audiences, criticism

‘everyone’s a critic’: a talk

On Sunday I spoke at Scratch Warehouse’s second Artistic Spread event: bring a plate of food and they will bring three visual artists, three performers and three artists to speak about what they do. Because I’m a shameless self-documenter, I recorded it and today I thought I would share it as a sort of audio School for Birds post, as it is mostly about what I do on this blog and why I do it.

Those who regularly read me will see that I plagiarised myself terribly and at the beginning I also sound a little hesitant as I’m not reading from my notes but I really enjoyed putting this together. I think it may have kind of surprised everyone with how ridiculously poetic and academic it got but all the more reason that I think you birds will like it.

Covered in this talk: criticism, empowering your audience, how I conduct post-show audience conversations and what I’ve learnt from them, The City They Burned and how to engage with criticism as an artist.

Enjoy.

Speaking at Scratch's Artistic Spread #2

Speaking at Scratch’s Artistic Spread #2. Looking pained about stuff.

“Artists don’t set out to make work that is either good or bad. Most set out to make you feel stuff. Think stuff. To knot your gut, to dry your mouth, to water your eyes, to clench your fists, to find words and images and sounds and sensations to express those things that are either too big or too small for us to realise on a daily basis.

… With this in mind, know how inadequate a response ‘Yeah I really liked it’ is.”

Why does the word ‘critic’ denote a professional and ‘enthusiast’ reek of amateurism? I think ‘enthusiast’ is a much better word for what I do: I enthuse about art. I think it is sad that enthusiasm sounds like a less intellectual or rigorous response.

Thank you to Kieran for helping me with this audio.

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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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conversation, intimate portraits, Sex

on not wanting to frighten, not expecting the call and some norwegian guy

It has been a while, poor, neglected bird. I have lovely theatre-y things to feed you but I also have a deadline that I really don’t want to fuck up. I am no Douglas Adams. I don’t “love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by”. I am very into grinding to a halt on top of them with such abruptness that my seatbelt leaves bruises. So until you can smell burning rubber, have another anonymous conversation with another beautiful human being. 

The Empty Chair, Dena Cardwell

The Empty Chair, Dena Cardwell

Fleur:  Describe where we are?

Him:    We are in a… I’ll call it a ‘courtyard’. There are some buildings behind us from… well they want to be the 18th Century but they’re not quite. There’s a gallery on one side and the back of the museum building on the other. They’ve also managed to wedge in a little car park down the side. And this rather nice tree! What is this tree?

Fleur: A green one. With some with rough bark and it seems to have dropped a little scattering of cigarette butts under it. Yeah.

Was there – was there a kiss that’s lifted the bar? That’s made you go “oh, they could be all that!”

Him:    Any number! Um… Let’s see.

A long, long pause. We’re talking at least a minute here.

Him:    I’m having to search the archives. I’m really not trying to be coy. It’s just coming across that way.

Another long, long pause. I take off my shoes.

Him: There was one in particular that I suppose was very different because it was quite unexpected and out of the blue and out of my league, so I thought. So certainly my defences were down.

Fleur:  So what happened?

Him:    There was a phone call from out of the blue saying, “do you want to get a coffee,” which was a shock in itself. I’ve never been the type that people would call so that sort of put the nerves up right from the beginning. Even then there was still a sense of self-doubt as to whether anything was actually happening: “This can’t actually be anything more than a coffee, can it? That’s not what’s going on.” It was somebody who I’d been interested in for some time but had never really been able to acknowledge it at all. Then suddenly the head was on my shoulder and she sort of looked up at me and… there she was.

Fleur:  How did it feel?

Him:    It was a bit of an over-load of sensation. Not even just the physical sensations actually but just my own response to her interest as much as the kiss itself was something that I wasn’t really expecting. It was quite overwhelming.

Fleur: Are you still the guy who’s surprised to be called? Are you still just as shocked?

Him:    Sometimes. Yeah. I think we change. We change more than we think in some ways and less than we think in others. In some ways I feel more confident than I did ten or fifteen years ago and in other ways I’m always surprised that those feelings of surprised do come up quite regularly and I realise that I’m surprised I’m surprised still. I think “oh really? Are we still doing this? God help us all.”

At the moment I’m thinking that continued efforts to try to fight it actually make it worse. Because you make a duality of it so your efforts to work against it give it extra strength. You’ve given your doubts so much of your attention whereas if you focus on other things – the things that you might actually be good at, things that make you worthwhile, things that make you a person – that’s a better way of going. Ultimately that’s what you are. That’s what you have and people are attracted to that or not and that’s not really your call. Does that make sense?

Fleur:  Yeah. Absolutely.

I think there’s an inherent awareness among decent, sensitive men that their presence in and of itself can be a frightening thing. How do you navigate that?

Him: It just gets too difficult to even think about at times. My boundaries of impinging on other people’s comfort are so wide that require visas so the idea of even nudging into that is a bit of a confrontational thing for me to deal with, before we even get to anybody else. It’s also…

I’ve walked home at night and there’s been a woman twenty meters in front of me who I can tell is clutching her handbag more tightly because I’m walking behind her just because I’m a guy walking behind her and it’s midnight. So then I start thinking about the six-foot male syndrome of going “Right. This woman rightly or wrongly (in her perspective, rightly) is seeing some largish guy walking and fearing the worst. Which is completely legitimate.”

Fleur: That’s probably about as long as I can sit on grass for. My legs are just hating me right now.

We get up to move. I slap my legs a lot and hate my grass allergy. I switch off my recorder and say something like:

Fleur: I hope you don’t mind me saying this and I don’t want to… objectify you or anything but when I was asked to do more of these and asked who I wanted to interview I said “I want more straight men. They are the group that feel the most… mysterious to me.” I guess they talk to me less about their gender and sexuality than straight women or queer friends.

Him:    I find it strange to be representative of that group. (I switch back on the recorder as we walk.) I find it strange to be a representative of that group. I grew up being influenced by all things British pre-1950. Then I landed at primary school and it’s like “what are you people doing?” It was a different world and I had no idea how to interact with it. I would watch these guys kind of strut around the school yard and go “One: you’re an idiot. Two: what even is that?” It just looked like this enormous act.

