Theatre teaches us that feminism has nothing to do with hating men. Together, theatre and feminism teach us that femininity and masculinity are not inherent aspects of being a woman or a man respectively. But that's not all...
Feminism has become a word almost as over-used and misunderstood as 'awesome', 'like', 'love' to name but a few... It is a loaded word with a long history of activism, empowerment, fighting, reinvention - the list goes on. Its relationship with the word 'feminine' is a strained one, though in light of post-feminism a makeshift bridge has been forged to try and change that. But what feminism means in terms of action seems to be very confusing; how do I know if I'm acting out in a way that is truly 'empowered' and instigating real change?
In order to explore what feminism looks like in action, I've begun thinking about whether my work as a theatre maker/director is 'feminist'. The ways I explain these thoughts causes me to at times use language that purist feminists might find problematic. But I have to start somewhere. So here goes...
Every project I take on is a huge stretch. I haven't settled (and hopefully never will) into a particular style or genre of performance. Every project seems to be almost the opposite of the one I did before. But the last two seem to be more deeply connected in a way I didn't expect (despite still being very aesthetically different). Perhaps this is part of me finding my way as an artist, or just a coincidence, or a by-product of a number of circumstances. Or maybe my subconscious is guiding me in ways my conscious mind can't yet comprehend...
To try and understand the kind of theatre I've been engaged with more recently, I've been watching a lot of interviews and reading the blogs from the ever-insightful Anne Bogart. I was intrigued by one particular interview in which she discusses feminist art, which she notes is "at its heart, subversive" (and hence often not as commercially successful). Clarifying, she says, "whatever it puts forward, it also puts forward its opposition". She goes on to describe the difference between more traditional 'linear' as opposed to 'non-linear' theatre (I should note that although a link is made between non-linear and feminist art, Anne does this reluctantly - perhaps this is to indicate that feminist art is not necessarily non-linear). A traditional linear narrative takes us from A to Z, and we only reach Z because we have gone through all the other letters of the alphabet. With a non-linear structure, A, whilst being A, also contains B, C, D - in fact all the letters of the alphabet. The same with B. And C. And so on.
'Nude', a piece I wrote and directed last year, was structurally quite different to anything I had dealt with as an actor or director. The form it took emerged out of research both at my desk and with the actor in workshops surrounding the female body - what it means to have one, what can make it 'feminine' and the processes that result in its sexualisation and objectification. It was intended to be subversive, yet was about one of the most commercially successful female figures of all time. Structurally, what emerged was less of a traditional narrative and rather a non-linear piece that was more about being with the actor as she transformed, rather than walking away with a typical A to B storyline. An emotional journey was clear, but specific events and how they related to each other resembled the messiness and difficulty of understanding the meaning of one's own life, rather than being clearly organised into a set of recognisable morals, lessons or values. It became what one keen (and highly admired) observer noted as 'feminine', in that it required the audience to simply be with the story and the actor, as opposed to being marched towards a cathartic climax. I found this interesting, that the word feminine came up here - as opposed to feminist - and started thinking about what this meant. Did it mean that theatre could and should be thought of as 'feminine' or 'masculine'? Furthermore, can we and should we describe non-linear theatre as 'feminine' and linear theatre as 'masculine'? Is this too reductive or simplistic, or, could it change the way we think about the embodiment of stories? And where does 'feminist' come into all of this?
In working through Crestfall, the play I am currently directing as part of 'Inferno: A Double Bill', a similar organisation of the text and play's ideas has become apparent. The difficulty with the piece is that it is at once exceedingly 'masculine' in the directness of violence, destruction and heaviness carried in its content, yet 'feminine' in its poetic, lilting, cyclical, Irish rhyming verse. It also asks the audience to simply be with the characters; it is not strictly linear in its structure and each microcosmic verse contains within it all the verses that come before and after it.
What is interesting about Mark O'Rowe's play is that the 'masculine' and 'feminine' aspects of Crestfall as I understand them are not dichotomous. Rather, we are presented with a spectrum that is demarcated by intense extremes with gradations in between, that allow the audience to take in a view of the people in this strange, dark town, that is at once destructive, direct, filled with love, gritty, hopeful, unclear and intermediate. The men and women in Crestfall enact and embody action across this spectrum with differing intensities and particularities. This is what makes it so challenging to deal with as a director, as actors and, probably as an audience - not because we lack the skills to deal with it, but because the characters' behaviours are often at odds with our culturally conditioned expectations for how they 'should' react - they intertwine and defy our expectations in thrilling and confronting ways. Similarly, the lack of a truly linear 'storyline' defies our embodied expectation as storytellers for a satisfying 'ending'. It is feminist art - it is highly subversive both in its content and its form.
