conversation, criticism, My own plays, Theatre

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CAMERON: It’s not entirely negative!

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

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

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

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

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

CAMERON: What’s the show about?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FLEUR: Oh you DO remember!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

CAMERON: Yeah, sure.

FLEUR: Okay.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Laughing Dragon says:

    I am so glad someone else looks to the review with equal amounts honesty and integrity. I look forward to seeing a play of your someday and reading how you progress as an artist.

    • Thank you. Much appreciated. This entire blog for me is an investigation of communication between artists, critics and audience members so I think this post was always going to happen but it was the most personal by a long way. But I am able to do this for this particular piece because of the immense belief and support from the cast and crew. And because the season has been sold out for a week. That helps, knowing that I’m not going to be damaging ticket sales.

  2. It’s so brilliant to see this openness and communication about form, intent and result between artist and reviewer. We only extend ourselves by this sort of conversation, and by having it and exposing it to further discussion and feedback in the community opens the potential responses right up. I can’t wait to see what comes of it!

    Hetero-normativity as the status quo isn’t something that I’ve challenged in the past, probably because as a straight white middle class male the chips fall in my favour far more often than is fair, and I’ve certainly never been a victim to the bigotry, oppression and marginalisation that has come from this biblical tale.

    As a member of the cast of this production, I’m really interested in the perception of the work. We try so hard to include as many perspectives as we can in our art, but ultimately we will always be restricted by our lack of perspective and chained to our collective experiences.

    I really agree with what Cameron says about the dominant interpretation not necessarily being the correct interpretation, and I think one of the strengths of the script that I was always drawn to was that it does challenge misconceptions in the interpretation – if only in getting people to go back and read the source again to see if they actually knew what it said.

    I had hoped that this take on it would go as far to addressing long-term religious persecution and abuse that has been justified by reference the story of Sodom as anything else you could do with it theatrically, but I certainly accept that between the intent and the result lies a great many differing perspectives.

    I wonder now if we did miss an opportunity in not including homosexual desire as an aspect of the workers of Sodom, and I also wonder if that version of the play might have lost some of its current complexity by observing a different set of circumstances and interpretations.

    It is a fascinating conversation on theoretical theatre!

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