Fleur: You’re still saying good stuff so we’re sitting down here.

We sit at a terrible plastic table in the loudest, windiest place to ever. I hate Fleur of the Past. Total jerk move.

Him: Okay.

Fleur: So you’re saying you’ve just never associated with being part of this group that is The Heterosexual Male. That’s just not your people.

Him: Not in this country, anyway. In other countries they read me very differently. Often times in this country I don’t particularly get associated with a group called “Straight Male” but in other countries I do. The first time I went to the UK and Europe, people gave some sense of reading me with some kind of straight sexuality. Yeah. Rather than being this kind of odd, quirky, off in my head somewhere, bater-ish male whatever. Which still is how I pretty much feel here.

Fleur:  Is that because other countries have a more multifaceted understanding of what it is to be male than Australia?

Landscape with figure, Russel Drysdale

Landscape with figure, Russel Drysdale

Him:    Ummmm. Yes but I would also say it’s historic. Um. I think this country was founded on a couple of particular versions of the founding myths that perpetuate themselves through a lot of external activity and a lack of investigation of certain aspects of the way the world and country works. That is not to say that that’s not present in other countries but there is a different sense of identity that plays out in other places.

Okay. Really, really base-level example: I was in Norway and I called up this guy who – I don’t know! I think I was supposed to stay at his house or something like that. I’ve forgotten that now. But I call him up from the airport, this friend of a friend of mine. And I was sort of talking to him and saying “hey, this is me, blah, blah, blah” and he says in this – the perfect irony of this guy saying this in a Norwegian accent – he says “Oh! You sound so masculine!” That was the first time! I was twenty-seven or twenty-eight and that was the first time anybody had ever said that. Ever.

I did a demo reel over there for a voice-over job. I did it in an English accent because that was the usual thing. And here as a voice-over artist I get bank ads and insurance commercials. There they said, “Oh, he sounds like James Bond!” I’m like “Who are you people?” So there was this total, strange re-defining. And it wasn’t about being Australian either because my English accent at that point was pretty pinging. I really got the phonetics down. There was something else going on just to do with the way I was being read. The difference was palpable all across the board. And I don’t know how much of that was just my own internalised perception of whatever that I play out here – a self-fulfilling prophecy maybe – I’m sure there’s probably an element of that – but the standard definition of masculinity in this country sort of puts me like this.

He puts his hands far apart.

Him: This is my experience. In terms of attitudes, in terms of approach and appearance. In terms of income? Absolutely.

This is going to sound how it sounds. The low point of that for me was when I had a former partner who gave me an income target for me to be acceptable.

Fleur:  Wow.

Him:    That was the kind of extreme spots version. “Wow, this exists!” I was kind of living in this dream world of love conquers all. That sticks in your head. There is definitely that element of income and material status as a display of masculine identity. Absolutely. And I don’t buy it. I just don’t buy it.

There were reasons for her saying that. Don’t get me wrong. She’d been brought up in this sense of precariousness that meant that she felt she had to have a certain financial baseline to feel any sort of sense of safety or security so I’m not – I’m not saying that was wrong for her. But I’m saying it does play out.

The wind roars. A gust sends all the chairs moving across the courtyard like a shitty fleet of plastic ships.

Fleur: We’ll try ending again.

This time we manage it.

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conversation, intimate portraits, Sex

on kissing, sex, gender, queer identity in straight relationships, oral hygiene and being a person

The third instalment in my ‘intimate portraits’ conversation series. The previous conversations can be found here. I’m sticking with Leonard Da Vinci sketches to illustrate these for a while. They are utterly stunning. 

da vinci womanshand

Kisses

– Describe where we are.

– We are sitting on the side of a hill surrounded by skeleton trees. The sky is moving pretty fast and there’s dead, white branches reaching into it and there’s undergrowth that has slowly made its way up to be about a third as tall as the dead trees.

– What’s your most memorable kiss?

– I think my first – like – very memorable kiss was with my first boyfriend when I was seventeen. We were in the kitchen at my mum’s house. I don’t know what I was doing. Probably cooking or something. And – you know – we were very awkward and teenage but at some moment I was kissing him and I pushed him up against the cupboard and was like “ohh”. It was the first time that a kiss had ever thrilled right through me. And I was like “ohh! That was like – fuck! That was really powerful and electric. That’s what every kiss should be like. That’s the one thing that you want to feel again. This is why we make out. I get it now.”

I remember a kiss that was a total surprise. I… I make friends with people very easily and sometimes it’s hard to know if people like me in a romantic or a sexual way. I’d just met this person and was – like – walking and talking and then we kissed and that was the moment of being like “yes! I was hoping it was this thing!” It was like winning. It was just winning. Like, our brains are having the best time and now our mouths are too. Awesome.

What about you? What’s your most memorable kiss?

– Um… well my first kiss was kind of hilarious just in how underplayed it was. Because I was seventeen and everyone else – all my other friends – had these big dramatic first kiss stories of “aw that was gross” and “aw slobber!” and “boys: eww! But I want more!” But my first kiss… I was at a party and everyone else was making out and doing all that stuff and then I knelt down to get something out of my bag and my friend snogged me and wandered off. That was the only sexual contact that person and I ever had. A few years later he said to me “you’re the only female friend that I’ve never tried to have sex with.” And I’m like “thanks, buddy. Makes me feel special.” But it was kind of great that it was a really underplayed moment.

– Yeah, for sure.

– My most joyous kiss – and I’m actually kind of surprised I didn’t go to this straight away – was with my first boyfriend and I’d wanted – I’d been – it was the first time – I didn’t –

I didn’t notice boys until I noticed this boy.

– Yeah, I remember that feeling.

