bedtime stories for girls by genevieve atkins

This reflection is generously provided by Genevieve Atkins for our penultimate dinner and a show for 2018.

When I was making friends at uni, a piece of gossip was floating around. I watched this
gossip and who was engaging in it, and to my surprise my new friend, a down to earth, no nonsense woman, delighted in this gossip.

When I said she didn’t seem like the gossiping type she replied, “I went to an all-girls school. This is my bread and butter.”

I’d also gone to an all-girls school.

So had a bunch of my new friends.

And the floodgates opened.

I heard gossip from schools I never went to. About people I’d never met but was very willing to judge. About dances and sleepovers, lesbians and abortions, bullying and betrayal.

From public to private schools, religious and non-religious, we all had these stories.
And nothing ever fixed it. They couldn’t force us to like ourselves and couldn’t force us to
like each other.

We had everything; videos on anorexia, classes on mental health (always delivered too late), personal development days, guest speakers. There was a day when every person in my year 12 class had to enter a circle of her peers and they had to say things they liked about themselves, and the circle had to respond with things they liked about the girl in the circle. Some apologised for past actions, others promised they’d start eating again, some left the room in tears.

We had trust falls and excursions, the schools tried it all, but it always came back and
seeped into everything. I think that those stories, stories I still share today, aren’t just gossip. We are asking to be witnessed. Witness the fucked-up environment in which we were raised, the story of how we became women.

Look at what these girls did, how it could have been me, how it was me.

We were fucked, our friends were fucked, our classmates and our school was fucked.
Everything was fucked.

Obviously, this isn’t true of all female friendships. As I’ve grown I’ve experienced how
wonderful and supportive female friendships can be, I love my girl gang.

But this piece isn’t about that, this piece is about the dirty, dark and toxic shit. A special
brand of torture I, and many others, endured for 6 years.

This is bedtime stories for girls.

the nativity play or we three by hayley lawson-smith

scary santa

We’re onto our final batch of dinner and a show writers for 2018 and we have the divine Hayley Lawson-Smith here to launch us.

Christmas is a weird time.

It’s just about the ultimate in religious and cultural perversion at the hands of commercial enterprise. The outward projection of Christmas is of a time to be spent unselfishly with family, inviting along friends – and maybe even strangers – to a meal at your table, to pull a cracker, to be delighted with home-made gifts and giggle over the ubiquitous pair of socks. I’ve had some lovely Christmas days. I can especially remember one as a little kid, when the entire family slept overnight at my grandmother’s small home, and in the morning my Puppy Surprise toy had like, ten puppies inside, which I think was the maximum number of puppies you could find! Best. Day. Ever.

But it was a Christmas not long after this when I recognised my mother’s handwriting on a gift purported to be from Santa Claus, and the holidays started taking on a sour note.

I have the misfortune of being born on Christmas Eve. That’s difficult enough without the fact that my parents divorced when I was little, so I was always shunted from one side of the bay to another, my parents taking turns to have me for either my birthday, or Christmas, or both. One memorable Christmas Eve (birthday!) I was popped on the Queenscliff to Sorrento ferry, heavily laden with two massive Santa sacks of presents for me and my brother. I must have made a pitiful sight, something reminiscent of Tiny Tim or the Little Match Girl – minus the poverty – waiting alone to be collected, struggling with my overnight bag, while happily families traipsed passed, oblivious to my frustration … (insert the world’s smallest violin here).

When I think of many of my childhood Christmas days now, I remember them as times spent with an extended step-family who, due to a nasty family breakdown, would later become strangers to me. It’s an odd feeling; those memories are tainted, fake and cringe-worthy. The love that was supposed to be there, the love which appeared to outshine itself with each new Christmas, was an utter lie. That ten of my childhood Christmas days are tarnished in this way feels like the ultimate betrayal. Woolworths and Kmart sold me a falsehood. Is it because of this that I now see Christmas as the most commercial of days? Fake and shallow, with make-believe magic to sell crappy plastic toys, batteries and things-we-don’t-need, all the while producing pollution through carbon emissions and creating excessive food waste. According to the Stockholm Environment Institute at the University of York, the UK alone produced approximately 650 kg of carbon dioxide emissions per person, due to consumption and spending on food, travel, lighting and gifts over three days of festivities. In 2016, Australians spent 13.6 billion dollars over Christmas. Does the money spent and the emissions we create outweigh the charitable efforts done every year through fund-raising and good intentions?

