The Wonderbabe Collective have been artists-in-residence at NORPA for the last two weeks developing a new work called The Adventures of Wonderbabe – a live storytelling performance set to a thumping DJ set,
made for music and cultural festivals.
A young woman is disenchanted with her culture and her voice as silent within it. After a brutal test of her social/sexual limits, she takes her politicised fury to its extremity and burns herself alive on New Years Eve in Byron Bay in an act of terrorism. It is a thrilling ride and a picture of young female sexuality in Australia that is so accurate the mirror is possibly too clean; it is hard to stomach even for the most open-minded of men, meanwhile young women often identify the story as the casual truth, one they carry with them always – which is perhaps the most shocking part.
The Echo spoke to writer/performer Kate McDowell.
What was the inspiration for your work?
By the time I’d already tried out a few ideas – I started with terrorism and racism – it was a time when I felt I was cracking because it was dawning on me that I had no political voice, that in every context I stepped into I felt powerless, and as someone with a revolutionary streak – wanting to be able to argue and debate and create change – realising that the culture I lived in had no space for my voice, it was shocking. At the same time I was trying to understand what it means to embrace the new wave of ‘slut’ feminism – to be entirely sexually liberated as a political act, and as a way of getting out of the loop of being affected by men and society’s way of defining me.
How did you craft the narrative?
I began by writing a whole lot – scenes from events that had happened in my and my friend’s lives as well as fictional scenes, mythical scenes, anything that came to me that could deal with what was making me angry, that could articulate how I saw the state of my culture. Then I began stitching these scenes together. It went through countless drafts and evolved immensely over the course of a year (the year I studied a postgraduate diploma of writing for performance at NIDA). What I realised as I was working through drafts was that there was a link for me between the ideas I had around terrorism and the way we demonise terrorists; I see them as people confused, fighting for something, trying to break out of oppression – and the struggle I see for women. So I amalgamated the ideas, and made myself a terrorist, and then I’d found my allegory, the frame from which to tell my story. I also realised through the process that I had been setting the story in everywhere except where I grew up – probably a spill-over of the Australian cultural cringe – anywhere is more interesting than home. My teacher Stephen Sewell encouraged me to write from my specificity; that’s when the story really took off, when I was able to set it in the colours and smells of Byron, of this region, of the place that made me.
How difficult is it, do you think, for young people to speak about trauma? Why do you think it is important?
I feel young people don’t want to complain. Young men and women want to be cool, and together and strong – and so often they work through their trauma in their own bubble – I certainly did. And when there aren’t stories being told around them that relate directly to their experience, that aren’t shying away from the truth, I think they can often feel like they are alone. I believe that storytelling has the power to show us the extreme version of our struggles, to see them in the context of the bigger picture, so we don’t have to be so attached to the struggle personally, so we can place ourselves within a continuum and make more informed choices about our social and political life.
Why have you chosen epic poetry and allegorical text to express this piece?
Because we have been performing Shakespeare and Greek tragedy since forever – because we love to understand our moral dilemmas through heightened stories and heightened language – we love to be consumed by stories that are epic, and tragic, and greater than ourselves. So I have written this story using the allegorical form and in heightened language to lift it out of the pedestrian – to make the life we live here, the struggle, the trauma of our small lives – epic. To make our struggle important. And to take us to a place of beauty and grandness, as a way of honouring the scale of the impact small events have on young people’s lives, or anyone’s lives. It’s a form we don’t see a lot of in new work for the theatre, especially in Australia, and I miss it here. In a secular world where we are moving away from organised religion and into a plethora of spiritualities, I think epic, grand stories that express something of our current moment in history, are important.
Have we become over sexualised and desensitised; how has this manifested in our young people?
