By Dana McMillan, Feature Image by Regan Ainslie
We play many performances throughout our lives; our costumes the clothes we wear for different circumstances, and our masks the subtle shifts in the way we hold our bodies in the different spaces we fill. The everyday nature of these performances means they are so subconscious that they become disguised as normalcy. As a young (unaware) queer woman, I didn’t realise I was onstage 24/7.
The performance of femininity never quite sat well in my body and the beauty rituals of my peers filled me with an anxiety I couldn’t name. From quite young I knew I wanted to be an actress, but I recognised that I did not look like the people I wanted to be – the women projected on the screens around me. They were beautiful, feminine straight role models. Even the great roles they played worked to ingrain a sense of there existing a normal feminine to perform.
I looked at the people I admired and the great theatrical roles that a young woman could aspire to: tragic Shakespearean heroines and disenchanted Chekovian maidens. I wanted to be worthy enough to die like Juliet, or go mad like Ophelia (or mad again like Lady Macbeth). Madness. Tragedy. Depth. Soul. This was acting. This was being an actress. I wanted to speak words that were heavy with the importance of the Canon. I wanted to be what I saw as a classical actress.
I stuck pictures on my walls of these actresses, hoping that their greatness would cast some sort of spell. Ritualistically, I would rehearse monologues to the air, thinking that they had the gravity to hold a room. While I thought maybe I could train my voice to have the power of those words, I kept coming up against one hurdle: I was at war with my body, the instrument of my performance.
There was a disparity between what I wanted and what I thought I was fit for. I realised I wasn’t going to be a pretty enough Juliet or lithe enough to disintegrate as Ophelia. I wasn’t going to be the ingénue who people would want to see weep as Nina in The Seagull. I could feel the gap between my own body and theirs becoming larger and larger. When I stood on stage I recoiled from gesture; moving would surely only draw attention to the fact my body did not move like it should and its mistakes would make this disparity even more hideously obvious.
Yet in the face of this perceived failure, I clung harder to these roles. If I could succeed at playing them, then it would prove that I could fit the model. I clung to the idea of Nina. In a Christopher Hampton translation of her speech to Konstantin at the end of the play she says, “I started acting badly… I couldn’t work out what to do with my arms, I forgot how to stand on stage, I lost control of my voice. You have no idea what it is like to know you’re acting appallingly.” I kept trying to convince myself that maybe I could still be a Nina. Wasn’t I her? Stuck on stage with my arms like two dead weights at my side, all my movements mechanic. I was so unsure of my own bones, muscles, and flesh that words breathed no life into them. I would try to lean into the fragility of the inner world, hoping I could show enough emotion through my eyes rather than my wings. It never quite clicked. I was told once by a director that they felt like my scene partner was acting to a brick wall – talk about unable to move. Perhaps I was just acting badly because I was young and inexperienced and all of the things that create a bad performance. However, theatre relies on being under an audience’s gaze and it is very hard to perform when you believe your body shouldn’t be seen.
The physicality knitted into the words of these great roles I have mentioned reflects the historical context in which they were written. For women this includes the ideals of beauty, and the ways in which they could take up space. It is not just the words these women speak, but also the words spoken about them, that construct the way audiences see them. Shakespeare and Chekov may be adapted for contemporary settings, but these characters still bear the weight of the expectations honed by audiences over hundreds of years.
I didn’t think I was beautiful enough for Nina, but I also didn’t see how my body could love Trigorin or be loved by Konstantin. It did not love Romeo or Hamlet. I could imagine what it felt like, even telling myself that I knew what it felt like, but the inability to recognise my own sexuality meant I couldn’t channel these characters’ desire into a language I understood within my own body. I could find no honesty in their passion.
There was a separation between my head and my body and while method acting works for some, it still requires you to be able to use your body on stage. It wasn’t until I started working in more physical practices that I realised how to actually be present on stage. As almost a trial by fire, I found physical performance when I joined The DIG Collective, an experimental theatre collective (then based in Melbourne, we now we cross Melbourne and Sydney). On my first day with the collective – a sort of come and try – I was so nervous. I thought any minute they would realise that I couldn’t move, how funny my body was… and not in a good way.
We trained regularly and rigorously, and as a result knew each other’s bodies to the point where I could anticipate what someone was about to do and fit my body to theirs. Our trust and physical openness began to break down the tensions and rigidity of my limbs. We allowed ourselves to be silly, for our bodies to be ugly, and from there we built new worlds without physical constraints or conventions.
The joy of being silly came to surpass the desire to be a ‘great actress’. I fell in love with all the bizarre things my body could do and all the beautiful ways it could move. When someone gave me direction it made more sense through bodily instruction. Where is the tension? What body part leads? When I think about my own practice and the performances I create now, it is always through the lens of the body first, then the emotion, then the words. I am so used to talking with my body that I now know its rhythms far better than I know my vocal ones.
My actor’s body means more to me than the contradiction of what I think a role should ‘look like’ and my own frame. I no longer need to be Juliet or Ophelia. In a physical, devised world, women have the power to create bodies that lie outside the norm; bodies that are rebellious and subversive to social expectations. We can reinterpret the social standard of whose bodies are acceptable onstage.For example, in my work with improvised Shakespeare collective Soothplayers, everything is created on the spot and without a casting process there is no limit to the characters I can embody. I can become kings, queens, witches, fairies or soldiers. There one condition is, “does the character serve the show?” not, “does my body serve the character?” I do not have to limit myself to the handful of Great Roles for Women. I can play a diminutive lover, a bloody queen, or any role or gender in between.
By letting go of the feminine ideal onstage I was able to start embracing my identity as a queer woman offstage. No longer constantly trying to brand myself as the pretty lover, I have no expectations on myself to uphold this identity in my everyday life. This is one less role I have to perform and I am happy to embrace the identity of something ‘other’ if my artistic practice does not rely on how normal I can be. In fact, it relishes how weird I can be. I think what a difference it would have made to me at fifteen if I had understood the power in being a clown and that greatness is larger than the Western Canon.
I thought I would never touch The Seagull again, but last year I did return to Nina during a course to see if she was still in there and still held some importance to me. What I found was that when I shattered my own expectations of how she moved, she somehow came alive in my body. I had thought of her as fragile for so long I did not see that she could be like me or that I could be her. What we had in common wasn’t that we were both bad actors, or that we loved the same people, or fit some ideal – it was that I knew what it was like to be heartbroken, desperate, alone and lost. When I asked the question, “How does my body respond to this moment?” a massive but simple realisation occurred; that my body as a queer woman was enough. It could feel her. Its experience was special for this moment. It was only on the stage we both couldn’t move our arms and when I finally let her into them, the seagull flew.
Dana McMillan is a Melbourne based performer, theatre maker and improviser. She is currently working as Co-Artistic Director and performer with The DIG Collective, an experimental theatre company dedicated to making performances through a devised process and non-linear storytelling. She is also a founding member of Grub Theatre and ensemble member of Soothplayers: Completely Improvised Shakespeare and Quiet Achievers, a silent physical improvised comedy. You can find out more at danamcmillan.com