It’s small comfort to know I’m not alone in these feelings; just for fun I Googled ‘Christmas is awful’ and was not disappointed to see over 66 million results. Maybe we’re Grinchy old cynics. But maybe there’s also a deep-seated reason behind our doubt, with holidays tending to morph and change with time; various cultures and religions celebrate New Years Day at different times of the year than what is deemed the ‘official’ date, Easter is derived from the name of a pre-Christian goddess called Eostre, and was (in some places might still be) a pagan celebration welcoming spring, and mid-winter festivals pre-date Christ by a good 2000 years. Humans constantly borrow, steal and are inspired by different cultures and religions, festivals and rituals; one of my favourite books on this subject is Terry Pratchett’s The Hogfather, which plays with the topic of Christmas in joyous satire, while at the same time weaving a beautiful legend about the conception of Discworld’s popular time of the year, Hogswatchnight (December 32nd, for those playing at home). For almost every year that I’ve owned it on VHS, I’ve watched A Muppet Christmas Carol on Christmas Eve (my birthday, my choice) and practically know ever song by heart, none of which mention a virgin given birth to the spawn of god.

Christmas is a fun theme to mess with. That’s what I hope to achieve with The Nativity Play or We Three. Who were those wise men, or magi, or kings, or – as in the case of my piece – one senile old man, one drunken wretch, and one pregnant young woman … where did they come from, and why are they never properly represented in illustrations of the nativity? Christmas, for me, comes with this big question mark of appropriation hovering over it; who has the right to tell or mess with this story? Where is the Monty Python-esque filth that would have stunk up a stable? Did the shepherds know that Christmas would one day become a day for drunken nana-naps and family feuds? And why is baby Jesus always so white?

Ultimately, I think Christmas, like many religious holidays, has its positive aspects and can influence people to be more charitable and selfless. I think any excuse for a party is a good excuse, and I do look forward to Christmas, but it’s with the same amount of excitement that I look forward to Halloween. In The Nativity Play or We Three the word ‘Christmas’ is never uttered; it is now such a staple of our Western diet that it is easily recognisable without even removing the wrapper. While not a religious person, I do think it odd that this holiday is celebrated so ardently by other, non-religious peoples. I do think it odd that we have this flash in the pan celebration while barely acknowledging its religious background. I think it odd that Santa is supposed to go to every home in the world on Christmas Eve (Santa, mate, come to my house twice, it’s me birthday) when it isn’t celebrated by every country and indeed, some places have never even heard of it. But, as with Halloween, I love it for its gaudiness, its tackiness, the food it permits one to eat, and the opportunity to take advantage of the festive feel to see friends and family. I think I’ve decided that, as with Halloween, the people who get the most innocent joy are the kids involved and, as we’re leaving them such a mess of a world to live in (ironically very much due to waste and pollution) any excuse to dress up, act like a pagan for a day and have fun, is a good excuse.

ghostboy by charles o’grady

Charles O’Grady shares some thoughts on our next dinner and a show text ghostboy.

ghostboy is an experiment on several levels.

First and foremost, it represents a fascination I’ve had for several years with the idea of
doing horror genre texts on stage – something I think people tend to assume isn’t possible, given the number of times it’s been done badly or has read as goofy or gimmicky. Realising I had little to no chance of writing a horror for the stage that was genuinely scary on my first go at it, I decided to write a play about horror, in some ways. It’s still full of ghouls and ghosts and haunted houses, but more as an interrogation of the horror form, and what the supernatural has come to represent about our own consciousness and self-perception.

It’s also a foray into queer horror, but moreso my attempt to articulate why I feel all horror is inherently Queer. Subverting the mundane and making it abject is both a tenet of horror and of Queer art. Horror also makes a point of engaging with transgressions of gender and sexuality as a focal point for the creation of monstrousness. There are a number of crossover points between Horror texts and Queer coming-of-age texts – most notably, the eroticisation of trauma. I wanted to take this idea of eroticised trauma and explore it on both a human and supernatural level.