– And and and I loved him for about ten months and he knew. We were in Year 12 and had the same frees and we’d go for – like – walks on the beach together every week. And that was just our exercise. Our unwind. Our little decompress. Then at Valedictory he kissed me. It was a really brief kiss but it was just so joyous. We’d just finished Year 12 and it was the start of something new and important and I fell over three seconds into the kiss. I lost my balance. But that was the start of what is still to date the most beautiful relationship I’ve ever had. There’s part of me that just goes “why was that when I was eighteen! I wasted that one on eighteen-year-old me and she fucked it up!” Not badly but just, I didn’t realise what a good thing I was onto. I think I just thought that all relationships were that good. Since then I’ve gone “oh. Some of them are average and some of them are quite shitty and none of them have been that beautiful since.”

da vinci swan

I don’t know. I think that probably my most memorable kisses were really the ones that were wrong. That were really… they shouldn’t have happened. And the electricity of the “shouldn’t have” and the sheer amount of emotions going on is just this incredible mix of self-hatred and – and lust and desperation and neediness all sort of rolled into one moment. Yeah. Hm.

– It’s weird how that burns into our brain, isn’t it?

I think there’s like an imp version of myself that definitely didn’t exist when I was a teenager. And to be fair, some of that was trauma from that first boyfriend and trying to reclaim my own sense of self and my own sexuality. Like, “okay. If I push myself out there and make decisions for myself and be quite aggressively sexual I can have control over that rather than being objectified. Or vicitimised.”

My friends from high school were like “whoa! What’s happened to you? You were not like this in high school. This doesn’t fit your personality.” And it kind of – it didn’t fit my personality because it was a reaction to what happened. But um… that version of me is a bit of an imp as well. So that might be drunk me going “This is a great idea! I’m just gonna go and pash that person! Or, I’m gonna sleep with that human and that will be good!”

Genders

– Did you have a moment where you figured out – was there a moment where you worked out your sexuality?

– I’m still figuring it out. I like girls and boys but I’ve never had the same kind of relationship with a woman as I have with a man. I’ve definitely been in love with women before but maybe I’ve been afraid of that in different ways.

– How is that fear different when it’s with a woman?

– I think maybe because the signals aren’t always as clear. It is more common for women to have close female friendships than for a man and a woman to have a close friendship. One of my absolute best mates is a guy and everybody is always like “oh surely you’re a bit in love. Isn’t he totally in love with you?” And I’m like, “no, not at all. He’s actually kind of like my brother.” But that level of closeness is seen as being really weird because he likes girls and I like boys so it’s not really allowed. So many of my female friends are queer as well and yet it’s just totally clear that we’ve never been attracted to each other and never would be.

– So being female makes it more acceptable to be not attracted to each other and close friends, even if you are attracted to each other’s gender.

– Yeah. So then when it is sexual I don’t really know how to address it. I’ve never struggled with that with men. I’ve talked about that with my guy friends as well and been like “I don’t see you that way” and they’re like “cool! Me neither.” “Great! Moving on!” But a lot of the time that doesn’t feel like it’s necessary with women or… or perhaps sometimes it’s because it is there so I don’t want to talk about it. So that’s a bit weird.

It is kind of nice at the moment being able to accept that part of who I am. That it’s okay to have that sexuality but be dating a boy.

I remember with my ex, who was the most masculine, fucking oppressed man, macho-person in the world and it felt really strange. I remember going to Queer events and going “I don’t think I’m meant to be here!”

– Because his gender identity reflected on you?

– Yeah, something like that. And I think it’s sort of the weird place that people who are bi or broadly Queer hold in that community… it’s seen as a bit of a weird, undefined space so nobody quite trusts it.

I think my current partner said something a while ago like “will I always be enough?” And I’m like “yeah. You give me everything that a woman would give me except a vagina and I really don’t miss that that much.” I’m very happy. (I hope he doesn’t mind me saying that, I suppose he isn’t gonna know.)

Like me, he doesn’t have this strong behavioral or sexual gendered binary. Like, he’s kind of just a person. The same way that I am. Our body parts aren’t what define our sex life. Like, “great! We can use that!” but it’s kind of just a cool thing that they’re different. I feel like I would still love him if he was a lady. He has a very nice penis, though.

– Bonus.

– My partner before that, we had to be in a box of “this is the man and this is the woman and this is a hetero relationship and this is how it works.” He wasn’t a person, he was a man and I wasn’t a person, I was a woman, if that makes sense.

Why is there a sign for a yeti there?

– I don’t know.

da_vinci_embryos

Conditioning

– Anything you want to ask me?

– How do you think gender interacts with your sex life or your romantic life?

– I don’t know. I’ve been single for quite a long time now so…

I’m straight. I’ve slept with women but that only reaffirmed that I’m straight. I mean there’s stuff that’s fun to do that is fun purely because we’ve both got bodies and things feel good so I don’t mind. I’m sure I’d do it again. It’s not like I had sex with a woman and was like “oh my God, that was gross!”

– “Never again!”

– “I don’t want that!” It was just like “well I’ve done that and, ah, I still, ah, still find myself looking at men a whole lot more than women so…” I don’t know.

I feel very female and that being female is a big part of my identity. And I enjoy my femininity, for the most part. There are some things about it that I don’t like but it’s mostly sort of stereotypical ‘female’ things about women not putting themselves forward in their industry and not being as confident. Sometimes I look at myself and ask, “Is this because I’m a woman or is it just who I would always be, whether I was a man or a woman?” It is hard to know how much of that identity I should attribute to my gender and how much is just what the experience of being a person is. Being a complex, human, person. Yeah.

I grew up with incredibly strong, vocal, feminist parents but walking down the street I sometimes catch myself being weirdly 19th Century-downcast; not making eye contact with people or, if I do look up and make eye contact, I’ll apologise to the universe in general or to that person specifically. Is that just because I’m just weird and introverted or is that some conditioning thing? It is all very mysterious to me.

A fly buzzes.

– I guess what I mean by that is, in terms of interacting with people romantically or sexually – well in general but particularly in that realm because when you’re that close to a person and you have these expectations of each other. There is often a desire from both parties to make that person into the person you want to be with, or something. I guess that’s the thing I mean. Behavioral assumptions. I guess that was the problem with my ex: more “you can’t do that because you’re a woman and therefore you are weak and not capable of it” or “you shouldn’t do that because it’s not how women behave.” Or those sorts of things.

