My own plays, Theatre

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

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

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

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

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


I’m taking a moment.

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

Asterix creator Albert Uderzo's response.

Asterix creator Albert Uderzo’s response.

Okay? Let’s go.

Stage nudity I can talk to.

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

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

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

Adrienne Truscott, photo: Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival

Adrienne Truscott, photo: Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival

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

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

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

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

Yours the Face, Photo: Sarah Walker

Yours the Face, Photo: Sarah Walker

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

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

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

At work in 2009. Photo: Scott Brown

At work in 2009. Photo: Scott Brown

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

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

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

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

Mark Wilson, Richard III, photo: Sarah Walker

Mark Wilson, Richard III, photo: Sarah Walker

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

audience conversations, audiences, conversation, Politics, Sex, Theatre

in conversation: audience on adrienne truscott, rape jokes, blame, shame and comedy

On Sunday I saw Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It: A One-Woman Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else at Adelaide Fringe. On the way out the door, I grabbed three audience members to interview. In true festival style, these ‘average punters’ turned out to be artists themselves, visiting from Edinburgh: Juliette Burton, Lizzy Mace and Frankie Lowe. Sitting beneath the Little Big Top in the Garden of Unearthly Delights, we talked for twenty minutes about the show, rape culture, rape comedy and victim blaming. Be warned, this conversation was born of a show that began “So, who here has been raped? Okay. Who here is a rapist? Well now statistically that can’t be true.” It is full on stuff so please proceed with caution. Your mental health is important to me.



From Robin Thicke’s controversial ‘Blurred Lines’

SFB: Can you describe what you just saw?

Juliette: Well we saw Adrienne Truscott come onstage, very quickly strip and perform most of her show half naked from the waist down. That’s a literal description of what we just saw. On a deeper level, she was toying with constructs in comedy that deserved to be toyed with.

Lizzy: And with constructs in society. She was really examining the whole rape culture –

Frankie: Last Edinburgh Fringe that was a really, really hot topic. There were quite a few comedians in the UK making rape jokes and it divided opinion: a lot of people saying “you should never make jokes about that” and other people saying “you can make a joke about anything.” I think that was the key point that everyone agreed with: “if it’s funny, you can make a joke about anything.” The problem with all these rape jokes was that they weren’t funny.

Lizzy: A subtler way I’ve heard people talk about it is that it depends who you’re making the butt of the joke. If you’re making the victim the butt of the joke, that’s not cool but if you are making the rapist or rape culture the butt of the joke…

Juliette: It is the intention and the accountability of the joke. Is the intention to put the victim down? If you’re honest with yourself as a comedian is your material trying to make them small and you big? You have to be accountable.

Lizzy: That thing about whether something is funny or not is what annoyed me with the Daniel Tosh thing. I followed that when it all happened. Saying to a crowd “wouldn’t it be funny if she got raped by five guys now?” There is nothing funny about that!

Frankie: Jokingly alluding to someone getting raped is not actually humour.

Lizzy: That’s not alluding to it! That’s almost inciting people to do it. That’s not right on any level. Just because he’s a comedian, he doesn’t have a license to say that is okay.

Juliette: That’s not even lazy comedy. There’s lazy jokes about blondes or women or – Adrienne made some lazy jokes in there but she was doing it tongue in cheek. Like “women: we’re terrible at maths.” That’s not a joke and that’s the point. The jokes were those intelligent, witty, clever, creative ones. And I loved her use of music.

SFB: Like having us enter to Blurred Lines.

Frankie: As soon as we walked in I was like “perfect choice”.


Adrienne Truscott is one half of the notorious ‘Wau Wau Sisters’. Seen here performing at the Sydney Opera House. Photo: Alan Pryke Source: The Australian

Lizzy: What you were saying about “lazy comedy”: doing an open mic circuit around London, you can go to an open mic night where there will be seventeen new comedians and they are all trying things out. Sixteen of them will be making the laziest jokes about rape, incest and paedophilia to have some kind of shock factor. The ironic thing is that it’s not even shocking to say that any more. They’re not even finding unique or funny things to say. It can really grind you down if you’re doing that circuit and you have to sit through that.

Juliette: We’ve seen comedians here who shall remain nameless, partly because I can’t remember their names, who’ve been amazing but there were others making the same old kinds of jokes –

Frankie: Hackneyed racial stereotypes –

Juliette: Yes and just very much set-up, punch-line, gag. Nothing intelligent, nothing witty but people were loving it because they were drunk and they were used to that kind of comedy. It is people like Adrienne who are trying to do something different, which divides opinion but pushes comedy forward.

Frankie: That’s what I liked about her. It’s not just “I can make rape jokes; I’m a girl.” It is taking on the whole culture: humour around rape, gang rape, university life. There are lots of university websites back home in England which are incredibly popular and they are legitimising rape. (SFB: I’m guessing Frankie was referring to student-run, frat-type websites, not to official pages.) They say “it’s just banter” but it’s not banter because it is actually happening in universities. You can’t say that is playful, harmless fun because people are reading things like that and having it drilled into their head that it is okay, in some way.

Juliette: Women in comedy still have to deal with the question “are women funny?” YES they are! Well this kind of show is really good for women in comedy. She’s not only being brave because she’s A Woman In Comedy – that’s beside the point – it doesn’t matter that she’s a woman – it’s the fact that her content is so clever and witty and confrontational –


Mat Fraser and Julie Atlas Muz in performance

We’ve just seen someone come out on stage wearing nothing on her lower half. (Back home) there is Mat Fraser who is a thalidomide man. He performs erotica in the UK and has won awards for it. He comes out on stage with his massive cock hanging out and he’s told us he doesn’t feel vulnerable with that out. He feels vulnerable when he takes his prosthetic arms off. That’s the thing for him.

