50 shades of feminism

Teenage girls being groomed for sex, an abusive relationship between patient and carer, a sado-masochistic relationship that teaches a woman to obey a man as a god - at first blush you might think our main stages have gone tabloid. But perhaps even more arresting is that these explorations of debauchery and abuse, about to be staged by Melbourne's most established theatre companies, are all adapted and directed by women.

Teenage girls being groomed for sex, an abusive relationship between patient and carer, a sado-masochistic relationship that teaches a woman to obey a man as a god - at first blush you might think our main stages have gone tabloid. But perhaps even more arresting is that these explorations of debauchery and abuse, about to be staged by Melbourne's most established theatre companies, are all adapted and directed by women.

A year ago, the Australia Council released its Women in Theatre report showing female theatre-makers around the country were as scarce in the top jobs as they had been a decade ago and proactive measures to remedy this had gone off the boil. The results prompted a predictable outcry and soul searching, and some positive moves to give women more opportunities, notable in appointments and seasons at the Melbourne Theatre Company and Malthouse Theatre as well as main-stage theatre companies in Sydney and Adelaide.

But an unexpected corollary of this is a sudden surge of dark and very un-PC depictions of sex and gender that explore themes of identity loss, exploitation, weakness and submission, where the women are seemingly willing participants or instigators.

Is theatre having its own Fifty Shades of Grey moment?

There is a new female aesthetic, says Jane Montgomery Griffiths, head of theatre and performance at Monash University, with a shift in confidence and attitude about what captivates theatre makers and appeals to theatregoers.

"There's a huge focus on the female voice and sexuality," she argues, "and a new breed saying, 'This is what interests us'."

Griffiths, who is also a playwright, director and actor, plays the male lead in The Story of O, adapted from Pauline Reage's 1954 erotic novel by independent Melbourne theatre company The Rabble. The cross-casting is another element shared by the current crop of productions, a way of dramatising the limits of conventional ideas about sex and gender and the universality, Griffiths argues, of emotions and power relations.

Such themes will take centre stage this month as four racy plays are mounted as part of Melbourne Theatre Company's festival of independent theatre, Neon, an innovation of the MTC's new artistic director Brett Sheehy. As well as The Story of O, Neon includes By Their Own Hands, the Hayloft Project's version of Oedipus, which looks at the incest story from the viewpoint of Oedipus' mother and its marginal characters. The Sovereign Wife, by The Sisters Grimm duo Declan Greene and Ash Flanders, is a gender-bending exploration of Australian identity that takes on the Eureka Stockade, the Man from Snowy River and Baz Luhrmann's Australia. On the Bodily Education of Young Girls, Adena Jacobs' adaptation of Frank Wedekind's 1903 novella, which opened on Friday, is about an exclusive sequestered boarding school where adolescent females are groomed for an unknown future and taught to "think with their hips".

Over at the Malthouse, Jacobs and theatre company Fraught Outfit have also adapted Persona, their award-winning version of Swedish director Ingmar Bergman's film about an intense, abusive and sexually tinged relationship between a female patient and carer. Other forthcoming Malthouse shows with a strong sex and gender theme include Van Badham's reworking of Angela Carter's feminist take on the Bluebeard myth The Bloody Chamber, and an all-female version of William Golding's Lord of the Flies, directed by Sydney Theatre Company's artist in residence, Kip Williams, part of the Malthouse's Helium season for independent artists.

Many of these plays are adaptations rather than new writing - a broader contemporary trend on Australian stages causing some consternation among local playwrights. A major impetus for this trawl through the Western theatrical canon is to re-examine male tales and misogynistic imaginings, says Jacobs, through a "repositioning of the lens", staging the classics in a way that highlights the constructed nature of gender roles.

Women, in drama as in life, she argues, are always defined by their gender, unlike male characters. Given this bias, why pick stories that don't portray their female characters in a positive light? Jacobs concedes the question bothers her.

"Does feminism require the characters to be strong? I think of that often," she says. "The act of creating ambitious works feels feminist and I'm aware of being a feminist aesthetically in that I attempt to not hold back on anything, deal with the personal and taboos and the subjectivity of being a woman."

The Story of O director Emma Valente says she initially felt sick for a fortnight contemplating the play's gender politics and graphic violence. But, she says, the casting of Griffiths as a man opened up the debate beyond one of heterosexual bondage and domination.

The play, with its central character reduced to a single sexually charged letter O (played by Mary Helen Sassman) tackles the question of what consent means when you don't know what you're consenting to and when it could possibly mean annihilation. "One of my central questions is, 'Is it OK for a woman's sexual fantasies to be dominated by a man and where does that want come from? Can she still be a strong woman?"'

The question also goes to the heart of monotheism. "The book's littered with Catholic images and implies that submitting yourself to a master is like submitting yourself to God," Valente says, but adds that her role is to make theatre and leave the conclusions to the audience.

"My job is to present the questions and steer away from morality," she says. "Everyone has different answers."

Delving into sex and sexuality's dark recesses might be exciting for a new generation of theatre makers - and has its antecedents in many works by an older generation - but isn't a glut of such work on our main, government-subsidised stages a risky venture?

Theatre managers say that not only are the new crop of plays a worthwhile investment, they should also feed an appetite for different, challenging viewpoints on stage - particularly among the growing numbers of young theatregoers.

Virginia Lovett, the MTC's executive director, says the Neon program, a $500,000 annual investment, is about getting people to look at the MTC in a different way.

This includes forging connections with the independent theatre sector by funnelling their work onto main stages. This also helps to provide more opportunities for women, in turn providing fresh creative visions. (The appointment of Leticia Caceres as MTC associate director in 2012 was intended, she says, "to spearhead dialogue with more women directors".)

