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"surely the higher up you go the easier it is, right?"

Indie director Penny Harpham took a deep dive into the world of mainstage theatre with Antony and Cleopatra and, against expectations, came up inspired.

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What I Learned From a Dead White Male (and Peter Evans)

Date: 6 Apr 2018

Cleopatra:           If it be love indeed, tell me how much

Antony:                There’s beggary in the love that can be reckoned

Cleopatra:           I’ll set a bourne, how far to be beloved

Antony:                Must then need find new heaven, new earth.

So begins Antony and Cleopatra, directed by Peter Evans for Bell Shakespeare in 2018.

Notably, it’s not the first few lines of the original text. The play actually begins with a messenger from Rome, calling one of the greatest rulers in history – a woman who married and later killed her brother, along with her sister, spoke multiple languages and hailed a new era of scientific discovery, political and economic stability to her kingdom – “a strumpet”.

In Peter’s edit of Antony and Cleopatra, he gives the first lines of the play to the famous lovers themselves, as they sit, hungover and chilled, him playing with her hair and she straddled between his legs, both facing the same direction.

It’s a moment of intimacy, a moment of quietness between two people – two lovers – who could be anyone at this stage, anyone who is falling or has fallen hard in love. Then the history of the world as it is known in 40BC is projected onto the stage, and our heroes are surrounded by other people, their privacy invaded, never to be alone again on stage until he, driven with rage, threatens to kill her for what he sees as her betrayal in the battle with Octavius Caesar for the known world.

Yes, this play is problematic.

Most of Cleopatra’s scenes are speaking about Antony and how much she misses him while he has left her for a political marriage in Rome.

He negotiates, makes political allies, is visited by a soothsayer, gets wasted on Pompey’s boat and she waits in Egypt for his return and sends messengers to seek out the appearance of his new bride.

In the hands of a team who were less woke, this could have been an unbearably dated play to try and stage. However, in a room of smart women at the top of their game and men who listened to us when we expressed our concerns, my first time foray into Shakespeare in the mainstage was exhilaratingly complex.

Actually, let’s unpack that sentence: In a room of smart women at the top of their game.

“We are volcanoes … When we women offer our experience as our truth, as human truth, all the maps change. There are new mountains” – Ursula K. Le Guin

When I was in my late teens/early twenties and entering the industry, it was not unusual for a mainstage season to have no women directors, writers or large ensemble presence in their lineup. I’m fairly young by some standards (I hope!) but even so, in the past few years I felt like I’d reached my limit. The battle of sexism seemed impossible to win.

In 2005 when I was 19, playwright Seanna van Helten and I co-founded an indie theatre company She Said Theatre as a knee-jerk reaction to the lack of women we saw in leadership positions in Brisbane where we studied drama at the University of Queensland.

We felt that within a few years the company would be obsolete. Surely the change was upon us. To be 19 and so confident again …

In 2012 I was studying Arts and Cultural Management at the University of Melbourne when the Australia Council published their Women in Theatre analysis and found that:

It appears … there has at best been no progress over the decade since 2001, and there is evidence that the situation for women in creative leadership deteriorated over that time.”

I was sure a report of such critical findings – which included Belvoir’s notorious 2010 season where only one of seven plays were written or directed by a woman – would put an end to the boys clubs still happening around the country.

Nope, apparently not yet.

In 2016, the Eternity Playhouse programmed a season that saw more men to women being represented in directing and writing positions, sparking a group of Sydney actors to start conversations and later a festival under the banner, Women In Theatre and Screen (WITS). In a nod to the merits of protesting and galvinising action, a year later the same company that ignited WITS came full circle and achieved a female-led 2017 season. The Darlinghurst Theatre Company has now become the first in Australia  to implement a Gender Parity Policy across all roles and have achieved Gender Parity since 2017. Zigazig ah!

I was asked to speak at WITS’ second meeting at Belvoir St as a representative of Melbourne’s indie theatre scene. I thought then we were ready to take a sledge hammer to the glass ceiling. But I was also more nervous than I had ever been in talking about what I had been fighting for and prioritising for a decade – women’s safety and stories – because I was suddenly aware I was up against the very institutions that had been keeping these conversations out (I mean, I was speaking on the stage at Belvoir for Christ sake!).

