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Life’s a b****: Playing a female dog for S’pore Fringe Fest

Edith Podesta is no stranger to performing with animals. In the past, the Singapore theatremaker has worked with a piglet and a horse in solo pieces based on works by performance artist Joseph Beuys. This time around, she’ll be performing as one — a dog, to be precise.

Edith Podesta is no stranger to performing with animals. In the past, the Singapore theatremaker has worked with a piglet and a horse in solo pieces based on works by performance artist Joseph Beuys. This time around, she’ll be performing as one — a dog, to be precise.

For this month’s M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, Podesta will be playing an anthropomorphised domestic dog, ala the animals in George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Natsume Soseki’s I Am A Cat novels, in Bitch: The Origin Of The Female Species. She will be performing alongside fellow Australian Helmut Bakaitis, an actor, director and screenwriter known for his role as The Architect in The Matrix movies (and who’ll be in Mel Gibson’s upcoming film Hacksaw Ridge).

“The animal in nature, and the animal in our nature, has always fascinated me. Bitch is actually a move away from my previous work because I’ve written the world the way I imagine a dog might witness it,” said Podesta. “In the past, I’ve never tried to attribute human characteristics to the animals I worked with, but I’ve come to believe that by using what we know of the animal in ourselves, and imagining what the world would look like from within the skin of an animal, we can gain a greater respect and empathy for the Other.”

There’s also a personal link: Podesta had grown up around animals — including dogs — in Australia. “My family and I would spend our weekends at a farm. Dogs taught me a lot about friendship, love and loyalty, and gave me a new appreciation of the sensorial world we inhabit.”

But beyond that, she is examining the status of man’s best friend in the context of human culture and history. “Before they were domesticated, dogs used to figure large in our imaginations, myths and religions. Dogs taught humans how to use fire, carried humans on their back across the underworld, they helped the gods and were gods. I wish to close the gap between human and animal by revisiting our shared origins through myth.”

For Podesta, the dog’s longstanding history with man, from its wild origins to its eventual domestication, also puts the spotlight on our own dual nature. “I believe the duality of the dog in our culture is actually representative of the duality of man and animal within ourselves. We have tried to domesticate almost everything; the wild nature of our environment through science, agriculture and architecture, the animal in ourselves through the study of psychology and ethics.”

And then, of course, there is what is probably the most pivotal aspect of the show: The idea of the bitch, the official term for a female canine that is also a derogatory term for women. And with a female performer taking on the role of a dog, the feminist emphasis couldn’t be more obvious.

Podesta recalled how the online negativity surrounding the word “feminist” had set her on the road to creating the piece. She had set out to write a “theatrical argumentative essay” to disprove the whole “men are from Mars, women are from Venus” argument. But another experience made her change her plans. At one point, she found herself walking 490km across the Netherlands. She encountered “a lot of dogs”, and talked to people about their relationships with their canine friends and what the word “bitch” meant to them — which eventually resulted in this piece that she described as a “love letter”.

“I believe having a woman play a female dog will help audiences unpack the history that connects women and bitches in a visceral way,” she said. “Women and domesticated animals once shared the same rung on the human food chain — they shared the same property status; she was the property of her father, to be given away as a property to a husband.”

It’s important to explore these historic links, she added. “For example, child and animal protection professionals have recognised a ‘cruelty connection’ between animal abuse and family violence, and feminists continue their research into the link between domestic violence and highly militarised societies.”

Obviously, for Podesta, the issue then goes beyond merely the issues surrounding the usage of a word or descriptor such as “bitch” — while its usage, much like the derogatory “N” word, for instance, is controversial. After all, the “N” word can be considered as an insult or a term of empowerment, depending on the context and the speaker.

Quoting American feminist Jo Freeman, Podesta said: “Like the derogatory ‘N’ word, ‘bitch’ serves the social function of isolating and discrediting a class of people who do not conform to the socially accepted patterns of behaviour.”

Podesta pointed out that describing women as a female dog as a form of insult had come out way before the word itself was in use, but feminists in the 1960s and 1970s had “reclaimed the word and polished it into something positive”. These days, pop culture has seen the contentious word used both ways, she said.

And what if someone threw the word at her?

“If someone was to insult me by calling me a bitch, it would tell me more about their beliefs and insecurities, than who I was. To some people, it serves as a way of dismissing a person as a powerless domestic human animal. To others, it means a person who is wild and free.”

Bitch: The Origin Of The Female Species runs from Jan 21 to 23, 8pm, Esplanade Recital Studio. Tickets at S$22 from SISTIC. For more details about the M1 Singapore Fringe Festival, visit http://www.singaporefringe.com

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