Y: I have a question for you. In the business we’re always thinking about what we’re doing or what must be done; what work has to be made?
I remember having a conversation with a mate, a woman, we talk about the nature of the universe and all that. My conversations with Deb aren’t unique so i’m curious what got you started enquiring about what might be feminist theatre. Cause there’s two things there; the feminist bit, and the theatre bit.
M: I think there’s a couple of aspects to it. I was drawn to what the intersection between a person’s politics and a person’s practice might look like, as well as the intersection between politics, the arts industry and culture.
Y: It is interesting because as soon as you say that I know that throughout my life I’ve had a series of touchstones, and I keep reassessing what their value is or how I understand them in the current moment. Because theatre is always about the current moment. It doesn’t have to be about current affairs but it has to have currency. So that’s one of the ways that your question about feminism connects to my practice. Continually interrogating – and sometimes it doesn’t help, sometimes it feels so undermining because you’re weighing up the value of what you do – but one of those touchstones is one of the oldest feminist aphorisms “the personal is political”. And it became really clear to me that the reverse is equally right. The political is perosonal. A more keen type of political statement is saying “if you are a woman working in cultural worlds then you’re embracing the bigger thing. Rather than bringing it back exclusively to the personal”. But there have been tensions around feminism, generation after generation, and I’ve seen a few of them now. I’m still very informed by my own background around class. I think it’s still a keen and underacknowledged thing. And they’re the ideas that get me quite excited when I see things coming together. Like there was a really brilliant piece of work by Patricia Cornelius-
M: I saw one of her show’s last year, “Shit”.
Y: Yeah! That’s the one I’m talking about and I thought Shit was tremendous as a piece in it’s own right. You could take it to a great deal of places and it would reach out to people and I think it achieved that intersection well. It was well researched. The other bit of my political background is
“No investigation – no right to speak” is a marxist position and that play shit demonstrated an enormous amount of work. She wasn’t just making it up. It was informed by the very particular place and class of the people who were in it. Then you start to ask where did it go on, who’s watching it, who can afford it. That’s an external way of assessing – you’re locating yourself. There’s a really sharp American thinking about class – Jodi Dean – she’s a top flight international communist – she says it straight up- with a baptist from the southern states. She speaks an enormous amount about culture and interactivity and social media. She said this completely provocative thing about theatre. And Australian theatre performance journal quoted her as saying something like “often when people are involved in highly politically motivated art works they get very involved in the work and It stands in as a substitute for action”.
M: So the act of commenting excuses the act of action?
Y: Sort of. There’s more to it. It’s a very provocative thing. Because it then prompts the question what the hell constitutes political work? We talk about Shit – who’s watching it, why do they go, can they afford it, how do they get there. And that’s political. For me the question of feminist theatre isn’t separate from those issues. And given that I do make work I have to live up to my own standards inside it. As best I can. There are other things that inform my practice that have been brought forward by your question. Yonks ago a Vietnamese american who makes film made an interesting statement that it’s not about making political works about the content but it’s how you go about it. She was the first person I heard articulate it really strongly and I took it to heart. But then again we don’t always determine the conditions we make work in so there’s opportunities and obstacles like funding. My mom always said “you’re the one who’s got to lie straight in bed”. And if you’re the one scraping down to the bone finding everything I need to make work, there’s no point in making work that doesn’t help you lie straight in bed. So my inclination has been collaborative and collective. I worked hard and I was lucky and I got to work with a revolving team of people who were prepared to argue with each other and disagree. Somehow the work needs to contain diverse perspectives inside it and that’s about relationships with audience. That’s really important. A complete change about what you think audience is. When I got really down in the dumps at some phase and was asking myself “why the fuck am I doing this at all?! Go do something that’s socially useful!” then that idea became important. Excessively important.
M: What do you mean by excessively important?
