INTERVIEW: 7 Questions with Hellie Turner for Project Xan
A long time in the making, Project Xan, a powerful performance documentary, is coming to PICA performance space in November. The result of a five year collaboration between playwright Hellie Turner and Xan Fraser, Project Xan brings Fraser’s story to light: a young girl becomes intoxicated to the point of unconsciousness and is violated by three young men. Throughout the subsequent trial, she is subject to victim-blaming while the young men get a ‘slap on the wrist.’ Writer/director Hellie Turner tells us how the project came about, and how she and the creative team have approached this very difficult territory.
You have been working with Xan Fraser for five years on telling this story. Could you describe to us how this collaboration came about?
Back in 2012 I participated in a long-term residency with nationally acclaimed documentary theatre ensemble Version 1.0, which was originally founded by David Williams. At the conclusion of my time in Sydney I was seeking a project idea to bring back to Perth. By chance I saw a program featuring Xan’s story on the 7.30 Report, the injustices of which moved me deeply. I then approached her personally with the idea that I might use theatre to give her a voice. We talked, she thought about it, we talked some more, she thought some more … and eventually she trusted me enough to say yes. Over the 5 years our friendship has deepened considerably.
What are some of the key considerations for you as a writer and director in getting this story to the stage?
Xan’s story forms the spine of a work that examines various toxic elements of our lived experience … the factors which enable sexual assault to occur ad nauseum, then allows a culture of victim blaming and slut shaming to flourish in its wake. Firstly I needed to earn Xan’s trust. She needed to know that she was safe within the development process … that we would treat her and her story with respect. Then, along with Siobhan Dow-Hall I had to tackle a deep exploration of all things, past and present, that seemingly underpin rape culture. And finally we needed to dissect the court transcripts from Xan’s 1982 trial. A distasteful smorgasbord, to say the least. All members of the team had to be thoughtfully selected for their emotional intelligence, creative abilities and willingness to engage mindfully with the material. To make a stage-worthy work, and acquire the required funding were both primary concerns, but each stage of the process was kindly supported by DCA, PICA and the Blue Room LOFT funding.
What kind of involvement has Dr David Williams had as dramaturg? At what stage in the process did he come into it, and what perspectives has he been able to offer?
David has been involved since the idea was first seeded … originally as consultant regarding the documentary theatre elements of the show and later as dramaturge for the script. He has flown into Perth for the previous developments, and maintained periodic contact with the team throughout the long process of constructing the show. David is a well-credited practitioner of the form, and he was an exceptional ‘devil’s advocate’ when we were formulating show content.
Victim-blaming, slut-shaming, rape culture, these are hot-button issues, particularly at the moment. Do you feel that there’s been progress and increased awareness of these since the time this story is based in?
These are deeply embedded issues which have their ancient roots firmly planted in gender disparities and the suppression of difference. More recently there’s been a growing willingness to confront the problems. When we first began putting Project Xan together there was an undercurrent of dissent against the status quo. Lately the protest has been much louder. A few months ago there was public outrage about the availability of a T-shirt on the web, which said ‘Keep calm and rape a lot!’ It was subsequently removed from sale. People are seemingly starting to realise … one hopes so anyway.
How was the creative team assembled, both the cast and design team? Are you working with past collaborators and/or new collaborators?
A mix really. Chris Donnelly, our lighting designer worked for me previously on a ‘kompany M’ tour, and Ash Gibson-Greig composed the music for my play Mad Fred. I was formerly acquainted with Nancy Jones’ terrific audiovisual work, and also with Lawrie Cullen-Tait’s intelligent theatre designs. Siobhan Dow-Hall, Daisy Coyle, Nick Maclaine and Marko Jovanovic are all fine performers whose work I admire. I was also aware that Siobhan was interested in creating social-issue theatre. In addition, I have a tenacious producer and an indefatigable stage manager. Despite the onerous undertaking we’ve shared, there has always been a good deal of generosity and respect in the room, which is ultimately why the project has lasted the distance.
What discoveries have you and the creative team made throughout the process of creating this show?
That this type of theatre requires tenacity and commitment.
That we all have stories related to the themes of the work.
That we are all responsible for changing the culture.
That fun and sugar help to ease the gravity of the task.
Ostensibly the piece has a very heavy burden to carry – are you able to find lightness in it, or a sense of hope?
We have tried to do this … however the work embodies more shade than light because it is mostly about an ugly truth. Despite that, Xan herself is the personification of hope. This remarkable survivor tells her story simply … with authentic grace and determined dignity.
Project Xan is a world premiere presented by PICA and Jedda Productions from 8 – 19 November. For more information and tickets, visit the PICA website here.