INTERVIEW: Susie Conte || The Communists are in the Funhouse


Hysteria. The word’s etymology stems from the Greek word for ‘uterus’, and for centuries, it was used to medically diagnose a range of female problems; in extreme cases a diagnosis of female hysteria meant the sufferer would be dumped in an asylum or have her uterus removed. Of course, now we know better, but there’s still a lot of shame around talking openly and publicly about periods, and illnesses, syndromes and disorders involving the female anatomy. Women’s bodies are still seen as a deviation from the male ‘standard’ and therefore, abnormal, and not worthy of frank, direct discussion. Well, tempest theatre director Susie Conte is here to challenge that. She and her collaborators are about to present a show that confronts the taboos around women’s bodies and sparks open dialogue. She takes a moment to answer a few questions about The Communists are in the Funhouse, which opens next week at Subiaco Arts Centre.

There are so many euphemisms, as you’ve said, for women’s periods. What made you choose this particular one for your show title?

I liked the power and urgency of the euphemism. It is political and bold. The other euphemisms were trying to be funny or clever or gross. The Communists are the medical system and societal pressures to be quiet and conform. The funhouse is the womb, and gave me a perfect theatrical motif of a circus. The show is based around those major concepts. Shows about periods tend to head down the overt comedy route. I was more interested in the profound personal, social and cultural impact of women and their pain.


Where did the motivation to create a show around endometriosis begin, and how has it evolved since the idea’s inception?

I was diagnosed after awful pelvic pain and miscarriages. I started to read up on the subject for my own information and I was struck by how medieval and torturous many medical treatments were, even into the twentieth century. How women were labelled hysterical and subjected to heinous acts, even accused of being witches and burned at the stake. I was amazed that I didn’t know the history and how it ties into witches, leeches, fumigation and psychology and how you can chart the medical history of women through the womb. It can take 10 years to be diagnosed with endometriosis. Workshopping the idea for a few months allowed me to pin down a structural concept out of such a large idea. My cast and crew were instrumental in giving me the confidence and the freedom to be bolder in the work.


How did you find your cast and co-collaborators for Communists, and what has your creative process looked like – did you try any new or unfamiliar methods to tease out the show’s content?

I actively sought out actors from different walks of life, and ages. It is important to me that different actors are urged to participate in new work. It creates a more rigorous work when you don’t have the same people working with you in the room all the time. I wanted an ensemble that would be free to share their difficult stories in a safe environment and who would trust me to tell their stories well. We worked more collaboratively than I have ever done. I really feel the result will show how invested everyone is in the story. My ensemble is bold, fierce, brave, funny and absolute rock stars. I am so proud of them.


You’ve now firmly branded tempest as a feminist theatre company; how did that decision come about and have you had any feedback from the theatre community or general public about it?

I always wanted to have a theatre company that would be female-centric. 2016 was a watershed moment. I got angry at politics and how women globally were being treated. How our rights seemed to be going backwards. This was always the case but I felt compelled to do more.  I realised how important positioning women’s stories at the centre of what I did was the right thing to do and I actively chose to call myself a feminist company. I have been asked countless times if I am alienating a section of my audience by calling my company feminist. Not to be flippant, but I don’t mind. The arts should be bold and different and take a position. I don’t want to be polite. I want to spark a reaction. I have had feedback from many fellow female artists that the work I am trying to do is important. Opening an all-female Fringe World venue, telling women’s stories, mentoring a new generation, sustaining and supporting existing female artists, adding to a gender conversation that is important – this is exciting and feels urgent and necessary.


What do you hope most to communicate to audiences who come to see Communists, and how do you hope people will respond after they’ve seen it?

I hope the audience will find the show interesting, confronting, visually beautiful, and that it will open a dialogue about how we harness our uncomfortable hidden stories. To quote the show, 800 million women a day menstruate. That is a multitude of stories and pain and blood.

I have had countless people come up to me after shows who have seen themselves in the characters on stage. I am honoured they felt seen. I am interested in the unveiling of the domestic spaces women inhabit. This show will be hold a mirror up to the varied lived experiences of women.


The Communists are in the Funhouse runs at the Subiaco Arts Centre studio from 4 – 8 June. For tickets and show information, go here: