Paper Presentations # 1 – Session 1A

NZ – 1.30pm | VIC/NSW/TAS – 11.30am | SA – 11am | QLD – 10.30am | NT – 10am WA – 8.30am

Chaired by Alyson Campbell

Links to join all conference sessions can be accessed via the program pages of the ADSA conference website

Chris Hay – Re-visioning Comedy on the Australian Mainstage

First Nations writer Nakkiah Lui’s Black is the New White, which premièred in 2017, is described by the playwright as “a Christmas play, a rom-com, and a homage to the family dramas of Australia’s past”. One of the most-produced new Australian plays of the decade, it has been seen on the mainstage around the country. The same year saw the première of Michelle Law’s Single Asian Female, which also enjoyed mainstage success. At the end of the decade, these two plays were joined by a third: expatriate Australian playwright Anchuli Felicia King’s White Pearl, which premièred at the Royal Court in London in 2019 before its Australian début at the Sydney Theatre Company. All three plays are linked by their desire to re-vision and decolonise the comedy by placing a woman of colour at its centre.

In this paper, I want to read these plays as re-visions; that is, in Adrienne Rich’s terms, as texts that seek to enter old forms from new critical directions. Using techniques that generate comic incongruity and anti-racist comedy, including what Simon Weaver names reversal and resistance, these playwrights are able to queer the generic demands of comedy. For Lui, “having privilege gives you the power to be seen as a human and not just a racial identity” (xii); I argue that harnessing the resistant power of anti-racist comedy is a key strategy for these playwrights in not only offering a portrait of the nation as more intersectional, but also broadening the range of representational positions on the contemporary Australian mainstage.

Lui, Nakkiah. “Foreword.” Black is the New White. Allen & Unwin, 2019.
Rich, Adrienne. “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-vision.” College English, vol. 34, no. 1, 1972, pp. 18-30.
Weaver, Simon. “The ‘Other’ Laughs Back: Humour and Resistance in Anti-Racist Comedy.” Sociology, vol. 44, no. 1, 2010, pp. 31-48.

Chris Hay (he/him) is Senior Lecturer in Theatre History and ARC DECRA Fellow in the School of Communication and Arts at the University of Queensland. Chris’s research examines the effects of live performance subsidy on the nation’s theatrical culture, with particular reference to the period between 1949 and 1975, and the contemporary mainstage.  

Caitlin West – Othello’s Black(?) Handkerchief: textual instability as locus for de-colonisation on stage

In 2013 Ian Smith suggested that, contrary to popular twentieth-century critical opinion, Othello’s handkerchief was originally not white, but rather black. Smith refers to a “presumption of whiteness” (1); a phrase that on multiple levels captures a specifically Eurocentric interpretation not only of the handkerchief, but also of the character of Othello and of Shakespeare’s play more broadly. Michael Neill argues that “what is important about Ian Smith’s argument […] lies less in his own interpretation of the handkerchief, than in his destabilization of its hitherto accepted meanings. In the process, he reveals something about its status as an object of conjecture” (29). Neill here touches on an idea that has long been accepted in performance studies, namely that meaning in a play script (particularly an early-modern one) is inherently unstable until it is activated and concretised on stage. This instability provides an opportunity for performers to reinterpret and potentially to de-colonise Shakespeare on stage.

In recent productions of Othello, both in Australia and overseas, moments of instability and openness in the text have been harnessed to reimagine the play and to challenge presumptions of whiteness. I will illustrate this assertion with case studies, including the 2021 Queensland Theatre production of Othello, staged in Cairns with First Nations actor Jimi Bani in the lead role. In so doing, I argue that theatrical performance is a vital means by which playtexts from the Western canon may be critically analysed, interrogated and reinterpreted in a contemporary context.

Smith, Ian. “Othello’s Black Handkerchief.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 64, no. 1, 2013, pp. 1–25.
Neill, Michael. “Othello’s Black Handkerchief: Response to Ian Smith.” Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 64, no. 1, 2013, pp. 26-31.

Caitlin West is a PhD Candidate at the University of Queensland. She is conducting her research on implied stage directions in Shakespeare’s plays and their role in contemporary mainstage theatre performance. Caitlin completed her Masters of English Studies at the University of Sydney and also has a background in theatre practice. She has recently published in the Shakespeare Institute Review, Otherness: Essays and Studies, and mETAphor magazine. In 2020 she was a recipient of the ADSA Geoffrey Milne Bursary.  

Madeline Taylor – Unpicking labour borders: exploring the emotional and creative work of costume making

Traditionally, the practice of crafting costumes is deeply classed and gendered and usually cast in a hierarchical binary with design. This paper, summarising a 4-year research project that involved over 22 weeks of fieldwork, explores the work of costume practitioners in Australian theatre companies and how current discourses, structures, and practices determine and convey whose and which work is valued. Critiquing the status quo, I argue for an expanded and more porous understanding of costume work and the role and contribution of costume makers to theatre making, emphasising their emotional labour and creative work alongside technical skill.  

Using linguistic ethnography, a novel methodology that enables a granular study of people at work and responding to Stenger’s argument that practice allows the exposure and expansion of edges and limits, this paper highlights how the current edges and limits of labour are taught and learnt, enacted and questioned in the costume community of practice. Through this improved recognition of the creative and collaborative work that costume technicians perform, we can all gain the opportunity to develop our practice.

Madeline Taylor is a fashion and performance designer, researcher and educator. A lecturer in Fashion at Queensland University of Technology, and a theatre PhD candidate at Victorian College of Arts, University of Melbourne, her research focuses on contemporary costume practice, technical theatre’s interpersonal dynamics and fashion performance. With almost two decades of professional experience, she has worked on over 90 productions in theatre, dance, opera, circus, contemporary performance and film around Australia and the UK. In 2010 she completed a research internship at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London under Donatella Barbieri, and in 2011 she completed an honours dissertation at Queensland University of Technology examining changing methods of costume production in Australia. Since then she taught and lectured at QUT and the University of Melbourne in costume, theatre and design practice and theory. She is a co-director of fashion and design group The Stitchery Collective and was Australian Editor for the World Scenography Project Vol II – 1990 – 2005. She lives and works on unceded Turrbal and Yuggera lands.