Mainstream theatre wasn’t for them, so these two women made their own company

Mainstream theatre wasn’t for them, so these two women made their own company

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Charlotte Farrell was 19 and performing the role of a hairdresser in an advertising campaign when she realised she didn’t want to be an actor – at least, not in the traditional sense.

“A person came in and said, ‘She doesn’t look anything like her photo. Well, she has a nice neck. Just put her hair up and just show her neck’,” Farrell recalls. “It was a pivot point for me. I just decided I couldn’t do it any more.”

Charlotte Farrell and Emma Maye Gibson have been friends since they met at uni in 2007.Credit: Rhett Wyman

Emma Maye Gibson, best known for her drag performance avatar Betty Grumble, had a similar experience trying to make it in the industry, having been twice rejected from drama school.

“Trying to enter into the acting world, I just had an allergic reaction to how that made my body feel,” she says. “I always wanted to tell stories about how in love with life I was.”

Now, the pair have set up their own theatre company, whose first show opens this week.

The duo met at a house party in 2007, where they bonded over the music of Prince, while they were both studying theatre and performance studies at the University of NSW.

They began performing together in the feminist performance art collective What Makes Men Blush, taking their shows to nightclubs, art galleries and fringe festivals. At the same time, Farrell introduced Gibson to queer spaces including Marrickville’s Red Rattler Theatre.

What Makes Men Blush in their play inspired by Shirley Temple, Shirley.Credit: Max Milne

In 2011, Farrell’s PhD on the work of Australian theatre director Barrie Kosky took her to Montreal, ending their creative partnership, but not their friendship. In the years since, she’s built an academic career, while Gibson created Betty Grumble.

Now, Farrell and Gibson are working together again as Body of Work, combining Farrell’s research skills with Gibson’s embodied performance style – and their first show is their take on Shakespeare’s romantic fairy comedy, titled A Midsummer Night’s Cream.

“I genuinely believe in fairies,” Gibson says. “So it will be conducted as a spell, to call in and bow to theatre fairies. It’s always been magic between the two of us [her and Farrell].”

Gibson auditioned for drama school with a monologue from the lovesick Helena in A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In Gibson and Farrell’s play, that character will embody aspects of the performer’s “sometimes tragic love life”.

“We’re also poking fun at when we connected and our earnest desire to be actors, and celebrating our love of theatre,” Gibson says.

Gibson helped care for Farrell after the birth of Farrell’s daughter earlier this year. It’s just one example of the intimacy and trust they share, which is the foundation of their new work and their theatre company. “Friendship is certainly not required, but it’s something that definitely, for us, is a big part of our process,” Farrell says.

“We’re sharing the love that we have for each other,” Gibson says. “I feel very comforted in how much recognition there is between the two of us and how much we can share that with audiences.”

Farrell’s baby has been a part of Farrell and Gibson’s collaboration since before she was born: “As soon as I said that I was pregnant to Emma Maye, I could see the cogs turning, like, ‘How can we do a performance with your pregnant body?’ And so we did.”

That performance was part of Gibson’s 24 Hour Grumble Boogie endurance work/aerobics class, held in Sydney for this year’s WorldPride. Farrell was then nine months pregnant.

Betty Grumble and Charlotte Farrell perform in 24 Hour Grumble Boogie.Credit: Josie Hess

That collaboration feeds into A Midsummer Night’s Cream, which speaks to motherhood in terms of Farrell’s experience, the life-giving power of the planet, and Gibson’s yearning to be a mother. In the original Shakespeare, the mother-child relationship is between Titania, queen of the fairies, and a changeling.

“Her figure as the fairy queen mother is an archetype we want to use to unpack some of these questions, including what it is to be a new parent,” Farrell says.

Gibson hopes that all of Body of Work’s shows will have the sense of interconnectedness of 24 Hour Grumble Boogie and A Midsummer Night’s Cream.

“We feel, maybe, a sense of frustration and discomfort around how separate and top-down certain ways of making and engaging with theatre have become,” she says. “We are excited and inspired by work we see that celebrates culture, queerness and challenges the status quo in loving and radical ways.”

A Midsummer Night’s Cream is at Old Fitz Theatre from November 29 to December 10.

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