ageing and sex

- How do you feel about ageing? And I don’t so much mean like eighty-year-old ageing. I mean like getting to the point where you’re like forty-five and being like “Whoa. Got a lot of wrinkles.”

- It’s this funny contrasting thing because my profession has such a long internship and I can’t fucking wait to be old enough for people to trust me to know what I’m doing. And that’s such a big thing. When I think of being forty-five my first thought isn’t “my skin will be worse”. My first thought is “I will know so much more than I know now and people might pay me for that knowledge.”

- Not a bad pay off, is it?

- It’s a fucking amazing thought.

- I sometimes think about my body post-having a child. In my mind, I don’t imagine getting married and having a child and being with that person forever. I imagine more “Oh sorry. We’ve been sleeping together for four months and now I’m pregnant. And ah – ”

- “Thanks for the sperm, see ya.”

- “Thanks.” And so I – I always think that I will be dating after I’ve had a child. And I sometimes think about that moment when I get undressed for the first time in front of someone that’s not seen me naked before. And I don’t think of it with horror. I think about it with – Will I at that point when I take my clothes off my post-baby body, go “God the me of the past was an idiot for undressing with the lights off!” Will I go “Why didn’t I celebrate this body?”

- I find the whole nudity-sexual partner-discomfort thing interesting because I’ve had a lot of conversations with people where they are just like “I just can’t. I don’t like the idea of someone seeing me naked because I don’t like my body and I get really self-conscious during sex to the point where sometimes I don’t want to have sex because they’ll have to see me naked.” I’m not slender and there’s a lot about my body where I go “God! I wish it wasn’t like that!” But I kind of hit a point in my life where I’d had sex with a bunch of people when I was heavier than I am now and no one complained about that.

I think we do this weird thing where we think that people don’t know what our bodies look like because we can’t see them from all angles all the time and so we sort of go “Oh my God! They’ll know this about my body.” They kind of – They probably know already! And they still want to have sex with you.

- See I know this too! I know intellectually that there’s – I’ve thought back on and gone “did I judge that person’s body while I was… on it?” No! I just did the sex!

- I remember the first time I slept with someone who wasn’t a tiny, skinny, wizened man because they were an artist and they didn’t eat enough because hey, my life. I slept with someone who had a bit of a belly and I remember giving them head and looking up and being like “Whoa! There’s a stomach in the way of the trajectory of where my eyes usually go” but I wasn’t like “aw gross” I was like “That’s fun!”

I remember I tried on a top once and I was like “I don’t like this because it hugs my figure and makes me look heavy. The guy I was with was like “I really liked that on you because it made you look curvy.” And I was like “What? That could be a good thing?” I felt so stupid! That had never really occurred to me that someone could be like “Fuck yeah! I love that!” instead of being like “I’d love it if there were a bit less of that.” Which is so… Oh my God! Way to take the media into my own brain but I –

But despite all that, when I’m having sex with a person, I don’t think I’m ever like “We can’t do this position because then you’ll see my stomach.” I’m usually too busy being like “Hey! Touching naked people!” and celebrating that! I’m proud of that fact. I’m really pleased that is part of my thought process. I’d really hate to be in the position of being frightened of someone else seeing my body. When I’m in the process of getting undressed I’m sometimes a bit like “Uh! It’s happening!” But once I’m naked it’s like “Well, they can see me and they’ve got an erection so it’s going to be fine!” It’s not like they’re making apologies or backing towards the door because I have a stomach and there are some stretch marks in my life. I feel like I’m glad that I’ve hit that point where I’m like “You are fine with seeing me naked and you still want to put your penis in places. That’s great. Let’s just roll with that.”

Thank you to the other talker. The photos in this post are all old self-portraits of mine. I decided that, as this was a very different thing, I should illustrate it differently, so I’ve given Sarah Walker’s archives a break for one week. Apologies for the nudity. 

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conversation, interview, My own plays, Theatre

danny delahunty in conversation: on casting, balance and sharp elements

Danny Delahunty is one of my most beloved and trusted collaborators. He is co-artistic director of Attic Erratic, an outstanding director and producer and he owns too many pairs of shoes. He is also exceptionally good at casting. One night last week we sat down in a park to talk.

Ingredients: A clear night, trams, horses wearing feathers, random tourists and two slightly tipsy theatre makers.

Photos by Sarah Walker

All photos by Sarah Walker, as usual

Fleur: Now we’re going to try and talk about casting in a way that doesn’t name names or make us feel uncomfortable. So you cast for TV and adverts as your job but this is a separate thing. This is casting for your own theatre. How are these two roles different?

Danny: When you are casting for screen (and what I do for screen is TV commercials, that is 95% of my job) you’re casting essentially for a look and a moment. As a casting director, you are trying to get the actor to hit that single three to five second moment absolutely perfectly. And it has to ring exactly as it does in the director and the producer’s head. If you get that then it is done. When you are casting for a theatre show, you’re looking for a sustained effort over many minutes if not hours of performance. It is a very different set of skills and outcomes.

Especially with TVCs it is such a quick turn around: within a few days of auditions you cast and within a couple of days of that they’re shooting. So you are casting a finished product. With a theatre show you are casting the prospect; what could grow into the finished product. You want someone who has the perfect mixture of styles and skills that can grow into what you need.

Fleur: Do you have an image in your head when you’re casting theatre?

Danny: Always. Always. With the exception of casting for a devised piece where you are just looking for the right brains to work on a project. When you’ve got a script – something with fully fledged life already in it, which is what a good writer should hand you over – you should get a feel for who these people already are. They’re not just words on a page. They are characters. The thing that I love when I’m casting is that person who completely changes my idea. They need to fit into my concept but if they are exactly what I want, then it is going to be boring because they’re not going to be challenging my own artistic idea. The actor brings a lot of themselves into the role. They need to be 80% what I expect and 20% completely left of centre and something I would never have thought of myself.

