Citizen Theatre bring their new, unique and innovative work, Ascent, to the Melbourne Fringe for a very limited season.  Writer, director, and producer (as well as co-creator of Citizen Theatre), Jayde Kirchert, explains that the show started as a short scene, written as part of a project that Stu Brown (resident visual designer for Citizen Theatre and Kirchert’s partner) and Kirchert call ‘100 Days’ – something he heard about whilst listening to a podcast.

“I was writing a new scene everyday inspired by two words created on a random word generator, for 100 days – you can actually do this with anything  (Stu did ‘100 Days 100 Lyrics’) it’s an exercise I get some of my students to do too because it’s so valuable to commit to something for that long, no matter how inane or silly or impossible it seems, ” she says. “After 100 days of anything, you inevitably learn something! The words for this scene were ‘injection’ and ‘load’… it ended up being the last scene of the show. But of course at the time of writing in that 100 days project, I had no idea what was ahead.”

Within about two months Kirchert had a draft script. “At around the three month mark we were doing early workshops in the Citizen Theatre training sessions. Over May-July I got serious about the performance draft, but even last weekend I was still editing and further refining the script. The music is coming together too, which Imogen Cygler (our resident Composer) is creating especially for this show, from scratch. She’s a gifted composer who creates beautiful melodies, gorgeous harmonies and still manages to inject a sense of play and humour.”

For Kirchert, the project is also a very personal journey.

“Ascent also reflects a more general personal me that charts my own desire to be the best version of myself that I can be,” she says. “Whilst this can be a really positive thing (it certainly motivates me to get things done), it can also be detrimental when you don’t know when to stop. It can impact on health, relationships, and then ultimately your ability to actually get things done. The thing I have learnt (and continue to learn) from this experience is to listen to my body when it’s time to stop; this is the main message of the show – to value the intelligence and wisdom of our bodies, rather than be fixated on their function, efficiency or aesthetics.”

Amongst other things, the show explores what it means to dismantle the ideals about what “music theatre is.

Kirchert explains:

“There are definitely particular expectations in music theatre for how you ought to look, especially when going for certain kinds of roles. “Sometimes this is dictated by international casting choices, but it doesn’t make the pressure any less real for those who are impacted by it, no matter how talented they are. In short, music theatre often (but not always) features stereotypical and/or objectified representations of women and diverse people – and part of what we’re doing is offering an alternative for how women can be presented on stage to start shaking things up.

Ascent focuses on the need for constant self improvement, as it relates to the ‘female’ body. In particular, the story deals with how smell expectations are highly gendered and the central character goes to great lengths to no longer smell ‘human’, but to be ‘fresh’. The key phrase that comes up is “less is more”, interrogating the idea of how much space women should take up and how much of their human body should be noticeable. Even though many things have changed in recent years in relation to expectations for female bodies, the thin ideal still pervades.

Jean Kilbourn started researching this decades ago, but watching her videos on the ways the media presents female bodies, it still feels so current. There seems to be increasing pressure on many of us to look young and youthful for as long as possible, which is one of the things we look at in the piece. There is a whole other digital self now that many people, not just women, have to deal with too, which is a more recent phenomenon. It seems that whilst once the pressure to look a certain way was once a woman’s concern, it now includes many other people for different reasons.

The Citizens and I are passionate about telling stories with a positive message so we can start to imagine alternative futures. The best thing we can do is to encourage each other and affirm that we are worth more than what we look like. Our bodies are intelligent and know so much more than we often give them credit for. We’re all about finding ways to empower women through stories that celebrate and offer a new perspective on how women and our bodies can be represented in musical contexts.”

Ascent Square

Kirchert describes the world they are creating as wacky and wonderful. It’s like no other musical work you will ever have seen before – it’s experimental AND feminist.

“We create giant versions of small body parts – for example there’s a giant hand that is made with four legs, two backs and a thigh; there is another scene that will portray a full facelift,” she says. “The opening scene is about getting a haircut, featuring wigs and hair puppets, accompanied by a string quartet (composed by our incomparable resident composer Imogen Cygler). In another scene we explore the hilarity and sadism of the dreaded bikini wax. There is a recurring song, affectionately known as the Smell Song. The original music is extraordinary and the singing is beautiful, too. It’s also surprisingly funny and playful!”

Citizen Theatre is an independent theatre company that has been producing and creating new work and existing plays since 2013. In 2018 they embarked on a new artistic direction: to challenge popular conceptions of what a ‘musical’ theatre can be and work exclusively to create an experimental, feminist music theatre. They are drawn to presenting social causes and issues on stage, working with a feminist, access conscious approach in mind.

Kirchert and team started creating their own training system this year that is still developing so they would be equipped to make the work they wanted to make.

“We borrow from established methods and then twist them to suit our needs,” she says. “This has resulted in a bunch of wacky ‘walks’, ‘worlds’ and experimenting with light, all accompanied by bespoke experimental music and voice use. You can see more of our training process in our documentary series The Making of ASCENT.

Ascent runs for three shows only during the Fringe so get out and be amazed by cutting edge physical theatre illusions, world-class singing and a story that defies gender stereotypes. It’s music theatre as you’ve never experienced before.

28 – 30 September, 2018

Theatre Works – 14 Acland St, St Kilda