If you have never been to Carriageworks, the first thing you need to know is that Track 17 is big and made of concrete and the hallway to enter is lined with red. They are giving out wristbands like a music festival. A staff member in a pink t-shirt gives one to my Mum and one to me. Later Mum will slide hers off her wrist and hand it to me fully formed like a paper bangle before she gets in the car, telling me to pass it on to a friend. The day is hot and the wind is dry, blowing in from the west; later this afternoon a branch will break from Mum’s angophora tree and fall into her neighbour’s backyard, and she’ll have to go home and attend to it. Now, down the red hall and turn left into the dark cavern split in two by a stage structure, a long t-shaped runway with three levels of scaffolding on one side. Art in the warehouse. In the darkness on the far side of this stage are secret couches and beanbags. I’m blinking rapidly like a mole with sun on its face. I am wearing shorts and a singlet, and I will shiver all day, going between the air-conditioned Track 17 and the backstage spaces where the machinery and concrete sweats.
There are many performances throughout the day. But like these performers, I can’t ask an audience for something I can’t myself give. Our attention is precious. So here, this is a brief encounter with Day for Night.
Their performance has no name. In the program their full names are printed next to their allotted time slot. These names go together in my head. Anastasia and Samia. Going to the beach with Anastasia and Samia. Having dinner with Anastasia and Samia. Anastasia will pick me up, then Samia, and drive us there.
They have matching tattoos on their legs that read WOG in wobbly caps stick and poke font. When they enter the space they do so together, in black t-shirts and shorts and sneakers, Samia walking in front with Anastasia not far behind. Samia turns and looks back to make sure she’s following, just there. The crowd parts to let them through, and when they announce to us their presence, we are ready, sitting cross-legged on the floor or standing with arms folded in the cold air. There are maybe forty or fifty people and our bodies are like architecture in the space.
The show consists of a performed, Sisyphean effort of shoving, pulling and dragging each other round the room while telling stories from a decade of friendship. There is no fixed stage, but a kind of morphing circle as the audience moves with them, aligned in the effort. Samia addresses us directly: “So, we used to live together”. Throughout the work, Samia will address the audience, look up at particular people from the floor, include us, while Anastasia will attend to Samia, responding to her questions and conversational prompts, paying particular attention to the task of moving their connected bodies around the space.
As an audience, we are invited in and taken care of. There is an ethics of watching that needs to consider the invitation and the expectation on us as watchers and listeners. They have prepared these stories for us. What is it to watch two people who know each other well do something physically demanding, together? Samia’s t-shirt rides up and there is a sudden visceral intrusion of the sound of her skin squeaking against the floor. Samia’s greatest and possibly most unconscious gift is for physical comedy: she lies on her back and when Stasia grabs her calves and pulls like an ox with a cart, Samia squeals weeeeeeeeee and throws her arms out behind her. The audience ripples with titters. We don’t always know when we are permitted to laugh. I am sitting on the floor next to my Mum who is laughing in all the right places. Last night we dropped past Samia’s place to pick up a doona I left there. My mum, my sister and I stood outside the door waiting for them to answer and Mum said: "They’re probably rehearsing." They were not. They were watching TV.
Eminent and endlessly frustrating literary critic Harold Bloom writes about the concept of over-hearing as central to why we participate in cultural material made with written and spoken language. If, as Bloom suggests, ‘self-overhearing is the prime function of the soliloquy’, is being audience to works of dialogue an act of over-hearing relationship? I find that when I am getting to know new people, I tell stories about myself, usually the same stories, like I’m emptying my pockets or cataloguing the items in my backpack. This performance work uses body and voice as its primary materials, and the moments without speaking are as heavy with dialogue as the vocal repartee. The sound of laboured breathing into a Madonna mic. The thud of feet and bodies on a concrete floor. What I overhear as they drag each other across the circle is that all serious political learning or change happens in relationship and that this is no small thing. There is a push and pull, being invited to bear witness to something as intimate and singular as a friendship between two queer women and the responsibility to look and see respectfully.
Samia asks if Stasia wants to swap and they trade places, renegotiating the monkey grip—“here, grab my forearms”—the space is lit orange and purple. All day I will notice movement between these colours, glowing and shining on skin and concrete. She’s talking about the two of them, but for a shining purple thirty minutes, we are included in their memories. We all used to share a fridge; all remember that road trip. We laugh in the right places because we are reminded of how we laughed then, or how we were annoyed, couldn’t stand each other and now we laugh because friendship is enduring.
