audience conversations, conversation, criticism, personal, Responses, Sex, Theatre

in conversation: f. by riot stage youth theatre

When I came to record audience conversations of F., (my first in a long time, apologies) my SD card was full of a previous conversation: 

Interlude 1: Setting, an outdoor courtyard of a Geelong cafe. A confused 90-year-old sits with her granddaughter. 

Her: What’s that?

Me: It’s a microphone recorder.

Her: Oh really.

Me: Yeah. You were telling me such good stories on the –

Her: Pardon?

Me: You were telling me such good stories in the car on the way here so I thought –

Her: Was I?

Me: You were.

Her: I don’t think I was.

So my SD card was full the night I recorded with random audience members for F. and I only recorded two incomplete conversations, presented here with interludes from my grandmother. 

Know that this production resulted in some beautiful conversations, not all of which I was able to capture. Know that I feel privileged to have had these conversations with these articulate young people, reflecting on growing up with the internet in the 21st Century. Know that I was thrilled to have been so provoked and unsettled by the teenagers of Riot Stage and that it was a delight to see them owning their voices and stories. Know too that my grandmother would never in a million years understand any of it. 

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Photo: Sarah Walker

Conversation 1: Setting, sitting on the floor of a corridor outside the theatre. Two eighteen-year-olds, who have never seen theatre like this before, sit holding hands. They have just finished year twelve exams. 

Me: So what just happened in there? What was there?

Nelly: That was confusing at times!

Me: What do you think happened to you?

Zac: Just discussing issues sort of facing teenagers and that. Yeah. And just the chaotic vibe of it and yeah it’s… you can sort of relate to it I suppose. Um. Yeah.

Nelly: We’ve seen school musicals and stuff but it’s not like that at all. Our school plays are like Pride and Prejudice and stuff. This is like, really different.

Zac: Seems much more relevant and real I suppose. Much more relatable than the perfect pictures that TV and that paint.

Me: Big question but how do you feel about the internet? It’s our whole lives, I know.

Zac: Me and her sort of started being friends on the internet. We were in the same class but I was really shy. I just won’t talk but online I was really loud.

Nelly: Like he had two personalities.

Me: So if it was thirty years ago, when introductions were all walking up to someone and asking them to dance at a mixer, you’d never have talked.

Zac: Nup. That’s why the Internet has a lot of negative aspects but at the same time, it’s very useful in connecting people. We wouldn’t have this connection without it.

End conversation 1.

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Photo: Sarah Walker

Interlude: 

Me: You were talking about Nelson and your uncles playing cricket.

Her: Was I?

Me: Yeah. Did granddad play any sport?

Her: Oh… He usually played golf.

Long pause.

Me: Did you ever try golf.

Her: I don’t think so.

Me: Those sons of your must have got it from somewhere.

Her: Do they play golf?

Conversation 2: Setting, a square of lawn outside the venue. My legs are pink with grass allergy and will continue to sting for an hour afterwards.

Me: What happened to you in there?

Jules: I think I was reminded of the distance between being a young adult and being a teenager. And what it’s like to be a teenager. It’s amazing how much you forget even in a couple of years. I’m twenty-two and it was amazing just to be like, there’s definitely –

A parade of motorbikes roar past.  

Me: We’ll give them a moment.

More motorbikes.

Jules: Okay. Rude.

We wait. They pass. We resume.

Jules: I just thought it was a really beautiful representation of being a teenager.

Doug: To me it was sort of this mish-mash collection of snippets, just reminding you of what it’s like to be a teenager. And I mean, I’m 19 so I’m closer to being that teenager but there’s still that incredible distance that forms when you hit uni and you leave that whole high school mentality. I think this did a really good job of reminding me of that and how it feels to be in that claustrophobic environment. It reminds you of all the weird things teenagers do and how their brains work.

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Photo: Sarah Walker

When I was a sixteen-year-old I didn’t know how to express myself very well. It was a lot like in the show, you’d have characters just switching topics almost on a dime, just talking awkwardly. It was a lot like that. Now I find it a lot easier to structure what I’m trying to say and separate my thoughts.

Me: Could you express yourself better online?

Doug: Yeah, I think so. It was useful because it sort of gave me time to think about what I was trying to say.

Jules: It is this weird Schrodinger’s Cat thing of being heard and not heard. You can scream into the void but there might be someone listening. If you feel like you can’t express yourself properly at high school or with you friends or family, you end up with this strange sort of dynamic where you simultaneously might have someone hearing you and understanding you and saying ‘it’s gonna be okay’ but you also have this freedom just to say whatever you want because there might not be anyone listening. It is a strange dynamic.

Interlude: 

Me: When you were a teenager, working on the farm. What did you do for fun?

Her: I think they took me shopping with them. Thursday was a shopping day. I don’t know if it was much fun.

Me: Did you like reading?

Her: I never did very much reading.

Me: What was your favourite thing about Granddad?

Her: Granddad?

Me: My granddad.

Her: Your granddad? He was away at the First World War, granddad. He didn’t have a very happy life afterwards.

Me: That’s your dad? Is there anything you remember doing with him?

Her: No, I don’t think so.

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Photo: Sarah Walker

Conversation 2:

Me: I really loved the scene early on: the two boys chatting with the text behind them and just how understated it was: ‘I came out to my parents, we had tacos,’ that kind of thing. I’m 30 and this was a great reminder how, in such a short time, what was a big deal has changed and become a regular part of adolescence. Still, there are people for whom coming out is a big deal and is traumatic and has frightening and very real consequences, but for a lot of young gay people, that’s not the toughest part of being a teenager. The main difficulty for that teenager was just being a teenager: being caught in that land between autonomy/self-realisation and that childhood dependence on others.

Doug: I remember when I came out to my mum and she just turned to me and said ‘oh I know’. I was like ‘oh okay.’ I was fifteen or sixteen. I’d been expecting more drama I guess. She’d always been very accepting but yeah it was… odd.

I think the scene that’s sticking with me the most is with the two girls that were sitting watching porn and just that raw discussion of sexuality and their vaginas. When you’re a teenager with a trusted friend and you haven’t really explored these things before, you just talk about it. She was talking about how she wanted to change how her vagina looked and stuff – that really introspective stuff that adults are a lot less likely to just let out because it comes rooted in insecurities and things like that. I used to talk a lot about things I didn’t feel great about. Mostly to close friends, a lot of them I only knew through the Internet, which I think really helped. Like, I don’t really know this person, so it won’t matter as much if I just talk openly with them.

Me: The first time I saw porn I was talking to this guy a couple of years older than me on Nine MSN. He was this gay guy –

Jules and Doug: Oh MSN!

