Category Archives: essays

The sad truth about time travel

This article is the first thing I ever published after moving to Australia – it was published in 2007 in a Central European (Czech, I think) magazine called Plotki. For some reason, I didn’t have it archived on GS until now.

Mother used to recoil in horror remembering her younger sister saying, in full-force adolescent renaissance, Things aren’t like in your time! This was the moment of truth; mother was not at the forefront of history anymore. Mother was just one of the generations that got it wrong.

I understand my mother now. Things aren’t like in my space anymore, and Marx already established that space is time. The inevitable march of history means some societies are ahead and some are limping, looking at their backs. That’s why we have economic development: to even out time.

Things aren’t like in your time

My Australian parents-in-law and I went out for lunch to a Croatian restaurant. It was “traditional cuisine” right in the middle of Melbourne, Australia; the waiters wore national costumes and folk music was playing. I never returned. It placed my food squarely in some long-gone time.

Parents-in-law try to relate to my life, find things in common and, in a sense, we have a lot in common. We are mentally the same generation, they perhaps only slightly younger. They tell me about great-aunts and uncles. One in particular was legendary material; she learnt to cook from her mother, they say, like everyone in her generation. I remember my parents’ notes on the stove. After three hours taste the beans. Add paprika if necessary. I say nothing.

The age-old tradition of markets has recently been revived, here, so I buy unmediated food. Parents-in-law once came to lunch. I sat down with them over a big bowl of beans to shell. They observed very curiously, asked what kind of beautiful beans they were. I don’t think we’ve ever had them. I had to tell them brown [borlotti] beans look like that, purple, spotted and shiny, before they are canned. They wanted to help and asked how one shells beans.

Parents-in-law, instead, offer me only vaguely Asian food. None of that meat-and-two-vegetables stuff; that’s tradition, that’s passé. Father-in-law is proud how mother can cook anything, from Lebanese to Japanese, only if she has the recipe. (They haven’t learnt to cook from their parents.) They will happily tell you how certain people traditionally eat a cold dish in summer, a heavy dish in winter, and always cook from scratch, but then they will happily disregard it all and assemble a vegetarian substitute-turkey for their summery Australian Christmas.

Generations of the New World

In countries like Australia, people come to terms with their society by stereotyping each generation into results of market research. Baby boomers of the post-war, Generation X of the nineties, Generation Y of today, things I always thought were a crude joke, are a serious matter here. Government policies are based on fears of all baby boomers retiring together; all Generation X-ers refusing to have children; all Generation Y-ers being caring and kind. It is demographics gone science-fiction. Even the generation coming up has already been defined. The name is still undecided, however it is certain they will be scarred by their pessimistic, detached X parents.

There are many things this generation of twentysomethings, of people who look precisely my age, does not know. Market analysts will tell you. They do not know hardship. They do not know poverty. They do not know insecurity. They do not know political instability. They do not know welfare state. They do not know wartime. They do not know their own grammar and they were never educated for general knowledge, but for the labour market. They have never played on the street as children, never had to walk to school, protected from the unimaginable evils of the outside world, from the kidnappers and paedophiles. They are, thus: self-absorbed, naïve, simplistic, yet generous and well-balanced, natural-born givers. They are optimistic, and yet they do not take anything too seriously.

The older generation grumbles: the kids are delusional, they have never had it so easy, we went through real hardship. We lived through the fear of the nuclear winter, we had to buy our own houses. (We had jobs for life, free education and social welfare.) We had to play on the street!

I know insecurity, poverty, political instability, surreal inflation, welfare state and wartime. I know grammar and have general knowledge like shit itself. I played on the street. I am from another time, now romanticized. Where I come from, gay rights are not passé and Third-World poverty lives around the corner. Thus, I am not this Generation Y. I am reckless, selfish, pragmatic, organized, I cook from scratch and I am still concerned with the old-fashioned: politics, feminism, philosophy.

But not changing the world. Instead, my priority in life is to forget that nothing is solid, believe in stability. Sometimes it seems Australians of my age don’t really believe in war. Could it be that I, deep inside, don’t believe in peace?

History fast-forwarding

There is a plausible explanation. I was born in a time heaving with history. I was born in a country that went through a historical transformation, the discourse went, in order to right centuries of historical wrongs. Croatia was a realization of a thousand-year-old dream, the megaphones were ringing, hundreds of years of history were fast-forwarding in those few years of my childhood. We had a quarter-century worth of inflation condensed in two years, a historical excess of death, the packaging and marketing changes in confectionery that had been pending for fifty years all occurred together. Enough events to inspire two hundred years worth of folklore, and pathological behaviour that will fuel a century of sociological research. I saw everything change, then change again.

I then found myself in a country with no past, country galloping into an optimistic future. Ten years ago is ancient history, I am told by people who roll eyes at the nineties. Their entire written history is shorter than the last outburst of ethnic paranoia in the Balkans.

