audiences, dance, Responses, Theatre

on failing as an audience, atlanta eke, philippe genty and wordlessness

I write a lot about the joy of being in the audience – how I love to love theatre and how often I lean over to the person beside me and whisper “I’m so fucking excited” as the lights fade to black. Today I want to talk about my failings as an audience member.

Back in 2009 I saw Philippe Genty’s Lands End. It was a performance of exquisite grandeur: an eloquent, wordless love letter to the imagination. At the end of the performance, the young couple beside me tentatively offered their hard-earned meaning making.

“Is that right? Is that what it meant?”

“Absolutely! If that’s what it meant to you!”

Genty's LANDS END. Photographed by Pascal François.

Genty’s LANDS END. Photographed by Pascal François.

I remember how philanthropic my words felt at the time. I was standing at the gates of Possibility, barefoot and smiling, my words a sweeping gesture at the castles and hills around me. “My kingdom is yours!” I proclaimed. “Wander where you will! The only rule is No Rules.” I went home imagining the adventures the pair would have with my words as their permission slip. (All the metaphors!)

I thought of this exchange two weeks ago when I saw Atlanta Eke’s Body of Work at Dancehouse. The piece is stunning; equally as eloquent as Genty’s but without the grandeur. This was small, tight, fierce, uncomfortable, mesmerising in its persistent self-examination, witty, distressing and obsessive, with a deep undercurrent of wrongness and impending destruction. Body of Work is the foreshocks of a human earthquake. It is rats fleeing, dogs howling and a sky full of birds. It did things to my body, knotted my gut, locked my joints and left me a raw, miserable ball.

But here’s the thing: I was already that miserable ball when I walked into the theatre. I will always feel like an outsider in dance. The fact that I’ve become something of a resident outsider for Dancehouse in recent months – as the non-dance member of an assessment panel, host of a forum and writer of an article for Dancehouse Diary – hasn’t lessened my feeling of being the alien in the room. If anything, the more I learn, the more aware I am of the disconnection I have from my body and my inadequacies at translating dance into a verbal or written responses.

Eke's BODY OF WORK. Photographed by Gregory Lorenzutti.

Eke’s BODY OF WORK. Photographed by Gregory Lorenzutti.

Now I do not write about these two incredibly different shows to draw a comparison between them – for they were worlds apart and aimed to elicit very different emotive responses from their audiences.

It also doesn’t matter why they produced in me such incredibly different emotions. Lands End was wordless (I think: it was a long time ago) and I happily drifted through its visual poetry without their familiar tether but when Atlanta exchanged nine words with her tech mid-way through Body of Work, I clung to them like a lifeline. I counted them. Literally. I treasured them. I emblazoned them on my brain and across her body. But many days I’m fine without words. It could have been that one was part of a dance festival instead of an arts festival or it could have just been that I was having a bad week; a week in which again and again I asked myself what possessed me, an introvert, to push myself into a field that demands extroversion; a week in which I envied visual artists their quiet galleries. Perhaps it was that, as an arts writer, I feel responsible when I lack an instantaneous eloquent response to art.

Whatever the reason, I was made Other by Atlanta’s work and it is good to be Other. It reminds me of the bravery of those who take a punt on an artist or art form they have never experienced before. Art worlds develop their own dialects, verbal, visual and physical, for which there are no dictionaries or travel guides. In asking someone to enter these worlds, we are asking them to prepare to feel underprepared.

Eke's BODY OF WORK. Photographed by Gregory Lorenzutti.

Eke’s BODY OF WORK. Photographed by Gregory Lorenzutti.

I think of the people I interview for this blog: those travellers sans Lonely Planet, under whose noses I wave my mic recorder mere minutes after they have crossed the boarder back into their home land. “What happened to you? What did it mean? Be the anthropologist!” I ask, well-meaning jerk that I am. If someone had done this to me after Body of Work I probably would have burst into tears. “Don’t ask me. This isn’t my first language.” After a calming gin and tonic, I might venture an interpretation immediately followed by the self-depreciating “Is that right? Is that what it meant?”

I know I entitled this “my failings as an audience member” and I know that I did not ‘fail’ Body of Work. It made me feel. A lot. Almost too much. And I am engaging with it, questioning myself and interrogating my intellectual and emotive responses perhaps more ruthlessly than a sane person should. But it made me feel like a failure. A shaky, foolish, voiceless heap taking up a seat that should have been given to someone more deserving. And you know what? I have room in my heart for work that does this to me.

So shake me to the core. Leave me the outsider. Batter my ego. Knot my gut, lock my joints, catch my breath. Anything that leaves me still picking up the pieces two weeks after the fact is a wonder. Fucking bring it.

PS. I had a friend read this to check if it was self-indulgent self-flagellation. It passed his test but I apologise to anyone who found it like wading through an ocean of angst.

conversation, creativity, Guest Blogger, Theatre

acts of violence: guest blogger bridget mackey in conversation with theatre-makers about violence

A word from Bridget:

I believe that there is a restlessness to modern life, an overloading of the senses and that this leads to an unhealthy suppression of emotions. I’m a playwright. In my work my characters find escape through violence and I often have them commit violent acts. As an artist using violence as a narrative tool do I have any responsibility towards my audience, my work or myself?

Topping my list of Best Theatre Experiences of All Time are two pretty violent shows – Thyestes by The Hayloft Project and Tragedia Endogonidia by Societas Raffaello Sanzio. Did I enjoy these shows because they allowed me to access and purge repressed emotions? Or was my enjoyment more to do with aesthetics? I think back to Roy Orbison’s vibrato, theatre babes brandishing guns, the way the stage blood took its time to pool and expand across the blinding white stage space. I also remember enjoying how sick the shows made me feel. Maybe cool aesthetics gave me access to a deeper emotion, led me into the nightmare.

For the most part, I hate screen violence. I am extremely over seeing women portrayed as victims. I get pretty bored in action movies. My brain switches off. There are some exceptions to this (for example, I just held a David Lynch themed birthday party) but mostly when I watch yet another person killed on screen I wonder what the hell it’s doing to my psyche.

Baz Luhrmann demonstrating the appeal of babes, weapons and drama in his 1996 film Romeo+Juliet.

Baz Luhrmann demonstrating the appeal of babes, weapons and drama in his 1996 film Romeo+Juliet.

Thankfully, I grew up in a violence free environment both at home and in my wider community. This is a fact I find problematic when it comes to my enjoyment of violence on stage. Does my violence free past mean that for me violence on stage is a fetish? Is it dangerous? Or is it totally valid? Maybe even a necessity?

I have interviewed three Melbourne based theatre-makers: Daniel Lammin, Chi Vu and Rachel Perks about the different approaches to violence that they take in their work. These conversations will be published over three blog posts on School for Birds. Thanks Fleur!

Part 1: Conversation with Daniel Lammin

Daniel Lammin is a playwright and director. He also works as a film reviewer. Daniel’s work for the stage often explores real-life incidents of violent crime. We meet in the Malthouse courtyard for a chat but men in sequinned G-Strings keep running into our line of vision. This provides to be too distracting for the both of us so we settle for a park bench on Sturt Street.

Bridget: At one point during our dramaturgy internship with Playwriting Australia last year you said ‘I love violence’ and I was like, ‘I love violence.’ So, I guess I just want to talk to you about why you love it.

Daniel: I think that violence is one of the most exciting, dangerous and delicate emotional tools, or narrative tools, you can use in order to tell a story. A show I did last year, The Cutting Boys, ended in an act of murder, cannibalism and sex. I had to spend the entire time asking: am I justified in making this as blunt and extreme as it is? And if I had come to a point where I couldn’t justify it, not that everyone would agree with me, then I would never have done it. I feel that a lot of the time when people use violence it’s just to shock, because it’s kind of sexy. But, if your intention is just to be edgy or disturbing, or confronting, you’re only going to make work that only serves that purpose.

I’m keen to talk to Lammin about his thoughts on the difference between violence on film and violence on the stage. I tell him that Snowtown is one of the best movies I’ve ever seen but that I regret watching it because I found the violence so distressing.

