“The weird thing is that LGBTIQ exists as a category of being, that’s designated by mainstream culture, when actually it’s unbelievably fragmented. And there’s so much intra-group conflict because everyone actually has really, really different aims, and different objectives, and their struggle doesn’t mirror that of the other groups at all.”
– Declan Greene

“You find these little things that help… ‘If I can channel Judy Garland, If I can channel the strength of this survivor’… For some reason, it usually is a female survivor, because you don’t want to identify with the straight men that are making your life hell, or that you don’t relate to. You relate to the women who are outsiders as well.”
– Ash Flanders

In the third episode of season four, we discuss what queer is and isn’t with playwright Declan Greene and performer Ash Flanders, who together make up Sisters Grimm, Melbourne-based queer performance collective par excellence. Sisters Grimm have risen through the ranks of Melbourne’s independent theatre with a series of extremely well received shows, very quickly progressing from backyard performances for friends to sold-out shows at Malthouse Theatre, Sydney Theatre Company, Melbourne Theatre Company, Sydney’s Griffin Theatre and Belvoir. By now, they have, together and separately, performed in all of Australia’s major theatre houses, and won an incredible number of awards. They have been described in The Age as ‘treading the line between the frivolous and the furiously political better than anyone in Australia right now’.

And it is their brand of frivolous, furiously political queer theatre that we talk about today. Drag, the way it speaks gender as a foreign language, and its undercurrent of dissecting, enabling, and owning, victimhood, as well as its central position in queer culture, is one of our great topics. Drag features prominently and aggressively in the Sisters Grimm oeuvre, which features every kind of cross-casting imaginable, most notably when appropriating Euro-Australian colonial narratives. The queer eye is particularly suited to dissecting national and colonial myths because it is an outsider eye, say Ash and Declan, giving numerous examples of the ways in which the queer individual grows up interested in aesthetics, in surfaces, in the performativity of identity, and the way in which oppressive power is exercised through cultural myths – and perhaps becomes particularly fluent in ways to dismantle that power.

“I think you develop critical facilities, as a queer person, because you learn to question the texts that you receive culturally… You know that those narratives don’t articulate your experience of being, so you have to figure out how to dismantle them, and to insert yourself into them in order to identify with them.”
– Declan Greene

Today’s conversation was yet another slightly ridiculous endeavour, recorded between Melbourne and a handmade recording teepee in a house in Brussels. It was also a feat of scheduling: we have been talking about recording a conversation for over two years, but Declan and Ash have been so busy making excellent theatre across Australia, sometimes together, sometimes separately, that finding a time when we are all in the same city was harder than trying to synchronise the schedules of four busy divas. As their new show, Lilith: The Jungle Girl, opened at Melbourne Theatre Company, Declan and Ash found one free evening to join us for a conversation, and for this we are immensely, immensely grateful.

The conversation you are listening is very dear to our hearts, and not only because of the punk spirit in which it was recorded. These two men are dear friends of the Audio Stage team, extraordinary theatre-makers, and brilliant minds. While Sisters Grimm are easy to like for the dazzling wit and deceivingly effortless cool of their shows, there is real rigour in the thinking behind their work. It comes to the fore as they speak, eloquently and thoughtfully, about everything from the uneasy relationship that female celebrities have with their gay fanbase, to queer theory, and everything in between. And also: did you know that one of the greatest challenges you’re ever going to face in your life is how to fold a fitted sheet?

Discussed in this episode:
‘Fuck Howard’ as a theatre genre, the queer canon, RuPaul’s Drag Race, the use of rage in making theatre, the treasure trove that is YouTube, the role of Judy Garland in Stonewall riots, Pygmalion, how all theatre used to be shit, diva worship, Susan Sontag’s Notes on Camp, Sisters Grimm’ entire oeuvre, that time Declan Greene did drag in Berlin, Lilith: The Jungle Girl, why gay men love theatre, Australia’s colonial myths, cross-racial, -gender, and -everything casting, and how to fold a fitted sheet.

“Everyone is developing their own online persona – it is almost like recreating some sort of studio system, where you’re sending out your headshots to everyone, trying to get people to cast you in a show that’s never happening.”
– Ash Flanders

Enjoy and stay tuned: we have more exciting and stimulating conversations to come.

Podcast bibliography:
Chris Godfrey: When Drag is Activism, The Advocate, November 4, 2015
Timotheus Vermeulen and Robin van den Akker: Notes on Metamodernism, Journal of Aesthetics & Culture, Vol. 2, 2010
Susan Sontag: Against Interpretation: And Other Essays, 1964.
Toby Leon & Declan Greene: 8 Gigabytes of Hardcore Pornography: Barely Concealed Desperation, Not in Print podcast, Currency Press, May 4, 2014
Ben Neutze: Ash Flanders Brings YouTube to the Stage in Meme Girls, The Daily Review, April 9, 2015
Ben Neutze: Calpurnia Descending at Wharf 2 Theatre, December 12, 2014

For more information about Sisters Grimm and their work, check out their website.

Photo credits for the excellent image above: ISKA PHOTOGRAPHY.