Last night, I went and saw a play called ‘We Get It’.
It was part of MTC Neon, and created by ‘The Elbow Room’ – written by Marcel Dorney and Rachel Perks, and co-directed by Marcel Dorney and Emily Tomlins.
This isn’t a review.
This is my response.
I don’t want this play to open, and then close, and have the long-awaited conversation stop.
In saying this, I am responding to the aspect of the show that I could directly understand from experience. There were profoundly moving elements I can’t address, and so I leave them out – but not because they aren’t important.
I went to this play with two male friends, and we sat in the front row.
For most of the play, I laughed loudly. It was excellent satire, exposing the inbuilt assumption, discrimination and dismissal faced by women in theatre – including women of colour. Of course we laughed. It was true, and we didn’t want to deal with it.
Five actresses (Maurial Spearim, Amy Ingram, Kasia Kaczmarek, Tamiah Bantum and Sonya Suares – all extraordinary, mind you) were pitted against one another in a sordid reality show, hosted by the aggressively charismatic ‘Emily’. ‘Emily’ was Emily Tomlins, unrecognisable in a blonde wig, white suit, black pumps and heck of a lot of bronzer. She engaged and provoked the contestants, who became increasingly confused, insecure, and then angry – but were continually objectified and rejected, and finally rendered voiceless.
At one point in the play, after a particularly confronting attempt to sexualize the young woman playing Lady Macbeth, ‘Emily’ gets a cue that leaves her conflicted. This sassy, manipulative host stops the show, and refuses to say her next line.
The play then takes a turn.
‘Emily’ begins to talk directly to the audience – slowly, cautiously. She becomes fragile before our eyes – all showmanship evaporating. She monologues about her experiences, her understanding about what it means to be seen as F (f—able) or NF (not f—-able).
As ‘Emily’ speaks she removes her costume, piece by piece. The wig, the jacket, the corset, the pants, the body stocking, the heels. Behind her, ‘live tweets’ of audience mockery and abuse are broadcast for the audience to see.
At one point she turns to the computer system she works in conjunction with, asking ‘Do they know what I’m doing, yet?’
‘We Get It’ doesn’t preach. It witnesses. It simply tells you what has happened – what is happening. It is up to you to do something about that.
Theatre and religion rarely mix well – but this is one case in which I felt the two converge into a genuine question of justice.
Who hears this call? Who is going to simply sit here, in silence, and watch this happen?
I wanted to say sorry. I wanted to get on my knees, or get on stage and sit at Emily’s feet. I also wanted to leave.
My friend said later that he wanted to get undressed, too. Just stand there, before her, in repentance.
My conviction manifested as grief, and I did not move and I could not look. As she took off every single one of her clothes, and told us how she was not deemed ‘F’, I closed my eyes.
Emily Tomlins was one of the first actors I remember watching on stage.
Before I went to acting school, I saw her perform Ophelia, in Queensland Theatre Company and the Theatre Company of South Australia’s ‘Hamlet’. I found the production to be breathtaking – I knew very little about the performing of Shakespeare, and her character reached me. She was devastating, and defining. I wanted to have that quality.
A few years later, cast in my first professional production, ‘Julius Caesar’ at La Boîte, I was able to work with Emily for the first time.
I was twenty-two, and performing a female role in a Shakespearean play that was written primarily about the power relationships between men. I had no idea what I was doing, but Em took me under her wing in the deepest sense.
She encouraged me, debriefed with me, and stayed open, without judgment, as I fumbled through identity and relationship crises, and tried to bring an authentic character to the stage.
She believed passionately that her character had power in the story, and that her portrayal of that character would both move the players and the audience. She knew her worth and she held it up for all in the production to see and understand. I had not been taught this type of glorious defiance in acting school. She inspired me to do the same.
This isn’t just a woman. This character is not a tool to propel exposition about a man. This is a wife. This is a friend. This is intimacy. This is manipulation. This is loyalty. This is important.