Me: And he was like ‘this is the kind of guys I like’ and he sent me this link. Suddenly my screen was covered in all these naked women. I worked out ages later that I must have got a pop up but at the time I was like ‘he’s a gay guy, he would know what men are’ so I was looking at them going ‘so these are men… so he likes men with make up and… boobs and small thingies’. They were so clearly female bodies. Very naked, very female. But I didn’t have any idea what gender they were. The colour scheme was not what I associated with naked women. It was all pink and gold and shiny and slippery and just… didn’t look like the naked women I’d seen in my life. And I wrote to the guy and was like ‘this is the kind of men you like?’ And he was like ‘yeah’ and I was like ‘men with boobs?’ and he was like ‘what? Men like the men I sent you!’ We worked it out after a while. But that was my first experience of Internet porn: just not even knowing what I was looking at.

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Photo: Sarah Walker

Doug: I got tricked. This was in primary school. It was one of those gags that was going around. People were saying ‘if you go to redtube.com, it is like youtube but it’s in HD!’ So I hopped on our family computer that was out in the living room at the time, typed in redtube.com and up came these… not youtube videos. It took me a second. I scanned the page and I started scrolling down and I was about eight or nine, I think. I’d just been given permission to use the computer –

Me: And you blew it, straight away.

Doug: I blew it straight away! I scrolled down and I saw all these images that I didn’t really understand. My dad came over and understandably he was sort of ‘what are you doing?’ I told him that I’d been told this was HD but it didn’t look like the youtube videos I normally watched. He closed out of the browser and we had a little talk about what porn is. I think he just said ‘it’s videos of people having sex on the internet’. My parents never glossed over things. They never talked about genitals with weird words, it was always ‘penis’ and ‘vagina’. I think I was probably four or five when I asked where babies came from and they just straight up told me.

Me: I remember asking what ‘cunt’ was and my mother said ‘it’s another word for vagina’ in such a matter of fact way that I thought for years it was a more polite word – like the medical terminology! Not that it came up in conversation because it didn’t but yeah, I was like ‘oh, that’s the grown up way to talk about vaginas! Good to know!’

Interlude:

Me: Look at that. They’ve got a chandelier hanging in the greenery. Looks like you might be able to find some monkeys here.

Her: What’s that?

Me: I was just saying, it looks like you might be able to find some monkeys here.

Her: Oh.

Silence. Knives and forks clatter. 

Me: What are you most proud of?

Her: Oh. (A long pause.) I guess… most proud of family life. Mum and dad and the family. Mum kept the family together really. Dad was good too but… aftermath of the war, I think. He drank a lot of alcohol which was a worry, not only to mum and myself but the rest of us.

Me: Was that part of the reason you never drunk alcohol?

Her: I suppose it might have been part of it but I never took a liking to it anyway. Anything I tasted I never liked. You wonder how anyone could ever like it.

Conversation 2:

Me: I think the scene that really wrecked me was the scene with the two actors on opposite sides of the stage. The first night I was sitting with two straight men and they were watching the boy and I was watching the girl. I really noticed the different ways our heads were turned. I think that is a scene that is so heartbreaking for both characters but you do experience it very differently as a male or female. I don’t know. And I don’t know how different it is as a gay man either. I think a lot of heterosexual men move through the world with this deep fear of taking advantage of a woman.

Jules: I didn’t know where look: whether I should watch one of them, whether I should not watch any of them and just listen. I thought it was really interesting that they chose to make it very dubious as to what actually happened but very clear that she didn’t want it. I feel that that’s a situation that happens all the time and far too –

End conversation 2, with a full SD card.

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Photo: Sarah Walker

Interlude:

Her: We had two or three horses we used to ride. Might have been more than that at times. The neighbours – they lived four or five miles up towards the boarder and eh – they had a lot of shetlands. They were half broken-in and they used to pass them on to us to ride. Some of them were very good to ride but others were very cheeky.

Me: Yeah. Yeah, that sounds hard work.

Her: I forget how many we would have ridden all together.

Waiter: Spinach and feta borek?

Me: That’s me. And the lamb is here.

Waiter: And would you like a knife and fork with that one?

Me: Would you like a knife and fork, grandma?

Her: No. Thank you.

Waiter leaves. Silence.

Her: A knife and fork would be handy.

End interlude. 

F. is by Riot Stage and was presented as part of the Poppy Seed Theatre Festival of 2016. It was directed by Katrina Cornwell, written by Morgan Rose, performed by a cast ranging from 15 to 19. 

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audience conversations, Theatre

the last supper: an audience conversation

In the National Gallery of Victoria, Daniel Lammin, Anastasia Ryan and I sit at a table, eating dead men’s meals and talking our way through Reckless Sleepers’ THE LAST SUPPER. The ceiling is high. The table cloth is white. In front of us is a plate of chilli dogs and a jar of pickles.

Screen Shot 2015-07-16 at 9.37.21 am

FLEUR: Ana, what just happened?

ANASTASIA: Well, we just ate some last meals and heard some last words.

FLEUR: Daniel?

DANIEL: With his mouth full. Mmm! I’m eating someone’s last meal. There’s something very strange about the idea that this thing you’re holding in your hand and putting in your mouth is essentially what someone requested as the last thing they would ever do.

One of the actors offers us Champagne.

DANIEL: Oh no thank you.

FLEUR: Oh if I had a – Had a suitable, less red wine-y vessel, yeah!

ANA: You know what, I will have a little bit. I refused you the first time but I’m gonna have some now.

FLEUR: Thank you!

DANIEL: And I’ll just keep eating the Last Chilli Dogs.

FLEUR: Were there last words that particularly got to you?

ANA: The Anastasia one got to me because that’s my name. It was very odd.

FLEUR: The whole Russian Tsar’s family really got to me because it was so violent and then there was the fact that the assassins left the room, had a moment to reflect and then came back and killed children.

ANA: I thought Hiroshima was the strongest moment. Because it was comical but then you had to step back and go “What would have happened?”

FLEUR: It was the suddenness of it.

DANIEL: And the banality of what they were saying.

ANA: And that the first one was “What have we done?” and then everything else was just normal things that you would have a conversation about.

FLEUR: “What have we done?” was very famously said by the pilot who dropped the bomb. He said, “My God, what have we done?”

ANA: And I guess the contrast between hearing that and then hearing all of these common-place, every day things that you would hear all the time… So many people at once.

Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Photo: Heidrun Lohr

DANIEL: We heard all these famous last words and then we would come to someone we had never heard of, a prisoner who was executed, and you don’t know what their story is. You’ve never heard of them before and all of a sudden you’re having their meal put in front of you and it’s the full stop of a life and I don’t know anything about that life.

