Carissa Lee investigates a research project that aims to redress the historical neglect of work by women and non-binary theatre makers
During my PhD candidature, I’ve realised how deeply theatre and research intersect. I was initially unsure how to articulate the catharsis, ceremony, and almost supernatural element of what we feel as artists when we place ourselves vulnerably in front of an audience and ask them to see us, ask them to listen. It’s difficult to describe the transference of the experiences of performers – and by extension the writers whose words they are transporting to auditoriums – the communication, the empathy, and the weight of the responsibility to get it right.
How do we capture this metaphysical world that we share as performers and audiences? I’m still not sure I’ve got the hang of it, so when people say they want to capture the elusive, sneaky art form that is theatre, I’m always keen to see how they might tackle it – because let’s be honest, I’m always looking for tips.
When I read about the Monash University research project Staging Australian Women’s Lives: Theatre, Feminism and Socially Engaged Art, I was intrigued. Would it be predominantly research-based, or would it lead to a live performance of some kind? It turns out that it’s both of these things.
The project aims to bring to light the achievements of women theatre makers that have previously been undocumented, and therefore largely unknown. This theatre research team will research the history of women’s theatre from the 1970s to the present day, with a focus on “the stage as an ideal laboratory for crafting and rehearsing responses to social inequalities.”
The team will conduct discussions with advisory groups and one-on-one interviews across Australia, and then run a co-design workshop that contributes to designing the digital archive of participants’ contributions to Australian theatre history. At the end of its three years of research, interviews and workshops, the project will present a live performance showcasing a wide range of Australian women theatre makers.
Although it’s a research project, it will be largely narrative-driven. As part of the preservation of theatre history, it’s important to know the people behind these achievements. Through interviews with artists, the project aims to look beyond the texts and productions to uncover the artists’ ways of working, and how these communities of makers have looked after one another in a male-dominated industry.
Professor Stacy Holman Jones, one of the project leaders, said that they hope to explore how women and non-binary people negotiate theatrical spaces in a male-dominated industry, navigating ways for their voices to be heard and their on-stage characters to be represented with integrity. This might be something as seemingly minor as taking ownership of a role in a male-dominated script – my review of the 2018 production of LePage and Brassard’s Polygraph comes to mind.
A central concern is the importance of delivering stories about gendered violence against women. The project will document the methods Australian women theatre makers use to address gendered oppression and violence, with the aim of reaching a diverse and global audience for the first time. “This research is urgent,” it says on the project’s website, “given gender-based discrimination, harassment and violence against Australian women has risen dramatically in the last decade.”
It’s a fair assessment. The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimates that 1.1 million women have experienced physical assault by a male perpetrator over the past 10 years, with domestic violence increasing during the COVID-19 pandemic. First Nations women are disproportionately affected. Reports such as the Workplace Gender Equality Agency’s Gendered impact of COVID-19 illustrate that increased time at home from social distancing places women at risk of violence.
This report showed that women are expected to take on more caring responsibilities at home, and that there are more women on the frontline of healthcare. It predicts that the economic impact of COVID-19 will affect women more.
Others, such as a report from the NSW-based Analysis and Policy Observatory, studied the impact of violence against First Nations women during the COVID-19 Pandemic, looking at issues such as the lack of emergency accommodation and a lack of workplace support to enable working safely from home.
In her Lens article, Professor Jones highlights how the many facets of the COVID-19 pandemic have disproportionately affected women, because of the structural sexism of creative industries, as well as the “cancellation apocalypse” that has hit theatre arts practitioners all across Australia.v
Jones said that the three years of research will aim to pose some strategies to remedy the erasure and exclusion of women’s stories from the theatre. The advisory groups and co-design processes are designed to document and analyse interventionist theatre, exploring how women and non-binary performers use language, physicality, spatial relationships, and stage dynamics to push their work past the portrayals of male-dominated narratives.
There have been successes over the past decade. Sydney’s theatre scene has seen a significant increase in women at the forefront, the Melbourne Theatre Company founded a Women in Theatre Program in 2020, and The Rabble’s Emma Valente compiled a list of female, non-binary and trans technical theatre artists to help increase the representation of non-cis-male involvement in theatre technician fields. But there is still much room for improvement.
I asked Jones about how the Staging Australian Women’s Lives project would be addressing the different histories of Blak and white feminism: their very different timelines with regards to the rights that were achieved with the first and second waves of feminism, the differing ambitions of their veins of feminism; and the different theatre Blak and white feminists create as a result of these differences. How will the project address feminism for any other demographic that is not cis, straight, white, or able-bodied? Jones said that the research group will conduct focus group and individual interviews that include women and non-binary people across varying demographics. It will be interesting to see how the project approaches these topics and includes them in their work and resulting stage production.
Because these are early days, it is understandably unclear how these methods of research will go, and what the outcomes will be: I imagine this will be a very journey-oriented production, rather than a results-driven one. I’ve found during my own PhD research that there needs to be room for results to come about organically, rather than trying to control the outcome or guess where you’ll end up.
On the project’s website, the researchers say that Australian women’s theatre has been: “Unnoticed, undocumented, unheard. Despite the indelible achievements and contributions of Australia’s women theatre makers, the influence and impact of their work have not been comprehensively documented.”
The same could be said for Black, Indigenous and women of colour in this country, as the historical agendas of white feminism have too often left them behind. I look forward to seeing diverse voices being given spaces in this project.
The theatre makers and researchers involved in this project are: Professor Stacy Holman Jones, Associate Professor Anne Harris, Associate Professor Alyson Campbell, Dr. Misha Myers, Dr. Peta Murray, PhD Candidate Mish Grigor and research assistant Rachael Stevens.
For those interested in participating in the project: I urge all women-identifying Black, Indigenous and people of colour, and also disabled, queer and non-binary theatre makers to either fill out an EOI, submit an individual Legacy Letter, and/or submit a Legacy Letter as a potential advisory group member. Although the researchers will be reaching out to a variety of diverse theatre makers, they are also asking people to come forward and volunteer their voices for this project.