Secondly, this is an exercise in creating poetic and non-linear, conceptual work that also
maintains a story and characters that an audience relates to. The characters in this play are in some ways intentionally written as cookie-cutter conduits for ideas or archetypes – Ghost, Boy, Daddy, Doctor, etc – used to explore conventional queer narratives. There is also a bedrock of Horror genre references that inform the play’s aesthetics, for example:

  • Freddy and Jesse’s homoerotic interactions in A Nightmare On Elm Street Part 2: Freddy’s Revenge
  • the fetishised pathology of Buffalo Bill’s gender transgression in The Silence of the
  • The Sixth Sense’ so-called Big Twist Moment
  • The convention across many haunted house horrors of a monster that hides in a
  • Werewolf coming-of-age narratives
  • The villain of It Follows, a monster specifically constructed as a punishment for
    sexual transgression
  • Everything about The Lost Boys
  • Everything about Strangers By the Lake
  • The “I’m not a girl” scene in Let the Right One In

Look, I just really like horror films, and I like that they’re all metaphors for coping with or overcoming or succumbing to trauma and grief, and I like that houses are always a metonym for their owners and haunted houses therefore are “haunted” minds, and I’m a big gay nerd.

Finally, ghostboy is not just a play. The text I’m writing is designed to work both as a play
and as a poetic novella or poetry collection – and, in this, is designed to function as both
those things simultaneously. This is not just because I want to double my chances to ever
make money off of my writing, but also because I’m interested in the stage play as a textual form that can stand on its own. Most theatre makers will tend to assert that the stage play is an unfinished text – that it cannot be finished until it is on a stage in front of an audience. And certainly I think a lot of scripts are written and formatted for functionality, rather than to create an enjoyable reading experience, which is fine and has always served the writer-director dynamic well. However, coming from a background in poetry as well as working as a playwright and director, I am interested in finding what, if anything, could make a script as visually rich for a reader as for an audience. There are limitations in the script format, of course – but there are also limitations in the prose format, and the poetry format, some of which, I think, can be enriched by the conventions of script writing.

In terms of ghostboy, this crossover has meant that expanding on the play’s text in certain places, in ways that would not necessarily be seen on stage. I’ve written a lot for this play that is not intended to be a part of a stage production, because it serves to fill the gaps created when you take away the visual/physical elements of theatre. Also, because a book can be a lot longer than a play, and the story I’m telling – whilst it can be condensed into an appropriately long show – feels bigger than what a play can contain.

part four: sisters


Orc face at the dinner table: three kinds of ugly my pretty sister taught me

My sister is the pretty one. She is the thin one. She is the popular one. She is the dark-haired, freckled, blue-eyed-beauty one.  

I am the other one.

This is how we like to frame the relationship between sisters: they are opposites. There is always the pretty, popular one and the shy, bookish one hiding in her shadow. Most mainstream sister stories peddle this narrative — My Sister’s Keeper, My Sister’s Sister, Sisters — they’re all stories of opposition, one wild child one quiet achiever. They see-saw their way through the story; if one is up, the other must be down — quite literally in the case of My Sister’s Keeper, where the younger sister is born for the sole purpose of donating blood and tissue to her sister who is dying of cancer.

Growing up, this binary structure defined my relationship with my sister, which in turn came to define me. If she was the sporty one, I couldn’t be (even if I did win 2012 CSUFC Female Soccer Play of the Year—my greatest achievement). If she was the emo kid, I couldn’t be (even if I did silently sing along to the sweet, sweet tragedy of Welcome to the Black Parade every night.) And if I was the smart one, she couldn’t be (even if she did get impressive NAPLAN test results, which she felt the need to tell me in detail over dinner a few years back).

The truth is, this is just the patriarchy back at its bullshit, building binaries where they shouldn’t be. This truth, as with all truths, has been proven by Beyoncé. In the introduction to her gorgeous interview with younger sister Solange for Interview Magazine, it is noted that ‘because the media can only think in archetypes or binaries, apparently, Solange was often cast in contrast to her big sister, Beyoncé — Solange as the groovy Dionysian hipster to Bey’s Apollonian majesty’. Defining two complex, powerful artists through this binary framework is reductive and suffocating.

But still the popular, patriarchal conception of sisterhood is two women in opposition: we tie them together by setting them apart. It’s a wily way to infect the relationship with shame, to undermine what should be a strong, supportive, unconditional love by forcing us to define ourselves and this most intimate relationship by our deficiencies. Real sisterhood—in all its forms, biological or otherwise—is love without shame.

This is not to say that sisters should always agree, that sisters who have different interests and styles and body shapes are just the product of the patriarchy. But rather, these differences are not the result of a natural, oppositional and competitive binary. You weren’t genetically predisposed to like olives because your sister doesn’t—maybe you just developed a taste for them after picking them off her plate for all these years.  