Fleur: Have you had someone who has been 80% not what you were expecting and only 20% what you were expecting? Has that kind of ratio ever worked?

Danny: Yes! Sometimes it does work like that! They’ve got a tiny little element of what you’re thinking this character should be and everything else is completely different. On occasion you go ‘that’s the right person for the role’ and then you completely re-orientate every other character that you’re looking for in order to balance them out. The more change they bring, the more you have to adapt the other people that you want to cast. Every actor has to balance out the other actors on stage. If you get someone who is completely changing your concept then the others should probably be changing as well.

From Sarah's CLUTCH photo series

From Sarah’s CLUTCH photo series

Fleur: You talked about balance quite a bit when you were casting The City They Burned. You were talking about the actors in terms of ‘cool’ and ‘warm’. Can you explain a bit about playing with that balance?

Danny: I can try! When I think about directing a piece it’s not all about narrative or storytelling. So much of it is about feeling the rhythm and the pace of a piece and the innate elements of a person – not even the actor! The person behind the actor – the things that make up their personality that they can’t change, hide or alter. So much of that is going to show in the finished product. An amazing actor can have their three-plus years of drama school and another five or ten years of performance experience but perhaps there is something in their core personality that doesn’t fit in with that particular role or doesn’t balance out with the other actors. If you have all the actors on the stage and they have a very similar feel to them then you are going to end up with a block as opposed to a lot of contrast. Sometimes you want that and sometimes you don’t.

When I was talking about that with The City They Burned, I was specifically looking for actors that would contrast each other. It was a play that was a lot about tension and control and you needed to have differences in the room in order to establish sharp elements. There was a jagged feel to that piece. If everyone involved were a little bit warmer or a little bit cooler, that jagged, sharp tension would have been a little bit more contrived.

Fleur: Okay. So suddenly you’re standing here with a megaphone in front of all the actors in Melbourne. What do you most want them to be bringing into an audition? Regardless of the project, what do you hope to see?

Danny: So they’re all arrayed before me?

Fleur: Yes, they are.

Danny: And I’ve got a megaphone?

Fleur: Yes. The horses, the cars, the trams and all the actors of Melbourne.

Danny: Oh hey! I’d say come in as prepared as you possibly can and be prepared to throw that out the window the second you step through the door. Having an actor come in unprepared is so obvious and so frustrating. You know that they are wasting your time because if they can’t prepare for an audition you can’t expect them to prepare for a rehearsal, let alone a performance. It’s like a job interview: if you can’t step up at that part of the process there is no trust that they will ever be able to do it. Unless you’ve worked with them before, you just have to go ‘they probably won’t be able to get to a rehearsal or make it all the way through to opening night.’

But at the same time, you want to be able to play with them as much as you can in that audition room. You want to see how they react to your direction. If they can throw out everything they’ve prepared when you say ‘okay, that was great. Now do it this way’ then it shows that they’re easy to work with. That’s all you need to bring: proof that you can prepare and proof that you can play.

From Sarah Walker's photo series, CLUTCH

From Sarah photo series, CLUTCH

Fleur: There were two things that I really learnt from The City They Burned casting. One was that we’re so aware of whether or not the actor is tuned in to what they’re auditioning for. Come in and show that you get what a new work is and what contemporary Australian writing feels like!

Danny: Yes. Don’t bring in a classic monologue for a contemporary work because it just shows a misunderstanding of the work itself or that you have such a narrow repertoire that all you have to rely on is this piece of Shakespeare. Again, it comes down to preparation. Come on! Give yourself a few hours at least to work on something contemporary! And we didn’t say ‘bring a contemporary monologue’. We said ‘bring a piece of your choice’ but if it is a contemporary performance piece, you should bring something that rings true to that.

Fleur: The other thing from The City They Burned auditions – and this was perhaps quite specific to that show – was that we wanted to find a group who would look after each other. Everyone we cast was someone who walked in and made the room feel easy. It was clear that they would work as a group and would bring so much joy, love and support to the process.

Danny: Absolutely! Part of that was the content of the play. We needed to make sure that it was a safe space because there were the elements of sexual violence within the piece and then just – bloody hell! – we had a four-month period in front of us! We had one month of creative development, two-and-a-bit-months of rehearsal and THEN a month solid of performing. It had to be the right group of people who had perseverance, the right constitution and –

Fleur: Weren’t cunts.

Danny: And weren’t cunts. When it comes down to it. (To invisible assembled actors) Hear that?

Fleur: Don’t be cunts.

Mind you I was talking to Bridget Mackey the other day about my new script, Blessed and I said “it feels like, who you want for this role is someone you fear is going to drop out halfway through the process. Someone you just spend your whole time going ‘will they to make it to stage?’” That’s totally not a realistic way to cast but in my head there is something of that.

Danny: You need someone who can feel like that but isn’t that. The rookie mistake in casting is to cast a boring actor to play a boring person. Hell no! You have to cast an interesting person to play a boring person.

Fleur: Any parting words to our assembled actors?

Danny: I’d say to all these actors gathered around my megaphone –

Fleur: Hi guys. You’re all very pretty. It’s a bit intimidating.

Danny: I have so many actor friends out there who think they nail an audition and then don’t get the part. The fact of the matter is you probably did nail the audition. It’s not in your head. You probably did freakin amazingly. Everything I’ve ever cast has come down to the person next to you, not you. You may have been one of the two or three or four people I’m considering for that role. You getting it or not has nothing to do with what you did in the room. It is entirely about who happens to be cast as your brother or your boss or your daughter. It all works in tandem. Nothing is isolated. You can’t be cast as a silo; you’re going to be cast as an entire farm.

