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.

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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.”

Silence.

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.

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podcasts

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

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

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.

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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. 

Standard
creativity, My own plays, personal, Sex

a year in moments (and a few numbers)

2014treelegs

At Abbotsford Convent, photo by my sister.

1.

“I think we should have sex,” he says. “I’ve seen your photos. You’re beautiful.”

“Okay. So you know those are – like – five years and five kilos ago, right?”

An acrobat balances on the handles of a bike. Round and round she goes. The crowd growls its delight.

“Should we kiss or something?” I ask.

“Nah, better not. I’ve slept with a heap of girls here. But sometime. If you’re keen.”

Ten months later we stand in the dark in an empty room staring out at a garden strewn with paper lanterns

“Are we in one of your stories?” He asks. “The awkward silence. It feels like this is going to end up in one of your stories.”

2.

“There’s this guy I’ve been seeing who I can’t stand. He talks about feeling energy through his fingertips and shit. You’d be perfect for each other. You’re so fucking whimsical.”

Out the window of our car, the landscape shudders with heat.

3.

There is a burn-off by the side of the road. We slow down to pass and I feel the heat through the glass, slow-roasting the left sides of my face. Above us, dozens of hawks dive through the air. They look drunk. Or high. Ecstatic with the giddy pleasure of the heat columns the fire produces and the thousands of insects it sends to slaughter.

4.

We drive through mist. He tells me about his wedding day:

“Everyone was so full of hope. And expectations. Not only were we expected to have this perfect marriage but we were meant to set an example to the world of what marriage should be. Jesus to His church. We’d borrowed your grandpa’s Volvo for the honeymoon. As we drove off, the car felt so big and she, so far away.”

The marriage has lasted twenty-five years longer than their religious conviction.

At work.

At work.

5.

I have been archiving for days. Weeks. Hour after hour, balanced on a small white stool. But that’s okay because I’ve discovered time travel.

Time travel is much simpler than we thought it would be:

I pick up a file and I’m transported to a time when someone born in 1975 was ten-years-old; when a 1981 baby was referred to as ‘Master’; when someone born in 1895 was a “spritely 90-year-old” rather than a walking miracle; when September 10th, 2001 was just another day and not the last day before the world changed.

Time travel is also more boring than we thought it would be:

On these days, made miraculous by my sudden transportation to their re-animated present, all that happened was that patients got their ear canals cleaned.

6.

In between patients I run to the toilet and spit bile into the bowl. My boss gives me knowing sideways looks. She clearly suspects pregnancy, a common plight amongst my demographic. I nurse my empty stomach and fantasise about sick leave.

7.

I dream of whales the size of skyscrapers leaping into the eye-blue sky in perfect unison. From my vantage point clinging to sandstone cliffs, they are like cities, rising and falling in moment, rather than millennia.

“They look like a screensaver,” I think.

Even unconscious I’m still an expert mood-killer.

8.

There is champagne. Bottles of it on ice and our full glasses on the bench. Next to fifty bajillion bobby pins. Next to flowers. Next to our awards.

Suddenly I’m sobbing in Danny’s arms, which is fucking dumb because, you know… award. Perhaps it has something to do with becoming unemployed (again) the same hour I win something. Perhaps is about with the way I spent my day reminding myself of all the times I had been a runner-up just to make sure that I wouldn’t be disappointed if it happened again. It probably has a lot to do with exhaustion.

Which is fucking dumb.

Two days later I’ll remember to be happy and I’ll be thrilled. I’ll remember the three years of work that went into it – how the structure and the characters’ motivations were the hardest of any I’ve had to grapple with – and I’ll be happy. And grateful. And relieved.

But that night my brain melts from my ears. I sag. My usually terrible memory is replaced by an even worse one and almost every face that congratulates me, that leans in and kisses my cheek, is a stranger.

Which is fucking dumb.

In Dalby, Queensland photograph by Gabriel Comerford

In Dalby, Queensland, photograph by Gabriel Comerford

9.

I ask Siri why we make art. She thinks I’m asking her to make out and suggests an article called ‘why nerds are unpopular’. She gets me.

10.

