Staring the Accused in the Eye. Talking Gender at FIND 2019
by Joseph Pearson
14 March 2019
Is theatre an effective place to discuss social and political questions such as women’s or queer- and trans-liberation? Social media reaches many more people. Streaming video is available on demand, without the immediate hassle of actors and staging. Theatre might seem an antiquated, even quaint, platform for social change, but it has advantages over many other forms of political engagement, as the visiting productions assembled for the FIND Festival 2019 at the Schaubühne suggest.
It’s perhaps no surprise that, with #metoo, questions of gender and power are at the forefront in this year’s festival. (The Zeitgeist is also very much present in the house productions, such as in the direction of Patrick Wengenroth and the new plays of Maja Zade). Four visiting productions, in particular, from three continents, grapple with the challenge: »THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR« (New York City), »TRANS (més enllà)« (Barcelona), »Paisajes para no colorear« (Santiago de Chile), and »A Generous Lover« (London and Liverpool).
In »THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR«, the Wooster Group of New York City, directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, revisit the infamous 1971 Town Hall meeting chaired by writer Norman Mailer, who confronted leading figures of feminism’s second wave, including Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, and Jill Johnston. The event was later captured in the cult-documentary film, »Town Bloody Hall«. The Wooster Group has now created a meta-narrative of the documentary film, re-enacting and commenting on the historical roles for the contemporary stage.
I spoke to Kate Valk who plays the role of lesbian writer Jill Johnston, an activist known for commenting that »all women are lesbians, they just don’t know it yet«. During the Town Hall meeting, she was prevented by Mailer from finishing her speech, after she went over her allotted time.
Valk tells me, »I’m amazed Mailer thought in the moment to take the vote, like a game show – like the Gong Show – to have the audience applaud and decide whether she was allowed to continue speaking«.
»An applaudometer«, I say.
»Jill says in her account that men still command the lower register«, Valk says wryly, »And in the last chapter of ›Lesbian Nation‹, Jill publishes the speech she wasn’t allowed to finish. We frame our play with Jill Johnston’s writing about the event. And if you look to 1971, you see that her writing was the most modern, anticipating blogs and vlogs. It’s one of the best roles I’ve ever had. She’s a performer, she came there to disrupt the event. She was conflicted about going. None of her serious lesbian friends thought she should. They thought the event was appalling, that you could even have a debate about women’s liberation. But she came anyway, as a citizen jester«.
I suggest, »It’s an epic set-up, putting her alongside Mailer, who is known for macho writing, arguing in ›The Prisoner of Sex‹ that women’s liberation was an attack on men. How do you see Normal Mailer’s role now – as the male moderator and mansplainer – in the age of Trump?«
»Mailer is a good entertainer. He didn’t say to his panelists, get the fuck off stage, I’m calling security. Trump is also successful with the crowd. Every time I hear him it’s appalling. But he is talking to the whole room and he’s got everyone listening«, says Valk, who goes on to tell me how the production has two actors playing Mailer, »Dividing him, it just works. It makes the persona less dominant by having two of them«.
»Meanwhile, you cast Diana Trilling, the literary critic for ›The Nation‹, with a male actor« I say.
»It is interesting because Trilling’s argument is all about biology, and today you can more easily change your biology. Why not have a bigger conversation? We include men who become women. That’s why Germaine Greer seems so cranky to us today.«
»I can imagine Greer wouldn’t like a man cast in a woman’s role«, I comment. (Greer has been accused of transphobia, a word she has said does not exist, calling trans women »ghastly parodies«).
»She’s suffered as a woman and she doesn’t want someone to swoop in without that suffering.«
»It makes one think that a lot of water has passed under the bridge in terms of gender politics since 1971«.
Valk counters, »Yes, but we immediately felt that this material could resonate today. Not just about what was being said, but also the difference between uptown literary giants versus radical downtown lesbians. The discussion also had a pugilistic nature made for great theatre. And younger people come up to us after the show, not knowing anything about what it was like in the 70s, telling us how it speaks to them. As an artist, when you choose material for some intuitive reason, for some irresistible impulse, it’s gratifying when it is revealed how resonant it is.«
The evolution of the conversation about gender since 1971 is immediately apparent in the work of director Didier Ruiz, who brings seven transsexual voices to the stage, recounting their journeys of transition. Ruiz is well-known for putting the everyday testimony of prisoners and factory workers on stage and in film.
Ruiz tells me that the piece’s title »TRANS (més enllà)«, may well have been rewritten as »Més Enllà (trans)«.
»›Més enllà‹, or ›beyond‹, is more important than ›trans‹ because we go beyond the narrow question, we can begin to talk more broadly about identity and acceptance«, he tells me. »I also wanted to avoid being reductionist, to accept all the specificities of the differences we embody«.
Ruiz cast non-professional actors, who, apart from being trans, had to fulfil two conditions: that they would be available for two years and couldn’t be artists.
