You’re Invited to a Party: Three Women’s Autobiographical Plays in a Festival Context

Shelley Scott*

The festival culture of Australia provides many of the same opportunities for women playwright/performers as festivals in Canada, allowing access to a unique confluence of popular art with a progressive social agenda. In January 2020, I attended the High Performance Rodeo (HPR) in Calgary, to see a performance called Bliss (The Birthday Party Play) by Jamie Dunsdon. In February and March 2020, I attended the Adelaide Fringe Festival in Australia and saw Gobby by Jodie Irvine and The Daly River Girl by Tessa Rose. All three of these plays are autobiographical one-woman shows that are built around the theme of creating a celebration as an occasion for looking back at past trauma and current identity. Further, each of these plays contains some kind of personal revelation, although not of what might be immediately expected, evoking the idea of a surprise party. All three performances take the risk of juxtaposing autobiographical confession within a celebratory theatrical framework in the context of a larger festival event.
Keywords: festivals, autobiographical plays, one-woman shows, Australian and Canadian, Indigenous

The festival culture of Australia provides many of the same opportunities for women playwright/performers as festivals in Canada, allowing access to a unique confluence of popular art with a progressive social agenda. In January 2020, I attended the High Performance Rodeo (HPR) in Calgary, to see a performance called Bliss (The Birthday Party Play) by Jamie Dunsdon, a former student of mine. In February and March 2020, I attended the Adelaide Fringe Festival in Australia and saw Gobby by Jodie Irvine and The Daly River Girl by Tessa Rose. All three of these plays are autobiographical one-woman shows that are built around the theme of creating a celebration as an occasion for looking back at past trauma and current identity. Further, each of these plays contains some kind of personal revelation, although not of what might be immediately expected, evoking the idea of a surprise party. After seeing Dunsdon’s play in Calgary, I deliberately sought out work while on study leave in Adelaide that I felt would take the same kind of risk in juxtaposing autobiographical confession within a celebratory theatrical framework in the context of a larger festival event.

Festivals have become prime sites for developing new work, as Dunsdon did with her new play Bliss, and also for giving a longer life to plays past their initial premiere, as with the work by Irvine and Rose. My own experience is that a festival context feels accessible, since spectators can usually see a number of shows in a short period of time and at venues in relative proximity to one another; the cost of tickets is often reduced; and the excitement of attending a festivalized event can lead to a sense of anticipation and openness to new experiences. For the performer, the infrastructure, promotion and venue are largely taken care of by the festival organizers, and the performer can hope to make money and introduce their work to a wider audience. As noted by Andrea Donaldson, the artistic director of Toronto’s feminist Nightwood theatre and its annual Groundswell Festival of new work by women, one benefit of programming a festival is that audiences stick around after seeing something to take in something else, expanding the success of the festival as a whole and exposing spectators to shows they might not seek out initially.

Performers often take home the box office at a festival, and they often tour from one festival to another, leading logically to the popularity of one-person shows where the writer/performer can make some money and touring arrangements are simplified. However, there is something particularly daring, perhaps even contradictory, about bringing personal autobiographical work to a festival. In her study Performing Autobiography, Canadian theorist Jenn Stephenson notes that “the impetus to sustained public autobiography invariably arises from an unresolved crisis” (15).

Relying on the willingness of a room full of strangers to bear witness to one’s trauma does not seem congruent with the heightened celebratory atmosphere of a festival. But the festival context can also evoke the potential transformational energy of what Mikhail Bakhtin called the carnivalesque: “carnival celebrates temporary liberation from the prevailing truth of the established order; it marks the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privilege, norms and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of time, the feast of becoming, change and renewal” (qtd. in Ty 106).

I will argue that each of these one-woman shows taps into carnivalesque energy in order to welcome the spectator and allow transformation to be shared.

The Festival Context for Autobiography

Unlike the populist feel of the month-long Adelaide Fringe, where literally anyone can produce their show as long as they secure a venue somewhere in the city, the High Performance Rodeo is a curated celebration of work that is most often alternative and experimental: twenty-seven shows in thirteen downtown Calgary venues over three weeks. The HPR has been around since 1987, an annual effort by Calgary’s One Yellow Rabbit theatre collective; in 2020, the Artistic Director of both OYR and the HPR was Blake Brooker, with Laurel Green serving as the Festival Producer.

