Many roles and disciplines in circus are often divided by gender – men on the base of a human pyramid, or women in the air doing silks and lyra. Amanda Kitchen’s Girl Talk is being developed here in Adelaide and pairs circus apparatus with women’s stories to illustrate gender bias in society. Chih-Ling Mei’s #since1994 stems from her personal experience growing up in a traditional Taiwanese family and analysing how these cultural norms shaped her self-worth and identity.
A great difference between the two, however, is the use of sound and vocalised language. In #since1994, there are no speaking voices but a theme of power is carried through the musical score. “In the beginning [of development] the design was more soft and moderate – there was no conflict or showing of female power,” Mei says. The company then found another music designer, a transgender woman. “She can make comments on different sexuality [through her score] and can give female power so we can draw this picture through the music and highlight the female performers on the stage.”
Conversely, Amanda Kitchen has pulled speech and quotes to help highlight her themes with striking clarity. “I’ve taken text from people like [US Senator] Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez who said ‘I wasn’t brought up by my parents to be abused by men’. I’ve also sourced quotes from Hannah Gadsby and also from a man that transitioned into a woman and lost their job,” Kitchen explains. “There’s a whole scene that just lists statistics, such as women couldn’t have their own bank account until this age, or if they were married they couldn’t do this or that. That one in three women in their lifetime will be abused.”
Girl Talk image courtesy of South Australian Circus Centre
Kitchen has also included the voice of a young girl, which is conveyed on stage with a male performer acting as the girl. “We interviewed a little girl about what was important to her and the male is doing her actions with the voiceover,” she says. These voiceovers were key to development from the show’s inception.
“The original idea was to use verbatim to use real stories with circus,” Kitchen says. “They’ve done it a bit more in dance, like Lloyd Newson did it, Kate Champion has done it when she had her company Force Majeure but it’s not really been done in circus so it’s still an experiment.”
Rather than drawing on the experiences of others, Mei has created #since1994 to explore her personal struggles growing up as a female in Taiwan. “In a traditional Asian family, parents will prefer male [children] over women so this makes women more restricted and more limited to do what they want to do,” Mei says. “At the age of 13, I did not think that I met society’s expectations. I was not as beautiful as my mum or my grandmother which made me think I was different to other women.”
“As a woman, how can I be myself? When I was a teenager I was facing a lot of problems with not liking myself and many other women don’t like themselves,” Mei says. “This is the Asian culture – we need to meet our parents and social expectations. This show is a gate to get out of this structure.”
Collaboration was a key component of the creation of Girl Talk and Kitchen ensured that her performers were well involved in the process. “I had all the text and I sat them down and went through all the different topics,” she says. “We discussed what they thought they liked or what they wanted to work on and so each scene has a different vibe to it.”
Although #since1994 comes from Mei’s experience, the performers have also influenced her work. “One of our performers is a transgender performer who has identified as female but is now moving towards being gender fluid,” Mei explains. “This made me think about who is a woman? What makes women women? This opened the door for the other performers to think differently.”
#Since1994, Fool's Paradise, until 17 March
Girl Talk, Gluttony, until 3 March