Legacy and Challenge of The Magdalena Project in Australian Context
(This article of mine was recently published in the book TheMagdalenaProject@25 – Legacy and Challenge. I am publishing it here because I desire engagement with other Australian women theatre-makers in dialogue/action regarding the future of the Project in our context. I welcome your comments, critiques and ideas!)
I met The Magdalena Project at Magdalena Aotearoa, 1999. There I met Sally Rodwell, Madelaine McNamara, Julia Varley, Jill Greenhalgh, and many others, for the first time.
Sally I just don’t know how to be writing this song
to wrap your sweet memory in.
There’re so many here going to miss you my sister -
I hope you can hear the soft rain of our tears.
Song for Sally, 2006, words and melody by Dawn Albinger
I met The Magdalena Project and became aware, at the age of thirty-five, that I behaved differently in a women-only space. I dared more. I dared to speak. Prior to this I had assumed that as a white, educated, middle-class, western woman I already had a voice. But actually I was mute. Magdalena Aotearoa was noisy with opinionated, passionate, argumentative, political, joyous women. It was exhilarating. I was inspired. I took a deep breath. There is no voice without breath.
Listening towards each other
What is it to ‘find a voice’? What do I mean when I say I was mute? I mean that the white noise of our culture, the internalised hum of voices - familial, cultural, political - describing what ‘woman’ ‘is’, or ‘can be’, or even ‘can hope to be’ (Hélène Cixous) - results in the denial of breath and the braced inability to receive oneself. A woman performer, denied self-reception, reflects back to her culture the images of her constructed femininity. And yet her very constitution as a performer suggests another voice: quietly and lovingly insistent, an ‘intimate kernel’ (Mladen Dolar), ever-present beneath the hum. It is the diva voce, the voice of her desire, striving to live a larger life (Adrienne Rich).
This, for me, is the legacy of The Magdalena Project: it has provided a context in which to engage critically, through my work, with the culture that has constructed me. This critical engagement is made possible through dialogue, through a listening toward each other that amplifies hearing. Margaret Cameron writes about this eloquently in Dramaturgy as Perceptible Practice, a reflection on her practice and our dialogue: “sometimes you hear what I do not. And in hearing you hear, I cannot unhear our hearing.”
My last work, No Door on Her Mouth - a lyrical amputation, invokes choking divas, flightless women and handless maidens as it engages with female philosophical subjectivity. In the final stages of its development I would send poems I had written to Margaret Cameron who would read back to me only the parts she felt she could speak. It is one thing to hear oneself. Her gentle readings allowed me to receive myself. I received the intimate kernel, ever-present beneath the hum, my own diva voce. In the end, finding my voice was less about speaking and more about listening and receiving. In the process I surrendered that which was most dear to me: my desire to please.
Community of minds and of practice
There is a clown at the heart of the performance identity I have constructed over the past two decades. And more than anything my clown wants to please. My clown has been crucial in transforming painful experience and personal passions (often deemed ‘neuroses’ by my culture) to artistic expression. In doing so she has spoken to the experiences of others and enabled the shift from personal to cultural voice. She has done this through humour and extreme ‘cartoon’ gesture. In No Door On Her Mouth, however, I surrendered the clown: her desire to please made it impossible for me to hear the voice of my own desire, and my desire wanted to speak unspeakable grief, to articulate multiple thresholds, to express dignity and poise.
When I first began performing No Door my closest colleagues did not hear ‘my voice’. I was told I sounded like someone else. When I submitted my writing for this book it was initially rejected. I was told that my article didn’t sound like me - it was lacking the humour and irony others have come to associate with ‘my voice’. It is fascinating that precisely the moment I feel I have finally, really, heard myself, received myself (and by ‘myself’ I am referring to multiple selves: myself as theatre performer-practitioner, as white western woman, as philosophical subject), it seems ‘I’ have disappeared to those who believe they know me. Initially frustrating this is nevertheless a joy to me: to be called to account by my community of minds and of practice, by those who believe they know me; to be challenged to find a way - in my theatre and my writing - to communicate the profound insights that have come to me through my theatre and my writing. This is the legacy of the Magdalena Project as I experience it. And because this legacy is so personally profound, I am challenged to re-engage with the Project in the Australian context and consider how it might continue into the future.