When sisters grow together they grow intertwined; tendrils reaching out and filling any spaces left empty by the other, not by deficiency but by their own natural progression in a different direction. In the introduction to a collection of essays titled Sisters, Drusilla Modjeska writes that sisters use each other as a point of reference, ‘each defining the other against the definition made of herself in a complex dance of inclusion and exclusion’. It’s like some sort of ouroboros mould, you both shape and are shaped by your sister.

In the very first rehearsal of my sister feather, I noted the way Egg and Tilly moved around the space and interacted with the furniture during an improv. They were mirroring each other—if one had her hands folded on the table, the other had them folded on her lap. I wrote the words ‘reflection, inversion’.

When you look at yourself in a mirror your features are inverted, but that’s the face you know as your own. You don’t often think that that’s not how everyone else sees you. You might think you look odd in photos because you are so used to seeing yourself in reverse. Sisters are like mirrors, that’s how you use her— to catch a glimpse at yourself, test the limits of your body, measure up your looks, and sometimes just to stare, find every tiny flaw, fill every pore with hate. Then in moments of photo-like clarity, of attempted objectivity, when you encounter a perspective of that person beyond their relationship to you, it can seem incongruous. You have come to understand this person as an image, as a reflection, as an extension of yourself, and now suddenly you realise there is more. There is someone behind the mirror. You have to disentangle yourself, your perspective, from her identity.

This is why sister stories are so sticky—it is naturally and unavoidably a dissection of intertwined identities. This is why they are so important — limiting our understanding of sisters to the binary relationship that the patriarchy desperately clings to is to deny ourselves the full depth and breadth of individuals and the murkiness of the space between them.

Liv has created a beautiful, challenging story of sisterhood and I am so glad and grateful she asked me to be a part of it. She invited me to come on board because I write sister stories, too. We are opposites in this sense: Liv’s stories are about forgiveness, mine selfishness; hers are care and mine are cruelty.  But there was never any shame in this opposition, never a sense of deficiency, and I learned a lot in the space between us.

Selfishly, I’ve spent a lot of time during the process thinking about my actual sister and the lessons I learned from her. The ones that stick most in my chest are three lessons in ugliness.  If you’ll indulge me, I’d like to pass them on, save you all some time and pain.


My sister has the most perfect orc face. Her thin, delicately-freckled nose scrunches up so symmetrically; two identical little folds on either side as her tiny nostrils stretch up towards her wide, glaring eyes. Most people’s nose skin—my nose skin—just collects into little balls of dimpled flesh, like cellulite, when the orc is attempted. But my sister’s nose folds look like the deliberate stroke of a visual effects extraordinaire; simple, symmetrical hideousness befitting any villain of Middle Earth.

She used to pull this face all the time when we were little, usually when we were at the dinner table when I’d just taken a sip of milk. Sometimes she would compliment the look with a mouthful of mashed potatoes, which she would mix with tomato sauce and slowly push out between clenched teeth. My sister is so good at being ugly. Sometimes the little lines would appear when she laughed, too. But only if she was laughing really hard.

My sister taught me what it meant to be ugly, what it meant to know and be in control of your body, to contort it any which way you liked no matter how unbecoming it might seem. This was a fun kind of ugly, a celebration of the elasticity of bodies, of the freedom to twist and shape something new and uncanny out of our skin. Guiding you through the process of becoming a woman in the world, sisters are the gatekeepers of beauty and body. To see them pull faces, burp and fart is to see the falsehood of rigid and oppressive femininity. My sister taught me how to pull my nose up for a piggy face and tuck my lips in for a chipmunk grin; I always thought we looked most alike in those moments of childish, cartoonish ugliness.

It didn’t take long for this familiar, comforting kind of ugly to rear its head in rehearsals for my sister feather. We don’t often see it in the theatre, in our mainstream stories of sisterhood, but this ugliness is precious, a key component of shameless sister love. Put two women in a room and ask them to act like sisters and they will peel off that lead coat of femininity and let the fart noises fly.


I don’t remember my first day of high school. But I do remember—in high-definition 3D realness— thirty seconds from the morning of my first day of winter term, the first day we had to wear winter uniforms, plaid skirts with grey stockings. My sister was sitting on the couch, I was standing next to her. ‘Ew!’ she had shrieked, pointing. ‘I can see your leg hairs sticking out.’ I looked down at my legs, then over at hers. A forest of fair hairs was indeed poking out through my stockings. She wasn’t wearing stockings but her bare legs, while covered in goosebumps, were completely devoid of hair. I started shaving my legs the next day.

