The radical reimagining of the suffragette movement, That Bloody Woman, is back for Auckland Live’s International Cabaret Season. Alex Casey spoke to Esther Stephens about her role as Kate Sheppard – and how, this year, Sheppard’s fight is more relevant than ever.
The night before the nation votes in this year’s general election, the spirit of Kate Sheppard will be raising hell in the Auckland Town Hall. Don’t call in a priest, it’s going to be fine, but maybe check you’re enrolled to vote because she’s mad as hell and she isn’t going to take your shit anymore. Back from the dead in the return season of Luke Di Somma and Gregory Cooper’s raucous rock musical That Bloody Woman, there’s perhaps no better political climate for our Kate to be returning to, studded leather jacket in tow.
If you think a punk-inspired musical about Kate Sheppard sounds corny, so did its star Esther Stephens when she first got passed the brief. So did I, before I saw it for myself and came out of the theatre wanting to howl at the moon or do something even more subversive like ride a bike wearing turn-of-the-century bloomers, apparently a very shocking choice for a lady. It’s relentlessly fierce and funny, and a bold stake in the ground for an important part of New Zealand’s history that we don’t celebrate anywhere near enough.
As the punishingly catchy lyrics remind us, this show is more than history, this is more than her story, and there’s a lot that we can learn in 2017 from 1893. Ahead of its return as part of Auckland Live’s International Cabaret Season, I sat down with Esther and her cat George in her Meadowbank home to talk about becoming Kate, stuffing her hair and stuffing the patriarchy.
Way back when you first started work on That Bloody Woman, what resources did you use to get a vibe on Kate?
I was left wondering a bit at the start. I found a secondhand copy of her biography online and started reading that, only to find that it was a bit hard-going and pretty dry. I also found a really great docu-drama made by Peter Burger for TVNZ that was called What Really Happened: Votes for Women where Sara Wiseman plays Kate Sheppard. That was actually a really useful, easily-digestible format to start with.
It helps that the nature of the show is not so much a historical retelling of Kate Sheppard’s life – people would be asleep if it was. No shade to Kate, and not to diminish her accomplishments, but the truth is that woman got the vote in New Zealand by sitting in their drawing rooms, writing a lot of letters and having a lot of perseverance. That doesn’t quite have the same dramatic flair as the women throwing themselves in front of horses at Ascot.
Probably the most scandalous thing was that women did actually get abused in the street and heckled for daring to ride a bike in public. That was about as dramatic as it got, so what Luke [di Somma] and Gregory [Cooper] have done is reimagine the story and her character in a way that makes her more accessible. In way it’s a bit like Horrible Histories, or Drunk History, where the facts are all true but it’s just re-interpreted.
I learned a lot from the show, and around the same time I saw the movie Suffragette, and was baffled by how little I knew about this part of history. Did you feel the same, like you had been missing something huge?
Totally. I don’t even remember looking at Kate Sheppard in depth at school, outside of learning who was on each bank note for about 10 minutes. Without spoiling it too much, one of the most compelling moments and pieces of information from the show comes right in the final moments, where we acknowledge the sheer number of signatures that were on that final petition that went all the way to Parliament.
As both a performer and an audience member, when you take in the magnitude of that moment, I think that’s a really new feeling for a lot of people. People don’t realise just how much leg work went into it, and that it was the effort of all these individual women having their say for the very first time in their lives. They were up against King Dick saying that women were “quiescent”, that there was no indication that they even wanted a change. So women were like “okay, is that what you really think?”
I know that final moment in the show that you are referring to and I want you to know that I wept so much when it happened.
Oh, I weep too. I think about all those women – the housewives who had husbands that weren’t good to them, the women who had to sign petitions in secret so their families didn’t know – all those quiet contributions that created a massive mountain of change. Every night it feels like they are on stage with us, it’s absolutely magic. It’s not often that a production becomes bigger than the performers, bigger than the set and crosses into real life and real history like that.
It’s always interesting watching people go on the journey with us every night, because we draw them in with the over the top, comedic show. When the heart of the show is revealed, you can see people slowly start to realise. Frequently in our curtain call we’d look out and see the faces of the people – women especially – just bawling and being so moved.
There are so many parts of the show that are impressive, but costuming in particular is extraordinary and I was very obsessed with your K Shep hair do. How do you do it every night?
It took a bit of practice, but last year I got it down pretty quickly. The hair basically comes down to stuffing. I created this piece of stuffing with some weft clips on it so I can section my hair, put the stuffing in it and then flip my hair over it. I can do that in 10 minutes rather than teasing it out every night. Stuffing: that’s the answer. Stuff an old stocking in a sausage shape and clip it in.