Sometimes I feel like some modern-day Orlando who has witnessed human history. I have covered the period from pre-historic tribal hatred to iris scanning at airports. I watch neo-realist films with deep nostalgia, seeing my own childhood in those children running up and down car-less streets, barefoot and skinny, free from the overprotection of some other, idler, more suburban parents; and yet I am equally fluent in post-modern angst.

Time travel wears you out. I am not at the forefront of history anymore. I am, truth be told, somewhat tired. I have, accidentally, become the stereotypical migrant from the poor East, standing in the corners of old, black and white photos with a sour face. I get irritated over little things: dishes unwashed, lunch uncooked, train cancelled. I have an order that needs to be kept. The order gives me space for sanity. Mother used to be the same, coming home from work, snapping at some dirty dishes, some precious food that she had plans for, and that I had eaten without notice. Mother herself had lived through some heavy history.

Not all is lost, though. I hear proposals to listen to “traditional knowledge” of pre-modern people, and find a way to live without air-conditioning, cars and frozen food. This is a cause for optimism, because they might make a full circle one day, and from past I will emerge in the future.

The other night I was told about cutting-edge environmentally-friendly engineering: external shutters on windows to keep the heat out! I admitted it was a brilliant idea. They manufacture them now, although they still have not invented a mechanism to keep the shutters closed, but windows open underneath. I have offered to find contacts among the carpenters in rural Croatia. The technical solution of our village houses and their funky shutters might be exactly what they need.

The Critic #03


This text was first published in September-October 2014, in The Lifted Brow 24 – The Medicine Issue.

1. in which we do not talk about politics

The first time the Critic saw a theatre work was in a squatted factory at sixteen, in Croatia. It was turn of the millennium, the wars had only just finished. A generation of young people was trying to say something about what had just happened, find its bearings, stop being children caught up in crossfire. And so the young people squatted one of the many, many, many defunct factories that littered Croatian cities, factories that had collapsed through disinvestment, bombing, road blockades, diminished purchasing power, and rampant corruption, the extent of which would only become apparent in the peace years to come. There was art in every one of the big, empty, barely cleaned rooms of the huge building. There was beer sold straight from the back of a van. There were punk concerts, there were vegan cooperatives, and there was a small performance, in the central courtyard, for free, on one of the nights. A group of drama students doing Biljana Srbljanović’s 1994 play Family Stories, or ‘Porodične priče.’

Srbljanović was a Serbian playwright, the most famous to emerge from the Balkans in the 1990s, but her work, like any other Serbian art, was unofficially banned in Croatia at that time. The Critic, who was not yet a critic, had never heard of her before. (The unofficial ban persisted for years, and Serbian writing, dramatic or otherwise, remained impossible to obtain in Croatia, even though Croatian and Serbian languages are as similar as the American and British variants of English. In 2010, scouring a bookshop for Srbljanović’s plays, the Critic was told that ‘they were not yet translated’. The shop assistant said that with a sad smile that indicated that even she was, perhaps, aware of the absurdity of what she was saying.)

Family Stories is a sophisticated, non-naturalistic dramatic text, in which a group of children, played by adult actors, meets on the playground to play house. Through eleven games, they enact eleven domestic scenarios rife with bullying, oppression, sexual assault, verbal and physical violence. The father tortures the mother, the mother tortures the children, and the children usually kill them by the end; and then they rise again, play another house, accumulating realistic wounds from previous deaths. The world of the play is a sort of hell, in which the same patterns of violence are endlessly repeated without respite, not even after death. It shows violence as a compulsion, and trauma as a self-perpetuating, senseless force.

The Critic read many learned analyses of Family Stories in the years to come, all of them sound and accurate, but not one had been necessary to understand the play that evening, in the courtyard of the squatted factory, performed rather simply, without a set or props. The effect it had on the sixteen year old girl who would become the Critic was immense.

For the first time, the Critic had seen a work of art that cut through the over-detailed confusion of real life, and had given her an understandable explanation of reality. Life itself was condensed into this play, life as she knew it – her bullying schoolmates, their violent parents, her unhappy friends, her unhappy parents, the crooked shadow of the recent war hanging over them all, neither near nor far—all the more clear for its abstraction, for its condensed metaphor. It felt like someone had finally found words to describe the world that the girl had experienced, but did not quite understand, like her first textbook explaining electricity. That her life would be so accurately rendered by a Serbian artist, considered practically an enemy in the war that had caused so much of that depicted trauma, added another layer of revelation. The closeness of experience had been uncanny.

Dusk turned to night as the performance finished. Afterwards, she and her bestest friends had stood around a fire, shaken and quiet, looking at each other like they were seeing one another for the first time, trying to say something more than: “It’s like that, isn’t it?,” but failing, returning again to this simple statement. It is like that. They were a gang, close in the way only sixteen year-olds can be, practically formative of one another: the girl who would become the Critic; Sasha, the boy who would become gay; Luka, the boy who would become a performance artist; and Helena, the girl who would become a heroin addict. For a long time, these would be the coordinates of her universe.