Some of the tents on the grounds of Gluttony at the Adelaide Fringe. Photo: Bill Tice

Adelaide Fringe Inc. has year-round contractual and reporting obligations and employs a team of staff, headed by director and CEO Heather Croall. According to Australian academic Sarah Thommason, the Adelaide Fringe began in 1960 and is Australia’s largest and longest- running open-access multi-arts event, a major vehicle for the development and circulation of new work across all disciplines (41). Artists use their own funds to present their show and hope to sell enough tickets to cover their costs (Thommason 39).  In his essay on the Edinburgh Festival for Canadian Theatre Review, Ric Knowles observes that audiences curate their own festivals by choosing among the shows on offer and that, as a result, shows are “festivalized” and experienced in that context (Seeking 93). He notes elsewhere that, at festivals, autobiographical solo shows “work best . . . often because of the phenomenological frisson of watching the actual bodies that lived through the show events” (Review 371–72). Applause at the end is as much about expressing appreciation of the life as of the show (Review 372). This is particularly relevant to the shows by Dunsdon, Irvine and Rose considered here, since each is enacting traumatic recollections centred in awareness of their bodily realities, whether of sex, gender or race.

The entrance into one of the Fringe sites. Photo: Bill Tice

As Sherrill Grace notes of the popularity of autobiographical performances in general, “a desire for agency, voice, visibility, and subjectivity has surfaced, clamouring for attention and seeking ways to create meaningful identity (personal and public, individual and communal) in the face of contemporary dehumanization, fragmentation, trauma, and commodification” (14–15). She points out that “the inescapable corporeal fact of the body is a living signifier and archive of identity” (19) and that “the playwright [performer] uses the theatre to embody and perform a process of self-creation, recreation, and recovery” (Grace 21). Ric Knowles identifies this practice as especially relevant to members of communities that have been oppressed, noting, “Many of these works use performance to map resistant and transformational continuities with a suppressed cultural past, and attempt to embody more than individualized subjectivities” (“Documemory” 55). As the audience watches Dunsdon, Irvine and Rose onstage, each woman’s performance relies “on the audience’s knowledge that the body they are watching perform is the one to which the events on which the show is based happened” (56). Knowles is interested in those shows where the performing body is an “archive” of “embodied traces-scars-as documents of both individual and cultural memory” (57), an observation particularly relevant to Tessa Rose as she re-presents her experiences from the cultural perspective of an Aboriginal woman[1] who survived domestic abuse. Rose points out that her story is not unique and for that reason it is both her own personal story but also “about many people’s personal story,” especially speaking for and about Aboriginal women (qtd. in Desmond).

In an observation illuminating for the work by Dunsdon and Irvine, Stephenson suggests that younger autobiographers in particular do not have the closure that comes with distance and are still dealing with their material head-on in the present; they “delve into the crisis to relive it but also to live it from a new perspective, to reshape their connection to this crisis, and to position themselves for survival” (16). Stephenson agrees that performing one’s own story head-on can be “radically transformative” (16), and I am suggesting that the festival context is uniquely appropriate. Dunsdon, Irvine and Rose each perform their own stories in a manner that allows the spectator to transform with them, and within the framework of a carnivalesque festival that celebrates their survival.

I begin with Irvine’s show about emotional abuse, which I saw in Adelaide, come back to Calgary for Bliss and its exploration of sex identity, and conclude in Adelaide with the racial politics of The Daly River Girl.

Gobby: The Spectator as a Friend Invited to a Party

Presented by Hey Boss, Gobby is an hour-long one-woman show from the U.K. I saw it in a terrible venue, a tent called The Bally at Gluttony, an Adelaide Fringe Festival site in a park, with uncomfortable chairs and noise bleeding in from the show in a nearby venue. The neighbouring show was a tribute to Amy Winehouse, which felt vaguely relevant given her legacy as a tragic party girl since, according to the Program, the premise of Gobby is “How to Throw a Party in Five Parties.” The party is a vehicle, a metaphor and a framing device for the revelation of an unexpected secret.

The poster image for Jodie Irvine’s play Gobby. Photo: Ben Fogg/Gobby the Play

Gobby was performed in a festival context, which is very much like a big party in its celebratory, carnivalesque atmosphere. As an autobiographical one-woman show, Gobby is about coming to self-awareness through public exposure, which makes the near-hysterical frivolity of a party particularly apt, a juxtaposition of performing vulnerability in an intensely social atmosphere both within the world of the play and in the context of this play in this venue. As Kate Nova writes in her review of an earlier, Edinburgh Festival run of Gobby, “Various party props are scattered across the stage, but they’re not just there for decoration. Cone hats become cocktail shakers, balloons become pizza dough, and party horns become a moustache. Part of the fun of Gobby is seeing how the creative team will use these items in the next scene.” Irvine pulls little sparking poppers to mark the start of each of the five parties, and the energy with which she marks these transitions chart the changes in her character’s evolution.  

