A question, a case study and seven digressions

by Duška Radosavljević

I am tickled by a question a fellow dramaturg asked me the other day: is there such a thing as female dramaturgy?[1] Not so much a 21st century feminist dramaturgy but rather a pre-Aristotelian mode of theatre-making that can be characterized as female rather than male.

It’s hard to speculate around a question like this, but it did remind me of something the neuro-surgeon and author Leonard Shlain said in his 1998 book The Alphabet Versus the Goddess. According to Shlain, writing entails pretty much the same neurons in the hand-to-eye co-ordination process as those used by men specifically while hunting. Women’s habitual hand-to-eye co-ordination, meanwhile, works differently, he argues, because the neurons active in taking care of babies are different; hence, women see the world more holistically. Writing, claims Shlain, is intrinsically a male activity, and the advent of literacy, interestingly, coincided with the end of matriarchal, goddess-worshiping cultures.

I don’t have the book to hand to quote Shlain directly, but the way I have processed this reading would lead me to think that female dramaturgy would be different from the male, Aristotelian, linear, conflict-based one in a number of significant ways. We could not imagine exactly what the pre-literate female brain was like and what kind of theatre it would have led to, but we could perhaps deduce some key features of female dramaturgy from observing the work of theatre women more closely. If I may be allowed to generalize on the basis of personal experience, I would suggest that women favour fragementary, cyclical structures; they tend to dwell on a specific theme rather than pursuing action-filled plots;[2] their strorytelling is more ornate and full of digressions;[3] and they are possibly more conflict-averse.

I can give a more specific example too. I was recently invited to work as a dramaturg with Notnowcollective on their show Wonderwoman: The Naked Truth. Notnowcollective are two theatre women based in Birmingham – Kristina Gavran, a writer, and Tina Hofman, an actress, director, producer.[4] Their piece, Wonderwoman, is specifically about motherhood rather than femininity as such. Despite some reservations about my ability to rise to the challenge given that I am currently on maternity leave and living in a different city, Tina and Kristina wanted me to be part of the process precisely because of these circumstances – the ability to understand the constant balancing act, the dealing with the interruptions, the guilt, the occasional need to work below one’s own standards. (They didn’t say all this but intuitive understanding too can be deemed to be part of the package.)

At first I read the text – a document of a semi-devised creative process the two had undertaken for about a year. It was charming, funny, strong, erratic, erotic, rough at the edges and simply wonderful. Then I visited for a runthrough – because my baby is breastfeeding and I don’t drive, I came to Birmingham with my whole family in tow. Baby Katarina and I went into the rehearsal room, our boys out into the groovy gardens of Birmingham Mac for an afternoon. And this is it: unlike other (men-led) rehearsal rooms, this one was filled with an informal, chatty, gentle energy. Our conversations took place over walnuts and dates with known places of origin. We delighted in hearing each other’s personal stories.[5] There was no excessive compulsion about having to reach goals or targets. I felt completely relaxed about having to change or feed the baby while working. She felt okay about sleeping in the room.[6] The sunshine warmed the room discretely, and the main problem was: how to make the fights between the two characters convincing enough!

I was not able to attend the premiere, but I did see the final script and the video recording of the performance. At the end of it I can tell you this: Wonderwoman: The Naked Truth is a vibrant and earnest piece of theatre – the kind in which the fights are playacted, the kind in which a particular theme[7] is explored within a cycle of carefully crafted fragments, and the kind I would imagine pre-Aristotelian theatre women would approve of.

[1] Digression 1: The question, posed by my friend Beatriz Cabur, was in fact prompted by this fascinating article: http://howlround.com/why-i-m-breaking-up-with-aristotle.

[2] Digression 2: Here I am thinking of the image of Penelope weaving during the day and undoing her weaving during the night, only to start all over again the next day. I’m thinking of this image not in the context of its own narrative causality as envisaged by Homer (whoever s/he may be), but as an emblematic image of a female weaver being more interested in repeating rather than completing an action.

[3] Digression 3: Or maybe the right term would be embroidering?

[4] Digression 4: Both of these women practice professional storytelling too. This is significant.

[5] Digression 5: Tina and Kristina are both Croatian. I am Serbian. This might have been significant at one time too. We spoke in a mixture of languages, patching together experiences, past and present, with some plans and desires for the future.

