Taking Up Space: A reflection on The F-Word, MAINMAN and Feminist Yarns with Kathleen Burns

Erin Harrington reflects on issues of space and autonomy in three gender-focussed shows that played over two nights at Little Andromeda: feminist cabaret The F-Word by Tatjana T on Friday 26 March, and Two Productions’ MAINMAIN, and the panel show / podcast Feminist Yarns with Kathleen Burns on Saturday 27 March 2021.

About two thirds of the way through Tatjana Tiscenko’s feminist cabaret The F-Word by Tatjana T  something incredible happens. Tiscenko is singing her rendition of the very funny song “Let’s Generalise About Men”, from the TV series Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, backed up by a three piece ‘girl band’: drummer Julia Conagh, pianist Kim Wood, and the busiest guitarist in Christchurch, Heather Webb. Suddenly, a guy in the audience gets up and walks across the stage behind her to leave the theatre because he’s decided now is the time to take a leak, or get a beer, or whatever. I was stunned, not just at the extraordinary level of disrespect to a group of performers, but that in the middle of a sit-down show in a proper theatre about women fighting to take up space, a male audience member would assume that this was his space too. #NotAllMen, but definitely this one. It’s to Tiscenko’s credit that she just kept going, although negotiating the power dynamics here is fraught.

This one-off show at Little Andromeda was the first of three gender-focussed shows over two nights, which I believe was more a happy accident than a deliberate act of curation. On Friday was the first full-length performance of MAINMAN, Tom Eason’s compelling one-man physical theatre show about toxic masculinity, which was offered in workshop form at 2019’s Ōtautahi Tiny Performance Festival. This preceded a recording of live panel show / podcast Feminist Yarns with Kathleen Burns, in which I sat on the leopard skin couch alongside comedian Audrey Porne and Māori and Indigenous Studies academic Jess MacLean. When combined, the three shows offered insights to the relationship between audiences and performers, and the means through which we might explore and give voice to difficult topics, and the difficulties posed in performing work that we, or the audience, might find challenging.

The F Word, 25th of March | Humanitix
The F-Word By Tatjana T promo image

Tiscenko’s show is the culmination of a Masters in Creative Practice at Ara, and I love that the development of work like this is supported by an institution. She has a warm and engaging manner, and her passion is obvious.  The show starts with projected screenshots of messaging apps showing vulgar, often misogynistic approaches by men, which offers a funny but serious introduction to the show’s interest in challenging sexual objectification and expectations. She then combines songs from musicals and pop culture with what I think are her own remixes or originals; without a programme it’s a little hard to tell. The songs are interspersed with monologues, some variety show-like gags, and sometimes chats with the audience. It’s clear that the musical material is more in Tiscenko’s comfort zone; we get a sense of her musical theatre training. A highlight is her take on Meghan Trainor’s faux-feminist anthem “All About that Bass”, which here satirises social media and appearance: “I’m all about that face, no filter”.

It then explores a range of topics – pressure from social media, contradictory messages about femininity and self-expression, and family violence. The topics are worthy, but the show’s arc is hard to discern and the transitions are sometimes extremely abrupt. It’s hard to pivot from a satirical song about hypocrisy and faux-solidarity like “Women Gotta Stick Together” – again from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend – which is offered without context, to a serious talk about the murder of women by their partners in Aotearoa New Zealand.

The show itself asks what values and ideas we associate with feminism. We are assumed, I think, to start as doubters and end as newly-minted feminists, but my sense is the show is more about the performer’s own anxieties about her feminist journey – and fair enough. Thinking through the hot mess that is gender, sexuality, politics and power is hard going, but this approach underestimates the audience a little. Asking an audience to share their worst stereotypes of feminists upfront in this way invites hostility (for the audience as well as the performer), not support. I am also left wondering about how much dramaturgical advice was offered from a feminist perspective, to help clarify the definitions and applications of concepts like ‘choice feminism’ and ‘the fourth-wave’, and to ensure the set list lines up with the kaupapa. There’s also a need for more safety around sequences like the one where Tiscenko asks strangers to come onstage and wax her armpits – it could go horribly wrong. I’m highlighting these issues not to be picky but because work from emerging feminist performers should be well-supported, and I’d love to see work like this develop further in a more rigorous way.

