by Patricia Cornelius
Part of a scene from SHIT, a play by Patricia Cornelius with three young, very unlikeable female characters named Bobby, Billy and Sam.
A room. Silence. Bobby watches Sam and Billy.
BOB: Women shit me.
BIL: Here we go.
SAM: We know, we know.
BOB: They don’t weigh in.
BIL: Yeah yeah.
BOB: Not in for the count.
SAM: Yeah yeah.
BOB: Don’t get to play.
BIL: Yeah yeah.
BOB: Don’t mark the ball.
SAM: Yeah yeah.
BOB: Don’t kick, hit, strike no goals.
SAM/BIL: Yeah yeah.
BOB: With their whining and their crying and their bitching and talking shit.
SAM: Yeah well.
BOB: Always talking shit. My god how much shit can they talk. They’re full of it. Women are shit.
BIL: Yeah well.
BOB: In their stupid little skirts or tiny fucking shorts, and their fucking high heels and their fucking fat tits. What can you say about them? Nothing.
SAM: Yeah, well, that’s how it is.
BOB: They don’t do anything. They don’t make anything. They don’t have anything. They sit around on their arses.
SAM/BIL: Yeah well…
BOB: Always wanting to be looked at, to be seen, talking too loud, talking obscene, talking like they love it up the arse, sucking cock, drinking cum, their tits being bit. Like they like it with that one and then that one, queue up, bring it on. Talking shit. They are shit.
SAM/BIL: I’m not shit.
BOB: And their orange faces and, their smelly armpits and their stinking holes. God, stop cackling, stop screeching, stop their silly giggling with their tits all jiggling, thinking they’re someone. They’re nothing. They’re shit. That’s it. Shit.
SAM/BIL: I’m not shit!
BIL: Hey hey hey, what’s with the theys?
BIL: What do you mean: they don’t do this, they don’t do that?
BOB: They can’t run. They can’t fight. Can’t save themselves if they tried.
SAM: I used to run.
BOB: Who from?
SAM: In events. I won. Lots of times.
BOB: But you stopped.
Bobby continues and Sam and Billy groan.
They go on about what they’ve not got. Not got love, not got respect, not got their kids, not got money, got nowhere to live. On and on about what’s been done to them. He did this. He did that. He touched me up, he jumped me, he made me suck his cock. Who gives a shit? No one’s listening, no one gives a fuck. It’s not fair, it’s not right, oh my god, get a life. Face it. You’re shit, alright?
SAM/ BIL: We’re not shit!
My play with its deliberately provocative title is about power. It’s about women who have the least power, who are ignored, who are avoided on the street. They are women who have been through the system, who have been abused since childhood, who have been hurt, who have been belittled, who have been bashed, who think they’re worthless, who hate themselves, and who hate all women, because we’re the bottom of the barrel, we’re shit. They are not victims. They are formidable and use the only power they’ve got; a vernacular that cuts and jabs and stabs like the sharpest knife. And they can fight.
The play, Shit originated from a development of a work called Lock Up in 2013. It was a workshop for 3 female playwrights and 3 female directors working with 3 female actors. We took the idea of women in lock up as a metaphor for women in general, women locked in by societal constraints, women locked up in institutions, women locked in their bodies – we found plenty to talk about and explore. And incredibly, it seemed that women were back on the agenda. There seemed an appetite or an interest at least in women and their stories. Part of our investigation was to consider the representation of women in theatre. We were particularly interested in why it appeared that women didn’t occupy the theatre space in as physical and visceral and central a way as men appeared to. We all agreed that it was because women were rarely given the chance.
Lock Up was driven by something which had occurred a couple of years earlier.
In 2011 a young female critic from Adelaide, Jane Howard, looked at the programming of all the major theatre companies across Australia and made the gob-smacking reveal that only 11% of the playwrights programmed were female.
There was already some public debate about the poor representation of female theatre directors so I’m not sure why I was so shocked when I read the figures for female playwrights. It’s certainly not because I believed that we would be equal with male playwrights. I knew that our representation was far from equal, but not that far.
Something important to know about these figures is that female playwrights are not only mostly missing from these programmes but when their works are performed by these companies, they are often in the education stream as in schools shows, in the smaller theatres, have smaller budgets and less profile.