I had a meeting with an incredible woman after that night who now works in a leading touring arts organisation. She said my keynote speech gave her hope that the revolution was still possible, because she had once, decades ago when she was young and full of energy, fought as hard and passionately as she could see me doing now.

I was so, so sad to hear that. It made me realise how little I knew about the women in our industry who had fought before me, who had made incredible work and imagined a very different world to the one that has been documented, recognised, that we are still living in.

And then, last year #metoo and #timesup happened.

For the first time ever, the conversations I’ve been having with other women in toilet cubicles on opening nights, private phone calls, secret facebook chat groups, were everywhere.

Volcanoes were erupting and the hot lava of truth began melting the rule books of gender and power to make way for awareness and change.

It’s messy now. But that mess has always been around. It’s just been swept under the rug, concealed and painted over with a smile. But I want men to experience the mess of woman. I want women to not have to conceal our complications anymore. I want them celebrated, believed, invested in, wrestled with, the same way we’ve been wrestling with ‘male drama’ for centuries – for all of Western literature and theatre, actually.

The last place I thought I would find someone eager to take me and my ‘I want to get shit done with my gal pals attitude’ on, was the national Shakespeare company.

And yet, after emailing a bunch of artistic directors from around the country asking if there was any way I could assistant direct and get involved in their company in some capacity, it was Peter Evans who replied, saying he’d love to meet with me.

Peter had sat next to me that night at the WITS forum at Belvoir, and I remember him saying, ‘you’re a bit of a rock star, aren’t you?’ I don’t remember what I answered, but I remember not feeling like a rock star, but more of a nervous soldier – though I was terrified of speaking in front of a room of people in a city I’d never worked in before, I was also committed to going out on that front line and fighting for what was dearest to me – the un-silencing of women.

At that meeting with Peter he asked me what I wanted. I didn’t really know – no man in power had ever asked me that before. I realised that this was my chance to pitch, but I couldn’t imagine how I could fit into this company.

Mary Beard in her wonderful new book Women & Power says, “You can’t easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure”.

In that meeting, I had no idea how Bell Shakespeare was structured, and I was terrified of entering it and burning my chances to the ground by wrestling with the company, rather than the play. So I answered that I wanted to assistant direct on a Bell show in order to see if we were a good fit and to learn from the way Bell operated for my own company, She Said.

A year later I got an email offering me the job of Assistant Director on Antony and Cleopatra directed by Peter.

Peter had found a foundation that was willing to sponsor my position full time as an interstate artist for the length of my contract. I couldn’t believe it. The foundation, called Intersticia, is run by an incredible family of women, who are energised by individuals from all disciplines who are breaking through barriers, with a particular passion for encouraging women into leadership positions.

They are also the foundation behind the excellent new writers program at Bell, which has so far employed three Australian writers two days a week for two years to work on a new text of their choosing with no pressure on product whatsoever. The writers are Kate Mulvany, Jada Alberts and Kylie Bracknell. Not a bad honorary roll.

Peter had, in his own time, spoken to this foundation, vouched for me and convinced them to support me on this production. In an industry where you are currently buffering yourself from self-doubt fueled by brutal reviews and unemployment, to have someone in your corner is, well, I’m too emotional to finish that sentence. It’s rare and brilliant and can be the difference between giving up or staying on.

Jump to day one of rehearsal.

I looked around and realised I was standing in a room that had a man at the head, of course, but who had assembled a team of extraordinary women: I’ve long admired Anna Cordingley and here she was, in the same room as me, doing her set costume design presentation like the boss she is.

The swoon-worthy Jess Chambers as voice coach smiled encouragingly to me across the room. I’d seen Catherine McClements in Clare Watson’s production of The Events previously and so was giddy to hear her first read Cleopatra’s lines and find, already, such humour and cheek and wit in a woman who history would prefer us to remember a “wonderful piece of work”.

Then there was the crazy-talented musician and actor Zindzi Okeneyo next in line as Charmian in a role I would later discover was the beating heart behind this vastly complex tragedy; Ursula Mills adding depth, pathos and an acute attention to detail to Octavia, Eros and Soothsayer; Janine Watson bringing a wealth of Shakespeare and physical experience to the ensemble as Alexas, and the formidable Lucy Goleby taking on the patriarchy as Rome’s political rival Sextus Pompeius.