Magdalena Australia exists as an informal network of Australian women in contemporary theatre. Its formal iterations have included the 2003 international Magdalena Australia Festival, themed Theatre - Women - Travel, the 2008 Magdalena Brisbane Easter Gathering, 2010 Magdalena Perth Workshop Festival, the ongoing feminist reading group “Magdalena Talks Back” (Perth), and numerous collaborations and dialogues.
I have participated in organising some of these formal iterations because my need was very great: My need to find a community of minds and bodies with which to engage in dialogue about practice. The legacy of the Project, for me, is the profound dialogue that I enjoy with a handful of women from around the world. And most significantly the dialogue with Australian women practitioners with whom I engage: Julie Robson, Margaret Cameron, Nikki Heywood, Annette Tessoriero, Helen Sharp, Scotia Monkivitch, and Suzon Fuks to name but a consistent few. It occurs to me that Magdalena Australia might not exist into the future, beyond the women who have been networked by its iterations to date. But I would like to see it exist beyond us, with energy and with purpose. In the following I will point briefly towards the challenges as I perceive them and consider a way forward.
Tyranny of distance and virtual engagement
In 2003, when we organised the inaugural festival, one of the greatest challenges facing Australian women theatre-makers was the tyranny of distance within our own country. It takes five hours to fly (or a week to drive) from Perth to Brisbane. Mainstream theatre companies are meeting this challenge through developing co-productions that travel between capital cities, and mid-size venues currently collaborate to create touring circuits through major regional centres. Nevertheless, many of us who participated in the 2003 Festival continue to find ourselves operating outside the “mainstream” as we engage with form and content that is considered new and challenging. As such, we still face the challenges of geographical isolation. The “information revolution” has opened up pathways and opportunities for virtual engagement, and many use this technology to dialogue with and audience each other, and as a site for virtual performance 1. For the past twelve monthsI have used the technology extensively to collaborate on the administrative tasks that create the possibility for artists to come together physically in time and space.
Gendered opportunities and weary women
In Australia there is a significant gap between professional mainstream theatre opportunities (dominated by men) and all other types of theatre in Australia, which tend to be un/derfunded and dominated by women:
…some [women] prefer the artistic freedom found working in the margins, and many have found strength in the community, youth, independent and education sectors. But many have walked away, fatigued at forever being dubbed “emerging creatives” and “alternative” to an imposed norm. Many are frustrated by the banging on seemingly locked doors, the unanswered invites to see their work and the longitudinal development opportunities offered young male directors - whose artistic sensibilities align with those of the monolithic decision makers. The popular catch-cry that women directors are responsible for their plight because they do not network and pitch “like men” - derives from a gendered assumption that men pitch the “right” way.2
Everyone I know, every woman I know engaged in keeping a performance practice alive, is exhausted. Many of us have turned to the academy, to tertiary institutions and their PhD scholarships, as a strategy to stay afloat, to continue to make work, and to push the boundaries of form. Yet nowhere in Australia can I find a role model successfully melding an academic and arts career in a manner that nourishes rather than consumes. I see many burnt-out and exhausted women artists and artist-researchers. Some are more financially secure than others. But privileged weariness is still weariness.
Despite the glaring inequities, many young women practitioners operate under the illusion that they are entering an even playing field where they do not experience, or expect to experience, discrimination. Recently I was asked about The Magdalena Project by a young female theatre technician. She expressed polite interest as I recounted meeting the Project through the 1999 Magdalena Aotearoa Festival, my initial scepticism about a women-only event, the profound impact of discovering my capacity for self-limitation (my muteness). She told me she had never experienced discrimination in the workplace, that she is free to speak openly, that some of the best people she knows are men. Later, she refused to ask the (older, male) venue technician for help sorting out a problem. When I asked why, she complained of his constant joking around, never giving her the information she required in a straight-forward manner. I asked if he responded to her young male colleague in the same way. Her eyes widened.
