Patricia Cornelius on slut-shaming and gender inequity in theatre: ‘it’s pathetic’

One of the great mysteries of Australian theatre, and a question you’ll hear time and again if you spend much time around theatre-makers, is why is Patricia Cornelius never programmed by our biggest theatre companies?

patricia-cornelius-350x525_size4The Melbourne-based playwright is a favourite in literary circles, constantly winning awards for her bleak, tough and often aggressively political works, but our biggest theatre companies tend to steer well-clear of her plays.

Later this month, Sydney audiences will get the chance to see one of her celebrated pieces, Slut, performed as part of the Festival Fatale of female artists.

Cornelius was inspired to write Slut following the 2007 Melbourne CBD shootings, and the media treatment of a stripper who was assaulted immediately prior to the shootings.

“The media talked about her as if she was complicit in the crime, and I was struck by how backward it was,” Cornelius says. “Instead of calling her a ‘slut’, they called her a ‘party girl’, the inference being that she sort of asked for it.”

Cornelius combined parts of that narrative with all she’d discovered from interviewing young people about their attitudes towards female sexuality, and the “slut” label. The play traces the rise and fall of its central character, Lolita, witnessed by a chorus of young women.

Soon after the play premiered, the international SlutWalk protest movement kicked off in Canada, calling for an end to rape culture, victim-blaming and slut-shaming.

“I thought it was potentially terrific,” Cornelius says. “The message: ‘You’re going to call me a slut? You’re going to call me a whore? You’re going to demean me because I’m a sexual being? Well you just watch me strut, and watch me strut publicly and en masse, and see how that impacts upon you.’ There was something quite empowering about that, throwing it back in the face of the name-callers.”

But while there’s been a strong recent push for women to have ownership over their sexuality, Cornelius says very little has changed societally, and there are still ridiculous limitations applied to people in terms of gender and sexuality.

“When I talk to young people, the notion of pleasure — your own sexual pleasure — is really low on the list. I’m a child of the ’70s and late ’60s, and when I learnt about pleasure, I wanted it. And I was under no delusion when I didn’t get it.”

Slut will have just one performance, as part of Festival Fatale, a two-day program of work by women by the grassroots group Women in Theatre and Screen (WITS), at Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Eternity Playhouse.

It was in fact Darlinghurst Theatre’s male-dominated 2016 program which inspired the formation of WITS. The company has since committed to a policy of gender parity, and has an equal number of male and female writers and directors for its 2017 season.

Cornelius hopes that other theatre companies will follow Darlinghurst Theatre, as well as State Theatre Company of South Australia and Belvoir, in adopting a policy of gender parity. She believes the only way to do that is for organisations like WITS and the Australian Writers’ Guild to continue to play a watchdog role.

“State Theatre and Belvoir adopted the policy and did it seamlessly within a year. The other companies just have no excuse. They look bad, and they should be exposed as looking bad. It’s pathetic.”

Cornelius is in favour of a quota system. She says if companies aren’t able to make steps towards gender parity without it being their policy, then quotas need to be adopted.

“I’ve seen women worry about quotas — it’s as if we’re cheating. We worry that it might be unfair or that we didn’t get their on our own merit. I’ve heard women talk about it as if that means they might’ve got the gig just because they’re female. I figure, big deal! Men don’t worry about whether they’ve got it because they’re male, and that happens all the time.”

Festival Fatale runs on October 29 and 30. Full details and tickets are available at festivalfatale.com

Featured image: Little y Theatre’s 2011 production of Slut

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