Susie Conte is a founding member of Tempest Theatre Company – a feminist theatre company committed to producing shows for and about strong women.
We want to create opportunities for women to tell their stories. We are part of the mission to create gender parity in Australian theatre.
New to town then, Conte started running Tempest in 2011, originally producing works that she wanted to do and then honing in on the kind of work she came to love.
It was very much a response to the gender gap in Australian theatre. I’m really interested in women’s work and I’ve been doing my directing masters at WAAPA for the last two years, and off the back of that I wrote a one-woman show. I really want to put something out there that has a real vision and a real meaning to it.
There is something in the water, this year in particular that really champions women’s voices in theatre. Conte believes that we need to look much further afield on a global level to understand the zeitgeist of women’s movements.
It hasn’t helped that Trump has come into power and we have a Liberal government that doesn’t seem to champion women at all. Any female politicians that are in the news tend to be treated badly, their femininity is used against them, and I think the last couple of years have really made women feel that if we work together something can change.
There’s something about – and Lysistrata is about this – that collectiveness; the idea that if people work together for the common good with peaceful strategies that there is a way of changing things.
Tempest Theatre is working in response to ‘a changing world and a changing paradigm. There’s a new generation coming up in the arts and saying “hey, let’s not do it the same way cos it’s not working.”‘
It’s an interesting time to be in the arts – an area that is traditionally liberal and fairly left-wing in its agenda, yet still maintains an unhealthy imbalance when it comes to gender parity and sexism. Conte believes that theatre often acts in response to what is happening in the world, but can also sometimes be ahead of the curve by saying ‘let’s try it this way’ and then people seeing it and realising that it wasn’t the end of the world when we tried something new.
She feels that the main problem, however, is that most theatre companies are run as businesses by people who are not liberal and left-of-centre, so they always have budgets to ratify and people to please. It’s really quite hard to work out a changing audience at the best of times, yet their dollar counts in the decision making.
I think it’s all about having that conversation with people about what they want to get out of the theatre.
Tempest Theatre are distinguishing themselves with Aristophanes‘ Ancient Greek ‘feminist’ play Lysistrata. I called it the ‘original feminist play’ and was quickly corrected by Conte –
Originally it was written by a man, for women to be played by men, to a male audience – women weren’t allowed to go to the theatre. So, it was this caricature of what women were like and if they had a sex strike – ha ha ha, let’s all laugh at them!
It has been taken – in the last 50 years – as a feminist piece because he did write a really strong female character who is clever and uses a peaceful solution to try and end a war. I feel that while it’s largely used for its comic value – it’s a lot of erect penises and so on, it has more to say in the #METOO movement.
Do women have agency over their own bodies? What does it mean when there’s sexual harassment and what does it mean when they take back their power. I think it’s more relevant now than ever.
Lysistrata is about ‘women speaking their own truth to power’ and of course, this ties back in with the idea of the collective. Trump’s rise to power, and the #METOO movement, if anything, has spurred on millions of women to take action and speak out in solidarity. This new wave of feminism is a force to be reckoned with because we have each other and it’s an entirely innovative way of getting our voices heard.
The old ways don’t work – they’re different. I think there’s something really interesting about women speaking up for themselves. You know, sex strikes have actually happened – the most famous one was in Liberia, a woman there Leymah Gbowee won the Nobel Peace Prize along with two other women for peaceful protest (one of which was the sex strike) and it ended the civil war.
Her big thing was, if you bring women together of all races, colours and creeds and you bring the Muslim women and the Christian women together – who are just women – then you can effect great change.
In this production of Lysistrata, much of the original Greek work has been retained. It’s in a kind of liminal Greek space – with a lot of tulle that serves as Greek-style costumes but they are accompanied by Women’s March slogans – ‘had they had a pulpit in those days, that’s how they might have done it!’
Conte believes it’s worth keeping the original Greek – they had considered modernising the script but she feels that it would have taken away from what they were trying to speak to in those days.
Stereotypes still hold true and satire still holds true. It’s how we take that and then a modern audience goes ‘ wow that sounds weird’ or ‘that’s still the same.’
These playwrites were great philosophers. They were talking about humanity and what it means to be a human, so I think that doesn’t change. We still all have the same hopes and dreams and worries. We’re not all that different.
Lysistrata still speaks to the ultimate truths and motivations that all of us have. Get down to Subiaco Arts Centre to check it out, you’ll be in for a treat!