The Critic saw the same play at Griffin Theatre in Sydney in 2008, in a totally decent translation by Serbian-born Australian theatre-maker Bojana Novakovic. The production, by RideOn Theatre, was probably an improvement on the makeshift sketch she had seen at sixteen. However, in trying to stage faithfully a play understood merely as an important European contemporary work, the staging ended up being both naturalistically boring, and extremely haughty. It didn’t bother trying to make connections with Australia – if such a thing were possible, which it perhaps was not. Family Stories, however layered and metaphorical a text, was immediately recognisable as reality. This production was not. Continue reading “The Critic #03” »

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The Critic #02 (The Lifted Brow 23)


This text was first published in June-July 2014, in The Lifted Brow 23 – The Ego Issue.


Dave the Comedian was an everyman; which is a tautology, because every man wants to be a comedian, and there is very little space in Australia for a comedian who isn’t an everyman. The space of stand-up comedy is defiantly masculine in the most traditional sense. Adrienne Blaine compares the stand-up comedian to the personification of erection: the man conquers his audience with laughter the way he would sexually subsume a woman; it is “a social area where patriarchal promise of dominion can be easily realised.” Comedian Pete Holmes compared the daily challenge of stand-up comedy to the ongoing work a man puts into confirming his masculine, non-homosexual, non-effeminate identity in these, crude, words: “you have to keep doing it and keep proving it every day — get your comedy dick hard every day and fuck audiences.”

Every woman who has spent time with comedians off-stage has felt the terrifying, laborious pressure to find them funny, to laugh, to let them feel that they are strong, victorious, alpha—even though the affirmation of women is never as valued as the respect of other comedians, other men. Comedy, like politics, is patriarchy condensed. Christopher Hitchens, who always seemed to identify with the alpha male, and uphold the values of patriarchy, wrote in Vanity Fair in 2007 that women could not be as funny as men, because they did not evolve with the constant, evolutionary need to impress females at all cost. The ones who were funny – he conceded some existed – were “hefty or dykey or Jewish, or some combo of the three.” In other words, too masculine to fit neatly into patriarchal gender roles, sorry.

“Dying on stage” is that exactly: a strangely mesmerising witnessing of someone’s social power crumbling entirely into nothingness. Dave the Comedian died on stage in the first five minutes. His jokes about finding clitoris were terrible. He kept asking how much time he had left (much). He berated the audience for not laughing. He vomited, fell, and started bleeding. He got confused and repeated his act twice. He made fat jokes, rape jokes, gay jokes, Julia Gillard jokes, and made it abundantly clear how much he was trying to impress Wil Anderson. In terms outlined above, according to which stand-up comedy is the world order, the comedian pure erection, and the audience a vagina to be conquered, Dave the Comedian was a spectacle of emasculation.
But Dave the Comedian was the joke itself, woven together out of gunk of masculinity by Zoe Coombs Marr, member of Sydney-based female performance collective post and apparently excellent in drag.

Coming from the intellectually rigorous and mature culture of performance in Sydney – where, unlike in Melbourne, the link between independent performance and academia is strong and fruitful – post had created a body of work that made elaborate formalist jokes about what is supposed to happen in theatre, deconstructing formal devices of traditional dramaturgy and stage design, of character and text. In Gifted and Talented in 2006, they improbably blended over-ambitious mothers’ programs for their daughters enrolled in a variety of appropriately feminine activities with the torture routines at Guantanamo Bay. In Shamelessly Glitzy Work in 2009, they overlaid a conversation recorded, seemingly, during an acid trip, with every device of drama and illusion that theatre had, making a bizarre variety show that had an undeniable and persuasive, if entirely artificial, dramatic force. And in Oedipus Schmoedipus, at Sydney Festival 2014, they staged every important death in the Western dramatic canon, one after another. Coombs-Marr’s solo work, on the other hand, emphasised extreme awkwardness, of which Dave must have been the pinnacle of possible.

It was hard to pinpoint what made Dave feel like a work of genius. Coombs-Marr’s feeling for pacing, tone, and structure destroyed Dave’s masculine ego in every way possible – he was even revealed to be gay – without once coming across as mean. If anything, Dave accumulated sympathy as he accumulated failures. It was hard to tell if a woman could not bring the kind of hate to her drag that a man could, or if the audience, given a portrait without overt commentary, defaulted to pity instead of ridicule, a gesture of generosity they would not necessarily have extended towards failure of femininity. However, it was the exuberance of the ridicule that seemed significant: because Zoe Coombs-Marr herself was a small, queer woman who nonetheless filled the stage to the brim, Dave and all the men he represented were never the centre of the piece, but simply a pretext for dressing up, for play-acting. The more that the show departed from garden-variety awkwardness into bizarre, the more inventive Dave’s questionable comedy choices became, the more we were settled into watching a woman take the piss out of masculinity. Paradoxically, it was precisely in the act of drag that Zoe Coombs-Marr asserted a female voice in the room, a voice that became all the more distinct, the more accurately she was pinning down the image of the unsuccessful male comedian. Unlike much of feminist comedy playing around Melbourne Comedy Festival, the flavour of this show was not oppositional, not angry, not pushing against a narrowly defined female role; instead, it was as if it swallowed a narrowly defined male role and showed how much a woman can encompass. It was this generosity, ultimately, that resonated. It seemed premonitory and indicative: this is what feminism 4.0 would look like. Continue reading “The Critic #02 (The Lifted Brow 23)” »