Gobby: Bri creates GUY out of a balloon and a party hat. Director Rosie Snell, Costume designer Alex Milledge. Photo: Gobby the Play

The Adelaide Fringe Program lists Gobby as a comedy and offers a definition: “Gobby: adjective (British slang, said of a person); inclined to talk loudly, frequently. A biting and heart-felt one-woman odyssey about what it really means to be loud, this new play is a darkly comic story of survival, and a lesson in how to throw a really good party” (113, 118). It premiered at The Lion & Unicorn Theatre in London in June 2019 before going on tour. Gobby had three festival productions: Edinburgh in summer of 2019, the VAULT Festival in London in February 2020 and then the Adelaide Fringe where I saw it. It was also published by Playdead Press in 2020.

Jodie Irvine primarily works in comedy and improvisation. She wrote the play and performs as her character Bri, described in the published script as, “Socially anxious, a quick speaker in her twenties, any accent” (Irvine n.p.). Irvine specifies that the play was originally written for one performer, but that the other characters could be played by other actors or in voice-over. As with many one-person shows, however, the play works because we are with one actor throughout the performance, and we both delight at their skill in switching between roles and come to see everything through the eyes and experience of their central character, the one who speaks directly to us as “herself.” In the first party scene, for example, “She creates GUY out of a balloon and party hat” (Irvine 10) and alternates dialogue between them with direct address to the audience. Kate Nova marvels in her review, “Irvine is magnetic. She flits from monologue, to narration, to conversation—playing each and every character—back to introspective examination, and beyond.” Another reviewer, Helena Moody, observes, “Narrating her inner journey, Bri frequently breaks the fourth wall interrupting the pace of the story with awkwardly hilarious, and well-timed interjections. The invitation for audience involvement strengthens our helpless desire to support Bri.” Clearly, the relationship between the spectator and Irvine/Bri lies in our sense that she is choosing to confide in us, even when she is supposed to be enjoying the party going on around her.

On one level, Gobby is a portrait of a young woman desperate for the attention and approval of a group of friends she refers to as “Mat and the wolves”: Mat because he is the one she has known longest—although not in a romantic way (Irvine 12)—and the wolves because they move as a pack. The first party of the play is hosted as an occasion specifically to spend time with them, yet they avoid her throughout the evening (13). We come to understand that Bri was a member of the group at one time, but she admits, “I think that they stopped caring because I stopped showing up for things. And that’s fair. If you decline an invitation enough times, eventually the invitations stop coming” (15). The friends did not ask why she was declining and assumed she was spending time with her boyfriend, not realizing that Bri was in an emotionally abusive relationship. She reveals to the audience, “I wasn’t coming because whenever I tried to leave the house, he’d tell me if I didn’t stay he’d kill himself” (15). Later, during Party Three, Bri tells us bitterly that one of the pack was a neighbour who could hear the couple fighting through the wall, and yet her only response was to ask Bri to keep the noise level down (27).

Mat wears a cape as he explains the rules of the Murder Mystery party. Photo: Gobby the Play

What adds depth to the play is Bri’s eventual realization that she continues to be damaged by the relationship, that even though it has ended, she is still acting out her anger and resentment, pushing her friends away with her combative ranting. In Party Three, a murder mystery theme party where she is relegated to playing the murder victim, “She completely loses it.” In the process of trashing the party decorations, she reveals a sign reading “INTERVENTION,” and what follows is a powerful monologue by her one true friend, Beth, who calls her out on her behaviour (Irvine 31). Beth explains firmly but lovingly that “they’re not distant from you because you weren’t around. They’re distant because, when you are around, you treat them like shit” (33). Bri fears that being “gobby” is all she is anymore, and Beth reassures her she is so much more; that there is nothing wrong with being outspoken, but that Bri must overcome her low self-esteem and desperation. Bri’s fear is particularly gendered, layered with the stigma of being a loud, aggressive woman. Onstage, this is especially poignant, since of course Irvine plays both parts. The effect is that, in a sense, we see Bri encouraging herself to grow into a different kind of confidence and to become more self-aware (34).

