Photo by Zuzia Whelan

Last Wednesday, in a space off James Joyce Street in the north inner-city, there was drama going on behind closed doors.

The white walls were papered with notes and research. Costumes and props spilled out from the corner on the other side of the room, not far from a mini-trampoline.

Fionnuala Gygax whispers part of a poem to the other three woman sat at a long table.

“Fuck hole, clap trap, love button, cock sock, […]

“Grab her by the …

“Grab her by the …”

Sound designer Jack Cawley tests out backing tracks.

That one is “a bit too pleasant”, he says.

It’s not the kind of music you associate with the objectification of women, says Danielle Galligan.

They keep at it while the other members of the newly formed experimental theatre company Chaos Factory get back to practising, ahead of their Dublin Fringe Festival show Kiss Kiss Slap Slap.

Galligan experiments with “the worm” on the floor. Rachel Bergin, the producer, looks up a Magic Mike stripper tutorial for research.

“If you see something enough, you become desensitized,” says Galligan, tying a pair of plaster-cast breasts to her own chest.

“That’s what you actually have to do, so that you don’t make a thing of it,” says Bergin to her, as Galligan manoeuvres her own body into the cast.

Costume, like language – both often explicit – plays a big part in the show, which melds movement and sound, rather than a simple narrative, even though it is based around real stories, drawn from the media, from friends, from music, or from personal experience.

“Cunt, cunt, cunt,”  says Fionnuala Gygax in a whisper, to the new backing track.

“I’ll never work in this town again,” she says, laughing.

She isn’t nervous about using the language in front of others on stage, she says. Early on, her research assignment had been to come up with as many derogatory words for vagina as possible, and she made them into a poem.

“By the end of the show, people will be so desensitized,” says Bergin.

Starting with the Body

About a year ago, Gygax, Galligan and their colleague Venetia Bow started to pay more attention to how the stories of sexual harassment that were dominating the daily news cycle were being presented by different media.

The #MeToo campaign made them want to tell these stories anew, says Gygax. “To open up a different tone to the dialogue.”

The show came first. The company followed, and Bergin joined as producer. Since then, they’ve had input from a dramaturge, which is a literary advisor or editor for theatre, and a costume designer, among others.

“We always start with the body, and what that represents,” says Galligan, of their methods.

Says Bow: “We’re not relying on text to express an idea. You can just rely on the body to convey a message.”

When that is paired with design, you can tell a specific story, says Bergin.

The four talk over each other at speed. They finish one another’s sentences and riff off half-started ideas.

“There’s an honesty in the body. You can’t hide behind words. It’s very exposing,” says Galligan.

The show, driven by these forces, as well as dance and performance, examines how “the small, everyday gestures of rape culture can build to something more sinister”, says Bergin. “It’s very episodic. It’s not a straightforward topic.”

The play is full of questions, but there’s no final answer.

That’s what they want to do – to ask questions and hover a “magnifying glass” over those everyday events people often walk past, says Bergin.

“It’s a societal problem we all need to work on,” says Bow. “We can all fit the witness, the victim, or be complicit.”

They don’t speak for everyone, says Galligan. They’re just offering a different perspective.

“It’s about sexuality, as opposed to sex. And how sexuality is used against people,” says Bergin, highlighting a crucial question in the play.

Says Bow: “How does a woman embrace her sexuality without being called a slut?”

Says Galligan: “How do women enjoy their body without being sexualized?”

Trying to convey those questions on stage is not without its challenges, they say.

Dressing Up

“With some costumes, are we perpetuating, or empowering? That’s a question we’re constantly asking,” says Gygax.

Galligan and Bow both wear plaster breasts and buttocks and white, expressionless masks. Gygax tries on a Hugh Hefner-style silk robe.

Masks and costumes aren’t just about masking, says Galligan. They’re also about abstraction.

In this show, the cast will never represent anything literally, says Bow. And humour is an important gateway, she says.

“When we use language we’re using it for a specific reason. It’s a bombardment,” says Gygax. “In the poem, it sounds funny almost.”

They’re hammering home how the words used so commonly to describe women’s bodies are ridiculous, says Galligan. “All those words exist already, so we have to go this far, because others have already.”

There’s no intention to outrage or scandalise.

“It’s to look at the outrageous—, says Bergin.

— and to reframe it,” says Galligan.

Even so, the background work could get tough at times.

“It’s disappointingly easy to get research for this,” says Galligan.

“It’s everywhere,” says Bow.

With two weeks to go, there’s still work to be done and the final layer is yet to come. “The audience will change it; it’ll create a vulnerability,” says Gygax.

“But as long as we can stand by our intention for the show, I’m not worried about how risky it is,” she says.

Kiss Kiss Slap Slap is scheduled to run at Smock Alley Theatre from 11 to 15 September at 7pm each day as part of the Dublin Fringe Festival. 

Zuzia Whelan is a city reporter for Dublin Inquirer.

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