[6] Digression 6: I may be forgiven for confessing this now: I was completely exhausted when I arrived into the room after weeks of not sleeping and overdelivering on other fronts, and suddenly I was feeling completely rejuvenated and revived just by being there

[7] Digression 7: If you must know, the theme of the piece would be best expressed as ‘Can you have it all?’. But then ‘Can you have it all?’ is actually the way a man would put it, within a male world. Within a female world, the question would be something more like: ‘How can I smoothly and productively integrate into my life the roles of a mother, artist, lover, ethical member of the society and a joyful human being?’.

Wonderwoman: The Naked Truth Review

guest blog post by Jordan Garvey

Jordan is a new mum from Birmingham, she is also a writer having written for blogs for the last four years, she is currently writing a book, when she isn’t cuddling her newborn or changing nappies. Originally, the article was published on her blog Bug and Bloom. Check it for more Jordan’s writings on motherhood.

‘Wonder Woman… you need to earn it!’

It’s been a while since we’ve written anything for our blog, in the midst of teething traumas, lack of sleep, holidays and day to day things, writing has been a little bit of a thing of the past, until now. This week we trundled our teething babe down to MAC to watch a play with a baby friendly matinee, written by two mums for mums called Wonderwoman: The Naked Truth, it was so liberating to be welcomed into a creative space with Ida and to see so many other parents who were also comfortable and had brought along their little one. There was no sneering if your child cried or ran up to the performers during the show because this show highlighted how to be a mum and find time to pursue our ambitions, especially as creatives. But this wasn’t just the bit for me that I found myself relating to as Ida’s teething pains kicked in half way through the performance.

The show tackled issues around feeling shamed and being shamed by other parents about our “inadequacies” as parents. Does your baby have a bedtime routine? No? Shame on you! Do you eat chocolate? Yes, you know your post pregnancy body won’t thank you! Shame on you! The expectations and pressures put on mums of today was something I had thought about when I was pregnant. Would people shirk me if I didn’t lose my post baby flab straight away? Am I a terrible mother if I look at my phone for five minutes whilst my baby is feeding because my attention has been on her for most of the day? Am I terrible for craving just five minutes of escape? Being surrounded by mother’s who had also brought their tiny babes to the shows, who also had a knowing look, a look that says “Shame on me?” helped me realise that it is okay to want time to yourself, to be you, to be more than your baby and not get it right, not have the answers and just do the absolute best you can.

Talking about the things that you love or like about your baby or being a mother was a piece of the show that really warmed my heart. Things like “I love when my baby smiles.” “I love when I feed my baby.” and even how we interact with other people’s children matters a lot to other parents. “I like how you are with my kids.” “I like the questions your kids ask me.” Finding the positives in a job that is brilliantly difficult helps when the days that you just wish you knew how to do his better arrives. When you look in the mirror and smile wearily at yourself and try and believe that you’ve got this.

“You’ve got to give it to yourself”… Throughout the show Wonder Woman wants one thing. Validation. To know that she is doing a great job, she is a wonderful mother. “Do you want a medal?” someone might ask when you talk about the hard times of parenting. Well yes, yes I do is what the answer may be and you know, that is totally fine because when you do a hard job sometimes a pat on the pat helps you get through, but as mothers we need to learn that we can be given certificates, medals, hugs and words of encouragement but there is only one person that can convince us that we are doing an amazing job and that is ourselves. No matter how many times our partners, families or friends tell us how incredible we are, you won’t believe it unless you think it. I remember shortly after having Ida being wracked with guilt because I didn’t have a clue how to deal with certain things and it didn’t matter if Paul hugged me and told me I was doing great, I didn’t believe it until we took Ida to be weighed at the baby clinic and she had put on over two pounds in two weeks, the health visitor commented on how happy and healthy Ida looked. It was this moment that I realised that I could give myself that medal, that certificate that says I am bloody brilliant.

Wonderwoman: The Naked Truth is a huge praise to its creators Not Now Collectiv and its performers, Tina and Kristina. Thank you for allowing us into your space, to feel comfortable and showing us that being a mother is difficult, is demanding and doesn’t define who you are but it does give us power and strength when we acknowledge that we aren’t perfect.