The last two parties of the play, while continuing to be comic, reveal the process by which Bri contemplates blame and responsibility and comes to understand herself. By the final party, two years have gone by since the breakup with her boyfriend and her new friendship with Beth (Irvine 42). The published script includes a definition of the term “gaslighting,” an abusive practice by which, through manipulation and trickery, the victim comes to doubt and distrust their “own memory and perceptions” (n.p.). Jenn Stephenson writes that, “Self-stories are, of course, highly dependent on memory,” which can be impaired by emotional trauma (18). Bri has come to realize that she was suffering so much stress during the relationship that her brain was not processing her own experience, and that she has spent the subsequent years in denial, behaving badly towards other people and especially towards herself (Irvine 47).

The play ends joyfully as Bri dances to loud music alone, at a party for herself: “Because I have what I needed, what I craved. Not just from others but from myself. To feel understood and also to understand. After all this time. After everything. I just wanted to be [The music stops, silence] Heard” (Irvine 48). The play cleverly uses the frenetic energy and volume of a party to heighten Bri’s attempts to be heard above the noise. As spectators, we feel we have given Bri/Irvine the recognition she craved by listening attentively to Irvine’s performance: ironically and fittingly, in a distractingly loud festival venue. It was a strangely satisfying feeling as an audience member, as if we were compensating for the friends that did not hear her, by being like her true friend, Beth, who did.

In reviews of Gobby, the question of autobiography is raised often. Chris Omaweng ponders, “There is no indication that the show is an autobiographical piece of theatre—Irvine stays in character throughout—but irrespective of whether any elements of the story are drawn from personal experience, it is told with a mixture of warmth and sensitivity.” Helena Moody writes that “[g]iven the depth of inner exploration,” the storyline led her to “question whether [it is] autobiographical.” In a feature in Fest Mag, Irvine clarifies that the show is indeed based on her own experience:

When I experienced an emotionally abusive and manipulative relationship myself (something I didn’t realize I was in until after I was out of it), I knew quite soon after that I wanted to tell people about it. . . . I think in this current social and political climate, and particularly in Fringe theatre, now we are (finally!) starting to hear more women’s stories represented on stage, it is even more important to me to create a show that offered a unique perspective. . . . For me this show has always been a love letter to the friends I had around me at a dark time.

(qtd. in Desmond np)

Jenn Stephenson suggests that our interest in whether or not the story is personal lies in the relationship between spectator and performing body: “For the autobiographical solo performer, the inescapable presence of the authentic subject-body is an object of intense fascination for the audience. Perceived to hold ‘the truth,’ the physical body marked by experience competes for priority with the performatively generated self that is recounting those same experiences” (21). This point is especially relevant for my next discussion of Bliss (The Birthday Party Play), since the writer/performer’s body is the point of revelation in her self-story.

Bliss (The Birthday Party Play): The Spectator as a Parent Throwing a Birthday Party       

Presented by Verb Theatre, Bliss is a 75-minute, one-woman show that I saw at Calgary’s High Performance Rodeo (HPR). The venue was The Studio, an intimate room with cabaret seating on an upper floor of The Grand Theatre, an elegant downtown building known for staging experimental work. The play was positioned explicitly as autobiographical; the program read: “Jamie Dunsdon returns to the stage for the first time in 10 years to turn back the clock on her own birth and investigates the nature of knowing oneself” (Bliss Program). The play is described as “An intimate, playful, and authentic performance that is part theatre, part investigation of all the things we wish we could un-know and all parts birthday party” (Bliss Program). Dunsdon is the Artistic Director of Verb, as well as the Artistic Producer of Calgary’s Young People’s Theatre and a freelance director, but as the program note implies, she is not known in Calgary as an actor. This suggests her decision to tell her personal story must be for some pressing reason. The director and dramaturg for Bliss was Karen Hines, a highly respected and well-known Canadian playwright, director and actor, adding to the heightened anticipation of the event within an iconic festival context. Because there were a number of former students and current colleagues in attendance, because I know Dunsdon as a former student and now as a colleague and friend, and because of my admiration for her work and for Hines’, the festival context felt like not just a birthday party but a reunion party.