This year I worked on twenty different productions.

I saw eighty-seven shows in which six hundred and eleven actors performed.

I kissed five people and slept with two.

I ate ice cream five times.

I saw a doctor five times.

I slept without medication one hundred and one times.

I flew seven times.

11.

A fifteen-year-old boy physically picks me up and spins me around. He is tall and my feet swing like a rag doll. It is a beautiful moment. In the air, I stop being his mentor and director. We are just collaborators, celebrating the play we’ve made together. He sets me back down. We are laughing as his classmates swarm in for a teary group hug.

12.

We walk along the creek, mugs of mulled wine warming our hands. We lie on a bench and he reads bit of his poetry to the sky and I, stopping from time to time to say “what a wanker” or “pretentious bullshit”. The view above us is dizzying. Stars hang like an infestation. Birds watch us from under their wings. On the way home, we find wet concrete. I write, “Tony Abbott is a bit of a cock”. He writes, “make art.”

A parting message for Dalby.

A parting message for Dalby.

13.

Of the six-hundred and eleven actors I saw perform, eighty-four of these were people of colour. This sounds like a fair percentage but you have to look at where the numbers lie. Curated festivals that actively encourage diversity in their programming (Next Wave and the Melbourne Festival) are where the bulk of these numbers come from, both in terms of their cast sizes and their representation. Sometimes, during open access festivals such as MICF and Fringe, I seem to be wading through a sea of white faces. That’s not to say that these festivals are devoid of people of colour but where I am working, in the hubs, the stages are undeniably pale. Only the whitest make it to the centre of the island.

I didn’t see any one-man shows where a person of colour was that one ‘man’. I wonder about this. What is it about a single black man or a solitary asian woman that seems unrelatable? Or unentertaining?

It is the big casts that make me most uncomfortable. I saw a MacBeth performed by eighteen, glowing white faces. Worse still, I saw a musical with a cast of nineteen. The solitary Asian-Australian played the maid.

Most of the non-white performers can be found in shows about race. Colour-blind casting is apparently still a distant dream in Australia.

14.

I really should have warned the actors. I’m a terrible audience member when it comes to viewing my own work for the first time. I cower throughout act one and gnaw on my hand in act two. I feel shaken. Brittle. And totally thrilled. They accept my apologies and I learn to school my face and body for the comfort of actors and audience alike.

15.

I’ve cried nine times this year. I don’t just mean a couple tears. I’m only counting those unstoppable moments, when your insides feel hollowed out. Yeah, these are the kinds of thing I keep a record of.

17.

Through wood, her laughter sounds like sobs. I often peer around the kitchen door, anticipating tears only to see her wreathed in steam, laughing at Jane Austen as she cooks.

18.

We lie on the concrete in a sort of puddle of limbs, plastic cups of red wine close at hand. We are trying to harmonise but it is one of those nights when we seem to have forgotten every song we’ve ever heard. Which is fine. Because the acoustics are so good that the few notes we can string together sound angelic. And we have each other so fuck the world.

Some days I worry that I don’t have the words to express how much these two mean to me. But the way our voices blend despite their differences and casually find golden moments under the dark roof says it for me.

And if that fails, I give good hugs.

19.

At the airport. My mother says goodbye.

“I love you, my Fleur. I’m really glad that there’s you and me.”

20.

“Where are we flying to?”

“We’re just flying home to get something.”

“That’s a good idea.”

“Up, up the plane goes!”

“What can you see out the windows?”

“Nana filling the birdbath.”

“What colour is your plane?”

“It’s a red and yellow plane.”

“What colour is the sky?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think you do.”

“Lots of colours.”

“They’ve brought around the food. What have you got on your tray?”

“A little drink.”

“Shall we land now?”

“Yes.”

“Aaaaaaaand BUMP!”

“Again.”

With my niece.

With my niece.

Standard
conversation, interview, intimate portraits, personal, Sex

on inspiring kisses, bull ants, daniel radcliffe, modelling, the beauty of being safe and the beauty of being constructed

Part four of my anonymous conversations on sex, gender and beauty

By Sarah Walker

By Sarah Walker

– So if you could start by describing where we.