It’s fascinating to watch The F-Word and MAINMAN back to back, as they both interrogate gender stereotypes and expectations through language and embodiment, but from wildly different directions. MAINMAN is pared back: Tom Eason, shirtless and barefoot, wears loose black trousers and a black helmet that has a vintage microphone attached to the side. He’s tethered to the ceiling by the mic’s cord, sometimes trapped and strangled, sometimes seeming to swing from it giddily. Eason is a gifted physical performer, who shifts from lanky rubber-limbed looseness to taught aggression with ease. He vocalises, makes clicks and pops, offering muttered or grunted half sentences and sounds that are looped into a soundscape designed by Te Aihe Butler that’s by turns eerie, compelling, destabilising and overwhelming. The world shakes and groans; the end of the world – or one version of the world – is nearly upon us, so what happens next?

The frame character is low-status, warm, a little awkward, smiling and nervously shrugging ‘just me!’, although the others we meet are less so. It’s to Eason’s credit that many of these flickering characters are funny until they are not; the absurdity of one man’s impotent rage is the very real mortal threat of another’s drunken anger and misogyny, or homophobia, or transphobia – fill the gap. Between the fragmented characters and the rising sense of anxiety it’s as if we are being barricaded into an echo chamber of toxic masculinity, where the voices of talkback bigotry and outrage battle with culpability, vulnerability and shame. The violence is verbal and aural, physical in its enactment of intimidation. In places we’re challenged: the whispering weeping character who we think may have been harmed, may also be freaking out and searching for an alibi after having done something terrible.

We’re asked to trace the connections between these articulations of hurt and rage, but also question how a man might find his way through spaces where the worst of you take up all the oxygen, and where things you took for granted, or have never questioned, are suddenly fraught, contigent. It’s a question individuals who feel powerless, but who nonetheless have structural privilege (the straight, the men, the Pākehā, the able-bodied…), have to work through. This is where the playfulness with sound and physicality is important. Where The F-Word is very much about language, definition and self-determination, here language can’t express the complex contradictions at play. MAINMAN offers, instead, an expression of male privilege, fearfulness and anxiety as a performative hall of mirrors, all treacherous and wibbly wobbly, where the only way out is through.

MAINMAN | Little Andromeda
Tom Eason in MAINMAN

Immediately after Eason’s show we have our panel, the fourth recording of Feminist Yarns with Kathleen Burns. Burns created the show in one of those perfect moments of inspiration last year, where an idea pops fully formed into your head and you action it immediately. Burns and three panellists work through a Feminist Agenda (a black notebook covered in diamante stickers), then go through a series of themed prompts. There are pre-prepared segments, including a game where panellists guess whether a high profile individual identifies as feminist, and spots where panellists can reflect on things they’ve been doing or thinking about. It’s not a comedy panel, but it’s often very funny. I appeared on two of the three recordings in last year’s season, and they were really special, offering multiple and competing perspectives on feminist issues – queer, non-binary, Pākehā, Māori / mana wāhine, structural, Marxist, and so on – in a space where it was more important to talk through things that arrive at perfect consensus. Some people brought writing to share; some told jokes; in one episode I made biscuits for the audience of 100 to talk about food and time as love. From a speaker’s point of view it’s really rewarding. This time there are lots of new faces in the audience, perhaps because the show had been promoted in an article in The Press.

For this show the theme is things we’re ignoring, or things that are ignored too much. MacLean talks about the white supremacy of the suffrage movement – the way Māori women had to choose between women’s rights and their Māori identities, when they were asked by the Christian Women’s Temperance Union to abandon Te Reo or forego the moko kauae. Porne highlights the way we ignore gendered violence, and I talk a bit flippantly about ignoring LinkedIn, as a way of discussing how social media tries to cannibalise our attention and sense of self.  There is lots of chat about misogyny, self-care, emotional labour, and some big support for girls at Christchurch Girls’ High School who had, the previous day, attempted to stage a peaceful protest about gendered violence outside Christchurch Boys’ High School. Proud aunties.

