Written and directed by Eleanor Bishop and performed by Karin McCrackin, Jane Doe is a dramatised documentary that takes the audience through a rape trial transcript.
The topic of the production, sexual assault and gendered violence, is a systemic and inescapably political issue that has only recently been approached with serious discussion (think #metoo and Australia’s human rights commission report on sexual assault on campus).
The production adds to and encourages this discussion but for activists who work tirelessly fighting sexual assault and gendered violence, how does Jane Doe fare as a political piece of theatre?
Courtney Thompson, Reclaim the Night Convenor and University of New South Wales Women’s Collective member, is one such activist. She graciously accepted my invitation to attend Jane Doe’s Sydney Fringe premiere.
The production is heavy going and very open about that fact from the start.
Sexual assault is explicitly described at various points and McCrackin begins the production by giving express permission for anyone to leave the theatre if they need, though the logistics of Old 505 Theatre make that near impossible in practice.
There was no way, Courtney observed, to inconspicuously leave and so survivors could very easily have felt as if they had to out themselves as survivors in order to distance themselves from the triggering material. “A horseshoe-shape” playing area would have been better.
Despite this, McCrackin takes a progressive stand immediately by understanding the necessity of trigger warnings when dealing with traumatic events such as sexual assault. Throughout the performance she gently steers the audience through sickening and uncomfortable waters and her warmth and earnestness, particularly in her treatment of audience members who volunteer to participate and read out parts of the trial, gives the audience a space to be emotionally vulnerable in the face of such a deeply affecting topic.
Bishop also understands the power of showing the audience diverse voices and real faces in her video interview grabs, exceptionally voiced by McCrackin, rather than following the norm of discussing sexual assault through numbers on a page that can’t capture lived experience.
The choice of rape trial is dissatisfying for Courtney as it sits within the already well established narrative around sexual assault. According to Courtney, this narrative can be dissected into two ‘tropes’. The first is sexual assaults that happen at gun/knife point. The second is sexual assaults that happen where one or both parties are heavily inebriated. Jane Doe sits within the latter.
This is a missed opportunity, says Courtney, to bring to mainstream discourse the types of sexual assault that are much more insidious but sit in the grey area of society’s infant understanding of consent.
For instance, the assaults that occur where the sexual act starts with consent but isn’t present throughout or the assaults that occur where consent isn’t expressly given but a sexual act happens anyway.
This topic is only addressed in one small video bite and for Courtney it’s something that deserves more focus in order to bring awareness to the sexual assaults that do occur outside of the aforementioned tropes and are just as traumatic.
Courtney also identifies another aspect of mainstream discourse present in the show; that the abusers are often depicted as awful jock and/or frat dude bros who openly joke about rape or happily chant, “No means Yes, Yes means anal”.
However, again, there needs to be an awareness that sexual abusers can be anyone, even those that claim to be progressive, as the recent sexual abuse allegations in the Greens Party is testament to.
Ignoring the range of perpetrators allows us to, “ignore that gendered violence is being led by something more than just a few bad eggs, it’s how we’re socialised to think of and value women,” says Courtney.
Finally, the show’s context in the Sydney Fringe does not do it justice.
Observing the demographic of the theatre, Courtney questions: “What is the political power of the piece if it’s not doing anything to actively spread awareness of women’s issues to people who aren’t women?”
The production was itching for a post-show discussion and, looking online, this comes as no surprise. Jane Doe has placed itself as a touring production that is used to kick start discussion on sexual assault and consent in schools and universities.
Here then, Courtney’s question is answered. Jane Doe does indeed have a strong political mission and strength behind it as it looks to continue the work documentaries such as The Hunting Ground have begun. And, much like The Hunting Ground, it is taking its story and message right into the institutions that need it most.
“Education about consent and respecting bodily autonomy regardless of gender is so vital to moving forward,” says Courtney.
As for the show itself, it is a moving, strongly performed night of inventive, interactive theatre that understands when to let the audience breathe.
Jane Doe embraces, perhaps is even entirely motivated by, the socio-political landscape that surrounds sexual assault and it has positioned itself as an educational tool to be used to fight against gendered violence.
It is a must-see for everyone, but particularly for those progressive individuals looking to maintain the rage.