Exhilaratingly wild, fearless and playful, feminism at its messy edge.
That’s one way to describe Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. Written by Alice Birch, the subversive and darkly comical play rages against the status quo through a series of horrifying yet hilarious vignettes, examining how the language we rely on to define and understand the world around us is imbued with a silent power imbalance. In a supposed “post-feminist” world, where even our own Prime Minister Bill English declares he doesn’t know what feminism is, this play demands we look deeper at the ways in which patriarchy is woven through the fabric of our society.
Birch, a rising star in the UK who has been touted as her generation’s Caryl Churchill, came up with the title for Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. after being inspired by historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s slogan and book title, Well-behaved women seldom make history. The world, and its quirky title, has been praised by such outlets as Time Out New York and the Royal Shakespeare Company.
Arriving in Aotearoa at the Basement Theatre as part of the Auckland Fringe Festival, Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. Is being directed by Virginia Frankovich, who is making her directorial debut for Silo Theatre.
Frankovich recently took some time out of her busy schedule to chat with Villainesse about the show, feminism, the need for diversity in directing roles, and the challenges facing the fight for equality in 2017. Here’s what she had to say.
Villainesse: What's it like directing Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.?
Virginia Frankovich: It’s a complete rollercoaster ride - no day is ever the same. Even though I am used to working on non-scripted shows - the possibilities of how to put this production on are endless. Having such a passionate and creative cast and design team enables rehearsals to feel like a limitless playground. It’s nice to not feel like you are out on a limb, with no-one to bounce ideas off. For me the process is just as important as the product, so it is important that I create a fun atmosphere for the cast each day so we play lots of games to invoke a sense of play and freedom with the actors. I’ve never felt so stimulated by a job before. I feel like my brain can’t switch off (and doesn’t want to).
What are some particular challenges directing this play?
One of the biggest challenges (which is also one of the main reasons I love the play) is that Alice (the scriptwriter) has not assigned any character descriptions; how large the cast is; what lines are said by what performers; or any locations (excluding one scene). Literally every line is up for grabs by the performers and we have the freedom to choose where the scenes are set and to create any characters we want. At one point, three scenes are to be performed at the same time and at other points we are given the task of theatricalising limbs being chopped off. The play is in no way easy to stage, and it shouldn’t be. Because such an open script requires us to creatively problem-solve so much, including creating the whole theatrical world it exists within, we have more ownership of the work, and we can be more specific about how and why we are putting it on in Auckland, right now.
And the joys?
I love that Alice specifies that we should get some sense of ‘backstage’ - I find exposing the mechanics of theatre a freeing way of working and I think it’s totally in line with the constant push and pull in this play between artifice and reality.
Silo Theatre are such a cool company to work for too. They allow me so much freedom and don’t tell me off for making too much noise or creating a mess. They hired me as their Director Intern last year, and for them to follow on from that by asking me to direct my first professional theatre gig is so, so wonderful.
It’s a sad fact, but because independent theatre in New Zealand is such a boutique industry (in comparison to somewhere like London where going to the theatre is a weekly pastime for the general public) there is just not enough money to survive off it. To be paid a proper wage for doing something that I love (and to know that everyone in the team is getting paid too) is a luxury I haven’t previously had when making independent theatre in New Zealand.
What do you hope audiences take away from seeing Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again.?
I hope the audience are galvanised into a state of action. As one of the characters proclaims “Actually it’s a Massive Fuck Off Explosion we’re after. Because really...there’s nowhere else to go.” Alice challenges us to turn thought into action. It’s easy to sit back and become apathetic about women’s rights. Or to say “I don’t need to be active because other people are campaigning for me.”
Participating in the Women's March really fired something up in me. We were told in a speech that there was no police supervision because “The women are safe.” The women are not safe. I have had my collar bone broken on my own street by a gang of men in broad daylight. Only a few months ago I was struck on the back by a stranger for no reason other than my body being ‘in his way’. We cannot passively stand back any longer. We have to find the voice to fight back and this show is a call to arms.
You’ve directed shows all over the world and locally. What's it like to bring an international show like Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. to Auckland?
It’s so fantastic. I directed a play in the Edinburgh Fringe Festival last year (‘If there’s not dancing at the revolution I’m not coming’ by Julia Croft) and I had heard people talking about Alice’s show. I didn’t get a chance to see it while I was over there which in hindsight I am pleased about because it was important that I followed my instinct of how I wanted to stage the play without being affected by previous iterations. But I did hear a lot of people talk about how much they loved the text so when Silo asked me to direct it I felt pretty chuffed to be able to be a part of bringing this text to a New Zealand audience.