Y: Because awareness of being live, and the sense of the relationship to everybody in the place is really central. Open rehearsals are critical, bringing it to people, keeping the perspectives specific but open. Not so people get lost in some fake multiversity but genuinely open to diverse perspectives. Although you have to be careful that you don’t start pandering, you have to question that relationship each time. You question means, form – always the form. So those are the things that probably contain the web of my own work. I like feminism because it can embrace all kinds of ages and genders and races.
M: And it should.
Y: I do care in the sense that this new shift is a responsive thing. The generational idea behind feminism drives me a bit spare because it seems to divide people rather than giving them a confidence that they can argue with each other. And that’s very hard to turn things over when everyone’s on eggshells. Or not being forgiving enough to make it safe to drill into things. Hard topics require that.
M: Absolutely. I think there’s a complexity in definition around the idea of feminism. It’s got its own lexicon of meaning rooted in the historical and also in the personal. When a people with counter definitions meet each other is difficult. Language is maybe a tool we use more than we should in trying to reach understanding with one another. I don’t know that it needs definition beyond feminism as “equality of the sexes”.
Y: I have my own really strong responses that come up when I’m in rehearsals. There’s a difference between equality of the sexes and the emancipation of human beings. When people who consider themselves to not be feminist genuinely ask me what it is that’s a good moment. I’m delighted and often the thing that comes up is this idea of “special pleading”.
M: What does special pleading mean?
Y: They don’t know why it’s positive that a category of people for whatever reason should require special treatment. When it comes to forming culture, if it comes from an idea of human beings that are making special pleading that gets very wearing because you’ve got a group of people who can’t immediately respond in the interchange between their art and their presence with it.
M: It’s one of the things I’ve found interesting thinking about this; is there a different way of thinking about a person as being feminist or a work as being feminist. I don’t have a fully formed perspective yet. I don’t if I ever will. But one of the interesting things is the idea of it as a counter culture. Being identified as a feminist artist is defining a person and their work in opposition to or outside of all other work. Rejecting the idea of being labelled a feminist artist because it limits how you might be considered within the entire spectrum of quality work.
Y: That’s where the special pleading comes in. I think it’s more about power. Power in a way that can be conceived in shapes other than gender. If I find myself in a particular moment where the feminist question is being raised by the men in the room I think that’s great. I would never disavow being called feminist. The question for me is I want it to incorporate all people who I might engage with. And I want the work to engage around the terms of power because that’s what everybody gets. They’re all individual and can’t be conflated with every female experience but they may be people who find themselves in powerless positions or even in unsurvivable situations. I worked with a group of African women who all survived abuse and torture in a civil war situation or were embedded or immersed in it. When I met those people, the question about gender was unbelievably hot. It was the dominant thing because they have to be addressing men around their behaviour and they do. But there was a really interesting, warm hearted reach out in the way that they framed what they wanted to articulate in the performance. It acknowledged the power circumstances that underpin the colonial situation for example in congo, sierra leone, ghana, nigeria. They didn’t separate themselves from that circumstance even though it was a difficult question to raise among refugee communities here. By the way their audience was much bigger than that, much bigger than that. It was very interesting it was called Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe. It says we are from a western suburb place, we are here, we are emigres, we are refugees and we have survived. That was really illuminating because it sheds a lot of light on what we want feminism to do. All politics is like all politics. I suspect if feminism is political then feminism is like all politics, if you like. It’s all about the traction, there has to be traction, people have to be able to relate. I’m talking a bit abstractly. It’s very hard to pin this down. Aphorisms that you receive throughout your working life are very dear to me. Originally i resisted working on this project. I worked with found language, images, documents, interviews, all kinds of things. So the director approached me because I could do that and she made a draft of the whole thing and I had questions, big big questions. I was genuinely frightened that I wasn’t going to be helpful because I hadn’t actually worked with the people and there were four women who had never performed in their lives. And there were also a group of very experienced African actors. When you’re hearing someone describing their experience of decades of sexual capture by Eritrean resistance in Ethiopia and you can see them struggling telling that I thought i don’t have skills to deal with this. The project had a resident organisation involved who support people who experience trauma and torture to deal with the triggers in the process. This was a really interesting experience about the personal being political – they’re all wrestling with it and yet they don’t have experience of making theatre. Ultimately it worked. I refused the job twice but on the third time I said yes. I just had to trust they knew what they wanted from me.