What I didn’t realise as I looked around at all these fierce women actors about to raise the roof, was the company was held together, expanded, supported and activated by dozens of other incredible women who the outsider might never get to know.

First and foremost for me was Company Manager Charlotte Barrett, who gave an inspired talk on that first day about Bell’s concern and stance on sexual harassment and inappropriate behaviour: outlining what it is and what it could be; who and where to go to if it’s happening to you, and also instructing all employees that the days of being an innocent bystander are over and that to not report is to continue a culture of shame and silencing.

It occurred to me, for the first time in my career, that the structure of power might actually be shifting, that talk was being followed up with actions, finally.

And this was just day one. I hadn’t yet properly met the incredible Stage Management team, Julia Smith and Gina Bianco, or the women who lead the administration, education, development and production teams throughout the building, led by the formidable Gill Perkins, the company’s General Manager. It was like feminist Christmas and I was so excited to be asked to sit at the grown-ups table!

“By redefining whose voice is valued, we redefine our society and its values” Rebecca Solnit

My partner is a Shakespeare nut. He has worked for Bell twice as a performer, as well as half a dozen other indie companies in Melbourne over the years who have offered him the chance to play some of his favourite characters ever written.

I am a feminist theatre maker focusing on new Australian writing.

Needless to say, we argue, a lot.

But I always feel safe in our discussions – I know that from his knowledge and love of classical literature, poetry, art, music and theatre, I am learning things I had not considered or might have dismissed.

And he is constantly being confronted with his own privilege as a straight, middle class, white man who has been able to go through life seeing himself represented in almost every artform, across every century, ever.

Of course, as a white woman, I have to constantly check my own privilege, because just as I’ve been silenced time and time again in history by men, so have countless minority groups, cultures and subcultures. I’m not interested to getting to the top if I’m treading on other people to steal a second on the throne. It’s all or nothing; intersectionality has to be a priority.

When you have that as your mindset, making theatre of a play written 500 years ago by a white Englishman is no bed of roses.

To say the language used to describe Cleopatra by the men in the play is sexist would be a gross understatement.

She’s called a “whore”, “trull”, “strumpet” and “royal wench”.

“The witch must die,” Antony fumes towards the end of the play when he thinks – wrongly – that she has betrayed him and taken sides with Caesar.

Look, I know he doesn’t mean it, I know he is in a fit of passion, but it’s difficult in 2018 to justify putting this language on stage, again, when the rate of women who are being killed by domestic violence has risen to two a week.

Language is powerful, and as theatre makers we have to be aware of what we are saying and how we are framing problematic themes. And so, knowing there was gold in this rarely-staged play to mine for, we wrestled with this language and with how we could comment on it as contemporary theatre makers. And wrestle we did.

All the women in the room raised their voices over the rehearsal period about things in this play that were not sitting right. We found ways to cleverly undermine the language being used against Cleopatra – keeping her on stage during scenes she is not in, so as Caesar declares her a “whore” loudly to the audience, she sits behind him, staring him down; her presence undermines his exclaim as we see her seeing him – the dominant gaze in the scene is female.

Playing Rome’s great political rival, Pompey, Lucy Goleby stands confidently as she announces:

If the great gods be just, they shall assist / The deeds of justest [wo]men.

In one stroke, on her opening line of the production, Lucy sets the tone of her performance and of our production: Yes Pompey was a man, but I’m not, and in 2018 I’ve been cast in this role as a woman because that’s where we are now.

Are we all caught up? Yes, great, and on we go.

Ursula Mills battled with how to make Octavia, Caesar’s sister, a strong female character with agency, so as not to do her an injustice, before realising that the greatest justice she could do the sisterhood was to present her as she is written – collateral damage, a woman devoid of agency in Rome. A marriage decided for her, a war waged around her, her place in history written without her hand anywhere near the paper.

The representation of women should be complex.  I want all kinds of women on stage, not just the ‘strong female character’ we all want to see and side with. I want to see and understand and grapple with the Melania Trumps, too.

I think Ursula’s struggle was real and I thank her for being brave enough to play an agentless character, especially at a time when we as women really want to move the hell on and kick some butt.

During all of these volcanic eruptions, the men we were working with listened, encouraged and entered into the rigorous debates with us, which is more than I can say for many ensembles and rehearsal rooms I’ve worked in or heard about over the years.