Fleur: Love a silo analogy.

Danny: Yeah. Let’s end on the farm. dannyflying Massive thank you to Sarah Walker who first suggested that I record Danny’s thoughts on this. Her years of documenting Danny’s life (they are housemates) also meant that I had the most entertaining time choosing photos for this post. Considering what was available to me, I think I was actually quite restrained. 

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Dramaturgical Analysis, Responses, Theatre

the note on my arm read: applause is the ogre of poetry/smasher of phrase and disruptor of metaphor/fuck you*

The secret police are knocking on Shostakovich’s door. Those three sharp, dissonant chords ring through the State theatre and jolt me to the core. ‘All is not well. Never relax. Never let your guard down. They will come for you, Dmitri, as they came for your friends.’ On stage, a man picks up an inanimate body and, with difficulty, drapes it across his shoulders. The prone woman, limbs askew, presses him towards the ground. He gathers a second body. His knees shudder. He gathers a third. His whole being is shaking now. Brittle, broken limbs emerge from every angle. His burden outweighs him. The dead pile up. The police knock again – those heart-stopping chords. And the audience applauds, congratulating the performer on his physical strength.

opuscarry

Listen: I feel that in writing about OPUS I am hovering dangerously close to a ‘stupid audience didn’t get it’ post and my respect for audiences is something that drives both my theatre and writing. I don’t want to write that they didn’t get it because I think that they did. Any ‘getting’ is valid. You don’t have to know how many of Shostakovich’s friends were disappeared during the Stalinist purges. You don’t have to know how he lived in fear for years and how brave he was to continue writing his music, music that said again and again ‘all is not well. Something is rotten here.’ You don’t have to know this to feel for the twisted, juddering bodies onstage and to feel hear the urgent desperation in his music.

I think the incongruity I found between audience response and my own was because OPUS is more than a mix of genres: it is a mix of learned etiquettes: circus and classical music. I could feel Circa fighting against this. Their choreography deliberately distances itself from the ‘Ta-Daa’ moment, which is such a traditional part of the performer-audience interaction in circus. One image flowed into the next, working with the movements of the music. They endeavoured to create something that we process as complete entity, rather than a series of separate moments punctuated by our hands. Yet still, this is how it was punctuated.

opus all

A woman rises out of a sea of bodies. Rather than strike that ‘Ta-Daa’ pose, her arms claw at the air, as if she struggles against not only gravity but the inevitability of sinking back into the mass of people below. And applause. And that is fine. I keep telling myself that is fine…

But lay this image on the music of an incredibly brave political composer, who grieved through his music – grieved when it was still dangerous to do so – and I wonder if applause is adequate. Shostakovich survived the Stalinist purges and World War II. He survived and he wrote his 8th String Quartet in 1960 in the still-rubble strewn Dresden, dedicating the work to “victims of fascism and war”. The feared nighttime knocking still haunted him and those three sharp chords intrude again and again.

… And “Bravo!” yells a man somewhere to my left.

circa and debussy string quartet opus

Is it that I am more trained in classical music than in circus? Is this why I am preferencing my own polite, well-trained music audience response over that of the height-equals-applause audience? In doing this, am trying to strip circus of its very circus-ness. Isn’t recognising and rejoicing in human possibility the very essence of this art? Certainly Circa retain spectacle and those dangerous, breath-catching moments. It was some of the most stunning circus I have ever seen and the Debussy String Quartet made me tear up multiple times. I just wonder whether audiences’ expectations and learnt behaviours are going to hold circus back from becoming a medium that transcends shock and awe. Circus-makers are ready to transcend it: Circa’s Artistic Director, Yaron Lifschitz said in the program “I want (our work) to exist beyond words – an actual, powerful, seismic theatrical event that moves you, without you being able to say why.” The medium has become one of complexity, maturity and depth. But I feel there is still an echo of the crowd pressing into the freak show tent, unaware that the bearded lady is singing. What they are seeing has closed their ears to the possibility of beauty.

The ‘knocking’ starts at 12’36 in this recording. But listen at least from 6 minutes at because 6’18 begins one of the most heart-stopping motifs in 20th Century music.  

All production photos are by Justin Nicholas. 

*Drunk Fleur got melodramatic with her note-taking.

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audience conversations, audiences, Politics, Theatre

in conversation: on richard ii, julia gillard, sexualised language and why we are so a-political

RICHARD II made me incredibly proud. I was proud that this work was being made in Melbourne, being made by an independent company, MKA, and being supported by programs like Speak Easy. Most of all I was so very proud that Olivia Monticciolo and Mark Wilson just won’t shut up. I was proud that they grabbed Shakespeare’s text with their teeth and dragged it into our ugly present. This is independent theatre at its best: vicious, dangerous, entertaining, hilarious and completely of this moment in time. Not to mention that both performers are incredibly addictive. You just want to see more. 

RICHARD II surprised, delighted and angered me at every turn. I think the quality of the dialogue that emerged from it shows just how hard these theatre-makers are working and how hard they are making their audiences work. So here is my contribution to this conversation. I grabbed two lovely young women I’d never met before and put a microphone in their faces. The two were Tori Ball and Louise Mapleston and they had plenty to say. Thank you to both these two, to Josiah Lulham for doing the introduction, to Sarah Walker WHO TYPED A THIRD OF THIS AND MADE ME INCREDIBLY HAPPY IN DOING SO and, of course, a massive thank you to Mark and Olivia. Seriously. Thank you. Keep fucking shit up. 