He tells me, »Thirty five people replied, of all ages. I chose seventeen of them for a more intensive audition, and from there we found our final seven actors, who range from 24 to 62 years old. What was interesting was that the oldest turned out to be the youngest in transition. I lived with this experience of transition from the very beginning. I asked, and re-asked, the same questions of everyone, and then began to choose. In the end, it became a montage: of what resonated, like in a film, what materials sat most successfully together«.
The challenge for touring with the production has been that the parts are not exactly written out, but partly improvised. Subtitles for that reason can only approximate what the actors say.
Ruiz explains how »Language recounts an intimate story and it’s very difficult to get the actors to tell their stories in another language other than Catalan, or Spanish. Apart from thinking about language in performance, I also keep asking myself about how to tell an intimate story so it sounds like it has been told for the first time. Why is it that we do not arrive at the same innocence? There are many challenges that arise when offering this kind of testimony«
»Your work was produced first in Barcelona, but then went to the festival at Avignon. Did you expect the audiences to react differently to the piece?«
Ruiz replies, »The political and social situation in Catalonia is extremely advanced when it comes to the question of transsexuality, which is not the case in France. I thought about the problems that Romeo Castellucci had in Avignon, when discussing religious questions, and wondered whether we might also face resistance. But, in fact, the public was extremely warm and receptive in France, even in small villages where we later played, especially the young public. Adolescents, in particular, take these stories for what they are, with great emotion. The young public is important because they are the adults of tomorrow. With each production, we have done something important if we have changed the opinion of just one or even two people«.
»Why have you chosen such a minimal stage design for the production?« I ask.
»My interest of this work is to throw a light on things, and to remove any elements that could hide or impede the testimony. For this reason, we have a stage which is bare, but full of light, and you can focus on the individual. There are other elements: a transparent curtain. There are images, videos, that suggests explosions, biological processes, that explode in a cosmos, that are there to allow us to breathe. It is all so we can focus on the word«.
Teatro La Re-Sentida, in »Paisajes para no colorear«, similarly puts documentary testimony on stage. Nine adolescent Chilean women, also non-professional actors, speak about violence and women in society. Unlike in Ruiz’s production, however, they do not draw primarily on their own stories, but rather interpret those taken from 140 testimonies of gender-based violence, including a number of shocking femicides.
The title is revealing of the project’s scope. Paisajes, or, literally, »landscapes«, are the name in Spanish for children’s colouring books. Except these stenciled images are »not to be coloured in« (»para no colorear«).
Marco Layera, the director, tells me, »After a year of workshops with young women all over the Chilean capital, we found that the reality of female adolescents in the country was very harsh, tragic and dramatic. They were very dark stories, often hidden stories, that had been locked up a long time, and never told to anyone – not to parents, not to teachers. Some of it was locked up because of a violence that held them in. This is the analogy with colouring books: they are stories that have resisted colour: grey stories, black stories«.
I ask whether there is something historically specific to the experience of violence against women in Chile, because of the brutality of the Pinochet era? But Marco tells me that although the violence of the dictatorship is always in the background of Chilean society, the girls were more concerned with disputing and giving themselves autonomy from the capitalist system.
»The most obvious and evident example of the capitalist system is exposing the figure of the woman as an object of desire, for consumption. These girls fight against these images. It is surprising that 13 to 18-year olds are strongly conscious of them. They are a very empowered generation«.
»Why did you choose to tell a story about violence against women from the point of view of adolescents?«
Layera tells me, »This whole thing began in 2015, when there was a series of assassinations of very young people in Latin America. The company researched the reality of the adolescent feminine world in Chile, asking how these stories related to the history of our country and the contemporary paradigm. How did young people position themselves in an adult-centric discourse? What we believe now is that the adolescent world is the true avant-garde because they are the ones installing a new paradigm. They relate in a horizontal way, amongst themselves, with more empathy and solidarity«.
What Marco suggests I do is not just follow the »voice of the adult« but rather talk to the young women themselves, and so I speak with two from the production: Matilde (15-years old) and Constanza (18-years old).
Going on-stage gives her autonomy, says Matilde. She tells me, »Personally, the hardest part was not to talk about these issues on stage. It’s harder to speak about them in families, in school. When you are on the stage, you are safe, because people are going to help you, you are not alone«.
And Constanza tells me, »When I speak on stage, I can feel my anger. It’s necessary. The difference, when you are with friends or family, is that in the theatre you are listened to without being interrupted, especially by adults who can be very closed-minded. In theatre, we can scream and nobody will say ›no‹ to us. After you release all of this energy, you are able to tell adults things they might not want to hear«.
La JohnJoseph echoes, independently, the observations of these two young women when recalling how, »Justin Vivian Bond (a New York-based transgendered artist) said that they only feel safe on stage because there are so many witnesses. Nobody can do anything to you. Theatre hands you a lot of power. You can shape things for yourself. How you live it, command it, and frame yourself in it, makes it totally mutable. And theatre has largely been an oral medium, like testimony. It’s a contract between the audience and you, as the performer, that they will listen to you for an extended period of time. That itself is unusual«.
