Performing the Norm

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.

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Doublespeak, The Dig Collective, Photography by Aaron Walker

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.

Soothplayers Hares and Hyenas.jpg
Completely Improvised Shakespeare, Soothplayers,

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 Headshot- photo Alex Talamo 2

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

Does the Bechdel Test Have a Place in Circus?

This article was written for circustalk.com, head here to read the original post.

by: Charice Rust and Latonya Wigginton

There is nothing more satisfying than walking out of theatre having been inspired by an amazing circus show. However, a conversation we increasingly find ourselves having in post show conversations is the role of women in circus and the way they are represented. There have been incredible, strong, stereotype-defying women in circus for as long as there has been circus ,and their commitment to claiming space on stage cannot be overlooked. Nevertheless, whilst viewing a performance at the Mullumbimby Circus Festival, Charice raised the question of whether or not the show would pass the Bechdel Test. This began a discussion between us about the need for a framework to interrogate and understand female representation in circus today.

If you haven’t heard of the Bechdel test before, it is a set of three very simple rules that are most typically applied in the world of cinema, first seen in the comic by illustrator Alison Bechdel Dykes to Watch Out For.  The test is used to assess how much and what quality of screen time women receive in any given film. To pass the test a film:

  1. Has to have at least two [named*] women in it
  2. Who have a conversation with each other
  3. About something other than a man

To give you some perspective, www.bechdel.io found that of the 2015 Academy Awards only 38.46% of films nominated for an award passed the test. Of course, such a simple test is by no means claiming to tell if a film is feminist, has interesting female characters or even attests to the overall quality of the film. What it does do however, is spark a conversation around the sexism in the entertainment industry, and with so many films being unable to pass such a low bar, it pinpoints the lack of representation of women.

While the Bechdel test has been mainly used to analyse films, we are reaching a time when producers of circus shows need to start examining the way in which they create works and how accidental dramaturgy can be interpreted by the audience. Circus is increasingly moving into the realm of high art, and with this comes the expectation that creators will think more deeply about the work they are creating. As Mitch Jones discusses in his article Creating Meaningful Contemporary Circus, creators of circus need to be aware that audiences are learning to read the contemporary art form and to find meaning in what the ensemble does. This means that acrobatics on stage have significance beyond physical tricks that will be read dramaturgically.

Applying something like the Bechdel test to a circus show can be quite difficult, as it is uncommon for circus artists to speak at all on stage. For that reason, here is a slightly revised version of the test for circus (see image).

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In this way, a “conversation” was taken to mean a physical conversation or a distinct interaction on stage.  For example, a female adagio pair performing an act would constitute the circus equivalent of a conversation. If that act was a about two women and their friendship, then the show would also pass step three, as the act wasn’t about a man. Instead, if their act was about competing for the attention of a male performer– then this hypothetical show would have failed the Bechdel test. With this version of the Bechdel test in mind, we examined some of the shows performed in Australia in 2017.

In some cases, it is easy to see whether a show has passed the Bechdel Test. For example, Rouge a  recent production by Highwire Entertainment, which played at the Wonderland Speigletent  in November.Rouge  is a sexy, adult cabaret that features an act by female hand balancer Annalise Moore. In the act, Moore is supported by the two other female cast members Tara Silcock and Isabel Hertaeg. The act explores themes of female identity and sexuality and therefore passes all three steps in the test.

For the most part, Rouge is a fairly standard cabaret with acts that are flashy and funny rather than political. However, it is clear that the director, Elena Kirschbaum, has also considered how the performers are represented in the wider world of gender politics. This has resulted in a show that not only has a cast that is 1:1 female to male ratio but that also explores gender and circus roles in unexpected ways. The show even includes its own nod to another feminist device, the sexy lamp test, which examines whether a female character could be replaced with a sexy lamp without affecting the story line. In the show, Silcock has an early act as a lonesome sexy lamp unable to move freely or take initiative. However, as the show progresses she returns to the stage in an act that shows her taking control of her own sexual desires.

Silcock as a very empowered ‘Sexy Lamp’. Photo courtesy of Brig Bee

Backbone  is the explosive new work by Gravity and Other Mythsthat premiered at the Adelaide Fringe Festival and was also performed at the Melbourne Fringe Festival.There is no denying that Gravity and Other Myths is at the forefront of Australian acrobatic performance, with a world class cast that truly owns the stage in terms of physical prowess and personality. Their show Backbone, however, does not pass the Bechdel Test.

