By Garreth Cruikshank
I recently had the opportunity to meet and talk to Olivia Brown, the producer of “Hurried Steps”, and Nicolette Kay, the director.
“Hurried Step” by Dacia Maraini in collaboration with Amnesty International, is part of a global campaign to stop violence against women and girls. The play was written to coincide with the ‘U.N. Women’s Campaign’, 16 days of activism starting November 25th – White Ribbon Day.
Dacia Maraini is Italy’s leading literary voice, and was nominated for the Man Booker International prize in 2011 & the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2014, as well as winning Italy’s most prestigious literary awards. She is a novelist, playwright, screen writer, poet and essayist.
The play was written to be performed ‘oratorio style’ (Theatre of the Word – as described by Ms Maraini’s one time script collaborator, Pier Paolo Pasolini). It presents a selection of ten true stories, confronting and often shocking, dealing with issues of rape, forced abortion, honour killings, generational family abuse, war crimes, sex trafficking and female genital mutilation – the complete spectrum of cruelty and brutality visited upon women and girls (“the weaker sex”). The stories are from every corner of the globe – Belgium, Italy, Jordan, England, Tibet, Mexico, Nigeria, Albania, and a new one add for the Australian production.
Prior to its opening at the Playhouse Theatre at NIDA I spoke to Olivia Brown, both the producer and one of the cast, which included Grant Cartwright, Bodelle de Ronde, Lex Marinos & Emele Ugavule.
G.C: Olivia, the promotional literature for Dacia Maraini’s play “Hurried Steps”, refers to it as raising the question: Why is violence against women & girls prevalent in all countries & cultures and across all social, religious and geographical groups?’ Reading this, one may be tempted to think that the magnitude of the problem is so vast that it is beyond a solution. How do you, as the producer, reconcile the need to acknowledge the scale of the problem with the pressing need to find urgent answers, and how does this play advance that process?
O.B: I think for Dacia Maraini, the answer is patriarchy. If one looks at the issues raised in the play, the cause is the long existing desire to control women in order to create a stable society which best serves the needs of the male population. Some of the practices engaged go back for thousands of years – for instance the practice of FGM can be traced back over 5000 years. I think the first step in changing this situation is to pay attention to the issues. Become aware. Spread the desire for change. The play was commissioned by Amnesty International to launch their program – Stop Violence Against Women & Girls……the operative word being STOP! The situation will not change overnight. Some women with low, or no, education who are ruled over with harsh expectations and shocking punishments, have no power. It is for international support groups to identify the injustices and, within the bounds of cultural sensitivity, encourage progress for women. They must insist that the law of the land is followed, and religious or cultural power does not over-ride them. For instance, death by stoning for Adultery is forbidden by law. International action against this practice can save a condemned woman, and has done so. The play shows us suffering and injustice. Seeing it is the first step to change.
O.B: I think the incidences of violence against women has increased. Statistics indicate that this is the case, and offences reported in the areas of Domestic Related Assault , sexual offences against women, breaches of Apprehended Violence Orders, are all increasing. However, as a part of our changing circumstances, there is more support for people subjected to these behaviours, more help available to them – so, perhaps that is why more incidences are reported.
G.C: How important is “Hurried Steps” and plays like it, in changing awareness of this global problem, changing the narrative of male/female relationships, and ultimately, changing behaviour? Are these plays simply preaching to the converted, or do they have a resonance in the wider community?
O.B: There is a sense that plays like HURRIED STEPS preach to the converted but they can also show, through the empathy in the response to the characters and their circumstances, they can provoke awareness where there was none, and promote discussion. One example in this season of HURRIED STEPS is that two of my friends came to see the play. They are educated and worldly women. I met them while travelling with the Art Gallery of NSW in Spain. I talked to them about FGM because I was carrying out research into the subject at that time. So they knew about the practice. They came to the play, probably to support my efforts. They were thoroughly shocked when this scenario was played out before them. So, I suppose I am saying that you can “know ” about it, but once you are touched by the subject emotionally, in the theatre, you really begin to understand. Become aware. And care. I suppose that is to do with the power of theatre. Especially when the play is written by a very skilled, intelligent and compassionate writer – such as Dacia Maraini.