RICHARD II promo image by Sarah Walker

RICHARD II promo image by Sarah Walker

FLEUR: Tell me what you just saw. What happened to you just now?

LOUISE: I had a bit of a giggle and a lot of thoughts. It kind of brought me back: it was very obvious about Julia Gillard and the Labour split and I guess I hadn’t really thought about it in a long time, and it’s kind of cool now we have the space and a way we can kind of look at the whole ordeal in retrospect.

TORI: I think it was very Australian. They were so passionate, and then towards the end they were just like “Ah, we’ll just have a cup of tea and not worry about it”. I think they were really making a point about how we think about politics.

FLEUR: As in we build up to something great and then undermine ourselves?

TORI: Yeah, by just choosing to not actually follow through and do anything.

FLEUR: Why do you think we do that? What makes that uniquely Australian?

TORI: I’m not sure we’ve ever had any motivation to actually have to put ourselves out there. I dunno. I feel like for a couple of generations, it’s been pretty safe here, relative to other countries.

FLEUR: There’s been a thought that I’ve heard thrown around this year that part of the reason we are as we are as a nation is that other countries have been defined by fighting against a colonial power, whereas our defining moment as a nation was fighting for that power.

TORI: I think that’s relevant but, even though we’re still fighting for others people’s power, that moment was so long ago. I don’t know if we still identify that way.

LOUISE: I think we do. If we’re looking at the English coming into Australia and colonising things, in Richard, she [Olivia Monticciolo as Gillard/Henry] was there already. She was already there, and he was like “Fuck off bitch, fuck off bitch, I’ve already got this”, like, taking something. I think that showed the greediness, and I think it showed extreme sexism. I mean, sexism’s just everywhere, but there’s a real vocabulary of slang and words that we use in this show that really show that as well.

FLEUR: What sort of words? Say some bad words for me.

LOUISE: Oh, mate. (Laughter) Like ‘cunt.’ ‘Cunt’ is huge. ‘Fucking bitch,’ and things like that. After travelling a little bit, I’ve noticed that we definitely use those words a lot more than other countries. I don’t know if we use ‘cunt’ a lot more, but it is in a very aggressive way.

TORI: Totally. Our culture is so absurd in the way that we’re so willing to use those terms derogatively.

LOUISE: But everyone went silent when they made a joke about “Oh yeah, well my dad’s alive”. Everyone was laughing at calling her a fucking bitch and things like that. This person is right there in front of us but this guy’s already dead. Why do we have more respect for the dead than the actual humans living here right now who are being discriminated against?

Olivia Monticciolo, production photography by Sarah Walker.

Olivia Monticciolo, production photography by Sarah Walker.

FLEUR: The moment that I found really interesting in terms of the sexism was when I’d forgotten she was female. As you do, because it’s not particularly extraordinary. They started the play by saying “I have a vagina, you have a penis” so they wanted us to remember but then I just slipped back into thinking of her as a character – as a leader – rather than as a woman. Then there was the moment when he got the numbers. He started yelling, “I’ve got the numbers, bitch. Suck on that! Suck on my numbers, bitch!” And suddenly it was so overtly sexual and degrading again; inescapably man vs woman in that moment.

TORI: That’s interesting. I didn’t even think of that. For me it was more a reflection of what I think a lot of people are frustrated by: how temporary our politics are.

LOUISE: It just seems so childlike. I guess that’s the whole point is that our politics is still so child-like. It is still a whole lot of adults insulting one another.

FLEUR: I guess it reminded me of that moment in politics when you go “really? Is she still having to be the Woman Leader and not just the Leader?” Yeah. Yeah, she is actually.

LOUISE: In terms of relating it back to the story, I think it is so clever. King Henry who took over, he was seen as a decent human.

TORI: I could see it coming. The change. How the power would change but I didn’t expect the transition to the Julia Gillard thing. That was really interesting.

LOUISE: Except her dancing! That was where I went “what is going on?”

TORI: I thought that was like her day-dream/nightmare moment.

FLEUR: The lap dance moment?

TORI: With Mark dressed as Julia Gillard. Yeah.

LOUISE: And sort of oddly arousing as well.

FLEUR: Oddly arousing? I’d call that extremely arousing. Laughter. Scrap that. [Totally didn’t scrap that.]

I feel that moment was where we got to go “here is the image of this woman” and it is all butt and tits. And nose but she came out butt first. It was just reminding us, this is how this woman is portrayed. Was portrayed every day in the newspapers; every day in the cartoons.

TORI: I guess it is going to be a long time before we can talk about politics without physical differences coming into it.

Mark Wilson and Olivia Monticciolo, production photography by Sarah Walker.

Mark Wilson and Olivia Monticciolo, production photography by Sarah Walker.

LOUISE: Whenever Mark was onstage as King, it was always rather grand – spotlight and ‘look at me’ – and he had those gold pants on but it wasn’t overtly sexual or anything like that. I guess that really shows the difference between this ‘female king’ and the ‘male king’. The seriousness of it. You didn’t take her seriously but you took Mark seriously –

TORI: Even though he was acting like such a child?

LOUISE: Yeah because he had that grandeur and this authority about him.

FLEUR: Someone said to me as it ended that we in theatre have this conversation all the time: “why isn’t more political stuff happening on the mainstage?” and then we come here and this is perhaps the most political stuff I’ve seen on the stage in years.

TORI: Yeah. To represent a former political leader as they did, that’s pretty ballsy!

FLEUR: Yes and to be so in this moment! And in last year but so much of it is this week and in this moment, right down to the mention of the terror alert. Why do you think we’re not seeing more people confronting politics head on in our theatres?

