The beginning of this interview was distracted by the fact I was a bit consumed by the emerging results from the American Presidential Election so I’ve edited to a point of focus where we began talking about feminist theatre companies in Ireland.
M: Our last feminist theatre companies were in the 90s so I’m here looking at models of female work and feminist companies.
P: Who was the company?
M:Charabanc… and Glasshouse.
P: I did a show with Charabanc called Lilia Mae! They put a show on that was travelling with a friend that I wrote. It went to Belfast! They were wild. They were disgusted – we drink – but not like you fellas. They were great, really hospitable, really open.
M: We’ve been feeling the loss since they finished. But there’s a resurgence at the moment.
P: You’ve got to grasp at it now cause it’ll fucking go.
M: You look back and you can see these 30 year waves and that’s too long!
P: Yeah. But we are back, we’re back on the agenda. Even here (Malthouse) where things are a bit slower really. In equity and number of female writers we’re actually getting a bit better. We’ve been doing the number crunching. I’m in a writer’s guild group – The National Voice – checking on how many female writers, how many female directors and it’s just putting out the statistics. It’s not really condemning but it exposes who’s doing what. It can be shocking. We’re used to our major theatre companies being shit but MTC have equity! So you kind of think, it won’t last, it’s just one off but they feel proud as punch and you’ve got to congratulate them ‘cause they have. Marian Potts was the last female AD here and she got roasted. It’s difficult because I’m not sold on everyone’s fucking work either and I thought she was a bit weak in some ways, but it kind of gave her her due. I don’t think she’s any weaker than some men at the head of these places. It takes a while and she never really got into the swing of it.
M: You have to have the support. It’s one thing to be a woman at the helm but you have to have support. You have to have backup.
P: I’m wondering if it’s the same in Ireland but the word quota, here, sort of sends people in a spin. And I go “Why? Why not?” If you can’t be decent, if you can’t realise where your biases are then you need something that orchestrates you. Not being judgemental about you, just orchestrated so that you are clearly fair in your division. And it could be weighted over a three year period and you can have 6 male playwrights in a year and you know that the following year etc etc. And you weight it so that it’s still equitable. We had a similar outcry in Sydney and that ricocheted down here. It was really healthy. And it transferred to the writers because someone exposed the percentages. I’ve been working in this industry so long and you kind of know, but when you see figures you kind of go “fuck me”. It’s almost damaging when you see the figures because you don’t know how bad it is. You kind of work under a base of really stupid notion that if you keep doing good work it;ll be rewarded. It’s just crap. Very undermining.
M: Have you seen it shift much? Or at all?
P: Yeah, there’s companies that immediately and seamlessly did it. At first they were all puffed up with these statements “Only the best will do!” and you know “the work is the work”. And then, really fairly quickly at least two and then three companies put in policy – so not dependant on the artistic director – in the policy that there would be 50% female directors and female playwrights. But then, we have so few companies left now. Have you been to any of the female playwrights conferences?
M: I was at WITS in Sydney last weekend. One of your shows was on!
P: Did you see it?
M: I didn’t!
P: Oh bugger I can’t ask you now. They really worked hard for a one off performance.
M: I did get to see SHIT last year at Neon last year.
P: Oh great! Did you understand it? It’s very Aussie vernacular.
M: I love that! It’s grimey and gorgeous. I hadn’t seen anything that was representing class and gender. That was quite radical – I was not expecting it.
P: It’s so fun, you know, they wanted to take a play called SHIT. There’s something slightly infantile about that title and you kind of feel like come on grow up. But it’s nicely provocative. They wanted to put S**T instead and I said “nah, it’s called SHIT”. The women working in the box office did this gorgeous thing where people would ring up and go “I’d like two tickets for S.H.I.T.” and so they all used to laugh and tell us. That’s been picked up by the Sydney festival. SHIT goes to Sydney!
M: I love it! SHIT on tour…
P: Yeah! They’re gorgeous, it’s lovely to see three female actors having the license to not be caught in any paradigm that is so called “feminine”. You know this thing where you can’t just be. They just got to love it and have committed. It’d be really hard to recast. It’s hard to cast class in australia. You don’t have to be working class to play it but you have to know that it has a different sound. The drama schools are just full of these young sweet things that have got no idea. So you have auditions and it doesn’t work. Those women (in SHIT) are way to old for those roles but nobody’s ever questioned their age. And they’re really meant to be in their twenties. I just figured, women who have been living on the street for a while look shit. And you realise they’re just a kid but their faces are caved in and they’re older than they should be. I don’t say that to them though (laughs).
M: How did you end up casting it?
