Patricia Cornelius, the grande dame of rebel playwrights in Australia, is on the line from Adelaide, and we’re discussing the word shit.
It’s the name of her play that will make its Canadian debut here at the Firehall Arts Centre. And it’s also a word that’s been flying all over the airwaves. Thanks to President Donald Trump’s infamous “shithole” slur, even television’s most esteemed news anchors are having to say the “S word”.
Cornelius laughs at the thought of that, then recounts a story from the 2015 debut of her play SHIT at Melbourne’s Neon Festival of Independent Theatre.
“People would ring [the box office] and women in particular would say, ‘I would like tickets for S-H-I-T,’ ” she says, spelling it out and then laughing heartily. “I used to say, ‘If they can’t even say the word, how are they going to handle this play?’ ”
Actually, by all accounts it’s the F word, the C word, and several other delightfully colourful terms that show up more often in SHIT, the story of three marginalized, tough-living women who end up in prison together after a particularly brutal incident.
“I’ve grown up with the vernacular,” Cornelius says of swearing. “I find it a powerful tool—as long as I can seduce people with an almost-poetry using it.”
It’s also the language of the working class and underclass, whose members Cornelius is known for putting at centre stage. As the marketing materials for the Firehall’s rendition of the work say, “What about the women with the foul mouths and the weathered faces? What about the women who spit, fight, swear, hurt, and steal? What do they have to say?”
“It’s the voice that’s not heard enough in the theatre,” says Cornelius, a cofounder of Melbourne Workers Theatre. In mainstream work, she explains, the underclass is often sneered at or laughed at. “Well, these women aren’t to be laughed at! They’re too scary.”
The play, she explains, grew out of a workshop she did with other playwrights and actors to try to develop richer, more challenging roles for women—a topic that’s as top-of-mind Down Under as it is in the theatre scene here.
“Where are the plays where a woman can sort of take a space the way a man can?” the affable but unapologetic playwright asks. “We don’t get a chance to do that—to really take the audience by the scruff of the neck.” She delved into developing women who wouldn’t act the way society wants them to; women who were angry and disenfranchised—as she puts it, the kind of woman who makes you bury your head in a book when you see her ranting on a public bus. And then in SHIT, without any sentimentality, she unpacks the misogyny and maltreatment that has brought these people (played here by Yoshié Bancroft, Kayla Deorksen, and Sharon Crandall) to the state they’re in.
“Women aren’t meant to be so tough—so what the fuck did you do to them to make them so tough?” she says.
Cornelius likes middle-class theatregoers to ask themselves hard questions. But with typical honesty, Cornelius cops that tearing down sexism, classism, and institutions didn’t always come so easily for her.
“Much of my life I spent quite timid, and that absolutely has to do with class and gender,” the sexagenarian admits. “Even in theatre, it took so long to claim myself as a young playwright; I was a nervous Nelly and kind of apologetic about the plays.
“Aging is quite a good thing, and you think, ‘Ah, fuck it! I’m gonna say what I want to say.’”
Spoken like a true shit-disturber.
SHIT is at the Firehall Arts Centre from Saturday (January 27) to February 10.
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