TORI: Short answer? Part of me wants to say that the majority are quite disengaged by our politics. Maybe it is that the section of our demographics that are engaged are quite polarised. It is hard for them to unite to make or see something.

LOUISE: Yeah, the first thing that really comes to mind for me is accessibility. Personally I have no issues with seeing political theatre but I’m probably considered a left wing, yuppie-type. But are people going to be offended if they see these things?

TORI: It’s like “why not? Why not make this?”

FLEUR: I think that is partly about our Australian-ness. I think it comes back to what you said at the start about “oh this is a big point we’re going to make! Awww actually let’s not quite make it.”

LOUISE: Tim-tam and a cup of tea.

FLEUR: Yes! There is something there and there is something about our reluctance to show how seriously we’re taking ourselves. I’m sure this isn’t just an Australian issue but issue-based theatre has kind of a dirty name here because people go “I don’t want to be beaten over the head with an issue”.

TORI: Yet this is actually a space where people are invited to experience it in their own way. It is probably one of the best ways to talk about it.

FLEUR: Yes. It is a metaphoric space. It allows us to create the space we need for these questions.

LOUISE: I guess another risk is looking at the newspapers and larger audiences who aren’t just involved in the little Fringe niche is how they will react to it. It could potentially bring a bad name –

FLEUR: Mark has done worse.

Lou: I heard.

TORI: I just want to see it again because there was so much I didn’t have space to think about because they had so much to say.

LOUISE: I’d recommend it to my mum. She doesn’t know a thing about Shakespeare but she’d really engage with the content and the politics. She’s not particularly arty but I think she would get a lot out of this show. It would make her think.

Mark Wilson, production photography by Sarah Walker

Mark Wilson, production photography by Sarah Walker

FLEUR: And one more question absolutely to finish: could you just say your name and what you do. So like “My name is Fleur and I’m a playwright and theatre director and I fell down last week and grazed my knee and it made me feel like I was eight years old.”

TORI: I’m Tori. I’m an arts student and it was really windy when I cycled today. It was tough.

LOUISE: I’m Lou. I’m a social work student and I really love jazz music.

FLEUR: Thank you so much guys. Holy shit.

You can find Louise here, MKA here and Sarah Walker’s photography here. 

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Politics, Theatre, writing

on angry sexx, tripped, racism, feminism and urgency

It is that time of the year when I miss more theatre than I could ever possibly see. To make up for my absence, I asked two young theatre makers about their new work, why it is urgent and what Australian theatre needs more of. These are both works with such driving passion and they feel so necessary. They are born of Australian culture both past and very, very present. I’m so thrilled this kind of work is being made, even if I can’t see the blasted things. Enjoy and go see some blistering new Australian theatre. 

Rachel Perks, playwright and performer, ANGRY SEXX

ANGRY SEXX is a dark trashy comedy about the frightening places women find themselves in. It uses both spoken text that I have written and physical text devised with Bridget Balodis and the actors. It has bad dancing, pop music and very very very adult themes.

ANGRY SEXX, promo image by Sarah Walker

ANGRY SEXX, promo image by Sarah Walker

Why was this the story you needed to tell? What is urgent about it?

The other day, while waiting to start the tech for ANGRY SEXX I was sitting with fellow human being Bridget Balodis, minding our own business and having a coffee on Errols St. A man walked up to us, paused, looked us up and down and said “hello ladies.” I just stared at him- speechless. You see there is a scene in the play depicting a very similar encounter that ends very badly for the man.

This man, sensing he was unwelcome, started to walk past us but turned back to yell “You should say hello back! It’s what makes Australia a great country.” I cracked and giggled a little at the absurdity of the scene- who was this man and why did I owe him my attention?

At that point the man turned, filled with bruised ego vitriol and yelled “Fuck you, you fucking cunts!”

The whole encounter happened in the space of about thirty seconds in broad daylight outside a cafe.

A few of you will probably think I should have just said hello- that I provoked him, that I was being rude. Perhaps you’ll wonder what I was wearing that so caught his attention? A part of me thinks the same things too. And that’s why I’m making this show. Because the logic is warped, the standards are double and the lines have been blurred. Because I’m figuring this stuff out as I go and I want to talk about it. It took me a long time to adopt the name of feminist and I’m making up for lost time.

How has this production changed you?

This process has showed me the joy of true collaboration. Of working with strong rebellious and outspoken women and with beautiful, intelligent, compassionate men. It has also helped me understand what the hell a dramaturg does. Sort of.

The most challenging part of the process has been trusting my own writing. To be performing your own words, to be fighting for them and believing in them and throwing yourself off the cliff with them is hard. But it feels good when you manage it.

What does Melbourne theatre need more of?

New writing. Political choices. Stubborn attitudes. Female leadership. Laughs. 

To book for ANGRY SEXX, click here.

Fiona Spitzkowsky, assistant director, TRIPPED

The seeds for this play were planted in playwright Nick Musgrove’s brain when he was in high school, after studying Norm and Ahmed in class. No one in his class predicted the violent ending and yet everyone accepted it.

A year ago, he found himself thinking of the Buzos’ play after race relations become a major playing card in the 2013 elections. He began discussions with director Celeste Cody about the idea of theatrically ‘checking in’ with Norm and Ahmed 30 years after they first appeared on Australian stages, to see just how far we’ve come.

TRIPPED promo image by Sarah Walker

TRIPPED promo image by Sarah Walker

Last week the Australian government raised the terror alert level to high. A short time later there were massive police raids on alleged Islamic terror groups. Since then there have been multiple incidents of racially motivated violence.