Yes and no. We have become super sexualised and we see sex everywhere but, at the same time, I think many people are seeking something more real, something more connected, something that’s harder to get. I know for me, in a world where I could choose polyamory, I feel compelled to try out that life, to be contemporary, to be as liberated as possible; I’m sure many other men and women feel the same way, feel the need to capitalise on the capacity to break out of old ideas about sexuality. But in many ways this is another trap for people who don’t necessarily enjoy that life, who don’t want to go down the rabbit hole of sexual extremes and who end up finding it hard to find a connection that is genuinely liberating for them, the kind of love that transcends all the politics.
I feel that young people struggle in a world where romance and suspense are harder to get. Where the story is taken out of it, where happiness in love relies so heavily on the physical. I think it manifests negatively when young men and women see love and sex without the care and the compassion. In many ways, we need to become more desensitised; sex education needs to be complete; young men and women need to learn about it from an early age, so that it’s understood anatomically, properly, so that sex isn’t a taboo anymore, and connection and genuine expression of love and affection can be important, over competitiveness of how far we go in our sex lives. That just drives people to see sex and relationships as a game to be won. And if it’s a game, there will always be people who lose.
We see it in the recent pornographic ring run by young boys in high schools trading naked photos of girls, playing a game of shaming the girls they pinned on their lists. The girls in many cases were complicit in being sexually engaged with the boys who were secretly taking their photos and then trading them online. These boys are trying to gain validity and control in their culture; the question is how do we teach these young men about their worth, about how they are loved by their community, outside of their capacity to destroy the reputation of the most desired girl. I think by desensitising them further, by making sex normal, then young men and women will be more liberated to make their own choices, without feeling under pressure to use sex as a social or political act of power.
What does young feminism look like? How has it evolved and changed, do you think?
It is completely eclectic. Everything from young girls posting almost naked photos on social media regularly as choice to make their sexualisation empowering, to the ‘free the nipple’ movement to enable female bodies to be not sexualised, to women fighting hard to be allowed to be significant and heard aside from their sexuality, following on from the work of second-wave feminists – trying to take that to its end, to equality; and then there are men and women fighting for emotional and motherly power to be recognised in a world where we still have a political system that shuts down any expression of emotion.
All the prongs are valid for the individual women, but ultimately we are still fighting against a culture that wants us to be quiet, and to be available, to be polite and sweet – while that’s not all people in our culture who require this of women, it is certainly still the way it is is mainstream media.
Why do you think there is so much rage? Where does it come from?
The rage comes from being silenced and from being ignored.
What is the ‘casual truth’ that women carry with them?
That most women have been raped or assaulted. That most women feel that they are battling to find their voice and their place every day. That most women are constantly struggling culturally, politically, sexually, to find stillness and peace in who they are and how they are received and heard.
What is your background in theatre and performance?
I grew up training in performing locally in Lismore with Theatre Theatre Productions, then I went to study Writing for Performance at the University of Wollongong, and then at NIDA. I also grew up as a dancer and have trained in puppetry and physical theatre. I am primarily a writer, but like working collaboratively, crossing roles.
How did you become involved with NORPA’s artist-in-residence program?
I spend a lot of time hanging around. I knocked on Julian Louis’s door again and again until he listened to me. And then I came in and read some of my work to him and Emily Berry, who was producer at the time. They were excited by the ideas, the language, and the potential of the work to reach young audiences. I was also awarded an Arts NSW grant, which enabled me to bring up my team from Sydney to develop it here, with NORPA’s help.
What should we expect for the work-in-progress showing?
You should expect to be shocked, but you should also expect to be warmed, by the generosity of the story. It opens up the audience to understand something deeper about young people and the complexity of the sexualised world they are being brought up in and, also, the locality of Byron Bay and its nightlife, its many quirks and intricacies.
A work-in-progress showing of The Adventures of Wonderbabe is on Thursday 15 December, 6.30pm in the NORPA studio at Lismore City Hall. Recommended for ages 18+ – explicit and confronting material. Tickets $10 by donation on the door. Feedback after the showing is welcomed and encouraged.