The personal is political in the bold, verbatim theatre show I’m With Her, in which frank and personal stories illuminate the prevalence of sexism, harassment and assault in Australia, writes Claire Trolio.
I’m With Her, Half The Sky ·
Subiaco Theatre Centre, 16 July 2022 ·
They say you should surround yourself with people who inspire, who lift you up rather than put you down. Verbatim theatre show I’m With Her packages this idea and, through truth telling, provides a call to arms for smashing the patriarchy.
In creating the show with Darlinghurst Theatre Company in 2019, documentary filmmaker Victoria Midwinter Pitt had frank and open conversations with some extraordinary Australian women. These conversations have been crafted into an illuminating script that addresses – at times quite brutally – gender inequality in this country in the past and present.
The work’s WA premiere was as a staged reading, presented by Half The Sky, a West Australian organisation that celebrates the achievements of women and girls through sharing stories. In this ideal partnership, eight women each read the words of one of Midwinter Pitt’s interviewees. Not all the performers are actors, but each is an adept public speaker who delivered their lines with gravity and passion. They’re all remarkable women in their own right, and the respect and connection between the performers and the women whose words they spoke was a beautiful thing to witness.
Strong ambition is, unsurprisingly, a recurring theme but is most keenly seen in the stories of world champion surfer Pam Burridge, read by community planner and former elite athlete Lucy Griffiths, and botanist Dr Marion Blackwell, read by epidemiologist and activist Professor Fiona Stanley AC. As pioneers in their fields, Burridge and Blackwell’s stories are the most optimistic.
I drew more similarities than differences from the stories of sex worker and sexual health champion Julie Bates (read by blues singer Lee Sappho), and Catholic nun Dr Patricia Madigan (read by corporate affairs and issue-based advocacy expert Libby Lyons). On the face of it, their paths appear polar opposites, but both born in Melbourne a year apart, these women experienced a similar dissatisfaction with the roles open to women when they were growing up and sought an alternative route where they rewrote the rules.
Through the words of first female Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard (actor, comedian and broadcaster Andrea Gibbs) and counterterrorism expert and federal MP, Dr Anne Aly (writer and public speaker Sisonke Msimang), I’m With Her exposes the treatment of women in politics, and the reality of working inside an institution that’s entrenched within the patriarchy.
Aly’s discussion of domestic violence and the perceived ownership of female bodies by men overlaps with Nikki Keating’s lived experience working as a bartender (theatre maker Grace Chow). That theme is also echoed through anthropologist, geologist and Yiman-Bidjara leader Professor Marcia Langton’s comments on domestic violence against First Nations women. Langton’s words on the shortcomings of white feminism and the need for drastic change were presented with power and urgency by Balardong Noongar leader and academic Dr Marion Kickett.
The monologues cover some broad issues, but there are a lot of parallels between the stories, and Midwinter Pitt’s script ties them together in a way that’s clever, not repetitive. The work is situated within a broader movement that pushes for speaking out about oppression, assault and gender-based violence. Like #metoo and Time’s Up, or work from feminist activists like Bri Lee, Grace Tame and many others who seek to enact change through sharing stories, I’m With Her reminds us that the personal is political.
Minimal stage dressing put focus on the words spoken, and sound, lighting and video was used sparingly: to underscore mood and deliver facts. The screen was also used to project some confronting comments made about the women. Reading, rather than hearing, these words doesn’t lessen their impact, rather highlights them while maintaining a safe and empowering space.
Within minutes of the show starting I was welling up. Not from witnessing the hardships each woman has faced – though there is a lot of that – but hearing about the path that’s been paved, and the nuggets of hope each story offers.
I’m With Her reminds us that there’s a long way to go, but these women are pointing us in the direction we need to travel.
Pictured top: in the foreground is Sisonke Msimang as Dr Anne Aly MP, behind her are, as ensemble members, are Professor Fiona Stanley and Dr Marion Kickett. Photo: Marnie Richardson
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