My sister taught me what it meant to be ugly, what it meant to live under the male gaze and be judged by my appearance. This is a lesson approved and encouraged by patriarchal narratives: sisters should bond primarily over their pursuit of beauty and the affections of men. Movies are awash with montages of older sisters teaching the younger ones how to dress and paint their faces. We are told that the best thing about having a sister is being able to raid their wardrobes. Remember that noughties classic In Her Shoes, where the party girl sister learns to calm down and the straight laced sister learns to loosen up and they meet in the middle and also they both like shoes because they’re girls? (A sexist cliché, but admittedly one of my greatest regrets about my relationship with my sister is that I have size nine feet, compared to her dainty size fives, so I could never take advantage of her significant shoe collection.)

My sister helped me dress for my first date, all the clothes I wore were hers. She did my hair and makeup for my year twelve formal, even though at that time I hadn’t spoken to her in months.  I wouldn’t even look at her at the dinner table, that sacred family space where years ago she’d made me laugh with orc faces, but more recently she’d tried to stab me with a fork. It’s a funny story if you tell it right. Being beautiful was more important than being angry, so I’d had no choice but to stare into her eyes as she painted my face. I couldn’t just stare into a mirror and do it myself because I didn’t know how. She was the pretty one after all, she was the one who used makeup. I was the other one. I looked a lot like her that night, the liner on my eyes and powder on my cheeks matched hers.

Often, this understanding of ugliness isn’t a lesson given but taken through observation. You watch your sister change, shape herself into something uncannily beautiful, and you want to copy her, you want to keep up, keep in sync. It’s strange and scary to feel out of time with your reflection, like in a horror movie when the face staring back at you suddenly moves away.

But it’s a trick of the light, a trick of the patriarchy, to make you think that the only connection between you and this reflection is the way that you look.  This shallowness is a sanctuary when you’re staring down the reality that maybe someone doesn’t just look different, maybe they are different. A shift in your sister is a shift in your sense of self, an earthquake that threatens the foundations of your identity. It’s easier to talk about how someone’s clothes and hair have changed, rather than acknowledge that the person you knew may have disappeared. When Tilly comes face to face with Egg for the first time in decades—when she sees how she’s changed, how different she looks because of how different she is—all Tilly can do is talk about Egg’s weight, Egg’s body, Egg’s cheeks. To acknowledge that the person she left has changed on some deep, fundamental level would be to acknowledge that her reason for staying away has changed, too.


I’ve always thought my sister’s face looks ugly when alight with rage. The cold light in her eyes leaps like flames engorged with petrol, and her cheeks rouge slightly as if a virus was taking hold. When she yells she takes the higher registers and I try to keep my voice low, just so people who can hear us can tell us apart. Her anger is hot and dry. Mine is swampy; I cry when I get mad, my face runs with tears and snot and slobber. Always in opposition, equal in ugliness. I can’t give her all the credit for teaching me how to rage, though; my whole family are experts and we used to skill-share a lot.

But my sister taught me what it means to be really ugly: she taught me how to hurt her.

She will probably always know me best, even though we’ve never seen eye-to-eye, never shared interests or the shoe size. We watched each other grow, watched the construction of a being; we’ve seen and heard enough to have a detailed map of every flaw and every weak spot. This kind of knowledge makes sisters uniquely qualified to comfort, but it also means that they know exactly where to stick the knife. They know how to bring you down because they’re the ones who helped to build you.

A younger sister is taught to trust the older one to keep their secrets, to keep them safe. My sister knew to take whispered secrets and scream them back in my face. She wielded shame like a whip, never striking directly but pushing me back, cornering me against a barbed wire fence of my own making. My sister taught me that pinching and biting and spitting and scowling is child’s play—the only way to win the sibling rivalry, the real Battle Royale, is to use these expectations of sisterly love, these sacred pillars of trust, to trap your enemy and let them tear themselves apart.  

Older sisters are taught to guide the younger ones, they always control the narrative and they feed off this sense of responsibility. Liv once said in rehearsals that we are cruel to our family because we know they will always come back to us. My sister believed I would always come back, and she would always be there to guide me. But she taught me too well: I stayed away, I picked up the whip.

I have three unread messages on my phone, all from her. She thinks I should watch this show on SBS at the moment, she thinks I’d find it funny.

I adored my sister when we were growing up, I looked to her for everything. I didn’t know how to be without her, even just to be the opposite of her was to be something. We grew around that dynamic, built ourselves upon it, and then I tore it down, tore away, because she taught me how to play dirty, how to be ugly, how to hurt her. To lose a sister is to lose part of yourself, to lose that reflection that tells you how to be in the world. To deny someone that structure, that safety, that knowledge seems cruel. I know am denying myself something, too.  