FLEUR: I think it humanises people. Everyone has a last word and a last meal, whether they know it is their last or not. They will have that. They will say that.

One that I found particularly moving strangely was Eva Braun. I don’t believe in ‘evil’. I think that that word distances terrible human actions from humans. It tries to make the horror we are capable of something outside of our humanity but if anyone is evil, that’s getting about as close to it as you can get. And that her last words were ones of love (“I do.”) is an incredible thought.

DANIEL: A declaration of commitment to loving one man more than anyone else in the whole world, knowing you’re going to die straight afterwards. Your last statement on this Earth is to say “I love this man and I want to spend whatever eternity I have with him forever.”

FLEUR: What would your last meal be?

ANA: We were talking about this before… (With her mouth full of someone’s last pickles) The man I was sitting with was a vegetarian. He wondered, would he order a steak for his last meal. I don’t know. It is hard for someone in our position to imagine getting to the point where you know the exact moment where your life will end. I think until you’re in that place it is almost impossible to know what you would do.

FLEUR: Daniel, a bowl of fruit was sat down in front of you. I think a peach is a nice way to go out. There’s something about a peach that just says ‘zest for life’.

DANIEL: The chilli dogs were the ones I was just like “Oh my god!” There is half of you going “Oh my God, I really want that” and half of you that’s going “That belonged to someone. That was a decision that somebody made!”

To be honest – assuming she was still alive and if I ever got into the position – I’d probably ask for my grandmother’s meatloaf. Something that actually meant something. I want something with significance. Something that means something.

FLEUR: Even the people who didn’t get a meal, they were still sitting in front of an execution number. It gave this sense of these voiceless masses all around you. This is the most stupid sentence but so many people have died.

I was in the rehearsal room the other day and I’m working on this play that has quite a lot to do with death. There is a new bit of text about the time the government of India introduced flesh-eating turtles to a river because of “corpse overpopulation”. It is an incredible term. “Corpse overpopulation.” They are getting out of hand. They are taking over. There is this sense from The Last Supper that so, so many people have died and every one of those deaths has been a trauma to someone.

DANIEL: The numbers sitting in front of us represent a person who has been killed. Deliberately. Deliberately killed.

FLEUR: Yes! And I really got that. The work never comes out editorialises and says, “We’re anti-Death penalty” but the fact that so many people have died and then so many of those have been killed deliberately and… thoughtfully… Enough people die because of the universe, because of how our bodies work and then some of them we go out of our way to end deliberately. It is a – It is a – Horror.

Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Have you ever heard someone’s last words?

DANIEL: No.

ANA: No. Maybe without meaning to.

DANIEL: Oh! Yes! Yes, I have. Well not heard them but I’ve read them. I was the last person that Stuart spoke to before he died. I got – as far as the police can tell – I got the last text message. So… Yeah. I mean, I don’t know if he said anything himself but kind of. Yeah. I guess so. I’ve never thought of that. That’s fucked.

FLEUR: Sorry.

DANIEL: No, that’s alright!

FLEUR: I was there for my grandmother’s last words in the middle of the night but I didn’t realise they were her last so I didn’t – I don’t really know exactly what they were. It was just me and a nurse and her. I checking if she was in pain. I’m pretty sure the last time she was conscious I asked, “What’s your pain out of ten?” and she couldn’t answer. She was on too much morphine. Then I asked “Are you in pain?” I think her last words were “No pain.” I think. It is strange to be like “Oh. They were the last ones and they passed me by.”

DANIEL: Just because they aren’t profound, does that mean that they are any less significant? In some ways the ones that are less profound are the ones that are more significant.

FLEUR: It is impossible for me to ask you what would you want your last words to be but what do you think you would want them to express?

ANA: I like the fun ones, to be honest. Humphrey Bogart’s was my favourite. “I should have stuck to scotch instead of switching to martinis.” I’d like to go with something sassy like that. Yep.

DANIEL: I’d want – I think I’d want to say “thank you”. Something like that. “Thanks. That was great.” I don’t ever want to be reincarnated. I don’t want to come back. I don’t want to do this again. It was hard enough to begin with. I don’t want to come back and do it all over again. Imagine, imagine, imagine coming back but losing all the memories of people and experiences and the things that you’ve done. Having to start all over again. No! So yes, kind of on the lines of “Thanks. That was really good.” I hope. I hope it will be.

Photo: Heidrun Lohr

Photo: Heidrun Lohr

FLEUR: Any last thoughts on this experience tonight?

ANA: I found it really meditative. Less performative and more kind of a washing over. An impression. I enjoyed that a lot. I think it will bring up a lot of thoughts later. Maybe when I’m going to bed tonight I will think about something that they said tonight and be like “hmmm”.

DANIEL: Yeah. I mean death is one of my favourite subjects to think about. Not in a kind of morbid way but I’ve always been fascinated by it. It is the inevitable thing. It is the one thing that is a given in every single person’s life, that we are going to die. And the acceptance, how we accept that, how others accept that, how society accepts that, the idea that it is not necessarily a negative – it can be a positive. You can either be ripped from someone and taken way too soon or it can be the perfect full stop to somebody’s life. The end of the story. Every good story has to come to an end. I always get frustrated with TV series and books that never fucking end. When you end I will know what you meant. I will know what you were doing. So that idea of an ending being kind of beautiful and necessary. Yeah. That’s my wanky thing.

FLEUR: Are you going to eat that last corndog, Daniel?

DANIEL: I can’t. I can’t eat any more. I’ve already eaten a hamburger, half a peach and three chillidogs. I can’t eat any more.

FLEUR: So many last meals. Thanks, guys.

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audience conversations, audiences, conversation, Theatre

shit: an audience conversation

Theatre in Melbourne is good right now. Painfully so. Shit, which closed yesterday, is not an easy play to watch but it is urgent, funny, vicious and heartbreaking. I loved it so much and wanted so badly to imprint it on my brain that I went back a second time to see it, bringing my friend (the producer of the Audio Stage podcast), Kieran Ruffles, with me. At the end of the show we sat down in the foyer and, with Paul Simon crooning away in the background, reflected on what we had just seen.

SHIT photo: Sebastian Bourges

SHIT photo: Sebastian Bourges

Kieran: The bit that particularly got to me was when one character asked the other two “When’s the first time you had sex?” and they both completely arced up at her: “You never fucking ask that. What’s fucking wrong with you? You never fucking ask that.”

I started thinking of all the reasons you wouldn’t ask that of a woman in that milieu. And then I thought more about it and thought maybe you shouldn’t ask that of any women – or maybe you shouldn’t ask that of anyone. But the prevalence of sexual abuse, rape and attacks amongst women is statistically demonstrably much higher.

