Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Saying farewell to a mentor - A post on Geoffrey Milne

For the second time this year, I am interrupting this black feminist broadcast to write a memorial post on a Jeff/Geoff that changed my life for the better. I have just returned from the memorial service of Geoffrey Milne at the alternative theatre spiritual homelands of La Mama in Carlton, and I don't think I have been to a better send off ever. I had the pleasure of hearing many speak about what Geoff meant to them; from the theatre scene, from the higher education sector, from his personal life. And whilst I wrote a little when I heard of his passing, I have been inspired after hearing these stories to share my own memories and illustrate why Geoffrey Milne meant so much to me.

It's a well-known fact (and cause for much gaffawing) that when I first hit La Trobe University as an undergrad student in the late 90s I was actually a science student. Stranger still: I was a Geology major. I had headed towards science because I had done well in it in at one point whilst in high school, although a quick glance over my (somewhat embarrassing) year 12 marks highlights that I was always destined to end up in the arts. Despite taking a truckload of science subjects for my VCE, my highest marks ended up being in Drama and English. However, at the time this escaped me, and so I enrolled in a BSc.

At some point during semester 1, second year, I worked out that I didn't actually like science. There was no passion in it, everything was concrete and "fact-based" and working out molecular volume via titration every prac was failing to spin my wheels. I had also been involved in two plays at College by that point and was finding that it was this side of Uni that I was actually enjoying. I called into the Aboriginal Liaison Office and had a whinge, and through expressing an interest in drama, the then Aboriginal Liaison Officer hooked me up a meeting with the head of the Drama School to talk about taking some subjects. 

So a couple of days later I made the long long walk over to the Drama dept (then located in the demountable buildings of an old school away from the main campus) to meet this fellow called Geoffrey Milne. This short scruffy man in corduroy slacks and wearing a vest came out to greet me. On noticing that I had a packet of cigarettes in my hand, he invited me to come out to his "other office"; the alcove of a doorway with a couple of stairs to prop on, complete with an ashtray and a thoroughly uninspiring courtyard. It was there that he hit me with a few questions on my background, my family and my interests, talked me through the drama major sequence, and then just chatted away. We would meet probably several hundred times in that exact same "other office" over the next few years; talking through a lighting sequence I had come up with for a couple of the shows I directed, going through my thesis and why I needed to use the correct "to", thrashing out ideas. His real office was, of course, a fantastic space; usually with paperwork everywhere and had an extensive collection of texts so I felt at home in it too. More often than not though, the best ideas were thrashed out in the other office.

A lot of people tonight talked about Geoff's passion and his support for Australian theatre, and he was definitely a huge advocate for recognising the countless amazing works that have come out of this country. It was, however, his incredible support for Aboriginal theatre that hooked me. It was through Geoff that I was introduced to "The Cake Man" by Merritt, "Murras" by Johnson and all the amazing works of Jack Davis. Additionally, both Geoffrey and another of the wonderful lecturers I had when at LTU Drama, Peta Tait, said to me that the best works of the late 80s-90s were Aboriginal women's monodramas and made sure they introduced me to these works accordingly. Aboriginal works were celebrated on their own merits in these courses for the amazing scene-changing pieces they were, and not in that patronising "Indigenous studies 101" way which I had experienced so many times in my journey through the education system. Geoff was also incredibly anecdotal in his lectures, and I remember him talking about the time he saw Davis' "First Born Trilogy" performed over three nights. His recall for the set (tiered seating on opposing sides of a long rectangular area), the lighting, the performances, and the amazing "No Sugar" protest song was so remarkable that I thought I was there. I think Geoff had a particular connection to the works of Davis because he had come from a small country town in WA where he went to a very small school with a lot of mob. In recollections of these childhood times, he once spoke about the time none of the Nyoongah kids turned up to school because it had gotten around that the Kwetartye (feather foot) had been at the school near the water tank. The families and places Davis spoke of were people in Geoff's lived experiences in that country town, and this always came through in droves for me.

It wasn't just the written Aboriginal texts that Geoff recalled though. He would tell of examples of Aboriginal actors in the 70s utilising tactics from practitioners such as Artaud and Boal and staging scenes out on the streets in order to draw mainstream (though the crowd was not always aware that what they were viewing was a staged piece) attention to political issues being faced by the mob. I remember him talking, for example, of a blackfella and two white men dressed as cops staging a scene on the streets of Sydney in order to draw attention to the Aboriginal Legal Service. His interest in Aboriginal theatre was such that he ensured it was central in his teachings in all its varied forms.