Egg and Tilly know exactly where to drive the knife and how to twist it. ‘You haven’t changed’, they tell each other. They say it because it hurts. They say it because it says I still know you best, I am still here, I am still your reflection and if you try to hurt me you’ll only end up hurting yourself.  

As we’ve grown, I’ve grown to look more and more like my sister. I think. It’s hard to tell: I don’t have any recent photographs of us side by side. Last year she sent me a photo of herself at her best friend’s wedding, captured just as she was glaring at her least favourite bridesmaid, I’m told.

‘Don’t you think I look like you?’

It struck me that perhaps this is what I’ve always looked like to her: angry, sullen, with a quiet disdain. So similar to what she’s always looked like to me. I thought we were opposites: she was sleek and sharp and made her way through the world like a hot knife through butter. So hot that it instantly turned the butter bad. Scalding hot, steaming with vitriol. But now sometimes when I look in the mirror, I see her looking back at me: angry, sullen, with a quiet disdain. Sometimes I wonder if the anger she sees in me is mine, or her own mirrored in my features. Sometimes I wonder, am I the reflection, or is she?

But mostly I just tuck my lips into a chipmunk grin and try not to think about it.

Thank you my sister feather for forcing me to think about it.

This is the final essay written by Fi Spitzkowsky in response to the process of making my sister feather.

part three: forgiveness


This is your daily reminder: Scandinavians do everything better (Also, choose love)

It was only our third or fourth rehearsal when, after a particularly tense interaction between Belinda McClory’s Tilly and Emily Tomlins’ Egg, Belinda looked at Liv and said ‘you’ll need to remind me to choose love, because it’s so much easier to fight’.

It is easy to fight; it feels good to fight. When rage is building in your guts, vibrating down through your legs and making fists of your fingers, it feels right to fight. It’s a feeling that anyone with a sibling, and especially sisters, would likely know well, and likely have surrendered to many times throughout their childhood, adolescence and beyond. My sister and I always knew where to stick the knife in to get the best reaction, and often it was just so much easier to lash out than to calmly walk away.

Watching Tilly and Egg have it out onstage is mesmerising. Seeing the complexity of sisterhood explored with such intimacy and care is a joy not often offered in our theatres. But although I love to see them play and giggle and look out for one another, I also want to watch them fight. I want them to take out twenty years of pain through harsh words and the cutting cruelty of dismissal and rejection. Somehow it feels more satisfying than the painful journey through the molasses of talking it through, working it out, behaving like adults I guess you could call it. Call me Lady Gaga circa 2009 because I want their love and I want their revenge.

But, as Gaga so eloquently points out, that would be (a) bad (romance). Humans are famous for their cognitive dissonance, the ability to accept two opposing truths at the same time. But even for us, love—or perhaps empathy or compassion for those of us who find the ‘L’ word too sticky—and vengeance—in whatever violent or indifferent form it may take—are simply too colossal and demanding to coexist. You cannot hold something with love in one hand and beat it with the other. You have to choose. This is true on every level of our lives, from our personal relationships to our social institutions.

The tension between the two sisters — one ‘free’ and one ‘not free’, as is noted in the character notes at the beginning of the script — embodies a much larger question of how we as a society manage our grievances. While Tilly has built a successful, if lonely, life for herself, using her own experience within the foster care system to fuel her desire to help others, Egg has spent her life in and out of prison. Tilly, through cruelty or carelessness, never lets her forget it. Egg’s cycles of incarceration and recidivism reflect the troubling reality of our prison system: quite simply, it is broken. In 2015-2016 the recidivism rate in Australia rose to 44.6%, up from 39.5% in 2011-2012. If the purpose of prisons is to prevent further criminal behaviour, these numbers don’t bode well. As barrister Julian Burnside has pointed out ‘if your car only started half the time, would you say it works?’

The justice system is perhaps where the dichotomy of love/vengeance comes into focus most sharply on a social level. In an article for The Conversation’s Beyond Prison series, Kathryn Snow and Lynn Gillam argue that our prisons are ‘ineffective and even counter-productive’ because our political policies and cultural narratives lack a clear understanding of exactly what prisons are for. It’s fairly safe to say that the overall goal is to reduce criminal behaviour, but is it through a system of compassion, that focuses on the rehabilitation of the offenders, or retribution, that focuses on punishment?