Bliss: “Before you’re born you don’t know anything.” Set designer Hanne Loosen, lighting designer Ajay Badoni. Photo: Michael V. Tan

Much as in Gobby, Dunsdon opens Bliss by inviting the audience to a party. In his review, Calgary Herald critic Louis B. Hobson writes that the “marvellous theatre space really does feel like a birthday party.” Balloons and cabaret seating play a part in the storytelling, there is a bar at one end of the room, and beautiful cake is served at the end of the play, certainly conveying a more sophisticated party venue than Gobby’s tent in a park. Just as Irvine uses the repeated motif of party poppers to mark each new scene, Dunsdon pops balloons to illustrate her transitions into greater self-knowledge, the bursting of balloons a metaphor for bursting the bubble of delusion. As she relates her life story, the revelations become increasingly significant, moving from her first encounter with death in the form of a farm kitten; to learning that there is no Santa Claus (Dunsdon 9); to her mother’s explanation that she was born without ovaries (11); to the further information that she is in fact intersex[2]—born with the XY chromosomes traditionally associated with male biology, but with a genetic defect that failed to produce the expected masculine phenotypes or characteristics, and with the outward anatomical expression of a female (18).

Unlike with Irvine’s play, Dunsdon makes it clear from the outset that she is telling her own story. She adopts a warm, welcoming tone and explains, “I’m going to play. Myself” (3), and goes on to relate the details of her own birth “on Tuesday, March 27 1984 at 8:31am in Lethbridge, Alberta. Canada . . . ” (Dunsdon 4). We come to understand this moment of birth as being especially significant, because Jamie, in retrospect, comes to understand that she was born different. We have some foreshadowing of a secret when she says:

And just like that, life begins. . . . And there is a stranger holding you, and strangers are suddenly a thing, and fear is a thing, and oh by the way, you ARE a you and you’ll spend the however many years wrestling with whatever the fuck that means. And that’s gonna be really (fucking) hard and there will be times you wish you weren’t born at all and maybe not just times but—Because you can’t unknow what you know. . . . This is a birth-day party slash play about things you can’t unknow. The things you know, but wish you didn’t.

(5)

As Irvine invited her party guests to understand the circumstances of emotional abuse, with Bliss Dunsdon is allowing the audience an opportunity to learn more about the facts of being intersex. Rather than in a clinical manner, we learn through her personal experience; as Stephenson writes, “Not only do we find security and stability in the stories of others, but the use of narrative to structure one’s own story gives life a discernible pattern and assists us in finding meaning in an otherwise chaotic existence” (7).

All three of the plays under consideration here illustrate Stephenson’s contention that there is a predominance of autobiographical work by those outside of the mainstream, including women and members of sexual and visible minority cultures. Solo shows “are a way to speak oneself into being . . . a strategy to grant self-possessive agency to the performing subject and thereby overt objectification and marginalization” (Stephenson 10).

Dunsdon uses a number of devices to frame her life story and bring the audience into her act of self-creation. Hobson writes, “Director Karen Hines has Dunsdon use members of the audience to be fellow students at a junior high party and to play her mother and it’s an effective, fun ploy because there’s nothing threatening about the roles these people play.” Dunsdon selects one member of the audience and coaches her to play Dunsdon’s mother in a repeated motif beginning with “Let’s take a walk to the barn” (Dunsdon 6). We have established that Dunsdon grew up on a farm, and we come to understand that whenever she and her real-life mother walked to the barn for a talk, it was for a further revelation of increasingly difficult information. As the spectator playing Dunsdon’s mother is prompted to ask Dunsdon to the barn for a talk, the on-stage character Jamie learns something she did not want to know (6). The last of these “walks” takes place in a hospital where Dunsdon’s grandmother is dying, and Jamie is told, at the age of twenty-six, the truth about her status as chromosomally neither fully male nor female (18). If Irvine constructs her audience as friends at a party, Dunsdon invites us into the even more intimate and layered relationship of a family member. Whether we, as spectators, are parents or not, the implicit question we are asked to confront is whether and when we would share certain truths with the people closest to us. As one spectator is pressed into playing Jamie’s mother, we all take on that role. The party we are attending is the party a parent plans for their child, and the party the adult child reinterprets for themself.

The second device that Dunsdon uses is to interrupt her story by admitting that she does not want to tell it. About midway through she stops a story about her first intimacy to say: “I don’t want to keep going with the play. I mean, this play. Bliss. The Birthday party play. I’m happy. You look happy. Nobody is asleep. This is so much nicer than what’s coming up” (Dunsdon 15). Soon after the story of her mother’s revelation, Jamie worries:

I shouldn’t have told you. I knew this was a—I promised myself that night I would never tell anyone. I didn’t want to see their eyes scan my face, looking for masculine features, picturing me as a boy. Like I did. Like you all just did when I told you. And now, what do you see when you look at me? Is it different? Can you forget what you know? When you see me on the street, will your eyes always flicker?

