The creation of Bench Press a kitchen sink drama for MICF 2009 It was lost on my children Ruby and Jessica, when I said to them mummy is going to the Aldi supermarket to do a whole weeks shopping. They didn’t say but mummy mummy what if you bring home a wet suit a cordless drill and extendable garden shears instead of apples oranges and bananas. The children weren’t with me in the Aldo supermarket when I was looking everywhere for the yellow dishcloths that I can always find in Woolworths. They weren’t with me when all I could find on the shelf were packets of coloured sponges and those blue insipid things that are just a weak excuse for a dishcloth. I was shitting myself. This wasn’t just changing brands from one kind of yellow dishcloth to another. This was the most radical thing that i done in years. This was changing products altogether. I was going to be taking home a packet of coloured sponges- a new weapon against the war on crumbs. Until then I had never considered that the yellow dishcloth was deficient in its utility. Then I bought a packet of coloured sponges and I began to wipe the kitchen bench down. I was at once beguiled by the sponges hideously pockmarked exterior and enthralled by its underlying structure and strength.The wiping didn’t stop at the bench either.My home is mad cup of surfaces, undulating and smooth, wooden and laminated. I ripped in crooks and crevices, across nooks and crannies. Absorbent? Don’t get me started. I was standing at my kitchen bench with a pile of coloured sponges neatly arranged in front of me, feeling like there had never been a time before the bench. I had been there for what seems like a very long time: during the two pregnancies, the two births, the begetting of the mortgage, the cat, the dog, the guinea pigs, the rabbit, the backyard chooks and the veggie patch, all de rigueur acquisitions for a northern suburban Melbournian not for profit worker. There was of course other chunks of time though,all of this chunks feeling a very long time ago. There was the chunk of time pre bench, when I was in my late teens early twenties, the time just after I had left North East England. During that chunk of time I had travelled through Europe, hitching from city to city, with an older man, lurching from one crazy adventure after another.During that time a scab had formed on my elbow, from leaning against bars drinking lots of beers. I kept leaning even though I knew I was spiralling out of control and that the script for North by North East the 20/20 summit we had to have was already begin written. I was proud of the scab, to me it represented tenacity, something that I was able to do well. Having just failed year 12 twice, the ability to lean against a bar long enough for a scab to form on my elbow felt like an achievement. Now I was in my late 30’s clutching a coloured sponge and feeling like a legend. In the bench chunk of time there wasn’t a scab forming on my elbow from leaning against the bench, I tend to lean against the bench with my hip, rather than rest my elbow against it. Though there was no scab forming I felt like I had been at the bench for a very long time and it felt like i would never escape. In between making home baked items, wiping surfaces throughout the house and dealing with the endless teetering piles of crap that gathered on every surface, I gather the ingredients for my new comedy festival show: Bench Press a kitschen sink drama. Out of interest I email the other mums in my playgroup. I tell them that I am researching a new show about the kitchen bench. I ask them what their bench means to them. They reply: I don’t know why I leave the bench, it is the place I always end up going back to. Others say that there is never enough space on it and the bench is repository of all things domestic: school notices, utility bills, nail clippings. Then bench they say is the place where meals: some great, some not so are made, the place where toast crumbs gather and home baked items are made and presented at our weekly playgroup gatherings with aplomb. All of the playgroup mums say that they would like their bench to be bigger, but all concede that with more bench space will come the need to keep more bench space clean. We all wonder how much bench space is too much bench space. Another mum comments: If you have time to fold tea towels then you have too much time on your hands. Other mums describe their bench as begin the hub of the home, the nerve centre. Another mum throws into the mix: Do women use vibrators alone or in couples. The bench ,we all agree is where we spend a lot of time. I ask the play groupers if the bench is a good place to share gossip, there is much consternation about this: There should not be conversations that use facts that are known about others in a malicious manner. Words