|Daisy Coyle, Project Xan|
photo Toni Wilkinson
“1981, Australia. A young girl goes to a party. She drinks enough alcohol to render herself unconscious. Throughout the night she is sexually violated by three young men. A year later at the subsequent trial, the judge accentuates her culpability, essentially laying the blame for the assault on her. The perpetrators receive little more than a ‘slap on the wrist’” (press release).
Thirty-five years later, the adult Xan Fraser is to appear in Project Xan, a documentary performance which tells her story of trauma, “rape culture and victim blaming.” RealTime spoke with the production’s writer-director Hellie Turner about the outcome of her five-year collaboration with Xan.
Why did you initiate the project?
Purely as an exercise to try to investigate what would allow such a thing to occur in our society. I never wanted us to re-enact it. We treat Xan’s story through her own testimony, court transcripts, reportage on similar incidents at the time and very much embedded in current pop culture in articles and on social media. There’s a plethora [of material], a mosaic, I guess, to do with rape culture versus safe culture, ‘entitlement,’ lack of consent, victim blaming and ‘slut shaming.’ The list goes on. We touch on a lot but we’re not hammering the issue. We didn’t want it to come across as educational so much as getting people to be more mindful of their own contribution to this culture.
It was Xan’s treatment by the court that was additionally traumatic?
Hugely traumatic. She still cries. We’re tackling the way at the age of 12 she was treated by the judicial system and then by her community—well, by everyone in her world really. The court system really let her down very, very badly. We use the device of having her 12-year-old self appear as well. The testimony oscillates between the two—‘little Xan,’ as we call her, and Xan herself. She talks to herself, basically. Together they unpick what was going on in the courtroom.
How young is the actress who plays the 12-year-old Xan?
A 19-year-old, Daisy Coyle, who looks 12. We decided we’d use someone who was over 15 because there’s a lot of difficulty around working with younger performers, especially with this material, which is heavy.
Will the emotional weight of Xan’s suffering be felt?
I would think very heavily. I try not to call the rape an ‘incident’ by the way. We try to name it for what it is. Xan’s testimony describes strongly what she knows and feels about what happened that night. Then we’ve totally unpicked all the reasons this happened, how it was enabled.
How have you gone about the writing?
Xan has written her testimony. She’s an incredible woman who’s had a very successful life once she got across the detritus of the rape and the treatment [she received]. She’s very articulate and also very stage savvy. I’ve nipped-and-tucked her testimony just for stage-ease. I’ve touched very little and none of the facts except where it’s repetitive. It’s the same with the court transcripts. We’ve had to pick through those.
You’ve been working with David Williams. How would you describe your roles?
David is obviously the documentary theatre expert. I linked up with him back in 2012 when I did a residency with version 1.0. which is where this whole project was ignited. I asked David if he would be the consultant and he agreed. Then I wrote a script based on what we discovered in workshops—David and Xan would fly in to WA from Sydney. Then I took it all away to Varuna [The National Writers’ House, Blue Mountains, NSW] where I sat in a very dark room for two weeks and put the first draft together. We’re now at the 12th draft and, after being in rehearsal for the last two weeks, the script has become much more malleable and really enhanced by the work of the actors.
Why have you adopted a skating rink setting?
The night Xan was sexually assaulted, she should have gone skating. That decision changed her life. So we have the 12-year-old on roller skates for the entire play and we make use of the circular skating rink format.
I guess there’s a sense of freedom and fun in the skating?
Yes, it works well. It’s not a fun play by any means but we’re trying not to be heavy-handed, except where we absolutely need to be. Xan’s own testimony is very simply told. There’s no drama to it. She just tells her story. It still upsets her, you know, when she spends a whole day working towards delivering it.
Are there other performers?
Yes, two males [Marko Jovanovic and Nick Maclaine] and one other female actor [Siobhan Dow-Hall]. We needed a male perspective. I think if we did it with an all-female cast, people wouldn’t look at what we’re talking about—“Oh, it’s just new wave feminism.” We really got the men to come at it from a male perspective. There’s been a lot of discussion which has been really helpful.
Are they playing the villains in the narrative?
Neither gets to play a baddie all the time. In fact, we try not to be too black and white about good and bad. We’re just saying, this is what it was.
Let’s talk about the design.
We’re doing a minimalist documentary theatre thing using linoleum for the rink. It looks like granite so the whole effect is quite grey, like a courtroom, and with lovely old wooden chairs and a couple of boxes, and that’s it. We do have a jury comprising wig heads. Xan’s profession now is hairdressing, so, in probably one of the lighter moments of the play, the jury members have their hair done by a bunch of hairdressers.
Will you discuss the play and the issues it raises with the audience? People who see Project Xan might make disturbing connections between what's portrayed in it and their own lives.
We are providing warnings about the content and contacts for people who need help. Within our group, working on Project Xan, everyone has been touched by it in some way.
The Royal Commission into institutional sexual abuse has prompted many victims to bravely testify against those who broke the trust of care. The justice system is also an institution—a complex one comprising police, lawyers, magistrates, judges and juries—which exercises its powers unevenly, sometimes abetting and perpetuating abuse and is even harder to challenge. As Hellie Turner says, arguing against public inertia, “Like war, assault has become wallpaper in our lives. It’s just there, it just happens, it’s inevitable. We become immune and that’s part of the problem” (press release).
PICA & jedda Productions: Project Xan, scriptwriter, director Hellie Turner; consultant, dramaturg: David Williams, performers Daisy Coyle, Siobhan Dow-Hall, Xan Fraser, Marko Jovanovic, Nick Maclaine, composer, sound design Ash Gibson Greig, lighting design Chris Donnelly, AV design, construction Nancy Jones; PICA, Perth, 8-19 Nov
RealTime issue #135 Oct-Nov 2016 pg.
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