Daniel: Violence doesn’t mean anything unless you’re seeing it through the eyes of someone else, through the eyes of a character, or the eyes of a community. If you were just watching the brother being killed in the bathtub in Snowtown, you would go ‘oh that’s horrific and disgusting’ and turn off. What makes that sequence so affecting, and so horrifying, is that his younger brother is watching, and then participating, and you’re watching the act through the relationship and the history that they have. It feels very dangerous making people watch a horrible act just for the purpose of shocking them.


A gentler moment from the 2011 movie Snowtown.

Bridget: You mentioned that you thought that violence on film could be more effective than stage violence?

Daniel: Yeah, I think that film can reach a level of reality a lot easier than theatre can. I don’t think you ever want a piece of violence on stage to really be completely realistic because that kind of turns people off. Maybe it’s that I’ve never found violence as much of a problem on film. Film also has the ability to play with genre. You can watch a film like Hostel even though that violence is stupidly graphic, but you can revel in that, because that’s what that genre does. Plus, with film there is a sense that it’s removed from you. If you watched Thyestes, on screen, you’d be like, oh that’s disturbing, but watching it a few feet in front of you? It’s right there, you’re watching living, breathing things sweating and reacting. It becomes something quite different.

Bridget: I loved Thyestes.

Daniel: It was one of the best things ever.

Our conversation moves to Ugly Mugs a show that was part of the 2014 Malthouse season.

Daniel: Making a piece of theatre that shows just the idea of violence towards a person, or a community, or a minority is kind of blunt if it’s not shown through the eyes of an actual person. Ugly Mugs was on at the same time as my show The Cutting Boys, and was about very similar ideas. I felt Ugly Mugs would have been a far more effective show if I had actually been made to confront the act. You’ve got a show about violence against sex workers. I want to see a show that makes me feel sick to my stomach about violence in the community against a sex worker and how horrific that is as opposed to –

Bridget: What about the argument though. Say, if you’re making an anti-war film, you run the risk of sensationalising war to make that anti-war film. Do you think maybe in Ugly Mugs, to have the depiction of violence could be seen as –

Daniel: Exploitative?

Bridget: Exploitative in a way.

Daniel: Yeah, I mean definitely, I guess it just comes down to how it’s handled. I think that it’s the job of the creator to sit back and ask if they are being exploitative. I did a short play years ago about the murder of James Bulger, the two year old who was killed by two ten year old boys in the early nineties. It was something I had always wanted to do because I found the whole thing so disturbing. But I skipped that step of actually questioning: is what I want this to do working? Is it effective in the manner by which I’m doing it? By accident it kind of was, but I learnt a big lesson. If you want to show that an act of violence is something that’s wrong, you need to make sure that you’re doing it in a way that it doesn’t exploit, and that your intentions are clear.

Bridget: When did you have the realisation that maybe it was exploitative?

Daniel: When it was in front of people, basically. When I was watching it with an audience, and seeing an audience react. I mean, there was no violence in it. It was the manner that the content was given to the audience that was uncomfortable. Enough people enjoyed and responded to the piece to suggest to me that I hadn’t made a massive mistake, but it scared me enough to go, there is a level of interrogation that I need to make sure I have if I keep wanting to do this.

Bridget: What’s the best use of violence that you’ve seen on stage?

Daniel: Barrie Kosky’s Women of Troy. It’s funny, because it was the first thing of his that I’ve ever seen and I’ve learnt that his shows are usually a lot more flamboyant and colourful and this was under fluro lights, stark, cold, blunt. There was a sequence in it where a woman was dragged into a locker, while the rest of the women were singing a Mozart Aria, she was trapped in there and raped by one of the guards. The woman comes out, she stands on a box with her underwear down around her knees, covered in blood, stands there and vomits –

Bridget: Fuck.

Daniel: - and by itself, well, that’s the point where you see most of the audience just get up and walk out. But he’d invested us in the plight of the characters, and in the plight of the narrative to the point where that happened and my brain just broke, because it was like seeing a succession of images that all amounted to something far more powerful.

Bridget: Were you in our dramaturgy class when Patricia Cornelius talked about needing to ‘earn moments’ from the audience?

Daniel: I think so.

Bridget: She said, you can’t give an audience a thing and say ‘deal with it.’ You have to lead them to it.

Daniel: I have this rule, with any of the disturbing things that I keep going back and making, that you have to make the audience laugh in the first five minutes. Because you’ve got to relax them to the point where they actually can ease themselves into what it is you have to tell them. And then they’re more susceptible. They’re more prone to listening to you. And they’re weakened so the punch in the face is going to hurt more. That’s what Stephen Spielberg does in Schindler’s List. He eases you in, makes you feel comfortable, and then assaults you with the most horrific images in humanity that you can imagine. And it is that thing, of earning the right to be able to do it. And I think generally in theatre that you have to earn big moments. You’ve got to earn a pause, you’ve got to earn a climax, and you’ve got to earn a twist. Patricia is completely right.

Bridget: Um, I’m really sorry to bring out a review of your work. The Rebecca Harkins-Cross review of The Cutting Boys?

Daniel: Yes! … Oh?

Bridget: At the end of the review she asks: What drives a theatre maker to lower us into the abyss? And I was wondering, from the way that you are talking, it doesn’t sound like an intention you have with the theatre you make, or is it your intention?

Daniel: With that particular show, it was a case of wanting to pull the audience right to the depths… because an act of two twenty-year old boys killing and cannibalising a sixteen-year-old girl is an act of complete inhumanity. I felt the only way to convey that inhumanity effectively was to take the audience to the darkest place I possibly could. I wanted it to be an unforgiving show. I had no illusions that people were going to enjoy the show. I couldn’t even watch sections of the thing because I found it so confronting. And it came out of my fucking head. When that review came out I thought, that is the question that needs to be asked of the theatre maker, certainly of me. In that particular instance, I felt like I had a justifiable reason. I loved that review. It was initially terrifying, but then it’s like, good, it’s an engagement with the work.

The Cutting Boys

The Cutting Boys. Image Phoebe Taylor.

Bridget: I’ve been wondering about Aristotle’s writing about catharsis in the Poetics, in relation to violence on stage. I’m a bit suspicious about whether or not catharsis can actually be a thing that has a social function. Do you think that violence in art creates a space for people to purge emotion?

Daniel: I think it definitely does have the capacity to do that, for people who want that. I don’t think everyone wants that. I do. But in terms of violence, it’s not just physical acts of violence, it’s emotional levels of violence. To choose the lamest thing off the top of my head. Something like, The Perks of Being a Wallflower. It’s preposterously emotionally violent, but I want to sit through that, because I want to have that catharsis. Some people don’t want that, and they are completely in their rights not to want that. And I would never want to force a violent show on someone. With anything I’ve done, I always make a point of making it very clear to people that this is not going to be fun. So you’re prepared enough before hand to know whether or not the show is right for you.

Bridget: It’s funny, my Grandma saw my play Hose and I was worried about how she’d feel that I’d written something so violent, and afterwards I asked her what she thought and she said ‘I saw things in nursing that you couldn’t even imagine.’ And I was like, ‘thanks Grandma’. But you know, humanity does have this darkness.

Daniel: Yeah, and that is the big reason why I love working with it, because it’s there. I actually want to be able to talk about the fact that yes, the world is a wonderful place, there are beautiful people in it, there are wonderful experiences, not everything is depressing, but you know what? Some people do really fucking horrible things to each other, and sometimes the way to learn how to deal with that is to actually just show it.

Just as I’m about to thank Lammin and let him return to rehearsals he throws a question back that shouldn’t catch me by surprise, but it does:

Daniel: Why do you love violence?

Bridget: Oh…!? … I think that’s what I’m trying to work out… Sometimes I get really angry and I throw shit and sometimes I have urges to physically hurt other people. Like, I have that, and I’m really ashamed of that, and I wonder if when I see violence on stage it allows me to express that.

