Q&A – Edith Podesta and “Bitch: The Origin of the Female Species”
Edith Podesta is an actor, theatre maker, playwright, choreographer, director, and performance lecturer. She has been nominated for and won many Life! Theatre awards, and is bringing her play, Bitch: The Origin of the Female Species, to the Brisbane Festival in September, where it will make its Australian premiere.
We caught up with Edith to talk about theatre in Singapore, as well as her play, and how it explores points of view in storytelling, and the relationship and interactions between humans and animals.
Can you tell me a little bit about your background?
I grew up in Sydney, Australia, and I went to NIDA to do a BA in acting and a postgrad in movement studies. I worked as a choreographer and actor in Sydney until coming to Singapore about 10 years ago. I then did my masters at the Lasalle College of Arts, and became the programme leader of the acting course there. I’ve basically been working in the industry ever since I got here!
Just before we delve into the play, what differences have you seen between theatre in Singapore and Australia? Is it harder to get an audience along to the theatre?
I think there’s more diversity in terms of theatre options in Singapore. It’s weird, because all the Malay, Indian, and Chinese culture – everything is celebrated through theatre, through song and dance. For example, during the Hungry Ghost Festival in August, you can find a Chinese theatre opera set up on the street. I came here in August, almost every Chinese temple had a performance going on, so people could come down from their flats and enjoy a show. That’s something that’s very different from Australia, I feel.
But also, I would say that here you get the same things – there is a state theatre company, musicals, and visiting theatre companies. It’s weird – there’s almost no kind of boundary between what is considered mainstream theatre and fringe theatre. You can cross boundaries really easily.
That’s really interesting – so do you think this really organic kind of accessibility to theatre, as opposed to the more formal settings you have in Australia, makes theatre more exciting in Singapore?
Well, there is still a broad history of English language theatre in Singapore. You do have Mandarin based, Malay based, Tamil based theatre, but the majority of theatre in Singapore is English based. The major difference, I would say, between a place like the Sydney Theatre Company and here, is that the running times are shorter. You might do three days or four days in a thousand seat theatre here, as opposed to doing three weeks in Singapore. There is a lot of theatre happening – you do get a lot of new work rather than re-stagings, and borrowing scripts from Broadway and the West End. You do get more chances for original work.
That’d be really exciting, then, especially being a playwright – knowing that the chances are there for you to get more of your work out there, instead of a restaging of, say, another Shakespeare play.
It really is. Most of the work I do here is original work – you’re devising it in the rehearsal room, or writing new material. I very rarely restage. Actually, Bitch only would be my second restaging in ten years, which is amazing.
That’s an excellent segue into talking about the play! So how did the idea for it come about? Was it based on your own experiences, or were you sick of “bitch” being used as an insult?
I was approached by – I approached, and they kind of – it was a mutual kind of thing. The M1 Fringe festival, run by the Necessary Stage, commissioned this work. It brings work from all over the world, and brings work from Singapore to be staged in some of Singapore’s major theatres, like the Esplanade, and they had this fringe festival based on the idea of art and animal. I’d used live animals in art in my Masters, and I actually had an idea about doing a piece through the eyes of the dog.
I spent four months writing in the Netherlands. I was walking through the Netherlands in the day, and writing through the night. I was inspired by what I saw – a lot of the twists and turns I saw affected what I wrote. One of the nights I was staying at a bed and breakfast, and I met a couple – a husband and a wife. The husband was suffering from aphasia – where you can understand language, but you can’t speak in a fluent way, because he had a stroke. What I found really inspiring was that when he was making us breakfast, he was speaking really fluently in a different kind of language to his dogs.
I was also interested in investigating the idea of the storyteller – who tells the stories that we hear? And the fact that a bitch is a female dog, and how women and dogs in a weird way share the same kind of property status in our history.
Yeah, I was thinking about how insults in many languages are gendered. What do you think makes “bitch” so enduring and interesting, and why did you choose this particular insult to focus on?
I think for me, because there’s still power in that word – depending on what lens you view it through. But I remember when I was young, my relationship to that word is quite personal, where my father used to get me to tell him what swear words I had learned every day. I think it was more to keep tabs on what I was learning! I remember one day I said the word bitch, and he told me, “well, that’s not a swear word, that’s the name for a female dog”. And from then on, the power of that word kind of dissipated, because it was no longer a threat to me. That word was no longer loaded with being demeaning to women. So that’s my personal association with the word.
Why did you choose to tell the story of a man as opposed to one of a woman?
I think I chose to do that because we don’t live alone. If you look at feminism, it’s always refracted through both the male and the female gaze, and we need something to bounce off of. But I was actually more interested in the difference between a man and a dog – a human and an animal – and finding similarities between them.
We talk and think so often in terms of difference, it must be nice to look for the things we all have in common.
Yep – we are animals, humans ARE animals, just like women and men are equal. laughs. But at the same time, I also like to look at where the differences are, and why they are. There are enduring differences between animals and humans because there is a language barrier, but there are also differences and the barriers we’ve put up between men and women. I’m interested in looking at the idea of “he is human” and “I am dog”.
I was on a panel for women in the arts recently where I was asked if I am a feminist – of course I am! And I know this can be kind of a loaded question, but do you think it’s a feminist play? Or do you just think it’s a play that investigates and explores the realities of being a woman – to get men to see what it’s like to be the subject of constant insults?
That’s a good question – I’m a feminist too! laughs. Though which wave of feminism I’m engaged in is a different question. Whether it’s first, second, third or fourth? But in the play, I was really interested in who tells the stories and who’s in the centre of the storytelling. There’s a bit in the play where I flip history to tell it from the female point of view. I’m also really interested in storytelling in religions – whether it’s from the point of view of humans, or animals and landscapes, like it is in lots of Indigenous cultures. By putting the dog in the middle of the origin story, but also the female – I think there’s a difference in the trajectory – there’s been an inequality there. There’s a difference between a human and an animal, and there’s an inequality between a man and a woman.
I know you’re working with Merlynn while you’re here, do you think that’ll add an extra dimension to the piece?
It’s my first time performing in Australia in years, so I’m excited. And Helmut – people know him from his work in the Matrix, but he’s also just such a dynamic and amazing performer. In terms of Merlynn, I know her work is very strongly aligned with what I’m interested in. Her character is very pivotal, especially at the end, when Helmut’s character is working through his aphasia. The play is a lot about the barrier of language, and who teaches the language. And having this young woman teach this old man how to speak again kind of flips that on its head.
Is there anything else about the play you’d like to mention that we haven’t covered?
The people working on the piece – the Singaporean people on the team and myself – they’re so talented, and they won many awards. Also – it’s weird a sell. To sell this piece is very hard but you don’t want to give everything away, but you don’t want to alienate an audience. I think by saying it’s a feminist play – I think – some men mightn’t want to see it just because it’s been called a feminist play. So I prefer to talk about it as an exploration between human and animal. I mean, the dog is Helmut’s best friend.
I think for me what was surprising was that the play had such a great reaction from the Singaporean industry. It won best original play, it was nominated for best multimedia, and I was nominated for best actress. I was so stunned, but appreciative for the fact that it had a sold out run in Singapore. And there were so many people of so many different ages there – it wasn’t a predominantly female audience. Everyone had feedback, and everyone had their own take on it. Men very much see a kind of male experience through Helmut’s work in it, children saw something different in it – in a weird way, it’s a play for everyone, but it’s very difficult to bring that across when it’s got such a strong title like Bitch: The Origin of the Female Species.
Bitch: The Origin of the Female Species will be playing from 20-23 September as part of the Brisbane Festival at the Theatre Republic. Get your tickets here!