As former general manager of the Melbourne's International Comedy Festival, Lovett also has a shrewd assessment of the price of experimentation. Commercial and subsidised theatre tickets typically cost $40-$125. "At $25 [for a Neon] ticket, people will take a risk," she argues. The company is committed to a 2014 season and will assess the viability of another three years beyond that, she says.

The strong presence of women in forthcoming Neon programs is likely to continue, says Martina Murray, Neon's managing producer. "A lot of the companies we're talking to are women-heavy and the ideas brewing are all women's stories, whether adaptations or originals," she says.

Which seems wise, given the demographics of theatre audiences. Seventy per cent of the MTC's audience is female, as is the case at the Malthouse - 68.4 per cent of season ticket holders at the STC are women - and theatre research in Australia, Britain and the US consistently points to women making the majority of decisions about what to see.

And they are getting younger. MTC statistics show that while 62 per cent of its audience is over 55, in the past five years, the number of its young independent theatregoers has increased from 15,000 in 2007 to about 29,000 in 2012.

There's a greater hunger in the theatre for different viewpoints on stage, says Marion Potts, artistic director of the Malthouse, one that redresses a tradition of seeing men's stories as having universal relevance, but women's stories as limited to the personal and domestic.

Women may buy the majority of theatre tickets, she says, but they are conditioned to expect drama that is, by default, skewed towards the masculine.

"The danger in a culture that doesn't adequately represent women is that audiences are conditioned to a kind of theatre that isn't representative but is all they've ever seen," she says.

Going back to the bedrock of the Anglo theatre tradition, it might be a case of blame the Bard; an analysis of Shakespeare (where men played both male and female roles) shows that out of 981 characters, 826 are male, 155, or 16 per cent, female.

"If you're fed on a diet of one thing, you learn to get hungry for it," Potts says.

Involving more women in managerial and creative roles is crucial to redressing this balance. Yet Potts is one of only two women - the other is Kate Cherry at Perth's Black Swan Theatre - currently running a major theatre company. And the Australia Council's Women in Theatre report showed the lack of women theatre-makers is pervasive.

The report, which looked at the 2010-11 programs of major performing arts companies - MTC, STC, State Theatre Company of South Australia, Queensland Theatre Company, Black Swan Theatre Company, Belvoir Theatre, Malthouse and Bell Shakespeare - found women playwrights consistently under-represented. An average of 21 per cent of productions were written by women, and an average of 25 per cent were directed by women.

The dearth of successful female playwrights before the latter half of the 20th century and their historical absence in the Western canon demands a greater emphasis on new writing, yet since the first Australia Council report on women in theatre 30 years ago, a generation of women theatre-makers have struggled to get a foot in the door and to sustain a career.

Yet those who have, such as Potts, realise the importance of professional stepping stones to move from the small-scale independent company sector, where women are well represented, to the major companies with their bigger resources, audiences and professional salaries.

"Women directors often drop out of the picture when they need to get paid," she says, as larger companies play safe and promote a man. "One or two will get through that phase but the drop-off rate is quite high."

Although she says that her experiences have on the whole been very positive, critics tend to be harsher on women directors and a lot of women in leadership roles have greater self-doubt than men in those positions.

It's why the Malthouse initiated a paid female director-in-residence program in 2011. Its first two incumbents, Anne-Louise Sarks in 2011 and Jacobs in 2012, were announced in April as co-resident directors at Sydney's Belvoir Theatre, starting next year, proof, if proof were needed, that the experience of working in a professional company provided valuable tools.

"It makes clear what the business [of theatre ] is and that's the hardest thing to learn," Sarks says. "If you're outside, you have no sense how a company is run and how the decisions are made."

Sarks pinpoints the dichotomy for women in theatre (and in many professions) of wanting their work judged without gender prejudice but also wanting to promote female stories or a feminist cause. "I don't want it to be insignificant," she says of her identity as a female theatre-maker, "but I also just want to be recognised for work."

She's more interested in making theatre that has an immediacy and relevance she says, rather than gender-based work, but both involve taking familiar stories and "shifting the lens" away from a traditional perspective. Most importantly, she says, it has to be good theatre.

Defining what makes good theatre is just as hard as finding works that gets bums on seats. It's a irony not lost on the new champions of sex and-gender sodden dramas that Australia's most produced playwright internationally is Joanna Murray-Smith.

A stalwart of the MTC and an exponent of well-made, witty dramas such as Honour, The Female of the Species and the MTC's recent romantic comedy True Minds, Murray-Smith has been dismissed by some critics as peddling an outdated view of gender relations. (In the case of Species, she was accused of being anti-feminist, indeed anti-female.)

But as Van Badham, Malthouse's associate artist in writing, says, theatre-making, like feminism, is about a myriad things and takes different positions.

"There's no women's drama, just women who make theatre. I write narrative text-based dramas, with tropes from action movies; both are legit."

But one woman's success does forge a path for those who follow, she argues. "We do different things but Joanna Murray-Smith has a position of cultural leadership. If there were no Joanna Murray-Smith there'd be no Adena Jacobs," Badham says.

"Joanna Murray-Smith is a really good example that having a female name doesn't drive audiences away."

MTC Neon: On the Bodily Education of Young Women, May 30-June 9; By Their Own Hands, June 13-23; The Story of O, June 27-July 7.

Malthouse: Persona, June 27-July 14; Lord of the Flies (part of Helium program of new theatre), June 14-July 28; The Bloody Chamber, August 2-10.

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