Daniel: Stephen King wrote this book about horror, and his thesis is that good horror allows us to experience something that in a normal, moral society, we would not be able to. It allows us to actually be an enactor of violence, and to be a victim of violence and through doing these things, purge ourselves of the desire to do them. I’ve come up with the concept that as a theatre maker I want to hear what the universe sounds like. Everything I do is just built to answer that question. I’m writing a show about Ed Gein, he’s the guy that Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Silence of the Lambs and Psycho are based on. He was suspected of having murdered these women, and when the police confronted him about it they found his house was full of artifacts that he had made of women’s skin and body parts, but they were ones he dug up. I’m fascinated by how lonely someone must be that this is how they choose to fill their world. It’s inhuman, it’s impossible to comprehend, it’s like listening to the destruction of a star, or listening to the darkness that exists in the heart, because if I listen to this, if I can touch it for a fleeting second, I might understand the potential for violence between me, and potential in my friends, or my family or within anybody… … That’s a very big wanky concept.

Bridget: No, it’s great, it’s great.

audience conversations, conversation, Dramaturgical Analysis, Theatre

audience conversation: the unspoken word is joe and the ritual slaughter of gorge mastromas

On Sunday Bridget Mackey and I saw two shows back to back, Zoey Dawson’s The Unspoken Word Is Joe and Denis Kelly’s The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas. We interviewed each other about them in the car between shows. It is worth mentioning that both of us are very, very happy with seeing shows that ‘upset’ and ‘sicken’ us, as these did. Please do not take our reactions as any kind of condemnation. We were so very into it.

Show One: The Unspoken Word Is Joe

Fleur: Okay. We’re recording. And we’re recording as we drive from one show to the next.

So what just happened?

Bridget: We just saw The Unspoken Word Is Joe, a play that’s been around for a while although that was the first time I’d seen it and I got a bit upset by it.

Fleur: What was it that upset you?

Photo: Sarah Walker

Photo: Sarah Walker

Bridget: I think it’s because… Well because I’m a writer and it’s really hard to make work. It’s really hard to see a fictional writer, who I know is a real writer making fun of herself and her own indulgences, but I also know that they are my indulgences too. I think we do have to laugh at ourselves and I was kind of annoyed at myself for getting upset by it.

Fleur: But it is a painful play. We’re laughing at the same time as being disturbed. I do wonder what the experience is for someone not within the industry.

Bridget: I don’t know. I don’t know. Is that how people outside of theatre generally see theatre people? As this indulgent, over the top little world of drama queens and –

Fleur: And all sleeping with each other. I’m pretty sure that’s a key component in the outsider imaginings of theatre. I was at a Monash Student Association awards night last year and they announced Student Theatre saying “we come to student theatre to change the world” and a guy at the next table whispered “and have group sex”.

Bridget: Well yeah. That too.

Fleur: Column A, Column B.

The thing that distresses me watching this play – And I think it is a good kind of distress! I’m not saying I’m distressed and I don’t think this theatre should be happening! I think this is a very intentional trauma! But something that distresses me in it is that it is very specifically about the female artist as the hysterical woman.

Art comes from a place of vulnerability. I think, “Is this the only way women can be perceived as being vulnerable? To be this hysterical, blabbering, public, humiliating, self-loathing, women-loathing mess?”

But it’s also interesting because it makes her the very stereotypically female mess whilst, at the same time, making her the sexual aggressor and other things that women don’t get to be all that often. That silhouette of her wrapped around Matt Hickey is fucking amazing.

Bridget: And she’s – not only the sexual aggressor – but she is confident, in her own way. In her own work! She does hold power over other people because of that. She’s saying to the male actors “I’ll put you in that role”.

(After thought: I just want to add that, while this is true, this is a line that gets a laugh of derision from the audience.)

Photo: Sarah Walker

Photo: Eugene Teh

Fleur: I think so often about what Joanna Murray-Smith said to us during our Masters: how being a writer is a constant battle between your ego and your self-doubt and you’ve got to make sure that your ego just wins or else you’ll never write again. This play is the moment where this writer’s ego loses the battle.

Bridget: The direction is pretty great. That moment where Natasha reads out that monologue and is lit so beautifully! It is a really stunning. Like, you do really connect to that monologue. Even though you’ve heard it before, there’s also this moment of “But theatre is magic. It can be powerful.” You can still be fooled by it and connect with it even though it is in the middle of a show that you know is a play within a play and you know it’s fake and you know the joke.

Fleur: I think that moment is so important because, as you are blown away, the ‘writer’ hiding under a chair with her knickers hanging out. She is in this moment of absolute surrender to her neuroses and absolute emotive chaos but we can still be fooled, still love and still have that moment of falling into something created from a place of messy, chaotic, fucked up-ness. From that fucked up-ness can come this moment where someone is just glowing – just glowing up there. Yeah.

Shall we leave it there? And we will re-convene in a few hours.

Play two: The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas

Fleur: Okay. This is Fleur And Bridget In The Car, Part Two. So, just as the show was about to start again after interval, you said –

Bridget: I said, “I’m actually really worried”. I know one other work by the playwright really well – Osama the Hero – so I knew from the very start of the play “he’s not giving us this information to be nice. He’s giving us this information and he’s going to use it to fuck with us.” I mean, I think what I like about his writing is that you don’t know where it’s gonna go. It goes to surprising places so I was kind of terrified after interval. I was just like “You’re just going to do something! Something awful is going to happen to us.”

Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

Fleur: Which is actually a really – It is actually surprisingly rare in theatre to really be surprised by the text at every turn. Like that wonderful moment when she says, “Because I have stopped time.” Each time you figure out what this play is…

You know, you begin the play and it’s this group narrative. And it’s beautiful. A beautiful act of storytelling. And actually the text at that point reminds me of The Virgin Suicides. There’s something about that almost mystical beauty of adolescence that’s both ugly and gorgeous at the same time. It makes me think particularly of this moment where a boy expresses his love for this girl by stepping off the roof of his parent’s house. He stands on the edge of the roof, declares, “I love her”, jumps, falls all of a meter and a half, dusts himself off and walks away, sated because he’s found a way to express it. Something about the description in that first act made me think of that: the beautiful ugliness of children and young messed up, desperate love.

So you think that is what the play is. And then it changes and becomes this weird corporate… thing. And then it changes again and becomes this mystical thing –

Bridget: And then it is almost gothic!

It is really refreshing to see something that is epic. Well not, like, epic but a tragedy, like a Greek tragedy. But at the same time there’s nothing really epic about it. He’s just a very bad man. He’s a very bad, selfish man. The resistance of the play to settle in any one style is like the confusion of trying to understand a world in which some people have nothing and some people have everything. And there’s this disconnect with that.

Fleur: At the end I was thinking about the title of the play and why it was called that. And partly I feel like again it is Denis Kelly finding another way to surprise us at every turn because what is says is “I’m gonna kill him. I’m gonna kill him in this ritualised, destructive way.” I think it’s the slaughter of goodness. The ritualised destruction of any goodness – of any skerrick of the person that we were introduced to in that first act. That Gorge is slaughtered over the course of the play. But because of the set ups in the scenes, we are kind of waiting for him to die. And it feels a bit of an anti-climax and I’m into that in theatre. I like the dissatisfying ending because that means it defied my expectations.

So how did it make you feel?

Bridget: I mean I felt pretty sick watching it but I enjoy that. I think it is rare that theatre really makes you feel something that strongly. It was kind of the same feeling as watching The Wolf of Wall Street! And they didn’t give us any answers as to why he was this bad. There’s nothing we can do about him being like this and that seems true to life.

Fleur: Wolf of Wall Street is a really good analogy because there is no reason for those people to be as ugly and selfish as they are either. In this play I feel like that mystical element gives an optional out: “Oh we could blame the gods. Would that make you feel better? We could blame them.”

Bridget: Yeah! But it’s a club! It’s a secret club that they are in once they choose to be in it.

Fleur: And there is no point in the play where we see him using his powers. Everything that we see after that deal is immensely human because people are bad enough on their own without being able to stop time.

I make a sound that I’m going to describe as a series of consonants. Something like “Grrllllk!”

I don’t know how I’m going to transcribe that noise I just made. Thanks Fleur of the Past.

