A Female Aesthetic in the Theatre

Women think, write and perform differently to men because they have different experiences, different myths, desires, dreams and memories. We exist as a separate culture within a dominant culture, a culture distinct from man’s no matter how intimately we may live with or love them But when women are free to be completely honest in the theatre it will be rocked to its foundations.

So wrote English playwright Kathleen Betsko in 1995. It is an interesting statement with its implications that women’s theatre practice is somehow dishonest, that we censor ourselves, distort or camouflage our ideas, that the fabulous beast that lurks in the psyche of the female artist will remain forever untamed and therefore cannot be unchained. Perhaps we know, intuitively, that in order to enter the male canon, that holy place where real theatre is made we must resort to subterfuge and subversion for we are highly unlikely to gain access on the basis of our distinct merits as theatre workers.

What is clear about Betsko’s statement is her belief that men and women have different artistic practice, process and ultimately product. More importantly it may well be that gender defines qualities and perception of beauty and harmony in theatre arts at such a deeply enculturated level that we are hardly aware of it. Since we have been largely educated into our understanding of the aesthetic, the appreciation and practice of beauty from a male perspective can we then, even as women, embrace an aesthetic which may radically differ? Can we actually ‘see’ it, let alone evolve a practice which may explicate it? For some years now I have been in search of a definition for that elusive Holy Grail: the notion of a female aesthetic and how it functions within the brutal arena of theatre. For theatre is perhaps one of the most confronting habitats for woman as artist, it is a forum in which she has the least insulation between herself and her work. Unlike the novelist, poet or diarist she lacks that comfortable distance between herself and her artistic practice and that may well be the reason why the casualty rate for women theatre workers is excessively high.

In exploring some of these ideas I investigated the work of three practising artists: director Carol Woodrow, writer & performer Victoria Spence and the legendary playwright, Dorothy Hewett.

Carol Woodrow has based her work in Canberra for over 20 years. Her awards, credits, achievements are almost too numerous to mention. Suffice it to say that she was one of the early pioneers of Jigsaw Theatre, Canberra Youth Theatre, Interact, Fool’s Gallery, Canberra Theatre Company and has worked extensively with the Bell Shakespeare Company. Having worked with Woodrow as a dramaturg I am familiar with the particular genius of her process. Woodrow works from what Anais Nin would describe as a nocturnal consciousness. She is unafraid of her intuition, of allowing seeds to germinate in darkness, of accessing meaning in text from an emotional perspective and of excavating deeper layers of experience that are not immediately obvious. She too is an explorer. And her road as a director has not been easy to travel but she has the fortunate ability to shift her ground and to continue to go forward in her work. As a director her greatest strength is to open the floor, unlock the creativity of all the collaborators involved in the process and to include rather than to exclude. She is unwilling to impose her vision of a work on others. Unlike the God-Director she will frequently admit that she does not know the final shape and form of the work, that the work must be allowed to evolve organically. This, she says, is sometimes perceived as a weakness by her co-workers for she must encompass the vulnerability that such receptivity entails. But she has a prodigious ability to cohere a wild proliferation of ideas in the rehearsal process and to allow the work she is creating to take on its own life and vitality.

When I pose the question of a female aesthetic to her I find that she is unwilling to define or rather to confine the concept within words. For Woodrow it exists in spontaneity, of creating an environment in which the catalyst of creativity, the chemistry between the participants can shape a unique space, a world, in which extraordinary things can happen. This is a process which requires radical trust but she has an understanding of the subtle and manifold languages of theatre practice whether at a textual level or as an interchange between actors and designer and she has enough patience, stamina and faith to nurture the process into maturation.