In »A Generous Lover«, La JohnJoseph, a London-based Liverpudlian, cares for a partner who has been committed to a psychiatric institution for bipolar disorder. Conflict ensues between the gender-queer visitor and the medical institution that favours the cis-gendered and heteronormative.
I observe, »Your piece covers a number of different topoi: Northern England, the psychiatric facility, how gender is experienced in each …«
»The piece is set in London but I grew up in Liverpool and Blackpool. I wrote this piece for three voices: my own authorial voice, a narrative framing voice, and a character within the world of the play. To differentiate, this character, Joan, is the kind of woman I grew up with in Liverpool – a very funny, working class, Liverpool, Irish Catholic, Scouse woman. This character came naturally and was easy to write; she is largely based on my mother. When I was in the psychiatric institute with the person I was trying to support, my mother would say things like »how’s that lunatic doin’?«. That’s not the right language. But you know what I mean. She is very to the point, down to earth, the only character who knows what is up while the narrative voice is heightened and confused.«
»Your story is based on a lived story, isn’t that correct?«
»My partner of seven years was a classic manic depressive. He was sectioned and forced into a psychiatric institute against his will. He didn’t want to be there. Luckily we lived five minutes from the hospital and I could be there five to eight hours a day to help him. He was not always aware he was in hospital. Sometimes he thought he was in prison, or I had done this to him. But I was the lifeline to the real world. We present that on stage and haven’t mocked it up. Alexandra Spencer-Jones is the director, and her father also spent time in psychiatric hospitals, for mania. So we both understand how this world works, and agreed that because the set is verbose we should have a minimal set of white objects that suggest the classical world, the medical world, and a garden party. We started with bold ideas and stripped them back«.
La JohnJoseph’s story is told through classical illusions: it’s a journey to the underworld, with appearances as diverse as Orpheus and Katherine Hepburn.
»We have a borrowed classical framework, especially from the ›Divine Comedy‹, but also from ›The Wasteland‹ and epic poetry. Dante wrote in vernacular Italian when it was not the thing to do. So I asked myself how I could I use Scouse, the vernacular from Liverpool. But I was interested that Dante was also a cosmopolitan poet. Liverpool voted Remain, and keeps its staunchly specific culture and humour. It is pro-Europe and not insular. Left-wing, anti-fascist, and anti-racist movements are centred there, all trying to connect through the vernacular, but not losing their identity as part of a larger collection of people«.
»How do issues of gender express themselves in this journey?«
La JohnJoseph tells me, »The central clash of the psychiatric unit, is the classic one of the institution and the individual. I use they/them pronouns, I dress the way I do. And with my own gender identity, I was mistaken as a patient on more than one occasion. I’m not the patient; you have decided because of how I look. Not so long ago, a person like me would have ended up in a psychiatric institute for the same reasons. Psychiatric institutes are segregated between male and female wards. Largely on the male ward, it was men, and the visitors there were mostly female. So I was lined up with the female visitors on the male ward – straddling both directions, not being a male inmate and not being a female visitor. Queer people have a different morality and sociability, different cultural references. Straight doctors and pharmacists think you are mad if you are quoting a Bette Davis film as opposed to X Factor contestants. Being queer was taken as part of madness or illness«.
I began this essay suggesting that theatre has advantages over many other art-forms in political engagement. In conversation, Marco Layera of La Re-sentida articulated: »We have always asked themselves the same question: how a group of liars, or fakes, enclosed in black walls, illuminated by artificial light, can have an effect on the outside world or on reality? We know that theatre is not the only privileged place to see ourselves as a mirror or reflect on society, and if you add to that the elite character of contemporary theatre, you might conclude that the effects of theatre are very narrow«.
But Layera goes beyond a »pessimistic conclusion« saying that working with adolescents brought La Re-sentida’s artistic practice in close conjunction to their social practice. »We wanted our work to have a true and gratifying impact on social life. And from that perspective, everyone that participated in this process was completely transformed by this production: it’s the best and most beautiful thing that could have happened to us in theatre«.
Why did this happen?
Because theatre puts the body on stage, making the individual’s political problems immediate, impossible to dismiss as an abstraction. It provides an uninterrupted space for testimony, where the spotlight can linger, and the »lower register« of a heteronormative male or adult voice does not intrude. And as Anne-Cécile Vandalem reminds us, theatre is a place difficult to leave half-way through. You cannot press pause as in a Netflix video. It is also a safer space to speak: stage-invaders are rare, even at the Schaubühne.
As we move to so many more virtual forms of discussion, theatre reminds one not only of the humanity of the disenfranchised and courageous, who stand before you, but also the urgency to make changes. While #metoo provides a virtual space for that message, without the body of the speaker the accused is not obliged to look the victim in the eyes.