This Creative Duo Are Building Their Own Feminist Future Through Theatre
Performance artist Julia Croft and director Nisha Madhan are re-imagining the world through a feminist lens with their latest project
"We describe it as trying to build our own feminist futurism. And — because we’re audacious — trying to break the space time continuum while trying to break the patriarchy.”
Performance artist Julia Croft is describing not the plot of a new female-led science fiction film, but her and director Nisha Madhan’s latest project, a live theatre art work called Working On My Night Moves, which opened at the Basement Theatre on March 6 as part of the Basement Visions programme.
“It’s really an [immersive] experience, more than a normal theatre show, where you sit on one side and it happens on the other side,” says Nisha. “Essentially, it’s about watching someone trying to create their own universe different to the one we live in, and then they create universe after universe and eventually get to the stars.”
Performed solo by Julia, Night Moves is the third in a trilogy of theatre pieces. She and Nisha have worked together several times, with much of their work centred on feminist theory and gender politics.
The first in the trilogy, If There’s Not Dancing at the Revolution, I’m Not Coming, was created by Julia and directed by Virginia Frankovich in 2015. A blend of comedy, dance, pop songs and elaborate costumes, it looked at how women’s bodies are treated in pop culture supported by a specific theory: Laura Mulvey’s famous term ‘The Male Gaze’.
Power Ballad, the second theatre work, directed this time by Nisha in 2017, referenced feminist writers such as Kathy Acker and Audre Lorde to explore the gendered history of language. It was “part performance lecture, part karaoke party”, and featured iconic 80s songs sung by both Julia and the audience.
After looking at how women are represented in the media and in language, the duo has delved even further into atoms, cells and outer space.
“We’re looking at the very construct of the world and how we can reimagine it in a feminist point of view . . . In a nutshell,” Nisha says, laughing.
These concepts have the potential to be a little esoteric, but both Julia and Nisha have a great sense of humour and are always looking for new ways to make feminist theory fun and accessible. “The way we make work, we treat it like we’re having a party, and we treat the audience as if they’re guests at our party, so you have a great time but you also think about things,” says Nisha.
Creating imaginary worlds and futures feels like a positive last statement after being fairly destructive with the two former works, they say. “It’s got a kind of naivete to it that I think is really joyful,” says Julia. Adds Nisha: “And a sweet soundtrack.”
The duo first met in 2012. Julia says she “creepily pursued” Nisha after seeing one of her shows. They were then both cast in a touring theatre company and travelled together for three years before collaborating on Power Ballad.
They have been described as fast becoming pioneers in their field and their work both individually and together garners rave reviews.
With Nisha’s penchant for audience interaction in her works, Night Moves is set up with the audience positioned around the room rather than being seated on one side as a purposeful comment on power dynamics.
“If you are someone who is really concerned with feminist and intersectional politics, you’re looking at the distribution of power and the responsibility that people have when they do have privilege and power,” she says. “So it made less and less sense for us to put the performer in this position of power in the room where they got to say everything and tell you what to think.”
They’ve tried to make the theatre a space of questioning, and although it is interactive, it’s gently so.
“There’s a danger in participation that you can reinforce the politics you’re trying to disrupt if it becomes too fascist or, like, ‘I demand you do this’... That is not what we’re interested in politically or theatrically,” says Julia.
Both women are impressively smart and their work is often described as being very clever. When asked why it’s important to them to make work around themes of feminism and gender, Nisha talks about translating her lived experiences on to the stage.
“I make work that’s experimental and different from the norm,” she says. “It’s quite outside of the mainstream, and I think I do that not in a way that I’m like “I want to conceitedly be different from people”, it’s because I am different from people, and I, as a woman of colour have grown up in a margin that I didn’t choose to be in. It was put on me, so I have the embodied experience of being other.
I don’t really relate to sitting on one side of a theatre and watching a bunch of privileged white males prancing around and talking about their problems on the other side – like, I can appreciate it and of course I’ve grown up reading the literature of the patriarchy, as we all have because there was no other option really, but I am not comfortable doing that because It’s not my life.”
The general reception in New Zealand to theatre work that challenges the status quo has shifted in the last decade, they say.
Julia pinpoints more of an appetite for work that's both formally different and politically engaged, and while she thinks people were more skeptical of work like this ten years ago, it feels like this has switched. "There's a hunger for work that is sort of engaging with feminist or queer indigenous politics in a way that is encouraging, I think."
They both think art is a good space to question things, and open up the floor for multiple possibilities without worrying about being right or wrong. “One thing we’ve talked about is the idea of trying to make art that’s audacious, that has failure already implicit in the attempt,” says Julia. “Like, we’re going to break the time-space continuum as an objective for a work.”
“And who knows,” adds Nisha. “Maybe we will.”
Working On My Night Moves
8.30pm Wed-Sat, March 6-23 at Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland Central. Visit BasementTheatre.co.nz