For the past month and a half I've been working with a group of ten women as we devise, perform, debate, talk about, talk about, talk about, talk about and eventually got around to making a piece of theatre. We finally opened a few days ago and the process has been an exciting, fascinating, frustrating experience. Our brief was simple but huge: we wanted to make a piece that reflected the experiences of being young, female and South African in 2013. We wanted to talk about what made us angry, what made us unhappy, what we were optimistic about, what we felt and thought about the crisis faced by South African women. So nothing major. We wanted to get loud and use our voices and play in a safe space and hang out in the company of other women and and and...
I wrote a whole thesis about working inside feminist devised processes and then went on to stage my play, Free Falling Bird, in support of that thesis. In the end though, the process ended up being less collaborative and more directed (blame economics, time...). So with The Bitching Hour I got to do what I didn't achieve with my own experiment a year ago: work inside the entirely collaborative, democratic space of the collective.
We had many conversations, at first. Long, detailed, circuitous, emotional conversations about our experiences, anecdotes and stories we'd heard, lived through, read. We continued to 'interrupt' the work to tell stories all the way to the end of the process, until the very last rehearsal. We connected and understood one another and found our material through the stories we shared.
We'd always had in mind that this version of the performance would function as a first draft of something that would be developed later. The process was open to pieces of writing from any member of the collective, to improvisational suggestions, the sense of an open space where any of us could, at any time, take the floor as director, performer, playwright, choreographer, observer or maker. I've come to understand that working in this way is intrinsic to the creation of feminist theatre. In talking about the multi-authored processes favoured by feminist companies, Shelley Scott says, when talking about Nightwood Theatre (Canada's oldest professional women's company) has said:
The awareness of sexism [in other companies] led to a commitment to some form of collective structure, as a conscious disavowal of patriarchal structures. At least half of feminist theaters in existence [since 1979] were organized as collectives and over two-thirds used a collective/collaborative process to create works for performance. (2010:221)
Using a process this democratic can be freeing for a number of reasons. But stringing together so many ideas into a coherent form, with all opinions and contributions holding equal weight, has always been my biggest challenge with devising (playwrights are the head of the house, dammit). It's required me to put aside my writerly tendencies towards solitude and work with a group of people who are opinionated, stubborn, overwhelming and brave. All the things I like in a woman.
We run until Saturday the 31st. Tickets are > here <
BTW, while we were working, the notable absence of feminist companies making work in South Africa is something that's come up again and again. Where are the women making new plays about women?