The show’s director Darcy Grant states, “…it examines strength. Honestly, ironically, and personally” (cited in Rodda n.d.). However, in a show touted to examine strength, there doesn’t seem to be any real representation of female power. For example, both Jascha Boyce and Mieke Lizotte have major acts in which they are limp ragdolls, not moving their limbs themselves– instead they are manipulated by the male members of the ensemble.

In a further scene the male ensemble members lower a giant pile of rocks onto the women, literally limiting their ability to claim space on the stage. Whilst this might be seen as an ironic examination on Grant’s part, as a metaphor for womens’ space in the world today, it doesn’t read that way. Instead it feels as though the rocks lowering onto the performers were added for the visual effect and to build tension without thinking of the dramaturgical implications. The result is that the women do not have an interaction to themselves without the involvement of the men, which therefore fails Step two of the test.

image002Moore performing supported by Silcock left and Hertaeg right. Photo courtesy of Brig Bee.

Naturally, the Bechdel Test is not without its limitations, and this is even more apparent when it is applied to circus. For many productions it is harder to determine a clear pass or fail. For example, Driftwood by Casus does have at least two female performers that have a vibrant presence in the five member ensemble. They perform a lovely duo trapeze act together, free from male involvement – an incredibly refreshing moment where the audience can enjoy watching women relating to each other, thereby completing step three. However, the piece acts as a lead in for a male trapeze solo moment. So in considering step three of the test, it appears that the “conversation” of the two women is related to or about the male performer. Of course, this is a just one reading, and highlights one of the larger failings of the Bechdel Test in circus.

Contemporary circus as an art form rarely has clearly defined characters, roles or narratives making it difficult to apply such a simple test to a show. It also misses acknowledging the other areas a show might excel in such as representation of acrobats of colour, LGBTQIA acrobats, or acrobats with a disability. For example, while Driftwood may fall short of the Bechdel Test, it excels at positive portrayals of LGBTQIA relationships and contemporary portrayal of  Polynesian culture.

image004Figure 3 Lachlan Mcaulay (base) and Jesse Scott (flyer) in an touching and intimate act

This will always be the limitation of a simple set of rules, the goal is not to enforce the test on every circus company, nor to limit the enjoyment of any performance. Instead, a tool like the Bechdel Test should be used by creators and audience members alike to start thinking more critically about work that is produced in the circus industry and to be aware of the greater world of art, history and politics that circus performance stands in.

So, in the end, what does it matter if a show has passed or failed? Backbone, the only decisive fail in this list, was nominated for three Helpmann awards. Yet the ratio and roles of men and women in circus has meaning and inadvertently influences audience perspectives. On stage contemporary circus performers inhabit an imagined world that is similar to our own. It is therefore strange that some new circus ensembles can’t imagine women having an equal and active presence in that world. Female acrobats should be involved in the actions that have agency in circus choreography as well as being allowed to occupy and claim space on stage without being cramped out by male ensemble performers. Directors and performers both need to be aware that neglecting the consideration of dramaturgy with respect to gender risks perpetuating a tired and patriarchal representation of women.
This awareness can be seen in the work of artists with a passion for exploration who move beyond traditional gender and circus roles to create work that does not rely on preconceived notions of how a circus show should work. When this sort of experimentation is present it results in work that inspires, awes and adds to the overall conversation of women in the arts today.

Authors

Charice Rust is a circus artist and co-founder of One Fell Swoop Circus. She is passionate about hanging by her arms and challenging expectations, explicit or otherwise, of what female performers are capable of.

Latonya Wigginton is a acrobatic performer and lover of chocolate. She is always working on a new project and believes strongly in the ability of circus to break down social barriers.

Talking on SBS中文普通话

Last week Tons of Sense member Latonya (唐雅)had the pleasure of talking to YuXia on SBS Mandarin about her life and circus

下个星期团体人 唐雅 (Latonya)说话跟 Yu Xia 在 SBS中文普通话电台。

“唐雅出生在布里斯班,小时候因为好动、淘气,父母就替她物色一些兴趣爱好。体操、游泳、田径……尝试了一圈,小唐雅却选择了杂技。唐雅认为,杂技是一门极具创新的艺术,而不是一项体育运动。”

You can listen to the interview below or on the SBS website.