– We’re kind of sitting on the edge of bowl in this kind of mountainous valley kind of region. There’s a sheer face of lush green and hillocky, rushicky bits on the other side. There’s a nice view of the mountains though that crest in the valley there.

– What’s the most memorable kiss of your life? Do you have one where you’re like “That: that changed what kissing was.”

– When I was seventeen I moved to Melbourne. I’d just got into Monash but I’d also got into this program that the Australian Shakespeare Company had started up. Being new to Melbourne and not really knowing anybody I was just like “this is really cool. This is really lucky.”

During high school I’d only really come out to a few very close friends and one boy I had a massive crush on. And I kind of admitted that one day at a house party and he was just overwhelmingly flattered but sadly didn’t reciprocate.

– Was he gay?

– He was straight but I wasn’t sure because he had that very confident, thing where he was very comfortable with his sexuality and he kind of flirted a little bit and would wink at me a lot which was kind of nice to indulge in.

Um… So yeah, a very select handful of close friends and my mum and my dad and my brother and they were all cool with it but I wanted to wait until I moved down to Melbourne before I went public – as it were.

We started rehearsals for this Shakespeare show in April so it was before I’d even really gone public at Uni but I was like “I’m comfortable in this so I may as well put it out there and see how it goes.” So I kind of mentioned that I was gay and that was cool. Then this other guy in the group was just like “oh yeah, I’m bi, yadda yadda, yadda” and I was just like “that’s interesting” but didn’t really pay it much further heed.

I don’t know exactly how it escalated but over the next couple of days we were chatting and flirting and you know… We shared a few tram trips back into the city and I think we expressed that we were both a little bit fond of each other and then….

We’d just had a break. We were sitting outside and everyone was coming back into the theatre. He turned the corner and went into this little entrance room and then as soon as I rounded the corner to follow him inside he turned around and just kissed me on the mouth. It was just like… yeah. That was my first kiss with a man.

– How did it feel?

– Um… Surprising. In that I hadn’t expected it. Tingly. As they tend to. And kind of… incredibly inspiring and validating. There was this thing that I’d never been able to explore while I was younger and so it was kind of a new frontier. After being so unsure about how people in general would kind of perceive it and receive it, to have that validation of not only is it okay, but somebody’s interested in me. Interested in this way that I’d never explored before. And it was cool. Yeah. And it was quite a sweet little romance that lasted for just the duration of that production. And I’m still excellent good friends with him now.

– Was that his first kiss with a boy as well?

– I feel like it might have been. Because he hadn’t come out to anyone yet and our relationship was the catalyst to him coming out to his parents and a lot of his family. And they were the loveliest people you could possibly imagine. They were so cool and they were really expressive about how much they valued the fact that I was with him and the fact that this had acted as the catalyst for him opening up and expressing who he truly was.

– Was there a moment when you first figured out your sexuality? Was it sudden or was it a gradual thing?

– I think it was quite gradual. It had definitely been a long time coming.

I speak to some people who say they knew they were gay from “the day they were born” or when they were very young but…

I experimented in primary school but at that point you’re only starting your development as a sexual being, I suppose… At the very cusp of puberty. There were a small group of us who would… It’s so weird, now that I think back on it! There was one guy who kind of instigated it. Finding a secluded part of the school ground and just having a bit of a fiddle. It was kind of odd. But I kind of realised that was something I was kind of into. Yeah. And that kind of experimental thing led to –

Jesus! Bull ants! Oh we’re not sitting on a nest are we?

– I feel like we would have realised this before now if we were.

– Maybe it was just a little explorer one.

– We could just move a bit further. Shall we?

– We could sit on the steps over there! In the shade.

The sound of feet moving through long grass.

– Oh they don’t look like they’ll be very comfortable for backsides. I might take this bit of grass.

They settle back into it.

– Um… Yeah. Daniel Radcliffe was my first serious celebrity crush. I remember talking to my parents saying, “It’s really weird! I just feel like a giggly school girl whenever I think about him!” And they teased me for using such phrasing. Not in any kind of malicious, shaming way. It was just a bit funny.