– I don’t think I’ve ever had a relationship like that. I guess the closest I’ve come was one day when I was chastising my partner for not having cleaned his teeth for a long while and he came back with “well, you haven’t shaved under your arms!” “Yeah, I’m growing it for a photo! So there!” That was weird and still I look back at that and ask was that a warning sign that I should have seen? Him using that as a weapon against me felt pretty strange because it put shaving on par with teeth cleaning, as if to not shave made me unclean and smell bad. Because he hadn’t cleaned his teeth in multiple days. He went “I think I left my tooth brush in… wherever we had been” and I was like “we came back from there days ago… Have you not… That’s really gross!”

But that sort of – that was one of the very few times when I went “you have Gender Expectations of me!”

– I think that’s the ideal, isn’t it? I want to be seen as a woman but I want to be seen as an equal and for some people that doesn’t compute.

You know what you said about your first relationship being really beautiful and then not realising that other relationships weren’t always like that? I’ve had the opposite where I’ve had just a slew of really awful relationships and then finally gone “Oh my God! They don’t have to be like that!” You actually can just be with someone who likes who you really are and sees that person and doesn’t tell you what to do. That’s amazing. So. Maybe that came at a good time. Maybe I’m old enough to hold onto it now. Or to not expect anything less anymore. There’s a good start.

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conversation, interview, intimate portraits

on unconscious flirting, tongues, being a man, julian blanc and making out with your dog

The second instalment in my new series of intimate, anonymous conversations with people about their gender, beauty and sex. I’m going with something different for images for this one. Enjoy Leonard Da Vinci’s beautiful anatomy sketches. It makes a sort of sense to me.

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Beautiful, beautiful

– Describe where we are right now.

– We are sitting on a beautiful, beautiful South Yarra park bench. It’s covered in bird shit. We’re in a park. It is warm. And we’re under a tree though! Which is amazing! And there are people out in the sun for some reason. I don’t know what she’s doing but she’s got amazing fluoro shoes on and there’s a big burly guy walking past with tatts and water bottles. I think that’s where we are.

– What do you think it means to be beautiful?

– I think ‘beauty’ is kind of the wrong word. I think ‘confidence’ is the word, isn’t it? That’s what we see. You know, physically people are more beautiful when they’re confident. Mentally people are more beautiful when they’re confident. And I don’t mean that they need to be brash but there’s a sense of togetherness and them being their own person when they’re…. FUCK! This sounds like a load of tripe!

– That’s okay. We’re warming up.

– We certainly are. I feel like it’s… Fuck. Fuck. I’m just trying to sound intelligent and I’m not.

– That’s alright. Next question.

– Well what do you think then! Because you’ve definitely got an opinion!

– I don’t know what I think. Last year, when we were working on ‘yours the face’, which was about modelling, one rehearsal the director turned to me and asked, “well, when did you first know that you were beautiful?” And I was like “I… still don’t. What?”

When I was doing… that stuff, people were never going “oh, of course you model!” It was always that “whoa! You look so different in the photos!” It was always with surprise.

– Of course. I remember years ago one of the jocks I was in class with, they’re like “oh yeah-no, that’s her! Yeah-no, you should see her on facebook! These photos! She’s very different! Really, she’s a babe!” I don’t know if that’s a compliment or if that’s a backhand or what is that?

– I don’t know. I think it’s not just confidence in terms of what you put out there. If I haven’t done any exercise for a long time and then I go for one run… Well then I’m pretty sure I lose four kilos in that one eight minute run.

– Oh you did. You definitely did. You lost all that weight and – God! – that defined muscle! I didn’t know I had that!

I went rock climbing the other day and I got back afterwards and I’m like “check out these guns!” And there’s just nothing there.

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Flirting

– How do you flirt?

– How do I flirt? Terribly. With a drink or two in my system aaaand a cigarette in my hand. Um… that seems to be a pretty good way for me.

– Does that work?

– Sometimes.

– How do other people flirt with you?

– I’m terrible at noticing when someone flirts with me! I’m really bad at picking up hints. Then if someone’s flirting with me, and I realise someone’s flirting with me, well then game over. I become a klutz and I turn into the dag that I am. The best flirting happens when you don’t know it’s happening.

– When someone afterwards is like, “you two were getting pretty cosy!”

– Yeah totally! And you go “Oh really!” and you have a think and then the next time you see that person? Rubbish again.

– One night during a festival, this guy… I think… I don’t know. I don’t know.

– Go on! Go on!

– I don’t know if you can call it flirting or some – I think it was! It was! We were standing there talking for ages and my friend afterwards was like “so clearly you went home with that guy” and I go “no! Nothing happened so I walked away eventually.” And she was like “Nothing happened? You guys – that was like – you were like – all the signals were there!” And I’m like “were they? I mean he didn’t – he wasn’t attached to my face so…”

– That’s what flirting is, right? When you’re making out. When you’re actually in the act of doing it, that’s flirting.

– When you’re tongue is against theirs, that’s when I know! That’s a good signal!

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Girls and boys

– When did you first start becoming interested in girls? Do you remember a moment where you were like “that’s a girl: I want some of that.”

– “Now I’m ready! I want to be in and around you.” Ummm… I was a late bloomer I guess. I don’t think I realised what girls were until much later. Having sisters meant that they were just people and now we grow up in a world where we’re not just people. We’re men and we’re women. We’re blokes and we’re chicks. And that’s pretty instilled into the way we are.

But I don’t know if I learnt that until well after high school. I – I never went out with anyone. I never kissed anyone until my last year of high school! Sixteen, seventeen… Seventeen! And then I don’t even know if kissing them was a thing I was interested in.

Then you go through a thing where you go, “Oh, you’re a slightly effeminate, emotional male, you’re clearly gay!” So I allowed myself to think of that. That didn’t work.

– Did you try?

