Performance artist Leah Shelton has never been afraid to interrogate gender and identity – she creates guttural, feminist work and has played everywhere from Vegas, to West End, and home in Australia.
Her triptych of solo works ('Terror Australis', Bitch On Heat' and now 'BATSH.T') have earned her numerous awards. . . And after a sell-out, critically-acclaimed season at Brisbane Festival in 2022, Leah heads down the coast to present 'BATSH.T' for Underground Festival at Home Of The Arts (HOTA) Gold Coast.
'BATSH.T' unpacks and explores female madness, and is a requiem for Leah's grandmother, Gwen. A slew of personal stories told to magnify the myths, fantasies and fears which keep us compliant. . . And the systems which let us down.
The show fits snugly into HOTA's Underground Festival, a three-night immersive experience in intimate venues where artists and audiences alike are encouraged to take risks, with interesting new ideas and experimental work.
Here, Leah Shelton lists five things she learned while making the show, before it hits the stage at HOTA's Underground Festival.
One'Hysteria' has a f...ed up history. For those of you who didn’t know – ‘hysteria’ (from the Greek word for ‘uterus’), has been used for thousands of years to diagnose any female problems that doctors didn’t have an answer for (anxiety, melancholy, bursts of emotion, headaches, tremors, even convulsions – ALL caused by the uterus!). The most popular explanation was that hysteria was caused by the uterus wandering around the body causing problems – like some kind of freak alien body, crushing intestines, lungs or heart and basically causing havoc. The cure (obviously) was to have more babies or to have more sex – which, strangely enough, is often still suggested to women with conditions like endometriosis. It’s an insidious belief and one that still influences us today more than we think.
TwoMy grandmother was a survivor who did things her way. 'BATSH.T' was inspired by my grandmother Gwen's story. She was incarcerated at Heathcote Hospital in Perth in 1963, and given a cocktail of drugs and ECT treatment without her consent (basically for wanting to leave her husband). Gwen survived this treatment and went on to live her life fiercely and on her own terms, with the support of her daughters (my mum and my aunty). Looking after someone with mental health issues is challenging, but passed down through our family is a mythology around the ways Gwen lived her life that, to me, are so inspiring. I can only wonder how her life might have been if she had been given kindness and support rather than being incarcerated for not fitting into the rules of the time.
ThreeThe system lets us down. The more research I have done into Western mental health systems, the more clear it seems that we are still living in an age of guesswork, assumption and discrimination. Throughout the process of researching for 'BATSH.T', I uncovered many pages of psychiatric reports from my grandmother's time at Heathcote. The reports were worse than I might have imagined – full of judgemental, condescending, and gendered language from doctors and nurses. They consistently imply that she was detained because she wanted to leave her husband – and then deemed 'cured' when she returned compliantly back to her husband after treatment. This was in the 1960s, but the pathologisation of women is still a real problem today – for example, women are often framed as hysterical, irrational and mentally ill in a court of law as a way of undermining their credibility; we are told we’re imagining our symptoms in the doctor’s office; and we are routinely duped into believing we are mentally ill and labelled with personality disorders, pathologised and medicated, for being angry about oppression and abuse. So. . . I think it’s fair to say the system is f...ed and it’s time for a reboot.
Image © Cecilia Martin Photography
FourMy mum is a performance maker. In making this work, I wanted to respect and honour my grandmother Gwen’s story – so as part of the creation of the work, I invited my mum into the rehearsal room (which was daunting at first for both of us!). Mum was incredibly open to the process, storytelling and reflecting, and so her voice became a strong presence in the show. It’s been an amazing process that has brought us closer together, and also – mum’s got quite a sharp directorial eye! Her performance notes surprised me with her insight and knowledge about contemporary performance (I guess it’s the years of supporting my work and being open-minded no matter how challenging the content).
FiveVulnerability is powerful. This is the first time I’ve created something personal and autobiographical, and it’s been a real journey, one which I wouldn’t have been able to do without my Director, the UK performance art icon Ursula Martinez (who also directed my previous work, 'Bitch On Heat'). Ursula helped me to step outside my comfort zone, finding a more stripped back, 'authentic' approach to performance, which was an incredibly vulnerable process for me, but one of which I am really proud.
On talking with audiences after the shows, it was incredible to see how much this truth and vulnerability resonated. People would thank me for sharing Gwen’s story and, in turn, share their own experiences (I even met a woman who was a nurse at Heathcote Hospital back in the 1970s). So, if we can find ways to meet in our vulnerability, maybe we can also open up conversations on how we might do things better.
'BATSH.T' plays HOTA Gold Coast (Underground Festival) 13-15 July.