M: It’s an interesting example of something I’ve seen before. It feels like the most urgent need for feminist models of art are in creating models for women’s groups coming from intensely patriarchal cultural make up where speaking around men is impossible or dangerous.
Y: That is just so frequently the case.
M: In terms of a direct correlation between the politic of feminism and the act of making that’s the best example I’ve seen in work recently.
Y: It’s really tough. You’re caught in a situation that when the work becomes intensely bodily personal, either you speak or you’re silent. Artist’s will often be sledged – and I think they should be questioned but not sledged – as in “What right do you have to tell this story, it belongs to other people” and then you’re plunged into silence. That’s a serious political question. Again, I think for me, it feels like when it’s being staged I have to ask all of the usual questions through the power lens. Who’s got the power, how is it represented? Working on a piece about Brandis, judges, generals, we came to see that what powerful people did was more important than who powerful people were. So I might end up playing the head of the Wheat board and it didn’t matter that I’m not a man. What mattered was the information about the actions taken.
M: Why was that? Why did such a simple casting inversion allow for that focus?
Y: Because there’s a separation there. You’re not asking the audience to suspend their disbelief. You’re not asking them to go along with a performance. You kind of are, but it’s a really explicit game. I think it’s that simple. If we come as a group of women only in that situation then it’s different. All women and all men in the group could focus on what the stuff was instead of the who. It aerated everything and made it less self conscious. When all of a sudden we’re dealing with people who are not very powerful or really are stuck in a corner then all of these strategies have a different cast flavour. You can’t assume they’ll have the same impact. It’s very context specific. That brings me to another point. I want to be in the place. Performance that doesn’t do that is problematic. I think it’s a personal, political thing. If I am truly in a relationship which is engaged as opposed to “you sit there and I’ll do something for you” then I get something real from the experience. It has to have a way into it. Accessibility is a word i don’t like because I think it assumes the audience doesn’t know as much as you. Unless you’re actually talking about disability access! But I think the audience, especially when you’re dealing with real life stuff, is always going to know more than you so you better do your research and you better not talk down to your audience. Allowing entry points into the work is a different thing.
M: What about work that’s so concept driven that there’s no offer in it?
Y: What do you mean by offer?
M: I think the most effective experimental work happens when the maker acknowledges the opening five to ten minutes of the show is really generous and really playful. It doesn’t focus on intellectually challenging ideas right away. The opening is inviting and asks the audience in so they sit into the work and then you can challenge them as much as you want. Work that doesn’t acknowledge the attention of the audience in any way so there’s no offer.
Y: That’s what I’m saying, yes. There was one show where I was really hot on shaping the top and it dropped the audience into four minutes of darkness with a soundtrack that was really faint. I needed them to slow up, i needed their heart rate to drop, I needed their attention. And when we did people said the opening isn’t long enough. It became an allure of the work, people couldn’t work out where the piece actually started. It took that time and it was right. That form came from the sources.
M: I’m interested in patterned ideas that come up in these conversations. The idea of there being a female form of work that follows a much more collaborative model is something that i’m coming across again and again. Do you think a horizontal, collective approach is more female?
Y: That echoes my experience… would I advocate it? I’ve never sought it out, I’ve just found myself in the circumstance, isn’t that interesting? Any collaborative model I believe needs to do a couple of things; honor that the grace of creativity might fall on anyone at any moment. For example, the lighting designer might have an idea about the performance. But then how do you manage when a person who really doesn’t know much about performance is commenting on stuff so there’s also a limit where a person without a good knowledge can take space in the conversation. Being mindful of limitations is important. Also that everyone’s embedded in the same social world that the audience is to a certain degree.
