For writer and performer Aanisa Vylet, the motivation to write her first play came from a desire to see convincing characters from her background on our stages and screens.
Her two-part work The Girl/The Woman, which will play together for the first time at Riverside Theatres from June 28, is fuelled by Vylet’s experience as an actor and the need for deeper and more researched depictions of the women of her community in the arts.
“Working as an actor, I never experienced stories like the ones I felt I had inside me,” says Vylet, who grew up and still lives in Bankstown.
For example, in a recent casting call, Vylet was asked to audition for the role of a “sexually confident” Arab-Muslim woman.
“Sexually confident in public? Never,” says Vylet. “I don’t know one Arab-Muslim woman who can be that, I really don’t. Confident? No insecurity? In my lived experience, it doesn’t exist.”
There’s a lack of deep listening and research among so much writing for women of colour, Vylet says. “I know what it’s like to feel misrepresented. You see it in the body as well as in the language. I know the intention isn’t to misrepresent but it’s not based on truth. It’s based on a casting director’s vision of the truth.”
Semi-autobiographical in terms of content, The Girl/The Woman focus on two generations of Australian Arab-Muslim women, a mother and her daughter.
“In the creation of this work I’ve had to face up to the role I’ve given myself as a female writer and as an Arab-Muslim woman growing up in Western Sydney making her own choices,” Vylet explains. “I’ve been working on this for about 12 years now, which is a long time, but I needed that time to listen to myself and keep digging deeper and deeper.
“I’ve had to do that to make sure I’m not just repeating the narrative I’ve taken on subconsciously as I’ve grown up. I’m trying to empower women to allow themselves to be seen.”
The Girl, which focuses on a young woman’s discovery of self, first played at the Adelaide Fringe Festival and Perth Fringe World Festival in 2016. It’s a comedy, but it has a sting in the tail. “For some people its uncomfortable because I’m saying the things they tell their daughters not to,” Vylet says.
“It’s made to be entertaining and now it’s starting to develop into something beyond my imagination,” Vylet adds. “This play speaks to the heart and the guts rather than the head. I believe it shows how young women live today, especially first-generation migrant women.”
The partner piece, The Woman, will be a world premiere, directed by Dino Dimitriadis for the National Theatre of Parramatta.
“The Woman opens the doors to another character, one who has fulfilled every role expected of her,” says Vylet. “She has allowed the structure of her family and society to dictate her life. She wants to speak English and connect with others but she’s still hiding herself and hiding her pain. It’s quite a common experience among the women I know.”
In an early showing of the work, people came to Vylet in tears, she says. “I’ve expressed something they can’t express in their daily life and that’s quite a powerful responsibility as an artist. Not many people are as prepared to share as much as I do and I don’t want to add to the silence.”
Vylet cites Caryl Churchill’s masterpiece Top Girls (“so theatrical and so political”) and the plays of Melbourne writers Patricia Cornelius and Jenny Kemp as among her influences. But more important to her as a writer is her background in physical performance.
“My physical theatre training [Vylet studied at the Ecole Jacques Lecoq in Paris] has influenced my writing more than my acting, I think,” she says. “It’s influenced the way I write my form. My theatrical language isn’t naturalism as such and my training allows me to have the confidence to trust my own voice.”
Vylet says she’s also drawing inspiration from the increase in the number of women playwrights and plays featuring female protagonists on our stages.
“I think a lot has changed recently for women playwrights,” she says. “I’m going to the theatre and seeing plays by Michele Law and Nakkiah Lui, to name a few, plays that add to the dialogue in society. But this still feels like the beginning of the battle and it takes a lot of courage to fight it.”
The Girl/The Woman plays at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, June 28-July 7