Photo: Jodie Hutchinson (I presume)

Photo: Jodie Hutchinson (I presume)

Bridget: It was on such a big scale without being a melodrama.

Fleur: Yeah. It is a step beyond the world. Despite being just the span of one man’s life, it feels bigger than that. Such good writing.

Bridget: He’s so fucking good. So fucking good. It made me excited about theatre.

Fleur: Yeah. It’s one of those scripts that makes me want to run and write. I want to surprise people! I want to have people leaning forward as I continually did throughout this text, even on second viewing!

Bridget: I’ve been trying to find alternatives to drama or to the main stage family drama and I’ve been thinking about how things can be epic and important without being that kind of a work and I think this play succeeds in doing that. It’s about something really important but it’s told in such a surprising way. I feel like the writer has tried to think about the audience’s experience of it.

Fleur: And yet, it also feels almost effortless at times. I feel that the first section was written on one of those beautiful days when you sit down and a first draft just pours out of you. There is such a flow to it. It doesn’t feel laboured. Its one of those light days of writing when it is just skipping out and you’re saying yes to everything that comes into your brain.

Bridget: Yeah. I can get out here!

Fleur: No it’s alright! I can get you closer because there’s the U-turn spot up a bit further.

Disclaimer: Bridget Mackey and I both work with MKA: Theatre of New Writing, who produced The Unspoken Word Is Joe.

conversation, intimate portraits, Sex

on not wanting to frighten, not expecting the call and some norwegian guy

It has been a while, poor, neglected bird. I have lovely theatre-y things to feed you but I also have a deadline that I really don’t want to fuck up. I am no Douglas Adams. I don’t “love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”. I am very into grinding to a halt on top of them with such abruptness that my seatbelt leaves bruises. So until you can smell burning rubber, have another anonymous conversation with another beautiful human being. 

The Empty Chair, Dena Cardwell

The Empty Chair, Dena Cardwell

Fleur:  Describe where we are?

Him:    We are in a… I’ll call it a ‘courtyard’. There are some buildings behind us from… well they want to be the 18th Century but they’re not quite. There’s a gallery on one side and the back of the museum building on the other. They’ve also managed to wedge in a little car park down the side. And this rather nice tree! What is this tree?

Fleur: A green one. With some with rough bark and it seems to have dropped a little scattering of cigarette butts under it. Yeah.

Was there – was there a kiss that’s lifted the bar? That’s made you go “oh, they could be all that!”

Him:    Any number! Um… Let’s see.

A long, long pause. We’re talking at least a minute here.

Him:    I’m having to search the archives. I’m really not trying to be coy. It’s just coming across that way.

Another long, long pause. I take off my shoes.

Him: There was one in particular that I suppose was very different because it was quite unexpected and out of the blue and out of my league, so I thought. So certainly my defences were down.

Fleur:  So what happened?

Him:    There was a phone call from out of the blue saying, “do you want to get a coffee,” which was a shock in itself. I’ve never been the type that people would call so that sort of put the nerves up right from the beginning. Even then there was still a sense of self-doubt as to whether anything was actually happening: “This can’t actually be anything more than a coffee, can it? That’s not what’s going on.” It was somebody who I’d been interested in for some time but had never really been able to acknowledge it at all. Then suddenly the head was on my shoulder and she sort of looked up at me and… there she was.

Fleur:  How did it feel?

Him:    It was a bit of an over-load of sensation. Not even just the physical sensations actually but just my own response to her interest as much as the kiss itself was something that I wasn’t really expecting. It was quite overwhelming.

Fleur: Are you still the guy who’s surprised to be called? Are you still just as shocked?

Him:    Sometimes. Yeah. I think we change. We change more than we think in some ways and less than we think in others. In some ways I feel more confident than I did ten or fifteen years ago and in other ways I’m always surprised that those feelings of surprised do come up quite regularly and I realise that I’m surprised I’m surprised still. I think “oh really? Are we still doing this? God help us all.”

At the moment I’m thinking that continued efforts to try to fight it actually make it worse. Because you make a duality of it so your efforts to work against it give it extra strength. You’ve given your doubts so much of your attention whereas if you focus on other things – the things that you might actually be good at, things that make you worthwhile, things that make you a person – that’s a better way of going. Ultimately that’s what you are. That’s what you have and people are attracted to that or not and that’s not really your call. Does that make sense?

Fleur:  Yeah. Absolutely.

I think there’s an inherent awareness among decent, sensitive men that their presence in and of itself can be a frightening thing. How do you navigate that?

Him: It just gets too difficult to even think about at times. My boundaries of impinging on other people’s comfort are so wide that require visas so the idea of even nudging into that is a bit of a confrontational thing for me to deal with, before we even get to anybody else. It’s also…

I’ve walked home at night and there’s been a woman twenty meters in front of me who I can tell is clutching her handbag more tightly because I’m walking behind her just because I’m a guy walking behind her and it’s midnight. So then I start thinking about the six-foot male syndrome of going “Right. This woman rightly or wrongly (in her perspective, rightly) is seeing some largish guy walking and fearing the worst. Which is completely legitimate.”

Fleur: That’s probably about as long as I can sit on grass for. My legs are just hating me right now.

We get up to move. I slap my legs a lot and hate my grass allergy. I switch off my recorder and say something like:

Fleur: I hope you don’t mind me saying this and I don’t want to… objectify you or anything but when I was asked to do more of these and asked who I wanted to interview I said “I want more straight men. They are the group that feel the most… mysterious to me.” I guess they talk to me less about their gender and sexuality than straight women or queer friends.

Him:    I find it strange to be representative of that group. (I switch back on the recorder as we walk.) I find it strange to be a representative of that group. I grew up being influenced by all things British pre-1950. Then I landed at primary school and it’s like “what are you people doing?” It was a different world and I had no idea how to interact with it. I would watch these guys kind of strut around the school yard and go “One: you’re an idiot. Two: what even is that?” It just looked like this enormous act.

Fleur: You’re still saying good stuff so we’re sitting down here.

We sit at a terrible plastic table in the loudest, windiest place to ever. I hate Fleur of the Past. Total jerk move.

Him: Okay.

Fleur: So you’re saying you’ve just never associated with being part of this group that is The Heterosexual Male. That’s just not your people.

Him: Not in this country, anyway. In other countries they read me very differently. Often times in this country I don’t particularly get associated with a group called “Straight Male” but in other countries I do. The first time I went to the UK and Europe, people gave some sense of reading me with some kind of straight sexuality. Yeah. Rather than being this kind of odd, quirky, off in my head somewhere, bater-ish male whatever. Which still is how I pretty much feel here.

Fleur:  Is that because other countries have a more multifaceted understanding of what it is to be male than Australia?

Landscape with figure, Russel Drysdale

Landscape with figure, Russel Drysdale

Him:    Ummmm. Yes but I would also say it’s historic. Um. I think this country was founded on a couple of particular versions of the founding myths that perpetuate themselves through a lot of external activity and a lack of investigation of certain aspects of the way the world and country works. That is not to say that that’s not present in other countries but there is a different sense of identity that plays out in other places.

Okay. Really, really base-level example: I was in Norway and I called up this guy who – I don’t know! I think I was supposed to stay at his house or something like that. I’ve forgotten that now. But I call him up from the airport, this friend of a friend of mine. And I was sort of talking to him and saying “hey, this is me, blah, blah, blah” and he says in this – the perfect irony of this guy saying this in a Norwegian accent – he says “Oh! You sound so masculine!” That was the first time! I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight and that was the first time anybody had ever said that. Ever.

I did a demo reel over there for a voice-over job. I did it in an English accent because that was the usual thing. And here as a voice-over artist I get bank ads and insurance commercials. There they said, “Oh, he sounds like James Bond!” I’m like “Who are you people?” So there was this total, strange re-defining. And it wasn’t about being Australian either because my English accent at that point was pretty pinging. I really got the phonetics down. There was something else going on just to do with the way I was being read. The difference was palpable all across the board. And I don’t know how much of that was just my own internalised perception of whatever that I play out here – a self-fulfilling prophecy maybe – I’m sure there’s probably an element of that – but the standard definition of masculinity in this country sort of puts me like this.