M: What do you mean by that?
Y: Well that everyone is dealing with sexism in their life, in different modes, with different perspectives. I live in a world where rape and the threat of rape exists even when it’s not an experience I have lived. So it’s wrong to say I don’t have an understanding of it from my own perspective. But I haven’t got the experience of some of those women in the Baulkham Ladies group. I bring what I have into the collaboration. I also think there’s a whole lot of things – and I don’t put myself outside this – that relate to the power of language. There’s language in democracy, the democratic process which the far right use that are exactly the same language; the rights of the individual, accessibility, awareness, freedom. A lot of these terms overlap between both sides of the spectrum. Do we need to critique the idea of awareness? Because I’m not a narrative theatre maker but when I’m thinking about spectators, I think “where is the story”? And sometimes it’s in the relationship between what people know and what they don’t know. I suppose one thing that id like to say that I haven’t said so far is that content and form always matter. If the form can be the content then you’re really hitting above your weight. If you’re working with reality sources like I do then the form grows out of how people relate to the information. The spectators have their own relationship to that information too. I made a piece and when we had a showing to the industry one person’s comment was “aren’t you showing it to the wrong people?” and they were sitting beside someone who had offered some testimony for the project which was legally in the realm of domestic violence. The man sitting beside him had known him for fifteen years. All of a sudden it was about our complicity. In terms of feminism on that project there was a phrase that was said in the rehearsal room that became adopted by the company which was “We can’t make this piece of work as if we’re on the side of the angels”. If it’s in our communities then its got to include the grit, what we see, what we know, where is the line? Looking back I’m very proud of the work, the form changed because of that. And the aesthetic changed to fit that idea. There was no concrete feminist approach but it became embedded in the aesthetic. The visceral material used in the design, bubblewrap, changed the psychology of the piece. I learned so much about ambiguity on that project, because ambiguity isn’t “take what you like from this”, it’s getting the horns of the dilemma so sharp that the ambiguity works really accurately on your audience. They have to ask “What’s this story actually about?” and “Who’s on the side of the angels?”. We didn’t explicitly examine female violence in that project but the tenor of violence between the performers and audiences became part of it. Our performers sat in the audience and stared down the audience. Asking them directly about their desires. And even though there was only one explicitly violent moment in the entire performance the audience felt like they were implicated. The response of men was incredible. They were discussing it online, discussing their complicity and also the fact they were looking to talk about it. They had a lot of men asking “What do I do in this situation, what do I say in this situation?”. That’s probably about as good as it gets. I’m never going to make another piece of agitprop in my life but that moment of social action when you see a transformation happen, that’s something. I also do still think it’s important that there’s art for artists. It’s the difference between investigations in science, if everything scientists researched was accessible to the masses it wouldn’t progress. We need theatre that is pushing form and ideas forward but may not be instantly accessible to an audience member.
One of the things that happened in the 70s as a response to women being excluded from the theatre was a huge blossoming of women’s devised work and solo pieces. It’s a genre now in it’s own right. But I think we’ve reach a time where that doesn’t have to be the only response, or the dominant response, we can question that.
M: Well I’m wondering if you can’t “burn it down”, if the systems that we operate within are historically patriarchal but now increasingly include women, I’m interested in the new shapes of feminism within that structure. And also the acknowledgement of the individual in a system.
Y: If we can’t share some things then we have no united front. We got united front then we can’t do anything.
M: Yes but to hold both things as true. You , as an individual with all your lived experiences in combination with shared ideas. But I’m interested in where the ‘give’ is in these older systems. Where they’re having to make space for women and where it’s most successfully realised.
