In the opening scene of Emilie Collyer’s “Contest”, we see four women in a changing room preparing for netball practice. They are discussing a fifth, absent woman, the newest member of their team. And what begins with vague concern (“I hope she’s okay.” “She didn’t injure herself. Did she?”) quickly devolves into group bonding through bitching (She’s “one of those women,” “some women just… want attention but pretend they don’t,” “Up herself,” “Frigid.”)
But when the new player arrives, we can see she is no victim to her outsider status. In a poetic monologue that cuts across the back-and-forth of the others, she says:
“They say that, about Wing Attack, there when you need her, she finds the gaps.
Maybe sees what can’t be seen.”
This newcomer (Cass, played by Emily Tomlins) sees the things that bind these women together: the rumours, the judgments, and the tacit agreement to leave any too-messy parts of life at the door. As the play goes on, we see the way that Cass’s presence breaks through the exclusivity of these bonds, to replace them with stronger, truer lines of connection.
In Collyer’s script, netball is a cipher for the structured ways of being that these women feel they must adhere to in their lives. Other than Cass, each of the players is only ever identified by her player position – Goal Attack, Centre, etc. These player positions link to the pervasive idea of the different “types” of woman you are encouraged to choose from when you are raised as a girl. And although Cass is given the position of Wing Attack, the other women on the team can sense that she doesn’t conform to one of these familiar types.
The metaphor of the structured game extends to the notion of “training” as we see the women perform an extended series of drills, choreographed by Nat Cursio and Alice Dixon. Whilst they stretch, sprint, pass and dodge, they fortify the people – the “types” of women – that they believe themselves to be. Sonya Suares’ Goal Shooter insists on her youth and independence; Natasha Herbert’s Goal Attack is always in control; Kate Hood’s Goal Defence draws defiant lines around her strength and capability; and most unnerving of all is Alice Ansara as Centre, always available to help anyone else, any time, day or night, no matter what her own needs may be. These drills of self-mediation are carried out in the structured, spare space of the gymnasium (designed by Romanie Harper and lit by Amelia Lever-Davidson), with its clean lines and anonymous, generic lockers. And the space expands to the sonic world – a claustrophobia of whistles and beeps designed by Emah Fox. Does this structured space enforce the conformity displayed by the players, or does it provide a blank canvas against which they can be anything?
The opposite of the ordered, structured game is some form of chaos. For Cass, this chaos takes the form of an all-consuming fire. The play is studded with non-diagetic break-aways where Cass describes sensations of a house on fire, or herself on fire. Talking about this fire is Cass’s attempt to put words to her experience of a chronic illness. So her body burns with this fire, and she isn’t able to control it. But when this fire is set within the rigidity of the game of netball – and the equally rigid team dynamics – the experience of chronic illness sets fire to the possibility of an orderly, structured experience. When you live with a chronic illness, you can’t turn the flame off as and when convenient – something that the other players don’t seem to understand. Cass arrives in a milieu where the invisible structures seem to contain everything neatly. But her flame – both her inability and her lack of desire to play by the rules – show that the whole structured setup was a tinderbox in the first place.
Cass slowly makes her way into the social dynamic of the team, strategically finding and giving voice to all the things that the “game” – the rest of their lives – has prevented these women from saying. In one of her break-out monologues, Cass says:
“Why are you living these dangerous lies about your selves? Your bodies? Your lives?”
With strategic precision, she lights small fires under each of the women’s personal narratives – sometimes by listening, giving space and asking the right questions; sometimes by sharing intimate details from her own life. Cass gives voice to desire, speaks frankly and openly about the body, and acknowledges the true effort of care, love, family. Some of the women are more open to these provocations than expected, hungry for the space for this honesty. Others cannot bring themselves completely to these exchanges. But throughout the group training session, Collyer artfully sets the groundwork for a game that will play out differently than any that came before.
Drills and training complete, the women ready themselves for the game. And once play has begun, the pace and heat of the action begins to chip away at the women’s ability to censor the torrent of poetry within each of them. Familiar game-day catch cries (“come on girls!”) are interwoven with a more bodily, sensory kind of speech. If the drills and warm-ups were the women practicing the sense of themselves that they want to believe, the game is the real world; the pressures of the everyday where these constructed selves come under fire. And though the façade slips a little, each of these women is a seasoned player of the game. They won’t stop, and they won’t break, no matter what.
But whilst the others play, Cass is gripped by an episode of physical and mental dread. She stands still on the court, unable to move, let alone participate in the game. Cass’s inability to continue is perceived by the other players as a choice – if she doesn’t look injured and isn’t asking for help, then there’s nothing they can do, they have to play on. But Cass’s stillness is an undeniable, consequential interruption of the rules – and right when the pressure is at its highest. This disavowal of the established order incites panic in each of the other players. Faced with Cass’s stillness, the other women think about disobeying in similar ways, and at first, this is a source of terror. And this terror spills out of the players and into the space itself. The lockers erupt and netballs and other items spill out over the court, and the lights that hang from overhead finally swing down into the space, untethered. Finally, one by one, the other women stop playing. And once they stop, it is clear that something has combusted, and taken with it every trace of tension. For the first time in the whole show, each of them is able to be still.
In Collyer’s script, the four acts of the play are named “warm-up”, “drills”, “game”, and “renewal”. So the fire within Cass has been released, and has scorched the structures and bonds that held together the game, the players, the team. And as smoke rolls across the stage for the rest of the show, there is a renewal. The renewal involves the intentional and steady undoing of the remains of the order, as two of the players pull up the tape that had marked the boundaries of the space on the floor. And this renewal feels distinctly like an ascension, a transcendence. They have gone through, even temporarily, to a different reality. They have broken the pre-existing structures, and found that there are no other rules. But far from chaos, terror and destruction, this renewal manifests as quiet, as honesty, sometimes as laughter, and often as slowness, or stillness.
Towards the very end of the show, each of the players has a short monologue that seems to suggest that they have seen a death for themselves, and an afterlife. This death of some previous self seems essential to the process of renewal. On the other side of this renewal, they are able to embrace themselves in all their bodily and spiritual messy truth. At this point, director Prue Clark has the performers adorn themselves with ornate head-dresses. It’s a gesture in which each of these women makes manifest the full truth of themselves, and actively chooses to own that self. These head-dresses are pulled from inside their lockers, as though that access to the deepest parts of themselves was locked away out of sight, but always there.
Though the action may only cover one training session and one netball game, Contest covers a lot of ground emotionally. The energetic flow from warm-up to drills to game to renewal is expertly mapped and guided by Clark. And each of these performers gives an invaluable gift with the visible work of their performance. There are so few honest, difficult, but hopeful accounts of how women live with women. Contest contributes to a vital conversation being carried out by other local artists such as She Said and Olivia Satchell, where these feminine dynamics – and dramaturgies – are given space to breathe, so that we can tell ourselves a new story that goes beyond the idea of choosing a “type” of woman to be and playing by the rules. So many women have a time where they feel like they’re the one who’s not right for the team, and so many of us also feel that playing by toxic rules is the only way to belong. Contest points to the artificial rigidity of the structures that many of us live within; structures that we can work on escaping and unlearning, even if there is some sense in which this unlearning makes the “normal” of life impossible. The game can’t go on. But perhaps something much more beautiful – and difficult, and honest – can begin.