should not be hurtful Words should only be used in a productive manner and be an indication of who is in the group and who is not in the group. Furthermore the words that are said at the bench should only be said about another person if they can be said to their face, otherwise they should not be uttered at all. I conclude that the bench is the archetypal strong hold of women, their domain, their place to talk, to make cups of tea, to lean against and the place to yell out instructions to various members of the household: tidy your room, eat your dinner, resuscitate the god. I tell my mate Jenny that I am gestating anew show about the kitchen bench. A few days later she gifts me this fabulous little book by Gay Bilson called On Digestion. There is a passage in it that resonates:
Yet the largest bench, the one dividing the dining area from the kitchen it self, is never used for culinary preparation. It is the surface on which many Australians, including mine, fell they need to pile with books and journals, notepaper and pens. The surface where we are reinventing ourselves, constructing a different, self conscious culinary tradition. The show becomes a domestic drama. The bench press concept offers me a vehicle to do a show about domesticity and being at home with pre school child without having to do straight standup. I incorporate the idea that we have had first wave we have had second wave but we have now reached microwave feminism a quick theoretical frame work with publications from the bench press publishing house. To add authenticity to the new theoretical framework that is microwave feminism I ask my mate Clare who is a feminist historian to recommend the top ten must read seminal feminist texts. They include: Charlotte Perkins Gilman The Feminin Mystique, by Betty Freidan The Beauty Myth by Naomi Wolf The Great Feminist Denial by Monica Dux The Mommy Myth, the idealisation of motherhood and how it has undermined all women by Susan Douglas and Meredith Michael’s What women want next by Susan Maushart I extract lines from the texts: In my late 20’s I thought sex and a career would solve everything. At 30 I thought marriage would. Later I tried motherhood, therapy and then divorce. At 40 I decided to renovate. Together we can create a non sexist landscape that would liberate human energies rather than exaggerate gender differences. Breast feeding twins is fun Making soap from soap Seminal,radical, polemic and erudite. The great feminist denial puts an ailing feminist past to rest and porpoises a new way forward the offers young women of today a new way of calling them selves feminists. The Luna cycle and you New age mothering at any age Housework is creepy. I register the show Bench Press a kitschen sink drama for the 2009 Melbourne International Comedy Festival: Come for a rolling pin ride through first wave second wave right through to 21st Century microwave feminism. Bench Press is the new feminist publishing house, where saucy is just ketchup and the great tidal wave of crumbs is always met with a soggy dishcloth. I decide not to take a risk with the venue. I had my comedy toes burnt at Cape Live on Brunswick street and didn’t want to compete with another drummer. So I go back to the local government theatre venue: it’s safe, it’s quite expensive and it’s a little bit soulless. The show is inclusive: there is a cry baby session, an auslan signed session, wheelchair access arts comps and one nights proceeds are donated to the Darebin DOmestic violence network. The poster for the show is incredible. Do you like what I have done with your legs? Asks Danny. They are sleek, shiny and varicose free. I’ve photo shopped them, Danny tells me. Oh and I brought in your waist to accentuate it just a little to. Despite the recent ingestion of the seminal feminist texts talking all things objectification of women, having my legs photoshopped and my waistline adjusted slightly felt fantastic. I show the poster to a few mates: Oh can Danny photo shop me too they all ask?
Justine Sless presents Bench Press a kitschen sink drama
Whilst I wage the war on crumbs, I begin to write the first Microwave feminist manifesto. It has to be seminal, radical and ever so polemic. The sponges have to be central to the shows theme, as does junk mail because the Bench Press publications will be made from pushing junk mail though a blender and making paper out of paper.
I find it very soothing putting a show together. It stills me in the midst of making school lunches, doing the crèche run, being a community worker and keeping the teetering piles of crap in check.
Creating one joke, weaving a line, making one word work against another that is seemingly unrelated is meditative. My mind stills, as I focus only on the process. I am totally in the moment of creativity.
