Speaking for Ourselves: A Response to Actressexual

[There’s No Time for Hubris in a Culture of Caring]

This piece is in response to the 2019 Auckland Fringe work Actressexual and the surrounding online media controversy around public figure and playwright Sam Brooks. The content was written and curated by Rachael Longshaw-Park, with responses from the following female voices in the theatre community: Saraid de Silva Cameron, Chye-Ling Huang, Amanda Grace Leo, Renee Liang, Bianca Michelle and Elyssia Ra’nee Wilson-Heti.

It’s cool to care. There’s no doubt about that. The past few years have seen a rise in the culture of caring that is informing and inspiring work focused on inclusivity. There’s a renewed purpose to use theatre and performance as means to tackle systematic issues, with considerable thought around what the work is and the process through which it is made and put on. In this 2010s wave of social responsibility, intersectionality sits at the core of this practice, acknowledging webs of privilege and making space for all. Last year Basement Theatre held panels like “The Future is Intersectional: Your Feminism Is Killing Me”, while leading voices including Proudly Asian Theatre (Orientation), F.C.C (Wild Dogs Under My Skirt), Agaram Productions (Tea), Zanetti Productions (Medusa) and Te Rēhia Theatre Company (Astroman) have been constantly working towards meaningful representation in Auckland theatre. With worldwide conversations around issues of representation and radical inclusion in theatre, it’s understandable that artists are motivated to join in and help the cause. But what is the difference between work that is genuinely progressive and work that falls more into the world of tote-bag, white washed feminism? And how can we tell the difference?

In Actressexual, Sam Brooks’ offering for 2019 Auckland Fringe, the playwright instituted a personal challenge: to write a new monologue each night for “some of New Zealand’s finest and most acclaimed actresses.” The marketing blurb explained Brooks had been told he writes well for women and “now he has to prove it.” Brooks outlined his intentions for the show in an interview with the NZ Herald’s Jennifer Dann: “The aim is to show up those old-school playwrights: If they can’t write women as whole people with all their years of experience and funding, how come I can do it in half an hour? It’s both an angry show and hopefully an uplifting one.”

Any show that boldly claims to tackle the issue of problematic female representation onstage is a show that I know I, and many of my female peers, would flock to, hungry to see even just a momentary overlap of the shows content with our own personal struggles and problematic experiences as a gendered actor within the Auckland theatre industry. – Amanda Grace Leo

On paper this production looked to be a rallying cry for feminism in the arts, except for one crucial issue: Actressexual is a show that centres and markets itself around the poor quality of women’s roles in NZ theatre and the lack of women’s representation in the arts, written solely by a man. If you can’t see the problem already, don’t worry, we’re about to explain.

After opening night, the initial responses to the show appeared to be positive, but once a few prominent voices began to declare their discomfort online a confidence surged through the community to speak up and investigate. With the circulating criticism Brooks took to twitter to acknowledge some of the critique and claimed that the show was and would be continually reworked, even mid-season (At the end of the run Brooks reflected in a Twitter thread his regret that the show they presented in the second week was not the one they opened with). In her insightful review for the Pantograph Punch released late in the season’s run, Kate Prior examined the dramaturgical issues that made Actressexual feel so uncomfortable. Prior commented that Brooks had presented a show, without irony, that did the opposite of what it thought it was doing. Her optimism for the show to be saved from itself was not high.

Sam notes that the show is shifting and being reworked, and of course, experimentation is what Fringe is for. Yet when some fundamental frameworks and performance dynamics are skewed, I’m not sure some internal tweaks can shift its sandy foundations. – Kate Prior (Whose Voice Is It Anyway: A Review of Actressexual)

Actressexual was a show “handpicked” by Q theatre and one of the only shows to span the whole two weeks of Fringe. The context of the show within Fringe is enough to justify some critical interrogation from the community. When you add the claims of allyship on shaky foundations, and the provocative national media attention (Sam Brooks appeared on the front page of the Dominion Post with the teaser headline ‘Why New Zealand theatre is so bad’), it is especially called for.

