Interview – Laura Jackson, creator of ‘Handle It’

During the week I had a chat to Laura Jackson, writer and performer of the feminist play Handle It. This is an original piece that tackles sexuality, relationships, domestic violence and rape in the internet age.

I did some research before the interview and discovered that there are a lot of conversations happening at the moment about gender equality and domestic violence. Our current Australian of the year, Rosie Batty, became a campaigner against family violence after her son was tragically killed by her abusive ex-partner. In the past week, the federal government has commissioned the University of Melbourne to develop a new strategy for organisations to create gender equality in the workplace and pledged $15 million for a new awareness campaign about domestic violence.

The conversation is going on around the world too. At the 2015 Oscars, Patricia Arquette used her acceptance speech to call for wage equality and equal rights for women in the USA. Last year, actor and UN Women Global Goodwill Ambassador, Emma Watson, launched the He for She campaign. She invited men and boys to advocate for change and show support for the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.

Unfortunately, in my research I also found plenty of evidence why these issues are so important and so urgent. Horrifyingly, so far in 2015, an average of two women per week in Australia have been killed by their partner or former partner. One in three women will be a victim of domestic violence at some point in their lives. The wage gap between male and female full-time workers is the biggest it has been since 1994 (when the Australian Bureau of Statistics started collecting this data). This means, on average, Aussie men earn $298 per week more than their female colleagues [1]. Imagine what you could do with an extra 300 bucks a week!

On a global scale, UN Women says there have been improvements in gender equality in the last 20 years, including a 40 per cent increase in the number of women in paid employment. But at the present rate of progress, it will take an estimated 81 years for women to achieve parity in employment [2]. I don’t plan to work that long thanks. UN Women Executive Director Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka says no country has combatted violence against women and if we continue with business as usual, we will loose the gains we have made (check out her full message here).

So I had some heavy questions prepared for Laura when we spoke on Wednesday, here’s what she had to say:

Laura originally wrote the script for Handle It in 2011 as part of her Masters degree, and decided to revamp it and bring it to life again in 2014. She told me she knew she was doing the right thing when she saw how people reacted when hackers stole and published online the private photos of female celebrities including Jennifer Lawrence. She felt very passionate about this issue and was bewildered by how people called it a leak and a scandal, when it was actually a sex crime.

‘Men in my life, good men, didn’t understand why it was a crime’, Laura said.

‘Hopefully we can put the message out there that it’s not okay for these kinds of things to be taken away from the person whose body it is.’

In Handle It, a young university student, Kelsey, has her life turned upside down when compromising pictures of her are posted on Facebook. The play shows how Kelsey and six other characters involved cope with the situation. Laura transforms from the guy accused of putting up the pictures, to Kelsey’s older sister, to a pro-internet sexologist, who also brings some comedy to the piece, to a police officer, a lawyer, to Kelsey’s step-sister and finally Kelsey.

Showing how all the characters ‘handle it’ is the main reason for the play’s title, but the title has a multi-faceted meaning, Laura told me. The show is also about the fact that as a society we have to deal with unacceptable things such as domestic violence. Laura admits that the play is confronting for some audience members, but even though it’s hard, it’s time we handle the discomfort and deal with these issues. The play’s title is also a reference to Twitter handles.

Laura uses projections throughout the play to display Facebook feeds, Tweets and other social commentary. In one scene, the audience sees parodies of all the different excuses people use for victim-blaming. Laura says this gets lots of laughs from the audience, but also highlights her intension to give the audience greater empathy for victims of rape, people who have their choice taken away by others. As the play progresses, the audience sees the devastation the removal of choice caused Kelsey and the other characters. They are left reeling in the aftermath of what happened to her.

Through Handle It, Laura hopes to contribute to societal shift by getting people ‘to talk to each other at the ground level. After seeing the play, audiences think about the impact of the events it portrays, so they talk about Handle It, online privacy and how they feel’ Laura says.

The show was a sell-out at the Sydney Fringe Festival, and also part of the 2015 Adelaide Fringe line-up, and it’s coming to Canberra thanks to The Street Theatre. Artistic Director Caroline Stacey said ‘The currency of the subject matter was immediately appealing – no one wants to have compromising pictures put up on a social media platform by other but it is happening everywhere,’

‘I liked the concept and compelling nature of the story telling and provocation in the work. And the deal clincher, supporting a young emerging artist making her career in regional context, in this case Wollongong [where Laura is based].’

Laura said she is very grateful to receive The Street Theatre’s support and help as an emerging artist.

After my chat with Laura, I felt inspired and was filled with a passionate desire to re-look at the way I view the world, how I conduct myself and how I interpret the actions of others. Until now, I was hesitant to call myself a feminist because I thought I didn’t know enough about it. Laura put it to me that it’s about supporting women to overcome the things that hold them down and fighting for equality for everyone, and I definitely want to be a part of that. I have been thinking and talking about feminism to my friends all week, and it has been great to hear their opinions. I cannot wait to see the show! It opens on Friday at the Street Theatre, three shows only so don’t miss it!

Handle It played at the Street Theatre in Canberra on Friday 13 and Saturday 14 March 2015.

First published by HerCanberra: http://hercanberra.com.au/cpcity/privacy-invasion-could-you-handle-it/

[1] www.abc.net.au/news/2015-02-27/gender-pay-gap-hits-record-high/6268084

[2] www.un.org/apps/news/story.asp?NewsID=50254#.VPp02ClfTHi

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