He puts his hands far apart.

Him: This is my experience. In terms of attitudes, in terms of approach and appearance. In terms of income? Absolutely.

This is going to sound how it sounds. The low point of that for me was when I had a former partner who gave me an income target for me to be acceptable.

Fleur:  Wow.

Him:    That was the kind of extreme spots version. “Wow, this exists!” I was kind of living in this dream world of love conquers all. That sticks in your head. There is definitely that element of income and material status as a display of masculine identity. Absolutely. And I don’t buy it. I just don’t buy it.

There were reasons for her saying that. Don’t get me wrong. She’d been brought up in this sense of precariousness that meant that she felt she had to have a certain financial baseline to feel any sort of sense of safety or security so I’m not – I’m not saying that was wrong for her. But I’m saying it does play out.

The wind roars. A gust sends all the chairs moving across the courtyard like a shitty fleet of plastic ships.

Fleur: We’ll try ending again.

This time we manage it.

My own plays, Theatre

on responsibility, vulnerability, getting naked on stage and not talking about charlie hebdo

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about responsibility.

It is the subject of our upcoming season of Audio Stage, which Jana Perkovic, Kieran Ruffles and I are currently in preproduction for but the horrific attacks in Paris and fascinating Facebook conversation about onstage nudity really emphasized to me how crucial and wide-reaching this concept is in the arts.

I don’t want talk about Charlie Hebdo. I’ve been silent since the attacks happened. I don’t just mean social media silent: for three days I paced my parent’s house, listlessly agonising over four typed paragraphs, which I never posted. My mother kept catching me staring vacantly at bits of wall, my blank page or my muted computer screen. All I will say is that my un-ranted rant, still sitting on my computer ended with this:

“Je ne suis pas Charlie et je ne suis pas Ahmed. Je sues Australienne and I cannot begin to understand the full complexities of this horrific event from where I stand.”


I’m taking a moment.

It is hard to re-set from that but let’s give it a shot.

Asterix creator Albert Uderzo's response.

Asterix creator Albert Uderzo’s response.

Okay? Let’s go.

Stage nudity I can talk to.

The essence of the Facebook conversation was that one theatre maker stated that nudity is always gratuitous onstage, always the easy choice and never a necessary one.

Now I don’t mean to attack this one artist. Rather, I think some of what he said opened a very interesting discussion, for whilst his absolutes aren’t likely to get many artists on side – for absolutes are not conducive to art – I have heard similar reservations expressed by many: nudity frequently alienates the audience, removing them from the play and turning the body before them from ‘character’ to ‘actor’ in an instant. We often find ourselves critically scrutinising the naked form, not for physical imperfections but for signs of discomfort.

Here’s the thing: We’ve all seen nudity done badly. We’ve also all seen lighting done badly. And sound. And, let’s face it, acting. The difference is, of course, that doing nudity badly can result in a trauma considerably more serious than the annoyance I feel at seeing a badly focused wash. (But check your washes. Don’t make me get up that ladder for you. Because I will, you know.)

Adrienne Truscott, photo: Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival

Adrienne Truscott, photo: Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival

I’ll come back to this. First, let me state how much I love good stage nudity. I am completely opposed to the idea that it is always gratuitous or always the easy choice. I am also opposed to the concept that it should only be used if there are no other options. Few elements of theatre could hold up to such scrutiny and why should they? I don’t believe that artists need to choose any element of their art as a last choice; rather they should ask if it is the best choice.

There is a belief that, because nudity often makes us aware of the actor, rather than the character, that it is devoid of metaphor. I believe this shows a fundamental lack of understanding of both metaphor and how multifaceted theatre is today. Frequently this alienation is exactly what the makers want: to bring you, your pre-conceptions, your discomfort, your little judgmental inner voice and your own relationship with your body into the room with their theatre.

One outstanding example of such a choice is Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It, A One Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy And Little Else. Adrienne performed the show naked from the waist down as she spoke and joked about rape and how comedians (particularly male comedians) talk about sexual violence towards women. In performing half naked, in drinking the entire time and making constant references to her own sex life, she dared us to accuse her of ‘asking for it’. It was a battle cry in the war against victim blaming and sex shaming and a very subtle dig at the audience. As liberal-minded, lefty arts-going types, it is easy for us to distance ourselves from the shitty, lowlifes who would blame a victim for their own victimization. Adrienne crafted her show in such a way that many of the audience were forced to confront their own internalised judgmental voices. She brought us into the room and made us own the ugliest parts of our psyche.

Another example is one of my own play, Yours The Face. (Spoilers ahead if you are planning to catch the Perth or Melbourne season.) In this one-man show, a male performer plays both a middle-aged male photographer and the nineteen-year-old female model he photographs. People relax into this surprisingly quickly. The jarring image of seeing a bearded man perform as a girl is always present but becomes less of a mental dislocation as the piece goes on. About half way through the show, as the relationship becomes messier and the ways in which the photographer objectifies her become more problematic, the actor strips off. His maleness is brought back to the front of our minds and his body is objectified as a woman’s. In that moment he is read as both physically male and socially female. It is an incredibly challenging image and the nakedness of the performer is a big part of what sells this moment.

Yours the Face, Photo: Sarah Walker

Yours the Face, Photo: Sarah Walker

The Rabble’s Frankenstein was also a stunning use of onstage nudity, not because it removed us from the world but because it allowed us to sink into it. The monster, played by Jane Montgomery Griffiths, was left abandoned on the stage directly after its birth, umbilical chord still attached. The nudity of the performer and the duration of her abandonment emphasised the complete disregard the other characters had for her: she was not a being but the unfortunate bi-product of a failed experiment. It made her ‘other’ from the rest of the world and was fierce an induction into human cruelty. Could it have worked with a clothed performer? I don’t know. But I do know that certainly worked incredibly well with the nudity and it intensified my experience of the scene. The image will stay with me for many years.

And nudity can also be fun and silly! Did Trygve Wakenshaw need to strip down in Kraken? Who the fuck cares. The scene was hysterically funny and, as it was a clowning show, I feel that is justification enough.

Look. As someone who used to get my gear off for art, I know more than most how shit it can feel to be made vulnerable for the sakes of someone else’s art and how quickly you can change from ‘Person Comfortable With Their Body’ to ‘Person Totally Demoralised’. But this can also happen to someone wearing clothes.

At work in 2009. Photo: Scott Brown

At work in 2009. Photo: Scott Brown

This is particularly true of artists because we work in highly charged environments. Our work places are more complicated than other peoples’ and require a level of vulnerability that most people never reach in their day-to-day lives. There is never going to be a time when the bank teller will be asked to push his co-worker up against a wall and close his hands around her throat. The retail worker will not need to put her hands in her co-worker’s pants and the barista will not be spat upon. The political lobbyist won’t have to simulate his own suicide and the carpenter can safely assume that she won’t be pinned down by three colleagues today.

As artists, we need to work with an acute awareness of the demands or our world. Sensitive subject matter should always be a dialogue with the cast and creatives. Just because someone has been naked on stage before or performed a sex scene in previous production, does not mean that the process can be abbreviated. The fact that everything and everyone was fine last time is no guarantee that everything and everyone will automatically be fine this time. The burden of responsibility will always be with the facilitator (director, photographer, leading artist, etc.) to ensue that participants feel empowered, validated and safe.

I have fucked up in the past. Most young directors have. Some may not know they have but I happen to have fucked up in such a way that it was undeniable. The fact that both performers were fully clothed and the scene involved no physical violence only serves to remind me how carefully we must tread. It was a lesson (a traumatic one) in just how quickly and drastically a rehearsal room can change and how crucial it is to be across all aspects of your room at all times, particularly when dealing with sensitive material.

As much as I wish I could push the memory of that day back into the darkest recesses of my mind, I keep it present. I remember it frequently and I talk about it with young directors and actors. I recently used it as an example to a room of forty young theatre makers as they took notes. I am determined that this incident will make me a better artist and educator and I hope that, in sharing it, I may save someone the trauma of having to learn the same lesson in their own rehearsal room, at the expense of someone else’s feeling of security.