Following the controversy, I went into the second week of Actressexual with as much generosity as I possibly could. Brooks is a stalwart of Auckland’s theatre community (who vocally champions women creatives in his position as Cultural Editor at The Spinoff website), and it so easily could be any one of us up on that stage making a misguided attempt at allyship. It seemed only fair to go into the show with a mindset of critical kindness.

VIEWING ACTRESSEXUAL

Q Vault’s stage is promisingly decorated with large film posters such as female written Hollywood blockbuster The Heat and entirely female-led kiwi hit Breaker Upperers, but it’s never made clear what the commentary is here as they’re never referenced or utilised in the show. It might seem like a simple detail to some, but these posters represent decoration over substance, a gesture to hold up the work rather than inform it. Women know all too well what it is like to be reduced to mere decoration.

The show opens with Brooks making a grand entrance, clad in a hooded cape, snaking through the audience into his big (first) lip sync number. Now, for context, the lip-syncing is a bit of a Sam Brooks thing, we’ve seen it before in Stutterpop when Sam took to the stage to address his experiences with his stutter, but in this context, it comes across as a way to get the room cheering for him with little effort, although afterwards he declares that “I’m not a singer, not a dancer, definitely a writer.”

Next the guest female actor for the night is revealed and brought on for an interview. They’re asked about the roles they’ve played, and their dream role, then promptly ushered into performance mode. This marks one of two fleeting opportunities for the guest actor to speak freely, albeit with Brooks ever present. This action alone fails to acknowledge the complicated dynamics on stage that the actor would have to navigate to claim this autonomy. Next comes what appears to be the bulk of the work: a lengthy essay on the failings of older male playwrights (with examples) that comes off as more of an homage to Brooks himself as someone who has learnt to write well and, honestly, in terms of allyship, could be served better as an article or Facebook post.

Brooks continuously demands male playwrights to write women with “humanity”, a word he throws around so many times, ironically without giving the female voice any of her own say in what this humanity actually looks like. [The Guest Actor] instead is forced to read, word-for-word, an account of her community’s supposed struggle at the hands of male playwrights, but as told by Brooks, a male playwright. – Amanda Grace Leo

It’s not to say the essay wasn’t without merit, Brooks highlights genuine concerns about the dismal way women have been written by some male playwrights over the years, but these are concerns that have been highlighted by women for decades before Brooks chose to start throwing stones. Something that stood out to me as an aspect worth exploring was in a section where Brooks highlights the relationship between gay men and women. Brooks admits that whilst gay men are not the same as women they do share similar experiences, and gay men often lean into this as a way to find expression through femininity and rejecting the culture of toxic masculinity. Therein lies a meaty line of inquiry, an uncomfortableness that deserves exploring. The co-opting of women’s culture by gay men has a long, long history that has caused much divisiveness between the two groups of people. In 2014 Time magazine posted an article entitled “Dear White Gays:  Stop Stealing Black Women’s Culture” that was met with huge discussion and re-sparked a debate about cultural gatekeeping and the toxicity of borrowing culture from the oppressed. As a young gay man of colour, who has made a huge contribution towards queer representation in New Zealand theatre, and who clearly has an affinity for women’s culture, this is a line of discussion that Brooks IS qualified to talk on. Unfortunately, it’s passed off as a reason for his authority to write female roles rather than an interesting point of contention. Actressexual could be a much more compelling show if Brooks took this opportunity to crack open his own behaviours and interrogate them, to actually battle with the intricacies of being a gay man writing for women. When even the name of the show tips its hat (knowingly or not) to the fetishizing of femininity, it’s hard to see how the irony was missed.

On the night I attended the formidable Jennifer Ward-Lealand was the guest star, while some of the other practitioners quoted in this piece saw comic actor Kura Forrester. Both incredibly talented women, both highly successful in their own right, both with perspectives that could be shared but had little opportunity. Jennifer Ward-Lealand did her best to make the essay her own, but even with her warmth and presence, I felt so utterly patronised listening to these words. There was something incredibly disheartening about seeing the pillar of a community such as Ward-Lealand, a woman who has been a champion for union rights, an ambassador of Te Reo, and a beacon of hope for many young women in this industry, positioned as a mouthpiece for Brooks’ agenda. Nothing could distract me from the fact I was being meta-mansplained to. After years of oppressive silence of women’s voices, the last thing I want is a man telling me of my own struggle. We are more than capable of speaking for ourselves.