(19)

The last device that Dunsdon employs to add depth to her story is to disavow it. She rips up a birth certificate and then acknowledges that we all know it cannot be a real one. She begins frantically popping balloons, pointing out her stage manager, producing a copy of the script, highlighting the artificiality of theatre performance and claiming the whole story is made up (21). She goes to some length to convince the audience that the play is simply based on research, explaining the reasons she felt it would be unethical to ask another actor to play the role, then suggests it is true but that we should question her motives, then goes back to claiming it is someone else’s story. Finally, she admits, “I wish this wasn’t my story. I wish I could rewrite what my mother told me that night in the hospital. But that would just be theatre. You can’t unknow what you know” (22).

Bliss: “It’s a girl.” Photo: Michael V. Tan

The remainder of the play involves a recounting of all the medical investigation and research she has done, statistics about the commonality of intersex people at one to two percent of the global population and reflections on all of our existences as social constructs on the spectrum of gender, sex and sexuality. Sherrill Grace argues that there is an “autobiographical pact” between performer and audience, where the spectator both expects that the person onstage is “real” and understands them to be constructed and performed, and that this understanding invites us to think about “who we are and how we come to see ourselves—and others—as changing human beings with some degree of agency and the capacity to remember” (16). The play concludes with Jamie coming to understand and forgive her parents and a charming reimagining of the classical story of Hermaphroditus whose fate was not a curse but a blessing (Dunsdon 28). In a sense, as spectators we have played the part of Jamie’s parents, and much like the experience with Bri/Irvine, we hope we have given her what she needed.

Bliss: “Do you understand? You can’t have a baby.” Jamie pops a balloon. Photo: Michael V. Tan

Stephenson writes that “autobiography is a uniquely powerful political act . . . an evolving process of self-creation and transformation. Through the invocation of performative power, it is possible to remake one’s identity and write a new future or magically even a new past” (4). In his review, Hobson says that “Dunsdon is a consummate, confident, charismatic storyteller who takes her audience on a journey that one moment is lively and funny and the next cautiously serious and brutally insightful. . . . Dunsdon has been working on the script for Bliss for almost two years and it shows. It’s beautifully constructed with stunning images that will definitely linger and, though your heart will understandably and rightfully go out to Dunsdon, she never asks for sympathy or praise.” Much the same could be said for the script of the last play I will consider here as autobiography, The Daly River Girl.

The Daly River Girl: The Spectator as Witness and Ally

The Daly River Girl was performed at and presented by the Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Centre, a pleasant complex with theatre spaces, an art gallery, a shop and a café—just a few blocks, but a world away from the chaos of the Adelaide Fringe site proper. The Tandanya Centre is by its very existence and mandate a place for celebrating the resilience and creativity of Aboriginal people; its theatre space is modern and well-equipped, with fixed, raked seating and excellent technical facilities, and the excitement of the front of house staff and the audience was palpable. Much of the anticipation was due to Tessa Rose herself as a well-known and highly regarded television and film actor.

The Daly River Girl is a forty-five-minute one-woman show, a fragmented autobiography moving back and forth through time, anecdotes and dreams, intricately accompanied by stunning projections and lighting and sound effects. Much like Irvine’s Bri, Rose adopts the persona of Tallulah, but there is no doubt the story is her own. As Nicky Fearn wrote in her review, “The technical complexity is smoothly done but Tessa Rose’s charisma is such that some of the most powerful moments occur when she appears in front of the screen with nothing but herself and her extraordinary life story and addresses the audience directly.”

The Daly River Girl: As a child, Tallulah is given a ragdoll with beautiful brown skin. The artwork is by Jacqueline Marranya. Director Alex Galeazzi. Photo: Glenn Campbell

Tessa Rose is a Ngangiwummiri woman from the Peppimenarti community’s Malfiyin Country around Daly River, Northern Territory, but she grew up far away with a series of non-Indigenous foster families in Perth. She received a Diploma in Dance at the National Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) and danced with Bangarra Dance Theatre before launching an acclaimed career as an actor, primarily on television and film. The Daly River Girl is her first play, and she makes it clear in interviews that she thinks of herself as an actor rather than as a playwright (Kingston). From its premiere in Darwin in 2017, after four years of development, to its revival at the 2020 Adelaide Fringe where I saw it, the play has been remounted several times and has always been well-received: “This play is an incredible example of the type of story taking [sic] that our festival season allows, and for Rose, provides her with an important platform to be heard. 5 stars out of 5” (Wagner). The play was published in The Moogahlin Collection by Playlab Theatre in 2020.

