When Melbourne-based theatre maker Adena Jacobs (The Bacchae, On The Bodily Education Of Young Girls) first saw the video of Transparent creator Jill Soloway’s rousing Toronto International Film Festival speech on the female gaze, it was a revelatory moment.
“She articulated something I’ve been instinctively dealing with for a long time, but never had the right language for,” Jacobs says. “A cinematic, and in my case theatrical, gaze which explores the feeling of being seen, and which, radically, looks back at the viewer.”
Lamenting a dearth of female-driven queer theatre, the idea of art as a reclaiming of the feminine - removed from strict patriarchal structures by creating a new physical language - was something that Jacobs considered in the Melbourne Festival highlight The Bacchae. A co-production between Jacobs' Fraught Outfit, Theatre Works and St Martins Youth Arts Centre, it featured a cast of 21 young women in a transfixing Dionysian invocation.
“The performers initially positioned themselves as objects to be looked at, but then slowly they drew us into a chaotic, subterranean space, where the notion of subject and object was continuously slipping and threatening to break apart,” Jacobs says.
Noting that the vast majority of artistic directorships across theatre companies and festivals are held by men, Jacobs believes that this is a structural part of the reason there’s a shortage of queer theatre from the female perspective in Australia.
“If the person sitting at the centre of an organisation is male, then their own life experiences are their norm,” she says. “To be female is one step removed. To be queer is further removed again and then race and identity politics have a huge role to play in all of that as well.”
Even queer festival platforms tend to skew toward gay male stories on stage. “The status quo is to endow gay men as the culture makers,” Jacobs says. “Audiences are used to seeing women constructed through a male gaze, whether straight or queer."
She continues: “Having said that, I don’t necessarily think there’s as much queer male work as there could be in any of those contexts, either. We’re still under this very conservative assumption about what people like and what they think is normal and I mean that across the board.”
When queer female theatre makers do embrace the feminine gaze and try to tell stories that are structurally different, often they face pushback from both audiences and critics alike. “When an audience has been fed a particular diet, when their gaze has been constructed through a male gaze for so many years, when they see work that’s feminine in its perspective or queer, there’s an assumption that there’s something wrong with it, or it doesn’t feel right, purely because it’s unfamiliar.”
Acknowledging that the government’s swinging cuts to the arts sector have created an understandable risk aversion, underestimating audiences only weakens Australian theatre, Jacobs says. “I really believe that’s what theatre companies are for—to lead the charge, to guide an audience towards the unknown. For the artist making queer female theatre, there’s nothing unusual about it at all. As a queer woman myself, I know that you spend so much of your life hungry to encounter art which speaks directly to you. Queer audiences are so fantastic, because they’re on high alert, always seeking connection.”
Zoë Coombs Marr is a Sydney-based comedian, theatre-maker and one third of collaborative performance ensemble post, and her Barry Award-winning show Trigger Warning - in which she assumes the oddly disarming sexist alter ego Dave - will enjoy an encore at this year’s Melbourne International Comedy Festival.
She created Dave’s scruffy, miserable persona as a reaction to the male-orientated stand-up industry, granting her the perfect voice with which to address that imbalance. Critic Anne-Marie Peard notes in The Age, “his painfully intelligent reflections on female and queer exclusion are the real Dave gold.”
Celebrating Jacobs’ work in pushing boundaries, Coombs Marr agrees that one of the main reasons queer female perspectives aren’t seen anywhere near enough on Australian stages is because women are criminally under-represented, full stop. While she praises companies like the Newtown-based, risk-taking Performance Space as having a proud history in embracing queer theatre, mainstream stages have yet to catch up, with even platforms like Melbourne Theatre Company’s NEON Festival of Independent Theatre slow to carry work over to their main program.
“NEON and the like have definitely helped different kinds of artists gain access to resource and audiences that they wouldn’t otherwise have, but at the same time, there have been only a few who have actually transitioned into the mainstream,” Coombs Marr says. “Mainstream stages need to absorb this work so that it’s no longer seen as being outside of the norm, strange or too difficult.”
