Female Company Directors on naughty Shakespeare and supporting Feminism [by James Wenley]
Flatmates Haemia Foote and Marisa Breytenbach proudly show me the hundreds of bras they have stored behind their couch.
I’m assured this is not some sort of washing-line pinching conspiracy, but these brassieres are much needed items for (what else?) a theatre set for a satirical feminist play to be held (where else?) in a church.
The pair are directing kiwi writer Jean Bett’s 1983 play Revenge of the Amazons, which Betts credits co-writing with one Mr William Shakespeare. An alternate woman-centric take on Midsummer Night’s Dream, Revenge proves ample fodder for producers Female Company.
Formed last year, this marks the second production for Female Company, which is dedicated to showcasing great roles for actresses. For Haemia and Marisa, who have gone through the University of Auckland’s Drama program, it is their first big proper directing debut and have found it a great support to have someone else to rely on, discuss ideas, and worry if things are going to look stupid.
Haemia: There hasn’t been much division because…
Marisa: We are the same person.
Haemia: It’s really easy for us to make decisions as we go along, because we both have the same vision.
Marisa: There’s been a little bit of compromise, but such minor things. I’ll give you that, if I can have this costuming idea.
Haemia performed in Revenge of the Amazons in High School and always wanted to do it again, suggesting the play to her fellow Female Company founders. Marisa is the resident Midsummer expert, having performed that in high school, and studied it throughout University.
Marisa: I know Midsummer like the back of my hand. I like to find the points of difference, and where Jean Betts pokes fun at Shakespeare, and I like to play that up. I guess the other attraction is that it’s Female Company, and we’ve got 5 men, and… no I can’t do maths.
Marisa: 12 women. Which is nice.
James: I can see how you help each other out. ]
Marisa: Maths is not my strong point. Drama. Not maths.
Haemia: Basic subtraction!
In Midsummer Night’s Dream, Hermia is threatened with death if she doesn’t marry the man her father chooses. Famously in Act 5, Hermia and Helena don’t get to speak at all. Revenge responds to the treatment of women in Shakespeare’s play, and how women were viewed in early 80s New Zealand.
Marisa: Its satire, it’s all just poking fun. But in terms of the feminist aspects she’s trying to take what Shakespeare had done in his time which had a completely different view of women. Betts takes that extreme and pushes it all the way to the other side. The players are the stereotypical looked down upon side of feminism: the bra burners, the not shaving kind of woman. That’s where feminism still has that dirty stigma, and she pokes fun at it.
Haemia: I think she does that because she was one of those feminists herself. In the introduction she talks about this side of thing, and this is why she wrote it, to find a way to get past the bad word that feminist has become.
Marisa: it’s a nice balance between the Shakespearean side of the text, because there’s still a lot of beautiful Shakespearean language, and the lover’s dream is still relatively the same, but then you’ve got this beautiful contrast with the players, an all-female cast called the Fallopian Thespians. The play is a farce; we’ve pushed it as far as we can. We don’t want to shy away from that aspect. When audiences come they best be prepared to laugh a lot.
The directors agree that many productions of Midsummer seem to play down the darker and sexual elements of the plot. Revenge, similarly, has often been performed by schools.
Haemia: This is a play that is often put on by schools, and I’m thinking…
Marisa: It’s dirty!
Haemia: It’s like watching Fresh Prince of Bell Air as an adult compared to when you were a kid. And as a kid you see one element. Haha, funny, they said… I don’t know… boobs. But then as an adult you see what they were really saying about boobs.
Marisa: Everything is subverted. That’s the way we’ve run it terms of the direction of the play. The lovers are hipsters, too cool, because we want to explore what’s the modern idea of love. Where does lust end and love begin? And the fairies are goths, drunken, the anti-fairy.
Haemia: Basically they are just hard partiers.
Marisa: And the players are all women. And the legends: Hippolyta is strong versus Theseus who is the weaker character.
In her introduction to the play, Jean Betts asks directors to update the play for their own times.
Marisa: There are a few references that we’ve updated. But otherwise I think it’s a play for any era.
Haemia: It’s very transportable.
Marisa: Feminism is an ongoing battle, we’re still fighting and pushing. Even though we are making fun of these extreme feminists, I want the audience to laugh, and then think why am I laughing, why is this funny?
As ambassadors for Female Company, the directors say they want to have a real focus on providing opportunities for woman in theatre to do some really decent stuff. The Company was founded partly out of a frustration about the quality of roles they were being offered as actresses.
Haemia: I’m talking just from my experience. The roles that were being offered to us when we started Female Company were limited.
Marisa: The love interest, the bitch, or the best friend of the main male role.
