“And that’s the thing we think hasn’t been talked about a lot in this moment. So that’s what we went looking for and we wanted to hear the real deal.”
Midwinter Pitt set about gathering the stories of nine Australian women – from former prime minister Julia Gillard to Catholic nun Sister Patricia Madigan, sexual harassment campaigner Nikki Keating and AFL champion Erin Phillips – and the result is I’m With Her, a first-person piece of theatre that celebrates women who, in the manner of the TV show Survivor, have outwitted, outlasted and outplayed the patriarchy.
“It’s been a bigger job than I thought it would be,” says Midwinter Pitt, who spent up to nine hours interviewing all of the women except Gillard, who she emailed. “I wanted to find a really big range of women in terms of ethnicity, background, profession and age. So the youngest women who contributes to our stories is in her early 20s and the oldest is 91.”
The most high-profile is Gillard, who Midwinter Pitt first met when she interviewed the former PM for the 2016 documentary Afghanistan: Inside Australia’s War.
“One of the things I knew from speaking to her was this idea that it’s a double-edged sword for her,” says Midwinter Pitt. “She constantly gets asked – all of her speaking engagements are ‘Tell us all the mean shit that was said about you and tell us about how you kicked Tony Abbott in the nuts’ – and it’s a frustration for her, because she thinks it’s another story.”
For Deborah Galanos, who plays Gillard and Labor MP Anne Aly, one of the great benefits of preparing for the show has been watching footage of the two women in Parliament. “How they operate, how they manage, how they cope – they are incredibly strong women and you just think, ‘Wow, I’m learning a lot about resilience, inner strength and power.’ ”
The treatment of Gillard still rankles Midwinter Pitt, who believes her story is “the elephant in the room” when Australian women “talk about equality and power and taking our full place in the world”.
“That’s the thing – we all want to believe we can do anything,” says Midwinter Pitt. “But unfortunately we’ve been witness to the spectacle of our first female prime minister being torn down in a way that was very personal and hostile at a level that doesn’t feel safe.
“In my skin, when I think about what happened to her, I don’t just feel angry, there’s something in me that feels slightly unsafe. That’s the truth. I knew there would be a story I didn’t understand yet and that’s what I was really interested in.”
And while Gillard’s story is the most familiar, one of the less recognisable stories is that of Julie Bates AO.
“I’m very honoured to be chosen to be part of the show,” says Bates, who became an officer of the Order of Australia in 2018 for her work championing the rights of sex workers and educating against the spread of AIDS/HIV.
“From a sex worker perspective, my perspective, we are the epitome of resistance and resilience … We are deemed unworthy, generally, so here’s a chance to fight back and I’m loving it.”
Bates’ own story of resistance started not far from where we are sitting for this interview: in Woolloomooloo in the 1980s. “One cold winter’s night, on the corner if William and Bourke, I rose up. The Salvation Army came by, one more cup of cold tea and sympathy, and I was back to where I’d been and going, ‘Well, I’ve got to do something about that.’”
That something was to resurrect the Australian Prostitutes Collective, which continues today as the Sex Workers Outreach Project. Established in 1983, it is the “longest-running continually funded sex-worker mob on the planet”.
At this, Midwinter Pitt jumps in: “You can hear everything that stands up in that story about resistance, about self-respect, about clarity about those things. And there’s another very special piece of the puzzle that Julie and the women she works with can add, is that the sex workers can teach other women a lot. In [Julie’s] words, they are the queens on setting boundaries.”
While Bates and Midwinter Pitt have known each other since they worked together on the 2007 documentary Rampant: How a City Stopped a Plague, it was former world surfing champion Pam Burridge’s story who first drew Midwinter Pitt into the project.
“I remember hearing Pam Burridge talk about how … there was this change in surfing culture [in Australia in the 1970s] and the girls just got kicked off the waves,” she says. “And within four or five years, if you went down to the beach, the only women on the beach were in bikinis sitting on the sand and you would have sworn, ‘Oh girls just don’t surf.’ And the madness of that always stayed with me. You can’t defend that, it’s outrageous.
“And I remember her talking about it and then her own path through professional surfing. That kind of pulse interested me from the beginning.”
Shakira Clanton takes on the role of Burridge, along with that of respected Indigenous academic Marcia Langton. She says she admires Burridge’s “quiet strength” but with Langton “the hammer’s down,” she says, laughing.
“But it needs to be, because it’s been bottled for so long and it’s so powerful, and it’s relieving and heartbreaking to be playing it. Marcia representing the indigenous women’s voice is huge and heartbreaking in a beautiful way. It’s much needed – she’s very, very strong and very, very powerful and I would not want to be in her way.
“I’m very grateful to be able to represent [the Indigenous voice] – because I’m speaking not only for me, but thousands of young Indigenous women who don’t have their voices heard or think they can’t speak because they’ve been told to be quiet or told their problem isn’t really a problem.
“Just being able to say our pathway has not been easy, and this is why and why we are wanting to change it. We are a force to be reckoned with, let our voices be heard too, because they are just as important as anyone else is this room.”
And while the #MeToo movement has gathered some high-profile scalps in the US, in Australia the progress has been more muted, but that doesn’t women aren’t talking and telling their stories in private, believes Midwinter Pitt.
“The great revelation of this was how many women didn’t want to speak publicly,” she says. “If we had been making this show in the United States, it would have been so much easier. It tells you a lot about the actual consequences, the real consequences, of our defamation laws and the trickle down from that.
“There’s a culture of “Shhh”, it’s not a smart thing to speak, which is horrifying. So on a private level, I think women do talk to each other, in terms of speaking publicly, the risks that it carries are significant. So these are very special women who have stepped into the space with us.”
But lest anyone think this is a night of worthy theatre – the kind of dull but good for you night out – Midwinter Pitt has three words for you: It’s the truth.
“This is not some kind of women’s group – not that there’s anything wrong with a women’s group – but it’s not some kind of ‘how to be stronger, burn our knickers, find your self-esteem’ [group]. It’s the real deal.
“I think the audience will sit there and go, ‘Oh my god’ and ‘Oh, that’s me, too. I do that, too.’ There’s nothing worthy about it, it’s the shock of the familiar, the shock of the real.”
I’m With Her is at the Eternity Playhouse, Darlinghurst, from November 9 to December 1.
Louise is Editor of S and TV Liftout at The Sun-Herald