– I kissed a few guys. But it never went any further than that. And you know what? I think everybody would agree with this: kissing is awesome! Doesn’t fuckin matter who! I’m pretty sure makin out with your dog would be pretty awesome in its own respect. Just getting those canine teeth and just wrapping your lips around them! Brilliant!

– Eww!

– But there’s a big difference between that and taking it further and whether you’d want to be emotionally connected to this person, physically…

So… I don’t think I ever really was interested in girls as such until I fell in love with one. And then that changed it. Immediately it was like “that’s right! They – they are different and, God, they are different in ways that I want and I want to be involved in and I want them to be different and I love that they’re different. I love that they’ve got different body shapes and that the way they think is different. I love being… being the man in a relationship and feeling like I’m taking care of someone! And then – you know – the role reversal and letting them take care of you. Having someone that you can emotionally connect with! Again, being the emotional human being that I am, that’s where my intelligence is: I don’t know maths or science but I can connect pretty well and I understand thought processes and stuff so to have a woman as your partner? Oh man! That’s so good!

So yeah. It wasn’t until I fell in love – Like I mean actually in love. And now I regret that entirely. I just wish I hadn’t of. I wish I was oblivious to it still. It would be much easier if we didn’t fall in love.

Festival

– What does it feel like – because I’ve seen you at festivals when you become a total object of desire – and it is partly because you are gorgeous –

– Heeeey!

– And it is partly also because… because of that festival atmosphere and that position that you are in. What does that feel like when you’re in that mode and you’re so attractive to women? How does that feel?

– I just feel like how I should feel. If that makes sense. That’s the most natural. Again, I don’t recognise it when women see me that way but I just have a – my vocabulary increases ten-fold! The things that I’m usually terrible at, like small talk and – I hate small talk by its very nature! It is small! – yet when I’m in the festival world it’s like it expands and all of a sudden small talk is actually really profound and great and funny and all of a sudden I’m funny! My God! I’m the least funny person I know! I hate it that women always say on dating websites and in movies “what do you look for in a… “ “A guy with a sense of humour!” It’s like, “well there goes me! I’m out! I’m totally gone!” And yet in the environment of the festivals and I’m running from venue to venue and making shows happen and surrounded by art and people –

– Gorgeous people –

– Gorgeous people! I become one of them. It’s pretty much that. That’s why I’ve kept on doing festivals although there is no career in it long-term. I don’t feel beautiful onstage. I don’t feel beautiful in the rehearsal room. I feel nervous and I feel like I’m being judged and that I’m judging. But then when I’m doing festivals which is entirely practical – I’m surrounded by arts but I’m just a facilitator – that’s fuckin beauty.

Chain-smoke and that becomes part of it.

Wear a vest and that becomes part of it.

I have a sense of identity –

I don’t wear suit jackets in my everyday life and I do there and it makes me feel (puts on a growly voice) like a man. (Laughs.)

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Difference

– What do you think the differences are between men and women?

– I don’t think we have enough time to talk about the differences. They’re huge! And then every relationship is different and every man and woman is different but… Oh God! It’s so stupidly diverse!

I want it to be – I want it to be like Julian says. I want it to be as simple as that. Not that I want it to –

– That there is a formula?

– Yeah! But there isn’t one!

– Do you want that?

– I think inherently we all do, to some extent. A plus B equals C. It’s that easy. In their minds. And this is what he’s trying to teach these young lads that are inherently alone and struggling with their masculinity and being a boy.

Society is a real mix bag these days of partially trying to teach guys to embrace their emotional side, neglect your masculine side and then the media tells us it is all about being masculine. And they have no idea! They don’t have any support. There are no networks for them. There’s no avenue. We don’t teach each other like we used to. Like the Indigenous people, they would have men’s group and they’d go out hunting. That’s fucking great! Let’s do that again!

So here’s a guy who comes in and professes to do what they used to do, professes that he has the knowledge… Fuck me! I wish he was right and I don’t think it’s wrong for these young lads to hope that.

– What should we be teaching them?

– A skill that I am yet to have, which is a sense of ‘comfortability’ within oneself. I think guys should be taught how to be men so they can learn how to be human.

I regret that I didn’t have a male role model. I regret that. I feel sad that I didn’t have a guy who would take me out fishing and go… wrestling. That stuff is really important. Because you go, you take it out and then you’re able to be part of every other day. You’re able to be with women and just be fucking human.

I think we’re taught to be human first and then anything else after that. I think the fear with that is…

Did you ever watch Community? 

– Yes.

– You know the ‘Human Being’?

– Yes.

– That’s what we’re taught to be. That’s really wrong. That seems so wrong to me because we’re only going to get lost because we’re not that and yet we’re told that’s what we’re supposed to be. Then we get angry and annoyed and then that’s when we seek out people like Julian because this isn’t working.

– This isn’t working and this guy has a formula that says, “this is what it is to be a man, this is what it is to be woman and this is how these two things come together.”

– Again, I say all of this from a male perspective –

– From a heterosexual male –

– A heterosexual male perspective. And everything I say, again I cannot over-emphasis how fucking diverse everything is.

What about you?

– What about me in terms of Julian’s thing?

– Because when I said, “I would love a formula but I don’t believe there is one,” you kind of – you reeled. Because… you don’t believe in formulas?

– I don’t know. I – I don’t think I do. But I see why we want it. I think in a lot of ways it is actually easier to be female then male at the moment. And in a lot of ways it’s not. Like walking down the street yesterday and having a guy lurch towards me jerking his hand like he was masturbating. That’s not easy. That’s horrible. But I think perhaps it is easier to be comfortable in myself, in some ways.

– To be by one’s self. Within one’s self and female.

– I think at the moment we might have more complex ideas of what a woman can be than what a man can be. We do have a bit more multifaceted understanding of femininity. But I’m sure I say that as someone that is quite stereotypically feminine. I’m not remotely butch and I’m sure if I had been as a teenager than I would have a very different understanding of what “femininity” meant and what it means to be shut out of that club. But I think masculinity, the doors are… heavily bolted and the bouncers enforce the code with vehement paranoia.

