In late 2016 with the US election underway and a Trump presidency looming, the Women’s Circus new Creative Projects Director, Penelope Bartlau, felt driven to create art from a purely feminist perspective and in January 2017 she joined the circus.
Penelope hails from an illustrious career in performing arts. Starting life as an actor, she has worked and studied around the world, and for over ten years worked as Artistic Director with her production company, Barking Spider Visual Theatre.
Penelope recently led the circus' collaboration with artist and writer Chantal Wynter who wrote and created Fluidity, a performance that brought to life the stories of women connected through time to the Maribyrnong River and asked what is valued and what is discarded in society.
West Art Now spoke to Penelope and Chantal about their recent collaboration, story, performance and feminism.
What attracted you to the Women’s Circus?
p: Feminism has always been in my work, but during the US election I thought I’ve got to put my money where my mouth is and make an absolute commitment and that’s why I applied to the Women’s Circus.
What sort of stories do you think are important to tell?
p: It’s important that organisations like ours are advocates for women and feminism.
The way I work is by finding stories from the people involved in the performance and then we create something that tells that story.
Finding that authentic voice is what I’m passionate about.
Clearly we come from a feminist perspective - we may start exploring the invisibility of the older woman and the connecting of generations - but actually I have no idea what stories we’ll tell, which is an absolute joy.
I find the story that belongs to the group. They own it, they make it, it’s their story.
How do you engage an audience from a feminist perspective?
p: For me, it doesn’t matter what the political agenda, if you club an audience over the head and shove it in their face it doesn’t work.
I feel like when we receive stories, an audience wants to feel and not think. I think it’s OK to be bit shocking but not that violent agro that alienates audiences.
For me personally, as an audience member, I don’t want to experience that - make me laugh, engage me - make me an ally not an enemy.
How do you best work with performers?
p: Coming from a performance background, I find it quite easy. I think every director should do some kind of performance and probably every performer should give directing a go.
I use a lot of validation. I provide a space where I’m the creative leader but I’m not the creative author of everything, we’re all equal creative collaborators chipping into the pool of the idea, but I’ll make sure it all works.
What qualities do you need to be a performer with the Women's Circus
p: You don’t need any qualities. You can just walk in the door. Anyone can become a circus performer here, which is fantastic.
I often hear people say, I’m too old, but you’re not. We have a 65 year old trapeze artist.
This circus is for all women of all abilities. Those that get involved, even if it’s just for a term, will feel brave and courageous and grow stronger and face fears and will be really well supported in that. It’s a safe space here.
What has been your role in bringing Fluidity to life?
p: My job has been to dramaturge - to tease things out so we can get a purity of idea and through line so it’s a unified piece.
To provide these little moments of visual spectacle that are a reflection of the words but not telling the story. They are a metaphor for a theme.
The collaboration has been really fun.
Chantal Wynter is an artist, writer and coordinator of Wynter Projects that creates site specific art tours, walks and experiences. Fluidity is Chantal's second collaboration with the Women's Circus.
How did you develop Fluidity with the Women’s Circus?
c: It started with us throwing around ideas about women of all ages and how they are perceived as they age.
We developed the work so it relates to specific sites along the river and encompasses the history of women of the area.
There are four characters across four sites and they are real characters and stories of that time.
I did a lot of research but there wasn’t a lot from the women’s perspective. It’s men who have written about women.
I had to reimagine these women and expand on what they would have felt and relate that to the sites.
Fluidity draws on the connections between the sites and the women’s stories and looks at older and younger women’s perceptions, ideas and experiences.
How did you interpret what had been written about these women?
c: Being a women helped because I could see from the women’s perspective, where things may have been exaggerated or maybe the women didn’t have a choice.
It helped to place myself in that time and think about what I would have done. It’s been fascinating.
What themes did you explore?
c: I wanted to look at women’s worth. The issues women experienced back then, they are still experiencing now.
A lot of industries that women dominate are still not valued like nursing, teaching, childcare. Their wage is still low and they still have the same challenges - working, maintaining the house, caring for the children, all these things still exist for women. It’s better than it was but there’s still a long way to go.
I wanted to show that women have dreams and they may not necessarily have had the opportunity to live those dreams. Those ideas existed then and now.
How did the circus elements get developed alongside your stories?
c: Penelope has done an amazing job visually interpreting the stories.
I am the guide telling the stories at each of the sites. So in a way I’m taking on a storytelling character and the performances have been choreographed with the script. It’s really exciting.
The challenge has been to present these stories well.
These are people’s lives and stories and I feel like I’m a caretaker.
To responsibly express their stories has been interesting.
words jessica dean + images marie watt
Image copyright: marie watt