I’ve been writing plays for over 30 years. I have won many accolades and awards which have given me confidence and sometimes money which has enabled me to stick with this job I love and pay the bills. I’ve always been aware of the gender discrimination in my industry but mostly I’ve kept it under wraps because the gender stuff is enormous, on the grandest scale, in your face, sometimes life threatening stuff. We love our grandmothers, our aunts, our sisters, our daughters but the love doesn’t count for much when we’re beaten, we’re raped, we’re murdered, we’re enslaved and paid less and sometimes a pittance. Let’s face it. We’re shit. I felt the real fight lay elsewhere and that female playwrights could wait for bigger changes to take place. And this was nothing new. There’d been a similar fight about the gender inequity in the arts in the 80’s but so quickly we forget.
I also thought something quite insidious about the gender inequity. I thought that somehow the arts would not reflect the real world. I thought that the work alone would transcend this tedious and entrenched notion that women were not good enough, and not as good as men. Art was beyond that. Silly. I have no idea where my head was at.
I thought too that I wasn’t good enough. I was always apologetic and wished my plays said more, and more elegantly, and more powerfully. This self- deprecation is a very unbecoming trait which is all about feeling lesser and not owning your work or feeling good about it. It’s got its roots in the struggle to have the work seen and to have it acknowledged and to be engaged in the next work because there’s a place for it. If you’re not on that trajectory and every play is a struggle to get on or be funded, then this trait will rear its unbecoming head for sure.
The other thing I thought – and for decades too – was that I would get better at my craft and it will become easier. My plays will soar. They will be remarkable. They will be desirable. Theatre companies will want them, will be interested in what I’m writing, will ring me, will knock on my door. Silly. Again, I have no idea where my head was at.
When the 2011 statistics were sent to me, I was astounded. I thought that couldn’t be. I know our female playwrights, I know how good they are. I’ve read them. I know their level of craft. Why in hell aren’t they putting us on?
There was some media coverage and the Australia Council called a meeting and Australian female playwrights formed an on-line group and there was much fabulous discussion.
Foolishly, I thought that as soon as these statistics were made known to the theatre industry, there would be declarations for immediate change. I thought they, as in those who run the companies, would want to address this imbalance at once. I thought they might feel embarrassed. I thought they might feel ashamed. More silliness. Instead, we heard that only the best would do. We were not good enough. If we were good enough, then our works would be on. We wrote about the domestic – banal stuff. We needed a lot of development it seemed. We weren’t ready. There were suggestions that we, only we, only women, didn’t deliver on time.
The stuff of development sticks in my craw. Again, why is it that only we female playwrights need development after development? What we need is the play to be produced, for it to be performed, to have it seen, to learn the lessons for the next one.
I’ve no interest in debating whether women playwrights write differently than male playwrights. I don’t necessarily write better female characters. I write strong male and female characters so I don’t get the problem. We’re more likely to break the mould of telling the story of the main male protagonist and the usual supporting female roles. We might be more interested in how women engage with the world, with how women are perceived, how women manage in a world which treats them as second class.
The question of a quota was raised and with it, all hell. I thought a quota seemed reasonable enough but no, it was considered an almighty affront. It’s an affront to ask for a policy that insisted programming equal number of male and female playwrights and directors? The Australia Council didn’t like it – they felt mindfulness was the way forward. What a nonsense. Some women didn’t like it either. They thought it would look as if we got the job because of our gender only. Guess what? I can live with that. A quota will keep a company honest. It can be easily instituted over a 3 year period so that a programme for one year may be male dominated and the equity addressed in the next years. It’s a no-brainer. It’s fair. It’s decent.