As I progressed through high school, I noticed I was far more into guys than I was into girls. But then I fell head over heels in crush with this guy in my year. I was about fourteen. He was just beautiful. He had strawberry blond hair, a bit of a jock but a sweet jock! One of the quiet ones who wasn’t as performative about his masculinity!

– When do you feel most beautiful?

– I don’t know. The first thing that sprung to mind when you said that was my mum. But in a conceptual way of – like – feeling beautiful when I’m feeling loved. And safe. And held. Um… Yeah. Feeling important or significant, not in any kind of grand public way but feeling a sense of place and a sense that somebody values me or is kind of invested in that connection.

– That’s a lovely answer.

– Thank you.

In terms of physically, I don’t know. In a superficial way, when I look in the mirror and find myself attractive, it’s usually just when I’m feeling confident. Because there are times when I look in the mirror and I’m just like “Ugh. Really?”

– “That’s what I’ve got to work with?”

– But sometimes I’ll be in a great mood and I’ll just look at myself and be like “Yeah! Damn!” It’s weirdly fluid like that. I’ve never really held much stock in a sense of superficial beauty. This guy I’ve just been dating, he was a very openly and kind of proudly superficial person. He proudly labelled himself as such. For him it’s all about beauty and all about glamour.

I feel like there’s far more beauty in flaw and imperfection. Anyone can be beautiful. I’m far more interested in things that make you different. Things that make you unique. Like, my teeth are really crooked and I’ve got a little chip in one of my two front teeth. And I probably need to get a little bit of dental work done to neaten my choppers up but there are certain things that I’d never ever change because they are things that characterise me and that nobody else has. I feel quite comfortable in that. Feel quite comfortable in owning that.

In terms of being a performer, I’m not really interested in being the most beautiful auditionee and getting cast for that. I’ve got stories that I wanna tell and they don’t rely on that. I want to invest in what makes people different. I feel like that’s what makes people interesting. I feel like I’m rambling a little.

By Sarah Walker

By Sarah Walker

Um… When do you feel most beautiful?

– Um… I feel like my answer is going to be really shallow after yours.

– Do it, man!

– Because yours is all emotive and mine’s “no, no! It’s when the light is a particular way and when I’ve just put on make up.”

I don’t know…. Yeah, it really changes. Sometimes I’ll just be a tiny bit fitter, like I will have gone for a five-minute jog, and I’ll come back and go “I am hot! That has done it. That has just tipped the scales.” But it varies so much for me.

I did modelling. I knew I had the potential to look beautiful when I had a whole team working on my face but I was also very aware that I didn’t look like that in real life. That beauty was something that no one saw when they were just looking at me walking down the street. People told me that all the time.

That was – That whole experience really shaped my perception of beauty and my physicality because – because – It never was “I’m beautiful so I’ll do this!” It was something that I absolutely just stumbled into when I was drunk. Literally. I was drunk and a friend had a camera. And it was at a time when I was still really young and still figuring out how I carried myself through the world and where my self-esteem was placed.

I had so many people say things about me in a professional way. I had one photographer say “you’re front’s a bit blocky. I’ll just photograph your back.” Then I had another photographer say, “You’ve got a manly back, I’ll photograph your front.”

– Kind of clinical, industry talk?

– Yeah! I’ve had so much said about And I’ve had photographers say I was heavier or not as toned as they wanted. Then I had members of the general public looking at photos saying, “She’s anorexic. That’s gross.” I had both things shouted at me.

I don’t think it was a damaging experience or anything but… It is difficult and bizarre to shape your own perception of yourself when everyone else is weighing in on this really public, vulnerable, naked self. It’s bizarre to figure out what beauty is after that. What beauty is when you don’t have a whole team and a thousand shots to get that one shot. So, yeah. I think it is something that still… troubles me.

And I also just think I’m really bad at dressing myself. I so seldom feel comfortable in my clothes. I just don’t think I’m good at that. I can’t do my hair. I don’t know how to do hair. There are these things that just… Argh! Wow! Yeah.

– Can I ask, following on from that, in what mode to you perceive beauty in others?