Studies have suggested that punishment as a means of changing behaviour is only effective in certain conditions, with certain people. Those who are future-oriented, have good self-monitoring and regulation skills, and who can make the connection between their behaviour and negative consequences months later, may well respond positively. But for those lacking these attributes, the effectiveness of punishment relies on a number of conditions — including the severity and immediacy of the punishment — that simply cannot be met by our current justice system because of modern human rights laws and legal ethics. As Andrew Day, Professor of Psychology at Deakin University, writes, ‘many of the conditions required for punishment to be effective will not exist in any justice system’.

And yet, in Australia, it is increasingly clear that the narrative we have built around our justice system is one that focuses pointedly on punishment over prisoner welfare — it’s a narrative of retribution and not of compassion. This is evident in the fact that our rates of incarceration are rising—from 187.2 prisoners for every 100 000 Australian adults in 2014, to 216.2 in the third quarter of 2017—while crime rates are actually falling. In Victoria, from 2002 to 2012, crime rates fell by 1.6%, but incarceration increased due to longer prison sentences; an increased use of prison sentences in the higher courts; and fewer people being granted bail. It’s reduced welfare — the bureaucratic embodiment of a lack of compassion — not crime rates, that have the closest correlation to increasing incarceration.

In which case, prevention should be easy: just support at-risk communities through welfare and essential services [pretty obvious, hey?]. ‘Justice reinvestment’, a policy that was originally developed in Texas, a notoriously conservative state, aims to redirect prison funding into services like education, healthcare and housing, and has been proven to lower crime rates in disadvantaged communities. Reinvestment programs are being tried and tested across Australia, including in Cowra, where the community has recently undertaken a three-year research project under the leadership of Dr Jill Guthrie. The research team proposed that eight categories of crimes — including traffic offences, justice procedure offences and drug offences — should be dealt with by non-custodial sentences, which would save the community $23 million over ten years. That money could then be spent on key services in health, education, housing and employment to help prevent crime.

But it can be difficult to sell these kinds of preventative spending policies to the general public, as any cursory glance of the comments section on any of these articles would tell you. It seems that Australians subscribe to a very simplistic narrative when it comes to our justice system. We buy into morality play tropes of good guys and bad guys—you do the crime, you do the time—ignoring complex compounding factors like poverty, trauma and colonisation. It just feels good to fight the bad guys and win. That’s why crime is such a hot-button-election-swinging topic in Australia. In the context of our national narrative, politicians who are seen to be locking up bad guys must be the good guys and must be worthy of our vote. That’s why we see Liberals trying to stir up racialised public fury over ‘African gangs’ in the lead up to a Victorian election. In Australia — where racism and classism is built into our the very foundation of our nation — people from low socio-economic communities, immigrants and especially Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are disproportionately represented in prison populations, and in this falsely simplistic narrative of crime and punishment.

It is strange for a nation so enamoured with the idea of the ‘underdog’ and a ‘fair go’ to reject complex narratives in our justice system. We romanticise the criminals of our colonial history— bushrangers are just a bunch of larrikin lads rising up against the British ruling class. We forgive them for murder and robbery and weave heroic narratives around them because they are the victims of an oppressive system (and because they are white; the Indigenous Australians who were also fighting the colonisers during the Bushranger era were not afforded any such sympathy).

Nowadays, many amongst the prison population have stories that reflect that same narrative: they engage in criminal behaviour in response to trauma, poverty or institutional discrimination at the hands of an indifferent (at best) or cruel government. According to the Council of Australian Government Figures, Indigenous Australians are twelve times more likely to be in prison; 63.7% of male and 45.3% of female Victorian prisoners were unemployed when they were imprisoned; and 87% of female prisoners in Victoria were victims of sexual, physical or emotional abuse, with the majority being victims of multiple forms of abuse. Even if, on a personal level, we recognise that the factors motivating criminal behaviour are complex and socially constructed, our justice system steamrolls that nuance with its propensity for punishment. By imprisoning vulnerable people without proper support and rehabilitation—which would acknowledge that there were external factors that led to their criminal behaviour—we are reinforcing a narrative that casts them as inevitable villains.

We see in my sister feather how the internalisation of that narrative can eat away at a person. We see Egg both resist and fall into the character assigned to her — a petulant child who never takes responsibility for her own actions. She baits Tilly to anger with indifference and lies. Tilly struggles to maintain her composure: though she claims she didn’t come to fight she finds herself lashing out and reinforcing the narrative that Egg is exactly where she deserves to be. The roles prescribed by our judicial narrative are passionately reinforced: Tilly is the capable one and Egg is the deadbeat.

