INTERVIEW WITH ADENA JACOBS

ADENA JACOBS

Adena

 

A: It’s interesting, while I was at Belvoir there was a paper written about myself and Annie-Lou. She explained this thing about Gen Y theatre makers and why they’re attracted to the canon. Something she said struck me an idea of exposing the patriarchal frameworks that have become invisible to us and that we, as a new generation are using those sources instead of creating new works from scratch is a way of exposing or pointing to those things. I’d just never thought about it in such an articulate way. Of course, I think of it as a scaffolding too. A myth that people can enter into. We assume we have moved along way from the original structures but in a way the subtlety of the feminist question is that the canon does play a part in it. We assume we’re going to an old source but that formula, that combination, can provide something new.

M: I totally agree. The act of you being within the material is a subversion when it was written with the expectations of the era in mind. There’s something about the idea that the classics are universal, an access to what is universally human, and that we should all accept the tropes they offer as being incredibly illustrative of who we are as human beings; and then you look at them and think, where the fuck are the women? And why are they all weak?

A: Exactly that idea of “this is all of us, this is how we are”, a familiarity that people buy into.

M: Yes! And as soon as you as an artist step into that as a living, breathing, human woman, everything starts to shake a bit. I really like that tension. I think it’s exciting.

A: It is exciting and also therein lies one of the problems of the critique of women making work in that area because if a male artist creates an edgy or radical version of a text that we all know, they still somehow align themselves with that fundamental narrative. Whereas, as a woman, in all good conscience, even if you love the original source in various ways, you have to wrestle with those qualities. And the outcome will always demonstrate that struggle.

M: Is there a paradigm that allows male experimental work to be seen to push form and female experimental work bound by the need to challenge the form. A woman working in the same mode-

A: You’re against it or something? I actually thought you were going to say something about male work being about form and female work being about content… but I think it’s both. The Rabble is an excellent example of artists going “the form doesn’t hold, it needs to be remade for a totally feminine perspective”. It seems like it’s radical but it’s more about being truthful to a feminine way of thinking of the world. It’s tricky because it seems old school. But I think we do make different work. Or we can, whether we choose to or not. Jane Griffith’s wrote a good article about this actually. About how being a woman makes you good at adaptation or translation (http://profiles.arts.monash.edu.au/jane-griffiths/publications/)   because throughout your education you have to translate things to your own experience so how could you not? It’s a process of existing in the world and trying to find the tools to reinterpret it.

M: So there’s a historical example of women having to adapt where men have a set way through? Do you think that’s reflected in the work that happens here?

A: Oh I don’t know. It’s hard to know what that means because I think all artists feel like they’re adapting to their circumstances. But I do think there’s definitely an industry pattern. Take APAM where artists are selling their work; there’s some men but it’s mainly women and I think it’s because a lot of the men have slightly more secure positions. There’s a pathway. Whereas if you’re outside that system of making work you have to adapt. The fluidity of being an independent or freelance artist necessitates that. And women are at the forefront of it in Melbourne. There’s fantastic companies run by men as well but it’s primarily female. It has a female edge to it.

M: That’s really interesting!

A: Yeah, I was speaking to some presenters and one was saying “we should make a festival of Victorian women” and I thought “Let’s totally do that”. And Sydney too – there’s a linear career track that’s so traditionally taken up by men. In recent years its started to shift but there’s a sort of sense of insecurity with it. You ask “how long will it be for? how will it sustain? Will it lead to them running a company?” Something that lasts more than 3-5 years. I think there’s an arc and we’re at a tipping point. It’s a wave that began about 6 years ago and I think you could read it as if it’s ended but I don’t think it has. I think we need to reassess why it hasn’t done the things that we thought it would do and now we need to make a whole bunch of changes.

M: That idea of the wave is a pattern that repeats.

A: I think so. You know when you’re in it and you know when you’re at the end of the wave. It’s interesting, I was at Belvoir for the last couple of years and I knew that I was arriving at at end point, the end of a time. It was clear within a week that this was what it was going to be. You still make your work, all of the same things apply but energetically it’s different, a bit more troubled maybe. It’s hard to recognise when you’re a part of that thing that’s about to explode. In Melbourne in 2010 or 2011 there was a whole bunch of artists who had no idea they were about to make up the next wave. They were just trying to survive and do their thing but that was pushing their ideas into the mainstream. Unfortunately I think there’s been a backlash or a bit of a turn. It’s the way of the world as well.

M: Do you have certain resources that help you begin again when you find yourself at the bottom of a wave? Things that help you begin to work after a period of transition?