Mark Wilson, Richard III, photo: Sarah Walker

Mark Wilson, Richard III, photo: Sarah Walker

The reason that our work places demand vulnerability is because vulnerability is the superpower of art. We examine violence, sex and nudity because these are things that need to be examined. We need to press on these wounds, grieve and shout but we also need to laugh at our bodies, to celebrate our bodies and to argue with them. We need to challenge each other, protect each other, mock each other and anger each other. The old adage that art holds a mirror up to society is far too passive. Sometimes, that mirror needs to be smashed. So go on: take your pants off.


on podcasts, the sightless, the invisible and the urgent

This is a bit different.

As many people know, I’m obsessed with podcasts. We don’t have a TV and I barely watch film but podcasts are up there with theatre for me. I am currently subscribed to thirty-two and each day of the week has a subtitle in my head announcing which podcast it belongs to: Monday is ThisAmericanLifeDay, Tuesday is SavageDay, Wednesday is DeathSexAndMoneyDay and so on. What I enjoyed most about following Serial over the last few months was that finally there were people as obsessed as I was about just putting headphones on and going for a walk.

Podcasting is such an intimate way to tell a story. It reaches into your room, your car, your life and you can immerse yourself as little or as much as you like. When we started Audio Stage we talked about this because Jana listens to podcasts as background sound. She likes being able to drift in and out as she multitasks and so prefers long-form, unedited conversations, whilst I listen for total immersion and love the tightly produced podcasts that have really worked on how to make audio the complete experience.

I am fascinated by how simply a piece of audio can sum up a world: in episode 522 of This American Life, Tarred and Feathered an interviewee in the small town of Blairsville, Georgia, says cheerfully to the reporter, Stephanie Foo, “You know, you’re the first China Lady I’ve ever met!” “China lady?” Stephanie asks. “China Lady!” he reiterates proudly. Those four seconds of tape tells us so much about life in Blairsville.

Whenever someone mentions podcasts, people descend to give their recommendations. These days I try to avoid doing it unless asked because it can be very over-whelming. But today I’m breaking that rule. Here are 279 of my favourite minutes of podcasting: my favourite episodes of my favourite series. I believe these really show what an incredibly powerful medium radio can be.


Storycorps is one of the largest oral history projects of its kind. Since its inception in 2003, they have recorded more than 50, 000 interviews. They give everyday people the opportunity to interview someone from their own lives. The entire series is stunning but their work within the LGBTQI community (including a gorgeous series of interviews with people who were at the Stonewall Riots) feels particularly precious and urgent. Because these are very short, I’m giving two recommendations as I think they show how stories can change us.

1. Rita and Jay Fischer – 2 minutes 29 seconds

The first time I heard this story I was driving to pick up a friend. In less than three minutes it had me in tears. When I reached the friend’s house, by way of explaining my state, I played him the episode. We sat there and cried together.

In this episode 90-year-old Rita speaks with her son about his coming out in the 80s. It is a tiny, perfect, beautiful piece of humanity. Simple, hilarious and gorgeous. The kind of radio that makes you sit and cry, not once but twice in your car on the way to the gym. Also, amazing New York accents.

“When you talked about not knowing about me being gay… I mean, I consider you a lot of things but dumb isn’t one of them. And I had left so many clues!”

“I don’t know what clues you’re talking about!”

“I had somebody over three times a week for five years!”

“In my house?”

“In your house! I had a fuck buddy!”

“That’s what you call ‘em? Fuck buddies!”

2. Alex Landau and Patsy Hathaway – 3 minutes 34 seconds

This is another mother and son. Here they talk about when Alex, a young African-American man, was attacked by police in Denver.

In an incredibly short amount of time, it gives a human voice to something so big and ugly that it can be difficult to comprehend.

“I thought that love would conquer all and that skin colour really didn’t matter. I had to learn the really hard way when they almost killed you.”

The Fischers.

The Fischers.


Radiolab was my first love as a podcast. From first listen my mind was blown. These guys truly changed the baseline for this medium. The podcasts you hear today with their incredible audio production owe a lot to this crew. But to lead with this makes it sound as if Radiolab is simply a cool work of technical brilliance. It is not. They have used their skills to make something that is incredibly warm and vibrant. Their audio world feels lived in and tactile. It is made more immediate because of its production. They milk the medium for all it is worth for the purpose of telling bloody good true stories.

Color – 1 hour and 6 minutes

I picked ‘Color’ (although it pains me to spell it without a ‘u’) because I am showing off on their behalf. Jad and Robert devote an hour of radio to something that is entirely visual and to make it work they get immensely creative.

The ground they cover in this episode and the ways in which they illustrate it is quite astounding. To explain how different animals perceive colour, they get a full choir to sing the different versions of the rainbow as seen by a dog, human, sparrow, butterfly and mantis shrimp. You hear the vision as incredible chords. I’m sure you didn’t know that what you needed in your life was to hear a choir sing the vision of a mantis shrimp but you do. It is a truly stunning piece of radio.

The last segment of this hour, entitled ‘Why the sky isn’t blue’ is also incredible. This takes us through how language and art have affected our perception of colour and the world around us. EPIC.

The mantis shrimp. As seen by the human eye and an anonymous camera. Gosh I hate not having image credits.

The mantis shrimp. As seen by the human eye and an anonymous camera. Gosh I hate not having image credits.

99 Percent Invisible

This is a podcast about design. Specifically it is about the design elements that go unnoticed in our world: the design of sound for smartphones, that make our interactions with them feel tangible or the design of a deaf university, with curved corners to avoid collisions and the best colour walls to read sign against. It is a beautiful little thing.

I feel strange giving this particular episode as a recommendation because it is totally not what the podcast usually does and what it usually does is excellent. BUT I also feel fucking great about this recommendation because it is one of the most beautiful half hours of radio I’ve ever listened to.

Wild ones: A Sometimes Dismaying, Weirdly Reassuring Story About Looking At People Looking At Animals In America – 32 minutes 52 seconds

This is another one where I remember the first time I heard it. I was driving along a highway, beaming, laughing and tearing up in turn.

The episode is a live recording of a collaboration between author Jon Mooallem and the band Black Prairie. It is the story of a world in flux, a world in which we must attempt to navigate our ever-changing, immensely problematic relationship with nature.

And it is a story so good that it made this podcast break its one cardinal rule: they deal with the built world and not the natural one. You can hear the host, Roman Mars groping to justify the choice to include it and he manages it – it isn’t a book about nature, it is a book about how we fit it into our modern lives – but in reality, he just fell in love. As did I.

I listened to this again tonight with my father whilst we did the dishes. I watched him quietly beam as I had in the car and I tried to keep my happy sobs surreptitious. It fills my heart.

One small warning: As it is a live recording, the mix isn’t perfect. I’d advise listening on good speakers. But, that said, my first listen was playing it out of my phone as I drove at 100 kilometers per hour and it touched me just fine.

Jon Mooallem and Black Prairie performing Wild Ones Live'. Photo by Nalinee Darmrong

Jon Mooallem and Black Prairie performing Wild Ones Live’. Photo by Nalinee Darmrong

Death, Sex and Money

This is a pretty new podcast from WNYC. Less than a year old, the premise is very simple: Anna Sale interviews people about the taboo topics of death, sex and money. Anna Sale just happens to be one of the best and most intimate interviewers I’ve ever listened to and you can really hear that in this episode I’m recommending.

Ellen Burstyn’s Lessons on Survival - 54 minutes 55 seconds

Ellen Burstyn, renowned actor and all-round amazing lady, who must have done countless interviews in her life, seems genuinely surprised by the questions. In fact, after the interview is over she calls Anna back on a separate day because she decided that one of the questions deserved a better answer than what she gave.

This particular interview actually inspired my anonymous interviews series. Anna asked, “when did you first know you were beautiful” and I suddenly went “fuck. That’s the kind of thing I don’t get to ask when my premise is exclusively theatre.”