I spend ages on the first Bench Press publication. It is a take on Alison Leister’s book the Magic Beach. The first microwave manifesto is called The Magic Bench. Here is an excerpt:
At my bench my magical bench My husband never farts or snores Together we all clean the house And get paid rather a lot for doing the chores The sun is up and so are we, the beds are all made with glee. The Aldi sponges become the 21st Century equivalent of suffragettes pamphleteering. Within suburban vernacular a new term is embraced and that is known as the passing of the sponges. They are given ceremoniously to audience members along with a word of wisdom: Hurricane by Bob Dylan was my wedding song. I wouldn’t recommend it. The sponges are given poetic splendour, and threaded though out the script is: I took the sponges and the sponges took me to dark and dusty crevices. I took the sponges and the sponges took me, over ornaments and surfaces I wiped them all with glee. I demonstrate the utility of the sponge by taking two matching colours and place an elbow on each and say: Until you rest your elbows upon the sponge you can not possibly imagine how exquisitely exhausted they are.
I include an audio tour of the house incorporating lines from the seminal feminist texts: Every room in the house is made up of surfaces. There is a room over here with a queen size surface covered in an IKEA bed spread. A room over here with with a long timber surface, that is for eating off, and then after I have had four single malt whiskeys it is for table top dancing on. There is a small room over here with an undulating surface, that is for all of my unwanted hair. Surface everywhere just gathering stuff. I organise the stuff into groups and piles. Groups are made up of awkward shapes, snow globes, Nana’s stuff and trams. Piles are made up of flat things: school notices, uneaten pancakes and road kill. There is a painting over there,that was done by Ruby when she was 3 and had i not have had the foresight to label it mummy, daddy, Ruby then it would just look like a red wine stain on a cream carpet. Over here is slim pine surface holding all of the classics: The day my bum went psycho. Betty’s Feminine mystique, Susan Maushart’s what do women want next?, Are we there yet by Alison Leister and here’s one about creating a utopian non sexist landscape which will liberate human energies rather than exaggerate gender differences ,it’s a top read. One night there are 90 in the audience, another night there are 2. Doing the show in front of tow people both of them mates is excruciating, I feel like a complete dickhead. I offer to reimburse them their ticket money and suggest that we go out for beers instead, but they insist that I do the show for them.It’s really hard, but they listen and they laugh. I gallop through the whole thing just wising it were over. For one show I invite special guests/friends to the bench. Clare Wright, Rachel Power and Alice Garner. In other shows I had played a piece 1950’s style music, saying that was the soundtrack in my head when I bake. On the special guests night, the music in my head is played by Alice Garner. I don’t know that Alice is going to play a slow mournful piece on her cello. As she plays it my shoulders shake with laughter at the crazy hilarity of it all. Clare reads from Betty Friedan’s Feminine Mystique, Rachel reads from her book the divided heart about Art and Motherhood. The bench guests and I had not regard but magically it works. The ending for the show does not become apparent until 2 weeks into the season.Until then I had done this really lame thing of falling back into old material and just kind of drifting off stage. By week three I end on a line that I am satisfied with: When I bake and the smell of vanilla essence drifts through the house, I inhale deeply and I am invincible. It’s not a killer comedy line, but the show is a narrative and the line completes the story. Lots of mates come to see the show, they laugh and after the show we drink beers together. For three short weeks I am gliding on a performance induced high. I am completely euphoric, everything has this heightened almost drugged up feel to it. Things look sharper, clearer. I am more attuned to what is happening around me. Some nights when i go home late after a show and the house is quiet, i need three single malts to calm me down. I get a review: This is feminist satire at its best: restrained, subtle, intelligent, thought provoking and slightly insane. James and the kids come to see a show. James says very little about the show. The kids just want a sponge passed to them. Ruby yells out at one point when I am talking about, returning from the supermarket fearful because in my absence the children might have got creative with glitter and glue: That didn’t happen mum, Ruby yells out. It’s so endearing to be heckled by by your own child, because you have embellished the truth for the purposes of the joke. By the end of the season I have made a small profit, which I put towards Fringe registration. I don’t feel like I have fully resolved the sponge aspect of the show, so I want an opportunity to nut it out during fringe. I do a three show season at the Queen Victoria Women’s Centre in a small commercial kitchen, it seats 9 people. A judge from Fringe comes to a a show.As she walks out she