I remember that point in my mid-teens or early-twenties when some women started to open up to me about attacks or abuse or rape that had happened to them and I realised that they were not in the minority. It is in fact something that happens to most women growing up: some form of sexual abuse or inappropriate touching by a relative or a close family friend or straight up date rapes. Guys that they trusted that they still see!

Now we’ve really diverged off the show but to stir that up? That’s… that’s something.

Fleur: That’s what you walked out of there thinking about?

Kieran: Yeah. That was one of the stronger moments for me. I also really – I found it really cool the way that the writing was able to imply that one of the characters was transgender and yet again the milieu that the character was existing in was not one that would be able to recognise that or acknowledge it for what it is. Instead they did that thing that’s you’re really, really not supposed to do with transgender people: “Show us your genitals and prove it”. That was a pretty hard-core moment of transphobia. That was kind of intense. But to get to the point where the character could express it? Just enough to get torn down? Yeah.

Fleur: They’ve created this atmosphere, this world, where they’ll never take themselves seriously. Any moment of revelation, fragility or honesty is dismissed instantaneously.

Kieran: I think they can take each other seriously but sympathy and compassion are not in the lexicon and a nuanced understanding of issues is actively discouraged.

Fleur: I thought Peta Brady’s performance was remarkable the whole way through. All of them were but Peta I found particularly fascinating because she balances that roughness and a similar level of street toughness but it is so much bravado. There is desperation and neediness under it. She vocalises what the others won’t: “I thought we’d be together. I thought they’d let us stay together! We need to stay together! I can’t – Can’t – ” There is this absolute desperation – this need to have someone tell her what to do and take control of her life.

Kieran: That moment of realising that they might be separated from each other represents almost the maximum cruelty that you can imagine being visited on these characters: to be denied understanding of a peer. Yeah. And. Yeah. The most hopeful character is the one who can’t believe that would happen and the other two are equally but oppositely convinced that that is exactly what’s going to happen.

Fleur: I think she names her plays so well, Patricia. I know it is a funny thing to mention but she does. That this title, SHIT, is plastered over these three women is such an interesting provocation to the audience as they come in. Like, go on. Think of them as shit. Think of them as total shit. They do! They think of themselves as that.

Kieran: Yeah. I didn’t realise that’s where the name came from until today. Until I was reading the one-paragraph blurb about the show. I sort of thought “alright. Wow. We’re going to be confronted by something that is very much about class as well as whatever other – “ and perhaps it is entirely about class!

Fleur: And the invisibility of a particular group of people! I think in a way she wants them to feel quite foreign on this MTC stage and to this audience. There’s a sense of “we’re going to stand in front of you, talk in Aussie accents and be so clearly of this place and time and yet dare you to judge. Dare you to question yourself as you judge us.” I think she wants us to make them alien and other, so that once we’ve pushed them as far from ourselves as possible, hopefully we’ll stop and ask how we can justify this alienation and their invisibility.

Kieran: Yeah, yeah! Within this hardcore vernacular we’ll reveal these layers of nuance to these characters, reveal –

Fleur: Such humanity!

Kieran: Such humanity, yeah!

Fleur: Such ravaged tenderness.

Kieran: Mmmm. That’s good. I like that.

Fleur: Yeah. So do I. I must remember that. Yeah.

Photo: Sebastian Bourges

Photo: Sebastian Bourges

Kieran: Yeah. The presence of men throughout – the absent presence of men –

Fleur: Yeah, how is that as a man to watch? Represent your whole gender, please!

Kieran: Yeah! Sure! No worries! No. Fairly early on I realised that the men that were going to be talked about in this play were the type of men I’ve had to grow used to hearing about and not taking it personally. You can drive yourself completely nuts with that shit as a guy. Constantly trying to go “No, but not all men!” There’s a hashtag now and by its use you will be known to be a bit of a douchebag. I don’t need to stand up and yell “hashtag notallmen”. I can just go “enough men that this needs to be talks about again and again and again. Clearly enough.” So, yay there’s exceptions! Boo there’s a rule to have an exception to. Like, fuck. I I I I don’t have to take it personally but I do have to let it show me my gender. Show me the acts of people that share my gender. Yeah.

Fleur: It also doesn’t paint a good picture of women, either. The women that they speak of other than themselves? These bitches that try but aren’t sincere…. I’m not saying that they talk about women in quite the same way but everyone who is an outsider to them is such an outsider to them. They’ve created this team – this tiny team – and – Not “they’ve created”, the world has made them into this tiny team and everyone else is on the other side. Which is understandable when you’ve suffered the kind of abuse, neglect and trauma that young people coming up through the foster system are regularly exposed to.

Kieran: Yeah, look I think the work doesn’t like any men or any women particularly. The work does not like the central characters, those central characters do not like other women and they don’t like men particularly either. That’s the whole point of the ‘Caitlyn’ character, right? They invent a person who is just nice. She is mythical. She shares some characteristics with some real women that they’ve met but is in no way based on any real women that they’ve met.

Fleur: But one of them has met a Caitlyn before and found her a bit weird when she did meet her. Caitlyn is a caricature of someone who tries to hold you – to love you and save you – in a really futile, symbolic way that means nothing to you when you are so far gone that acts of love are just confusing.

Kieran: No I think they posit Caitlyn as a genuine possible solution. Just one that has never happened. I don’t think she is posited as the mirage of comfort. But no one is coming off well. Male or female. Humans are all a bit shit.

Fleur: Well I don’t think it is that humans are all a bit shit. It is that all humans these women have come into contact with are shit. Like in that part where they talk about: “Is anyone really kind?” “I think they might be.” “Well name one.” “I can’t.” Somewhere out there is kindness but it’s never going to brush up against them. They know that it exists – they’ve seen it at a distance – but never been able to put their hands on it and really get a true understanding of what it actually means to be treated with kindness or dignity or love or respect.

Kieran: I don’t know, it feels more like some kind of societal myth that they are participating in: The Good Person. They know that they definitely are not good, that no one they’ve ever met is and yet it comes through that they still kind of believe it is possible. But it is in some rarefied other world that they don’t participate in. They don’t live in.

Fleur: Let’s leave it there. That’s heaps for me to type. You’re not allowed to say anything smart after I turn this off.

Kieran: That’s good. I really tried to concentrate my smart comments.

Fleur: So smartness ends right – three, two, one – now!

Photo: Sebastian Bourges

Photo: Sebastian Bourges

Kieran Ruffles is a musician, radio producer and producer of the podcast, Audio Stage, which I host with Jana Perkovic. We are currently in the second season and are focusing on responsibility and ethics in art. The first episode of the season featured the playwright of SHIT, Patricia Cornelius, along with fellow playwright Melissa Reeves. The most recent episode, launched today, features Jane Howard and Richard Watts talking about the ethics of criticism. 

