At multiple points during its runtime, The Good Room’s That’s What She Said leverages my literal words and memories to emphasise a certain theme or evoke a particular emotion for its audience. Sitting in that audience, such moments feel particularly surreal and surprising.
I’m not the only person who had such an experience of the work, though.
The Good Room’s somewhat unique methodology, honed over a number of years and productions, involves gathering stories, memories and reflections from the general public around a topic (typically via an online survey form) and remixing them into colourful, textured performance works.
Previously, their topics have included regret, love and apologies. Their works to date have been among the most memorable, popular and creative theatre productions to come out of Brisbane in recent years. With such success taken in mind, an overlap between respondents and audience populations was, frankly, a little inevitable.
The particularly surreal experience for me, however, is how my anonymised involvement in the hyper-colour patchwork of That’s What She Said could leave me feeling exceptionally visible within it – even as the larger work itself ultimately left me feeling as if I, alongside a great many other people, had been somewhat ignored.
The concept of That’s What She Said is celebrating women. The process gathered together provocations from a number of women and saw the general public challenged to provide stories of women around those provocations – women who didn’t want children, women who inspired, the woman who raised you etc.
As the show begins, a series of projected titles make the premise clear to audiences. We’re told this is a show for women. All kinds of women. A series of different references cycle above the stage as the celebratory atmosphere unfolds. Babes. Girls. Broads. Dames. Womxn. This is, we are told, a show for all the women of the world.
But, it isn’t.
There’s a lot of women involved in That’s What She Said – from the literal hundreds who responded to the provocations to the fifteen-plus cast members who eventually flood the stage. But, as the work took shape, I just started noticing absences. At first, in relatively simple and reductive ways. Why, for example, were there so few women of colour on stage?
As matters progressed, my mind threw up different questions. Why was the only explicit reference to transgender women as a lone character in another person’s story? Why, out of all the hundreds of responses, has only one explicit reference to Indigeneity made it to the final tableau? Has there been a single reference to disability?
Then, I started to interrogate what and who was represented within the work. One section of the work, for example, involves numerous anonymous women declaring that they don’t want to have children. It’s a powerful moment, initially. But, later, I wondered about all the women who wanted to have children. We hear from some have children. But, we never hear of the desire to be a mother.
Similarly, we hear of working women. But, largely, it seems we hear of working women in the arts. We hear of the sexism of aging in the arts. There’s an odd tension in the work between the specific and the generalised. We hear generalised stories of other women. We hear specific stories of women in the arts. These are the stories that are privileged by the work.
Leaving the theatre, I wondered if my mum – a retired nurse of white Irish catholic stock – would have felt represented by That’s What She Said. I was literally in the work and I’m not sure if I felt represented by it. Then, I thought of all the women who weren’t remotely like my mum. Would they have seen an ounce of themselves in this celebration?
I can’t speak for them – but I have my doubts.
It’s important to remember that this was supposed to be for all women; the work quite explicitly establishes that as its goal, in writing, from the very outset. These kinds of critiques of representation can invite a great deal of debate about what artists owe to their audiences; whether we need represent everybody.
But, this isn’t a standard I, as a critic, placed upon this work. That’s What She Said aimed to be a work that celebrated all women. And, it simply didn’t. It not only falls short of encompassing some of the most vulnerable women in our society (e.g. Indigenous women, who represent 1 in 5 of all prisoners in Australia), it often falls short of including women who just aren’t connected to the arts.
Does this make the work unenjoyable? No. The craft and skill of The Good Room and their performers is unassailable. As a slow-motion dancer in a beekeeper suit, Leah Shelton only furthers her reputation as one of the weirdest and most brilliant performers in the country. Margi Brown Ash, meanwhile, almost effortlessly demonstrates her credentials as a local legend of the stage.
The larger architecture of the work, meanwhile, serves as yet another testament to director Daniel Evans’ skill as a storyteller and theatre-maker. The skill of taking a thousand fragments of different ideas and reflections and weaving them into something that is not only legible and evocative but entertaining and accessible should never be understated.
Unfortunately, That’s What She Said’s rather limited definition of womanhood does make all of that work somewhat less enjoyable. It simply clashes too violently with the production’s overall tone. As a cadre of women of all ages chant ‘FUCK YEAH’, fists in the air, to questions of affirmation, you can see the work’s potential as a cerebral, noisy party of galvanising, communal strength for all women.
But, then, you step back. You’re not looking at a party for everyone. It may not even be a party for you. You’re staring through a window. You’re watching a small group of friends celebrate themselves. Congratulate themselves on their good work. It’s affirming, in a way. But, you aren’t a part of it. Lots of people aren’t. On the window, you see written ‘All welcome’ – but there’s no door.
There’s a temptation to ignore these shortcomings and simply applaud The Good Room for their good intentions. But, with marginalised women facing greater and greater threats to their continued existence via xenophobia, deaths in custody, compromised healthcare funding, legislated bigotry and so much more, it’s simply not enough to just have good intentions.
If a work wants to be for all women, it needs to work for all women.
MJ O’Neill saw ‘That’s What She Said‘ on 11 February 2020. ‘That’s What She Said’ plays at Metro Arts until 15 February 2020 as a part of the ‘Metro Arts, with love’ festival.
Featuring | Margi Brown Ash, Stella Charrington, Andrea Moor, Keira Peirce, Ngoc Phan, Naomi Price, Leah Shelton & Emily Tomlins
With Guest Performers on the 11 February| Gina Limpus, Nerida Matthaei, Stephanie McLean, Sarah McLeod, Cienda McNamara, Sarah Ogden, Anne Pensalfini & Luisa Prosser
Creator / Director / Producer | Daniel Evans
Creator / Producer | Amy Ingram
Creator / Choreographer | Leah Shelton
Creator / Designer | Chloe Greaves
Creator / Dramaturg | Saffron Benner
Lighting Designer | Jason Glenwright
Production Stage Manager / Video Design | Jeremy Gordon
Assistant Stage Manager | Sarah Robertson
Original Writing | Elbow Room (Marcel Dorney with Emily Tomlins), Suzie Miller, Margi Brown Ash & Leah Mercer
Digital Design | Nathan Sibthorpe
Builder | Andrew Mills
The final quote that appears in ‘That’s What She Said’ is from ‘Men Explain Things To Me’ by Rebecca Solnit.