Content warning: This article refers to sexual misconduct which readers may find distressing.
Off the back of astonishing international success with her play Prima Facie, Suzie Miller returned to the Rex Cramphorn Performance Research Studio at the Univeristy of Sydney to workshop her latest Griffin Theatre Company project: Jailbaby.
Suzie Miller's first play since Prima Facie (which won the Olivier Award for best new play in London), Jailbaby is a completely different tune, and not for the fainthearted. It is gruff, gut-churning, and punctuated with well-placed profanity. Another play from Miller about the confronting reality of rape, Jailbaby brings to light the hidden and suppressed sexual violence that occurs in prison against younger male inmates, and the justice system that chooses to turn a blind eye.
…theatre has the power to challenge us, shock us, and permanently alter us.
While Theatre and Performance Studies research student Bridget Mac Eochagain was writing a chapter for her PhD on Prima Facie, she had the privilege of sitting in on two rehearsal days with the cast and crew. The two days contrasted each other well: one where the team was in the script editing phase, and the other after they had transitioned to ‘on the floor’ rehearsals. For Bridget it was fascinating to observe everyone in the room working together to transform a profoundly challenging story into a compelling stage performance.
The process comprised interrogating character motivations and idiosyncrasies, implementing ways to build tension (and pacing), discussing how to best convey meaning through voice and body, as well as creating tangible character connections. The team’s expertise flowed into the characters, the story, and the message behind the play—that rape is harrowing and violent, and something needs to be done about it. The hard work of the team led the rehearsals’ mechanics and translated to ‘magic’ on the stage.
One thing that stuck out to me clearly was the invisible work happening in the space when formal rehearsals weren’t happening: a safe, supportive and, at times, fun culture was being fostered amongst the team.
The connections made within the team in the room were clear— they were at ease with each other and comfortable sharing their ideas within the space. They were able to laugh and joke around at times, especially when they needed to release the tension of a particularly intense scene. This is key in a play like Jailbaby, where the actors are frequently unpacking something as affecting as rape on stage, often repeatedly until they get it right.
When the creative team reached a particularly intense scene, they turned to Bridget and flagged a trigger warning, explaining that it would be a difficult scene to listen to. One might assume that a PhD student who researches and writes about sexual abuse in a theatre context daily would be somewhat desensitised to the confronting theme. And yet, Bridget was taken aback by the sheer violence being described before her, even in the readthrough.
It was clear, graphic, and utterly devastating. Miller asked me afterwards what I thought of it and my answer was “visceral, in the best possible way."
Bridget was impressed by Griffin’s commitment to its duty of care, making everyone's wellbeing in the rehearsal room a key priority: from trigger warnings, a ‘closed’ rehearsal space, frequent check-ins of “are you okay to do this scene again?”, to specialist consultants’ intimacy training for the actors.
Her research question asks: is there a right way or a wrong way to stage a rape? For the rehearsal process the question felt most pertinent to consider answering. It is a lingering thought for contemporary theatre practitioners in staging sexual violence, and it appears as subtext at the forefront of the creative process for Jailbaby. How can they tell this story to make an impact? And what is the impact they are searching for?
The PhD candidate predicts the play will affect the audience long after its run is over. The Griffin Theatre Company promoted Jailbaby as ‘a light shone on our darkest injustices’. For Bridget, the play illustrates the pervasiveness of sexual violence, and ultimately how theatre has the power to challenge us, shock us, and permanently alter us.
The rehearsals were an immensely valuable process for Bridget to observe, and she would like to thank Suzie Miller and the Griffin Theatre Co. team for the invitation to join the supportive and energetic rehearsal room.
This news story has been adapted from an article by Bridget Mac Eochagain, PhD student, Theatre and Performance Studies, for ACE Magazine, Spring 2023 published by the School of Art, Communication and English.
Banner photo: Theatre and Performance Studies students with playwright Suzie Miller (fourth from left) and Associate Professor Laura Ginters. Photos by Stefanie Zingsheim.