P: I worked a lot with the director, Suzie D, and I’ve worked with a few of those actors before. I knew they’d be great. They can be dirty and vulgar. There’s one of them, the skinny, junkie one, I’ve worked with her a lot.
M: When did you write it?
P: Probably two years ago. I’ve had a career of working with women in prisons when i was younger. A lot of people asked what kind of research I was doing and I thought “I’m not doing any more fucking research. Not with girls like that” because I know. They’re fucking frightening. If they don’t want to talk to you they just tell you “fuck off you fucking cunt” and if you have no way in it’s too hard. But I love them. They’re on my tram. I live in an area where the old methadone clinics used to be. They’re terrifying. But SHIT came from a workshop looking at women in theatre. We had a whole spate of work with men strutting their stuff. And some of it was really quite powerful. I’m not taking from that. But they know how to strut. They’re really dominant in the space, really physical, they’re really naughty boys, they have all sorts of appeal, they’re quite dynamic and they’re experimenting with stuff. There was a whole spate of them. And we thought, when can we put women on stage and not have a dulling off of the body? How do you make the body of a woman fucking powerful and dynamic and like “I could smash you!” or, just be more internalised, just through the words matching that dynamic. So I was driven by that, girls are going to take the space!
M: I think sometimes we apologise too much, trying to take that space. Especially women in power positions.
P: Have you heard of the new appointment in STC? A young man, Kip Williams, he’s not even thirty yet, has taken the role.
M: Hmmm. Do you think the changes in the funding structures and the conversation from 2010 about female directors will filter through to ideas of how women are-
P: I do. If you think that the areas most badly affected are theatre in education, the independent sector and community work. This is where women get work, traditionally, it’s the bread and butter because men don’t work there. Women cut their teeth in these areas. After a while you want to expand but it’s a good start but you need those smaller opportunities where you know you’ll be able to put the show on. We get a million fucking developments because we’re all shit. We get development after development and you feel kind of duped. You get the funding for the idea and you think, “Oh that’s great”, and then you get another one. And then afterwards you’re so tired from the fucking dramaturgy because you never get to production. I mean whether it fails or not, not all work works, it’s rare.
I’ve heard successful women say – around the idea of quotas – how would I know I got the job on my own merit? Well I say, okay, let’s not have a quote on women, let’s have a quota on men. Men have 50%. Do you think they’re going to worry? They’re going to take whatever they can get. Lots of men shouldn’t have it either, some people sneak through and you think “how the fuck did they get that gig?”.
M: For me it’s a spurious argument, because if the game isn’t fair then it doesn’t mean anything. The focus has to be on making the playing field fair. And then merit applies. What work are you most excited about being made in Australia at the moment?
P: I’m really curious about new work that’s happening now that you’ll go and see hopefully. It’s called Animal. It’s Susie who directed SHIT. You should meet her, though she’s very busy. Not busy as in wanky busy but she does lots of things for very little money and she just works her head off. It’s mostly a physical work – both of the performers have a background in circus – and it’s around the theme of domestic violence.
M: Two women in a play about domestic violence?
P: Yep. I saw a run through last week and it’s pretty raw but it’s really interesting. It’s that whole dilemma when you’re talking about non-verbal narrative. What things land? You’ve got to go I can tell this story and just tell you everything. A lot of plays do. They just tell you everything. But dramatically they’re dead. Or you can see post dramatic work and there’s not enough moments that ground you. So I’m not going, wow it’s a beautiful thing but it doesn’t mean anything to me. I can’t be shocked for that long. If that’s what you want, I think sometimes that is what they’re after. Shock has to be earned. It’s part of your craft. I think you want to be tantelizing but you want to say something too. And not saying the same thing over and over again but kind of tear it apart a bit and expose it and make one complicit with it, make one feel they’ve been betrayed. All of those things you can do theatrically. I leave the audience so often feeling I must be thick. I don’t think I’m bound by a linear narrative and I do try, I do try. But I just want to be grabbed. And it’s important not to just be for your crowd, don’t make work just for your crowd. It has to be accessible to the world and that doesn’t make it pedestrian or banal. There’s a lot of work that’s self-examination. It’s fine to explore that idea but the self-confessional can be really cringey. And there’s other things worth talking about. We’ve got one of the highest rates of domestic violence in the world. We hit women, kick em and kill em. We kill more blacks than under apartheid. This gorgeous country you’ve come to – welcome. We’ve got the highest suicide rate in young black girls. Got the highest rate for suicide of men in their 40s. We’ve got more black babies dying than any other country.
M: You’re winning the racist awards!
P: We’re following Trump! Julian Assange calls Australia the 54th state.