After the initial defensiveness about this male dominated racket, there quickly came a change of heart. A few theatre company directors, mind you, only a few, instituted policy which insisted on equity. They did it fast. It was amazing. And right. And indicates how easily it can be done.
|Despite some promising figures over the last few years, the 2016 theatre companies’ programmes confirm mindfulness is a farce. There’s an increase in the disparity between the programming of male-authored and female-authored work. In 2015, of the 58 works by Australian playwrights (including original and adapted works) 57% were by men, and 43% by women. In 2016, the comparative percentage is 61% male and 39% female.|
The companies who have proved their metal, Belvoir and State Theatre of South Australia and La Boite, continue to achieve gender parity, having instituted policy to support it. Others are astoundingly off the mark, Griffin and Black Swan theatre companies dismally so. Griffin has one woman playwright in a programme of 6 works. Black Swan has 7 works and one woman is a co-writer. I can hope that these companies will redress this inequity in the next years but have no assurance of it. The other companies are not much better. There’s no shame, no apology, no care. Face it. We’re shit.
Other disturbing statistics reveal the decrease in the number of new Australian works being programmed by these companies. This is a huge concern for both female and male playwrights. The import of tried and true British and American plays continue. It is peculiar that so few new Australian works are programmed. This is despite the fact that Australian plays sell. Audiences like them apparently. It reeks of a continuing cultural cringe which we have never quite dislodged. It appears that the major companies feel an anxiety about new, and old Australian work, and an unwillingness to risk plays that question our society, that give us insight into the way we live, works that are critical, that shift our sense of our self as a nation. It denies Australian playwrights from making a major and contemporary contribution to our cultural wealth.
Major companies run as a business. Their major concerns are subscription numbers and bums on seats. They have huge theatres to fill. They need plays which work well in those spaces. Smaller theatres make them no money. All that stuff. They have no interest in gutsy, hard-hitting works that possibly could cause offence to a mostly well-heeled audience (unless it’s from abroad of course). I think a bit of offence always goes down a treat, myself. It’s the very heart of theatre – to disturb, to agitate, to make one feel uneasy about the shit of a world we live in. I truly believe audiences are hungry for it. I’m sure there are ways to restructure, to engage your country’s finest playwrights more and without loss. I am yet to convince them. I’ve not had a work produced by a major company. I’ve had a wonderful early career where I worked as an actor, playwright, core-member of Melbourne Workers Theatre. It was a company I co-founded and which nurtured me as a theatre maker for many years. It was an apprenticeship of sorts. It nurtured many theatre practitioners and gave us the opportunity to hone our craft.
Most of these opportunities are denied us now. Small and mid-range companies have been de-funded and the few major companies are the only funded companies remaining which we can approach. To demand the re-instatement of mid-range theatre companies feels daunting when the current government has only recently snaffled millions of dollars from the organisation, the Australia Council for the Arts, which has kept the vital independent sector alive, and only just. If we could have a company devoted to new Australian works in every state, we would be in a better place. Melbourne no longer has such a company.
I’m certain there are people who would think, what the hell, Patricia, why write a play and name it Shit? How could you expect a major company to pick it up and run with it? I do expect it. Because the title tells you what you’re in for and the play is vital and has power and engages you in a world people rarely know. It’s raw, it’s rude, and it’s fabulously alive. It’s good theatre.
Patricia Cornelius is one of Australia’s most awarded and celebrated playwrights. She is known for her confronting plays that often deal with people living on the margins of society, struggling with poverty and prejudice. Cornelius was a founding member of Melbourne Workers’ Theatre and has written over 25 plays including SHIT, Savages, Slut, The Call, Good, Do Not Go Gentle…, Boy Overboard, Cunning, Love, Jack’s Daughters, Opa – a sexual odyssey, Max, Platform, Lilly and May and Hog’s Hairs and Leeches. Fever and Who’s Afraid of the WorkingClass? were written in collaboration with Andrew Bovell, Melissa Reeves, Christos Tsiolkas and Irine Vela. Patricia’s many awards include a Gold AWGIE, numerous other AWGIEs, a Green Room Award, the Jill Blewett Award and the 2006 Patrick White Playwrights’ Award. Her first novel, My Sister Jill, was published by Random House in 2002. She received the NSW Premier’s Literary Award for Drama in 2011 and was the Patrick White fellow at Sydney Theatre Company in 2012. Patricia co-wrote the feature film adaptation for Blessed based on the play Who’s Afraid of the Working Class? and she is currently writing a screenplay with Catriona McKenzie called Stolen with the support of Screen NSW’s Aurora program and Screen Australia. She also regularly works as a dramaturg and mentor to young playwrights.