G.C: In 2014 I directed a new full-length play about domestic violence, and early in 2015 I was one of a large group of actors, writers and directors involved in the production “Rhymes With Silence”, a series of short plays about domestic violence. It seemed that it was an issue that was ‘gaining traction’ and increased social awareness. However, a few months later there was a spate of terrible and shocking stories of men attacking, and frequently killing, their partners and sometimes their own children. What do you think it will take to change male attitudes towards women and violence?
O.B: I think men who are compelled to commit these shocking acts need help. They need to be identified. I think that is the basis of the Luke Batty story. Luke’s father had demonstrated his mental instability, but until he had committed the crime, it was like there was no case to answer. I believe that situation is changing, thanks to wide coverage of that horrendous situation.
G.C: Is the problem the result of learned patterns of behaviour within the family, social norms & institutional tolerance, or is it deeper than that, literally? Is it the expression of ‘hot-wiring’ within the genetic makeup of human males.
O.B: I don’t believe that ‘hot-wiring’ is within the genetic makeup of human males. Though, few in number compared to acts of violence perpetrated by men, many women are capable of savagery. In preparation for this event, I have been very impressed by the philosophies of White Ribbon Australia. Their message, very strongly expressed, is that this violent behaviour is no part of masculinity……and must not be tolerated. Though, it has been demonstrated by statistics that if you grow up in a violent environment, male or female, you are likely to follow the patterns you observed/learned in childhood. One of the stories in HURRIED STEPS explores this situation.
G.C: There is well over 3000 years of western cultural discourse alone that has informed our attitudes about women in society and the home. Is it simply a matter of re-education, and creating a body of creative work (plays, films, T.V. programs & novels) that shows a different way?
O.B: I believe things have changed a great deal and will continue to progress. Eva Cox was on one of Saturday’s panels for discussion. She found nothing to praise in the play itself and said she was very disappointed that, despite the efforts of so many people (like herself) since the 1960’s & 1970’s, very little has changed. Dacia Maraini, I think would tend to agree with her view about this fact – e.g. despite the laws, etc, there is not true equality. She also spoke of ‘talking to the converted’, and the futility of that. I don’t believe it is futile. I believe that we who are aware of it need to support each other, and continue to renew this awareness and “care”….and bring other people with us. On a banal level, I would say that my father would not under any circumstances be seen pushing a pram/ would never change a nappy. He cared about his family and showed his concern in many ways, but never put his masculinity at risk by being observed doing what in the 1940’s/1950’s was considered a woman’s role in family life. I look at young men today with their children, and the picture is very different. My 27 year old son saw HURRIED STEPS three times and was totally enthralled throughout each performance. I can’t imagine a young man in the 60’s and 70’s being prepared to sit through an hour of stories about the lives of women. So, I am hopeful. I believe attitudes are changing and awareness is growing. Plays like HURRIED STEPS, if of that quality, support growth – and tell us a lot about the world – not the least of which is that insurmountable barriers against change and progress are ‘poverty and lack of education’.
G.C: Thank you Olivia.
After the performance at the New Theatre on the morning of Sunday 27th, I had the opportunity to meet and chat with the play’s U.K. director, Nicolette Kay, who had come to Sydney specifically to direct this short season.
G.C: Nicolette, you have directed several plays by Ms Maraini over the years. What is it about her work that you find especially appealing, that resonates with you as a theatre director, a story teller, and a woman?
N.K: Her theatre work is very exciting for me as it reveals itself through performance. On the page it is nothing like the 3 dimensional experience. She weaves multi-layers that are not at first apparent and, although I present her work in translation, there is usually a poetic/rhythmic undercurrent that carries an audience on an emotional journey. She also tackles violence in a tangible way, she doesn’t hold back.
G.C: Do you think that political theatre still has a place and value in a modern society? Does it make a difference, does it have the ability to change things for the better, or is it simply ‘preaching to the converted’? Are the people who need to hear what this play is saying – the abusive husbands/boyfriends/family members, in the audience?
N.K: I don’t consider that violence against women and girls should be confined as a political issue. It’s an issue for the whole of humanity. The difference between this play and, for instance, a play like Hamlet is that violence and abuse against young women is acknowledged and recognized for what it is, and not regarded as a normal way to tell a man’s story.
It doesn’t matter to me who is in the audience because there is usually at least one piece of information that someone hadn’t understood before. There have been women in past audiences who have recognized that their friends might be in an abusive relationship and they hadn’t identified this with such clarity before, and at the discussion, or sometimes with promotional literature, there has been the opportunity to point people in the direction of support groups who have telephone helplines.