The Daly River Girl: Fifteen-year-old Tallulah struts and dances. Lighting designer Philip Lethlean. Photo: Glenn Campbell

Reviewer Nicky Fearn observes that, “The play opens with Naina Sen’s video production of a group of young girls laughing as they sing ‘Ring a ring o’ Rosie’ and dance in a circle with hands held. Backing this is Panos Couros’ gently eerie, suspense-filled soundtrack which evokes the essence of this play—the melding of horror and laughter in the life of a resilient survivor who recounts her stories with wry insight.” From her early memories of being left by her mother with strict, Christian foster families, racist teachers and classmates, and a beloved rag doll with brown skin like her own, Rose moves on to more playful material about modeling at a young age, only to have the material move back into darker territory as she encounters her first abusive relationship. This is powerfully represented onstage, as the teenage Tallulah proudly dances to the song “Addicted to Love,” but is repeatedly caught off-balance by mimed slaps and blows (Rose 15). Tallulah finds her salvation in dance and performance, supported by a friend and mentor called Elinor, and we are treated to scenes of her dancing and her performance as Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The Fringe Program says: “The Daly River Girl depicts writer Tessa Rose’s personal journey growing up with foster families away from her natural mother, family and country, through adolescence to womanhood; her first love, the cruelty of domestic violence and her resilience to overcome many obstacles on her own. A deeply personal story that speaks from the heart” (113,118). In her statement for Fest Mag, Rose states:

My personal experiences shaped my entire play. From the numerous foster families I lived with, to some stories about my theatre life, friendships and school life and my first relationship suffering domestic violence from the age of 15 to 18 years old. This occurring again in a second relationship in my late 30s. By this stage I was a sole parent to my four-year-old son who is now 18. . . . Some stories came easier than others. Storytelling is a powerful tool.

(qtd. in Desmond)

In her review, Tara Godfrey-Forbes concludes, “it is her strength that stands out the most, and as she speaks of her friend and her children the pride and love radiates through the venue. It is a testament to Tessa that she has been able to create such a powerful performance with the strength to embrace her past and to have found her place in the world to know where she fits.” The reviewer recounts that the audience erupted in emotional applause at the end of the performance, reminding me of Ric Knowles’ comment, that the applause is as much for the life lived as for the performance we have witnessed.

The Daly River Girl: Tessa Rose with a projection of hands. Video projections by Naina Sen. Photo: Glenn Campbell

The complexity of the play’s sixteen-scene structure, with its multiple characters and layered visual imagery, and its frequent evocation of falling into a nightmare, created for the spectator almost a sense that we had been in a dreamlike experience of receptivity. When we emerged at the end, it felt as if we had witnessed something profound; the abstract and realistic elements of the play combined to a strong affect. As with Gobby and Bliss, the spectator feels not just that they have witnessed something real, but that we have somehow helped the autobiographer through that witnessing.

The surprising element in Gobby is that Irvine’s abuse was not physical but emotional, an experience not as commonly understood or discussed. While audiences may have anticipated that Dunsdon’s revelation would be about being on the queer spectrum, it was unusual to learn about being intersex. And in The Daly River Girl, what stands out as surprising, at least for a non-Indigenous viewer, is Rose’s experience of having difficulty fitting back into her Aboriginal community. This material takes on a comic tone when, as an eleven-year-old visiting her Aboriginal family for the first time, Rose is told to go fishing at a billabong in Daly River. Determined not to show she was afraid of crocodiles, Rose declares, “I wanted so badly to prove I was a blackfella!” (25). The material turns heartrending when Rose comes back again as an adult and finds that her three-year-old son is not accepted, mocked by his relatives for being light-skinned and for not speaking their language. He asks to go fishing with his cousins but is ignored and left behind (37). Ultimately though, Rose chooses to conclude her play on a joyful note that celebrates her success as an actor and a mother. The last line of the play is, “My children give me the power to dream. A purpose a belonging. The Daly River Girl has found her place” (39).