I understand Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. demands we look harder at how the patriarchy is woven through our society. In what ways does it do this?
It attacks all areas of life and presents us with a radical statement or ‘provocation’ - it then asks us to think about how we are currently situated and whether we are OK with that or not. For instance, it looks at the way we use language and what would happen if women were to reclaim the sometimes oppressive ‘dirty talk’ that see women having things done ‘to’ them and not ‘with’ them and presents a scenario where a woman asserts her ‘Almighty Vagina”. It also probes at societal structures such as marriage; work culture; the treatment of women’s bodies and much more.
Last year as Silo Theatre Director Intern you also worked on Boys Will Be Boys, a show which can also be interpreted as unabashedly feminist in its focus on women navigating the male-dominated, high-pressure corporate world. How does Revolt. She Said. Revolt Again. differ from that?
Revolt definitely tackles similar themes to Boys Will Be Boys, and shares the same unapologetic ethos whilst investigating the social and sexual politics that exist in all facets of life. Along with tackling the work climate, it looks at the insidiously oppressive use of language; it looks at the way we are talking about sex; it questions the forces and institutions that shape women’s lives now and propositions radical imperatives as a response. It also investigates motherhood, and challenges the typical archetype of a nurturing mother by presenting us with a woman who decides to abandon her child and when the daughter finally confronts her she insists she “Can do what the fuck you like”.
What are some particular advantages - and challenges - of having a show at a smaller venue like The Basement?
The Basement has a really great established theatre community who are die-hard supporters of new contemporary work and I’m looking forward to presenting this work in a place that celebrates risk. Sharing the theatre space with a number of other shows per night (as part of the Auckland Fringe Festival programme) is going to be one of our challenges, but I’m sure the team will become experts at packing in and out at the speed of light.
Are there plans to potentially take the show to other places in Aotearoa in the future?
At this stage, there’s only plans to stage the show in Auckland - but you never know. It would be great to take it to other cities if the opportunity arose.
Do you think the show speaks greater truth about patriarchy when it’s directed by a woman, as opposed to if it were, for example, directed by a cis man?
One hundred per cent.
Even the role ‘director’ in the arts is such a male-dominated space. I think it is insidiously ingrained into our culture to respect being told what to do more naturally when it is through a male voice. There are a lot less female theatre directors in Auckland and I am proud to be in the position to rise to this occasion as a woman director.
What does feminism mean to you? Would you consider yourself a feminist?
Feminism to me is as simple as the fight for equality on a political, personal, social and economic level. So yes I do consider myself a feminist. I feel like for a long time there’s been a misconception of what it means and it is often pitched as angry men-haters rocking in a room, but particularly in recent times (and most recently with the American election results) there has been a powerful movement to educate the masses that feminism is about equality more than anything else. The fact that our own prime minister stated that he doesn’t know what feminism means is a bit of a wakeup call.
Despite years of feminist activism there is still this persistent perception that feminists are man-hating women out to take things away from men, and people are too afraid or threatened to engage with feminist literature. Sophie Roberts (Artistic Director of Silo) has been a really encouraging supporter of my development as a director in the industry and I think it’s important that this trend continues so that it’s not the mentality of ‘there’s only room for one woman in a climate of men in power,” but that we nurture other women in the industry so that we can address the gender imbalance within positions of power.
What do you see as some of the main challenges facing feminism and the fight for equality in 2017?
Walking up Queen Street during the Women’s March, we were confronted with a man shouting through a speaker that ‘feminism is dying’; that we are a minority; and that we should “stop crying because we lost”. Myself and all the marchers around me (women, men, trans, young and old) were appalled but what struck me more than anything was the lack of coherence about what to do or what to say in response. Some resorted to anger; others to peaceful conversation; and others decided that we should drown him out with a chant. But what was most evident was the uncertainty and lack of confidence we possessed in starting a chant. Or deciding amongst the group what to say. Or who would start it. What was the one mantra that we could all agree on to drown out this man’s abuse? Which brings me back to the play and how Alice conveys the struggles of women today in articulating what we want or asserting power.
There is a lot of dialogue in the play that emphasizes this confusion and the inability to finish sentences. Powerful and assertive language is seen as ‘unfeminine’ and goes against everything we have been brought up to believe that a woman should be. We are taught to be well-behaved followers. Not leaders. Finding the power in our voice to fight for equality when we have to drive past white men with anti-abortion signs on Dominion Road or being yelled at during a peaceful protest is something we need to feel safe and confident to be able to act on. Gone are the days of passive acceptance. The revolution starts now.