As I mentioned, he was anecdotal, and through all his work on some of the most landmark alternative Australian theatre pieces over the years, he had accumulated some amazing stories which he would relay on. I wonder, for example, if any of my fellow LTU grads remember him telling a story about that drunken football team that had come to see "Stretch of the Imagination" at La Mama and the unfortunate tactics one player resorted to when he realised he couldn't wait until intermission to visit the lav? Or his pointing out of the stickers on Dorothy Hewitt's works stating "not to be sold in WA" and explaining to an extent why that was? There were so many funny anecdotes attached to these plays and even now I randomly remember another of them through the course of a day. It wasn't just that Geoff wanted his students to appreciate Australian theatre, rather he wanted to bring every bit of these plays alive and encourage more people to create new works. It really was a gift to hear him speak of them.

At the memorial, some spoke of his passion for the works of German Marxist playwright Bertholt Brecht. Brecht speaks for himself in my opinion; as does Geoff's fondness for Brecht. But what I want to highlight here is actually the role Geoff played in nurturing my political, as well as my dramatic, passions. Geoff would often refer to me as "Comrade Liddle", or just "comrade" or "Liddle". I was rarely "Celeste"! He cottoned on to my interest in the political fairly early on, possibly because I seemed to be drawn mostly to works that had something to say, and he encouraged that by continuing to put interesting texts in front of me. He also encouraged me to explore these topics through my honours thesis. Geoff wasn't the only one who did this in this department incidentally. Peta Tait drew my interest to feminist works and enhanced my interest in Aboriginal women's performance. Ian Carruthers bought me an Augusto Boal book to thank me for being his assistant director one year and encourage me further in my interest in agitprop. It seemed to be a bit of a theme in that department, really! When talking to other former LTU drama students over the years it has struck me that a good many of us have ended up being proud and active unionists and tonight I stated that not only were political interests nurtured, but they were considered to be essential to the work we were doing, whatever that may be. I also stated that without Geoff's nurturing of that political interest in me and teaching me that having a standpoint was essential rather than peripheral, my life may have turned out quite different to what it has. Well, I could have been an apolitical exploration geologist for starters...

Geoff was my honours supervisor, as mentioned previously. When it came to my want to look at Indigenous youth and women's theatre, as well as identity politics, he seemed the natural choice to approach with this idea. He was there through my research, my surveying and my conceptualising of the idea that became my play "Not One Nation". I wanted to say something that other Aboriginal Women's monodramas had not. I wanted to address urban identity and youth issues. I wanted to bag out Hansonism and Howardism on stage. I also wanted a freakin' exposition of my own life. Geoff helped me craft those ideas. He helped me stage them. I wanted some schmantzy lighting and he was getting up on ladders adjusting those par cans for me so they would hit right. Additionally, he had to proof-read my thesis and make suggestions for improvement prior to submission; no mean feat considering I wrote the majority of it up in about three weeks. He went right out of his way to give that feedback too. One night he even met me in a bar in Northcote to go through some edits before going to see another show. That play and that thesis earned me a First Class honours; an achievement I had not thought I was capable of when I left high school with barely enough marks to get into uni. That play also earnt me a repeat showing at LTU for the first year drama students and a short season at La Mama a year later, which Geoff came to see. After that La Mama show Geoff encouraged me to develop more pieces and expand upon "Not One Nation". I haven't actually ever done that; work, life and numerous other things got in the way, but one of these days I will.

Geoff affected my life in many ways. I think of him when I refuse to buy automatic cars because he felt that changing your own gears brought a more authentic driving experience. I think of him when I'm cursing my mobile phones (yes, plural) because he refused to have one for the longest time. I'm not the only one either. I knew the torch had been passed to the next generation of LTU drama students when I found on Facebook one day a few years back "The Geoffrey Milne Appreciation Society". I saw Geoff quite a few times after I left LTU as I would often just drop in and I did stay in email contact. When the news came through that he passed away, however, I was deeply regretful that I hadn't seen him for a couple of years. I am glad that tonight I got the opportunity to remember him with so many others who had been inspired by him, his openness, his passion for theatre (and politics!) and his encouragement.

So, how can you say "thanks" for all that, hey? It's really quite impossible but this post is a start. So thank you, Geoffrey John Milne for so much. Thank you for being a teacher, a mentor, a supporter and an inspiration. Thank you for giving me a spot in your classes and for assisting me in changing the course of my life. Thank you for realising talent in me and nurturing it. Thank you for leaving a mark on my life and on the lives of so many others. And thank you for the stories. Please charge your glasses, folks. 

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Musings on 35 part 2: The personal "body shame" issue

I have been whinging of late that the "muse" has not been taking me, and this blog has been awfully quiet. Sure, on a daily basis there are plenty of things that make me want to rant. The ever-mounting pile of "draft" posts that I have on this thing are testament to this fact. But as usual, as I draw nearer to yet another birthday, I feel gripped by an endless tide of introspection. So what better to write upon, hey?

