Posted by Thom Smyth, November 3rd, 2016
Sexual violence and the subsequent treatment of survivors is an ongoing matter of international debate and concern. Yet nothing seems to change. One show, Project Xan, is tackling the issues this subject raises in a deeply personal way. Xan Fraser was attacked as a child, and her subsequent treatment by the court system and then the media was appalling. Xan also appears in the show. Thom Smyth caught up with performer and project consultant Siobhan Dow-Hall.
Thom Smyth: Tell us about Project Xan. How would you describe the show?
Siobhan Dow-Hall: I would describe Project Xan as a rallying cry – a call to arms. It’s a plea to talk honestly about issues that affect so many, many, many women (and men). Project Xan is not about us standing on a soapbox and berating people, and it’s certainly not about sensationalising the real-life assault of Xan Fraser. It’s about all of us coming together as a community and asking ourselves: what can I do?
TS: You’ve been participating in the development of the show over quite a long period of time, as well as now about to perform in it. How did you initially get involved?
SD-H: My involvement in Project Xan came about through a beautiful moment of serendipity. I got talking to Hellie Turner (the director and writer) during the interval of another show we were seeing together. I mentioned I had just started a research masters looking at the theatricalising of social justice issues; in particular, how we can use theatre as a medium to address rape culture. Hellie said, “Boy, have I got a project for you!” From there, Hellie and I worked very closely together on the ‘ideas’ portion of the show – researching real-life cases and exploring psychological, sociological and feminist perspectives on them.
TS: This documentary work draws on court transcripts and media articles and many other sources, but also features Xan Fraser, who the show is about, IN the show. What is working on a show with such deeply personal subject matter like when that person is with you onstage?
SD-H:Xan is a genuinely extraordinary person. I think many of us have expectations of what victims ‘should’ be like. Xan, though, is living, glorious proof that a crime is something that happens to you, not something that defines you. Xan still struggles with what she went through. She’ll have moments onstage when something triggers her; she’ll cry, and we all cry with her. But Xan is not ‘broken’: she’s fun and funny, very determined, and incredibly generous with her story. From the beginning she invited us to make her story our own and to feel safe working with this material. So to be honest, we’re all having fun working on this show. We all respect the material, obviously, but we’re not interested in wallowing in tragedy – we want to come together to try to make a difference.
TS: The show highlights some very important but very difficult issues. How do you approach those topics in a way that challenges the audience but keeps them actively engaged and not shutting off?
SD-H: I think the important thing when working with this kind of material is to remember the medium you’re working in and utilise the opportunities it affords you. We’re making a theatre piece, so there’s no point standing and delivering a lecture, political speech or newspaper op-ed. We’ve really tried to engage with all the eccentricities, complexities and possibilities of live performance. I know that’s not very specific, but you’ll have to come see the show for specifics! Ultimately, it’s been about finding how to present this information in ways that draw the audience in. We’ve tried our best to make a show that takes you with us on this admittedly difficult but worthwhile and important journey.
TS: While there has been significant media attention around some recent high-profile attacks (such as the Stanford Rape, Jill Meagher in Melbourne) this kind of behavior keeps happening. Has working on the show provided any answers for you as to why progress in this is so slow?
SD-H: We talk a lot about extreme cases in the media, but as a society we struggle to recognise the everyday nature of sexual threat and violence. Tom Meagher (Jill Meagher’s husband) wrote a fantastic piece on this subject. He talks about the danger of the “monster myth” – our tendency to characterise sexual predators as evil men lurking in darkened alleys waiting to assault women they’ve never met. The reality is that the large majority of victims are assaulted by people they know – people they would describe as friends, family members, or partners. The reality is that most women (I would personally argue all women) have been touched sexually without their consent, whether it’s a grope at a bar or a brush past on the bus. The reality is that most women have felt sexually threatened or humiliated at least once in their lives. The reality is that this happens to men too – perhaps not with the same frequency, but it certainly happens. We don’t talk about the banality of sexual threat, or of all the small behaviors that endorse and minimise it. We don’t talk about the fact that sexual predators don’t look evil – they look like you and me, and potentially like someone we love. If we only talk about the most extreme and horrifying examples of sexual violence (the tip of the iceberg, as it were), we will continue to ignore the teeming bulk of sexual assaults, sexual threats, misinformation and misogyny that lies beneath – meaning things will never get better. We must talk about this issue, and we must be clear about what we, as a society, expect from ourselves and from each other.
TS: Self-care is a major issue when working with heavy subject matter in an artistic context. What mechanisms do you have in place to switch off at the end of each day?
SD-H: One of the things that makes it possible to work with this material every day is our belief that we’re trying to make a difference. I think hopelessness is debilitating, but Project Xan is actually very much about hope. It’s about Xan’s hope that sharing her story will prevent other people from going through what she went through, and it’s about our hope as an ensemble that we can start a conversation about these issues and make a difference. You do have to remind yourself that you can only do so much at one time! You have to play with your dog, or go for a run, or drink a glass of wine (sometimes all three at once, but this takes serious coordination). We all believe talking about these issues can make a difference for the better, and we’re excited to be part of the conversation.
TS: What do you hope people will take away from the experience?
SD-H: We really hope people walk away with a better understanding of what it is people mean when they talk about ‘rape culture’, ‘slut shaming’, ‘harm minimisation’ or ‘victim blaming’. We hope they understand that sexual assault does not exist in a cultural vacuum – that it’s fostered by beliefs, values and everyday behaviors. Each and every one of us on this show, regardless of age or gender, has had a moment where we recognised something we had done that perpetuated harmful beliefs. That’s what we hope our audience can come to terms with, too. It’s not about blaming each other – it’s about taking steps to prevent sexual assault, and that starts with ourselves, our relationships, our friendship circles, and our children.
TS: What’s up next for you?
SD-H: For me personally? I’m going to walk my dog, go for a run, drink some wine and finish my thesis. What’s next for Project Xan? We hope the show has another life after this run. We’ll keep you posted…
jedda Productions’ Project Xan by Hellie Turner
8 – 19 November 2016 | PICA Performance Space
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