It is unlikely that a man attending a performance would disclose if he had been abusive, so I’m unable to tell if there have been such people in the audience.
Here in Sydney many people in the audience had not really known about the prevalence and the different types of FGM that are being practised on girl children.
G.C: Given that the stories contained within Ms Maraini’s play are based on often shocking real life facts reported to Amnesty International, what have been the biggest challenges for you as the director in staging this play?
N.K: The biggest challenge is to encourage actors to approach the text without considering themselves either as victims or as perpetrators. The stories are so shocking that in rehearsal we have to wipe the slate clean and remember that at the beginning of the story none of the characters know what’s going to happen to them. The play is particularly challenging for the male actors to enter into the mindset of such controlling men.
G.C: What would you like to see as the outcome of this presentation?
N.K: In an ideal world there would be some kind of sponsorship so that the play could continue to be seen far and wide. And that would include small performances on business premises, in schools and community centres as well as in theatres.
N.K: For Donald Trump this kind of language is normal, and for the women who dismiss his comments as locker room banter who feel that there is some kind of personal reward for supporting such a patriarchal attitude. It is exactly this acceptance and collusion that can trap a woman in a very dangerous and abusive situation. The “normalization” of male control over women is when it gets difficult. At least in our society we are still able to have an open debate about Trump’s comments. This debate is suppressed in many parts of the world – and even within many homes – that’s when women’s bodies are in danger of damage or even death. In America, if women feel sexually harassed and abused they can still have recourse to the law, but if they have normalized abuse, very often women are afraid to take action.
G.C: Are you hopeful for the future with regard to the treatment of women and girls in society?
N.K: I’m very optimistic. Social media is a powerful equalizer for women, and a tool for raising awareness.
One day a young woman in Britain, an ordinary young woman, called Laura Bates, received the third sexist comment and then sexual harassment on a bus. She’d had enough, and in the evening she set up a blog to describe her experience of this “everyday sexism”. This blog has exploded. Laura is now frequently representing women in the media and casting light onto everyday sexism. Locker room banter is being ‘outed’! http://everydaysexism.com/ it won’t happen overnight, but it could take just one generation to bring about enormous change.
G.C: Olivia, what is the purpose of following each performance with a Q&A panel discussion?
O.B: Hurried Steps is intended to promote discussion of the issues raised within the stories. It is structured to be an equally important part of the experience as is the performance of the stories.
When first agreeing to produce HURRIED STEPS in Sydney, we believed it was important to include a story set specifically in Australia. Dacia Maraini agreed to write a new story and the subject decided upon was FGM. It was my job to carry out the research into the practice of FGM in Australia. I did a lot of research on line. Hospitals in Melbourne and Perth in particular have done a great deal of research & training and this provided a lot of information. I also attended a major conference in Sydney – Female Genital Mutilation in Australia is Everyone’s Business – hosted by The Australian Paediatric Surveillance Unit & No FGM Australia. As well, I spoke with a number of professionals in the legal, medical and social services areas, and advocates opposing FGM (some from within the communities practising FGM in Australia – and in other countries as well, of course.) And I was privileged to be able to speak to two survivors of the experience.
From all these experiences, a large number of these very brilliant and busy people generously provided their time and expertise to the audience discussion. Other people who made a great contribution were Allan McKinnon who was the White Ribbon Ambassador on White Ribbon Day and representatives from LIFELINE and Amnesty International Australia.
I found these people to be inspirational in their dedication to changing attitudes to violence against women & girls in any form.
Eva Cox was a panelist on Saturday afternoon. She was not impressed – believing it was all “old hat” and presenting women as victims which was not appropriate. As I said before, she expressed disappointment that, despite all the efforts of women in 1960’s & 1970’s, we have not progressed. As a guest, she was, of course, entitled to her views……
I think our biggest problem regarding the staging of the performances and the panel discussions was the timing. We had planned to have the two performances on White Ribbon Day especially for youth audiences (15+) We expected that would work well. Unfortunately, there is so much going on in schools at this time that there was little response.
G.C: Let’s hope that some enterprising person, female or male, will take up the challenge and fund its performance at a sporting event, as happened in Italy. Thank you for giving me your time Olivia & Nicolette.