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April 1, 2023

Interview: Kate McDowell

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NORPA associate artist Kate McDowell is a Wonderbabe

Wonder on the Grass

NORPA associate artist Kate McDowell is a Wonderbabe. The NIDA graduate in Writing for Performance hails from Lismore and has returned to write and create new and innovative works with her latest creation Wonderbabes being staged at The Quad in Lismore as part of the Byron Writers Festival.

What drives a young woman to set herself alight on New Years Eve in Byron Bay?

Wonderbabes is a powerful and thrilling live storytelling performance by Kate McDowell that exposes the traumas of our young sexual and political lives. Set in Byron Bay on New Years Eve, Wonderbabes is the epic story of one young woman’s journey through the night.

Wonderbabes is about a young woman who’s testing her limits. She’s angry and frustrated with her mother, the world, and pretty much everyone. She wants to cause trouble, get into danger, and feel something intense in order to get to know herself better. This is a hero’s journey,’ said writer and performer Kate McDowell.

‘I wrote it when I was doing my postgrad in Writing at NIDA at the time I felt really angry and frustrated. I remember having an incident when I was out with my classmates in Kings Cross and I wasn’t allowed in the gay bar with some friends, and I lost it, and ranted at my friends for a couple of hours and they found it quite amusing; it was like some sort of exorcism. I used that and have refined and refined the script. At the time I was writing it my teacher was encouraging me from my experience of growing up in the northern rivers.’

Wonderbabes is a one-woman show but created through collaboration with director Elsie Edgerton-Till, designer Charles Davis, composer James Brown, producer Marisa Snow, and lighting designer Richard Morrod.

Although the show was written five years ago, in the current climate that has seen sexism and abuse of women in the public sector become part of an ongoing conversation, the themes of Wonderbabes are timely.

‘I think it’s curious,’ says Kate. ‘I got a message from my best friend, who has followed my writing, and she said, “I feel like this is the best time for you to present this work”. I feel like there is always a pressure to get work out as quickly as possible after it is written. It’s how work retains its currency, but so little has changed with regard to the status of women that the work is actually more relevant now not less.

‘In the show I am not suggesting a way forward. It’s a portrait of what confusion is like for young women and also young men. I was reading it on the plane [Kate has just returned from a dance workshop in Germany] and I realised that the show is also about struggling young men.

‘The show centres around a regular night out in Byron for a woman of that age – set all over Byron town centre, up to Belongil and the lighthouse and around. I wonder why am I writing about this middle-class white girl having a hard time out in Byron Bay. But this is my experience; at the beginning she is feeling misunderstood by her family and by the world. The underlying point is she doesn’t have a voice, and she is confused about her sexuality and she is angry at everything – and she is testing herself and she is a big part of the problem. It’s not a story about some poor girl who goes out and gets raped – I don’t want people to think that’s what the show is.’

Alongside her work with NORPA, Kate is also a member of popular 80s-inspired dance group The Cassettes. Wonderbabes does contain movement and dance – although Kate is reluctant to call herself a ‘dancer’. ‘It’s more movement – and I use dance as a a way of placing her in the pop culture world as well and to show the sexualisation of women in dance video clips. I am using it to represent that heightened performed sexuality that many women do on any night out or in the bedroom.’

Performed outside at the Quad in Lismore, (thanks to the partnership between Southern Cross University and Lismore City Council) the idea is to create an immersive music festival experience for the performance. Producer, Marisa Snow says: ‘The northern rivers is a centre of music-festival culture where a lot of young people have formative experiences. Wonderbabes is an opportunity to see an incredibly powerful theatrical performance presented like a kick-arse music gig. The Quad is the perfect site to present this work and play with the work’s experimental form in an open-air environment.’

‘The Quad is the grass quadrangle outside the new regional galleries; it’s seated and ticketed like a normal show and inside a tent that the designer Charlie is constructing. It will feel like it is more of a site-based experience. I want it to feel as though you are at a festival; the set and the place emulate the type of location where it might have taken place.’ says Marisa

‘I have really struggled with rehearsing on my own,‘ says Kate. ‘   Sometimes I invite people; when it comes to just learning it’s a poetic text. It’s not difficult; it’s set and I have to memorise it. I am getting there; I have been using lots of different techniques to get it down. This is the first time I have done something like that. It’s a story and I know the story so ultimately I just have to tell the story…’

NORPA and The Quad present the Australian premiere of Wonderbabes by Kate McDowell – presented for the Byron Writers Festival program.

Thursday 2 till Saturday 4 August, 7pm | The Quad, 110 Magellan Street, Lismore

Tickets: Adult $30 conc /student $25 | Bookings: 1300 066 772 norpa.org.au

Patron advice: Wonderbabes contains strong coarse language and adult themes including references to suicide, sexual assault, and substance abuse. Recommended for a mature audience, ages 15+.

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