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conversation, intimate portraits

on flirting, mirrors, sex, tummies and being really, really ridiculously good looking

I am fascinated by conversation. Two weeks ago I decided to start a new project where I record and transcribe conversations that aren’t about theatre (for once). Rather, they are anonymous conversations about gender, beauty, sex and sexuality. This is the first one. Enjoy. 

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Flirting

– Describe where we are.

– We’re in your bedroom. I’m trying to lie down without putting my feet on the bedspread so I’m going to take off my shoes so I’m using my abdominal muscles less. We’re on your bed in your apartment. The curtains are closed. The bed is covered in clothes.

– I put some things away yesterday. So. Um… how do you flirt?

– I don’t know! I think this was the thing I just missed the class on. I was so busy at high school being good at school and doing extra-curricular activities and – and I just never –

People I know figured out how to talk to boys and I just didn’t. I was friends with some boys but we just did things like talk about Vivaldi and be in musicals together and awkwardly lust after each other but not be able to do anything about it.

There was a boy that went – That was in a high school near me and we sort of – Would sort of flirt at each other awkwardly on MSN and then I remember he drove me home from a party or something. He walked me to my door, hugged me and then left and then later sent me a message saying “Why didn’t we kiss?’ And I said “Well because you – When you want to kiss somebody you kind of have to hug them for longer than one second. You’ve gotta kinda hold on for a bit.” And he was like “Ahhh. Yeah. Right. Yeah.” And then we just never – nothing ever happened. He dated one of my friends and then – and I’ve never got better at that!

I got to uni and I was just like “What are these things with penises?” I don’t know! I just… Every time I’ve ended up hooking up with somebody or dating somebody or anything it’s been because I’ve just been really awkward and then somebody’s kissed me. And usually it’s like “How did this happen? Why am I naked? You’re touching my boobs! What?” Yeah.

– How do you think you’re meant to flirt? Do you have a conceptual idea of what’s meant to happen?

– I feel like you are meant to sort of hold eye contact with people and smile at them in a sort of sexy way. You’re meant to be a little bit mean to them but not too mean.

– I think you’re meant to touch them like –

– Oh yeah, yeah! Apparently if you touch people… Yeah.

– Just like “Oh you’re so funny that I’m touching your thigh.”

– Yeah. And I – And I think I’ve experienced that as a person being flirted at where someone’s touched me and I’ve been like “Oh! Yeah, that’s nice! Being touched by people’s pretty good, hey!” Yeah.

The Mirror

– The days when you look in the mirror and you think “Yeah! I’m smashing it today!” Can you articulate – Like, at the time are you aware of the things that are working? What makes you feel more attractive than other days?

– Some part of me is pretty sure it is just the light.

– Oh totally!

– Like I’ll do my makeup and be like “YES!” And then I’ll move to another mirror and be like “NO!” And I’m just like, “is my entire self-worth entirely lighting?”

– I think this often. When I’m putting on makeup in my room, I don’t have lights anywhere near my mirror so I use a light sort of reflected into the mirror and it’s always really unflattering and I’m always like “Goddamn it! What am I doing?” Then if I move into natural light or just top lighting I’m like “Aw yeah! Look at ma chin! Look at my jawline!”

– There’s a time of the day when I just shouldn’t go into the bathroom because the light –

– What time is it?

– It’s – it’s like late-ish afternoon. I’ve just recently figured this out! Don’t do that! Because the light just shines through at such a way that it makes me just appear immensely hairy.

Both laugh.

– That’s brilliant.

I think sometimes um, like if I’m side lit it just makes me really aware of having hair on my face which I’ve never – It’s not a thing I think about! And I often think about this about movie stars because they have to be lit in all sorts of ways and I wonder if they just – What’s it called? De – delip – delipadating – dilapidating – dilapidated – epilating?

– D – d –

– It definitely starts with ‘d’. You can buy de- delapitory?

– Delapitory? Yeah. Yeah. (Guys, it is totally depilatory. That went on far too long.)

– Whatever! But no I wonder if they have to – like – wax their whole faces all the time! Or they put creams on them to – like –

When I was young I went through a period of shaving my (inverted commas) ‘sideburns’. Like, that area in front of my ear where hair grew. Cos I just – was like “Uh! I don’t think there’s meant to be hair there cos that’s kinda my face” and I’d shave it and it would get all stubbly and someone once asked me if I shaved it – a girl at school – and I was like “NO! Of course I don’t!” Well yes, I do. But I wouldn’t tell anyone about it. Yeah.

It’s a funny thing.

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Being really, really good looking and skin

– What does it mean, do you think, to be really attractive?

– I don’t want to be one of those people who are like “Uh! I’m so unattractive!” but, you know, I’m not – I’m not conventionally – No one would ever look at me and be like “What a beautiful person that is!” But for people who are quote-unquote ‘conventionally attractive’ – The sort of people that my brother dates! These women! They just look like they model for – like – Ripcurl! They’re just exactly what you’d expect an early-twenties boy to like. They’ve got long hair. They’re tiny! They’re always tall and have these legs that go on forever and boobs but not huge boobs and no hips to speak of and they just flounce about wearing anklets and tiny shorts and yeah. I wonder what it would be like, being the sort of person who would walk down the street and have people look at you and know that what they were thinking was “that person’s attractive.” Not even in the way that women experience people being like “You’re a woman, therefore I have the right to comment on your body” but just someone being like “Wow! What a babe.”

This guy I know has a blog and he talks on the blog sometimes about “I locked eyes with this girl at Uni today, had a bit of a perv, knew it was mutual.” And just him knowing that I find so fascinating. I’ve never known – Never known that someone was looking at me and thinking I was a babe. Even when someone is like sitting on me and saying, “I think you’re a babe” I’m like “Ahh, they probably don’t though.”

That knowledge! I wonder if that would fuck you up a bit! I think those beautiful people must find it really hard to age. To stop being that person.

– I – See – I was so unattractive as a teenager. Just – so unattractive.

– You discovered eyebrows and I feel like that’s really changed your life.

