The confronting power of ‘soft sci-fi’
The creators of The Irresistible let go of reality to undermine oppression
The Irresistible is all about what remains unseen. Drawing on science fiction references and key cultural moments, it confronts our unconscious biases and erodes established power structures.
Performer and co-creator Adriane Daff writes for Backstage about the forces and touchpoints that inform the final shape of the work.
The exercise of casting my mind back to what was going on when we were making The Irresistible is an interesting one. Because we made the show over a number of years there’s quite a smorgasbord of cultural references that influenced us, intrigued us and have left their own unique mark on the piece as it exists today. Here are some references that still ring loud and clear in my memory.
When Hillary Clinton lost the election
We started making the show in earnest in December 2016 and I remember this vividly. I (like many other women) was feeling particularly broken by the result of the American election and spent months having trouble putting into words what that was all about. I came across Nayyirah Waheed’s poem All the women. In me. Are Tired, I showed it to Zoe [Pepper - co-creator, director], it was a real ‘ah, this is it, this is how I feel’ moment. And then we actually played around with the idea in development, with Tim [Watts - co-creator, co-star] and I both pretending to be politicians giving the concession speech. We even spent some time exploring the story of Anthony Weiner and his wife Huma Abedin, who was one of Hilary Clinton’s aides. Weiner, you may remember, was at the centre of a number of sexting scandals and was the subject of a 2016 documentary about his mayoral campaign. It was revealing to spend some time with these fictitious versions of these real life people; one, a woman who was the most qualified candidate and still didn’t get the job and the other, a man who doggedly still ran the race for mayor despite being revealed as probably not a very good person for the job at all. Ultimately these explorations were a tool to get us closer to our story, but I still really feel that line from Waheed’s poem every time we perform.
Tim Watts and Adriane Daff in The Irresistible. Image: Dan Grant.
Unconscious gender bias and the #MeToo movement
It was probably no coincidence that the effect of Clinton’s loss was so keenly felt when we had been doing a lot of research into unconscious gender bias. What’s interesting is that the #MeToo movement would hit in October 2017 which was a couple of months after we debuted this work but it felt like something big was coming… We just didn’t know what. With The Irresistible we knew that we wanted to explore unconscious bias thematically; the trick was how to do it theatrically.
There’s something that Tim talks about when he makes shows: – he tries to find the show’s ‘kit’ – the tools or the toys that you are going to use that help you realise the show. For The Irresistible it was the microphones and the voice manipulation software. It meant that we could play multiple characters with just the push of a button and it was crucial in our exploration of gender bias.
What could I ‘get away with’ saying as a woman pretending to be a man that Tim couldn’t, and vice versa? How reasonable did I sound with a man’s voice when I had moments ago said the same lines with a woman’s voice and came off as hysterical?
Once we started to pull the thread on gender bias through using the microphones a whole bunch of ugly truths started to reveal themselves. Why was it so easy to make the male characters so damn interesting? Why was it hard to do that with the female characters? Why, when we got on the floor to improvise as pilots, did we immediately adopt the names ‘Peter’ and ‘Tom’? As three feminist people making a theatre show that specifically explored unconscious gender bias these realisations were horrific! Why was the story so hardwired in our brains to favour the male characters and their journeys? We had to really push back on that throughout the whole process – and it did feel like the beginning of starting to break the back of what we had perhaps previously just taken as a given story rule.
The OA and science fiction
We were all watching The OA during our December 2016 development and we referenced this show a lot. I would also say Brit Marling inspired us – the way she and Zal Batmanglij created such memorable characters in a very unique world. And the way that world had a mythology that you could tell came from a very rigorous process. As much as Tim and Zoe and I play around in the dark it’s never without rigor. Zoe’s got hard drives filled with hundreds of hours of footage that didn’t make this show either because it wasn’t right or it wasn’t good enough.
I think The OA also really took our fancy because we were interested in what we were calling a ‘soft sci-fi’ genre for The Irresistible. We watched a lot of movies and Zoe played the soundtrack from Midnight Special a lot when we were improvising – so there were lots of ways that sci-fi started to sink into the process. When we say ‘soft sci-fi’ we mean a nod towards the genre without letting it overtake the show. We liked the aesthetic, we liked how much fun we could have with it and we like what the genre made possible. Recently when The OA wasn’t renewed by Netflix for a third season, Marling released a statement. She said: “Science fiction wiped this ‘real’ world clean like an Etch-A-Sketch. Science fiction said imagine anything in its place… Step into another world and feel free in it.” That freedom was something we had to allow ourselves to make The Irresistible. It’s also something we hope the audience can engage with; once you let go of the ‘rules’ of our real world you open yourself up to the possibility that anything is possible. Which is a really beautiful thing when you’re trying to expose insidious patterns of thought and systems that have kept lots of people oppressed for a very long time.
The Irresistible plays in the Sydney Opera House Studio from September 11 - 15 as part of UnWrapped.
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