says to the receptionist : Great just great, every now and again you see something that is just great. I am already writing the acceptance speech.But I don’t get an award or a nomination. I go up to Dayelsford to do the Words in Winter Festival. The venue is smaller than the year before and there are about 15 people in the audience.The Bench has gone bush and it is great. A much better performance than the year before, a world away in fact. It is a beautiful thing to take a show out of the suburbs. All I have to draw upon is my script and my steely reserve. I am a different person in that space. Not the sum total of my suburban life, the kids, the dishes, the marriage and the mortgage, but just a woman, standing in front of strangers trying to make them laugh. I know i have improved, Bench Press has some good material in it, it has a good story line about where feminism has come from and how much further it has to go. My friend Nilgun, who sat through many rehearsals says to me at one point: You know that you can’t be modest if you want to do comedy. I’m embarrassed by the comment, that it is so obvious, that whilst I want to do comedy I am at the same time ashamed. The desire to make the funnies, hear the laughter, take the applause feels like I am showing off. I try hard not to let the whole doing comedy thing impact on the family time or budget. I make fairly conservative financial decisions when I put a show together. If my hobby were buying italian leather shoes or gardening, the idea of making those hobbies break even is absurd. Writing and performing comedy presses all of my creative buttons, but I still feel like I have to justify it. I do wince though, because I feel like I am that 8 year old Girl Guide virtually pushing the other guides out of the way during the talent competition. Climbing on stage, doing a Frank Spencer impersonation, thrilled to get through to the next round and be able to impersonate Uncle Bulgaria from the Wombles. Almost bursting with happiness that I take out first prize, a monster block of Cadbury’s chocolate. When you are 8 years old and showing off a Girl Guides it’s kind of cute, in your late 30’s it feels childish, attention grabbing and immodest. Friends say again and again: You are so doing comedy, it takes such guts. I smile, but I think, not gutsy enough. The gutsy thing would be to throw away the day job, take on comedy full time, carve a living out of it. Doing shows in conservative local government theatre venues, to friends and family and the odd stranger doesn’t feel risky, it feels like I am just giving something a go, showing off and hearing what it sounds like out loud. Fiona O’loughlan is quoted as saying: You can debate till the cows come home, women have been socialised out of being funny. It is so ingrained in society, women are expected to be quieter. Our job is to be pretty and nice and quiet and a female doing stand up is none of those things. To begin with, stand up is such an odd thing to do as a profession. It’s a really self indulgent and crazy plan to set out to be a stand up comedian, and i think that boys just have a more hung ho attitude and are less bound by the rules of society than women. Women just tend to be more responsible, or more afraid. Responsible? Afraid? I am both. I want to take comedy by the horns, run and shriek like a mad harridan, banshee woman and cry: I am woman hear my jokes. Instead I do comedy all in the milieu of house wifery. I can’t abide doing comedy in comedy rooms, because I am not patient enough with the dominate male sank fest, even though I need the stage time. I don’t do interstate gigs, because I can’t do the travel. In Bench Press, I took the sponges and the sponges took me, but only to the next suburb and then once to rural Victoria, even then I was back the next day. It all feels so 1954. This chunk of time called the Bench Press years, is a time of a pinafored existence, with a bake light background and a few jokes thrown in for good measure. I imagined for a moment in between the lines of the review, that i had become someone else entirely, but really I was just me. Just me in a polka dot dress, spouting forth the existence of Microwave Feminism. I took people on an audio tour of my suburban house, I pillorised the playgroup mums, heaped scorn upon the scones. Then late at night I drink single malt and believe that I am a legend. I create a kitshcen sink drama, all the while ensuring that there is no ripple on the domestic front, it’s almost like I have not been away at all: the dinners still get cooked, the dishes get done and the laundry still gets folded. Microwave Feminism is meant to be a fast revolution, but who am I kidding? I don’t take out an award, I get a couple of nice reviews, I do the show in three different festivals. I don’t think that I quite nailed the passing of the sponges, or that I converted many audiences to ride the microwave of feminism, but I know that in a small increment my comedy has improved. When I started out doing comedy I thought that there would be a trajectory to fame and comedy fortune. Post show I am leaning against the bench, listening to Radio National and I hear a guy say that overnight success usually takes unto 7 years. I move some detritus from the bench onto another surface to make room for a new spiral bound notebook.