– Very different. Very differently from how I judge myself. I recognise beauty in others so immediately and it’s not this bizarre, glamorised perfected form of beauty that I perhaps expect from myself. I’m so aware of what has gone into making a photo shoot in a magazine. It’s not just the photoshop that people think it is. Image manipulation begins before the camera takes that photo. It’s about how the model holds themselves and placing the light at a certain angle that will thin them down. I know how manufactured that kind of beauty is so I don’t hold others up to that standard.

– So many people, especially in the gay subculture, strive for this manufactured perfection. Some people achieve that or achieve very near it but it’s just something that I’ve never had that much time for. While you’re striving to craft this image, you don’t spend any time developing your personality. Some of the most beautiful people that I know in that scene, there’s not that much to them. I’m not saying they are bad people but there’s not a lot of depth or complexity.

– The most beautiful people I know are like what you’ve said: their beauty comes from confidence. When you see someone who is so at ease in their body and in themselves – and I don’t mean that in an “Everyone’s Beautiful” kind of way but just – There’s something so sexy about someone that’s at home in their body and whose body feels lived in and relaxed and sensual – unashamedly so. That’s a sexy thing when you see that.

I know these are anonymous but I also know my own anonymity is basically non-existent in this series. With this in mind, this is a video of a shoot I was involved in back in 2008. It shows a whole team of people standing around commentating on and fixing things about the model. Perhaps it might explain things that my words were unable to. Thank you once again to my amazing interviewee and to Sarah Walker for her photos. 

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criticism, My own plays, Politics, Theatre

on arts funding, ‘idlers in art’, anger, survival and free tickets for media

I want to do something a bit different today. I want to respond to two things about money in the arts previously raised here and in the wider arts community.

Thing One: What arts funding looks like

This thought came out of Dave Lamb’s amazing letter to Mitchell Browne, which was posted on this blog back in September. The letter received a massive amount of interest and the comment section was fascinating (and include one very impressive conspiracy theorist). I am not going to re-hash why we need arts funding or what a tiny contribution taxpayers are required to make because Dave covered this beautifully. What I want to address is something that really intrigued me: in the comments I saw a lack of understanding about what arts funding actually consists of. It was expressed best by an American woman called Marie:

  • “Funding for the arts creates a false divide between “artists” and “everybody else”. He (Mitchell Browne) points out — correctly — that many, many people with ordinary day jobs are profoundly creative and artistic, but are unable to pursue those passions/interests/talents because the bulk of their time and energy goes to keeping food on the table. Then, compounding that frustration, a portion of their wages are confiscated to help support others who are fortunate enough to make their living doing what they love…. For a select group to set themselves apart as “artists”, and suggest that everyone else should limit their participation to the role of audience members, is highly offensive to the millions of gifted musicians, sculptors, playwrights, dancers, etc. whose circumstances require them to spend 50+ hours a week laying cement or staffing the local daycare centers.”

Marie responded very graciously when Dave and I wrote to her and much of what she talks about is discussed in the original letter but what comments like this one say to me is that there is a profound misconception about arts funding.

Promo image for HOSE and TINKERTOWN, MKA. Photos by Sarah Walker

Promo image for HOSE and TINKERTOWN, MKA. Photos by Sarah Walker

Here in Australia there are a tiny handful of fellowships (very hard fought for and incredibly well deserved by those who get them) that will fund an individual in their work. This is what the Australia Council website has to say about them:

  • “These Fellowships are a major initiative to support the professional development of outstanding artists working across the sector and across Australia. Over five years between 2011/12 to 2015/16, the Australia Council will award 10 fellowships for emerging artists (each valued at $100,000) and 13 fellowships for early career artists (each valued at $60,000).  These Australia Council Creative Australia Fellowships will provide financial support for artists across all artforms to undertake a program of creative or professional development.” – Australia Council 

So we are talking only 23 people in the country across all artforms getting such support between 2011 and 2016. Their money is paid out over a two year period so emerging artists are on $30 000 a year and established artists are on $50 000. By comparison, the average Australian full-time wage is $74 724 a year before tax.

But this isn’t where the vast majority of funding goes. It goes either into companies or individual projects.