Tripped tells a story that is urgent, but not just because of the events that have happened in the past week, or in the past year, or in the past thirty years. Racial discrimination, violence and aggressive masculine culture have plagued us for centuries. We need to tell this story because it’s the same story we’ve been telling all this time, and we still haven’t found a happy ending.

What have you learnt from this production? How has it changed you?

This play tells us what we already (should) know: racism is just a form of ignorance, and that extremists exist in every culture, and should not be taken as a representation of the beliefs and behaviours of the greater cohort. But what Tripped has taught me is how quickly we can allow ourselves to be distracted from underlying issues. We see two men onstage, bristling with rage and the potential for violence, but after a light moment, a moment of laughter, we relax and think that everything will be fine now that we’ve had a laugh together, not realising that the core issues are still there, ready to explode to the surface again, with dire consequences.

This is how the play is structured for dramatic purposes, but this may also be how we function in real life, how our media feeds us information: we sit through the news of war in the Middle East and raids in our cities, but it all finishes with a fluff piece so that we can continue with evenings unperturbed.

Also, I learnt that it is impossible to give prop guns to a male cast without there being a lot of hollering and dick jokes.

What does Melbourne theatre need more of?

Personally, I would say new Australian writing. It is so important to be empowering young and emerging artists by allowing them to present their voice onstage. It is empowering for the community as well, as they get to hear voices that are current and relevant to them.

But, having worked with Ezel Doruk on this project, and comparing his experiences in the industry with that of the other two (white) cast members, I would also say that we need more diversity in the stories we tell, and colour blind, yet culturally aware, casting.

To book for TRIPPED, click here

Both plays opened last night in the Fringe hub and run until September 4th. 

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conversation, criticism, My own plays, Theatre

in conversation: cameron woodhead on the city they burned, hetero-normativity, the bible, how i got it wrong

A play of mine, The City They Burned, is currently drawing to the end of a very popular Melbourne season. Overall, it has been received incredibly well by both critics and audiences but on the 9th of September, Cameron Woodhead, senior theatre critic for The Age, reviewed it. Whilst he said that the second act “stands tall among the best indie theatre has to offer”, he called the first act “intensely problematic”, saying that I sidestepped “the homophobic impact of its chief interpretation, which led to the persecution of countless homosexual men throughout history.”  So we sat down in a café to talk about it. 

The conversation was very friendly and respectful but it is hard to be both the artist and the arts writer in the one conversation. When it came time for me to respond to Cameron’s criticism I was surprised by how little eye contact I managed and I’m glad that you can’t get the awkward pauses from this transcript. It is also a strange thing to be the one to put incredibly eloquent criticism of your work on the internet for any googling festival director to find in the future but I believe that conversations such as this are vitally important to our industry. I feel very fortunate to have received such thorough, thoughtful and multi-faceted responses to this work. As with all of this blog, I hope that this contributes to the conversation regarding art, criticism and interpretation.

CAMERON: When I wrote my review of The City They Burned, I actually expected that no one would touch what I was saying with a ten-foot pole. What I’m saying is very confronting and difficult and thorny and hard to hear and hard to talk about.

FLEUR: The cast and the director are all really excited that this conversation is happening.

CAMERON: I think what artists should want is something that makes them look upon their art from a different set of eyes. It is not what artists necessarily do want; they end up wanting as many stars as possible. Art is not art unless you can read it in different ways so from that point of view it always invites conversation. If I can make the artist go “oh wait, I didn’t think about that when I wrote this piece and had I thought about it in this way I might have done things a little bit differently”… Well, that is valuable. It ceases to be a conversation when you ignore the reviews and concentrate purely on stars and tweets.

FLEUR: I’ve had a really interesting relationship with what I’ll call The Negative Review because

CAMERON: It’s not entirely negative!

FLEUR: Oh no yours isn’t! No, no, not at all!

CAMERON: Oh right! You’re talking about The Negative Review!

FLEUR: Yes, THE Negative Review as an entity. No, I really appreciate that you did separate the two halves and said “I really fucking loved this and this totally missed the mark for me”.

But I remember the first time I got a really negative review. I think I’d just somehow luckily stumbled out of university and got good reviews and I just thought that was kind of how it worked. I did Insomnia Cat Came To Stay as a development in Adelaide. I went “I’ll just do this little showing and get some good reviews and use them to put it on in a festival”. Then I got a terrible review and I was so… surprised. And devastated. Totally devastated. It had never occurred to me that I was going to get a bad review from this thing. Ah, youth.

The next one that I got was one of yours on Awake, which I hope you don’t remember.

CAMERON: What’s the show about?

FLEUR: Do I have to? Okay. Well I’ll tell you what you said because of course I remember.

CAMERON: Of course you remember! The artist never forgets.

FLEUR: Okay. You said that it reeked of hypochondria and idle hours spent on Wikipedia.

We both laugh. Quite a lot actually. Cameron even claps.

CAMERON: Did I? Did I really say that? That’s not very kind, is it?

FLEUR: But at the time I was devastated but six months later I was able to look at that review and it did change some really big things about my art, one being that I don’t direct my own writing any more and the other being that I stopped doing medical-themed shows.

CAMERON: Well it’s not that you can’t write a very good show about Fatal Familial Insomnia or –

FLEUR: Oh you DO remember!

CAMERON: Or whatever! Some vanishingly rare condition that is only suffered by three people in the entire world! But… chances are probably not.

FLEUR: But it is interesting that I’ve gone from there to sitting down with you and a microphone. But then a review said of a show I co-directed last year that it was like being stabbed to death with a potato. I thought that was hilarious and shared that quote but I’m not going to sit down and chat with him about how he thought it was like being stabbed to death with a potato because that doesn’t mean anything.