Y: If you’re asking me where is that I’ve got no place to talk to you because I don’t think it’s happening in Australia. I’m not going to say that there’s not the potential there. In 1975 I went to my first conversation about women in theatre and we’re still having the conversation. The terms were different. The networks that grew from that – informal networks – have created some really strong art and women still working in the industry. And some of them are doing very lateral things, not necessarily theatre. A lot of women moved into community work. I know that work contributes towards very inclusive theatre work that happens. But it’s a long time. These women were amazing. And the fact that I could see that meant I had a future. If I hadn’t seen that I would have been out of this arena entirely. Those early connections and opportunities were huge for me.
M: That’s definitely something that was shouted loudly with WTF last year “it’s hard to be what you can’t see”.
Y: Absolutely. It’s extremely hard. But given now in 2016 you’ve got people looking at programming around the country and the situation is as bad as ever then I can’t point to any place or any situation in Australian that is not generated by the women involved themselves. Independant artists are digging into their own work, their process and form is demonstrating it. When people see and hear those performances they’re picking up on how those people work together. It champions co-operation over competition. And I’m not saying we live in a weird fluffy kind of fascism where everyone has to get along but we still need to celebrate when the form allows for it. So if I had any criticism is that sometimes the rooms led by women I’ve been in haven’t looked to push the form enough. It’s all about the form. I would love to see women taking the space to preserve the opportunity to experiment and fail. Claiming that space more. Artists are part of the precariat.
YANA TAYLOR BIOGRAPHY
Dr Yana Taylor is a performer-maker, educator, researcher and dramaturg. She has worked with the Helpmann Award-winning documentary theatre, version 1.0 Inc since 1999. Version 1.0’s works have toured Australia extensively since 2006 in curated performance programs in venues such as the Melbourne Arts Centre, Perth Theatre Company, Sydney’s CarriageWorks, The Performance Space and Queensland’s Judith Wright Centre for Contemporary Art. Several of version 1.0’s pivotal scripts are published as ‘Re-mixing Politics’ by Currency Press (2012). This collaborative theatre was awarded key organisation status as ‘creative explorers’ and triennial funding by the Australia Council for Arts in 2009. As a member of this company, Yana has directed and performed The Disappearances Project (2011- 13), was performer-deviser in The Table of Knowledge (2011-13), Deeply Offensive and Utterly Untrue (2007 & 09) and The Second Last Supper (2001); was deviser/production dramaturg on This Kind of Ruckus (2008-2010), performance dramaturg on The Wages of Spin, (2005-06) and CMI (A Certain Maritime Incident) (2003-4). She is currently one of version 1.0’s joint artistic directors. Yana has recently returned from The Disappearances Project season that opened UK’s Brighton International Arts Festival to critical and popular acclaim.
She has worked as a dramaturg to esteemed director, Ros Horin on the verbatim Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe with a tenacious group of émigré women who have experienced abuse in war that returned to Belvoir St Theatre in September, 2013. In 2011, Yana was dramaturg with aerial physical theatre, Strings Attached on their huge multi-media piece, A Return to the Trees at CarriageWorks.
After chairing the board of the community-engaged key organisation, Urban Theatre Projects for five years, she returned to perform in their 2008 Sydney Festival site-specific work, The Last Highway.
Previously, Yana lectured in theatre making and movement at the University of Western Sydney, Nepean’s nationally recognized performance degree, was head of program for several years and has lectured at Australian Film, Television and Radio School, Wollongong, Macquarie and Flinders universities. Consistent with her interests in supporting the development of the next generation of theatre-makers, she been a mentor with the Australia Council’s JUMP scheme and Shopfront Theatre’s 2011 &’12 Arts Lab emerging artists. As a policy and funding advisor, Yana was a member of in the multi-disciplinary Western Sydney Arts Strategy and dance committees for Arts NSW and has advised in artist residency program of Critical Path Research Centre. Her doctoral research (Usyd) was on the relationship between the embodied actor training method of Tadashi Suzuki and collective devising practices of Sydney’s first wave of cross-disciplinary contemporary performance practitioners.