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audience conversations, conversation, Dramaturgical Analysis, Theatre

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

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

Show One: The Unspoken Word Is Joe

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

So what just happened?

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

Fleur: What was it that upset you?

Photo: Sarah Walker

Photo: Sarah Walker

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

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

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

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

Bridget: Well yeah. That too.

Fleur: Column A, Column B.

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Sarah Walker

Photo: Eugene Teh

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

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

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

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

Play two: The Ritual Slaughter of Gorge Mastromas

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

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

Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

Photo: Jodie Hutchinson

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

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

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

Bridget: And then it is almost gothic!

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

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

So how did it make you feel?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo: Jodie Hutchinson (I presume)

Photo: Jodie Hutchinson (I presume)

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bridget: Yeah. I can get out here!

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

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

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audience conversations, audiences, Theatre

in conversation: a love letter to sisters grimm

Look. I know this reads as a love letter to Sisters Grimm. I know that it runs the risk of becoming an “I-liked-them-before-they-were-cool-if-there-was-ever-a-time-before-they-were-cool-because-OMFG”. I know this. And I am fine with it.

This post is part of my ongoing series of audience conversations, recorded mere minutes after the applause. Often I try to grab strangers but yesterday Cat Commander, Daniel Lammin, Joe Brown and Elisa Ghisalberti were so animated by Calpurnia Descending that they started spouting outstanding responses before I had even looked around for interviewees.

“Okay, just hold that thought. No, just – Shut up! Clearly you are already being super smart so can I pull out the recorder?”

So this is a biased document. I haven’t grabbed randoms, I have recorded people whose love for this work and this company meant that they couldn’t shut the fuck up. And I’m fine with this. I’m fine with this because Sisters Grimm means something to emerging theatre makers on a personal level and because their success on national stages feels like a validation of what makes Melbourne’s theatre scene so unique, vibrant, ridiculous and important.

Here be spoilers. Here be biases. Here be excitement and some damn fine responses to an hilarious, complex and wonderfully trashy piece of theatre.

Calpurnia-2

Ash Flanders and Paul Capsis. Photo, Michele Aboud

Fleur:  So, what just happened? What was that?

Daniel: Calpurnia Descending. The new Sisters Grimm show.

Elisa: A multi-media explosion of – I don’t know! – of everything! It is kind of everything!

Daniel: It just starts off as a – as a – pastiche honouring of films like All About Eve or Sunset Boulevard and the 30s diva dramas and then turns into this really biting social commentary/satire and then there’s just an explosion of… stuff –

Cat: Which then kind of accelerates through time in our visual-cultural associations.

Daniel: The moment it started with that cut to black and then blare of sound and just that – that reminder of what you are in for! You’re about to walk into something that is big and ridiculous. You’re going to have to re-align your expectations based on that and it’s not going to give a fuck whether you’re up with it or not. It’s just going to do its thing.

My whole body hurts from watching it. That always happens when I see one of their shows. At the end of it, I’ve been kind of assaulted by ideas and images and feelings and just screaming with laughter the entire time and you just walk out going —- You need a moment to kind of physically realign yourself.

Fleur: How to transcribe Daniel Lammin doing his little zombie walk to demonstrate the physical exertion of Sisters Grimm?

Daniel: Whenever they do something intelligent they have to kill it at the very last second. Like “don’t – DON’T forget what we are doing. It is trash. It is camp. It is ridiculous.” They always just have to have a little sting in the tail.

Elisa: But then not at the end! Not at the end when you completely feel for Paul Capsis’ character. They could have easily killed that with a gag and they chose not to.

Daniel: It’s always the extraordinary thing with their shows: you always forget that there will be a moment when suddenly your heart will break. Like the moment in Little Mercy where you see that the wife is genuinely out of her depth because her child is the spawn of Satan or in The Sovereign Wife when everything is going to shit. There is always the human moment in it and I can’t wait to see what that’s going to be each time. Yes. By the ending you’re not laughing! It is devastating. The sight of Paul Capsis standing onstage for a good two minutes not saying anything, in his underwear and you’re like –

Fleur: Looking so strangely innocent in that moment, after being this knowing, calculating, if crazed diva throughout.

Daniel: But also taking advantage of the fact that what we’re watching is someone who we associate as an icon. The thing of seeing Paul Capsis take his costume off… It stopped being about the story and for a moment it was just watching this incredible performer we all know so well from such an incredible career just be… There.

Cat: And the visual trickery of both drag and just costume in general. Watching him in the beginning I was like “look at his fucking tight body. Look how ripped he is” and the way he holds himself, he just has this – like he – like he just lifts weights all day long. Then he takes his clothes off and you’re like “wow. There’s a soft, real human there.” And you feel so tricked and it just makes you empathise even more with him because you’re like “wow. Everyone is really, really human.”

calpurnia-descending-stc-2014-prod-photo-3678-photo-credit-brett-boardman

CALPURNIA DESCENDING photo by Brett Boardman. I think.

Fleur: A couple of you have mentioned the big ideas it is saterising or the big concepts going on. Talk to me about what those concepts are. What’s it about?

Cat: Well femininity –

Elisa: The performative aspects of femininity.

Cat: Or gender as a whole. And I love seeing a woman cross-dress. Love it.

Elisa: Oh god! More! Please. Yeah.

Cat: I think it allows you to comment more on gender when it’s not just your stereotype of “drag is men dressed as women and that’s funny!” No. Drag is social commentary because it allows us to reflect on how performative gender really is.

And I think it is about popular culture as well! Declan and Ash are such connoisseur of popular culture from way back to the beginnings of cinema that they are able to satirise what people value and what they find entertaining. And they are such entertainers.

Daniel: The expendable-ness of – Having watched the first three quarters of the show which is about an era and a time where to be a star, to work on a particular text, to be onstage, is such a sacred thing and then to have that assaulted with the most expendable, consumable shit? Like the sight of having Paul Capsis running through a video game? It was both incredible and utterly disturbing. All of a sudden the richness of the world you’ve been spending time in is just obliterated. Like at this particular point, fame, art, creation, everything is just kind of pointless and disappears at a moment’s notice. A click of a screen and all of a sudden it disappears.

Fleur: Joe, you’re sitting there looking thoughtful. What’s going on for you?

Joe: I’m hideously out of my depth. It usually takes me a little while to kind of digest. Yeah. I’ve never seen a Sisters Grimm show before.

Elisa: Neither have I!

Fleur: So tell me about seeing Sisters Grimm for the first time. I’m guessing you have heard a fair bit about them.

