personal, Politics, Responses, Theatre, thoughts

on bureaucracy, subtlety, hyprtxt and a naked body

I was booked in to see three shows last night but only managed two because they utterly devastated me.

I still don’t really have words to express why The Defence at MKA’s HYPRTXT Festival upset me as much as it did. It was intentional: the playwright wanted us to be uncomfortable to highlight some very pertinent issues in our industry. But there was something about watching the events unfold as an audience laughed hysterically that left me utterly shattered. And I want to apologise to the actors, all of whom did excellent work: I was sitting in the front row and I’ve no doubt my face was radiating an aura of ‘don’t you say another fucking word’. Sorry.

In the light of my (rather extreme) emotional reaction, I’m going to respond in a slightly unusual and immensely personal way.

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Image by Sarah Walker and graphic design by George Rose

Three thoughts inspired from a night at HYPRTEXT:

Thought One. On The Grace of Officials.

One day, when I was fifteen, I attended an event ran by an organisation which provided legal aid to asylum seekers. At the end of the talk, I walked up to them and asked if there was anything I could do to help. It turns out there was. A week later my dad took me to their office where we picked up a dictation machine and three cassette tapes. As the lawyer handed them over she paused and looked at my dad. “I hope your daughter is open-minded,” she said. “She is going to hear some very extreme stuff.” And I did.

These were the tapes of asylum seeker hearings and every hearing I transcribed ended with asylum being denied, which was why this group now had the tapes, so as to assemble a defence for a re-hearing. (They could not be called ‘re-trials’ because, apparently, the refugee was not on ‘trial’ despite all evidence to the contrary.)

Look, the horror of the individual cases does blur together. The voices were coming from a compound in the middle of a desert via webcam, through a translator sitting in a room in Adelaide with a thick Middle Eastern accent, through a tape recorder and into my ears. I know there were rapes, death threats, dead families, torture and humiliation. What I remember more clearly than the terror was the bureaucracy. We were swimming in it.

“Please place your hand on the Quran and swear – ”

“I can’t.”

“Why?”

“He says to me, ‘you know! You are a Muslim. You tell them!’”

“I’m sorry?”

“He has not washed. He cannot touch the Quran when he has not washed.”

They tried for quite a while, these men in Adelaide, to wash the hands of a man in Woomera but in the end the request proved too complicated for the system and they had to proceed without an oath. He was handcuffed, you see. For the whole five hour hearing. This was not usual practice but he was ‘a trouble maker’.

This exchange has stuck with me for twelve years. The irony of expecting a man to be devout enough to swear an oath on his holy book without taking into account the needs of a devout man. A devout, hand-cuffed man in the middle of a desert. And yes, there were moments of humanity. Moments when men pleaded for their freedom and safety but it was the bureaucratic inhumanity that I most clearly retain.

And in the end, appropriately enough, my job vanished in a cloud of bureaucracy: the group lost access to tapes. New rules dictated that, instead of being given to the defence team, they would be sent to Sweden (I think Sweden, somewhere a very, very long way away) where an accent analyser would determine that perhaps the man came from a town two towns over from the town he said he came from. That he was a liar because his accent told a slightly different story than his words did.

The morning after Howard was re-elected for his third term I went for a walk. I wandered through the suburbs and asked, “Who are the people voting for this system? Do they know? I hope they don’t because what does that say of my countrymen and women if they know and still say ‘do it.’”

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Photo source, The Age. The photographer is Peter Mathew.

Thought two. The Defence.

We had exchanged about six emails and the word ‘nudity’ had never been mentioned. When he first asked me to take my clothes off I agreed because he said I could have my back to the camera. It was implied nudity. When he asked me to turn around, I hesitated but did it because it seemed easier.

After a few minutes, he paused to bring in some new props (a mirror, I think) and I told him I was surprised by the nudity and would be more comfortable with clothes.

He told me he was disappointed.

I told him my profile said I didn’t do nudity anymore.

He told me that he had seen photos of me naked so just assumed it would be fine.

It wasn’t.

Look, it’s not a big deal. In the end. Worse things happen every day. But it was one of the last shoots I ever did. And I didn’t share the photos. And my throat felt tight for days. And scanning over my old portfolio I had a lot of memories of not feeling in control of my own body. And assuming it will be fine is not how we make art. I’m sorry but it’s not.

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Image by Syboro, not the photographer in this story

Thought three. Issue-based theatre.