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The Critic #01 (The Lifted Brow 22)


This text was first published in April-May 2014, in The Lifted Brow 22.


The Critic always saw theatre from the first-person point of view, because there was no other way. Perhaps because, as a woman, she never felt she was able to assume the universal point of view. The idea of it – that she could see the world unmarred by who she was – felt impossible. The Critic saw beautiful, young women on stage, often in various states of undress, and could see that these were erotic stage images, but not for her. She saw hysterical women, men who would sooner commit suicide than admit an error, she saw manly banter and regret, she saw many things the meaning of which she knew, but did not feel. Theatre being theatre, she also saw many extremely rich people treat servants or people of colour badly, while they themselves revelled in relatively trivial problems, and sometimes thought about how those servants or people of colour represented her ancestors more than the protagonists, how the story of her people was only ever told on the margins. The Critic, in other words, always knew that the theatre was not meant for her, that her eyes were not the bull’s eye of the audience target, even when the message arrived. Even when she was greatly moved.

Why did the Critic like theatre, then? Why did she make it her life to see theatre three, four, five, sometimes even ten times a week, if she felt like an intruder? Because the Critic, like many – perhaps most – women, felt like an intruder in most discursive social situations already, and had become accustomed to feeling like she was sitting slightly to the left and down in the audience – a feeling that did not disappear in those prestigious, central seats. Sometimes she was elated, or crushed, sometimes her life changed while sitting in those seats; but it was an expected gift, because she had not been the target audience, because the magic that was done on her was done almost by accident.

It is said that privilege is marked by assuming that your views are representative of everyone’s. Speaking with various male critics after shows, ready to judge always slightly faster, the Critic often asked: “Why are you so sure that your opinion is the right one?” It was a strange question to many. “I know what I like,” they sometimes answered, tautology imperceptible to them.

“But you aren’t everyone”, the Critic might offer, uselessly, because in a certain sense they were everyone: they were the bull’s eye, the eye that mattered, the eye to which the art was offered. Oh, the Critic was able to pontificate with the best, argue her opinions, be sometimes insistently praising, sometimes cruelly harsh, but it was qualified intellectual bravado, always aware of where fact ended and personal opinion began.

It was with great relief that the Critic found Nataša Govedić, European dramaturg and performance critic, writing: “I think that the critic-as-a-simple-observer has never existed. The critic is always biased, has always held values, ideology if you prefer – and there doesn’t exist, not has ever existed, a neutral critic. Therefore, it is only fair to honestly admit which values we uphold, and why we believe in certain processes, and why we participiate in them.”

It is paradoxical, then, that the Critic had studiously avoided having opinions on supposedly ‘minority’ arts, such as Melbourne’s Midsumma Festival of LGBT arts, considering it and her mismatched. They were, of course, but less than feared. The queer audience arrived to the theatres with the same layered thinking, palpably so – everywhere around her the Critic could feel a suspicious, reserved energy of distantiation, of mistrust. ‘Is this work going to hurt me, or will it finally say something I can agree with?’ To the extent to which the audience mood can read, this is what the Midsumma audience seemed to be saying. Continue reading “The Critic #01 (The Lifted Brow 22)” »

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‘How to tell the difference between a good play and a poor one’ in seven easy scenes

I just found something extremely merry-making.

Looking through my old, unsorted writing archives for a text I couldn’t find, I instead came across a gem of a project, something I had totally forgotten about.

In 2010, Aden Rolfe asked me to write something on playwrighting for the Emerging Writers Festival Reader, vol.2, which he was editing that year. Aden wanted something experimental and visually interesting. I thought it was a great idea.

So I wrote a sort of… I wrote something-like-a-play, about something-like-playwrighting – but stay with me here – except that during this time I was neighbours with Black Lung, and was regularly having dinner on their roof and discussing the physical limits of playwrighting with Thomas Henning. And so the article/play came out as a fairly demented piece.

I have no idea what the poor Emerging Writers, who bought the Reader, thought about it: whether they understood any of it, whether it even made sense to them. But Aden was happy, and I was extremely pleased with myself. At the time, I was a) too busy with finishing my Honours Thesis to really self-promote, and b) thought of it as tasteless and boorish. Consequently, I don’t think anyone knows about this piece! Even I had forgotten! That is, until I accidentally found it on my computer today, and spent the 2 minutes it takes to read in a fit of giggles.