So, if theatre is an embodied art form, where do bodies come into this? If we were to start talking about how 'masculine' or 'feminine' a piece of theatre was, would it make theatre criticism as rigid as the hetero-normative associations those qualities have with particular gender roles, particular bodies, or could it actually open up and expand such definitions? How problematic is it to start using such descriptors when naming qualities, emotional states or structural aspects of theatre? And, if we feel such descriptors are too problematic to use, when can we ever use them, if not when talking about an artform that has the capacity to directly reflect, immediately converse with and embody society? Perhaps it is not about how much art reflects or fits into our ideas of 'feminine' and 'masculine', but rather, how can we use traditional and subversive approaches, linear and non-linear forms to challenge dichotomous and problematic concepts of hetero-normative gender roles, systematic oppression and both physical and symbolic violence?
Though we might understand in an abstract, ideological way that gender can be thought of as a spectrum, Crestfall offers us a way of confronting our embodied understandings of gendered bodies. In other words, the women are not always feminine, the men not always masculine and we see both move across and through the spectrum - this is where the play's tension and emotional story emerges from. In the end, we are left with how these characters have been treated as human beings. In dealing with our embodied expectations for a linear narrative, I have had to explore new techniques and ways of activating the non-linear text with the actors. This process has forced us to abandon the usual desire for a linear arch, resulting in a different kind of 'struggle' with trying to understand the text. Finally, we have been forced to confront our embodied expectations for how the qualities of feminine and masculine fit into common (and at times uncommon) social situations. The content itself has been troubling to deal with, the level of violence and degredation the women enact upon each other at times difficult to absorb.
I was fortunate enough to catch Peter Sellers' talk at NGV in October last year (life changing, invigorating, remarkable). One thing he said which has stayed with me was that the role of theatre is to create a space for something new to exist. In doing so, theatre can provide us with a working example of what happens when seemingly incompatible things have to co-exist. Without yet having articulated my work in this way, I realised that was what I had been trying to do all along, by putting plays in non-traditional spaces (much to the frustration of my poor lighting designer), by writing a piece that attempted to de-sexualise the one of the most highly sexualised female bodies, naked, and now, by attempting to direct a play where the women are forced to behave viciously, aggressively in order to survive. What I believe I am now doing by producing and directing Crestfall is creating a space for a story that whilst clearly portrays problematic expectations of fixed heteronormative gender roles and abominable examples of violence against women, also creates a space for subversive embodiment of masculinity and femininity, structurally presents a spectrum of masculine and feminine and allows the extremes and the nuances to intermingle and dance together, as we the audience are left to deal with our discomfort in having no clear lines drawn, forced to confront our judgements and our need to have a consumable 'answer', a message neatly presented to us.
I feel Crestfall also offers a response to the present moment as the dichotomous categorisations of the modernist era are being sliced away and dissected into more fluid conceptions. Where being a female and being a leader are no longer mutually exclusive categories. Where being a male and being dominating is no longer a given. Where being a male or female from birth to death is no longer a given. In the theatre in this country, we have the privilege to be able to create safe spaces where these new ideas can become part of the social consciousness, where empathetic, emotional responses are more likely and where a new understanding for your friend's situation or your parents' stubbornness (or your own) can be born.
I think it's important to note that I am not blind to the difficulities of using terms such as 'masculine' and 'feminine'. Of course, the masculine would for many imply 'men' and the 'feminine' imply 'women'. But this is the very issue theatre allows us to deal with: that both men and women have the capacity for both and beyond. The problem is that I'm still using just two words here, when in reality, as we see in the theatre, behaviour is rarely so easy to categorise. What becomes more clear in a play like Crestfall is that femininity and masculinity are not necessarily inherently male or female traits/qualities.
When we see a working example of these different ways of living, or of new, different combinations of qualities that can be embodied, we can begin to question what we think is inherent or fixed in our own lives and start to look towards change. To shift the traditions. A feminist approach is at its most useful (I believe) when it is intentionally subversive - not destructive - but rather engaged deeply in critical evaluation of how things are and how they might be different. Theatre therefore, has the inherent capacity to be a feminist art form.
Theatre teaches us that applied feminism can help us to discover and learn different ways of embodying masculinity, femininity and all that lies between and beyond. In turn, feminism teaches us that theatre can be a highly philosophically enagaged art form, inviting us to consider the ways we live and better ways to live, allowing us to unpick our (culturally) learned assumptions about ourselves and each other. This is how feminism also teaches theatre how to become more humanitarian.