But why this interview makes it onto my ‘vital listening’ list is the window is opens onto a very troubling time. Ellen speaks of leaving her abusive husband before domestic violence was treated as a crime. It is incredibly important to remember our history, where we have come from and why equality is worth fighting for:

“When I called the police, they said, we don’t mix in household problems. And I said, he’s threatened to kill me. And he said, no, we don’t respond. And I said, well what is it you do? And he said, we apprehend criminals when a crime has been committed. And I said, you mean, I should call if he actually kills me. And he said, that’s right.”

Ellen Burstyn in 'Alice doesn't live here anymore', 1970

Ellen Burstyn in ‘Alice doesn’t live here anymore’, 1970

This American Life

What to pick for This American Life? 2015 will be their 20th year on the air and they are master storytellers. This show is the matriarch of podcasting, a true institution. Watching everyone go ape for Serial made me want to whisper into the Internet void “you know this is basically This American Life. You know you have twenty years of amazing true stories to catch up on, right?”

For those of you feeling the pangs of withdrawal from Serial, try Dr Gilmer and Mr Hyde, another true and puzzling crime presented by Sarah Koenig. She spent months investigating this case and handles the story with her typical curiosity, empathy and awareness for the complexity of human life.

But this is my recommendation.

Harper High School: Part one and part two – 57 minutes,12 seconds and 1 hour 2 minutes and 10 seconds

“We spent five months at Harper High School in Chicago, where last year alone twenty-nine current and recent students were shot. Twenty-nine. We went to get a sense of what it means to live in the midst of all this gun violence, how teens and adults navigate a world of funerals and Homecoming dances.”

This two parter won them a Peasbody award for journalistic excellence. It was not their first and I doubt it will be their last but there is an urgency and a beauty to this piece that catches my breath. Gun violence is such a massive issue and yet here TAL go for the tiny human elements in the story, something that radio illustrates incredibly well.

After the first episode aired, Ira Glass responded to claims made in social media that they had sought out and found the nation’s most violent school. No, he said, they just found a school, one that had seen a lot of shootings. In the second episode they speak to principals from other high schools around the country. I was sobbing by the end:

“Liz Dozier: Hi, I’m Liz Dozier, the Principle of Finger High School on the far South Side of Chicago. We’ve lost nine students to violence in the last little over three years.

Shontae Higginbottom: I am Shontae Higgenbottom. And I’m the new principal here at King College Prep High School here in Chicago. And this year, I’ve had two students who were shot during our Christmas break. And then we had the last case with Hadiya Pendleton. And she died.

John Lynch: My name is John Lynch. I’m the Principle of Castlemont High School in Oakland, California. So I’ve been at Castlemont High School for the past two and a half years. And in the time that I’ve been here, six students have been shot. And two of those students who were shot were actually killed.

Bertie Simmons: I am Bertie Simmons. And I am the Principal of Furr High School. And it’s located on the Far East Side of Houston, Texas. In the last two years, I could name five students that were shot and killed.

Rahel Wondwossen: My name is Rahel Wondwossen. And I am the Principle of Cohen College Prep High School. We are located in Central City, New Orleans. At Cohen College Prep High School last year, we had two students who were shot. Both, thankfully, survived. And in the city of New Orleans, we had more than 10 students who were shot and killed.

Laquanda Jackson: My name is LaQuanda Jackson. I’m the Principle of Simon Gratz Mastery Charter High School in Philadelphia. This year, we have lost one student to gun violence. Last year, we lost two students to gun violence. And the year before, there were six.

Alberto Carvalho: My name is Alberto Carvalho. I am the Superintendent of Miami-Dade County Public Schools right here in Florida. Over the past four and a half years, I have buried or attended viewings for 44 children who have died violent deaths right here in our community.”

Security guard at Harper High School, image by Bill Healy

Security guard at Harper High School, image by Bill Healy

These are my recommendations. Two hundred and seventy-nine minutes and twelve seconds of stunning radio. I think it justifies my addiction but more than that, I think it demonstrates the strengths of this medium, the intimacy and intricacy with which it can examine what it means to be human and the importance of stories.

conversation, intimate portraits, Sex

on the challenge of bisexual identity, reconciling one’s own masculinity, grindr racism and off soy chips

Another anonymous conversation

The Setting

– Describe where we are.

– We are in a park. There’s – like – surprisingly lovely green grass. There’s a plane flying overhead. This is an audio recording, I didn’t need to say that. Oh wait, it’s getting transcribed.

There’s one of those weird early 90s playgrounds that’s entirely vivid McDonalds-coloured plastic and it’s kind of amazing. I’m kind of really into that aesthetic. There’s also this weird sketch old dude with a really fat shih tzu. Me and Fleur have just had a long conversation about whether we’d be able to run from him and we’re pretty sure that we could.

There’s also one of those coin-operated barbeques, which hold an incredibly fond place in my immigrant heart. We honestly couldn’t believe when we moved to Australia that there were coin-operated barbeques. That’s fucking amazing. That’s the most Australian thing. Like, how are you meant to deal with that? That’s insane.

Yeah. And that’s where we are.

By Sarah Walker

By Sarah Walker, as usual

Men kissing men

– Tell me about kissing men in public.

– Ha! God dammit, Fleur! Um… I mean I guess you would just dive straight in with that.

– Yeah.

– Look, I guess I have an anecdote: My boyfriend moved continents this week. It’s weird when you find yourself as a bi-sexual man, who has kissed girlfriends goodbye at the airport, getting anxious about how you grieving a partner leaving is going to play out in the public sphere. Yeah…

It was a pretty grim day. I mean, I cried a bunch but I was pretty okay by the time I got to the airport. We were hanging around waiting for the gate to open and then it opens and suddenly he’s not okay. And he just looks at me, hugs me and says, “Just promise me you’ll take care of yourself,” and then bursts out with tears hugging me in this airport.

I was wearing this t-shirt that said “Thieves in the Night” and the security guard had already told me off and there were these two random, rat-tailed bogans who thought it would be appropriate to tell me off for it as well. And they were sitting just there and here I am, getting hugged by this crying man. He pulls back and he kisses me.

There’s something about kissing men in public that just is completely transcendentally affirming. Like, you know that you’re absolutely not meant to and going through the back of your mind you’ve simultaneously got these images of people getting bashed post-Pride but, at the same time, thanks to your Wikipedia addiction, you’ve also got the Bash Back! slogan going through your head. It’s this weird place where you’re so ready for it and you’re also so ready for what will happen when it ends and when nothing happens it just… Yeah. It’s something else.

And I guess that’s my anecdote. It’s feeling anxious about kissing my boyfriend at the airport while wearing an inappropriate t-shirt with a bunch of scary, rat-taily people watching, and it being totally okay.

– Do you remember the first time you kissed a guy in public?

– Oh my God! I’m not sure that I do! Wait! No, no, no, no, no! Oh! Wait! Ahhhh… Yes! I do! I do! It was the only New Years party I’ve ever thrown. It was 2009. There was this friend who I’d been crushing on as a teenager who I’d kind of forgotten about but he turned up. And we kind of did that thing where eighteen-year-old heavy-scare-quote “straight boys” do where we joke kissed.

He tasted like cigarettes and Jack Daniels and it was the most surprisingly erotic mix. God help me: if you smoke a pack-a-day and drink whiskey, I’m there for that! And it’s bizarre because it wasn’t meant to mean anything but it was really nice, actually.

– So at that point, you’re still thinking of yourself as straight? Was that the bizarre part?

– No!

I’m bisexual. Oh and I’ve always known that I liked guys and girls and I’m reluctant to tell stories about my sexuality to start with because I think that is a narrative that straight people expect of us and want to hear. I think that they want us to be like “no! No, I am so sure of myself!” because it re-affirms that their heterosexuality is sure and set in stone in the way that our society says that it should be.

Look, I found myself attracted to men first, then I found myself attracted to women but this was all in my very early teens. But for a long time I really just hated men. A lot. Most of my early romantic longings were for women but most of my early sexual longings were for men. I mean, look: men are bastards. Don’t get me wrong. We are.

I think at that point I thought of myself as “Straight Plus.” It was this thing where I was like “loooooook: more than likely gonna end up in a relationship with a woman because girls are just wow. But guys are stupidly attractive.”