While there were attempts by Brooks and his team to respond to critique and rework the show for the second week, it would appear that it could not surmount the fundamental problems with the core premise of the show. An inherent issue is in the way the show is weighted both in duration and in who takes up space. Out of a sixty-minute performance Brooks is the protagonist for nearing 95% of the piece, whether through his own spoken words, his lip-syncing, or through the preachy essay vocalised by his guest. Dramaturgically this simply doesn’t work.

In front of the playwright himself, and having been hired for the job, awkward power dynamics put Kura Forrester in a compromised position if she were to argue the text. I was yearning for the script to offer games for the audience or questions asking Kura for her own stories, experiences, anger, joy and wisdom. Brook’s lip sync sequences read as arbitrary, self-admitted fillers that might have been taken up with interview excerpts, recordings from other female playwrights, or a myriad of other things that weren’t Brooks being celebrated in his own show about how to give women a voice. After all, who can speak better for women than women themselves? – Chye-Ling Huang

With the essay finished, Brooks gives the freshly written bespoke monologue to the actor, who goes backstage to prepare while Brooks performs another lip sync. Sadly, by this point the action lacks any currency. For Jennifer Ward-Lealand, Brooks wrote a non-descript, seemingly non-gendered monologue that showed a depth of emotion, and for Kura Forrester a ditsy, drunk stereotype.

Brooks then announces that the actor is to be given the last word on the basis that he has already spoken too much. In her brief second, and final, opportunity to speak “freely” Kura Forrester said, “You can’t really have a show about women, that doesn’t have any women involved.” If one unscripted line from your guest can completely upend your dramaturgical intention then you have a real, tangible problem in your work.

RESPONSES

The following section is dedicated to the responses* of female theatre practitioners who came to see Actressexual. Elyssia Ra’nee Wilson-Heti attended opening night, and the rest of us attended performances during the show’s second week. These women only represent a portion of the many female practitioners currently working in New Zealand, however, for anyone out there in the industry aiming for allyship in their work, I encourage you to read on and take note.

*Some have been edited for length.


Elyssia Ra’nee Wilson-Heti
FAFSWAG, Actor, Visual Artist

Actressexual is a fine example of what happens when there has been a lack of thought and investigation into the true meaning of allyship. As an ally you don’t centre yourself bang smack centre stage, you help to support people by making space for them and giving them that space to have their voice elevated.

I don’t doubt that Sam Brooks probably had the best intentions when creating this work, but the work created that I watched on opening night not only felt tone deaf but self-indulgent, and at times offensive. As a fat, mixed-race woman, who is actively creating work for marginalised communities, I left feeling really angry. There already is a whole community of women creating work for us about us. The nice dose of saviour complex that I felt from the work left a really bad taste in my mouth. None of us need saving. We have been collectively building ourselves brand new tables to sit at for quite some time.

After consideration, I don’t really even know if Actressexual needed to be made at all, your work should speak for itself. If you are identifying that male playwrights are not writing well and are problematic then do better by writing better for women in the works you choose to create – as an “ally” you don’t need to write a whole show to pat yourself on the back because you are doing better and want the praise. Ultimately, just do better and let the work speak for itself.


Chye-Ling Huang
Co-founder of Proudly Asian Theatre, Actor, Writer, Director

After days of feeding on online discourse sparked by the infamous Stuff article, I was hoping to feel more conflicted about a show by famed queer writer of Burn Her. For a work about to embark on a lengthy essay about the struggles of actresses and the shabby roles written for them by men, the opening lip sync number left me with a worrying feeling – that despite its premise, Brooks was still placing himself front and centre in this work.

Misguided allyship and heavily undetected irony are resonant in this work…male playwrights are still the focus, and it feels like we’re caught in the middle of a process to allyship that is yet to be completed – where privilege has been acknowledged but falls short of the next step where the ally steps aside and gives space for the marginalized to speak for themselves.

