Part 3: Conversation with Rachel Perks
Dear School for Birds Readers, it has taken me far longer than I would have liked to get this conversation with playwright Rachel Perks out into the world, please forgive me. Rachel Perks is a kick-arse feminist and all round talented human. I met up with Rachel back in March to talk about her play Angry Sexx for which she received the 2014 Fringe Discovery Award.
I began the interview by asking Rachel about her use of violence in Angry Sexx.
Rachel: I guess I have a difficult relationship to violence. I consider myself to be a pacifist and I don’t advocate any form of violence in the real world. So, the fact that I write violent characters is definitely problematic for me. However, I feel like physical violence perpetrated by women is so unusual and controversial that it has such potency as an idea. Through the characters ‘Cathy’ and ‘Cybelle’ in Angry Sexx I was exploring the radical idea that in order to have a world of equality we would need to scrap everything and start again. Angry Sexx is this pretty sad story about characters who fight against their perpetrators in the same way they were oppressed. I get terribly nihilistic sometimes and I look around and I think there’s no way to change the system from the outside. You have to work within the system and use the ways that they are already set up.
Bridget: I think theatre is powerful because it offers a space where we can, at least on the world of the stage, shift dominant power structures.
Rachel: Yeah, I mean, it’s a very subversive medium. I read recently On Rage by Germain Greer, which I found deeply problematic for a lot of racial reasons, but at the beginning of the book she talks about how by societal definition ‘rage’ is masculine and that our world is set up to perpetuate this idea from a legal standpoint – that men have inner rage and that women, I’m generalising, that women will provoke that rage and therefore, should have known better. And the Provocation Defence, I believe, no longer exists in a lot of societies. The point being that there is no such defence of women. Even on a societal, not just a legal level, rage is seen as unnatural for woman. Whereas I think – I am a woman and I am engraged regularly.
Bridget: But it’s like, if women are enraged it’s perceived as hysteria or psychosis.
Rachel: I’ve been reading this article about medication for mental health issues and having lots of discussions about that. And statistically women are more likely to be medicated for mental illness than men are. I don’t know if that’s because women are more open to being treated. It’s difficult to judge statistically those kinds of things. But yeah, it’s like that kind of underlying misogynistic idea that emotions are unacceptable and women have a lot of emotions. There are a lot of ideas coming into this. Someone raised this really interesting idea about self-harm with me. Statistically women are more likely to self-harm than men are. This person suggested that male self-harm is more about going out and finding someone to hit you – like punching a wall, this is male self-harm, this kind of expressive rage. Whereas female self-harm is internalised and inflicted on the self in a much more focused way.
Bridget: There’s a distressing scene in Angry Sexx, where the character ‘The Wife’ talks to herself in the mirror while she’s self-inducing vomiting. I found this a really violent scene. It seems to me like ‘The Wife’ is what women become if they don’t have another outlet for their rage. Rage seems to be a toxic thing. And you don’t get rid of violence by perpetuating it. It seems people get addicted to violence so it happens in cycles.
Rachel: Especially if you are violent in response to the world or to a situation or a system, you’re going to continue to have those feelings. Violence might save the immediate emotion but it won’t change the problem. So you’ll continue to feel that anger and injustice in relation to the problem. I guess the play is semi-autobiographical, which is a dangerous thing to say considering the content. And at the time I was writing Angry Sexx I was running on this path where there were reports of women being attacked and molested. And these were repeated attacks over a series of months and writing this play was my act of violence. I will yell at people on the street if people yell at me. I know that must be really dangerous and stupid but I refuse to be limited in my expression in that way. And I think if more women did it we would have a different world. I just scream back at people. And actually, that act is so impotent and all of the actions that I could have are impotent, and so this play was my act of violence. In that I feel like an actual physical act of violence, like I said, doesn’t actually change the world or satiate the feeling. Theatre is often similarly impotent. But it is my attempt to actually change something through expression.
Bridget: I think we’re constantly being told stories of female passivity.
Rachel: I read this article about how a strong Female Hero character has to exhibit almost borderline sociopathic qualities in order to be ‘believable’ in a position of authority. If a male character was like that you’d be like ‘that person is crazy.’ Then there’s the Female Character who is unnecessarily sexualised, where you’re thinking um… why is she not wearing anything? And then the one that I think is the most insidious is the Male Saviour Complex. Which is that narratively, a woman will be strong for a period of time and as reward for her strength she is given a man who will look after her so she no longer has to carry the burden of individuality. It’s every rom-com happy ending. It’s every fairy-tale. I think that it is in most stories we consider good stories. The only thing I’ve seen where I was struck by the diversion of that storyline was in Boyhood.