To use the Melbourne Theatre Company as an example of a funded arts organisation, last year 9.3% of their income came from government funding (both State and Federal). 71.5% came from ticket sales. The rest is philanthropic, hires and corporate. (This information can be found here and I also exchanged emails with someone from the company in person.)

So less than 10 percent of their income is from funding and more than 70 is derived from tickets. This means the company has to work incredibly hard to keep their subscriber base subscribing. They are constantly being held accountable for their programming decisions. They do not have a safety net of a substantial income separate from their sales. If people don’t buy, they don’t exist. This, of course can means that it is very difficult for them to take artistic risks. So a state theatre that had, say 20% funding, would be able to make twice as many risks and would be able to lower their ticket prices further. Both of which would be bloody good things.

Promo image for NIGHTMINDS, The Electric Company, photo by Sarah Walker

Promo image for NIGHTMINDS, The Electric Company, photo by Sarah Walker

It is also worth mentioning that having company funding means that you are unable to apply for project funding. Which isn’t such a big deal for companies like MTC but for little companies, such as MKA, which is staffed almost entirely by volunteers and now receives tri-annual funding, this is the difference between being able to pay the creatives vs. everyone fitting shows around their part-time catering jobs. This is the current situation for any company receiving Organisation Infrastructure Funding from VicArts. Most grants come with a clause that you cannot apply for them if you receive multi-year government funding. This means that small companies have to chose between getting funding which covers their insurance, flights and taxes or money they can put directly into their productions and artists. Still not looking much like the fantasy of artists living comfortably off the taxpayers.

As Dave said, to get individual project funding, artists must clearly establish why they need funding in order to make the project happen, demonstrate their capability to bring such a work to fruition, explain exactly how every dollar will be spent and, crucially, justify how this project will contribute to the artistic landscape and the Australian community.

This year I spent a few months in regional Queensland, working on a funded project through La Boite. My role was to teach more than 80 fifteen-year-olds how to write plays. With these students as my collaborators, I wrote four plays in eight weeks, which the students then performed for their community. Among the participants were students who struggled with basic literacy levels, students with behavioural issues including verbal aggression and students who were completely disengaged from school. We created an opportunity for them to express themselves creatively and tell their own stories. They guided the process and were so proud of themselves. When people rail against taxpayer funded arts, this is the kind of work they are attacking.

And being part of a project like this doesn’t mean that I’m not working other jobs. Like almost every other artist I know, I am living below the poverty line and am constantly in search for that illusive flexible workplace that will permit me to run off to regional Queensland for eight weeks of theatre creation when the opportunity arises. Last year I worked for one of the most established and respected theatre companies in Australia, Bell Shakespeare and then, when that show had ended, I cleaned a bakery for $15 an hour cash in hand. This is about what I was getting paid thirteen years ago as a fifteen-year-old working in Pizza Hut when I lived rent-free in my parents’ house. Now I am an established artist and arts commenter with a Masters degree and rent to pay.

The perception of a community of artists comfortably living year in, year out on taxpayer money is very far from the truth. It is individual projects. It is horrible length gaps between commissions – too short for other employers to hire you and too long to live off what little savings you managed to acquire on the last show. It is working during the day and performing at night. It is immensely hard and the dilemma of how to balance of paid work and passion does not go away once you make art your main career and focus.

And we love it. Of course we do. On those days when we write plays with 80 teenagers or have people tearfully clutch our hands at the end of a performance to tell us how we changed something they thought unchangeable in their hearts we feel incredibly fortunate. But on other days, it can be difficult to feel fortunate. Those moments of pay off – both financial and emotional – are few and far between. Playwright Joanna Murray-Smith told my class last year that being a writer is a constant battle between your ego and your self-doubt. You have to make sure that your ego just comes out on top or you’ll never pick up the pen. When this self-doubt is coupled with crippling poverty, the battle can feel pretty uneven. Not David and Goliath, for that is the story of a little guy who only needed to throw one stone; artists must build and throw that stone again and again in-between waitressing jobs.

