part four: the changing room

Image by Sarah Walker.

I swim a lot and so spend a lot of time in swimming pool changing rooms. These rooms are a space that seem, to me, to be unique. I don’t know anything that makes me feel the way I do there – safe, where my body is just that and very little more, and I feel like I am just one of many similar to me.

There’s always an old seal of a woman sitting naked whilst she gets her breath back. A baby girl singing to the hairdryer. Two pre-teens staring in close-mouthed wonder at the hips swinging around them in full view.

I have had exchanges with strangers in this space that could never occur outside. I have helped middle-aged women heave their breasts into tired cotton and stretched elastic. I have shared hairbrushes, deodorant, swim-stroke advice.

I have seen three generations of women help each other get dressed.

We’ve been talking a lot in rehearsals about the materiality of the female body. This materiality is the sense of my body, your body, being just that. There is no ‘othering’ gaze, no self-consciousness foisted onto it by appraising eyes and the reactive instinct to make it smaller, to lessen the space that it takes up in order to minimise the threat of engagement (violent, unwelcome, or otherwise).

We’ve also been talking a lot about recognition. About the way women see each other. We do not know what has made this seeing possible, but it is something that all three of us has experienced; the ability to drop into a well of familiarity with another woman because of some unspoken code that you both have access to.

It was there when I was in a car full of girls I didn’t know. We would have been 18, 19, and someone made a joke about a tampon and we all burst into laughter. We spent the rest of the car trip in earnest conversation about our sexual health.

It was there when I was struggling to stand upright on a packed tram with a friend’s birthday cake and an extremely pregnant woman offered to balance it on her belly for me.

It’s also there in every pool changing room I’ve ever undressed in.

For me, the changing room space allows the meeting of this recognition and this materiality.

It is a space that can hold the possibilities of female intimacy without the deluge of the public sphere.

I’ve set I sat and waited but you were gone too long in this very particular social space because I’m also interested in the dramaturgical potential of female presence. This decision was inspired not only by the work of Toni Morrison but also by Melbourne writer-director Jenny Kemp and her focus on a ‘female dramaturgy’. This dramaturgy is identified partly by an interest in vertical rather than horizontal time – in plunging down into a moment rather than moving forward through a traditionally conflict-driven masculine narrative.

At the recent National Play Festival, Michael Gow spoke about the necessity of dramatic conflict in his keynote address The Agony and The Agony. He spoke of wrestling, of ‘agon’ (the ancient Greek term for struggle or contest) and of characters butting up against each other as being a constituent force of great drama. A female dramaturgy sits in a ‘something else’ space alongside this. This space is by no means devoid of conflict, but it is not a meeting of external forces. Both Woman and Girl experience an internal struggle – the wrenching, self-obliterating force of grief. But there is no locking of antlers here.

Instead, they sit together, experiencing this recognition and plunging down into the moment of their encounter, allowing their struggle to be borne for a moment by their companion.

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