The relationship between audience, space, and performers here is different again from the other two shows, but similarly asks – how do performers hold space? What are our obligations to audience members, and under what conditions can and should audiences shape the direction of an event? As an academic who quite likes doing public-facing events I’ve been on loads of varied panels and events, but none have had the backchat that this show does, where audience members offer solicited and unsolicited comments, and sometimes interject forcefully or ask questions unprompted. Part of it is a credit to Burns, the way she has attempted to open up a space for dialogue between panelists and perspectives, and the audience’s enthusiastic investment in the topic, but issues of safety again came to the fore. This had happened a bit in previous episodes, during and post-show, to the point where between sessions we’d discussed how panelists’ vulnerability and generosity in sharing their stories, some of which are really personal, makes them open for some quite direct and intense responses afterward, and how to circle care around those who were participating.

And this safety came to the fore again here when Burns (who is quite open about using a touch of Botox) talks about how in her late twenties an older male colleague, who she thought was listening attentively to her speak, instead reached out and rubbed the space between her eyebrows to try to minimise her frown lines. Honestly, what the fuck – add it to the list of all the time women have been told to smile, smile, don’t worry love, don’t be sad, it can’t be that bad. It’s shocking, and completely relatable.

As we go to move on a woman in the audience asks if she could ask a question. “I didn’t open the floor” says Burns, “but okay”. This is always the hold your breath moment: will this elevate or derail the moment? The latter: the woman wants to know why Burns chooses to wear make up, then proceeds to insist quietly, a few times over, that she is pretty enough without and doesn’t need it. Burns is pretty forthright in her opinions about choices regarding her face and body and her love for being femme, but this doesn’t seem to satisfy. After the third interjection I’m fidgeting so hard I throw up my hand in a great gesture of ‘NO’ and go on a tirade about femininity, make up, self-expression, expectation, and how we police women’s bodies in a no-win situation, although I can’t now remember the fine details. When you’re onstage the light’s in your eyes, the audience is a void, and things keep pouring out of your mouth, but I’m livid. When I finish up Porne notes that her winged eyeliner makes her feel so confident she could rob a bank. People laugh, we move on. I don’t know what the audience member and her friend think.

Returning Christchurch show explores two F words - feminism and funny |  Stuff.co.nz
Feminist Yarns episode 3 – 23 July 2020. L-R: Kathleen Burns, Erin Harrington, Moata Tamaira, Juanita Hepi.

I was wondering afterwards, beyond the obvious, to what extent can a show’s creator set the rules of engagement – that is, what can be controlled, or shaped, given the complexity of cultural exchange, performance and practice? What contributes to an environment where a man feels he gets to walk across a stage in the middle of a woman’s show, or when a well-meaning but completely out of line woman feels compelled, without prompting, to reassure the cis femme host of a feminist panel show that she is pretty enough without makeup – insert the unspoken assumptions about women’s worth here? Is it that there is a shared expectation about what a show made by women is? Is it that the audience of a community-friendly fringe space like Little Andromeda feels closer to the show than in a different venue? Is it, in the case of the panel, a sense that the show is a dialogue with the audience, an informal collective, even when performers are (hopefully) holding space? Is it just a sense of entitlement? And what happens when audiences disagree with performers, and vice versa?

From behind the scenes, I know Burns is firm in her desire to make Feminist Yarns a fun and safe experience for participants, despite some weighty topics. As a participant and an audience member I want everyone to feel invested, but not at the expense of the people who are making themselves vulnerable. I assume Tiscenko and Eason feel the same. These moments highlight how fragile these distinctions can be.

These questions aside, the key point is that despite talking to and at the audience for an hour, and offering up some pretty challenging material, Eason was not expected to justify himself. His show was terrific – if you get a chance, go see it – but I didn’t see people afterwards comment on his body or question his authority as a performer. While I love the sense of community that these shows and this space create, I don’t want the nasty little voice in my head – the one that says women are still not entitled to space and autonomy – to be right.

I was offered a complimentary ticket to The F-Word, and paid for my ticket to MAINMAN.

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