For women, I do think there’s a relationship between the clothes we wear and the messages that we’re sending out. But why the fuck should that message be about anyone but us? Anyone outside of our bodies? If I choose to wear a short skirt and I choose to get really drunk, that is not inviting rape. That’s not inviting anything. We’ve been to bars around here and men have just not stopped. There have been certain bars where men have just come up to us and been like “hey! Hey! Hey! Hey!” And I’m clearly ignoring them and…. Anyway.

SFB: Did you hear about Jill Meagher in the UK?

Lizzy: No.

Frankie: Jill Meagher?

SFB:  Jill Meagher, yeah. She was an Irish woman living in my hometown, Melbourne. She was brutally raped and murdered a little over a year ago. It was a very big thing for us. It provoked massive marches – taking back the night marches – calling for an end to violence against women. It really scared Melbourne but, in my most cynical moments, I think part of the reason that case touched such a nerve with us was that – even with very left-wing people who are never going to actively blame the victim – there is often a tiny little subconscious bit of the brain that does judge. With Jill Meagher, there was absolutely no way you could put any part of it on her. I think that shocked everyone that they couldn’t distance themselves from it by judging. They couldn’t say “she was drunk, she was this, she was that…”


Memorial march September 30th, 2012 down Sydney Road

(I have written previously about Jill Meagher here but I’ll also add to this now because it is such a difficult and delicate topic, and my statements need more explanation. I think this judging is almost a defense mechanism on the part of society because it is too painful to think about and hurt about every reported rape with the same intensity with which we thought about Jill Meagher. Assaults and rapes against sex workers barely cause a ripple. It is now known that Jill’s killer, Adrian Bayley, had a long history of assaulting exactly these kinds of marginalised women and, as Jill’s husband, Tom said, the meager sentences Bayley received for these previous assaults “send a very disturbing message. What it says to women is ‘Be careful what you do, ’cause if we don’t like what you do, you won’t get justice.’ And then what it says to people like Bayley is not, ‘don’t rape’, but, ‘be careful who you rape.’”)

Frankie: When you say “there’s a tiny bit of the brain,” do you mean when parents tell their sixteen-year-old daughter, “would you mind covering up a bit?” They are not saying “you deserve to get raped” or “you’re going to get raped” but there is that kind of protective –

SFB: Yes. Things like saying “what was she doing out there alone at 3am” or “you have to be careful”. The kind of language that just creeps in.

Juliette: There are two things there. There’s the fact that women who get raped generally are not the women in the short skirts who are drunk. They are raped by people who know them. I’m saying that and it sounds way too normal to say “oh you get raped by people who know you” but yeah, you do. It’s not about how you’re looking. You’re not begging for it. There’s a relationship of trust already built up.

SFB: Yes, and another statistic is that, by the end of our lives, one in four women will be a survivor of sexual assault so when you are talking about rape in a room, you must know that you will have people in that room who have been through it.

Juliette: It is one of the last frontiers: talking about and admitting to sexual abuse, that’s really difficult.

But another point that I was going to make about victim blaming and the way that you dress…


Lizzy: It is like there is some responsibility put on you to protect yourself by dressing –

Juliette: Oh and that idea that men are not responsible for their actions!

Frankie: Yeah. It is disrespectful to men as well. It says that if a girl puts on a short skirt, we’re unable to control ourselves. That whole “I’m helpless now! I have to rape you!” If anyone thought that about me I’d think “who the fuck do you think you’re talking about?” It is entirely the responsibility of the individual.

Juliette: So it’s not only offensive to women, it’s offensive to women or men.

Frankie: It’s just incredibly offensive to human beings.

SFB: Society can all say “rape is bad.” We can all agree on that but it is that last frontier; getting at that last hidden judgemental bit of the brain. And as soon as you put something inside an arts festival, you know you’re playing to an almost entirely left-wing room and so you’ve got to push them a little bit further to provoke them. In coming out naked and drinking the entire time and remember, the show’s not called Asking For It, it is called Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It. It depends how you interpret that apostrophe.

Lizzy: Yeah, so she’s labeling herself.

SFB: Yes. She’s labeling herself to challenge us. We sit there and it is like she’s prodding all these left-wing people in the room saying “go on. Just say that I’m asking for it. I fucking dare you. Come on.”

Juliette: Yes. It is ‘a one-woman rape about comedy’. That’s funny. That’s clever. That alone is clever to me. To other people it is possibly offensive and that’s okay. If they want to go and see the hackneyed comics and have easy laughter and know when you’re meant to laugh because here comes the punch line, that’s fine. But I am really happy that I saw that. It certainly got us talking and it’s made me think and I hope it will make us produce more awesome shows in the future.

SFB: Thanks guys. I hope so too.


Promo image for ‘Adrienne Truscott’s Asking For It’

Adrienne Truscott’s challenging, thought-provoking show runs in Adelaide until March 16th at the Garden of Unearthly Delights before transferring to Melbourne where it will be playing March 27-April 20th.

Juliette and Lizzy’s show is Rom Com Con at the Bake House Theatre and finishes March 16th in Adelaide.

Juliette’s solo show is When I Grow Up at Channel 9 Studios and finishes March 15th in Adelaide before transferring to Melbourne where it will be playing March 27-April 20th. 

Lizzy’s solo show, Overlooked, plays at the Austral Hotel until March 16th.

think I got them all.