Today as I was walking back from a short lunch break, I found myself pondering my own personal journey with "body issues" and how I have felt quite liberated from that for a number of years. I was wondering why I felt liberated from it. Was this strength that I had drawn from feminism over the years? Was it the freedom I have felt in so many ways from being in my 30s rather than my teens or 20s? Was it as simple as me being within the recommended BMI and having been for years (PFFT to that idea!)? It struck me that there was a journey that got me to now and having that type of liberation was in fact an achievement, all things considered.

Many people know this, but for those that don't, I'm going to "come out" now: I'm a Jenny Craig Success Story! By the way, I mean that '!' in a rather ironic way. It's cool that I did well on that programme and four years later have maintained it with very little actual effort. I am being open about this though because as I read through that old success story it kind of makes me shudder. I am not ashamed that I lost weight, nor am I ashamed that I turned to a weight loss programme to do so. I am only too aware that weight loss programmes gain a bit of well-deserved flack because they do peddle a whole "you'll be healthier and feel more confident if you lose weight!" message which is consistent with a bunch of other body shame stuff which women do not friggin' need. By participating in the Success Stories (adhering, unfortunately, to the usual structure these companies use in the main) I probably contributed to some body shame in other women which is an awful thing and not something I intended. When I wrote that story I was elated at my "success". Was I healthier as mentioned in that piece? Well partially. My back (note: this was prior to a car accident that put me back to square one on this front) was not so easily aggravated, but as mentioned in the first piece on 35dom, I also landed myself a date in the hospital due to an ectopic, so in truth, "healthier" may have been a stretch. If I am honest, the most positive part of it all for me was as I outlined in the third-from-last paragraph: at a time when I was re-imagining my life as a single person and learning how to focus on myself for the first time in years, this was an outlet for me and gaining some affirmation at that time propelled me forward in other ways. Four years on though I can say without any shadow of a doubt that there are so many other things that can do that. The following things have since made me feel similarly elated:

1. Being published online!
2. Kicking arse at Uni
3. Working towards broader social change
4. Being at a stage in life where people are more accepting of me as I am rather than as I should be, and I am more accepting of that too
5. Having the most amazing group of friends ever

So if all these things have made me feel similar, why did I choose weight loss back then to feel better about myself? Well, unfortunately I was not immune to the numerous comments I had received about my size/shape etc over the years, and these had truly been constant. In a society where so much of a woman's/girl's worth is placed upon her appearance, it takes a damn strong individual to be immune to that sort of stuff. I definitely wasn't in a position of strength at that time; that was something that I was working towards. It gave me a starting point, but losing weight wasn't the end point and nor should it ever be considered to be.

Yes, consciousness about my size was something I had experienced from a young age. When I was a very little kid (we're talking 5 or 6 here) I remember being referred to as "solid", "tubby", "fat" and "stocky" on a regular basis. None of this was actually true. I was awkward kid-shaped. Definitely not a lean build, nor long and slender. Just tall and waiting to gain shape. Kids are pretty blobby-shaped in general, and their builds are usually quite genderless until puberty starts to kick in. Really, apart from a round face, blobby was what I was too. But commentary on appearance starts early with little girls, and I was clearly not ideal in other people's reckoning, even at such a young age. I think the first time I was told I needed to lose weight was when I was about 10, and honestly, when I read this piece about a 7 year old girl who was undertaking an exercise and weight loss regime, I could remember myself thinking that I needed to do similar when I was that age. Add this to how I was also experiencing enforced femininity at the same time and you have one girl who felt like she was rather NQR.

This scrutiny intensified when I was a teenager. I was still tall, and still more "solid" than "lean" but I had also been told I was "broad". I have broad shoulders naturally and through hearing that I was "broad", I assumed that the rest of me must be too. I remember from about the age of 16-30 referring to my "battleship hips". Additionally, I described my build as being a "large hourglass". I apparently also had "quadzillas". I knew I wasn't particularly busty despite early beginnings but I was reasonably comfortable with that. That was actually the only body-image thing I managed to be correct on. I would watch the TV and be convinced that there were no girls on any shows who had builds remotely like mine. The fact that I ever thought any of this (with the exception of the non-bustiness) about myself is completely laughable nowadays. It dawned on me only a couple of years ago when a jeans company FINALLY decided to bring out a range to fit a variety of women's shapes that I was somewhat wrong. My measurements put me in the "slight curve" category. Ergo: small hip-to-waist ratio, comparatively slender thighs and a derrière on the smaller side. Where on earth had I got those other ideas from? Could it have been that years of endless and unwarranted scrutiny had completely warped my mind to the point where I was almost seeing myself as the exact opposite of what I really was? Even more frightening: I had been an active feminist for roughly 17 years before that point so why on earth was I still so completely out-of-sync with my own body image? That was a huge "wake up call" for me. It completely changed the way that I relate to my body in a way that weight loss never did. It made me see that I had for YEARS been relating to myself wrong and I promised that I never would again, but nor would I ever listen to the bullshit that was fed to me about my image by others and use that to define how I relate to myself.