Her approach to her work gave me hope, and her approach towards me set a standard. I had a renewed understanding of what it meant to be a woman in the theatre, but also how women could and should behave toward one another.
Over the next few months and years, I started learning why Emily’s approach to craft – to femininity – was different.
The day after we closed Caesar, I got on a plane to Sydney and started on the fourth season of ‘Underbelly’, to play a sixteen-year-old prostitute.
Now, I bring up my professional experiences with caution and with respect. I don’t feel like a victim, or a passive wanderer through a broken system. I was naïve. And in my naivety, I was not able to protect myself from an industry that did not consider itself responsible for me, or how my body was experienced and understood by a public audience.
We all partake in this. I am complicit, in every way.
I performed the role with joy and pride. I love a bit of physical freedom. In the safer contexts, it did feel liberating. I had incredible directors and mentors around me who did seek to make sure I felt empowered on set. The female characters were all strong and I chose to hold my choices high, as I’d seen actresses like Emily do. I was committed to authentically telling the story of this woman, who had actually lived in 1920s Sydney, but I also knew I was playing a sociopathic criminal, extreme in every sense – it never felt like I was representing women in general. I wasn’t concerned about how it would reflect on me, or anyone else. They all knew I was acting! It was art!
I had been told that I was brave. I had been told that the lighting was very beautiful. I had been told that it was tasteful.
I had also been told that if I wanted to work as an actress, I had to be prepared to get my breasts out.
When we were shooting, I chose to normalise it for myself and those around me. I had a lot of sex scenes, with different actors. I wanted everyone to feel okay – I took on that responsibility – even when caring publicists would encourage me to be careful. You don’t have to do anything you don’t want to do. But where was the bravery in that? That was not organic! I would do more than what was comfortable – I was a team player!
The poor crew probably felt a bit undone at my willingness to get in the nuddy, to be honest. I figured it would help us all relax, the less of a big deal I made it. This doesn’t affect me! Not one bit! Not at all! Get used to this, mate, this is feminism!
Until one day, we had a publicity shoot, and I unraveled.
I was topless, but only my back was showing. It was a dark and mysterious setting, with a photographer that I had never met before. The network ran the publicity shoots, rather than the production – so they had a different interpretation of my character and how they wanted her marketed.
I had no idea.
We shot a few scenarios – it was all modeling stuff, pretty simple on paper. But I am not a model. I freeze up. I find it incredibly exposing. I hate looking down a lens because I don’t feel in character, and I consequently get very nervous.
The photographer sensed this.
I just need you to be more sexy.
We tried again.
Can you just open yourself? Be sexier!
You’re playing a prostitute and you can’t be fucking sexy?
I was gutted. No, I couldn’t. I was standing there half naked, and I wasn’t sexy, and I didn’t know how to be. I knew I could play my character, but Anna – twenty-two year old Anna – with her fears and her insecurities, was not able to do it.
I had one job. And I knew I had failed.
The show was pretty successful, and I kept getting work because of the professional exposure it granted me. However, something had changed.
Where I had previously been going to castings for awkward, tomboyish comedy roles, the intelligent ‘best friend’, or the assertive, passionate young woman – I started auditioning for the ‘sex girl’. She was always ‘beautiful’, and either had power in antagonism (and a penchant for sex) or complete innocence (leading into learning about sex). It was so far from how I perceived myself, but I listened to it earnestly – challenged by these auditions and roles to embody something that didn’t make much sense to me.
Is this how I come across to people? Is this how I treat men and women? Is this how I find love/acceptance/identity as a young woman? How do I become sexy?
I did a few other roles, but the next big project I was offered was ‘Spartacus’. My character was a slave girl that didn’t even have a name yet. They asked for full frontal nudity, and sex scenes.
I felt very strange. Over the previous six months post-Underbelly I’d had countless conversations about my breasts with complete strangers. There were newspaper articles about my weight, and quotes of me saying liberal things about nudity and sexuality. The constant question was ‘How much are you like your character?’
I felt disconnected from my work. I wanted to be portraying thoughtful, challenging characters on screen and on stage, and writing plays about the world around me, but it felt like I’d forfeited that direction for my career.