For historical record, here it is. It is an embedded PDF, because the formating, you will soon notice, is important.


It has arrived: a review in pictures (The Lifted Brow)

The postman brought it on Saturday.


It is colourful.


It has beautiful design.


And me inside!


It’s printed on paper (paper!).


It folds in the middle (folds!).


It’s a column.


A regular column.


On theatre.


And life.


On theatre and life. And love, and sex, and friendship, and everything around theatre.


I am so proud.

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The Conversation: Sex, rape and role models – how women in comedy perform

Adrienne Truscott (MICF)

Adrienne Truscott (MICF)

Two performance artists in this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival (MICF) – the UK’s Bryony Kimmings and American Adrienne Truscott – have a certain flavour of humour: it’s the knowing, self-deprecating humour of the culturally dispossessed, of survivors and victims. And yes, they’re both women.

Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else! is Adrienne Truscott’s stand-up show about rape. In it, Truscott counters the stated prerogative of male comedians to tell rape jokes with a confronting routine in which she relentlessly does the same.

Her wit spares neither them, nor hip-hop artists rapping about date rape, nor Republican politicians expounding on “legitimate rape”, nor men in the audience.

Truscott also gets to explain why animal analogies are inadequate through progeny-eating gerbils. It is a bracing, uncomfortable, rewarding show. Is it funny, though? That depends on how you look at it.

The topic of “women in comedy” is endlessly controversial. Where are the women? Are there enough of them? Are women even funny?

The latter is apparently such a valid question that it has been regularly asked, with a straight face, by The Guardian, Huffington Post, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and possibly every other major media publication.

British-American author Christopher Hitchens famously stated in Vanity Fair in 2007: they are not. Those that were funny, he conceded, were mostly “hefty or dykey or Jewish,” therefore practically men themselves.

Coming to this question from a performance studies viewpoint – as opposed to being an expert in stand-up comedy like Hitchens – the question seems almost otherworldly. Let me explain.

Origins of performance art

In the second half of the 20th century, artists’ interest in real time, real space, real human bodies, real human presence and real human experience resulted in the development of what we call “performance art”: art inextricably linked to the artist physically producing it.

Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010. (Andrew Russeth)

Marina Abramović, The Artist Is Present, 2010. (Andrew Russeth)

The practice originated in the visual arts scene of 1950s and 1960s America. In Europe, slightly later, it became known simply as “performance”, while in the UK, once it reached theatre artists in the 1980s and 1990s, it became known as “live art” (from art historian RoseLee Goldberg’s seminal history of performance art).

Performance art encompasses a wide range of practices but the two people that defined the term, almost to the point of cliche, are Japanese artist Yoko Ono and Serbian-born artist Marina Abramović. In the 1960s and 1970s, they let the presence of their own body make the artistic statement: Ono letting the spectators cut up her clothing in Cut Piece (1965); Ono and Lennon protesting the Vietnam War in a bed-in (1969); Abramović letting gallery visitors use various sharp objects, knives and a gun on her body in Rhythm 0 (1974); or leaning into a bow and arrow in Rest Energy (1980).

Performance art allowed feminist female artists to effectively challenge that standard object of representation in art – the female body. A living, breathing, talking, reacting woman could subvert, challenge, deconstruct the idealised notion of women as passive objects of beauty and desire. She could challenge the audience with her realness, and raise such taboo issues as menstruation, ageing, or sexual identity. The history of female art and the history of performance art are inextricably intertwined.

The vocabulary of performance developed by female artists emphasised solo performance, a strong element of autobiography or personal experience, veiled social critique, and interaction with the audience. Sort of like comedy, you see, apart from not being funny.

Except that it often is. It is no wonder that many women in this year’s MICF are performance artists, not career comediennes – the impulse behind these two forms is similar, and so is their flavour of humour. As Bryony Kimmings said last year in the London Evening Standard:

Women are funnier because we suffer more.

Consider Marina Abramović’s video work, in which she manically brushes her hair for 50 minutes, repeating the titular phrase, “Art must be beautiful. Artist must be beautiful”. If you don’t hear the sarcasm, you’re missing the point of the work. It is the same flavour of barbed sarcasm that Adrienne Truscott uses when she opens her comedy show with a bona fide rape joke, and stands in front of us naked from the waist down.

The vulnerability of their bodies is an angry statement, but this angry vulnerability is almost defining of women’s life. It does not preclude humour.

Bryony Kimmings

This strategy of escalating the sexualisation of the female body until it is funny also appears in Bryony Kimmings’ Sex Idiot at MICF where she performs a long interpretive dance sequence that mimics sexual intercourse.

Bryonny Kimmings in Sex Idiot. (MICF)

Bryonny Kimmings in Sex Idiot. (MICF)

Sex Idiot is an autobiographical journey through Kimmings’ relationship history while she is trying to inform previous partners of her positive STI test. It has that familiar emotional tone of self-deprecation, melancholy and wise acceptance – again, tone less akin to a mating call than to cotton-picking songs of American slaves.