A: That’s a good question. I think there’s often a sense of restarting, for various reason, creative or personal. I think my peers do provide that. But it can be fraught because of the limited resources. We’re siloed in together. We’re all going for the same pools of money. Maybe I’m naive but I didn’t really realise that until this year. Because there was an upwards surge and everyone was working together, it felt like it was expanding, it didn’t feel competitive. But suddenly this year for a bunch of reasons, we’ve all just looked at each other and thought “fuck”. So you can turn to each other but there’s another level to it now where we’re all just desperately trying to make the work in this situation.

The interview moves to a quieter space.

M: It’s interesting to see how the industry contracts when cuts are made. I think theatre is one of the most generous communities to each other. It has to be because it’s so expensive. You have to use your social networks as capital to call in favours and kindness. So I think that also fosters it but compared to an industry like film it feels like a much more horizontal model. A much slower process that allows for collaboration. But in that moment where the money becomes a hard, hard thing, the things that provide that support are less availabl.

A: A whole lot of those companies and artists who were essentially working for free but who had a lot of momentum around them have struggled. Some people who were getting particular jobs or there was a sense of this support around them have seen it stop. The companies have shifted into a new mode where they do require funding; they’re too experienced, they’re too old and it’s not viable. So it’s been a bit like someone has pulled the rug and we need more structure and support. Now there’s less anarchy. There’s less ability to really make it for nothing.  

M: What is your company model?

A: It’s not a real one – it’s an avoidant model. For many years it’s just been me but as of January I’ve got a producer on board and I pay her for half a day a week. It’s great. All of the artists have been a rotating group; I had a similar group of designers for years but that has shifted and its shifting again; and I have a dramaturg who has worked on the last three of four projects so he is actually been the consistent element in recent work. The model up til now has been me badly producing my own work but I was reluctant to formalize it in any way.

M: Do you have an art partner?

A: Do you have a producer? 

M: No.

A: It has felt very lonely until now, and it’s purely that feeling of somebody else is invested in this on a daily basis. Whether there are projects happening or not. And of course it’s my work and there’s a loneliness as a director anyway and putting your name and yourself forward is lonely. But in terms of sharing that investment it’s really helpful. Her insight and knowledge is great but that thing of having a partner is key. I’ve avoided – I keep using the word avoided – I don’t like being tethered to or beholden to a particular group of people every time. Even though I have incredible, longstanding relationships that feel essential to me, I think that every project might require something different and I want to be able to trace my own instincts about what might be next. I want to feel like I can respond really honestly. So it is lonely but I think it has advantages. Also financially formal organisations are riskier. I’ve worked in a company context and independetly it’s just looser. I prefer that sense of freedom and being outside of the system and the structure. You can never be 100% because there’s always funding restrictions. But I don’t want to feel trapped. There’s so many places in the arts where you can be trapped. If you’re going to be an independent artist, following your own rules then I want to be in control of those rules.

M: Was your time in a company at structure in Belvoir?

A: Yes and I was at Malthouse for a year before in the women director’s programme. That was more of an intern position and then at Belvoir it was more of an associate position. I mean I did feel like I arrived at the end of a wave somehow. The artistic director who hired myself and Annie-Lou had hired a director called Simon Stone for the position before us and he’s gone on to be a mega director in Europe. So to have him and then to have two women after him is a massive change on multiple levels. The way he existed in the company was super confident, he would say “this is what I’m doing and this is why it’s going to amazing”. And done. And we were very much like “What does it mean? What’s it for? How can we be radical? How can we make interesting work within this company?”. And I don’t think that kind of questioning gets the same results. By results I mean the way that things get programmed, the way that audience percieves things, the way that media responds to things. I think we were a bit confusing for the subscribers, and just generally. We hadn’t made much work in Sydney. We’d both made one show each, and both were successful, her’s was particularly successful. So there was a sense of confidence in thinking “okay, they’ve accepted our work – critics and audience – so we can just go”. When in fact that wasn’t the case. Our first shows there were slaughtered. On a level that was really shocking to me. The process of making that work was difficult for a lot of reasons. I was proud of lots of aspects of that work and I also knew there was lots of flaws. But the response was really quite full on, nasty, angry. And it was about more than just the show. And her work recieved a similar response and in that same year other work by female artists, queer female artists in particular, had similar reception. We happened to be working in the company so we had another chance to make a show. That was fantastic. To be forced to just go again, keep meeting that same audience and those same critics. It was tough but it was great.

M: And what changed?

A: The second show I made was being rehearsed while the other show was on and I was sitting reading those reviews while we were rehearsing the next thing. it was really weird. I felt, well, if they don’t like that, they’re not going to like anything I do. Formally it was a much more recognisable work than other work I’d made.