Observing Woodrow work on the floor with her team it may at first seem that her process lacks a structure, little could be further than the truth; Woodrow crafts her work with meticulous precision and an ordered chaos must be allowed to function within her process. The final product is a testimony to her ability to co-exist in the realms of the chaotic and the ordered and although critics have varied in their response to her work they have never accused her of producing anything vaguely related to a theatrical cliche. She is an innovator extraordinaire. Her desire to explore new territory in theatre is consistently obvious in her choice of texts whether it be in the deeply subversive collaborations which produced such early works as Standard Operating Procedure or in the spiritual challenges she delineates in works such as Elaine Ackworth’s Bod.

Ultimately Woodrow is an optimist and this quality of optimism is perhaps central to the female aesthetic: a refusal to be defeated, a determination to persist with integrity and authenticity in one’s quest for artistic wholeness, despite obstruction, in order to journey beyond the insidious cultural dictates of the male canon.

Dorothy Hewett has been described as living a hell-raising soap opera of a life and one which, had she been a man, would have been described as Rabelaisian. Notwithstanding such typical media descriptions Hewett remains one of Australia’s foremost playwrights with an outstanding critical reputation both overseas, and somewhat begrudgingly, in her own country. For well over ten years Hewett and I have struggled with a definition of the female aesthetic and come to no substantial conclusions.

Like the Holy Grail of legend it appears to have some of the qualities of a shape-shifter, a chameleon; we know it exists but we just can’t seem to encapsulate it. Hewett believes that women writers have a language wrought in their soul and engraved on their bodies, a grammar, a vocabulary and a distinctly female imaginary.

In 1974 when The Chapel Perilous was first performed in Sydney critics greeted It with a chorus of amazed horror partly because of its outrageous female heroine, Sally Banner, and partly because of its form. For years they continued to complain that Hewett’s plays lacked an expositional form: beginning, middle and end. But Hewett had deliberately chosen to work outside just those perimeters, not through wilful ignorance as her critics implied, but because she needed to explore the deeper and more complex interior worlds of her characters. She was not interested in surfaces. The theatrical worlds Hewett creates are often chaotic and of their own nature irreconcilable and she will often explicate experiences that sit at the uncomfortable boundaries of the human psyche. Within the maelstrom of human experience and at the excruciating edges of pain, passion or obsession there is little that is open to final resolution. As her critics bewailed her lack of propriety and accused her of writing from her gonads (which was, as Hewett was to retaliate, a very difficult biological trick!) Hewett went on to create new works which abounded in moral ambiguities. She was creatively preoccupied with investigating and utilising the power of metaphor and symbols, of deliberately engaging a unique lyric density in the construction of her characters and concentrating on exploring and evoking qualities of atmosphere. Above all Hewett refused to give in, aesthetically, morally or philosophically to the rigidity which ruled has much of Australian theatre since its rather cumbersome birth. Doubtless she would have burned in another age for the practice of artistic witchcraft.

When I asked her recently how she survived her tumultuous journey through the war zone of Australian theatre she replied with typical wickedness: that she had side-stepped issues, taken refuge in a secret life, refused to be intimidated, used much guile and cunning and, of course, sex.

Critical reaction to her work has always suffered from a kind of zealous extremism. Long-time friend and associate Helen Musa believes that the overwhelming critical hostility to Hewett’s prodigious creative output in theatre, prose and poetry can only be to Hewett’s personality, to her celebration of her own sexuality, her bluntness (Hewett once described the Western Australian arts scene as an ingrown toenail ) and the quality of almost Shakespearian vulgarity she delights in when mixing it with the media.

Above all Dorothy Hewett is an inspiration to any woman working in the arts because she has survived with both her artistic integrity and her sense of humour intact. In describing her life’s working process she believes that much of her work has been shaped by the demands of raising five children and finding the necessary time to write: therefore it was easier to write plays and poetry than to embark on a novel. The sheer luxury of uninterrupted time is experienced as a rare gift to many women arts workers. It is unfortunately the case that the female Muse, when she visits, does not make peanut butter sandwiches or hang out the washing. It is equally true that the journey of woman as artist is a particular one and that much more so than the male artist she needs a sense that other women have traversed this country, that there are maps and signposts. Thus when she enters her own peculiar labyrinth to go down to the dark heart of the maze and face the Minotaur of her fears and aspirations she may find some security in the notion that many an Ariadne has been before her and have emerged and triumphed.