– It really – It really did. I think it must be a very different experience being someone growing up knowing they were beautiful.

– I think you’d be so self-conscious. When you looked in the mirror as a teenager, did you look in the mirror and think “Oh my God! I’m so unattractive” or did you just go like, “Oh yeah, that’s my face”?

– I don’t think I ever saw my face. For a decade I only ever looked in the mirror to look at how my skin was doing that day. I never took in the entirety of my face. It was always, “where are they today?”

Both laugh.

– Yeah, I remember that!

– I don’t think I pieced together my face as a whole. I remember after our school formal we were looking through the photos and there was a photo that literally had half of my face in profile just peaking into the edge of the frame. One of my friends was like “Whose that? Oh it’s you! You’ve got a really nice shaped nose!” And she was surprised and I was surprised and I feel like I wasn’t the only one that never looked at my face as a whole. I… And maybe this is totally incorrect because of course I can’t know what other people were thinking and seeing but I – my self-image was so caught up in my skin that I feel that no one else ever looked past that either.

And my skin wasn’t even as bad as I’m sure I’m making it sound! Like, my face wasn’t out of shape or disfigured!

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Ageing and sex

– How do you feel about ageing? And I don’t so much mean like eighty-year-old ageing. I mean like getting to the point where you’re like forty-five and being like “Whoa. Got a lot of wrinkles.”

– It’s this funny contrasting thing because my profession has such a long internship and I can’t fucking wait to be old enough for people to trust me to know what I’m doing. And that’s such a big thing. When I think of being forty-five my first thought isn’t “my skin will be worse”. My first thought is “I will know so much more than I know now and people might pay me for that knowledge.”

– Not a bad pay off, is it?

– It’s a fucking amazing thought.

– I sometimes think about my body post-having a child. In my mind, I don’t imagine getting married and having a child and being with that person forever. I imagine more “Oh sorry. We’ve been sleeping together for four months and now I’m pregnant. And ah – ”

– “Thanks for the sperm, see ya.”

– “Thanks.” And so I – I always think that I will be dating after I’ve had a child. And I sometimes think about that moment when I get undressed for the first time in front of someone that’s not seen me naked before. And I don’t think of it with horror. I think about it with – Will I at that point when I take my clothes off my post-baby body, go “God the me of the past was an idiot for undressing with the lights off!” Will I go “Why didn’t I celebrate this body?”

– I find the whole nudity-sexual partner-discomfort thing interesting because I’ve had a lot of conversations with people where they are just like “I just can’t. I don’t like the idea of someone seeing me naked because I don’t like my body and I get really self-conscious during sex to the point where sometimes I don’t want to have sex because they’ll have to see me naked.” I’m not slender and there’s a lot about my body where I go “God! I wish it wasn’t like that!” But I kind of hit a point in my life where I’d had sex with a bunch of people when I was heavier than I am now and no one complained about that.

I think we do this weird thing where we think that people don’t know what our bodies look like because we can’t see them from all angles all the time and so we sort of go “Oh my God! They’ll know this about my body.” They kind of – They probably know already! And they still want to have sex with you.

– See I know this too! I know intellectually that there’s – I’ve thought back on and gone “did I judge that person’s body while I was… on it?” No! I just did the sex!

– I remember the first time I slept with someone who wasn’t a tiny, skinny, wizened man because they were an artist and they didn’t eat enough because hey, my life. I slept with someone who had a bit of a belly and I remember giving them head and looking up and being like “Whoa! There’s a stomach in the way of the trajectory of where my eyes usually go” but I wasn’t like “aw gross” I was like “That’s fun!”

I remember I tried on a top once and I was like “I don’t like this because it hugs my figure and makes me look heavy. The guy I was with was like “I really liked that on you because it made you look curvy.” And I was like “What? That could be a good thing?” I felt so stupid! That had never really occurred to me that someone could be like “Fuck yeah! I love that!” instead of being like “I’d love it if there were a bit less of that.” Which is so… Oh my God! Way to take the media into my own brain but I –

But despite all that, when I’m having sex with a person, I don’t think I’m ever like “We can’t do this position because then you’ll see my stomach.” I’m usually too busy being like “Hey! Touching naked people!” and celebrating that! I’m proud of that fact. I’m really pleased that is part of my thought process. I’d really hate to be in the position of being frightened of someone else seeing my body. When I’m in the process of getting undressed I’m sometimes a bit like “Uh! It’s happening!” But once I’m naked it’s like “Well, they can see me and they’ve got an erection so it’s going to be fine!” It’s not like they’re making apologies or backing towards the door because I have a stomach and there are some stretch marks in my life. I feel like I’m glad that I’ve hit that point where I’m like “You are fine with seeing me naked and you still want to put your penis in places. That’s great. Let’s just roll with that.”

Thank you to the other talker. The photos in this post are all old self-portraits of mine. I decided that, as this was a very different thing, I should illustrate it differently, so I’ve given Sarah Walker’s archives a break for one week. Apologies for the nudity. 

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audiences, criticism, Dramaturgical Analysis, Responses, Theatre

on being in on the joke, vineyards, prisons, Shakespeare and Gina Rinehart

It has been a while since I’ve written about individual shows. In truth, this is because I’ve avoided the theatre lately. I’ve written in the past about my goal to be the most enthusiastic person in the audience as the lights go down. I’ve conditioned myself: lights dim and my heart races. I hold myself up to very high standards and will only go if I know I can enter the room with a loving intellectual commitment to immerse myself in the work. But it turns out that directing full-time in the last five weeks of your Masters is very draining. Who would have guessed? It took a while to recover but the burn has finally subsided and I’ve been so delighted to return to live theatre in the last two days. There is nothing like it.

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Production photo by Sarah Walker, sarahwalkerphotos.com

I kicked off the year with Essential Theatre’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, performed in the vineyards of Deviation Road winery in the gorgeous Adelaide Hills. The production was sheer fun. The audience’s obvious delight at every plot twist thrilled me.

