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‘That in There’, Undoing the Binary Gender

May 4, 2010

Photo via Anthropoid Theatre

When I first read the blurb for That in There on our local Arts Centre’s website, I didn’t know what to think. It was a devised production from a traveling theatre company called Anthropoid Theatre and it carried an over-18 stamp on it. But what caught my eye was this:

A lyrical and visual feast, which investigates postmodern notions of gender in a world of mass and multimedia.

It had been a while since I had been to any experimental theatre, let alone one that took direct aim at the house of gender—so on the night of the performance, we were ushered into a small studio space that was darkened with a tinge of blue. When the lights dimmed out and the music picked up, the first WHAT moment came when a half-larva, half-naked person crawled through the entrance, across the stage, and out the exit again without a word to the audience. About an hour later, dazed, confused and mind appropriately blown, I caught up with the director, Joanna Johnson, and quite graciously, she was able to answer a few of my questions:

Without giving too much away… how would you describe ‘That in There?’

I think it makes an attempt at exploding binary notions of gender and also hope that it has a pace that does not allow an audience to get bored… an assault on the senses for a postmodern generation with shorter and shorter attention spans. I get bored when I go to the theatre and I feel that there is a dip or lull in a way that I don’t if I am watching a film. As an artistic collective we strive to create a theatrical impact that can only be felt from live performance and that uses all the theatrical elements we have available to us at the time. Have I given too much away?

Now, ‘That in There’ had a lot going on and I think a lot of it is left to audience interpretation.

Yes, I think you are right there… We have been uncertain whether or not to explain more to our audience through program notes or a post-show discussion; however we have listened to many interpretations of the performance by audiences and often have found that the audience informs us as to what the piece is about. We have learned a lot about our work as a result of this and discovering their thoughts and listening to their reactions has become part of the excitement of showing the work.

But what was the origin of this particular performance and what did you want it to mean?

During my time at university studying devised theatre and staging collaborative works I noticed a troublesome area in the presentation of male and female roles on stage. My own research and reading was erring more and more towards feminist ideas in psychoanalytic theory (particularly in relation to Helene Cixous and Julia Kristeva), but in practice I noticed that it was hard to escape the power struggle between girl and boy in the rehearsal room and that this struggle was evident in performance. I and my colleagues in some instances were even criticized as presenting misogyny in performance. This interpretation infuriated me as it was running contrary to my reading and ideas and it seemed it was like a virus that could sometimes attack your work.

I was also becoming interested in a woman called Claude Cahun. She was part of the surrealist movement although not really recognized – as she was female and a lesbian) and her notion of the ‘third sex’. I couldn’t get this idea of the ‘third sex’ out of my head and started to think how this could inform a performative body and the methodology of a devising group. What fascinated me about Cahun was that she was androgynous, yet highly sexual.

So, I decided that I would like to begin a devising process with the notion of ‘androgyny’. Then we met in a studio and played.

The red tape just happened to be in the studio and we played with it. The chicken we decided would be an addition to our cast from that day on. We noticed how androgynous the chicken was – it was naked and its skin seemed no different to ours.

In terms of what we wanted the piece to mean – we didn’t know. I don’t think any of us know now. It became more a case of what worked within the world we were constructing and then we would decide why and we would justify it and it would fit in with the narrative that was emerging. We were working closely with our musician (Ed Currie) and our lighting designer and we were creating material that was adhering to an internal logic, a structural logic, like a musical score, as opposed to a script.

Photo via Anthropoid Theatre

I was interested in my masculinity. I am a straight 23 year old Female. The First feotus text was an exploration into my curiousity, ‘what does it feel to have a fleshy snake dangling between your legs’ etc. The feotus embodied the text as it did not yet know its sex or what sex is…just like me as I am still confused. – Sarah Ruff, actor

What questions about our sexual selves did you aim to ask, and what did you answer?

I think we ask our audience how the image of a naked man, vulnerable and alone makes them feel, how a woman ejaculating menstrual blood makes them feel… How a ‘cute’ girl talking about kittens and puppies and sucking cock makes them feel. I remember Sarah saying ‘I like bleeding’. I think in our society women perhaps think of menstruation as an inconvenience, but actually it could be viewed as pleasure, a recognition and enjoyment that we are fertile.

The sac (as we call it- the creature that gives birth to the chicken and the girl) goes on a journey, all the ‘characters’ go on a journey in a world that is disconnected (a world of the ‘in-between’) and their sex is not part of their social identity –  it is an experience, an instinct, a drive and it is pleasure and pain and confusion, femininity, masculinity, beauty, fertility, love, destruction, loneliness, death.

Finally, tell us something about your group, its aims in performance arts, and its future!

We would like to continue making work as a company and so far we have been able to keep going by the skin of our teeth, but we are pretty much unfunded and our work is not ‘everyone’s cup of tea’. We are all also engaged in other projects and although most of us live in London, some of us live elsewhere and it is hard to meet up and work – plus we all have to pay rent!

But we do manage to keep working together and ran our first workshop for students on the ‘gender in performance’ module at Aberystwyth Uni (when we were there) and we have been invited back next year. We hope that this may be a way of generating income for the company and to fund more performances. So if you can think of anyone who might like to book the performance and/or workshop please let us know! We are also being funded to do a site-specific piece in a museum in Devon this summer; although this does not really relate to the themes in ‘That in There’ it is paid work and will fund our more obscure interests in the future.

If you would like to book or learn more about Anthropoid Theatre, please visit their website for details.

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