M: Was that Hedda Gabbler?

A: Yeah. It had a text and it was the classic. They said I butchered the text but actually it was quite faithful – even though it was only one layer to the work – but people really didn’t like it. So I thought, well I may as well do what I want. I can go much further. I felt in that moment, and I’m a very uncompromising person – sometimes to my own detriment – and I did understand in that moment, why someone would want to make a musical on a revolve. Because as an artist you do want people to connect with your work and you want them to have an experience and you want all of that effort and that project to be received in a certain way and when it’s not it’s a car smashing into a brick wall. It’s the feeling of speeding at 100km an hour instead of an exchange. So i understand why someone would do that. That was one option and the other option was to go hard. The second show I did was in the downstairs which is a more experimental space. Odd for me because it’s all corners down there and I’m very visual and usually end-on. So it was different. But in general it was understood and met and felt and you could feel that. One reason I think was due to a very beautiful older actor named Peter Carolan who people knew in it. He was amazing and brave in the work and the choice he made but I just question whether their sense of familiarity with this older male actor enabled them to watch a work that was formally difficult and quite feminine in the way we were talking about before. It was a gateway for this work. I understood that they needed that, some kind of hook, and it felt sad to me understanding that but I could understand it. There’s also a warmth or a personality that allows people to access the work if it’s formally very difficult or queer in its politics or something like that. So that was a change for me. The wizard of oz had be programmed for the next year and i fought really hard for it. I really wanted it; if I did nothing else I just wanted to do that. And it felt like a return to me. Most of the work I’ve done has been female led and ensembles and by the time I got to Belvoir I was actually a bit tired of it so those first two shows had male leads. But in that time I felt there was a core audience who were young women, queer people, and some critics too who were super excited about the work and were advocating for the work because they hadn’t had it before. In some ways they were advocating for something of themselves being represented. It felt excellent to have those people too. That changed as well so by the time we got to OZ there was more of those people.

M:  Do you think their commitment to you as artists was also a commitment to building that new audience?

A: You would think- Originally the sense was it would be a position for at least 2 or 3 years but it was 2 which was less than we thought. It was a significant commitment. Now there are a lot of female directors working in the company and I think they’re above parity now but it’s not their work. It’s plays that have been allocated and the AD will basically curate the season – with a few exceptions. They’re doing well on a lot of fronts but it’s definitely not experimental and it’s not authored by the artist.

M: So it’s not making space for experimental female work?

A: Yeah, or self authored work.

M: Has that affected that audience?  

A: I haven’t been there so I don’t know. I think the general subscriber is pleased to return to more ‘comfortable’ work. They were uncomfortable during Simon Stones tenure and way more uncomfortable during our time. It’s one thing to tamper with the classics and its another thing to upend the structures. They were in a panic. A theatre panic. So I imagine the sales are probably up and they’re probably more relaxed.

M: Do you think an audience can grow to understand those tropes in new kinds of work? Do you think given time they would be more excited and relaxed in an experimental context.

A: I could feel a change had started and with that final work, I could feel that they were so much more – it was a better match, between myself and me not having to compromise, and something they could accept. I felt there was a change. I think it could have continued. If there had been even another year… I think something would have turned. So I think now there’s an audience who are relaxed again and another audience who are hungry for something that they got a blast of. Whether it’s successful or not that’s by the by because some work is successful and some isn’t. That’s true for conservative work too.

M: Yeah, I feel like any programming is risky for the same reasons. A director might miss the central idea of the play, or might miscast a part, the ideas might not come together. But for me there’s nothing worse than a museum piece, a play that does everything proficiently but doesn’t actually say anything or question anything.

A: It’s dangerous. It’s reducing an audience’s critical engagement so that you’re just reaffirming outdated political ideas. That’s insidious at some level. And even more dangerous is remaking it on a surface level but keeping the same structures in play because we think we’ve progressed but actually it hasn’t.

M: Sometimes it feels like there’s a surface change happening in a lot companies.

A: I really believe we should have quotas across ADs of festivals and major companies. At the moment there’s twenty eight major performing arts organisations that are funded in an ongoing way. Three are run by women and twenty five by men. It’s pretty much white men. There’s one indigenous male AD. Why I say there should be parity across that strata and not so much within the companies is I’m not interested in that kind of male AD who has a particular agenda who’s just going to hand me a play, I’m not interested in filling their brief or quota to satisfy their guilt or some requirement. It’s going to be restrictive and cheap. I’m not interested. I’m interested in the entire equation and ecology being about the art and about pushing the boundaries. Angharad is a really good example of that. Her brief at Arts House is different to someone running a theatre with subscribers, of course, but her way of thinking at Arts House is brilliant. You want to be part of it. You know what it’s for and you want to be programmed alongside those other artists. It’s not that it has to be a woman at the helm it’s about diversifying so that there’s an eclectic mix of human beings with different ideas about the world and have different perspectives.  