Bridget: I haven’t seen it.
Rachel: – I won’t spoil it.
Bridget: Do you think violence has a place on stage generally?
Rachel: I think literal representation of violence on stage is often awful, because it’s so hard to do well in any convincing manner. I, like you, really struggle with violence perpetuated against women in film.
Bridget: There’s so much of it.
Rachel: There’s so much of it. It’s fetished, it’s glorified, it’s disgusting. It’s violence porn most of the time. I’ve really struggled with it recently, to the point where I’m not interested in consuming any of it. Because I feel it’s so often there without any discussion. If you have to put it there do it because you want to have a discussion, not because you want to shock people. I recently watched The Fall, with Gillian Anderson. I initially struggled because it’s the oldest crime story in the book, it’s a male serial killer, sexually assaulting and killing women, but the way that it’s structured and discussed is so beautiful. This is a bit of a spoiler but there’s this bit where Gillian Anderson, the head cop, is talking to a serial killer. He is not portrayed as this glorified, sociopathic, white male ego, where we’re all meant to have a crush on him, while being disgusted while he violently kills women. Which is the way that most of this stuff is done, either that or it perpetuates the monster complex, the idea that he’s somehow outside of society, instead of within society. Gillian Anderson’s character has this speech where she says to the serial killer ‘what you are doing is nothing more than age old misogyny. It is hatred against women and it is something that men have been performing since the dawn of time, and it’s disgusting.’ And I’m like fuck yes! No one has this discussion on screen. I guess, unless you’re going to investigate on a realistic level, why society continues to perpetuate and glorify violence against women, then don’t talk about it all.
Bridget: I’ll definitely watch it!
Rachel: I struggle with violent stories being shown on stage if they’re shown in a way that isn’t trying to do something with that. But I write political theatre and I’m interested in political theatre. I’m disinterested in anything that uses anything in a way that isn’t trying to make a comment on the world, so that’s my prerogative. Otherwise I don’t see the point of doing it, I really don’t. I don’t understand why anyone wouldn’t want to put on a play, that isn’t making strong commentary. It takes so much time, it costs so much money and so many favours, and so many friendships are tested in the processes. Why would you do it unless you really really really really wanted to change the world? As stupidly aspirational as that is.
Bridget: Have you ever seen theatre which has motivated you to change the world? Or do you think, like we’re saying, in just presenting narratives that shift the power dynamic – well, for me anyway, that’s the way that theatre is powerful and political.
Rachel: I think I have. I think I’ve seen works that do it in more of a nebulous fashion, where they are more like a meditation on an idea, like Nicola Gunn’s Green Screen. I walked out of that and I felt like it was worth continuing to care, because I felt allied with someone else who was so honestly caring. I’d love to be able to make work like that, work that meditates rather than screams. And I think that’s just about continuing to make work. I remember someone telling me that you’ll only ever have one idea and you just keep making more and more sophisticated versions of that idea. Angry Sexx was my first play, the first play I ever put on and that was kind of the first way of talking about this stuff, and I’ll just keep making the play. And eventually it will become more sophisticated and more and more capable of changing people, where people will be less kind of affronted or put off side.
Bridget: Were people put off side by Angry Sexx?
Rachel: I guess the work was a lot about me having an opportunity to say stuff because I just couldn’t contain it. I had a lot of strangers writing to me, people who tracked me down and found me on Facebook, people saying that they felt in some small way changed by it. That they felt more aware, or a lot of women saying stuff like that had happened to them and it didn’t even cross there mind that it was something that they could protest, which was good and valuable and incredibly humbling. It’s a very scary feeling that you might have given someone an idea because it’s very hard to believe that you’re actually right. I felt really right that I was putting ideas out there but I started feeling really scared that maybe I was lying to everyone. Look, it went better in every single way that I could have possibly expected. And I felt like it made a tiny little ripple. So that was good.
Since this conversation Rachel has co-written the critically acclaimed We Get It with Elbow Room, and along with collaborator Bridget Balodis, has been selected as an artist for Next Wave 2016. You can see her skills in action at 45 Downstairs where she has been working as a dramaturg on Vicky Jones’ The One as part of the upcoming Poppy Seed Festival.
Afterword: I am incredibly grateful to Rachel Perks, Chi Vu and Daniel Lammin for speaking to me about their opinions on violence in theatre. Their insights have stayed with me throughout the year as I’ve watched, performed and written for the theatre. An important point that was brought up by all three writers was that theatre-makers must be able to justify the use of violence in their work, otherwise it’s just gratuitous. As to my own enjoyment of violence on stage, I think I’m still working that one out. Thanks Fleur for having me as a guest blogger on School For Birds.