Theatre Works is set to launch their brilliant Chapter Two season with Leah Shelton’s dynamic new work, Bitch on Heat – an untamed political commentary about the sexualisation and vilification of the female body.
For Shelton the work is a kind of history of the sexualisation of women throughout the ages. “An attempt to lay bare the cultural messaging that we are often unaware of,” she says. “I’m interested in subverting this cultural messaging, using heightened imagery and physicality to explore these ideas and I feel that the work, in a way, is a kind of “call to arms”. Perhaps the audience feels implicated at the end? Perhaps the audience has thought about the politics of consent in a different way, and perhaps it will provoke conversations or radical change?”
Shelton was motivated to create the work because, she, like lots of women all over the world, have felt angry and mobilised to speak out about the sexualisation of women and the imbalances of power that exist. Anger at the imbalance of how women are judged and perceived.
“I was angry about the vilification of women in positions of power (Hillary Clinton, Julia Gillard, and so many others) and angry about the casual sexism and implied ownership of women’s bodies that is so entrenched in the ways that we interact with each other.
In many ways this work is responding to this zeitgeist, as well as a continuation of the ideas I started to explore in my first solo work Terror Australis, which was very much about the misogyny and fear of “the other” inherent within Australian culture. “
Shelton collaborated with renowned UK Director and Performance Art Provocateur Ursula Martinez on this new solo work and acknowledges the incredible experience she has had working with Martinez as Director as well as Martinez’s mentorship
“I first met Ursula about six years ago, when she engaged me to learn her infamous red hanky act (which I have since performed all over the world!) – and I had followed her work as a performance artist (in awe!) for several years before that,” says Shelton. “Ursula is one hell of an inspiration – an inimitable, unapologetic, fierce, political performance art provocateur.”
Shelton explains that In terms of challenges, loneliness was a big factor.
“I spent quite a bit of time devising material for the work alone in a rehearsal room – which can get tough! – so having the support to bring in other collaborators into the room was vital to the process. In particular the sound design is integral to the work. My sound designer Kenneth Lyons has an incredible library of source material, but it’s painstaking work, trawling through material looking for samples and sound bites.”
Overall she feels she has assembled a killer team. “Hard work goes hand in hand with laughing and remembering to enjoy the process.”
performs almost the entire show in a restrictive blow-up doll latex rubber suit
and, as can be expected, it’s damn sweaty inside that suit! “There are
literally pools of water in the feet of the suit when I take it off,” she
says. “And (obviously), it feels quite restrictive to strap on fake
silicone breasts, zip yourself into a rubberized stretch bodysuit, and peel on
a mask and rubber lips (the things we do for art!). “
For Shelton, it’s symbolically important in the work. “It overtly heightens the sexualisation of my body, and I become like a Barbie doll – in theory the ultimate female. And then I’m telling the story of Pandora, the first woman on earth, a gift from the gods – dressed like this. So for an audience it’s quite confronting (and ridiculous) to look at this object. I’m interested in that juxtaposition, the absurdity and heightened pantomime-esque mirror of real life.”
Dubbed as absurdist lip-synch meets high-camp performance art, Bitch on Heat says a lot with very few words. In fact, only 4 words are spoken during the entire show but that is the way Shelton likes to do things!
” My work is very heavily layered with lip-sync – it’s very much the form in which I create work (along with extreme costuming, music sampling, parody, myths and pop-culture references) and I use it as a tool to unpack the cultural messaging that we are fed from multiple angles,” explains Shelton. “So, there is a lot of “talk” in the show and I’m channeling all kinds of characters from Pandora, the first woman on earth according to Greek mythology, to Helen Gurley-Brown, editor of Cosmopolitan in the 1970s who recorded these great Lessons in Love instructional records. But the final words are my own words. We played with different ideas; of me talking more or not at all, but the decision came about organically as what the work needed. As a kind of clap back from me, as Leah, to the relentless male narrator voiceover in the work.”
Not surprisingly, International artist Shelton, is most interested in work that subverts and challenges the status quo – political, unashamedly feminist work soaked in cult references and dark humor. She also loves working between the experimental performance world and the Spiegeltent Cabaret Circus variety world. “There are a lot of similarities between carnies and performance artists and I think at the end of the day it’s about creating spaces outside of the mainstream.,” she says. The work Shelton does is itself unique sitting in the sweet spot between cabaret, contemporary theatre, and live art.
Bitch on Heat sounds like a fabulously apt launch for Chapter Two which has been designed with significant focus on new female teams, female-identifying creative leader-ship, and on female/feminist storytelling and theatre making.
So if you love latex and hate the patriarchy, grab a drink, ditch the leash, and come revel in this twisted rehashing of the vintage sexism that drives how we live and love and fight and f*ck. Beware – this bitch bites!
May 8 – 19
Images: Sarah Walker