Stasia sits down on the floor where Samia lies on her belly and brushes the dust off the back of Samia’s shorts. She rolls Samia over and pulls up Samia’s socks, pulls down her t-shirt where it has ridden up. The battery pack for Samia’s microphone has fallen out of the pocket of her shorts. Lying there on her back, smiling, dead weight but still recounting cheerfully for us moments from the last decade, Samia lifts her head and asks Stasia to fix it. Anastasia pulls herself closer to Samia, leaning over her in examination of the issue, clips Samia’s microphone back onto her shorts and says,
“I knew that would happen, that’s why I put mine in my bra, see?”
Chronic improvisers are always prepared. They have been rehearsing for years and years. Theatre distracts you while something else is prepared and, in this way, it is like learning, like friendship.
I leave Track 17 and when I return, I look through the heads and shoulders of the audience to find Mum. She’s sitting on the opposite side of the stage where Betty Grumble has just introduced her work by way of participatory call and response, connecting this pussy to all other pussies. There are so many ways to refer to anatomy that they pile up arbitrarily and all we can do is repeat them. It’s all call and response. Mum is smiling and blinking rapidly, dancing her foot in time to Joan Jett.
Betty Grumble is like a beautiful drag doll from the apocalypse, with a face full of greens and pinks over pale powder and heavy contouring. In a white singlet and combat boots, a thick black weightlifting belt around her waist, she stands centre stage and whips the audience into a cheering frenzy, before she takes up a place on the cable pull-down machine to execute the announced 1001 Pussy Prints that she has committed to. Three assistants in disposable white bodysuits perform a labour of love, snatching each piece of paper out from under Betty after she’s stamped it, and pegging them along lines strung throughout the space.
Feminine athleticism is something I associate with Sydney queer performance. I came of age on the tail end of a generation or several of AFAB queers for whom this was of deep subcultural relevance, and I was raised on Gurlesque and the ilk—I first saw Anastasia performing under her stage name, Adonis, before I’d ever heard of Carriageworks, sneaking into the Sly Fox as a teenager with my girlfriend’s older sister’s ID. The particular serious clowning from that era of subcultural superstar is present in Betty Grumble’s work. A performance of a feminine self like a pro wrestler, anatomical but not objectifying. Or maybe it does engage objectification but turns the concept on its head—standing on the same wobbly pedestal as a lineage of showgirls and strongwomen, clowns who turn out an offering in the shape of their own bodies but bigger, who make something from nothing.
The ability to be sincere and earnest with performance is rare. This work speaks for itself and does not trick the audience. Because of this, I know what to expect from the work and in this way, I think Betty Grumble might be the most generous of performers. Performance work of any kind has to have some kind of invitation or openness, a way in.
For all its generosity and invitation to connect, I am necessarily uncomfortable by the call and response that opens the show. I am torn, compelled as always by rhyming incantation but alienated by the content:
Every birth / every bleed / this is she / this is she
An invitation to make a psychic or historical connection between this pussy and all pussies past, present and future is uneasy to me. To inhabit a body like mine, a square peg body that can’t be anatomically understood as essentially one thing or another, or more commonly is misunderstood as one thing, only one possible thing, and hear this call to connect in fantasised unity to other organs is like finding out my name isn’t on the door list. A door that bangs shut in my face. Which doesn’t necessarily matter, not every room needs to be open for everyone, especially not to people who look like me, but I look around at the rest of us, past, present and future standing outside this momentary monument to biological essentialism and I’m still uncomfortable. Performance needs a rhythm or a frame, but I am not convinced that The Unshame Machine needs this frame.
Betty Grumble does achieve the goal of togetherness. The real connection is made clear when she announces a kind of revenge dedication, on the home stretch of the show:
This is for all my abusers, all of everyone’s abusers, I am your demon, I am your worst nightmare. And I am coming for you.
I am paraphrasing. Performance work is infinitely paraphrasable because it is image heavy and didactic. In this dedication, the door that (maybe inadvertently) shut out she’s who don’t birth or bleed, and others who inhabit the endless possible variations of having a body, cracks open. If Betty Grumble haunts the nightmares of those who harmed me, you, us, I am satisfied with The Unshame Machine’s legacy.