Being embraced by mainstream stages carries risks too. “Pushing into those mainstream spaces is really important for women and queer people and people of colour,” she adds, “but, at the same time, it’s a really difficult place to exist in because there are some really specific expectations from those audiences and queer work is about challenging existing structures, and that can include narrative and form. Queerness is all about fluidity and change and it’s very hard to define, which is what makes it great, but also difficult.”
Picking up on the idea of risk in a time of uncertainty for the arts industry, Coombs Marr acknowledges that structurally challenging works are just as likely to be criticised as failures as they are celebrated as successes. “Theatre companies don’t know how to process that or frame it," she says. "Sometimes it’s easier not to program that at all and the danger is that that work gets kind of ghettoised.”
Her comedy work has allowed Coombs Marr to bring chunks of that audience across to her theatrical work, but interestingly, she notes that economics can be a barrier for queer women accessing theatre that reflects their own life experiences. “Dykes are poor," she says with typical candour. "Queer women have less disposable income and in many cases are less likely to be able to afford the price of a ticket. As a couple, you’re earning 30 per cent less than a gay male couple.”
Zoe Brinnand’s Bollywood-style musical ode to multicultural lesbian love The Adventures of Yoni 1 & Yoni 2 opened at queer festival MELT at the Brisbane Powerhouse before transferring to a run at Melbourne’s The Butterfly Club. Starring Shamita Sivabalan and Emma Jevons as vaginas on bikes, the non-dialogue piece embraces emerging writer and producer Brinnand’s humorous outlook on queer theatre, following the success of The Ultimate Lesbian Double Feature, which posited historical figures like Sappho and Virginia Woolf sexting each other, at last year’s Midsumma and Mardi Gras Festivals.
“I didn’t really notice how big a gap there was to fill for queer theatre by women until I started writing it myself,” Brinnand says. “The bit that I did see tended to be a bit tragic, there was suicide and drug and alcohol issues, which are very important issues in the community, but I also just wanted to see something out there that was funny for lesbians.”
Citing Coombs Marr as a great example of an artist using humour to subvert patriarchal structures, Brinnand says there needs to be more like her. Brinnand just presented a staged reading of her new work My Big Fat Lesbian Greek Wedding, featuring a Greek Australian daughter’s familial struggle for acceptance, drawn from her partner’s experiences. Out of the four plays shown side-by-side, she was the only female writer. “If there were more shows out there for women, they’d sell,” Brinnand insists. “I’d love to develop my career outside of the gay world and festivals.”
Eva Grace Mullaley, a Widi woman from the Yamatji Nation, is a development producer at the Australian Blackfulla Performing Arts Alliance. She recently completed a dramaturg stint during the Yellamundie National First Peoples Playwriting Festival. She’s directing the upcoming national tour of Coranderrk, a co-production by ILBIJERRI Theatre Company and Belvoir starring Trevor Jamieson.
Identifying as pansexual, the work Mullaley creates is proudly Indigenous first, but queerness naturally bleeds into her work. “We’re very supportive of each other—queer, straight or whatever—in indigenous theatre.”
With different approaches to gender and sexuality diversity across First Nations language groups in Australia, Mullaley acknowledges queer voices can get lost. “We’re three per cent of the population and the queer side of us is even less, so we’re under-represented in general.”
Heralding Mulak Mulak poet, playwright, actor and director Eva Johnson as one of the great queer female voices of Australia, Mullaley says that good theatre is good theatre. “As long as we’re not trying to cater to a type, and this is a really broad statement, but if we stop making queer theatre for queer people and just start making theatre, then we’re not ostracising ourselves, putting ourselves in a box where people can find it challenging.”
The stories are strong enough, she says. “We tell our stories as rough and ready as they are and audience love that.”