The Loudest Voice | by Pippa Bailey
I start writing this piece quietly, in a small hot room in Lampung, Sumatra - an island in the Western part of Indonesia. Visiting Teater Satu to see the beginning of a cultural collaboration between this powerful Indonesian physical theatre company and a merry band of Australian independent artists led by Sandra Thibodeaux, was a moving cultural experience. Sandra’s play, The Age of Bones (Jaman Belulang), is a story about a teenage boy from Rote who goes fishing one day and ends up ‘down under’ in an Australian adult jail. It’s inspired by over 60 real stories of boys caught on Asylum Seeker boats. The Australian Government allegedly used a dodgy method of X-ray to determine kids' ages and didn’t tell their families they were imprisoned in Australia.
In Lampung I have access to and time for a range of world news that might otherwise pass me by in the busy rituals of life at home, and time to consider myself as part of a wider world. I love to travel and am grateful for the incredibly privileged perspective I gain when outside of my own culture and routines. Travelling for work provides a strong focus and sense of purpose in a new place, a lens through which to compare practices, attitudes and cultural tastes. Despite a vault of challenges in 2016 throwing the Australian arts community into chaos, you only have to step outside our oversized island to see how incredibly rich we still are when compared to many, many others. So, through a filter of flights, meeting dates and deadlines, I blow with the trade winds, reaching for elusive tides of funding rather than fish, to feed hearts and minds rather than bellies. It doesn’t feel as romantic as that sounds but I’ll sail with it for now. While sitting on my bed in a steamy room in the tropics, not quite cooled by an inefficient air conditioning unit in the adjacent living space, I am reflecting on my last epic journey to a very different kind of heat in the far north of Australia.
The invitation to work with the local community to help program the Women of the World Festival (WOW) in Katherine, a remote town 300 km south of Darwin, was irresistible. This was a gathering of women from across the Northern Territory and Northern Australia, and included two women from Timor Leste, a couple from New Caledonia, and Hannah Pool, a British Eritrean cultural programmer from London. We all met at the Godinymayin Yidjard Rivers Arts and Cultural Centre (GYRACC) in Katherine, in September 2016.
Katherine was once described to me as a divided town. It is certainly a hub for many surrounding communities and, as a regional centre, provides services to a disparate range of people. This includes people from the town, a number of local Aboriginal communities, the Australian Defense Forces based at nearby Tindall and others who blow in while travelling on the one long road connecting Darwin and Alice Springs. I visited ‘the Territory’ or ‘Top End’ for the first time in 2015 and have fallen for the pioneering spirt, the vast power of the landscape, and a resilience we have all but lost in big city life.
WOW is a London-based festival, now franchised to other places in the world, initiated by the Southbank Centre, one of several proud cultural institutions riding high on London’s South Bank, downstream from Westminister. Launched in 2011 by Artistic Director Jude Kelly, WOW is following colonial routes to countries around the world, sharing a brand and program structure for participants to join. The process is led by a series of meetings to ascertain what local women want from their WOW. For this Festival, the issues were Climate Change; the ongoing crisis of violence against women; and the lack of women in key positions of power. I suspect these are common concerns for women everywhere and Katherine brought wonderful local flavour and stories to these global themes.
The exhibition programmed for WOW Katherine, curated by Sophie Rayner, was titled ‘That’s what she said’; reclaiming a derogatory term commonly used to sexualize and put down women by questioning ‘her’ honesty and authority. It’s one of those sayings that has risen in common parlance to undermine women, often without them noticing. Sophie states in her program notes that: ‘in contemporary western society, the F-word (Feminism) is outdated’. But what we hear in the WOW Katherine gathering, beautifully articulated by the five-foot-one-inch powerhouse programmer Hannah Pool, is that if you believe in equality between men and women, you ARE a feminist FULL STOP. She discussed the long shadow cast by the old colonial masters, and how the representation of women in big business, media and government shows little evidence of our having achieved equality yet; why is inequality so denied? This is a useful starting point for discussion at a WOW Festival. Ironically, it was the exhibition title That’s what she said that inspired the overarching theme of WOW Katherine 2016 – SPEAKING UP.