Conclusion: Party Favours

Rose’s play does not align as clearly as those by Irvine and Dunsdon with the party theme, except in its spirit of overcoming trauma through a deliberate act of onstage celebration. It is not explicitly about a party as much as a memoir of obstacles overcome and a career made fulfilling through persistence and talent, a retrospective that allows the audience to appreciate and understand a life in full so far. While none of the three women identify as playwrights, each has felt compelled not just to write their own story, but to perform it. Each has chosen the festival context to craft a recollection of trauma, but to wrap it in the apparatus of celebration: entirely fitting for such acts of personal, creative bravery.

I have argued that a theatre festival promises a kind of liberatory, transformational energy, perhaps tied to a feeling of liminality: that one has entered a space set aside for the celebration of art and creativity, outside the strictures of the everyday, and that the spectator must enter such a space with a willingness to participate. I cited Bakhtin’s contention that the carnival is a “feast of becoming, change and renewal” (qtd. in Ty 106).

Beyond practical considerations of infrastructure and economics, the performer chooses a festival to present their work in the hope of tapping into some of that shared, transformational spirit and enthusiasm. I have also argued that there is apparent paradox in bringing intensely personal, autobiographical work to what can be viewed as a party, a space designed to leave real life behind. Yet, by framing their work as a party within a party, these three one-woman autobiographical plays fulfill the needs of the spectator-as-partygoer: to be entertained, to feel welcomed and included, to be surprised, to find something real to celebrate.


Endnotes

[1] The word Indigenous is the preferred term in Canada, and it is also used in Australia, along with the term First Nations. The word Aboriginal is also used commonly, for example in the name of The Tandanya National Aboriginal Cultural Centre. I use the term here to respect the preference of Tessa Rose; when I asked, she told me, “I say I’m an Aboriginal woman” (Personal interview). 

[2] According to Dunsdon, “Intersex is an umbrella term used to describe people who are born with biological characteristics that do not fit into the traditional male or female binary” (Personal interview).


Bibliography

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Donaldson, Andrea. Personal Interview. 24 Jan. 2020.

Dunsdon, Jamie. Bliss: The Birthday Party Play. Unpublished, 2020.

—. Personal interview. 22 Feb. 2021

Fearn, Nicky. “The Daly River Girl: A life examined,” RealTime-Australia,Open City Inc, 9 Nov. 2017. Accessed 21 Dec. 2020.

Forbes-Godfrey, Tara. “Fringe Review: The Daly River Girl.” Glam Adelaide, 4 Mar. 2020. Accessed 21 Dec. 2020.

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Grace, Sherrill. “Theatre and the Autobiographical Pact: An Introduction.” Theatre and AutoBiography: Writing and Performing Lives in Theory and Practice, edited by Sherrill Grace and Jerry Wasserman, Talonbooks. 2006, pp. 13–29.

Hobson, Louis B. “Review: Candid, honest story underlying all the fun at Bliss the Birthday Party.” Calgary Herald, Postmedia Network, 9 Jan. 2020. Accessed 16 Dec. 2020.

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Kingston, Lisa. “Tessa Rose on Growing Up with Foster Families.” Aboriginal Way Radio, 28 Feb. 2020. Accessed 15 Dec. 2020.

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Moody, Helena. “Jodie Irvine: Gobby.” Femedy Blog, 22 June 2019. Accessed 15 Dec. 2020.

Nova, Kate. “Gobby.” Broadwaybaby.com. 13 Aug. 2019. Accessed 15 Dec. 2020.

Omaweng, Chris. “Review of Jodie Irvine’s Gobby at The Pleasance Theatre.” London Theatre 1, 2 Dec. 2019. Accessed 15 Dec. 2020.

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Zillman, Stephanie. “Darwin playwright Tessa Rose sheds light on life’s dark corners in one-woman The Daly River Girl.” ABC News, 2 Nov. 2017. Accessed 21 Dec. 2020. 


*Shelley Scott is a professor in the Department of Drama at the University of Lethbridge. She has published on Canadian women playwrights such as Joan MacLeod, Ann-Marie MacDonald and Linda Griffiths in journals such as alt.theatre: Cultural Diversity and the Stage, Modern Drama, Canadian Theatre Review, Resources for Feminist Research and the British Journal of Canadian Studies, as well as in several essay collections. Shelley has published two books, The Violent Woman as a New Theatrical Character Type: Cases from Canadian Drama and Nightwood Theatre: A Woman’s Work is Always Done.

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