As someone actively fostering female playwrights and Asian playwrights under Proudly Asian Theatre, I’m saddened to see this opportunity passed up for what feels like the ego of the playwright. In an interview, Brooks says, “To expect an actress to make up for the work you haven’t done, in your script or in your life, is unfair.” In this case, the work is on allyship, and this might be the perfect opportunity for Brooks to listen, give space and go back to the drawing board.


Saraid de Silva Cameron
Actor, Writer, Producer

The experience of watching this show was a little bizarre. While I agreed with almost everything that was said in it, I didn’t understand why and how it was being said to me. Actressexual is intensely self-aware and self-referential, yet the entire show is a man, talking through a woman, about how men should not use women to conveniently talk through. I also feel like if the show badly wanted to do what it talked a lot about, creator and performer Sam Brooks would have just invited a bunch of female writers up on stage to contribute to the discussion or the spontaneous creation of new work.

When critiquing work that claims to attack the establishment it pays to question who is being centred, and who is making a profit. Nothing is truly feminist if the name in people’s mouths when discussing it belongs to a man.


Renee Liang
Playwright, Poet

When I think back to my experience on Thursday night, the overwhelming feeling is that of shame. Shame that a writer of established ability would present this kind of work. Shame for the audience who watched with growing unease. Shame for the writers and actors who had bought tickets to both support and to judge for themselves, but who felt triggered and targeted throughout.  Shame that someone might actually think this was theatre.

Actressexual may be sparkly (with credits in the brief programme for nail art) but it has feet of clay.  The assertion that certain older male ‘establishment’ writers are crap at writing female characters has validity, but to then follow that up, as a man, by claiming ‘I can do better’ – well, you’ve got to have balls. Big balls. Balls so big you trip over them and fall flat on your face.

I went expecting to feel angry, or surprised and delighted, but instead I felt sad that we were watching a member of our community in a public, self-inflicted humiliation. A show where neither of the people on stage wanted to be there.  A show in which instead of celebrating a woman’s talents, we watched a man vaunt himself using her voice. A mansplaining orgy-for-one.


Amanda Grace Leo
Actor, Singer, Director

Brooks’ feeble attempts at acknowledgement of the problematic dynamic in the show comes off as mere lip service. Where is the real agency of the female voice onstage or behind-the-scenes? It certainly is not present when Brooks indulgently places himself centre mainstage lip-syncing to Beyonce twice, while the actress is absent. Agency is certainly limited when Kura Forrester must read three lengthy references to Brook’s own work while the playwright himself is present, watching carefully at any reaction she makes. It is almost completely absent when I, as an actress of colour, sit in the audience hearing a fellow actress of colour regurgitate a male playwright’s patronising and borderline fetishized impression of our collective struggle with badly-written female roles. The way Brooks’ has specifically set-up this retelling robs the actress of any practical way to safely reclaim her voice. Actressexual renders the female voice powerless to the structural politics of gendered playwriting, through the exclusion of female artists as part of the key creative team. That the actress in the show has full agency to react truthfully to the text, with Brooks’ permission, is a misnomer; it is a false contract that does not acknowledge the complex, gendered power dynamic onstage that may prevent even the very best from criticising Brooks, in his own show, in front of an audience.

We, as a community, need to ask ourselves why such an intensely problematic work like this has not only been programmed, but been so highly praised initially by men and women alike.


Bianca Michelle
Writer

The show ends on an uncomfortable note as Brooks asks Forrester if she’d like to have the last word. Forrester says something briefly about how you can’t really have a show about women without having women involved but clearly senses this is territory that’s not worth approaching and swiftly moves on. Let’s just let the boy feel like he’s achieved something.

And that’s ultimately what’s led to Actressexual’s existence. Brook’s work here is, let’s be clear, deludedly narcissistic and tempered only by faint traces of feigned humility. But when men are given effusive praise for the faintest possible efforts they get the idea that this is what being an ally is. Brooks genuinely may believe that by crafting angry tirades against the patriarchy for women to say he is somehow giving them agency they do not otherwise possess. But what he’s written here only confirms how ill-equipped he is to do that. There’s no mention of any actual women. No talk of helping them speak for themselves, no discussion of access to spaces or ensuring those spaces are safe. There’s nothing of how race and class intersect with the concerns he raises, no mention of trans women or non-binary people (Brooks has never attempted to write for someone like me as far as I’m aware. But that’s okay, he’s hardly alone).