Listen. We demand of artists that we address issues head-on. It is central to our idea of ourselves as an artistic community: that we are brave and urgent. In his speech at the National Play Festival last week, Andrew Bovell’s said “the question for us, as writers, is what story will we tell each other”. He said “the fight for the soul of our nation continues” and that we as writers, thinkers and artists must be “up for the fight.”

And yet, say the words ‘issue-based theatre’ and people will screw up their faces. It is too unsubtle for us. Conversations can be blatant and loud and we wear our politics on the tip of our tongues and on the front of our shirts but we expect of our art not to ‘hit us over the head with a message’. We demand a subtlety that is, perhaps, impossible when faced with issues of this magnitude.

These plays were not subtle but fuck it. Bring it on, guys. Shout it loud. Just maybe give me a cup on tea and a hug at the end because you crushed me.

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personal, Politics, thoughts

On trophy wives, refugees and multiple Jessicas

Two days ago a memory crept out of some abandoned back corridor of my brain and planted itself firmly behind my eyes. It is still foggy and there are gaps and non sequitur but I’m going to write it down and see if it makes any more sense on paper.

I was in Year One. I was playing with my friends Jessica and Jessica. To differentiate them we’ll call them Jessica the Quite Beautiful and Jessica the Not So Beautiful. You’ll see why shortly.

Jessica the Quite Beautiful, as our (beautiful) leader, organised a competition on the school oval: the boys would race. First prize? They would ‘get’ her. I remember the wording very well. It wasn’t that they would get to be her boyfriend or get a kiss. They would get Jessica the Quite Beautiful. What does this mean for Year Ones? I was second prize and Jessica the Not So Beautiful was third. The three of us sat on our wooden stumps, arranged in order from most to least beautiful, and eight little boys set out on their epic oval run to prove their masculinity.

I remember sitting very straight and upright on my post. I remember feeling Jessica the Not So Beautiful’s misery hitting my back in waves of resentment. I remember the heat. I remember watching that raggedy race.

Did one drop to the ground spontaneously and the others follow his lead? Or did they talk it through as they ran, discussing the magnitude of their task and the poor quality of the prizes on offer. Whatever the decision making process, the tribe fell to the ground just past the halfway mark. They sprawled across the dry grass in the shade of a tree. All but one.

One figure kept running. He was wearing tracksuit pants despite the heat and his gait was even and (in my memory) almost Terminator-like in its determination; arms swinging back and forwards, eyes focused on some point in the middle distance. In it to win it.

“Oh no! Not Zoran! Please not Zoran.” Breathed Jessica the Quite Beautiful.

Zoran was a Bosnian refugee. I remember so little about him that he is almost a cardboard cutout in my memory rather than a real human being. I remember only this race and the tracksuit pants and the day we found him crying behind a shrub. I remember that well. The teacher told us that one of his family members had died in Sarajevo. She told us to be nice to him and I think we probably were but doubt we ever asked him who it was. An uncle? Aunt? Grandparent? Father? Was it his father? I left that school at the end of Year Two and I remember nothing more about Zoran. He is a silhouette in tracksuit pants tearily running towards an unattainable figure.

I don’t even remember what happened when he reached us but I know he didn’t ‘get’ Jessica the Beautiful. I think she declared that the race didn’t count because three boys had to make it across the line. Or perhaps she set him another task more impossible than a lap around an oval. Perhaps she continued to move the goal posts further and further back like a king in a fairy tale trying to find the bravest of suitors for his favourite daughter. Perhaps it kept going for years, long after I left the school. Climb this fence. Climb that tree. Fist fight a Year Seven. Knife Fight a Teacher. Steal a car. Steal a train. Bring me the head of the Governor General. I don’t know.

What I do know is that my perspective is the least interesting. This story should be Zoran’s. Or Jessica’s or Jessica’s. I’m simply Girl Number Two. Neither overtly beautiful nor overly plain. Not the refugee. Not the overly-sexualised daughter of a struggling single mother who decided to give herself and her friends away as trophy wives at the age of six. I was simply the consolation prize. The one who went along with it. And I must have known it was wrong because I don’t think I told my mother about it. I don’t think I told anyone about it until the memory re-appeared two days ago. If a tree falls in a forest, did it ever really fall? If a refugee runs and is forgotten, did he ever really run? If two little girls, roped in as prizes sit silent and stiff-backed, ready to be given away or rejected, did they ever make it off those posts?

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