Archive | January, 2023


14 Jan

Othering is a sharing by Debra Keenahan of what it is to live as a dwarf. This is theatre as non-fiction.

Othering bears testimony to injustice, adversity and hope. Keenahan has an absolutely beautiful stage presence – warm and humorous, generous and wise.

Keenahan wants not to be othered, that is, wants not to be perceived as fundamentally different. To be othered is a step to dehumanisation. Her claim to equal dignity is magically paired with a pride in who she particularly is. In a playful sequence that begins the show, we’re encouraged to repeat after the performer the word ‘dwarf’. No need for discomfort; diversity in body shape is simply a fact of life. (I will add that the word ‘othered’ has an interesting history. It was virtually non-existent until the mid 1980’s, and before that it was not uncommon for progressives to use a variation of the term in a very different way. They spoke of ‘granting otherness’, that is acknowledging that other individuals were not in any way beholden to our assumptions about them. But every work of art must function within its context.)

In the second half of the performance, Keenahan employs another trope of contemporary theatre making – moving away from the personal to focus on theory. Keenahan’s experience is placed within a framework of cultural studies. With the aid of voice over and projection, we’re offered a fascinating potted history of the representation of dwarfs, from classical times through the Renaissance and the Victorian freak show to contemporary pop culture. The majority of these representations are negative, condescending or downright debasing. Keenahan asserts these representations have facilitated ongoing discrimination and injustice, and that’s no doubt true. (I’d add that the discussion of representation in cultural studies often downplays the audiences’ ability to discern; after all, art tells us as much about the artist – if not more – than it tells us about reality.  And when non-fiction addresses fiction there can be a disconcerting sense of being witness to the meeting of two mutually incomprehensible languages.)

Director Katrina Douglas creates a stage world which affirms Keenahan’s glorious truth telling. The set by her designer, Kate Shanahan, not only facilitates projection but impressively evokes maternity ward, surgical ward and circus tent. The sound design of Paul Prestipino effectively highlights both the ominous and the wondrous.

Any contemporary production with the aim of promoting justice faces an existential challenge. In a pluralistic society like ours, what are the shared values that ultimately enable the achievement of the desired justice? This production reaches for what it hopes will be unalienable and self-evident; Keenahan makes close reference to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. (And prior to the particular performance I attended there was both a welcome to country and two separate acknowledgements of country. Recently a good friend, a wonderful playwright, queried my occasional reference in my reviews to welcomes and acknowledgements of country. He wondered whether I questioned their value. I do not. But I do think they’ll only have value if we continue to discuss them.) This production follows the belief that the consensus required to achieve justice for the marginalised might derive from the repetition of value statements or of aspirational statements.

But, much more powerfully, it does what live performance can do so brilliantly; it presents us with a real person whose truth is undeniable, and who we refuse to hear only at risk of diminishment of our own humanity.

Paul Gilchrist

Othering by Debra Keenahan

13 – 15 January at Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre (as part of the Sydney Festival)

Image by Robert Brindley