It will take just as long to dismantle Rome as to build it, but I think the men in our room were aware of the changing climate we are operating in now, and were keen to find their place within it, by creating space for us to speak up and navigate our own story within this old text.

I can get pretty dark about the glacial gender progress in the mainstage companies, but working for Bell on this show put the wind under my sails to continue to be outspoken about what concerns and drives me – because men who are worth working alongside are concerned and driven by it, too.

As for the rest, they can catch up or pull up stumps, because the game has changed and the rules of exclusivity and patriarchy are being examined and challenged, one scene at a time.

“Question everything” – Serena Guen

Cleopatra:             Met’st thou my posts?

Alexas:                    Ay, madam, twenty several messengers. Why do you send so thick?

Cleopatra:             Who’s born that day / When I forget to send to Antony / Shall die a beggar.

When I first read this exchange between Alexas and Cleopatra I rolled my eyes at what I thought was a love-sick woman desperate for her man to return.

However, in the rehearsal room this exchange was explored in a political context; if Antony did not return to Egypt, Cleopatra could not remain in control of their relationship and therefore Egypt’s political alignment with Rome was in danger. The letters became not out of devotion, but strategy for her country’s survival.

I had a similar initial reaction to Cleopatra’s behaviour on learning that Antony had remarried in Rome.

When Cleopatra first finds out from Alexus of Antony’s marriage to Caesar’s sister, Octavia, she snaps – she slaps Alexus on the face and then chases her out of the room with a knife.

Charmian calms her down, telling her to “keep herself within herself”. Then, always working on a knife’s edge, Catherine’s Cleopatra shifts into a deeply serious moment, showing us again Cleopatra as a political leader:

Cleopatra:             In praising Antony, I have dispraised Caesar.

Charmian:             Many times, madam.

Cleopatra:             I am paid for’t now.

These three lines are vital for the political history of Cleopatra. She is the ruling monarch of Egypt, but the world is ruled by the Triumvirate, Octavius Caesar, Marcus Lepidus and Mark Antony.

If she is not in favour with them, her country and her position in the world is under threat.

Her love for Antony – which is real and passionate – has also made her vulnerable in a world that is owned by men. She has let her guard down, and now she must compete with another woman to get back on top.

This play, among other things, is about a powerful woman trying to exist in a patriarchal world. Two thousand years later we are still working this out, still trying to find our way to hold our power and create our own space without feeling threatened by men or aligning with them for our safety.

It’s why Virginia Woolf wrote A Room of One’s Own in 1929 and we’re all still clinging to it today. It’s what gave Margaret Atwood the fire to write The Handmaid’s Tale in 1985 and over 20 years later it’s still a harrowing reality check.

It’s why the success of Big Little Lies was such a revelation to watch, both for the characters onscreen and for the shifts in the industry it provoked offscreen.

It’s Oprah standing up at the Academy Awards telling us all A New Day Is Dawning.

It’s a REVELATION when women are allowed to not just get to the top like the men do, but actually change the structure completely. That’s the goal. Not to be a successful woman in a male-dominated society. But to live in a different society altogether.

I understood this better through working on Antony and Cleopatra and feeling the tragedy of the three women on stage at the end of the play dying to be free. It didn’t feel problematic, it felt like a reality check for all those who think the Western world we’ve inherited has been/ is safe for women.

Seems the rumours are true: the classics can be deceivingly useful in holding our contemporary society up to the light and seeing it for all it has ever been, is now and could potentially become.

Civil liberties are theoretical if they are not accompanied by economic freedom – Simone de Beauvoir

That feeling of being invited to the grown-ups table at Christmas was hard to shake.

I couldn’t believe the levels of support – financial, administrative, development, technical – that were available to facilitate Peter’s vision. It was like being, you know, a grown up artist.

I loved that we were all swept up in this fabulous whirlwind of tangible, visible productivity and practicality but then, each day, we would find ourselves in the calm eye of the storm: on the one hand, sets were built and props sourced at lightning speed for Peter to experiment with in rehearsals, and on the other, having five weeks full time rehearsals meant that ideas had time to gestate, scenes could be unpacked slowly in the room and finessed over the weeks to come.

