Tough Beauty

“There’s the girl who’s new. There’s the quiet girl. There’s the girl with no boyfriend. And the one with too many. There’s the girl who looks different, the girl who’s asking for it. And there’s the girl who’s just… just looking at me wrong. She doesn’t even know she is – but she is. And then there’s me. The girl who’s scared of nothing. The girl they say rumours about.”

The world is a brutal place. Always has been. The fight to survive has been competitive, relentless and has lead us to the here and now. Technically, if we are as Darwin suggest the fittest who have managed to survive – the survivors are fighters. The survivors are brutal. Survivors of society – us who are walking around – are charged with genes honed to fight, programmed with the need to survive at all costs. We are all, in some way, fighters – who and what and when we fight varies – but all of us have that instinct driving the human race forward.

My relationship with this play – is not, as you would assume- because of my current job. In fact my interest in my current job came from this play.

Some years ago I ventured to Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre with my brief case, my bleary morning eyes, and a burning sense of curiosity – and two coffees: one for me, the other for playwright Caleb Lewis. I was finally making it to CPAC – the place that stole Independent Theatre’s darling Lyn Wallis away from B-Sharp. I didn’t really know what to expect, or where this was – all I had heard was that there was a play being developed there by written by Finegan Kruckemeyer and directed by Claudia Chidiac. And me – at that time who was spending all of my time chasing and hunting for the new great Australian play, couldn’t resist the idea of the project.

Women are brutal. I have experienced first hand the acidic tongue, the two-faced manipulation of high-school politics and bullying. The fury of a woman scorned is well known and well documented. The crisp and icy status play is well known terrain in the theatre, as in life. What hasn’t been explored, on stage in Australia (to my knowledge) is the rise of violent behaviour amongst young women.

To bring this issue into clear focus, there is no-one better than director, devisor and theatre maker Claudia Chidiac – a woman whose process is synonymous with integrity and curiosity.

Tough Beauty is the reason why I first stepped into CPAC.

Years later, after bumping into Claudia in foyers to hear how the progress with the show is going… tonight I sat next to her in the beautiful theatre, where I, got the rare and inconceivably astounding honour of seeing Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre’s first ever in-house production- fully commission, developed, produced and directed in-house. And I have to admit that through my teary eyes and goosebump reactions, I felt in awe of the majestic feat of these artists – Claudia, Fin – to stick to an idea a notion that has long burned within them to say something about the world, which isn’t easy, and certainly not “nice.” Here are two artists who have something to say about the world – beyond a clever interpretation of Chekhov or an overly designed Shakespeare.

This is what our theatre is about. It’s about being provoked by a burning, timely question that demands to be asked.

And as good plays should the conversation around this play has a foyer buzzing.

Is this REALLY happening?

Young women are proud to be violent??

Why is it that YouTube fills up with clips of school yard fights between females?

What is this phenomena?

What are the causes and catalysts?

Who is to blame?

Has this always been so?

When did it start?

Conversations about teen sexuality were recently inspired by Lachlan Philpott’s award winning Truck Stop was a concise and devastating portrait of the prevalence of sexualised media and portrayals of sexuality through popular culture. Here, in Tough Beauty Finegan Kruckemeyer presents a world of brutality – physical brutality – one which is unashamedly about seeing people as “meat” – about territorial pride. About the things that people to to make them feel safer, or more alive or like they are survivors, or bigger or better. About the visceral feeling of the pre-fight rush – fight culture: fight culture in the digital age.

The most alarming aspect of this play is the after affects.

Brutality as the new celebrity – for the girl who isn’t smart, who isn’t beautiful – what does she have? “Put a smart girl, a pretty girl and a tough girl in a room… I’m just saying see what happens” And in this, the survival of the fittest, we see that survival is reduced to the bare basics of evolution.

Chidiac allows the pace of the production to slowly un-wind – creating nested scenes for performers Danielle Baynes, Kate Englefield, Rebecca Hitch, Nicole Dimitriadis and Karina Gonzalez to size each other up and knock each other down. Where the performances shine is where the naivete or the childhood innocence is maintained – namely through the bright and playful performance of Nicole Dimitriadis and self-reflective wonder of Danielle Baynes.

At the heart of the play is really a crisis about self – about what it means to be feel in control, to feel strong.

It is too simple to think that Tough Bauty is just a local story – or a teenage story – though it is true the roots of this exploration happened in local high schools. The problem of the play is that of “what does it mean to be powerful.” “What does it mean to survive?” “How does it feel to be powerful?”

Power and powerlessness is a fascinating terrain to explore – because those feelings are largely about actions associated with what others give you. To have control is to be self contained in action and influence – but to have power it is something given by others. Or is it?

The disturbing aspect of this play is not about gender, for me – though interesting due to it’s uniqueness. The disturbing aspect is the lack of compassion or empathy – that violence is a part of the landscape. That the violence is filmed and accepted as a part of the social mechanism of school life and it is now forever. Forever on the internet – the humiliation – the defeat – the shame. Once bruises fade, the psychological horror remains.

And then what do we do as a society? What will we do when our teenage selves are forever captured and trapped in shame and defeat? How do we grow into compassionate humans? How will we value vulnerability, authenticity, difference.

Tough Beauty is not an easy portrait of who we are. It’s not kind. It’s not nice. It’s primal. And this play, more than any other I have seen in recent times is a call to arms to find empowerment through compassion.

I am grateful for the fortitude and vision of Kruckmeyer and Chidiac – to tackle that which is not beautiful. And theatre is tough – it demands a huge investment of time, energy, faith, passion – it demands resilience and endurance. And all those who dare to see this side of contemporary “growing up” will not be without conversation about what this portrait means for us now, and in the future.