– I know, right!

By Sarah Walker, as usual

By Sarah Walker, as usual

The challenge 

I’m really interested by that idea of straight people wanting a queer narrative to be a particular way.

– Yeah, it wasn’t something I really thought of until I read Shiri Eisner’s book, Notes on the Bisexual Revolution. Shiri Eisner is a fantastic, gender queer, bisexual, badass, Israeli author. She talks about it a lot in the context of transgender people’s narratives and, talking about how men especially want you to tell them that their gender is stable. She goes on to talk about it in the context of bisexuality, which is obviously how it most pertinently relates to me.

But I mean, it is challenging! Straight people are challenged by this because this is stuff that’s contentious in the light of how we frame this hegemonic straightness in our society. “Yeah, no, no, no, you have to be one thing.” It’s not how it works. At all, actually.

I think fluidity of sexuality is a kind of dangerous concept sometimes. My sexuality isn’t really that fluid at all. It’s been the same for a while. But, at the same time, it kind of is. I feel like a lot of these terms are designed to destabilise bisexual identity – Anyway! I don’t know where I was going with that but yeah.

– That sounded like a good sentence that you just threw away at the end there.

– I’m sorry.

– That’s fine!

Reconciling by disowning

I was thinking about what you were saying about men being bastards. How do you reconcile your own masculinity with this sense that – That’s such a big question!

– No! It’s a big question but it’s a big question that I’ve been asking myself a lot. Yeah – Look – Honestly – I think – Like – What I’ve been slowly coming to terms with is – I’ve been basically…

Reconciling your own masculinity is actually mostly dealing with your own internalised misogyny. If we’re honest. Like – it is. Like –

Oh God, I have another fucking anecdote:

So my brother got married and he had a Buck’s Weekend. Let me just repeat that: Buck’s. Weekend. In a little country town.

The other fun thing to preface this with is that my brother is a – My brother is not a dick but he is a moderately conservative Christian. Like, he’s a really cool guy but he fucking loves Jesus! And also, had absolutely no desire for there to be any strippers. At all. He was like, “look. First of all, I think it’s gross. Second of all, I’m getting married. I don’t want to see another woman’s vagina ever again. That’s literally the point.” And I was like, “I don’t think it is. But that was a cute sentence.”

He had one other gay co-worker. We drove up together and we drove back together. We’re good mates now. I’m not incredibly masculine but his co-worker is just a glorious, glorious dude. He has wonderful blue hair, he’s in a long-term monogamous relationship with another man and just completely fucking owns his gender performance in a way that – like – I am not at a stage that I can do.

So it was this fascinating thing having drunk straight men tell me that they liked me more because I was less “girlie”. That was the first thing. And I was like, (puts on an overtly effeminate voice) “Well, first of all darling, she’s exhausted! She’s fucking tired! She’s had a long fucking day hanging out with you dickheads. And you’re sitting there drinking your UDLs and drinking all of her Coopers Pales and it’s fucking tiring her out, Darling! It’s so tiring! It’s exhausting! She’s practically aching for a drink.”

(He returns to his regular speaking voice.)

And it became this thing: we both just ended up using female pronouns for the entire weekend, which was incredibly fun. They got really angry about it at one point. There’s nothing like someone yelling at you that they accept you but you’re being really fucking annoying that tells you everything you need to know about how straight masculinity works. So that was really fucking funny.

So I guess that’s how I reconcile my masculinity. Like, fuck, I am a man. I just don’t think that being a man is anything to be proud of. I am a man. I am a gross, sweaty, hairy man and I food poisoned myself as a vegetarian by eating soy chips I’d left in full sunlight on my desk for two weeks. I’m a disgusting twenty-something dude but there is nothing to be proud of in that. Like, actually at all.

I guess my big thing has been coming to terms with understanding that there is absolutely no reason for me to defend that or have any interest in perpetuating my own masculinity. And yeah, when I’m confronted with people who do that, my basic response is just to be as feminine as possible because, like, shit! Like, actually fuck it!

Oh, another story from that weekend! There’s a shit load of textas around and one of the shitfaced guys decides he wants to tag the house. So it’s this old surfer sort of hostel thing. White weatherboard house. So he tags on the side of the house in blue texta “Gay House” then, after about thirty seconds, realising he is in mixed company, hastily scribbles it out. And that’s it: that’s my effect! That is the effect that I have had. Someone who is enough of an idiot to draw on the side of a fucking house was like “oh, I probably shouldn’t say ‘gay.’” That is my good in the world.

– You have carved a safe place that is those three inches of weatherboard on that weird surfer house.

– Fucking funny. It was one of my favourite of my brother’s telling off rants. He cares for intellectually disabled children for a living and he was like “I have never had to tell one of my kids that it is not a fucking good idea to draw on a fucking wall, you fucking idiot.”

I’m making this sound like it was no big deal! I’m pretty sure I cried at least once that weekend. I had to build myself up to it for weeks. I watched drag queen insult videos for a solid week beforehand just to prepare myself. I think my favourite one was from Veep – this isn’t even a drag queen insult but it’s great: “You’re like Frankenstein’s monster if Frankenstein’s monster was made entirely out of dead dicks.” That was probably my favourite insult I dished out that weekend. But it was pretty fucking horrific. Fun times.

That’s how – that’s how I reconcile my masculinity: by actually disowning it most of the time.

One of my own photos. From many year ago. I regret the martini glass.

One of my own photos. I regret the martini glass.

– What role does feminism play in your life?

– Look, okay, feminism isn’t my space to intrude on. Which is to say, I’ve read a lot of feminist texts and I love them to bits. I owe a shit load to feminism but I’m not going to call myself a ‘feminist’ purely because that is their space. I’ll call myself a decent fucking human being who espouses the same beliefs! But honestly it’s a space for women to be allowed to speak without men present. It’s so important that women have these spaces. Feminism plays a huge role for me in terms of how I educate myself but I do honestly believe that there should be spaces that women are allowed to go without men.

– Do you think that there should be a space for men just to be amongst other men?

– You mean the entire world!

– Well done.

– I’m sorry but all spaces are men’s spaces by default in our society.

– Are there conversations though, that men should be having amongst themselves?

– Absolutely. I mean I can’t speak for straight men – I’m not even gonna pretend – but yeah, as gay men we need to have some serious conversations about race and misogyny within gay circles. Absolutely. I mean gay men who think they get a pass from being a white man because they are gay shit me the fuck off because most of them are still misogynistic pricks. And if Grindr has taught me anything, it’s that there are plenty of racist gay men. It’s fucking horrific. “You don’t want three billion people? Three billion people disgust you sexually?” Wow. What a nuanced fucking worldview, you cunt! I’ve so got zero time for any of that. And we need to have those conversations really desperately in gay circles.

And misogyny is a huge deal. I think this is because a lot of gay men are very protective of their masculinity because that’s a reasonable response to have when people are trying to feminise you in society: to try and sure up your masculinity. I mean, women do this, too. They do! “No! I’m not a silly woman! Look at me in this blazer!” I don’t know. I actually don’t know. I assume there are blazers. But it is actually a reasonable response… if you’re fucking twelve. We need to get to a point as a community where we are less precious about what straight people think of us. It is such an issue. Yeah. This is a bad direction for our identity to go in. We’re enforcing the same systems that made us feel like shit when we were kids. It’s just not acceptable. That’s my feelings. On that.

I’m upset now! I get bummed out when I talk about queer identity politics. I need to remember that a significant number of people I talk to about this whole-heartedly agree with me. Just because dickheads with muscles and haircuts on Grindr are as big dickheads as people with muscles and haircuts outside of Grindr doesn’t necessarily write off a significant amount of wonderful people. It doesn’t.

Hello 2015. Nice to meet you. Let’s be friends. 

Speaking of friends, go and check out Sarah Walker’s website for more of her outstanding photography. She is also running a year-long project called The Art Olympics, which is all about pushing us to work outside of our comfort zone and in different mediums. Go and sign up. 

Thank you to my outstanding interviewee. His words were a delight.