This increase in violence towards women has been termed a shadow pandemic by the United Nations. Australian domestic violence statistics reveal violence against women has not only escalated, but has also increased in complexity during COVID-19.
In response, the Victorian state government has launched The Respect Each Other: Call It Out campaign to tackle growing hospital admissions related to family violence in Victoria.
It’s clear that now is the time for theatre to address the violence Australian women disproportionately experience.
The effects of the 'cancellation apocalypse'
Despite theatre-makers creatively adapting to evolving restrictions, women in creative industries have been hit hard by this “cancellation apocalypse”.
“There’s been great disappointment. Immediately, I had a play cancelled from a company in Melbourne … with no commitment for it to be rescheduled, and that’s happened to a lot of playwrights. It’s devastating,” said Patricia Cornelius.
Women creatives are not only suffering from the mass cancellation of events, but are also disproportionately affected by structural factors such as the highly competitive and casualised nature of creative industries, even in the best of times.
In the era of COVID-19, women are shouldering the compounded pressures of increased caring responsibilities while working (or transitioning from working) from home. A recent article in The Atlantic claimed, “Shakespeare wrote his best works during a plague”.
Australian women’s experience might align more closely with Anne Hathaway’s than with Shakespeare’s, as they’re finding it difficult to maximise their productivity, including “getting a lot of dramatic writing done”, while doing the lion’s share of the emotional labour at home.
The #MeToo movement has thrown a light on sexual harassment and misconduct, though efforts to address bullying and harassment in Australian theatre are still in their infancy. It’s “still baby steps”, says veteran actor Helen Dallimore.
However, COVID-19 doesn’t have to be the “disaster for feminism” some have warned it could become. Indeed, theatre artists are showing the way forward, addressing the striking inequalities within Australian society by getting “tougher" as an art form. As Australian playwright Patricia Cornelius recently put it, “playwrights can only go for the jugular now”.
Throughout history, Australian women theatre-makers have consistently created works that invite audiences to engage in “hearing in the flesh, which is what theatre is the best at”.
COVID-19 doesn’t have to be the “disaster for feminism” some have warned it could become. Indeed, theatre artists are showing the way forward.
More recently, women playwrights from marginal and diverse backgrounds have created works to empower women. Playwrights and actors including Michelle Law, Candy Bowers, Nakkiah Lui, Rachael Maza and Julia Hales have offered audiences complex responses to the injustice, inequality and violence women experience.
Today, theatre offers us a way to reflect and respond to the gendered impact of COVID-19, and the growing violence women experience, by acting as a laboratory for crafting and rehearsing responses to gender inequalities.
Staging Australian Women’s Lives
Researchers are also answering the call to action. For example, the ARC-funded Staging Australian Women’s Lives project, a collaboration of theatre scholars and artists including Alyson Campbell (Melbourne), Anne Harris and Peta Murray (RMIT), Misha Myers (Deakin), and myself, draws attention to the indelible achievements and contributions of Australia’s women theatre-makers.
Working with a national network of directors and dramaturgs, actors, designers, producers and theatre companies, the project will document the practical and embodied methods theatre-makers use to address gendered oppression and violence.
In addition to addressing inequities within theatre, the project aims to give Australian women useful tools for countering inequality and oppression in their lives, which is sorely needed during this challenging time.
When asked, “What stories do we need to hear during this time?”, Cornelius responded that what we need are works that communicate the vibrancy and “lifeforce” of living in the contemporary world – something theatre-makers such as Cornelius are uniquely positioned to do.
For this to happen, the work of women theatre-makers must be championed, acknowledged and respected.
While COVID-19 has had devastating impacts on the lives of women, the pandemic is also an opportunity for theatre-makers to highlight and reveal the challenges and pressures faced by Australian women.
Associate Professor Alyson Campbell (Melbourne University), Associate Professor Anne Harris (RMIT), Postdoctoral Fellow Peta Murray (RMIT), Senior Lecturer Misha Myers and Research Assistant Rachael Stevens contributed to this article.
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