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Ambiguities of gender

Anne Thompson: Kate Davis & Emma Valente, The Rabble

Emma Valente, Kate Davis, The Rabble Emma Valente, Kate Davis, The Rabble
photo David Paterson
Kate Davis and Emma Valente, artistic directors of The Rabble, have been working as self-funded fringe artists, outside of mainstream funded theatre companies, for nearly 15 years. They both attended Swinburne University of Technology. They formed a company after graduating in 1999 called Self Saucing Pudding and produced about 10 shows under that name; fringe shows that not many people saw. Then Davis moved from Sydney to Melbourne and they decided to form a new company as directors with Sid Brisbane. This company was The Rabble. Valente and Davis responded collectively to my questions.

“We were all directors and we each did something else. Emma did lighting and sound design, Kate designed and Sid acted. It was founded on an idea of collaboration and on helping each other out. We had similar issues and interests. The name came from the idea that we were outside of the centre—this motley crew that didn’t quite fit in anywhere. That has remained true in a lot of ways.

“It was such a great time. We had such ambition to make work and to support each other. We have made eight works in Melbourne and Sydney. Through that time a point of view has developed. We didn’t articulate it at the start but it now seems quite clear. Our work is to do with the representation of gender and the body on stage from a female perspective. We just don’t think gender is a binary construct.”

In The Story of O (MTC, NEON 2013, review RT116) the ringmaster is played by a woman—the stage image is literally carnivalesque with merry-go-round horses and circus costuming. This complicates the power relationships in the piece. The aesthetic is decidedly queer. It occurs to me that the piece is more about carving out a space for difference to be accepted as a fact than it is about women’s liberation. I asked them how they make work.

“We let a lot of source material in during the initial stage—literary texts, academic texts, visual art, graffiti; anything we come across in our world and then we narrow down. We do a lot of preparation before we are in the room. Emma runs the room and talks with Kate about the events of rehearsal outside of the room. It is great to have that reflective process, to be able to talk to each other. A lot of directors work alone but we don’t. We don’t talk ideas much anymore but more through images. We respond to each other abstractly. I think the conversation about ideas has become implicit in how we work and that has been freeing for us. In not starting with a stated idea we don’t feel we have to prove a point or test something. Our conversation is between ourselves initially and primarily, not with the industry or audience.

“We work with a fluid ensemble. Some performers have worked with us for six years now. We choose people from instinct. It’s about getting the mix of personalities right in the room. It’s about someone being right for the process rather than for the part; because the acting can be what they want. They create the role. But they have to improvise into nothing for weeks and weeks before they may know what is going on. Not everyone likes that. You are in the dark for a long time.

“We rarely have philosophical conversations with the performers about the work. [Emma] talks in terms of rhythm and image. It is more like working on a movement piece than a theatre piece for the performers.

“Before Orlando (Malthouse, 2012, RT112) we were insulated from the industry. We were doing our own thing and no one was paying us much attention. We didn’t ever imagine that we would end up at the Malthouse or the MTC. We thought we were carving out a path for someone else. We thought someone would come up behind us and we would have paved a way for them. But it turns out we paved a way for ourselves. But that could easily have not happened. Being at the Malthouse in the Melbourne International Arts Festival in 2012 was the moment we got noticed and found an audience. That was the turning point. We had matured together while no one was noticing. The industry can give people opportunities they are not ready for. We’ve been fortunate that when we got opportunities we were ready. I feel like now we are a part of the industry but our ambition is perhaps slightly different. We really want this to be a company that tours nationally and internationally and to make a living from it.

“We are conscious of the politics and questions provoked by our work. But we come from quite a personal perspective. We know that to do The Story of O is a political act but the reason for doing it was to explore something personal. [Emma] has a problematic relationship with the book. Why is the idea of female sexual submission terrifying? That felt like a question worthy of asking. At a certain point in the process I wondered what O’s story would be at 40 and beyond. She would be put out to pasture. I realised how sad that was. I felt sad that some women want that. It was a sorting out of some crazy demons. It was not about sex but about feeling empty and what people do to try and not feel empty.”

* * *
In two new works The Rabble investigate the cultural legacies of masculinity and its ambiguities. Melbourne International Arts Festival and Theatreworks have commissioned them to create Room of Regret for the 2013 festival. The work is the company’s response to Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, “staged in a labyrinthine network of corridors, mirrored passages and disquieting viewing chambers” (press release). In May 2014 in a co-production with Belvoir, The Rabble will present Cain and Abel interpreting “the tale from Genesis and its many iterations—in Milton and Byron, Baudelaire and Baby Jane” (press release).

The Rabble, Other works by The Rabble are Special (La Mama Courthouse, 2011), The Bedroom Project (Linden Gallery, 2010), Cageling (45 Downstairs and Carriageworks, 2010), Salome (Carriageworks, 2008; RT85) and Corvus (Carriageworks, 2007).

2013 Melbourne International Arts Festival, The Rabble, Room of Regret, Theatreworks, Melbourne, 22 Oct-3 Nov; Belvoir, The Rabble, Cain and Abel, Sydney, from May 17, 2014

RealTime issue #117 Oct-Nov 2013 pg. 28

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

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