It is also funny, outrageously so. But it is an emotionally complex humour: as Kimmings creates ever more hilarious performance artworks to honour each one of her previous relationships, we laugh at her disappointments, her poor choices, her wasted opportunities, her misapplied bravado. It is a journey that ends rewardingly, in rich introspection.


But the most extraordinary feminist performance currently showing in Melbourne is Credible Likeable Superstar Rolemodel, also created by Kimmings. Not officially a part of the Comedy Festival, but showing at Theatre Works as part of Festival of Live Art (FOLA).

It is a joint endeavour between Kimmings and her 11-year-old niece Taylor, in which they try to develop an appropriate role-model for tween girls. The show is emotionally hard-hitting in unexpected ways. It juxtaposes Taylor’s innocent preteen imagination with Kimmings’ adult protectiveness and cynicism, and it is sometimes very funny, and sometimes heart-wrenching.

Nothing like a dry treatise in sexualisation of children, it left everyone in the audience sobbing quite unashamedly. It is a powerful example of how the emotional nuance of feminist performance can deliver a deeply felt social analysis.

Australian academic Germaine Greer famously accused female artists of exhibitionism and narcissism. This is not so different from accusing women comics of only talking about vaginas and men. Vanity Fair may be right to say that, until very recently, all female comedy could be divided into two camps: self-deprecating or men-hating. But, to some extent, this should be a self-resolving problem.

As Gloria Steinem pointed out, feminism is inextricably related to telling stories women can recognise as being about themselves.

When talking about rape, promiscuous women and the sexualisation of children stops being a rebellious act, feminist performance will naturally move on.


Bryony Kimmings Sex Idiot runs until April 5.

Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model runs until April 6.

Adrienne Truscott’s Asking for It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else! runs until April 20.

This article was first published in The Conversation on 3 April 2014, and is here reproduced under the Creative Commons Licence, more for my own archival purposes than anything else.

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Adelaide Festival (somewhat overdue)

Dear reader,

At the beginning of March, I went to Adelaide Festival as a member of the Guardian Australia team, and I spent six or seven intense days writing, interviewing, podcasting, and occasionally eating and sleeping. It was a wonderful, and very worthwhile experience. During these few days, I produced a miraculous amount of writing.

I reviewed Adelaide Festival shows:
Sadeh 21, by Batsheva Dance Company, one of the best performance works I’ve since in my entire life. Like all best dance, it was both indescribable and sublime.
The Seagull, by State Theatre Company, which was unfortunately very poorly made. I felt cornered by this production, which I could not rate very highly, and I wondered why it was included in the Festival program – it couldn’t compete with the high calibre of international work. The Seagull is such an important play for the history of acting: not just because Chekhov is famous for extremely nuanced naturalism, but also because Stanislavsky practically developed his famed ‘method’ (you know, like ‘method’ acting?) while directing the first serious premiere of The Seagull. To this day, Moscow Art Theatre has a seagull in its emblem to mark the importance of this play to its artistic project. So, you cannot stage this play with imprecise acting, with a lack of nuance. There are playwrights and plays in which very careful naturalistic acting is not that important: Brecht, for example; expressionists; Moliere; even Beckett. But Chekhov dies on stage if the acting is not fine. If you take nuance out of Chekhov, there is nothing left to talk about.
Blackout, by Stone/Castro Project. I love physical theatre, but it requires extremely well-rounded performers, trained both in movement and acting. This work was more ambitious, I felt, than many of the performers in its big cast could do. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it, and it was worth our while, because a highly ambitious work that doesn’t quite fulfill its promise is almost always more interesting than a successful work of modest ambition.
Continuum, by Australian String Quartet. This was a really great experience, because 1) both the program and ASQ were amazing, 2) I probably appreciated it beyond the average because I just very rarely get to attend classical music recitals these days, 3) I never ever review classical music, and 4) I realised I do actually know a thing or two about it.

At Adelaide Fringe, I saw:
Glory Box, by Finucane & Smith. I find Moira Finucane and Jackie Smith’s bizarre burlesque a bit hit-and-miss. They are such an unavoidable presence in Melbourne, so definitive of alternative burlesque here, that one by necessity sees a lot of their work, and it’s uneven both in concept and in execution. But this one worked perfectly for me. Perhaps because I had just returned from Western Europe, and was a bit fatigued by the world in which women with armpit hair are inconceivable, it just felt great to experience a terrifying striptease in which milk and cornflakes became horror props, a diva in a dress with a sequined vagina pattern, and similar over-the-top feminine self-expression. It was genuinely cathartic. (As I get older, and I put less and less effort in not looking like a boy – because I naturally look like a boy – the more I genuinely enjoy silly femininity. Perhaps because I feel less oppressed by it? Who knows.)
Run Girl Run, by Grit Theatre, which I thought was simple, but clever, but simple. In Australia, live art and performance basically happen in Sydney, which has a rich living performance culture centred around the university programs and Performance Space. Melbourne has never had that. As a result, ‘live art’ and ‘performance’ in Melbourne tends to be made by artists basically trained in theatre, not specifically in performance. The works often seem a bit naive, a bit unaware of the history of the form, their own artistic context. This was definitely one such work. Nonetheless, it was good. But simple.