Gender in/equity and politics of form
There is an assumption (in western society, at least) that feminism has done its job: we have legislated for equal pay for equal work, we have legislated for safety from violence (within and without the home), and we have legislated for freedom from sexual discrimination. I am interested in the assumption that women no longer experience discrimination, or when they do, that they will readily and easily enact those legislated rights. In Australia, the cultural lag that exists in our wider community is reflected within our theatre community where only 3.3 of 49 main-house plays to be produced in 2011 will be written by Australian women (and only .3 by an Aboriginal woman). More promisingly, recent main-stage season launches show an increase for women directors, rising from 27% (in 2009) to roughly 34% 3 in 2011. There continue to be more roles for men than women in mainstream theatre, and more female graduates than male from the tertiary performance courses. If Lucy Freeman, quoted above, is right in asserting that many productions generated by women are considered “alternative to an imposed norm”, then these figures insist we keep alive thorny questions of gender equity, and politics of form.
The tyranny of structure-less-ness
The international Project has for twenty-five years thrived in resisting formal structures and insisting on adopting organic and flexible ones. Nevertheless over time a hierarchy has asserted itself and most of us within the Project know to whom to address inquiries and invitations, whom to appraise of ideas and proposals for future gatherings. This flows both ways. In Australia, despite there being many women who have participated in organising and attending formal iterations of the Project, certain among us are routinely and consistently approached by the ‘mothers’ and ‘grandmothers’ of the Project to write, to perform, to publish. The challenge that an ‘unofficial’ hierarchy poses is that it will inevitably divide individuals between those who feel they have agency to act and initiate, and those who feel such agency is denied them. Those who feel denied will take their energy elsewhere, and each time this happens we are diminished.
Of course it can equally be argued that this is not the case; that the Project (in Australia and elsewhere) is there to support any woman theatre practitioner who dares to articulate her vision. Without a formal and transparent structure, however, it is difficult to shift the perception that some are more equal than others. And within the Australian context this lack of formal structure also means greater challenges in building momentum across geographical, political and philosophical distances. I would like to see Magdalena Australia survive beyond any of the women who helped bring the 2003 festival into being. I would love to see it continue with the same organic flexibility of structure that has enabled the wider international Project to flourish for twenty-five years. Within Australia, to cope with our particular challenges, I believe that this will require a formal, transparent and democratic structure.
I can almost hear Julia Varley: “Now that you have spoken your vision out loud you are responsible for making it happen.” And she is right. So despite the tyranny of distance, despite the weariness of women practitioners (my own included), the ‘othering’ of women’s theatre (and our participation in our ‘ghetto-isation’), despite the assumption that feminism has done its job and equity is assured, and despite the tyranny of structure-less-ness, my intention is to find a way forward for the Magdalena Project to exist in Australia and flourish into the future. I would like Magdalena Australia to be a source of energy, optimism, inspiration and strength to all women theatre-makers here. I will undertake to begin the necessary dialogue with the women who have participated in the formal iterations in Australia. My hope is that the future Project will be there for those who come after us, with their own unique needs, strong desires and special gifts.
3. The figure of 27% comes from Katherine Lyall Watson’s blog on ourbrisbane.com titled “Gender Equity in Theatre” and posted 7 September, 2009. I arrived at the figure of 34% by perusing 6 company websites: Sydney Theatre Co, Melbourne Theatre Co, Queensland Theatre Co, State Theatre of South Australia, Malthouse and Black Swan. 34% represents 15 productions out of a total of 44. That’s 15 jobs, but not 15 women. Kate Cherry, AD of Black Swan, accounts for 5 of these, and other women directors scored more than one gig.