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Feature: International


Women's work

Virginia Baxter


Dah Teatar Dah Teatar
I’ve often wondered why no Australian festival director has yet ventured a festival of work exclusively from the women of the world. We’ve had Ecstasy, Earth, Air and Water, The Sacred, Islands, Bach. Why not the Feminine? It could be called This, That and The Other. Researchers would flock. Theories posited in cold lecture halls, oeuvres hatched in mirrored studios would find audiences to match. Collective imaginings would see the light of day. Would half the sky fall in? Intrepid souls itching to find out are packing their umbrellas for the Magdalena Australia Festival in Brisbane in April.

The Magdalena Project is an international network of women working in contemporary theatre. It was conceived in 1983 when Welsh performer-director Jill Greenhalgh wondered what it would be like if the women she’d admired performing key roles at the festival she was attending in Italy, had actually authored the works themselves rather than their male collaborators. The artists included Julia Varley from Denmark’s Teatret Odin who’d worked extensively with Eugenio Barba, and Geddy Aniksdale from Greenland Friteater in Norway. Together they devised a set of workshops and performances followed by a week of collaborations involving 30 women. Magdalena was born. Greenhalgh named it after Mary Magdalene, a powerful figure in the ancient Christian church before she was cast in the role of that fallen woman at the feet of Christ.

The collaborative effort failed but the workshops were a revelation and both generated questions and energy, which continue to fuel the project. In 1986 the British Council in Wales came on board with funding. Over the years Magdalena has been responsible for a range of festivals and conferences around themes such as performing words, raw visions from young practitioners, writing image-based theatre, voice, presence, the dynamic patterns of theatre groups, new dramaturgies. At the same time, they’ve tackled social issues such as motherhood and the creative process, theatre at the margins and, crucial in these dangerous times, effective artistic responses to states of political crisis. The Project was also responsible for touring artists like Denise Stoklos and commissions such as Deborah Levy’s erotic interrogatory text, The B File in 1991, which introduced me to Magdalena. In 1999 the 10 years of almost continuous funding ceased. The project endures with a regular newsletter and a website www.themagdalenaproject.com. And whenever women of like mind anywhere in the world are sufficiently fired up, a Magdalena event will materialise. Many Australian artists have participated in these festivals but this year, for the first time, with the assistance of a raft of financial partners, the festival comes to us.

Driving the event to be held at The Powerhouse in Brisbane is the performance triumvirate called sacredCOW (Julie Robson, Dawn Albinger, Scotia Monkovitch) who took a work in progress to last year’s Magdalena Festival in Colombia. In The Quivering they play 3 wayward Sirens moonlighting as waitresses in a halfway house for the dead. “We found death has a different weighting in Colombia...but after each performance we were approached by men and women who were touched to the core by our work”, says Albinger. The visit also gave the COWgirls a chance to meet the Magdalena organisers and to rehearse some of the logistics of bringing together artists from across Australia and around the world for the 10-day festival in Brisbane.

The Brisbane event reflects the Project’s ongoing aims of bringing together women who are authoring their own work, offering a platform for artists who are marginalised and exploring the nexus of theory and practice. It’s primarily a meeting of practitioners and the Brisbane organisers have done their best to include as many of the artists who submitted proposals as possible. Among the Australians coming are Margaret Cameron, Robin Laurie, Maude Davey, Lisa O’Neill, Stacy Callaghan, Sue Pilbeam, Vulcana Women’s Circus, Christine Johnston, Lucinda Shaw, RealTV, Handzon Theatre, Chapel of Change, Ollie Black and Danni Powell. Kooemba Jdarra is hosting the Indigenous component of the festival.

International artists confirmed include all 3 of Magdalena’s founders: Jill Greenhalgh; Geddy Aniiksdal who’ll bring her work Blue is the Smoke of War; and Julia Varley who will perform 2 pieces including The Dead Brother a work/demonstration about how performances are made at Odin Teatret. “It begins with the first steps, how the actor creates her own stage presence to the last step in which the text, through the form and precision of the actions acquires rhythms and density of meaning.” Julia will also present The Castle of Holstebro, which she co-wrote with Eugenio Barba.

Also on the confirmed list are Teatro La Mascara from Colombia, Felicette Chazerand from Belgium, Graciela Rodrigues (AMAR, Argentina) Josefina Baez (USA) Gilly Adams (BBC Wales) Teatro Nomad (Spain), Christina Castrillo (Argentina/Switzerland), Laxmi Chandrashekar (India) and 12 representatives from Magdalena Aotearoa.

Uhan Shii Theatre Company from Taiwan will perform My Journey which follows the life of a woman who has spent her life playing male roles in Taiwanese Opera. Uhan Shii is a company of primarily older performers-their youngest member is 40 and they often involve young children in the performances.

Avatar Body Collision will present a cyberperformance entitled swim delivered live on stage and screen by 4 globally distributed performers, 3 of whom appear via the internet using cross-platform chat applications ivisit and the Palace. The women in this group have backgrounds in performance, visual arts, information technology and hail from Aotearoa/NZ, UK and Finland.

The article we ran in RealTime (RT44 p 6) generated considerable interest in Dah Teatar from Belgrade, a company formed in 1991 “out of the need for profound experimental work.” Readers will be pleased to hear that Dah will be coming to Brisbane with their Cirque Macabre a work using the form of an obscure circus to deal with the theme of violence.

There’s also a terrific program of workshops including one on the interaction between space and performance run by Antonella Diana and Jadranka Andjelic from Dah Teatar; Margaret Cameron deals with space as perceptual, exploring non-psychological approaches to animating text. Cristina Castrillo & Bruna from Teatro Delle Radici play with The Language of Silence; Julie Varley concentrates on the singing and speaking voice and the relationship between text and action; Actor director Geddy Aniksdal and script editor for BBC Radio, Gilly Adams will run a generative writing workshop. Uhan Shii offer insights into Taiwanese Opera and local indigenous elders and artists hold a 3-day workshop on song, dance and storytelling. There’ll also be a forum each day.

In the globalised, post-feminist noughties, female experience is still a largely foreign country. If you’re looking for innovative and creative approaches to the terrain somewhere closer than Mars or Venus, Brisbane in April will be the place to be.


Magdalena Australia, International Festival for Women in Contemporary Theatre, April 6-16, 2003, Brisbane Powerhouse.

RealTime issue #53 Feb-March 2003 pg. 10

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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