I interviewed:
Ohad Naharin of Batsheva Dance Company. I thought Naharin would be a stern and scary person, because I’ve found his choreographies cerebral and abstract – but he was genuinely one of the nicest people I’ve ever met. I was so taken by his description of his work. Dancers who get to train with Batsheva Dance Company are very, very lucky people (I think).
Alexander Devriendt of Ontroerend Goed. The interview overran by 2 hours, I bummed cigarettes off Alexander, we were talking about how to make a theatre show about love, I told him how abused I feel about O.G.’s show ‘Internal’… It was a slightly insane process, but I was very glad to have a chance to chat with one of my biggest idols of contemporary theatre. I am a huge fan of Ontroerend Goed, and it was amazing to be able to quiz Devriendt on his process, motivations, and ideas.
Robert Lepage, of himself. I had such a good time talking to Lepage, who has such an interesting mind – I mean, we were talking about the birth of existentialism, the origin of theatre in communion, about urban sprawl… – that I really wanted to revisit his work, which I had often found maximalist, spread rather thinly. I am now looking forward to seeing his works with a better insight into the man that he is.

On the podcast, you can hear me:
on episode foud, discussing Batsheva’s Sadeh21, and
on episode five, interviewing Sharon Draper from the Australian String Quartet, and summarising my experience of the whole festival.

And I also did a video interview with Paolo Castro, with Bill Code, but you can’t see or hear me, I am just there.

Durational Blogging

In a very unusual turn of events, almost exactly 5 hours from now, I will be one of the bloggers that will come together, united by the forces of Exeunt Magazine and Forced Entertainment, to critically and bloggingly respond to the live streaming (on the internet) of Forced Entertainment’s 6-hour performance And on the thousandth night….

Which means: Forced Ent will be performing, in Lisbon, for six hours. Six of us will be blogging, in Melbourne, London and Berlin, for six hours. The result (what result?, the process!) can be followed here, here and here.

But first I will try to catch a few hours’ sleep. Good night!

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Theatre criticism in Australia: what is actually going on?, with some stats

After my last post, on the closing of Theatre Notes and on Australian theatre criticism more generally, I have been thinking more, rather than less, about theatre criticism in Australia.

What I hoped would be a productive discussion with Alison Croggon and Cameron Woodhead turned into an extremely unproductive discussion about who the alpha-critic in town is, and I remembered (from the far, faraway Berlin) that it has been like that for a long time. Cameron attacking Alison. Alison replying back. I don’t know what happens in other cities, but this is the major story in Melbourne, as far as criticism goes. Meanwhile, the entire job definition (not a profession – it’s not a profession) of theatre criticism is slowly disappearing in Australia, attacked by shrinking word counts, diminishing pay-per-word, folding newspapers, amalgamating arts desks, the proliferation of websites that pay little to nothing, and the total collapse of quality on a general level, across artforms, making it very hard for a lot of young people to even know what good criticism should look like. And the senior figures in the profession – or rather, the senior figure in the profession, since Alison is no longer a critic, and there is only one local newspaper – appears to be majorly concerned only about furthering a professional stoush, mistaking it for something personal. There is something both scary and absurd about it, like sweatshop seamstresses fighting for the preferences of the boss, instead of organising into a union. Meanwhile, there is a new generation of young people coming up, wanting to be proper, good critics, people like Jane Howard, to whom we have a certain responsibility: to at least detect the problems within criticism, and inform people, if not exactly to solve them.

I was also starting to wonder if I was right in my assessment of how criticism seems to currently work, since Cameron Woodhead called me ‘dangerously wrong’, but nothing more specific. So I spent the better part of my evening on an impromptu spreadsheet spree, compiling – in a completely unscientific manner – as much data on as many critics in Australia as I could think of and research. (It is entirely unscientific, I repeat, but I didn’t get a research grant for this, I spent a few hours googling people and inquiring.)

And I realise I should have been more specific in my classification of critics as ‘falling between the cracks of disciplines’ and ‘having no relevant training’ in theatre. Both is true to some extent, but not simultaneously. Two groups exist, but don’t actually seem to overlap very much. Of the 48 critics I managed to look up (mostly Melbourne and Sydney, with a whole batch from Adelaide because Jane answered a few questions I asked), there were 16 with confirmed relevant training (in performance, theatre, or drama – I excluded degrees in film, philosophy, geography, and similar), and 20 with relevant practical experience (as playwrights, actors, dramaturgs, directors, or scholars). There was a very high degree of overlap between these two, but only half (10/22) also wrote for mainstream media. And of the 38 who wrote for the mainstream media, almost all were employed as arts journalists, not simply critics – meaning they were doing all kinds of odd journalistic jobs (but not meaning they were working full-time, nor that they had job security – this I simply don’t know). AND, of the 33 employed as arts journalists, only 7 had a relevant degree, and a partially-overlapping 11 a relevant artistic practice.