CAMERON: Well I have a bit of an issue with people who say things like that because, yes, it is highly coloured but it is not very specific. The main thing you get from a sentence like that is the reviewer drawing attention to him or herself. Everyone is going to do it from time to time. Everyone has an ego but it shouldn’t primarily be about the reviewer. The reviewer is there to talk about the art. You should do that as clearly, precisely and evocatively as you can. What does it mean? It just means he didn’t like it very much.

FLEUR: I think you’ll find it means it was like being stabbed to death with a potato.

Jessica Tanner in THE CITY THEY BURNED, production photography by Sarah Walker.

Jessica Tanner in THE CITY THEY BURNED, production photography by Sarah Walker.

Okay. So to turn to this ‘hetero-fying’ of Australian theatre – can I call it that?

CAMERON: Well the word is hetero-normativity and I hesitate to use it because it makes you sound like a pretentious Under-Grad. Look, the vast majority of the theatre that we see takes heterosexuality as a basic assumption and we deal with that. Most of the time we wouldn’t even remark on it because the vast majority of people are heterosexual. That’s fine. If it doesn’t overtly evoke a non-heterosexual theme or idea then why would you mention it? But that’s not the case with the story of Sodom and Gomorrah, which, fairly centrally invokes men who have sex with men.

FLEUR: Tell me your interpretation of that story in the Bible.

CAMERON: My interpretation of that story? It’s not really a question of my interpretation of that story. The dominant interpretation of that story through all three major monotheistic religions has been to use it to assert that male homosexual relations are wrong and are the subject of divine punishment. I’m not saying that is the correct interpretation but I am saying that is the dominant interpretation, which has been used to horrific social affect for a very long period of time. You can’t read that piece of art without being aware that this is the history: this particular story has had a very serious impact on a marginalised group of people in our society. I don’t think you would do it with any other marginalised group of people. I do not think that you would take a myth that had had a terrible effect on women or indigenous people or migrants and entirely write them out of the story and re-balance the sympathy of the thing so that a different group came to the fore. I don’t think you would do that.

What I’m interested in and why I agreed to talk to you today is to find out why you did that.

FLEUR: Okay. Do you want me to say why I – why I – um…

CAMERON: Yeah, sure.

FLEUR: Okay.

I guess a good place to start is with word ‘Sodomite’ because we deliberately left it in the script. We had a big talk about it. Danny was like “doesn’t that make people think that it is something other than what it is?” “No, because we want people to remember the history of this story but also realise that, whilst the majority of people think that this is a story about how horrific homosexuality is, the Judaeo-Christian version of the story doesn’t have that.” That’s not what the word ‘Sodomite’ originally signified. It was a city first and the Judaeo-Christian Bible doesn’t say why God is damning the city.

CAMERON: It is implied. It is implied. The Biblical exegesis from Ezekiel onwards that claim that it wasn’t to do with male homosexuality all fail. They are all apologising for the blatant homophobia of the legend. None of them deal with the fact that the men in the story at no point indicate even the slightest sexual interest in women. Any interpretation that doesn’t have homosexuality at least somewhere in there, fails to take into account a very particular aspect of the story. An aspect of the story that you wrote out.

Dushan, Scott Gooding and Kane Felsinger in THE CITY THEY BURNED, performance photography by Sarah Walker.

Dushan Phillips, Scott Gooding and Kane Felsinger in THE CITY THEY BURNED, performance photography by Sarah Walker.

FLEUR: For me it was this idea that God decides before getting to the city that these are Bad People. It is this judgement from afar. A higher power deciding that an entire group of people aren’t worthy of living. And it doesn’t say in the Bible why. They had turned away from God and God has decided that they are going to die.

I felt that it did the story a disservice to agree with that interpretation that they were all going to die because they were homosexuals. I wanted to re-claim it as the story of a higher power deciding from afar that people are bad for no clear reason. I wanted to remind people of how we now view this story but also modernise the concept of ‘evil’. [Note: For those who haven’t seen the play, our Sodom is modelled on the industrial city of Shenzhen. The Sodomites are damned because they cannot keep up with the demands of their CEO and company executives. Canaan brings in twice the revenue. They are discontinued in the most brutal way.]

There’s what I call ‘Biblical fan-fiction’, stuff written probably around 18th Century. There is this Book of Jasher (and Jasher is a lost book so it is certainly not original), which describes why Sodom was bad. It describes a traveller coming to the city and a Sodomite hits him in the head with a rock and he bleeds. The Sodomite is like “now you have to give me money ‘cause I got rid of that bad blood out of your head.” And the guy is like “I’m not going to pay you for hitting me with a rock.” So he gets taken to court and the Judge is like “yeah, you totally owe him for getting rid of the bad blood.” So that is what the 18th Century thought of as a Bad City.

Through different stages of history there have been different explanations of what made these people bad. I thought that maybe it was time to do a representation (and maybe I was wrong), which acknowledged that it never states why they are so evil that they should all be destroyed. I feel like it would do more of a disservice to say, “yeah, this is a story about how bad homosexuality is.”

CAMERON: I don’t object to it not being a story about how bad homosexuality is! How could I? I don’t want that! No one wants that! It’s the way you’ve re-written the story. You’ve created a theatrical world where homosexual desire does not exist. It doesn’t exist. You’ve got an upper-middle class dinner party with various bogan workers invited, all of whom talk about their wives and families to no great purpose. You’ve got angels who exist purely for work and don’t seem to have any kind of sexuality at all. Then you’ve got this fabulously complex vision of female sexuality played out through the daughters. I think that what you’ve said is an evasion. You can’t get out of hetero-normativity by saying that “if we’d included homosexuals it would have been homophobic.” Hetero-normativity isn’t that much better. Would you rather have rocks thrown at your head or be ignored totally? Of course you would rather be ignored totally but, all things being equal, there is a better option than being ignored totally. Why not take it?

