Recently we celebrated International Women’s Day and it got me thinking about how women share their stories. How do we communicate our struggles or our joys, how do we celebrate womanhood and all that it entails? I believe quite strongly that it is through the arts and culture that our society learns about itself. Society is full of great role models for women although they are not always recognised. Gender inequality means that great women are often criticised rather than celebrated. Look around you though and you will find talented, strong women everywhere - women who can inspire others or who are trying to change the world and women who are at the top of their field showing others that it can be done.
The performing arts is a great place to find these women because it’s a place where stories are told. These stories help us to explore our collective future as women and to educate ourselves and younger women in what it means to be a woman. One look at the forthcoming program at Riverside Theatres Parramatta provides a little insight and an opportunity for us all. From 1 April to the end of the first week of May there is an astounding number of fabulous female performers and/or their stories that are worthy of our attention. Theatre, film, music, dance and even public debate are all represented. The talented women presented in the program have a lot to teach us if only we would open our eyes and our hearts to hear their stories and celebrate in their art.
Take Rafeef Ziadah, a Palestinian spoken word artist and political poet. I hadn’t heard of her until I read about her on the Riverside website. I watched a video of her performance and cried. I sat at my computer and looked at this strong, passionate woman and really heard her story. I humbly acknowledged my own hypocrisy in being a participant in the ways of the modern western media and accepted how I contribute to the plight of her people. She brings to our attention the humanity that is suffering, as only a woman can. Her performance of This is Life, Sir, at Riverside, is a one-off – the only opportunity you are likely to get to see this incredible woman perform. It will be powerful, intimate, confronting and thought provoking. She uses the power of her words and emotions to penetrate her audience, casting a light into the corners of their own lives and beliefs. Be brave and step into this woman’s world – don’t avoid it because it’s painful or non-escapist – be there and let her see that she is making a difference.
Bringing the politics closer to home, there’s an opportunity to participate in a public debate and panel discussion about equality. What a fabulous way to open the eyes of young women to the reality around them that they may not yet perceive or understand. Inequality will inevitably affect their lives in ways that they won’t believe as yet. Labor Senator, Jenny McAllister will be part of a panel of experts in a Behind the Lines Special Event presented by The Whitlam Institute titled It’s My Party. We should all get out there and talk about this stuff – it’s super important. No one can hear us yelling at the TV in front of Q&A – (or is that just me?) It’s wonderful that this kind of public debate is available to all of us to participate in – in many countries it’s not, and so we shouldn’t take it for granted.
Leaving politics aside for the moment though, we are all individuals struggling with our own stuff. Theatre can have a cathartic effect on an audience through resonance and identification. We see parts of ourselves in the stories told, we empathise, emote and leave the theatre different to how we entered it. Riverside Theatre’s resident theatre company, National Theatre of Parramatta is launching itself in April with Swallow, written by Olivier Award-winning playwright Stef Smith and directed by Kate Champion, formerly of Force Majeure. This story of three women and the challenges they face in their lives with themes of vulnerability, identity, guilt, heartbreak and self-destruction will strike a chord within us all and is a brilliant way to showcase this exciting new theatre company. This is a female story for the modern world, an emotional journey that will have you cringing and laughing at the same time and perhaps rethinking your own life.
But if it all sounds too serious and you just want to celebrate being a fabulous woman or to appreciate other fabulous women, then there’s something for you to enjoy too. The award winning Jersey Boys star, Michael Griffiths, presents a funny and strangely moving performance that celebrates the music, talent, personalities and lives of two of my favourite female performers – Madonna and Annie Lennox. This cheeky and very talented cabaret artist will have you rediscovering these great women and seeing them in a completely different light. His pared down performances tend to shed a light on the women behind the celebrity and expose the beauty of the music and the meaning behind the lyrics. If you were a fan of either of these incredible women, don’t miss it.
Then there are the musical performances by luminous Australian talented women like the composer Elena Kats-Chernin and the pianist Tamara-Anna Cislowska in Butterflying or flautist Jane Rutter performing with Teddy Tahu Rhodes in Classical Heroes and the Art of Seduction. These women have international reputations and are incredibly successful. Elena Kats-Chernin is one of only a handful of successful contemporary classical composers who mostly tend to be male. She’s at the top of her game and a brilliant pianist to boot. Immerse yourself in the talent and energy of these women – let their dedication to their art inspire you or a younger woman you may know, who needs encouragement.
Finally, at the beginning of May, Riverside presents a double bill of solo performances by two of Australia’s foremost contemporary flamenco dancers - Bush Bailando with Pepa Molina and Forge with Annalouise Paul with music by Amanda Handel. These women use the traditional Spanish form of dance to explore their heritage and identity and forge ahead with new sounds and movements that completely re-invigorate flamenco.
Exploring the program over just one month at Riverside Theatres through the prism of women and their stories was a bit of a revelation. I’m sure these examples can be found all year round and in all sorts of places. We just have to see them and celebrate them. It took International Women’s Day for me to open my eyes, to realise that strong, talented, inspirational women are all around me every day. The women we walk past in the street all have a story to tell. If we had the time to stop and talk to them all, to really know them, we would be amazed. In the meantime, we’ll have to settle for the public stories available to us at places like Riverside Theatres.
(This story was written for Riverside Theatres and published on their website riversideparramatta.com.au. A revised version was also published in the Western Sydney Business Access Issue 60 April 2016).