I hope you understand that these are SUPER-unreliable numbers, but there is currently no data on the Australian critics. There is no representative body, no union, no club, no professional organisation, no transparency, and no real insight into what work conditions are normal or not. I was making ad hoc decisions on what to consider what. But still, it seems reasonable to take from this that there is, indeed, a total lack of overlap between two kinds of critics: those with theatre training, who have either a scholarly or an artistic practice, and review on the side (they do indeed exist); and those who review for the mainstream media, and who are employed as arts journalists. The troubling bit is this: all arts journalists in this country are currently facing pretty bleak job prospects; and the critics with theatre training are largely reviewing for non-mainstream media, and I suspect (based on what I know of that landscape) that they’re not getting paid much, or at all, for their critical work.

In fact, the more I was tweaking my spreadsheet, the more clear it appeared that NOBODY in the country was earning their keep exclusively from theatre criticism; that only a few were living solely from writing (usually a combination of criticism, arts journalism, and editorial work); and that the vast, vast majority seemed to have many very oddly combined jobs. In fact, the rising question seemed to be: does anyone earn anything from criticism, and, if so, what share of their total income? And then, while shooting off questions to people, I spoke to two young critics, who both expressed hope to become more ‘senior’ and more full-time in the coming year. And I suddenly realised that they don’t know. Nobody has told them. Just like I didn’t know, because nobody had told me. *

*EDIT/CORRECTION: When I say ‘nobody’, I mean ‘two’. Following an email exchange with Chris Boyd, I realise I need to correct myself on one thing: there are critics who work only as critics. Chris Boyd is one, and has been one for a very long time. Cameron Woodhead is another. They both write the occasional feature, but otherwise write only criticism. (The complication here is that Cameron reviews books as well. I am thinking that perhaps shouldn’t count…) Unfortunately, only these two critics, out of my pool of 48, had anything approaching this ratio of theatre criticism to other work. It seemed like a very low number, so I went all glib and said ‘NOBODY’. It was technically incorrect. Apologies, Chris and Cameron, and apologies, dear reader.

The best overview of what is happening to the profession of criticism in Australia has been coming from other disciplines – because every kind of criticism in Australia has the same problems; indeed, Australian criticism is one big problem in itself. Andrew Ramadge, in an insightful article about the music street press in Australia (the most common kind of criticism that any young Australian will encounter), writes: “The facts are street press pays like shit, discourages creativity and walks a fine line between editorial and advertorial. Quality journalism or criticism that appears in its pages owes more to the uphill battle constantly fought by staff than to the model itself.” Gideon Heigh, in a piece published 2 years ago, blames the “sheer dullness and inexpertise” of the Australian book reviewing on the familiar set of problems: capsule reviews, no pay, getting staff journalists to review books. Lucinda Strahan found that 97-98% of arts journalism in a sample of Melbourne newspapers carried public relations activity. While Strahan didn’t find too much of a problem with that – in her words, arts journalism is different from normal journalism in that it’s partisan and supportive – that is sort of a problem of its own kind: an arts journalist isn’t really a journalist. Ben Eltham, probably the best journalist for both arts and policy in Australia, summarised the economic reality of art criticism really neatly:

For most arts writers, a gig at a daily newspaper is an unachievable dream. The struggling freelancers, which is most of us, have to make do with street press coverage for $40 a pop, or internet copy, which might not pay much better. Several years back I wrote about contemporary music for the worthy-but-impoverished Mess + Noise. Most articles received a remuneration of $10. There are quality critics such as Mel Campbell out there who still write a lot of their copy for peanuts. If you can pay the rent as an arts writer or critic in this country, you’re among a lucky handful. Small wonder, then, that the people who end up writing about arts and culture do it for the love. They’d be pretty stupid if they did if for the money.

I think it would be really useful to find out, first, what actually goes on in criticism in Australia: in terms of pay, workload, work conditions, the kind of people attracted to the job, how long they last, what makes them stay or quit, etc. We know this kind of information for artists, because Australia Council actually researches artists. But nobody has bothered with arts journalists or critics yet. And how are we supposed to make proposals, if we don’t know what is going on right now…?

In this situation, it is simply absurd to fight for power among us. The question of who reviews for The Age or The Australian is becoming slightly ludicrous, because those positions are rapidly losing their prestige. First, the reviews they get to write are increasingly insulting to a critic: short, tiny, simple, and ever more often of musicals. Second, there is less and less certainty that those positions won’t simply vanish in the next few years.

And then it really won’t matter, who the last person on top was.