From what you’ve created, having as complex a vision of male sexuality as you do of female would make it a stronger piece. You’ve written very strongly for the women and not so strongly for the men. And the women do have focus for a long time in act two in a way that the other characters don’t necessarily get, but if you wanted to actually horrify us… Well it (the attempted rape in Act One) erupts out of nowhere. Even the most un-desiring homosexual rape still has sexual desire in there somewhere. You don’t get it. You don’t get sidelong lusty glances from the men to the angels. It is by far the most brittle aspect of the entire performance.

As a gay man sitting there watching, I had grown up with this story. I grew up when sodomy laws were only just beginning to be repealed. It has gone from something that was reviled and criminalised to something that we now, superficially at least, accept as normal, almost in a too eager way so that we don’t have to think about how awful it was before. It is a very confronting piece to watch from a gay man’s perspective. You probably have lots of gay friends and I’m sure they will all come up to you afterwards and say “I thought that was a really great piece, Fleur” but if you put this review in front of them, they would probably say “he’s got a point.”

FLEUR: My thought with both the rapes in Act One and Act Two is that they came from a position of wanting power rather than sexual gratification. And that line of thought has been talked about through studies such as the one where they asked rapists to describe what clothes their victims were wearing and them having no idea, which points towards it being less about sex appeal and more about power. Although I’m sure they could still tell you the gender of their victim.

CAMERON: Look, I don’t buy it. I know there is a big fat movement that wants to distance rape from sexual desire and talk about it in terms of power and I think it wants to do that for a couple of reasons, some of which are genuine and some are a bit dodgy. The dodgier side of it is that it makes sexuality a sort of squeaky-clean thing and makes the act of rape monstrous. I don’t think that helps either the victim or the victimiser nor does it accurately reflect what is going on. In every act of rape there is at least one person who wants to have sex. Always.

Although, having said that, I really liked the fragment in Act Two where she [the eldest daughter] talks about her rapist crying. I thought that was awesome. I really loved that: the idea that someone is doing this stuff and is nevertheless pathetic and knows what he’s doing is wrong but does it anyway. I thought that was quite insightful and powerful. It is complex. It’s not what people expect.

Brianagh Curran and Shoshannah Oks in THE CITY THEY BURNED, performance photography by Sarah Walker.

Brianagh Curran and Shoshannah Oks in THE CITY THEY BURNED, performance photography by Sarah Walker.

FLEUR: There was Menagerie and… What was the other piece you mentioned in the review?

Cameron: Menagerie and On the Misconception of Oedipus. The myth behind Laius, Oedipus’ father, is that he abducted and raped the youth Chrysippus and everything that happened to Laius’ family – the curse, him being killed by his son and the son sleeping with the mother and blah, blah, blah – was down to this act of homosexual abduction and rape. Hardly anyone knows that aspect of the story. Homosexual abduction and rape used to be called, in the ancient world, The Crime of Laius, and it was then, as it is now, a really taboo subject. I think Tom Wright was gutless for not exploring that aspect of the story. However he made that decision and I had to judge him on the basis of what he’d done, as I had to judge you on the basis of what you’d done. You can’t stop people from making these decisions. All you can do is say “I noticed you made this decision. Isn’t it interesting that you, a heterosexual playwright, should ignore this?”

As for Daniel Schlusser’s Menagerie, don’t even get me started. Tennessee Williams’ homosexuality was portrayed as this hideous, loveless, fleeting thing. Daniel Schlusser would never have done that to a heterosexual playwright where their sexuality was integral to their work. That was one of the reasons I really didn’t like it and that didn’t come through in my review of that show but I was angry after that show.

But it’s not like I think the Melbourne theatre scene is overtly homophobic. Hetero-normativity is much more subtle than that and it comes about through an erasure, through a blurring, through an unwillingness to engage. I’m not laying down any laws. I’m saying, “this is something to be mindful of when you’re making art on subjects that invoke non-heterosexual acts, people and themes.”

FLEUR: In the last few weeks there has been The City They Burned and there has been The Sublime and the responses have been very personal to the people that responded to them. In The Sublime it was mostly the female reviewers who were the most offended and you were fine with it.

CAMERON: I don’t know if I was fine with it but I hedged my bets. I think some of the female reviewers are right to be deeply uneasy or even outraged by the way this material has been presented and performed. However, I note that some of those same reviewers looked at your piece and completely missed that –

FLEUR: But they could say the same of you though, Cameron.

CAMERON: Everyone has blind spots and that’s why it is important to have diversity of opinion. Art is there to be ambiguous, to give us a chance to bash out ideas against each other and see what falls out. The fact that works like The Sublime and The City They Burned overtly encourage that is fundamentally a good thing. You can’t really write a play that explores power and write homosexual characters entirely out of the story. That is an act of radical disempowerment in itself. There would have been ways of addressing your themes that were even more complex and challenging than what you ended up with.

As I said, I loved the second half of this piece! If the first half had been anything like as powerful and meaty as the second, I would have given it gobs of stars and told everyone to go and see it. I still said everyone should go and see it! I still think everyone should!

You’ve written a really good play. I think the review would have been blander if I didn’t think you were a really talented writer. It got to me that someone who was as talented and educated and with it as you are could come at this problem and not see that this was an issue.

Many thanks to Cameron and the entire cast and crew of The City They Burned for their passion for and belief in this work, which is robust enough for me to use it as a very public guinea pig.

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