Nurturing the writer, re-shaping the theatre

Virginia Baxter

Speaking to women at the wheel of 2 national women’s arts organisations, I sense they’re comfortable in the driver’s seat and that the road ahead is as important as the roadworthiness of their vehicles.

Vitalstatistix: Maude Davey

Embarking on her first year with Vitalstatistix, Australia’s only full-time women’s theatre company, Artistic Director Maude Davey wonders whether seasons of plays are the only or indeed the best way to debate and circulate ideas within Waterside Hall, the heritage building the company occupies in Port Adelaide. “In some ways theatre companies are dinosaurs.” While mindful of the expectations that Vitalstatistix will produce a number of plays each year, Davey who has worked for over a decade in the “independent” sector is also in favour of more flexible approaches to performance as reflected in Vitalstatistix program for 2003 and beyond.

Work that deals with “technology, politics and biology” interests her and especially “how these fields are impacting on the status of the corporeal human creature.” In her own work, she has been concerned with the mediated body—“the impression that the body you wear makes, in spite of you,” she says. Being a twin (her sister is physical performer Annie Davey) might have something to do with it. While heavily pregnant recently, Maude performed The Pickle or the Pickle Jar in which she appeared as herself but was also played by other people who materialised on TV monitors. “It’s weird being inside that body. Suddenly you are regarded by others as something other. You are what you represent. You are a mother-to-be.”

She’s fascinated by debates around reproductive technology. “It’s easy to say it’s about wresting power from women to enhance male domination, but I prefer to look at how interesting, how difficult, how horrifying and how amazing the technology is—all at once.”

Vitalstatistix 2003 season opened this month with Davey’s production of Parallax Island co-written with partner David Pidd. A 2-hander performed by Pidd and Astrid Pill, it’s described in the press release as “Not so much a play, more a performance about the performance of gender.”

In July the company embarks on Playgirl, a 4-week intensive play development project with open readings of works scheduled for production in 2004. With some notable playwrights on board, Davey is eager to play with possibilities. Catherine Zimdahl’s Wharf at Woolloomooloo is about a visual artist. “Visual art excites me more than theatre,” says Davey. “What is it about our attention to a work of visual art and what can it say about our attention to performance?…Melissa Reeves has written a musical about crime celebrity matriarch Kath Pettingell and we’d like to bring the musical into some new territory.” Davey is interested in the culture developing around computer-generated sound/music making. The night before we spoke she’d just seen New Pollutants at the Exeter Hotel. “They’re great….I’m looking for the female equivalents.” Valentina Levkowicz has written about a group of actors from the 70s whose guru returns to create a new work with them in the 21st century. Here Davey sees the potential to examine what’s changed in performance practices in that period.

The program also includes Part 1 of Davey’s Future of the Species series. Directed by Anne Thompson, it takes on society’s ambivalent attitude to the maternal body and is set inside a uterus. Part 2 will focus on the smallest social unit (which could be a family but not necessarily) and will take the form of a physical theatre piece. Part 3 will be created as a site-specific, community collaboration.

Also commencing in July is the 21 Days Journal Project initiated by writer Rosan Chakir and composer Lucy Jones in which women living on the Le Fevre Peninsula will be invited to help create a work by keeping daily journals for 21 days. The diaries will

provide the basis for a play and also manifest in part as a radio program in which each of the contributors will read a minute of her day.

In September a co-production with the Adelaide Festival Centre Trust’s InSpace program will see the next incarnation of Cazerine Barry’s multimedia performance work, Sprung. “The thing about technology that interests me,” says Davey, “is how to make it truly performative…The ideas it throws up are interesting to think about, not necessarily to watch…Cazerine Barry has made the mix dynamic, the live body still central.”

“We’re reinventing the world around us, how we live, how we die…” says Davey, “we have to reinvent our theatre as well, how it looks and how we look at it.”

Playworks: Francesca Smith

After a pause in proceedings following the departure of former director Anna Messariti for the top job at ABC Radio Drama, Francesca Smith has been guiding Playworks since February and looks set to take on the role permanently. She too sees the importance of opening up organisational structures in order to elicit work of vitality and relevance.

In 2003, says Smith, “the focus is less on assessment of early scripts and more on catching the ball that is already in the air; less on workshops and more on strategically designed development. We’re using resources in more flexible ways. This involves everything from managing the dramaturgical development of promising works so they reach their best possible form in production to taking on a fabulous idea which has no play yet, just a new writer whom Playworks believes can pull off the project.”

Smith is particularly keen to expand Playworks’ Indigenous Dramaturgs Traineeship Project this year by offering the possibility of actively mentoring gifted Indigenous theatre artists through the process of writing their own work. Playworks has been working in 2002 with Nadine MacDonald (Kooemba Jdarra), Irma Woods (Yirra Yaakin) and writer Jadah Milroy. They decided that the best way to discover how dramaturgy works was for each of the would-be dramaturgs to write a play.

Playworks is commissioning short works on particular themes in collaboration with organisations such as Playlab, Brisbane Writers Festival and the Australian Script Centre. They’re also involved in a partnership with ABC Radio conducting radio scriptwriting regional workshops with writers such as Noelle Janaczewska in Tasmania and Janis Balodis in Lismore assisting local writers over 2 months with production as one possible outcome.

Still taking shape is an idea of Smith’s for a collaborative writing project with Islamic communities. “When the war was at its height, I had an urge to organise a responsive writing project to stimulate creative ideas,” she says. An overarching desire is “to encourage works that situate performance writing as important.” She wants to nurture strong voices, “to fan flames that are already glowing…[to see that] something actually happens in response to what we do…I don’t want to denigrate the private but these days I’m more interested in work that engages with the world.”

As a practicing dramaturg, director and teacher, Francesca Smith had reservations that taking on an administrative job like this might take her too far out of the creative plane. But 3 months in she’s discovering that “an organisation can be a creative entity. And flexibility is the key. Opening up. Not locking into things. Playworks is no longer bound by the page. Words are part of a spectrum. Music theatre is a special interest. We even have an opera in the pipeline. We receive videos, DVDs. What matters is that there’s clarity on the part of the writer about what she’s doing and what she wants in the way of assistance.”

Kerrie Schaefer and Laura Ginters are gradually updating the valuable research done by Colleen Chesterman on the working patterns of women writers in Australian theatre in Playing with Time (1995). “It’s hard to be a playwright,” says Smith. “It involves invisible ways of being. Networks are crucial. This has been important for the success of all those hot young things who are still more often male than female. You need relationships and access to getting things on. As always an important role for Playworks is fanning the flame, strengthening the commitment, enthusiasm, the love to keep going.”

RealTime issue #55 June-July 2003 pg. 10

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 June 2003