This binary relationship is defined and shaped by the sisters’ evolving relationship with ‘them’, the invisible figures behind the security camera, the police, the justice system itself. The validity and stability of these identities are therefore reliant on the objectivity of the system, which, clearly, is non-existent. From the outside, we tend to see the system as an impartial object, dehumanised, which is perhaps why we allow it to dehumanise those people that come to live within its confines. The justice system is not a solid, unbiased, independent, artificial structure, but a carefully constructed web of people, from guards to social workers to CEOs and policy-makers, all vulnerable to the influence of cultural narratives.

When it suits us, we prefer to see the system as impartial and unprejudiced — Tilly outwardly refuses to believe that fear of punishment would prevent people, like Egg, from looking to the police for help; it helps alleviate her own guilt in ‘failing’ to help her sister. But she also questions the morality of the system in the way it dehumanises inmates, as the compassionate gesture of providing mammograms turns out to be motivated by research, and not to save lives. In those moments, the system is not a reliable structure in Tilly’s eyes, but a group of spaghetti-breathed guards, flawed and human, who should be capable of compassion.

And herein lies the pathway to a more effective justice system: it should take human, not structural form, whereby it is not only capable of being compassionate, but expected to be. In Scandinavian countries [you can always rely on Scandinavians to show us the way], the justice system is focused on restorative justice, rather than punishment. This manifests in open prisons and shorter prison sentences, but is best summed up by Kirsti Njeminen, governor of Kerava prison in Finland, who says that prison guards and administrators are like ‘parents’ to their inmates. Parents are expected to bear the brunt of their children’s misbehaviours with good humour and compassion, while gently guiding their children through the process of building appropriate moral structures.

In Finland and other Scandinavian countries, this is what the prison system aspires to: they favour the ‘moral-creating and value-shaping effect of punishment’ rather than ‘punishment as retribution’. Though inmates have their freedom of movement restricted within open prisons, they all have access to rehabilitative services such as education and healthcare, and all facilities incorporate “cognitive-behavioural programs rooted in social learning theory”. Often inmates are referred to as clients rather than prisoners. It works. Norway has an incarceration rate of 75 per 100,000 people and recidivism rate of 20%. Adapting these kinds of compassionate spaces, services and language would completely shift the narrative that surrounds prisons in Australia. We need to make this change, move away from the narrative that serves as a faux self-fulfilling prophecy by painting vulnerable people as villains.

When their mother leaves them, Tilly is forced to take on a parental role in her relationship with Egg. It is a huge burden for a child to shoulder. In an ideal world (i.e. Scandinavia) the prison system could alleviate the burden of this relationship by adopting that parental role. In Australia, with a system that favours retribution, the system eliminates the burden by regarding Egg as unworthy of the relationship at all, unworthy of parental guidance and compassion.

It can be difficult to reject this black-and-white, hero-and-villain narrative that is prevalent in Australia, especially if a crime has a clear and vulnerable victim. Karrie Thompson, a victim’s advocate, argues that prison gives victims ‘closure’: it feels good to fight back, and to win.  But, as Justin Burnside points out, ‘you go to prison as punishment, not for punishment’. Prison, if necessary, must be a space of rehabilitation, not retribution. Prison-as-rehabilitation has none of the moral judgement that is inherent in the concept of prison-as-retribution. Retribution is cyclical, and if we pack our narratives, and our prisons, with vengeance we will never find a satisfying resolution. To quote Shakespeare, ‘blood will have blood’, or to quote Jean Tong ‘blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood will have blood … [ad infinitum]’ (Jean wrote an incredible coda to Macbeth called Macdeath which should be a compulsory addition to any production of the Scottish play IMHO).

In my sister feather, I want Egg and Tilly to fight. I want the play to be full of yelling and hurled objects. I want them to demand blood in payment for their pain. But no-one wants to see that play. And hopefully no-one should want to see that play out in our judicial system. Allowing two sisters the time and space to sit peacefully with their pain, trying to find a way out of it together, quietly and with dignity, is a reminder — to everyone — to choose love.  

Postscript: the justice system is incredibly complex, and full of many wonderful people working hard to make it better and fairer. This article merely skims the surface of the issue of incarceration in Australia, and I encourage you to investigate further. Let’s change the narrative.

This is the third in a series of critical responses being published weekly on the VIMH blog by playwright (and assistant director) Fiona Spitzkowsky about the my sister feather rehearsal room.