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Tessa Leong & Emma Beech

Anne Thompson

Director, dramaturg and writer Anne Thompson is Director of the Drama Centre at Flinders University. She has worked in visual and physical theatre with independent artists and small companies (Terrapin, Snuff Puppets, My Darling Patricia) and was co-founder of the award-winning Eleventh Hour Theatre.

isthisyours, Best We Forget isthisyours, Best We Forget
photo Gerwyn Davies
isthisyours? began with six women (Jude Henshall, Ellen Steele, Louisa Mignone, Nadia Rossi, Rhiannon Owen and Tessa Leong) coming out of the Drama Centre at Flinders University in Adelaide and deciding to unite to make work.

Their first devised piece, Make Me Honest, Make Me Wedding Cake, had a lot to say about being women in the world. “We thought the rage from our teenage years would pass with time but it didn’t. We were also better educated and we realised that the things that bothered us were not just going to go away.”

Their most recent work, Best We Forget, is an irreverent look into our fear of being forgotten and our ongoing struggles to remember. The show begins as a panel discussion—three performers outlining their personal interests and specialties in relation to forgetting. It then fragments into elaborate scientific demonstrations and forays into popular culture and the rituals of contemporary domestic life such as playing the action movie star and the ‘significant birthday’ party speech, all on the theme of forgetting or wanting to be remembered. At some point the actual show begins to forget itself...The panicked personas then try desperately to reassemble the panel, while looking into theories like the Ebbinghaus Curve of Forgetting of which the show fast becomes an example.

“It feels important that we create, write and devise this work. I still have a quote from Hélène Cixous floating in my head from uni days, ‘Woman must write herself…Woman must put herself into the text—as into the world and into history—by her own movement.’” The company’s work is not characterised by themes. Says Leong, “We try to frame and present what it is that we have become numb to as we go about our lives (the ‘givens’ of our lives), such as the oppression of women, economic rationalism, consumer culture, fear of death, hope for immortality, desire for meaning, in such a way that they can be thought about. Our drive is to question these things with an audience.”

Leong has kept moving through identity positions as a performance maker. She started with ‘woman’ and then was “aware of the privilege she had as a woman in Australia; the opportunity for education and wealth, to live my life in a peaceful country with a stable system of government.” Sometimes this awareness of privilege was like a wall that was not helpful; at other times it led her to a passionate interest in making changes in the world. Now she feels drawn to look at her own Chinese heritage and into the work of Chinese artists and Chinese-Australian artists who generate work from their family story. “I really appreciate now in a conscious sense that in our family there was always a conversation about what was the norm. All things need questioning when one makes work—privilege, ancestry and gender. But there are other questions as well. My view is that if you can’t understand what you are living you can’t frame that any other way or imagine a different way or future. This is important to me as a person and as an artist.”

Emma Beech grew up in country South Australia. She says ‘When I came to Adelaide to study theatre (again at Flinders Drama Centre) I was constantly curious. I was concerned about people’s lives. When I made theatre I always thought about my brother, who had never been to the theatre. What would he want to see? He was my ‘cop in the head’.”

Tessa Leong, Emma Beech, Bureau of Worthiness, courtesy the artists Tessa Leong, Emma Beech, Bureau of Worthiness, courtesy the artists
The Australian Bureau of Worthiness started with Beech wanting to interview people on the street about their lives. “I wanted to know what’s happening in people’s minds and lives. It always seemed different from what you see on TV. I have entered the middle class but I didn’t start there. I always thought the images weren’t quite accurate. I wanted to know what people were doing privately because I spent so much time in private experience. I was hoping there was a shared human experience. I have always wanted those conversations to be had.”

Her friend, director Sarah John, advised her to ask only one question. She decided on “What makes your day worth it?” She asked Tessa Leong to work on the project and Leong in turn suggested the third member, visual artist James Dodd. The three are invited into communities for short periods of time. They go out into the streets and ask the people they meet the question. Then they do a performance for the community.

Beech states, “I perform the conversations I’ve had from my memory of them-—what they left behind in me-—as a combination of narration, direct re-enactments of people by showing their gestures and body language. I also read aloud Tessa’s writing which takes the form of letters and prose reflections. This is done in front of projections of Jimmy’s drawings of the town. I also tell stories about what people said and did outside of the conversations on topic; what people wanted to talk about. All three of us seek out the surprising moments: the gems of genuine contact, the unique perspectives and the unexpected topography tucked away, the things you would miss if you weren’t diligently walking the non-main streets of a town and chatting to people. We present the gaps between what we expected or were led to believe and what we found and learned, between the story the town presents and the stories we hear and find.”

Tessa Leong says that working with Emma Beech in the Bureau of Worthiness changed her practice with isthisyours? Her definition of audience changed along with her understanding of the transaction possible. “It’s amazing when validation comes from the connection with the person present. We’re now focusing on experiencing new things with audiences, like a lot of contemporary artists, and figuring out if and how that is possible. We find inspiration from other female artists and now have access to them and their work—Sophie Calle, Guerrilla Girls, Chicks On Speed, Marina Abramovic (starting your own institute is a great way to write yourself into the world), Tracey Emin—I love their fearlessness and furore. They make up new rules.”

Beech also makes solo work, playing Fatima alongside Stephen Sheehan in Dating the World. This two-hander introduces StevlShefn, a ‘foreigner’ who, keen to communicate, speaks and sings in gibberish, and Fatima, a woman from the same unknown country who wears a black burqa and is calm and articulate in English. She translates his ‘outlandish’ outpourings to us poker faced. This is comedy about ‘foreignness’, gender and love.

Beech’s most recent solo, Homage to Uncertainty, is a collection of anecdotes and observations about chance encounters, family and investigations (for this piece she spent time recording how much work people did in a day in an effort to understand why she was not ‘getting on’), re-enactments and a little dancing. She says, “As a maker I’m driven by hearing or having a story that’s good enough to tell someone else.”

“When I think about the condition of women in the world I think of my sister at home with three children, working two days a week as a nurse with a husband who works long hours, “ says Beech. “I think we no longer want to talk about oppression and feeling inadequate because there is so much wrong with the state of the world. Women are freer in many ways but there is still much that is not allowed. Emotional isolation for both women and men is a very present part of our world. I see so many women in theatre audiences. So where are the men? If women are going to speak, where are the men who will listen? I am curious about this. People don’t connect and we don’t know what is going on and we end up isolated. I keep thinking about that.”

Director, dramaturg and writer Anne Thompson is Director of the Drama Centre at Flinders University. She has worked in visual and physical theatre with independent artists and small companies (Terrapin, Snuff Puppets, My Darling Patricia) and was co-founder of the award-winning Eleventh Hour Theatre.

RealTime issue #115 June-July 2013 pg. 38-39

© Anne Thompson; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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