In the independent theatre sector, resources are scant and time is stolen around actors availabilities and part-time work schedules. So to see the stability in a mainstage rehearsal schedule, the rigour in a production meeting, the pace with which a design was sourced and built and altered was not just inspiring, but crucial for me in understanding the difference between the independent sector and the mainstage.

Not to say that epic works aren’t being created without these resources, but it just made me realise why our lives are so god damn difficult out there in the indie theatre sector.

I went into Bell thinking that Peter’s job would be easier than mine because surely the higher up you go the easier it is, right?

In the indie scene a small team of creatives and management are often multitasking across various jobs – for She Said Theatre we usually work with a tiny team of between eight and 15. Between us we have to put on many many hats. The creatives not only have to design but then they usually have to do the rest – outsource equipment, sew, source, build, beg, borrow or steal.

I am working as the director, Seanna van Helten works as the writer, and then the two of us work together on everything else: producing, fundraising, grant writing, publicity, social media, educational resources, while also trying to pitch work and keep the ball rolling for future gigs. And, all this, as yet, is still unfunded and largely unpaid.

So, without depressing myself further with my financial situation, you get the picture that it’s tough going to keep an emerging indie theatre company running in Australia right now.

Surely, directing for the mainstage is a walk in the park, right? Well …

Getting to work closely with Peter everyday and be privy to his daily schedule, I realised that the privilege of running a mainstage company does not lesson the pressure on the individual, but adds to it in a totally different way.

Peter is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met. Pre-rehearsal board meetings, lunch breaks spent in management meetings, after-work philanthropy and development meetings or corporate events – and this is around his eight contact hours in the room as director with eleven actors and four designers, two stage managers and one assistant director looking at him at all times for guidance and decisions.

And that’s just in the room. There are the dozens of people outside the room (builders, makers, managers, staff across three major performing arts venues etc) who report either directly or indirectly to him.

As well as that, as the Artistic Director of a company that focuses heavily on education, development and touring, he has to be across the company’s education programs, regional tours and programs and writing programs. And that’s just the list of things I know he has to be across. I am sure there are many more I was not around to witness.

For some reading this the inner-workings of a major theatre company will be obvious and my starry eyes will no doubt seem naïve, but in a country where the training for theatre directing is maximum two years (and only one in most arts schools), this insight has been invaluable for me to realise what I’m signing up for.

As important as talent is to being a great director and a respected Artistic Director, the fact is that the eight hours in the rehearsal room everyday and the private preparation and research done in the early mornings and late evenings is only the half of it.

The hustle to keep a theatre company alive in Australia today is as epic as the production you’re trying to get out into the world, and that exhaustion needs a stable structure around it that supports the individuals and the process within in, not just the product.

While She Said and many companies like us are keeping afloat for now, if we don’t get proper funding, ongoing philanthropic support, a cheap and stable rehearsal space and a team of people we can afford to pay what they’re worth to help keep us moving, our art will suffer, and we’ll be, if we’re honest, over before we’ve even been able to really start.

Peter’s life is no less busy or stressful, in many ways it is far more so than mine, but what a bigger ship affords him is the ability to delegate and use the support structure that the company itself makes priority.

It goes back to the Company Manager, Charlotte, saying on day one that sexual harassment or inappropriate behaviour won’t be tolerated. There is someone there to ensure that policies are carried through and everyone’s safety and health is a priority. And that includes the safety and health of the director, something that I wish for so many of my directing friends in the independent sector, myself included.

I have loved pulling back the curtains on the mainstage and discovering the secrets to the magic tricks.

I would love it if the independent and mainstage companies were in constant conversation with each other so that cross-pollination can continue.

The indie scene has energy, passion and a fearlessness that we can afford because of our different audience base (She Said’s audiences are predominately young women, for example) that I would argue the larger companies need to keep their rehearsal room conversations honest and charged with a healthy dose of anarchy.

The mainstage has bricks and mortar, policy, infrastructure and resources they could make available to emerging artists to nurture new talent and help us keep the independent sector sustainable in a country where art – in particular that which isn’t dubbed as ‘excellent’ – is undervalued and rarely funded.

We can all make great art and should across our platforms for audiences of all interests and demographics, but without a safety net around our entire community some of us will fall through the cracks and that would be a real shame for the growth and diversity of our theatre industry and the experiences of theatre audiences in the future.

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