Malarndirri McCarthy is an Aboriginal Senator from the far North West of the Territory who spoke urgently about crossing the floor in Parliament because the Australian Labor Party would not support the ancient rights her people have to their land. This was when plans for the highly controversial Carmichael Mine involved diverting a river, home of the rainbow serpent, breaking the dreaming story and culture that are inextricably linked to the local ecology. Malarndirri talked about ‘Kujika’, the songlines and cultural stories in Yanyuwa language, that connect her people to the spirit of their land and to a guiding sense of what is right. I understand that to mean a moral compass. This intuition, or sense of what is right, shapes her sense of responsibility to the community, her elders and ancestors. This is living knowledge that the industrialised ‘selfie’ world has long forgotten, and yet Malarndirri’s words stirred the room, perhaps with longing for the deep knowledge and courage that drive her passionate conviction against other less compassionate authorities.
From this invigorating speech, the event continued to offer extraordinary stories and experiences. From cultural leaders such as Indigenous actor and activist Tammy Anderson (another keynote) campaigning to stop violence against women; to local heroines living in remote outstations and others providing leadership through initiatives in K-town; to former broadcaster and media academic Gael Jennings’ analysis of media stories by and about women that offer some chilling examples of how undermined and maligned we remain.
I thought a lot about voice in preparing for WOW, about those moments when we must find the courage to speak, to ask for what we need or what we want; the times when we are silenced or simply know how unwelcome our opinions are and so keep our thoughts to ourselves or adapt them to suit other agendas. I originally trained as a performer and over the two days of WOW, I led some simple voice exercises as a participatory element to reinforce this theme for everyone. My focus was on those people who are shy and less inclined to be vocal in a room full of people, voices we seldom hear.
I remembered my grandmother, a Quaker, and the experience of sitting in silence at Quaker meetings listening for the ‘still small voice within’. Some called this voice God, others just ‘the spirit’. Quakers generously allow people to interpret faith for themselves, sanctioned in the silence of these meetings, only broken by someone moved to speak. Quakers have developed the circle of silence, without preacher or church hierarchy, to honour the many voices in a community. As a child, on those Sundays spent waiting for my own small voice, I learnt to listen intently to the deep shifting silences of the meeting.
The WOW Katherine team, led by GYRACC Director Suzanne Fermanis, all hoped the event would inspire and spark the women there to think about using their voices, whether it be to whisper secrets that need to be shared, to call proudly for their place in the conversation or to shout loudly about the inequalities they encounter every day. Over the weekend, I had the huge privilege of listening to many extraordinary women, some loud and proud, some more tentative and reserved, yet all passionate and determined. The stories were rich and various, of struggling on cattle stations, civil rights protests, achieving personal goals and contributing to community. These women’s voices soared and resonated.
Even as a ‘blow in’ in Katherine, I didn’t feel too different to most of the women there, as all of us, whether black or white, shared an understanding of the challenge to be heard.
Jump forward to Lampung, Indonesia, and I am firmly foreign. On the flight over from Jakarta, I was the only white person and several ladies asked politely, yet with concern, if I was travelling alone. I attribute their anxious tones to cultural differences. Without the local language, I am listening for familiar voices and sounds. It’s noisy here: traffic punctuated by the Mosque singers calling believers to prayer across days and nights. Then in hotels, shops and even cars, I hear mostly western music – loud American and British pop voices. Many men. The people who speak to me are mostly men. My voice is amplified by my skin colour, dress and wealthy strangeness. I don’t speak the language but people are so lovely, they help me overcome my ignorance to buy cables, show supplies and flowers without the right words. Wild gesture and the liberal use of ‘Terima Kasih’ serve me well.
Time spent with Teater Satu saw the final preparations for The Age of Bones, and the delicate negotiations between different peoples and ways of working to realise this bilingual intercultural show balanced. The Australian team learnt to relax, let go of rigid systems and reliable electricity (blackouts are common in Lampung), while the local ensemble adapted to new people and their curious methods. A constant need for translation and sharing different languages - be they spoken, artform or technical - made for a dynamic working environment where everyone was challenged by NOT understanding. Here, voice is only one of the tools needed to communicate.