Promo image for CHOIRGIRL, Attic Erratic, photo by Sarah Walker

Promo image for CHOIRGIRL, Attic Erratic, photo by Sarah Walker

Thing Two: The Tickets

I want to give one other example of project funding, which will then lead into the other Thing I’ve want to re-examine.

The City They Burned received $10 000 from the city council. In practical terms, this knocked $10 off of the price of every ticket. In the Pre-Fringe season, this meant $24 a ticket compared to $34. That’s a big difference. It was also the little bit of financial cushioning we needed in order to be able to run a ‘pay as you feel’ night to ensure that no one was missing out on the work due to financial hardship.

Audience members saw the show without paying and, at the end, were asked to contribute what they could afford or what they thought the show was worth. The average ticket price that night was $19. Of course, some people paid much less than this, which was fine, but the interesting part of the experiment was that the people who would otherwise have received industry or media comps that night, decided to pay because the option was presented to them.

This leads me to the next point I want to re-examine. This was raised at a forum I hosted at Theatre Works, the ridiculously named Why Can’t We All Get Along Like We Did In Middle School: should critics get free tickets and, if they receive a comp, does that mean they are entering into a deal which states that a comp equals a review?

Plenty of artists have opinions on this, which is absolutely fair enough. As I’ve already stated in this article, making art is costly and hard. But. But. But I’ve seen over 80 shows this year and paid for perhaps 20 of them. (My running tally in my phone says I’ve paid for 14 but I expect that I forgot to record a few.)

Now, before you presume this makes me an arts writer who isn’t holding up my end of the bargain, let me assure you that any time I was given a ticket as an arts writer, I wrote something. This week I also emailed the artistic director of a theatre to ask about getting a media comp and, when I found out that the show was struggling a bit, instantly retracted my request and paid. The vast majority of my comps come from being someone’s plus one – someone working on or writing about the show/festival – or they come from the fact that I work three festivals a year, which gets me into most shows at Adelaide Fringe, Melbourne Comedy and Melbourne Fringe for free provided, I’m not taking the place of a paying audience member. You know how it works. You have received such comps too.

I am not writing this to end this discussion. I hope we continue to think about and discuss how we value and pay for our art and what the intellectual transaction is. But I think we all forget about our own free tickets when it comes to talking about critics.

Promo image KIDS KILLING KIDS, MKA and Too Many Weapons, photo by Sarah Walker

Promo image KIDS KILLING KIDS, MKA and Too Many Weapons, photo by Sarah Walker

Now, to state the obvious, I could never afford to pay for 80 shows a year. I am acutely aware that I am very, very fortunate to be the recipient of these tickets. Having access to this amount and variety of art helps broaden my awareness of what is happening in my industry, my understanding of what art is capable of and illuminates in a very immediate and practical way what does/does not work on stage. It benefits my art and my arts writing. Every time we put ‘artists passes free’ on a festival show or send someone we respect a comp, we aren’t only boosting our audience numbers or promoting ourselves, we are making an investment in the intellectual complexity and artistic wealth of our fellow makers.

And we are too generous. I’m all for artists at the very least asking for a donation from their fellow makers at festival time. I also think it is acceptable to offer reviewers only the one ticket, rather than two. But I do wonder, when we give so many of our tickets away to each other, why do we bitch about giving them to the people who may spend hours writing about it? And even if they don’t write about this show, they may write about the next one with an enhanced awareness of our artistic journey.

The City They Burned generated over 10 000 words of critical response (not including my own conversation with Cameron Woodhead) and the majority of these came from unpaid reviewers. I’ll always champion these people. I’ll always support “so-and-so with their blog that barely anyone reads anyway” because most of our best arts writers started as that so-and-so. And because I believe we need them. We want our arts writers to benefit like we do from seeing as much art as possible. We want their responses to deepen and complexify (not a word but I’m into it). I’m willing to invest in their artistic understanding, just as my fellow artists invest in mine.

Sarah’s photography can be found here. 

On a personal note: I’m heading to South Australia for a few months to save money whilst writing a new play. If you are reading this from Adelaide, yell out! I’d love to build more of a network in my home town and I am also planning on running a series of forums on criticism, gender and new writing there before Fringe takes over the city. 

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