This was a big American production and it was ten months work, and heck, who did I think I was to say no to nudity now? I should be grateful. I was obviously learning how to be better at ‘sex girl’.
I accepted the offer, and arranged to move to New Zealand.
A week later, we got a call. I was at the airport, about to head down to a Logies promotional shoot – a completely new beast in itself. A network producer in the U.S. had changed their mind about me. They wanted to retract the offer. The production asked us to give them a week, and they’d try and convince him to keep me on it.
I cried into my arm the whole plane trip, absolutely gutted. Then I put on a smile for the shoot, walking and posing like an obedient model/actress, feeling utterly empty.
I had one job.
The next day, something in my perspective had shifted.
I wasn’t particularly spiritual at this stage – but I now see that something pressed in on my heart in this moment, calling forth the young woman who had wanted to be more than just context for men.
I had done all I was told. I’d given my body over to those in charge of deeming whether it was worthy – I’d agreed to that contract without argument.
I had finally accepted the label of ‘sex girl’ and the industry that had given it to me had rejected me anyway. I saw this moment the way a discouraged abductee might see her one opportunity to make a run for it, and escape.
This was my chance to change it.
I knew, right to my bones, that they should feel honoured to have me say yes. My body was mine, and worth more than their money. I did not want to beg for an opportunity to be used.
I was so afraid to voice that opinion, but I did. My agent agreed completely, and we declined. They simultaneously came back with the decision to recast me, anyway.
Since then, I have made the decision to not do nudity. I have just said no.
Directors, actors and producers have questioned if I’m ‘vulnerable enough’ to play the character, from that simple stand. Others have been offended, confused to why I won’t offer this part of myself to their project. ‘After all, you’ve done it before’. Usually, I’ve still been cast.
In these situations, the lack of nudity has never impacted the narrative, nor has it changed the sensuality of a scene or story.
I have been incredibly privileged to work in many mediums, playing many different women. I do work hard as a member of this industry, but I’m part of it due to the variables (caucasian, educated, twenties, size 8) that attend to my position of privilege. I know of countless hardworking actors, whose variables differ from mine, and they deserve that same opportunity and they do not receive it.
In all of this, I have continued to have experiences in which I have had to assert the forgotten truth that my body is mine.
This industry has evolved to play by very murky rules. It has somehow been raised generationally to understand intimacy and boundaries in very subjective ways. We get away with stuff. We box and label one another. We exclude and judge. We objectify. We take liberties. And we don’t talk about it, because that wouldn’t be brave or organic or easy to work with.
I’ve watched, despairing, as we become isolated in protecting ourselves, convinced that no-one else is going to do it for us.
I am my own responsibility, absolutely. But if you are working with me, if I am spending anything from five minutes in an audition with you, all the way up to six to twelve months on tour – we have created a shared place of vulnerability, and your wellbeing is mine to protect. There is no question in this. The moment we collaborate on any level, it has to matter to me how you feel.
There have been times I’ve failed at this, but I want to be the kind of actor that sacrifices my own indulgence, my own needs, my own ‘excellence in art’ to make sure my partner is not just performing exceptionally, but that they are okay.
If we could do this, corporately, for one another – the way Emily Tomlins did this for me five years ago – perhaps our theatre, television and film productions may gain qualities rarely seen. If we made our industry a safe place, perhaps we would be fostering the growth of noticeable artistic integrity. Perhaps we would start to recognise our industry for its compassion, a quality grown slowly and carefully, through love, respect, consent, equality, justice and honour.
We are responsible for making one another feel safe. We are responsible for how we display gender, sexuality, ethnicity, and culture to our audience – our societies. There is so much assumed, so much shrugged off, so much swept beneath the carpet of closed rehearsal rooms and private casting conversations.
I thought about ‘We Get It’ all night. I thought about it as I woke up, and as I opened my emails in bed, absentmindedly.
This is the first thing I saw.
And this is the reason I say thankyou, Em.