Virginia Woolf once remarked that women had ‘to conspire to create’ and the notion of complicity, secrecy and an aversion to exposure seems to be central to an explication of the female aesthetic. Like so much of women’s history it appears to be powerfully present through its absence.

In describing something of the nature of the female psyche French philosopher Luce Irigaray writes of it as an horizon which will never stop expanding. We are always open. Stretching out, never ceasing to unfold ourselves, we have so many voices to invent in order to express all of us everywhere, even in our gaps, that all the time there is will not be enough. We have so many dimensions. If you want to speak ‘well’ you pull yourself in. You become narrower as you rise. Stretching upward you pull yourself away from the limitless realm of the body. Don’t make yourself erect you’ll leave us. The sky isn’t up there: It’s between us. Much of Iragaray’s work underpins the artistic practice and conceptual development of writer/performer/ dramaturg Victoria Spence. Spence has worked extensively with the Performance Space in Sydney, Sidetrack Theatre and has a history of working with Splinters Inc. notably in Utopia/Distopia and The Oracle. She has also worked in a number of films.

She outrightly rejects the idea of a female aesthetic because it can only be described in opposition to a male aesthetic. Like huge national monuments the male aesthetic is predicated for patriarchy with its formal shape, colour and voice. It is doctrinal, prescriptive and is enshrined in a discourse which functions to reinforce the existing cultural status quo. Like many women practitioners Spence dislikes defining the perimeters of her work and she equally dislikes the gender specifics that are implied in the term female aesthetic. She is inclined to work from the bottom up originating her

text in her body first and she believes that most women have a different relationship to their bodies in performance in comparison to men.

When she first embarks on making a new piece of work it is essential for her that she has a road map, a sense of the journey, a willingness to open herself emotionally and psychically to the experience and to encompass the vulnerability that is intrinsic to this process. This openness allows women a much wider theatrical reach. Spence believes that the voice of a woman artist whether it be in theatre, dance or film is not as loud or as penetrating as the male voice, rather it seeps through into the gaps and spaces and is much more akin to a set of musical resonances than the set of statements which

define the male canon. For her the female aesthetic is like a mist or a vapour drifting in and out of shadows and out of which the most surprising and interesting experiences can be shared. Women theatre workers she believes frequently work in uncharted country and there they can challenge the edges of their art, flirt with dangerous precipices, sail on strange seas and in general make new maps for further exploration. Equally critical to Spence’s ideas about the female aesthetic is the notion of multiplicity.

Traditional forms of theatre are rigidly structured by the quest for resolution. In tragedy all is resolved by death. In comedy all is resolved by marriage. Women’s experiences, women’s art, women’s practice often involves that which is unresolvable. They can embrace the irrational, the intuitive and can become happily entangled in chaos and circularity. That is not to imply that the female aesthetic lacks structure, merely that its structure is less concerned with notions of closure or with linear forms of exposition. Such an aesthetic could be described as ambidextrous and is endlessly capable of ingenious forms of mutation.
But are we in all our discussions any closer to a definition to a female aesthetic or is the search for such a definition a contradiction in terms since it appears to reside in the inexplicable, the insubstantial, changing form and modes of exposition with the ease of a shapeshifter. While it is clear that the female creative process in theatre challenges Aristotelian theories of unity and other entrenched tenets which are used to shape beliefs about aesthetics in general it is still not clear what constitutes the female aesthetic. Perhaps that is just as it should be. The female aesthetic defies a prescription of absolutes, it subverts the tyranny of text or director, it is untidy, prone to the tangential, asymmetrical and flourishes in the rich soil of the irrational. It is far closer to an organic life form than the dry and sterile dictates of an artistic imperative which has shaped western experience for centuries. In that it is truly revolutionary.

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