Okay so, spoiler alert: Titania falls in love with a man with a donkey’s head. I thought we all knew this but, as one, the audience exclaimed with delight at the deliciousness of this wacky twist! Speaking afterwards with one of the actors, David Lamb, about this response, he spoke of the joy of touring regional areas and having audience members tell them that this was their first theatre show: “The thing about Shakespeare is that he makes his audience feel smart: you see where things are headed just before they get there.”

This is not to imply that someone who does not see theatre often is dumb, but you could easily expect them to feel isolated in Shakespeare: to be daunted by the language and to be playing a constant game of catch-up. But it was not so. The audience felt respected. They were in on the joke. The kids in their fairy capes, the regular theatre-goers and the locals for whom this was a one-off treat were all equalised by this performance. This was Shakespeare, we all got it and it was fucking hilarious.

That is the beautiful thing about Shakespeare. One of the beautiful things. The other is that I can see that production one night and the next see Foul Play’s Macbeth: two plays by the same author, a night apart and a world away.

You see, within Shakespeare is an implicit consent: we enter the theatre/vineyard/garage/alley with an awareness that we could be seeing anything. It isn’t simply that copyright has expired and directors don’t feel a need to please an estate, it is also that every theatre maker feels empowered to paint the work with their own colours; to plant their flag and declare their voice in his words; to appropriate, re-create, deviate, abbreviate; to separate themselves from their colleges and make clear to us their intentions. This can lead to some incredible theatre but it can also be dangerous as artists attempt to cram a script into a framework that it may not be suited to.

Macbeth is the first show for Foul Play and I wholeheartedly believe that this team could create something very exciting. They are committed and they made very bold choices: we saw the production twice, once with an all-female cast and then again with an all-male cast. Such bravery makes me very optimistic that their future shows will be similarly bold.

I am not here to review. This blog is here to talk about the experience of being an artist and to give a voice to our passionate, brilliant, humble community. I am not writing to critique either company. I am writing this because I had two very different experiences as an audience member in Shakespeare plays twenty-four hours apart. I am writing this because Essential Theatre wanted to share something with me as an audience-member. They wanted to share a passion for beautiful words, to create beautiful memories and to empower their audience, enthuse and infuse them with old words still hysterically funny and truthful.

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Cartoon by Mark Knight which first appeared in Murdoch press June 20th, 2012 to accompany an Andrew Bolt column.

The director’s notes for Macbeth say that the production grew out of ‘frustration at the disparity between how men and women in positions of authority are evaluated.’ She wanted to offer us the opportunity to face our own prejudices by seeing the same roles played out by both genders. This is very rich subject matter and made me think of the outstanding Quarterly Essay by Anna Goldsworth: Unfinished Business, sex, freedom and misogyny. In it Goldsworthy talks about how dangerous and sexualised language gets when it comes to women in power. Consider the language used to describe Gina Rinehart as opposed to similarly ruthless, compassionless multimillionaire, Clive Palmer. Rinehart’s own father, Lang Hancock, famously wrote “Allow me to remember you as the neat, trim, capable, attractive young lady of the Wake Up Australia Tour, rather than the slothful, vindictive and devious baby elephant you have become… I am glad your mother cannot see you now.” Barry Humphries on Q&A (May, 2012) described the possibilities for satirical material as “never-ending. It’s just like the hole; Gina’s hole.” Criticism from both the left and the right cannot stop with her actions. Rather, they must comment on her body, her size, her hair and the very fact that she has a vagina. I won’t even get started on Julia Gillard but there is no denying that, in Australia in particular, the body of a woman in power is a thing to be beaten, berated, sexualised and humiliated. Pass comment on her fat arse, make a ‘joke’ menu out of her ‘red box’ and threaten the feminist bloggers with rape to shut them up: it is part of what makes Australia great.

There is so much richness when it comes to discussions of gender and power but did I get any of this from Macbeth?

In repeating the performance twice, the production felt like an experiment rather than a show and I, a subject rather than an independent audience member. I felt dumb in both senses of the word. To me it felt cold and overtly schematic. The actors did not seem to entirely own their performances as both casts were re-creating discoveries made by a completely different group. But the bigger issue is this: in repeating the production with two different gendered ensembles, a play which has always contained themes of gender, sex and power, became strangely sexless. Rather than making a male and a female version, they made two identically gender-neutral versions. To give the most simplistic of examples, the production was set in a prison and I can tell you now that the easiest way to smuggle anything in or out of that prison would be to stow it beside your cock, between your breasts or up your vagina. These parts of the actors’ bodies were invisible to their guards in every search. A strange censorship seems to have descended over the stage: mouths spoke atop pixelated torsos. Pronouns were thrown about without seeming to land on anyone. Did this challenge me to reconsider authority under the lens of gender? Not really. It all but removed gender from a play once full of it.

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Nope, no naughty bits here.

I think this is a reminder to artists that sometime, when you want to make a play about a very particular contemporary issue, perhaps you should turn to contemporary voices. Perhaps your own. Perhaps, for all Shakespeare’s adaptability and universality, sometimes he can’t say it all without a very strong, very aggressive dramaturgical team questioning every step of the process. Perhaps, in superimposing our play on his, we mire and muddy not only his intention but our own.

Again, I do not write this as a critic. If I were a critic I would mention the outstanding sound design by Dan Thorpe and the commitment of the cast and all those other positive things that are worth a mention in a review. But as an artist, I write this: sometimes we are ambitious. Sometimes that ambition is driven by an urgency to convey a particular theme or lesson. At such times we must ensure that our work is not simply a didactic vessel for, if we miss the mark a little, there must still be a heart and a story to be shared with our willing audience.

My thanks go out to my sister Hannah for her proof-reading and to David Lamb and John Kachoyan for their contribution and to Jane Howard for being my theatre date.

Programming note: I don’t usually provide a disclaimer. Writing as a Victorian theatre maker in Victoria I presume you presume that I know people in every production and I feel that I’m quite good at separating analysis from friendship. But, because I’m currently in SA and because I’m writing about two different companies in this post, I will say that I know several members of Essential Theatre and have no connections to Foul Play.

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