Haemia: It’s not that the play’s aren’t written. They are there. It’s just not being offered. And I think what happens is we’ve got this idea that it’s easy to watch men on stage. Men can relate to men more easily than men can relate to woman when they start talking periods. But watching men onstage they don’t have to talk about that kind of stuff. So men, and women, can watch men more easily.
Marisa: Or that’s what people think.
James: That’s the myth?
Haemia: Yeah, and I guess what Female Company is trying to do is to say that there are these fabulous roles here, and there is such well written stuff and it needs to be put on so we can change this idea, and that I think is what Revenge allows. Its also gives us the opportunity to show how funny women can be.
Marisa: Our actresses are so phenomenal at picking up the subtleties of the text and bringing their own flavour and brand of humour into the play, and we want to showcase it. And that’s also what Female Company is about… it doesn’t just have to be about boobs and periods, you can have more universal topics. But if we choose to talk about boobs and periods, then it’s not a big deal either.
Haemia: Amen to that sister!
James: In the marketing material you are embracing the sexuality too, you’re not shying away from that.
Haemia: That’s an opportunity to have fun, for our audiences to see we have fun at our own expense. The poster has got some fantastic facials. We’ve got male strippers with abs painted on. It says a lot about the type of comedy that’s within this play.
Marisa: That’s the other thing about feminism… we want to say it doesn’t matter what kind of woman you are, but that you’re acceptable. We want to show that yes woman can be fierce sexual beings, and shouldn’t be ridiculed for it. And there’s a lot of hilarious sexual innuendo. We’ve got our Bottom equivalent named Barbara, who doesn’t get turned into an ass, but into a playboy bunny.
Haemia and Marisa speak highly of the University of Auckland Drama Department, who have provided both inspiration and very practical support.
Marisa: … they’ve lent us a lot of props!
Haemia: And lighting! And being flipping generous actually.
Marisa: Their main aim is to foster a passion for drama and theatre. They want us to be active in the theatre community in Auckland. It is really heart warming to see that they do care for you even after you’ve gone through. Its not an acting program, it’s a drama program. Its not just about how to read texts, and interpret texts, but fostering that passion.
Haemia: Female Company couldn’t have done it without their support.
Revenge of the Amazons is billed as the “subversive wedding of the Century”. After much searching for a performance space, they found a happy marriage of play and venue at the Ponsonby Baptist Church. They admit to being a little bit terrified about this.
Haemia: We were looking everywhere that we could. So we were just trying to thinking about where we could go that worked with our script? The more we thought about it, the more we thought we could use this church aspect to tell our story and give us another element to play with.
Marisa: It was just lucky. This is the perfect venue.
Haemia: It’s scary!
Marisa: We decided for a while we might keep the cross, but we might take it down now.
Haemia: They’ve been very good to us, and I asked at the very beginning if they want to read the script first.
Marisa: They didn’t read the script!
Haemia: But they were like no, we trust you, which is terrifying! But at the same time we really appreciate their generosity. In that faith in what we are doing, it’s allowed us to keep going with what our intentions are, and as a result, we haven’t strayed back from anything.
Marisa :If anything we pushed it more. We’re in a church can we say this? Yes we can, lets shout it! It’s a really nice space because we do a lot of acting up the aisles.
Haemia: As a stage space, it’s great. They’ve got entries and exits up the wazoo.
And so then, back to the bras. The piles of bras behind the couch, donated by friends and supporters, will be brazenly strung around the church set.
Marisa: Because we are playing with this stereotypical idea of feminism, we thought what better way than to have bras on stage. We’re not burning them, so don’t worry! They are a key element of our set. And I thought we need all these bras… we’re going to beg borrow and steal… and then we’re going to give them all to City Mission to distribute to needy woman.
Haemia: To unsupported woman.
Haemia: it’s a little bit of pay it forward happening. From a Female Company point of view this is what we want to be able to do for each of our shows. We’ve used bras in this instance; we want to find aspects of the show that we are putting on, and is there something we can raise awareness or funds for?
Marisa: You see so many theatre companies come and go, so it’s about rooting yourself in community. The community have taken us in, and we want to give back to the community.
Haemia: There might be people who genuinely dislike going to plays, but we’ve had a lot of involvement from people who proably won’t want to see it, or maybe its compelled them to come see it because they’ll want to spot their bra up on the set… but this support from communities… they give us bras!
These well-supported woman hope that audiences will come out of the play thinking more about the female perspective and what women can be about.
Marissa: It’s a play about a woman, written by a woman, buts it’s not just for women. We want not just the women, but the men, to leave with some questions about feminism. And you don’t have to be a woman to be feminist.
Amen to that sisters!
Revenge of the Amazons is presented by Female Company and plays Wednesday 14th August until Sunday 18th August 7:30pm at the Ponsonby Baptist Church. Tickets from iTICKET