A month after Lampung, (six weeks since WOW Katherine) and I am in Valencia, Spain at the informal European Theatre meeting (IETM). I lived in the UK for 15 years and, despite BREXIT, I consider myself firmly European as well as Australian. In Valencia I take part in a session called It’s a man’s world. I tell the 40 women and two men present about the practice of acknowledging Indigenous country and paying respect to Australia’s traditional custodians, their elders and ancestors. I particularly acknowledge women elders in this context because too many of our female ancestors have been historically excluded and ignored.
I quote Tara Moss, a wonderful Australian feminist who released a book in 2016 called Speaking Out. My favourite part in that debunks the myth that women talk too much. Tara has done her maths and presents clear evidence that women are not given nearly as much airtime as men. When they do speak they are ‘going on’. I talked about the crisis of Domestic Violence in Australia, and how our ex-Prime Minister claimed the right to anoint himself the Minister for Women. We hear tales from Poland where abortion has been made illegal (as it is in Queensland). We hear from France where artists are reclaiming gender specific terms such as ‘actress’ and ‘authoress’ after decades of gender neutral titles saw equal representation slide. The session is moderated by the fabulous Lian Bell, who spoke up about inequality in Irish theatre spawning a movement called Waking the Feminists. The conversation rages. There is so much to say.
Reflecting on these experiences and my peripatetic journeying, cross-pollinating information between disparate cultural events, I have thought a lot about another voice that I suspect many of us play host to. There is a song that rises in my throat, only to be silenced by a deep fearful rumble that snaps, barks and whines through my days. She is my greatest critic, and she finds fault; the dark rings under my eyes, the fat rollling around my stomach, the half-formed thought that too quickly babbles from my lips, the shoddy work, the chipped painted toenails that need sprucing, the untamed hair, the ongoing failure to balance all of life’s pressures and demands. So many wrongs internalised and made personal. Over time she has developed into a powerful inner roar that I barely notice. She cranks up her volume in dark moments, projected into the wider world pretending that she belongs to other people, to her advantage and my shame. This voice is one I think that many of us know and rarely speak of.
I find the world an increasingly noisy place, so many shouting and competing for attention, and the loudest voice is rarely the most interesting or wise. A lot has happened in six months as I have blown across the world from Lampung to Katherine, Valencia to Sydney. Bigger deeper questions are floating to the surface; what is the role of story in our ‘post truth’ global societies? Whose stories are being heard and what are they telling us? As a woman, mother and proud feminist I know I am little heard or heeded unless I fight for the airwaves and sing a very specific part of the song, shaped in ways that don’t always reflect what I am feeling or trying to say.
These musings are completed at my kitchen table in Sydney, looking out across the Parramatta River and forward to International Women’s Day 2017. Lampung is fresh in my mind as The Age of Bones show is about to open in our nation’s capital after a wonderful start at La Mama Theatre in Melbourne. The quiet voice of Sandra Thibodeaux, playwright and co-producer of The Age of Bones, penetrates my thoughts. She is yet another remarkable woman with a diligent ‘can do’ approach to making theatre, using every trick and charm to say something important. While the words are important, that’s not the only language used to deliver her message. Theatre is collaborative, bringing words, pictures, physicality and people together; that’s its power. It’s a privilege to work alongside her as we share this journey. The Age of Bones touring company is predominantly male, but they tell a mother’s story of losing her son, learning of his unjust imprisonment and finally welcoming him home. She is aided by another mother, a lawyer, who fights to free him.
We hear our mother’s voice first. In most cases, she is the one to help each of us find a voice of our own. My mother is still finding her voice – at 81 she has just moved house and joined a choir. She is a constant source of inspiration. With her and my grandmother at my back and my sights firmly set on the young women I hope will sing up the future, I rejoice in the power of live performance to bring people together, spurred by the rousing calls of women in Katherine, the urgent shout of women in Valencia, the cry of the mothers on Rote, and a chorus of others from all over the world. Perhaps it's not the loudest but the strongest voices we should be listening for now. Certainly the one I strive for, sings from a place of passion, forgetting her internal critic and finding herself, steered by a moral compass, connecting to other voices, rising together, sailing out across time and tide.