One of the goals of Citizen Theatre this year is to create a musical* work that challenges existing notions of combing music and theatre, with a feminist agenda in mind. You can check out the previous post for more on what we’re working towards artistically this year.

I briefly mentioned that the group is regularly training together. I thought I would write about what this means a bit further, because we have literally started with nothing… something every artist starts with before they start. So hopefully this will be a useful if not interesting read for those of you who know that feeling well, or are approaching it for the first time.

When everything is possible, it can be debilitating. So, the first step was to create some boundaries, or at least just start something (usually the hardest bit!) so we could figure out if that was in any way related to what we were interested in, or not. I thought it would be useful to try and find/create some building blocks that would help us to devise work down the track. But rather than imposing things upon the group, I was really interested in facilitating a discovery of what the group was carrying and/or holding already. From there, we would focus in on one person’s physical response to something and the group would share in its embodiment. Through a series of editing, copying, embodying and playing, we are collectively creating a growing movement vocabulary with titillating and weird names such as “The Backwards Dictator”, “The Curious Creep”, “The Camp Servant” and one of my personal favourites, “Bin Juice Hands”.

All this weird and wonderful, mostly abstract movement that satisfied an aesthetic interest of ours – that had started from nothing – was great for a few weeks but I had a feeling we needed to have the option to deepen our practice if we wanted to: it felt too removed, perhaps too technical to simply have a vocabulary that we repeated. I thought, that already exists if you go to a dance class, or established physical method like Suzuki. We needed something different.

I recently attended the Women, Art & Feminism in Australia Since 1970 symposium and was surrounded by political art makers of various kinds, speaking about things that concerned them, things they were fighting for, things that had led to where they now were. There was passion in the room, the same kind of passion that my group had. There was a desire to make the world a better, safer, kinder place through feminist art – all things our group aspires to and the things that I believe feminism should and can help us achieve. These artists were so direct about their political positioning in their work and in the ways that they worked. One artist (Lauren McCartney) was not only creating painting works that were feminist in their content, but also considering the politics within the act of painting and the politics of the material she worked with. This made me reflect on my own work with Citizen Theatre: we were interested in creating politically engaged content, but could our process become infused with those political concerns too? If the kind of theatre we wanted to make was to be an act that could make the world a better place – a political act – then it seemed what we needed was to find a way for our training to at least cultivate a politically responsive mindset and at best give us practical tools and process for turning our ideas, beliefs and feelings into theatrical action. We needed our training to be politically engaged.

Two strategies that have helped us move in this direction are: working with moments of disruption and using the body to politicise our movement vocabulary.

I’m still figuring out the first one, which is working with an idea that out of disruption emerges a moment of truth (not my idea…I read it in a book about theatre and performance in digital culture by Matthew Causey). So the way we’re using this is to create an ‘event’ where there is a ‘normal’ or predictable pattern or story and then that is ‘disrupted’ by something unexpected happening, like one of our crazy walks emerges all of a sudden. This one is in its early stages.

There was one week when we had only women in the group**. In this week we explored specific things located within/on our bodies that we perceived had become devalued or deviant in some way, perhaps because someone specific had told us, or because ‘they’ (as in the social norm) have led us to believe this part of ourselves was an issue. So we undertook a process of taking this thing for a walk, focusing on the body part/s, allowing the ideas to influence the shape, direction, tension and gait of the movement. Then this was taken to a grotesque extreme, to really experience the fullness. The next step was to decide whether the movement was ‘clean’ or ‘dirty’. This dichotomy was borrowed from a text I found fascinating whilst studying anthropology, Mary Douglas’ Purity and Danger. Her links between clean/dirty and sacred/profane as a way of understanding categorisations of taboos and social norms I thought could be useful if our aim was to create subversive work. So whatever the actor decided it was, they would then invert it, doing its opposite version – a clean movement would transform into a dirty one and vice versa. The final step was to adjust it to find a version that was empowering to the actor, that felt really good to do. Then, the option is to journey back and forth through those stages. More recently we have started introducing sound making as an option in this process too, so exploring what sounds live in these different ways of moving.

So how is this political? To a certain extent, moving through space is political when you’re out there in the world, among others. How you navigate others, how much space you take up, how direct or indirect, whether there are certain people you avoid and what your reasons are, are linked to some sort of conception you have of your place within a social realm, a political order. How much power you have (or think you have) dictates how you move through space. As feminists, we are interested in challenging dominant notions of this distribution of power and as moving artists, this means we are imagining an alternative arrangement for how we all move through space. A different way of moving through space, a subversive way perhaps, challenges our current notions of what we think is possible with our bodies and minds. How much of this we take into the world beyond the rehearsal room, and how much impact that really has on the world is up to the individual to determine. But if we practice these ways of moving, if we practice challenging our embodied cultural coding of prescribed power according to gender, race, class, ability etc., then we hopefully will get better at it. The idea is that then when we come to devising and performing work, we will have more direct access to our political desires, our ideas will be more fully embodied and have more impact, being clearer.

Part of this is also about exploring a notion I mentioned in the last blog, about creating musical works that have messages of empowerment as well as feelings of empowerment (since most musical works only contain the latter where female characters are concerned).

This is the beginning. Our structures and vocabulary are still evolving (and probably always will), but I thought it was worth sharing, particularly in this current moment. Sensationalist media and focus on ‘political correctness’ over a genuine discussion over how we treat and value people who we perceive as ‘different’ to us or ‘the same’ as us can result in feeling overwhelmed about how to engage politically as an artist without offending (which any thoughtful artists never wants to do) or getting it completely wrong (though these things are always possible no matter how well intentioned). But hopefully it helps you think through your own practice and life, to consider what small political acts you can enact to be the change you wish to see in the world.

Image by Stu Brown

*see previous post on my use of the word musical in this context

** I should note too, this process isn’t limited to women, we have since tried this out with our male members too. Our company warmly welcomes enquiries from non-binary and other peoples who represent the diversity of the Melbourne community, who might be interested in joining us.

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