I still scrutinise. I still have my moments. A lifetime of scrutiny not only by others but also by yourself is difficult to shake, and I wonder if any of us truly ever completely shake it considering how reinforced it is in society, in the media, in family etc. Generally speaking though, for the most part I am emancipated from those rubbish body image messages of yesteryear. I will never be regretful that I lost weight through a programme, but nowadays I know that that little thing I was doing back then was part of a much broader programme of strengthening and coming into my own, and it is good to be able to look back on it within context, rather than as an achievement by itself. Because it wasn't. It was, to me, a mere grain of red dust in the Simpson.  

Monday, April 1, 2013

Spambots: the horsemen of the binary patriarchy apocalypse

I have now something like 10 half-written blogposts just waiting to be finished and I do so wonder if they will just end up sitting there waiting to be finished for all eternity. The truth of the matter is that some of them have been sitting there for 9 months and my writing style is such that if I don't finish writing something in one sitting, it doesn't usually get done. The only exception to this rule were my uni essays and even then, more often than not they got churned out in one sitting, proof-read and then submitted. Amongst the saved half-written pieces are posts about the fallacy and limitations of "agency", why I quite loathe PETA, Bettina Arndt (enough said) and misogynistic statements used culturally in a way that allegedly is respectful. Just some light reading, really. We'll get to all those one day...

But today, I wish to whine about spambots. One of the downsides of allowing "Anonymous" posting on my blog (and by the way, if you use that can you PLEASE type a name or a handle as requested on the sidebar? It would be really appreciated) is that I do get some doozies. Initially, I removed unmoderated comment posting because I received some utterly disgusting trolling when my post on Miss NAIDOC went national. Also, I have been very clear that I do not want this blog to be YET ANOTHER space that is dominated by conservative white heterosexual male opinion and despite this, conservative white heterosexual males tried to dominate it. Unfortunately this means everyone has to enter those captcha thingies to post anything and then wait for me to add it. Whilst this means that a good portion of people probably just cannot be bothered, I also wish to thank those who do post for their patience and their wonderful contributions, even if I am slack in responding. On the plus side though, I also get to delete the comments written by spambots and sexist service floggers.

Here's the thing: I am currently thinking that the patriarchy is so deeply embedded that all you need to do is type a phrase whilst sitting on your couch in your pyjamas and suddenly shiny patriarchy will appear. Like dial-a-patriarchy or something. It's really so convenient. I, for example, typed "fake tanning" on my blog and managed to receive three posts from alleged fake tan providers discussing the virtues of their products. My post examining labiaplasty got a further two posts from cosmetic surgery companies (apparently) talking about the wonderful procedures they had on special should I wish to craft myself into the ultimate socially-acceptable woman. My comments on surrogacy earned me a post from an international surrogacy provider talking about the wonderful genetic material incubators they had available (in other words, women) just raring to produce a little Celeste clone so my life would be complete. Elsewhere, I questioned the Lingerie Football League and ended up with a free-ticket offer to one of their games (sadly, the tickets were available in North America not Northern Burbs Melbs). A literal cornucopia of patriarchal advertising just eager to get to my inbox. It is really quite insane.

It's like a step up from the old email junk mail boxes really. I personally have never gotten tired of knowing that I can buy some cheap herbal Viagra that will change my life (free postage!) and that one click will get me into a secret webcam session where I can watch "Sarah" have some sexy time. Chucking out junk mail is something we are all used to, whether it is the paper variety or the email variety. The difference here though is that EVERYONE who has ever had an email inbox receives these sorts of ads. They don't appear to be triggered by something you type like the spambots above. We are moving to a whole new level of patriarchal invasion here and whilst it would be folly to assume that we are ever safe on the internet, the spammy products that are being flogged by these means are quite telling.

I could be wrong here, so in an attempt to see if I can trigger some feminist spambot comments I'm going to write a few phrases that are more feminist-compliant:

1. Egalitarianism
2. Riot Grrls
3. Menstrual cups 
4. The patriarchy is bad for all
5. Body pride
6. Black feminist theory

I will keep you posted how this little experiment goes.

My real point in all this though is quite simple: If the patriarchy is so pervasive that one little word or phrase can trigger the infiltration of information via binary coding, imagine how pervasive this much broader source of structural power must be in all other every day interactions. Is there ever any way to escape this and will people ever be aware of just how incredibly embedded it is in culture/society/etc? Also, how do we fight a power that is so prepared to assert itself in the most insidious ways all of the time? I'll leave you with that...