M: Do you think the wage – the security and comfort – in running an institution is tricky?  

A: Across the board in the last two years the male associate in the company has taken the leadership position in the company. Some have been there for seven years, some for nine, and some for a shorter amount of time. It’s very particular. I know from working in two different companies that you absorb the anxieties of that company and that particular directors anxieties and the audience’s anxieties. You nearly can’t help but be attuned to it. Ralph Myers who had been running Belvoir while I was there came and smashed down the establishment. He kept some core things and I admire that brazenness. He just arrived and said “I like you, I like this, lets do this”. But as you say, that idea of riding off the history of the back of a space or a former AD is tricky.

M: Wouldn’t it be amazing it the AD had to alternate gender with each handover?

A:Yes!

M: Do you think you have to be a bit uncomfortable to stay connected as an artist? Do you think that people in long term security lose a connection to that, or to understanding that?

A: I think when you have a salary you can forget the particular feeling that the struggle to survive evokes. It’s a very particular set of feelings. I think it exists the other way around too.. Something I thought about a lot when I had that job was “oh my god. I can chill” and the other part of my brain is going “Oh my god, fuck. If I don’t take a risk now then all of that struggle has been for nothing”. There’s a great feeling in knowing you can afford a sandwich without worrying, and that you work will be resourced and the people you work with will be paid, but there’s a pressure under it definitely. You worry it’s all a charade. You have the opportunity and you worry about fucking it up. And that’s uncomfortable. Being an artist is uncomfortable.

M: Is it necessary for the ADs – the managers of the ecosystem – to be a bit more uncomfortable in the same way?

A: I think so. If a person has had a salary for ten years how can they remember that? It’s not their fault but it’s hard to stay connected to that.

BREAK IN INTERVIEW

M: There’s a question I wanted to ask about the idea of a distinction between feminist work and feminist practitioners.

A: I’ve thought about that a lot. Partly because I didn’t use the language of feminism or queerness around my work until 2014 when I was in Sydney. I was definitely making work which was fundamentally female through my subjectivity. It was interested in the female body on stage too but I really hadn’t really thought about it so much. There was other people who were making work that was so much more obviously about gender and sexuality. But arriving in Sydney – in relation to the work that happens there which is much more conservative – suddenly I was sticking out like a sore thumb in some ways. There are a bunch of other artists working like that but in the mainstream it’s a lot less common. It was an interesting learning curve because in some ways my work began to push into that realm naturally anyway. So I was thinking about those questions about queer politics. I wonder sometimes if the city naming me as a queer theatre maker pushed me towards it more. And because I knew that that was my position in that environment I had a sort of strange responsibility to push into that area. Something about it felt really urgent. It’s hard to know if that’s the way my work was heading anyway. It depends on what environment you’re living. Melbourne is very critically engaged with those ideas. Would I have made that work in Melbourne? I don’t know. I wonder if I would have been too scared to make those same decisions.

M: There’s an interesting tension in that.

A: Yeah, suddenly the reviewers were talking about the queer politics of the work which was reframing what I understood about it. And at the same time I was less worried about people’s response because they’re less engaged around those topics in Sydney.

M:Is there a value then in dropping an experimental maker into  a conservative context?

A: It’s the best thing that’s ever happened to my work. The risks were much greater and I also had to make a life raft to help the audience reach the work. I think my work was going down a conceptual route which was more removed which is fine but with this I had to navigate this back in a theatrical space. It was super complex for my work. And there’s a power in it. You can put anything on a main stage and a massive audience is going to be forced to look at it. I never thought about it until Hedda Gabler and I realised, that’s a major responsibility. Subscribers own the company. You’re in their space. Their so generous and dedicated.

M: Do you think it’s necessary to challenge those audiences, to shake them a bit?

A: Yes. I think there needs to be a shake-up. I think we’re artists, we have to challenge those structures. The board has to want it. They have to support the changes. Sometimes I think that we have just accepted the way that ADs are appointed. Ralph Myers gave a Philip Parson’s Memorial speech and upset a lot of people. He challenged the idea that artistic directors are no longer ever artists. It caused a lot of upset and in a way he had nothing to lose. But those conversations need to happen.

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