The costuming is remarkable, and up close they are even more incredible. Our costume designer didn’t cut any corners. The leather jacket is leather, the silk dress is silk, it’s all really special. I kind of have to pack myself into all the layers at the start of the show, because one of the starting concepts was this idea that the performers would have everything on them already that they would need to execute the show.
On paper, a historical punk musical might sound off-putting to people who might be scared of musicals. How do you sell it to wary folk?
People are right to be afraid of musicals: there are a lot of terrible musicals out there. What I always do to reassure people is that there is a heavy dose of cabaret in this show – because so much of it is direct address. It’s much closer to cabaret than a seventh-form production of Grease. Also, I am really interested in the idea of gig theatre, which is shows that straddle the territory of theatre and a more traditional gig with a band at a bar. I think there’s some unchartered water there between music and storytelling.
We don’t always have people bursting into song and gushing about how much they love the other person. I think that’s what people can’t stand, that stuff can be very cringey. It’s a fabulous score and the songs are very strong lyrically as well – a lot of it is lifted straight from Kate’s own words. Some of those lines always feel like the most resonant. There’s one towards the end of the show that always sticks out to me, “you don’t oppress people because you want to protect them, you oppress them because you’re scared of them.”
A bit of trepidation is not a bad thing though. Even if you still think it sounds weird, just come and witness the mayhem.
The return season is also arriving into a much hotter political climate as well, will that change anything about the show?
Doing the show this year will be very interesting given the context of Jacinda Ardern. The media has played into every single trope about how women in power are treated in the public eye – which is also one of the themes of the show. It was so hilariously predictable to have people clamouring to know when she’s going to have kids within hours. I just find that kind of misogyny so hilariously dated, and whenever you encounter it it seems like such a relic.
This is one of the important things about our show, it’s about telling the story of these women with respect and creativity. We’ve got our trailblazing women and we need to acknowledge them and preserve their legacy. Kate’s just come back to remind us – or tell us for the first time – what actually happened, but also remind us of the work that still needs to be done. It’s important that all New Zealanders come and see this show and feel proud of what was achieved and what it stands for.
That’s my real hope, that people will leave and talk to each other about the show. I remember seeing these middle-aged women in Christchurch having these really animated conversations with each other afterwards, and in their eyes you can see them starting to unpack parts of their identity as New Zealand women that maybe they hadn’t considered before.
Alcohol abuse has a huge presence in the show, and played such a big part in spurring on the suffrage movement. Votes aside, has New Zealand actually gotten any better when it comes to drinking?
Not a lot has changed unfortunately, and it’s important to bring that stuff up to give more to the context around why women wanted the vote. It’s not just because they wanted to do heaps of nagging and talking, it’s because they wanted to see change in their communities. When you see the pamphlets and the things these women were presenting, the main point was that women simply bring a different perspective to the world.
The huge issues at the time were domestic violence and alcohol, and women obviously had a different perspective to men. Drinking is just so embedded in our own cultural psyche. The link with drinking and rugby and traditional ideas around masculinity. There’s the expectation you have to drink yourself into a coma when you turn 21 and somehow that’s your rite of passage. Congratulations, you’ve got your stomach pumped, now you are an adult human. It’s massively damaging.
Big question: what do you think Kate Sheppard would think of the state of New Zealand now?
That is one of the central questions of the show. I think she would be proud of some things and disappointed in others. I’m sure she would be appalled by some of the news articles that have come out of our country; there was one day where there four or five stories that I found so disheartening. One was about the gymnastics performers in Kingsland ahead of the rugby. You read stuff like that and it just feels so heartbreaking and dated that this still happens in 2017. I’m sure Kate would have plenty to say about the treatment of women.
Also, there’s no shortage of petitions floating around at the moment, which she’d be into.
She’d definitely be all for it. Go to town. Be a keyboard activist, do whatever you need to do. But just make sure that you vote. Make you you go out and vote in the election. At the end of the day, that’s what is really, really important. Complacency is a luxury of the privileged, if you’ve never had to fight to have a say then it’s a lot easier for you to say that politics is a mess and not worth it. You live in a democracy, you benefit from a democracy, so you might as well participate in that democracy. That’s the very least you can do, to exercise that right that these women fought for, and that some people still don’t have in 2017.
Get ready to stay out late, set your senses alight, fall head over heels, and go a little bit wild this Auckland Live International Cabaret Season (14 September to 1 October). A suite of international and local provocateurs and cultural icons will be unleashed across the city centre, over 18 evocative nights. Get your tickets today.