Of course, the show has other elements. The enduring image of Betty Grumble’s squat/stamp routine continues in the background with a tireless rhythm while her three assistants offer individual performances, stripping off their white paint-proof body suits in turn. Craig Slist does a drag show in white singlet and black pants, flinging off a black coat and leather jacket, throwing their hi-vis yellow helmet into the crowd. Iya moves between sitting and lying down on the edge of the stage, performing a lotioning of her body with coconut oil. Stelly, wearing a sarong, sits on the edge of the stage, husking a coconut between her legs using a sharp tool to scrape the meat from inside. The symbolism is not lost on the audience, who literally howl and cheer for her to continue. Between husking and shaving the hair from the outside of the coconut, she looks at the audience dead on and gestures to the coconut, head cocked to the side, asking us whether to keep going. Stelly’s show carries the same genius for invitational physicality in performance that Samia and Anastasia mobilise, which fits seamlessly within The Unshame Machine. I can see the rhythm of these collected works lying over Track 17 like a veil. These are works about bodies, the way they are looked at and seen, which is not the same thing.
I leave and come back, and when I do Mum sends me around the other side of the scaffolding to fetch us some beanbags. We’re in the last minutes of Th3 Order’s final performance of three, which took place on the highest level of the scaffolding on the stage, two attendants cutting the long dreadlocks and shaving the head of a third. We watch them climb down and traverse the stage with tensed steps of practiced slowness and present the clipped hair as a final offering to be witnessed. There is a kind of odd dissymmetry or back and forth counting game involved in the performances at Day for Night—we go from two to three to four to three back to one, swivelling our heads between the two stages on either side of the space.
To our left, Zaya Barroso takes the stage, crouching over a loop pedal in high wooden wedges like scaffolding of her own. She is going to sing us a song. To be sung to like to be read to is a goo goo moment—babies let loose in the warehouse with wide open faces and wet eyes, burrowed into our beanbags, waiting patiently.
“This song is called Alive. It is dedicated to all the trans people in the world”
She pauses, fiddles with her loop pedal, then looks up and says:
“And everyone here today.”
When we sing, we use our bodies to make a vibration with the air, which is sound. Singing is sound made language. Singing is like thinking is like laughing. Because thought and breath are made of air, while she sings my mind is tumbling. Emptying like a plug pulled where my skull meets my spine. To dedicate something to the masses of us, every single one of us in the world, and then to be aware of how it feels when a door slams shut with such force that you can feel the wind against your eyelashes and to look at a room full of people and smile and invite them in as well. A moment’s pause before a dedication.
How kind we are.
I flutter my eyelashes against it. I can feel more than one thing at once. How kind it is. To stare down into the garrisons and platoons of gendered regulation, to look into the expectation of a lifetime, maybe many lifetimes, and in the face of what we are presented with and told we deserve to offer such expansive love and generosity. How grateful I am to have sunken my particular incongruence into this orange beanbag from which I cannot move because beanbags are immediate cocoons, how lucky I am to be sung to in Track 17, Zaya’s voice multiplied by the loop pedal until the space is full of Zayas and the moment balloons out infinitely, absorbing all other possible moments and rendering them irrelevant.
I wake up
I wake up and I love
I want to be more like Zaya. She who takes in air and expels not only language. A gift. Something from nothing.
It is possible to be more than one thing, to feel many things at once, and allow one’s mind to run along different tracks at different speeds. I’m thinking about everything I have seen, and I can’t differentiate between things that are important and things that are not. What is the responsibility of the listener, when people tell us stories about themselves? Friend is an equitable word. One Christmas Eve a few years ago, Betty Grumble doing daytime drag as Emma Maye drove me and a friend from Melbourne to Sydney, and on the side of the Hume we saw a harangued-looking woman holding a small child under the armpits and dangling it over some dusty spike grass while it peed. Emma Maye said: “Imagine being a Mum, hey”.
Later, after Anastasia drops me home, I find that my Mum has placed a Day for Night souvenir on the bed in my old bedroom where I have been staying while I visit. One of the prints from The Unshame Machine. A ghostly vulval stamp from Betty Grumble’s performance. Our monstrous jock goddess, makeup melting off her face. Calling forth the ghosts of show biz with her innate ability to make a crowd cheer.
Vincent Silk is a writer living on unceded Wurundjeri land. His work has been published in Archer, un magazine, Going Down Swinging, and Next Wave's Wormhole. His first novel, Sisters of No Mercy was published in 2018.
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