Joe: I’ve heard so much about them. So much about them.

Fleur: Is that what you expected to see?

Joe: Um… No. I expected the beginning. But then that slow, steady – not decline but – movement into this bat shit crazy territory caught me by surprise because it was so… It was more visceral than I was expecting. Far more visceral. It was… It was more than I was expecting as well. I was kind of expecting camp fun but it turned into something pretty real by the end.

Fleur: I think that is why we love them as a community: because they don’t just go for the gasp or for the laugh. If that was the case then they wouldn’t have stuck around. If it was only that joke. Like in the musical I saw last night, La Cage Aux Folles: the whole joke was just “they’re men! But in drag!”

Joe: Yeah. The first thing that came to mind when I saw this was Little One’s Neon show this year, Dangerous Liaisons. They stayed with that joke. They stayed with the “people in drag” and it was funny and I really liked it but looking back I’m realising that it didn’t have the movement that this one had.

The Production Company's LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. Photo credit unfound.

The Production Company’s LA CAGE AUX FOLLES. Photo credit unfound.

Daniel: Has seeing Sisters Grimm at full force changed your perspective of what this style of theatre is capable of?

Joe: I think it has changed my perspective of what theatre can be. It was one of those ones.

Daniel: I think that’s the reason why they stick out in our cultural landscape: other people try to do what they do but Sisters Grimm knows where they come from. They know that trash and camp theatre come from being reactionary and being angry. It didn’t come out of being clever. It isn’t just about “hey, there’s men dressed as women and women dressed as men”. It’s about an idea that you have to rebel against something and every time you see their shows they make you feel. They make you think. Most people who play with camp and trash don’t understand that basic concept.

Cat: It’s not just queering of a classic text. It’s ripping apart layers upon layers of our own preconceptions of society and of culture. That – that – that’s what I get off on.

I met someone recently who said they left at halftime of The Sovereign Wife and I was just like “you are a fool. You are a fool.”

Elisa: Like if you left halfway through this, you’d just be like –

Fleur: “Yeah, I’m not really into that whole Noir thing – ”

Elisa: “I’d rather just see Joan Crawford.” Yeah!

Fleur: So it was also your first time seeing Sisters Grimm. Do you want to tell us about what you were expecting and what you got?

Elisa: Well see, I know Ash’s work. I know Declan’s work. I just haven’t seen Sisters Grimm before. But I think it was kind of what I was expecting because I know what they’re capable of. And because it is at The Malthouse I know I’m not going to come out traumatised.

Fleur: Is that a level of safety that you appreciate?

Elisa: I don’t need theatre to be safe. I don’t want to be scarred by it but I don’t even know how I could be. I don’t know what it would take! The stuff that I’ve seen! It’s like, if I was going to be scarred it would have happened already.

So they are doing their own thing but it is a safe theatre that they are playing in.

Daniel: The difference between seeing Summertime in the Garden of Eden in a shed as opposed to on the stage was extraordinary. In Theatre Works it just wasn’t quite as extraordinary because it wasn’t the same. I didn’t get to see Little Mercy at STC but I can’t imagine that not being in a shitty car park. It has been interesting thinking about this compared to their early work. In their mainstage work you probably couldn’t see Ash with his balls hanging out like in Cellblock Booty or a nun pissing in a priest’s mouth like in the original production of Little Mercy. It has been interesting seeing how they have transitioned and how they’ve been able to slip in their anarchy whilst also having to adhere to the requirements of a mainstage audience.

Fleur: I think ‘adhere’ is an interesting word with these guys because I don’t – I don’t know – I – I actually think – I feel like their work as a whole has definitely matured. I didn’t feel that same kind of depth and complexity back six – seven – however many years ago when I saw Mommie & the Minister

Daniel: Yes! Yes! Mommie & the Minister! That was extraordinary.

Fleur: Yes, it was a fucking delight! But I do think that this is a much more mature work and I’m fucking delighted to see it on that stage. I don’t feel like it has damped it. I think they’ve found a complexity that has moved beyond that gasp.

Daniel: They’ve had to find different languages.

Cat: It’s not just Sisters Grimm With Money; it is Sisters Grimm who have really thought about how they can really transcend that shed experience.

Fleur: Yet there is still an echo of the shed at all times. Part of what makes going to see Sisters Grimm so special for so many Melbourne people is that, even if you haven’t seen them before, you know that they have been massive part of our history throughout the last decade. The rise of these two creatives epitomises our re-invention as a community. They have come up through their car parks and sheds to the mainstage. And have worked fucking hard. I feel like it is such a validation when I see these guys on a mainstage. I feel like it is a validation from the mainstage theatre companies. Programming this company is them saying “yeah. We get what Melbourne is about. We get what is so unique and special about Indy theatre here in Melbourne. It is people like these guys.”

SUMMERTIME IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN, photo by Marg Horwell

SUMMERTIME IN THE GARDEN OF EDEN, photo by Marg Horwell

Daniel: It is interesting to see how Sydney audiences take them. Talking to my friends in Sydney who have seen “all their shows”, (They’ve seen three! Just the three they’ve had up there.) But there is that difference in terms of their perception of what Sisters Grimm is. To them, they are a mainstage company. They’re big and they’re polished and they LOVE them but it is a different perspective. They talk about Summertime and how big and beautiful and fluffy the set was and it’s like “well, you should have seen it in a shed with a broken down washing machine in the corner.”

Cat: With the “donation only” wine.

I think their work hinges on deep, deep intellect and skill in writing and skill in constructing theatre that works on many layers. That’s what I admire more about Declan’s work and specifically about his work with Sisters Grimm. I think him and Ash have the most incredible partnership. I can’t wait to see where they go.

Daniel: They demand that you participate. You can’t just sit back, be complacent and let it wash over you. When the screen is bursting with pictures of Ash flying over the world in a pink wig, you have to sit there going “what the fuck am I seeing” but also you have to go “where is this coming from? I have to engage with this work! It demands that I do because it is intelligent and important and exciting.”

Fleur: Final thought?

Cat: Pleasure.

Fleur: You all talked really, really fast. It’s going to kill me transcribing this.

Sisters Grimm, photo by Claryssa Humennyj-Jameson

Sisters Grimm, photo by Claryssa Humennyj-Jameson

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audience conversations, audiences, Politics, Theatre

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

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

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

RICHARD II promo image by Sarah Walker

RICHARD II promo image by Sarah Walker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Olivia Monticciolo, production photography by Sarah Walker.

Olivia Monticciolo, production photography by Sarah Walker.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

FLEUR: The lap dance moment?

TORI: With Mark dressed as Julia Gillard. Yeah.