If Brooks thinks that the biggest problem marginalized people have is that Roger Hall is not writing us well enough then he has no idea what we are really up against. More than that, in failing to address these issues and simple reiterating what he happily admits are ideas that have been expressed before many times over he is taking up space in a discussion which desperately needs to be had about how to make the theatrical community genuinely inclusive.


ON ALLYSHIP

The responses are clear and ultimately all offer up the same solution in response to the work. Make space, don’t take up space. However, what is discourse without offering a direction in which to head? The response from women in this industry is not intended to burn him, or anyone, but has been voiced in the hopes of creating a community that continues to grow and learn, that is constructive over cruel.

But how did we get here? The responsibility doesn’t just fall to one person to get it right. In moments of unrest it pays to step back and analyse the present situation in order to move forward in the most productive way. So, as an ally, what can you do? Here are some tangible suggestions that were continually offered in the responses.

Get women involved:

It’s time to put aside the ego. If you are making a show that is not about your gendered experiences then you cannot do it alone. Seek out women to get involved, and value their voices no matter what role they have in the show. Better yet, employ a dramaturge.

Never assume to talk for any marginalised group in your work or otherwise:

If there is someone out there who has actually lived the experience, there is no excuse for you to be hogging the space in which they could be speaking with more knowledge and more understanding. There is no shame in saying, “I cannot speak to this experience, I cannot have a presiding opinion on this”. You can even do one better and direct people towards people who CAN speak on the subject.

Actively give or provide space as an Ally:

Instead of taking up space to talk or act on behalf of someone, use your own privilege to allow them space to speak. Produce work, cast diversely, facilitate discussions, mentor and guide those who went without the opportunities you had.

Be constructive, not destructive:

There is a distinct difference between being constructive and throwing out an opinion. It’s easy to claim all NZ theatre is shit when it’s not fulfilling its potential, but how does that actually help us figure out what to do from there? Join up with others seeking to solve that issue and don’t assume placing yourself front and centre with a loud opinion is going to change years and years of enforced silence. Contribute! Run workshops, start critical discourse, offer constructive advice. Provocative voices might get people talking, but that’s a value that only goes so far. As always, it’s actions that speak louder than words.

Never stop reflecting and interrogating your work:

It starts with you, the maker, to interrogate your ideas from inception to fruition. If there had been further investigation of the intentions behind Actressexual, and more voices in the room, then it is unlikely we would have gotten to where we are today. That’s a hugely important lesson for all theatremakers.

I truly do hope that Sam Brooks and others watching take on board the feedback and evolve from this. We all need to try harder to get a better understanding of what good intersectional practice actually is. The gay male experience is still vastly different from the female experience and the flexing of male privilege in the show was really obvious. As a community I think if you are going to create work speaking to a certain lived experience then you need to engage with that community whilst in creation, because no one will be more honest than the people you are trying to represent. We collectively need to get better at working from a place of intersectionality. We need to leave our egos at the door and really interrogate the work at hand and be more open to constructive criticism. I believe more that vigorous investigation is needed going forward when creating work.  – Elyssia Ra’nee Wilson-Heti

What kind of community are we looking to build? What tools do we have at our disposal? A week on from seeing Actressexual, now the initial anger has calmed, it’s easy to move on and forget – after all, why give time and energy to something that refuses to serve us? But it’s irresponsible to let a chance to reflect and grow slip us by.

The challenge is on all of us who are invested in New Zealand theatre: to interrogate ourselves, constantly. To Interrogate the work we make and the work that we see. To not be afraid to crack open what is in front of us.

Be an Ally.

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1 Comment on Speaking for Ourselves: A Response to Actressexual

  1. This is an utterly brilliant piece of writing. Thank you Rachael and all the contributers for this important and extremely well put together piece.

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