Seanna van Helten and Penny Harpham started She Said Theatre because they couldn’t see any clear pathways to make the type of work they wanted to create. Now their new show, Fallen, a powerful new work about fallen women finding a new life on the other side of the world, opens at fortyfivedownstairs this week, following a highly successful premiere season in Sydney. I spoke to van Helten about creating the company and this work, how it has been impacted by the #MeToo movement, and how she sees women in theatre.
They met at met at the University of Queensland, and both really wanted to make their careers in theatre.
“We could see that women were underrepresented in the main stage as writers and directors and even performers. We sensed this absence without really being in any conversation about it. But we did have these very talented, very capable, and very driven female artists around us in the independent theatre scene, so we just sort of went for it, and learned as we went” van Helten said on the inception of She Said Theatre.
“Years later, the conversation did really pick up in a big way – the Australia Council released their Women in Theatre report which confirmed that main stage Australia theatre is dominated by white men in the key creative positions. We have been creating works as She Said on and off for about twelve years now and while the conversation has certainly broadened and amplified during that time, there are still inequalities that remain unchanged, if at least no longer unchallenged. You only need to look at who is running all the major performing arts companies to see how that plays out” she said.
She’s passionate about seeing equality in the arts.
“As a community we still need to keep questioning and calling out inequality. It’s not just about who’s in charge and who’s making all the creative decisions, but how that excludes and undervalues certain perspectives and voices, how that influences the types of stories that are programmed, how that shapes the audiences’ tastes and ideas of what constitutes merit” van Helten said.
She Said Theatre has created eight new Australian works over 12 years, and van Helten has co-authored or written five of these. The company’s mission is to prioritise female and other under-represented artists both on-and off-stage, so it made sense to them to create new works in order to amplify new voices. At She Said Theatre, van Helten and Harpham’s vision is to create shows that open new perspectives, challenged received stories, and present alternative histories.
“Making new works is about telling new stories – trying to re-examine and shift received ideas about what stories have merit and value in our culture. Fallen addresses this idea directly – it centres on six female characters who have been told that their past experiences and actions are so shameful that they must be hidden away. Their stories are silenced. And they are being sent to the other side of the world in order to be free from the judgment and expectations of their former society. And yet, at the same time, the play also demonstrates that these women’s stories only have value if they are sensational and salacious enough to warrant our attention” said van Helten.
The show is inspired by the real history of a home for young “fallen” women founded by Charles Dickens in 1840s London.
“I first heard about it when listening to a radio interview with Jenny Hartley, an author who researched the home and wrote a book about it. It stood out to me straight away as a story that had a lot of theatrical potential – a house full of women with secrets. The philosophy behind the home was in essence the promise of a clean slate in the faraway colonies of Australia: all transgressions relating to the woman’s “fall” erased, a new life awaiting in a faraway country where no one can know or judge you on your past. It was hoped they would become useful servants to British settlers, and perhaps one day even marry one of their own (again, women as supporting roles in men’s stories). But they had to agree to lock up their life story and throw away the key”, she said.
“We want our production to draw a connection between this real history and the Australia we live in today. When you zoom out from Fallen to look at the story behind it in relation to the history of settler Australia, you are forced to reckon with that history. What happens when the notion of a clean slate is based in suppression of the past? What happens to a nation that is built on that idea? How are voices still being silenced in Australia today? We see this in popular culture all the time – stories in which women’s experiences are sidelined to the central male plot, and then appearing only to be violently assaulted or killed on screen or stage. Or stories in which a woman’s violent or traumatic back-story is the only thing that makes us care for her”, she reflected on women’s representation in Australia and the media.
They don’t have a gender-based reason for working with an all female creative team, and they don’t always work with only women, but they try to ask women first to give them that opportunity. They find it easy to find and hire female creatives and creatives from culturally diverse backgrounds – they just do it.
“You can only really learn theatre practice by doing it, so you have to be able to clock up experience working on shows. Skills and experience are often used as the reason to exclude people in the theatre industry, so when you see the same people getting work over and over it’s because they can keep honing their craft and building their networks as they go. So that opportunity is something we can offer” said van Helten.
“What #MeToo brought to light very plainly in the arts and entertainment industry is how easily power and privilege is abused in a hierarchical culture, and especially a culture in which women are not only disproportionately underrepresented in leading creative roles, but also in the content of the culture itself: in our stories, in our plays, in our theatres. Doubly so for women of colour, and women from non-English speaking backgrounds. Obviously someone still needs to make the ultimate decision for what the show needs, but it can be informed by the conversations we have along the way. We want to change the culture in which theatre works are made, not just the works themselves.”
The show was first performed in Sydney, and now that it is being remounted in Melbourne, there have been some script changes, new design decisions, and a new Melbourne cast.
“You learn so much about a show when you see it performed live. We are also working with a new Melbourne cast and they are all bringing new energies and ideas to their characters. #MeToo broke a few months after the Sydney season and suddenly there was this new language emerging with which to talk about the inequalities and abuse women and other under-represented artists experience. The silence was broken. We always knew this was something we were trying to get at with Fallen, but now we were able to articulate it more fully and in dialogue with a much bigger conversation happening around us”.
The show is an exploration of silence and power, and how the shame is put back onto these characters or victims, – instead of a society taking collective responsibility for a woman who has “fallen,” the woman herself is asked to leave everything behind and take her shame elsewhere. This was the same pattern that was exposed by #MeToo – instead of abusers or the company they worked for being held accountable, women were forced to give up their job, their careers, their self-worth and live steeped in false shame for what had happened to them.
“Fallen is a play about the silencing of women – how it works, all the ways in which judgment and expectation can coax women into silence – and how difficult it is to break that silence and speak truth to power. The play centres on women who have zero power in their society – they are destitute, orphaned, widowed, homeless, uneducated. The home provides stability and security and also care and kindness. They aren’t imprisoned or beaten into submission. But the play shows there are still other, more subtle, and more effective ways to get women to conform. For some people, being told to stay silent about your past could be an act of kindness or protection from prejudice. But implicit in the idea that you stay silent about your past is the notion that you ought to be ashamed about it – and if you’re ashamed, than its your fault somehow. And even if it isn’t your fault, who would believe you anyway?
Fallen opens this week at fortyfivedownstairs. Don’t miss out on this thought provoking and powerful piece, which is sure to generate many conversations about equality today. More information and tickets: https://www.fortyfivedownstairs.com/wp2016/event/fallen/