LOUISE: And sort of oddly arousing as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LOUISE: Tim-tam and a cup of tea.

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

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

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

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

FLEUR: Mark has done worse.

Lou: I heard.

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

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

Mark Wilson, production photography by Sarah Walker

Mark Wilson, production photography by Sarah Walker

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

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

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

FLEUR: Thank you so much guys. Holy shit.

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

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audience conversations, audiences, conversation, Responses, Theatre

in conversation: on theatre, football, indigenous leadership and walking into the bigness

I love conducting audience conversations. I love that moment of walking up to strangers in a foyer (or as they leave a tent) and asking if I can stick a microphone in their face for twenty minutes. But in truth, they are seldom strangers. Not really. Even the English comedians I spoke with about Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It had people in common. Because, of course. The world isn’t very big and theatre is very small. But the people I grabbed after Richard Frankland’s Walking Into The Bigness were truly strangers; that elusive ‘real General Public’ that I’m always searching for, who see art as audience members rather than makers, friends, lovers. It was a beautifully mixed group: four middle-aged women and two elite athletes, recent retired AFL star, Aaron Davey and olympian Kyle Vander Kuyp. This conversation was wonderful. I love that it captures a meeting between strangers and by about the second minute of recording I all but disappeared as the participants began to interview each other. So here we go. Theatre, football and Indigenous leadership: the conversation you didn’t know you needed. As one of the woman, Sue, said “see what this show brings out?”

'Walking into the Bigness' show photography by Pia Johnson.

‘Walking into the Bigness’ show photography by Pia Johnson.

SFB      What just happened in there? What did you see?

BETSY  A life story. A life story of a very incredible man. Five different people assumed the same character.

KYLE    I think the characters really brought out the language – the indigenous language that me and Aaron had a bit of a laugh about. We’ve heard that in our own aunties, uncles and cousins. You hear that language come out. And the racism that he suffered. There are so many layers to his life.

I think they did a great job of bringing the whole audience in, whether they were Indigenous or non-Indigenous. It was a story about a man and yeah, he happens to be one of our Indigenous leaders that we all look up to.

AARON  Yeah, obviously there’s still a divide in this country between the Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. It was fantastic to put that in a play and make it a cultural lesson. It’s a culturally safe place where everyone can sit down and have a laugh –

SFB      And a cry.

KYLE    And a cry, yeah.

AARON And if we can get a lot more well-respected leaders within our mobs to tell their stories, I think that goes a long way of educating not only the people in the theatre but the whole country. If we can get it in art and performance like that where you can see the fun side and sense the seriousness of it, I reckon that’s amazing. Myself and Kyle are both Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island men and there were a lot of more non-Indigenous people in there tonight, which was special for us guys walking out.

LAURIE Can I say, it does remind us that it is such a current story still. That’s the heartbreaking thing. It grabs my heart and makes me sad and makes me cross. For you guys, how do you watch it and come out smiling? How do you do that?

AARON  It motivates you. We’re working with a lot of young people and I’m doing a mentoring role with young trainees and helping kids get into employment and education. And maybe you can start to break the family cycle if you can maybe say the right words to a young kid.

I was on the phone at work today to a mum for about an hour about her son. I think that is a lucky gift to be able to have a conversation with a mum or a trainee or even the host employer and say “hey look, you need to give this guy a little bit of a break at the moment.” It bites you a bit hard. You have days where you’re really flat but having a show like this just gives me a spring in my step again. Let’s re-load. This is what we’re all about.

'Walking into the Bigness'  show photography, Pia Johnson

‘Walking into the Bigness’ show photography, Pia Johnson

SFB      I think for me, the overall feeling I left with was a sense of pride rather than despair. To see a strong Indigenous man standing up and telling his story. And that it ended with that beautiful scene where he asked the kids “do you want to be boy-men, do you want to be boy-boys or men” and having them say “nah, I want to be a man.”

BETSY   It helps the young people to embrace their culture, doesn’t it? Not be ashamed but be proud.

AARON  Sometimes people struggle with their own identity. I sort of done a talk at my kid’s school a couple of weeks ago. Never assume that the darkest Indigenous Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander person is a lot more traditional or knowledgeable than the fair-skinned ones. That’s not always the case. My daughter is pretty fair and someone in the class said “that’s not really Michaela’s dad”. My daughter’s got blond hair and my other kids have got brown hair. It’s just one of those things. It’s still about educating the country.

I had a young guy ring me. He’s fourteen-years-old and his teammate called him a – a – an ‘Abo’. The young boy texted me two nights ago and said he’s going to walk away from footy because he don’t feel like he can go anymore. They’ve only got one game left and he wanted to come watch me play. I said to the young fella, “you can either shy away from it or you can nip it in the bud and show how strong you are.” So he went to training last night and rang me afterwards to say “I done it”. This young kid’s got a pretty tough upbringing and so that’s where Kyle and I can play that role in the community.

KYLE    And we would have had that when we were young. We had people give us the right message at the right time. It becomes a cycle. Aaron’s had ten years in footy and he said today to a group of people “it hasn’t been smooth. It’s been bumpy and I have to be honest.” I think that honesty hits kids too. They go “oh I thought AFL careers are all dollars and spotlight” and it is hard. It is hard work. And there are great moments but there is hard work. I think Richard’s story really talked about hard work. Getting up. Dusting yourself off. What was that line? “When life knocks you down, get up and smack it down” something like that. That’s what we gotta keep doing.

BETSY   Like that young kid. He got up and smacked it down.

LAURIE Did he retaliate to those kids that said that to him?

AARON  He got really defensive and told the coach “I’m going, I’m not coming back, I’m gonna quit footy – ”

LAURIE  But physically?

AARON  Nah, nah, nah. Nearly. But he was good. When he rang me – you can tell in their voice. He said, “I went to training” and I said “I’m proud of ya. I know how much courage it takes.” For someone fourteen years old and they’ve played footy with each other for years! And it might have been a slip of the tongue but yeah.

Same thing happened at Melbourne with one young guy. I took him and another guy out for dinner – both non-indigenous – and the asics boot had just come out. They’re black, red and yellow. And this young kid is real respectful. I’ve got a lot of time for him and he goes “oh you see these new boots I got? Got the ‘Abo’ boots!” And he didn’t realise. I said to him “look, I’ll tell you now, you’re lucky you’ve said that to me. If you was to say that to another Indigenous person you would have probably got your mouth punched in.”

But they just assumed it was short for ‘Aboriginal’. It’s one of the most offensive words. And we can hear it in there (in the theatre) but if someone walked up now and called me an ‘Abo’ I’d get real defensive. In there you’re in a culturally safe space that’s all about learning but you come out the door…

SUE      This Dipper guy (Robert DiPierdomenico), he said it

AARON  Yeah, he said it to my cousin. Gavin’s (Wanganeen) mum and my dad are brother and sister.

ANNIE  You look a bit alike!

AARON Probably got similar chins, I think. They call it ‘the old Davey chin’.

LAURIE I always thought he was such a lovely looking young man. And so are you, you see. So there you go.

SUE    You know Dipper said “I didn’t mean it offensively because I’ve been called a ‘wog’ my whole life and I didn’t mean it like that.” What is the difference? Is there a difference?

AARON  I think it is because of the history behind it.

BETSY   It’s more derogatory. It’s much more derogatory.

AARON  I live in Oakleigh South and there’s a big Greek community and one of my neighbours walked up when I was down the street and he goes “hey Aaron, what did you think about the whole issue?” He goes “surely it’s not that bad. I used to get called ‘wog’ all the time when I played soccer.” I said “look, I don’t mean to be real negative on it but it’s a lot more different because we’ve had so many challenges.” It’s not to say that the Greek people haven’t but if they only knew half of the history. It is a form of ignorance as well. Everyone says, “be strong”, “be tough skinned” but…

BETSY   It’s challenging.

AARON  Exactly right.

'Walking into the Bigness'  show photography, Pia Johnson

‘Walking into the Bigness’ show photography, Pia Johnson

LAURIE That’s the other thing that I thought the play brought out as well. There’s a line in it that said “you’re walking in the footsteps of your grandparents for one thousand – “

All join in: One thousand and fifty generations. Yes. Yeah!

LAURIE For me, it wasn’t just about his life. It was the story of a people. It was everybody’s story.

SUE      Is that something that the younger people struggle with? That power of the Elders? Do they listen to the Elders, the young people now?

AARON  I reckon respect for Elders is probably the biggest value of our mob. I’m doing a bit of stuff now with the Koori Court as a ‘respected figure’. So I’ve sat in a room for three days in a forum and I’ve had all these old people – and I’ve always been told to respect Elders. So after we had a bit of a de-brief and they asked, “what did you take out of the last three days?” And I said “to be honest, I was pretty intimidated first day, sitting in that room. I didn’t obviously give too much because I didn’t feel it was my place to be speaking over people a lot older and more experienced. That’s just not how I’ve been brought up.” Your Elders are Elders no matter what mob you’re from. So you have all these old people sitting on the Koori Court and some aren’t even from the Wurundjeri land or Bunurong land. I’m from Darwin. I’m from NT but it’s all about respecting your Elders. Those young kids are real intimidated and they’re embarrassed because they’ve brought our mob into disrepute.

BETSY   AFL has done a lot.

AARON  Yeah. I walked in ten years ago as a real shy kid. I was always proud to be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander but I’ve learnt so much in my ten-year journey. I can walk away and give back and really encourage guys to get to know about their own mob. If you could have seen me do an interview when I was in my first, second, third or even up until about five years ago, I couldn’t even string two words together. I always thought I was the shy kid but you just develop and when you’re placed in the role of the role model…. Now I say to the young guys “you can be someone” and to the people around them I say, “it’s about you reassuring them.” You keep telling someone they’re no good at something, they start believing it. If you start telling someone they’re good at something, they’ll start believing it.

SUE      See what this show brings out? It brings all of this stuff.

SFB      Doesn’t it? I don’t want to hold you guys here, and I know that you want to get over and congratulate Richard, so I’ll just get you to go around and say where you’re from and what you hope people will get from this.

AARON  My name is Aaron Davey. Recently retired AFL player, originally from Darwin but my father’s family is from the Kokatha tribe, southwest of South Australia, north of Ceduna. And my grandfather is a Torres Strait Islander man from the western islands up in the Straits.

I guess this show is all about education. You can take a lot of things from it and all you need is for one of the people in that room to go and tell their friends about it and it spreads. Culturally, it is a journey. We’re all on a journey. There was a lot more non-Indigenous people in there tonight than Indigenous so hopefully one day everyone will learn about our great culture. Which will be near impossible. But take what you can out of it and spread the word, whether it’s to your grandchildren or friends, and eventually we’ll get there.

BETSY   I’m Betsy Laurence. I live in Hampton, Victoria but from California originally. I’ve been in Australia for twelve years and have been fortunate enough to go out Bush and work in some communities for short times. I feel very privileged to have been able to do that. So many Australians have not had an opportunity like that. I think that seeing a show like this raises awareness for people. You’re bringing it to the people. You’re bringing that cultural experience of people’s lives to the general public so people can give back and get involved in Australian cultural history. Be more aware and open and help our fellow Australians.

SFB      We just did an interview recently with Julian Meyrick, who is a theatre historian. He said that Australian theatre has a deep fear of our past and I said that I think that is not just true of theatre. Australians in general are so horrified by our own history that we’d rather not confront it.

BETSY   Your history is very new and what’s happened to these lovely people is a recent thing. It is very raw. I think ‘how can we have treated people this way’ and ‘how can we still be treating people this way’. They are people. It takes one match to light a room.

Most people have wandered away by this point. Laurie whispers to me.

LAURIE Did you know that those two people (Aaron and Kyle) are really – he’s really big in the AFL and he’s an Olympian?

SFB      I had no idea.

LAURIE He was Vice-Captain of Melbourne Football Club. Very big deal.

SFB      Look at me, I’m the biggest theatre geek ever.

LAURIE Oh yeah, of course you didn’t know. Anyway what was the question again?

SFB      Your name, where you’re from, what you hope people will take from this.

LAURIE Okay. Got it. My name is Laurie Evans and what I take from this is that I just want to learn more about the Aboriginal culture. I wish that I had that culture and that history of 1500 generations fishing from the same pond.

'Walking into the Bigness'  show photography, Pia Johnson

Richard centre stage, ‘Walking into the Bigness’ show photography, Pia Johnson

Kyle has come back.

KYLE    Kyle Vander Kuyp. I’m from Melbourne but I’m an Indigenous man from the Worimi and the Yuin tribes, New South Wales. From Richard Franklin’s show, I’ll take away how Richard kept getting up from any set back. Any time he got knocked down it was a matter of dusting off and keeping on going. The many things that he was willing to try and have a go at is something I’ll take away. We’ve also got to encourage our young ones out there to try things out. You’re not going to learn about yourself unless you come out of your comfort zone and make yourself vulnerable. Richard makes himself very vulnerable in all of the layers of his life. That’s how I relate to it.

Thank you very much to my participants. They were incredible generous and heart-felt. I apologise if I attributed things to the wrong speakers. Betsy’s Californian accent was much appreciated but there was some guess work going on there. 

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