Making it Happen



Making it happen

Legacy and Challenge of The Magdalena Project in Australian Context

(This article of mine was recently published in the book TheMagdalenaProject@25 – Legacy and Challenge. I am publishing it here because I desire engagement with other Australian women theatre-makers in dialogue/action regarding the future of the Project in our context. I welcome your comments, critiques and ideas!)


I met The Magdalena Project at Magdalena Aotearoa, 1999. There I met Sally Rodwell, Madelaine McNamara, Julia Varley, Jill Greenhalgh, and many others, for the first time.


Sally I just don’t know how to be writing this song

to wrap your sweet memory in.

There’re so many here going to miss you my sister -

I hope you can hear the soft rain of our tears.

Song for Sally, 2006, words and melody by Dawn Albinger


I met The Magdalena Project and became aware, at the age of thirty-five, that I behaved differently in a women-only space. I dared more. I dared to speak. Prior to this I had assumed that as a white, educated, middle-class, western woman I already had a voice. But actually I was mute. Magdalena Aotearoa was noisy with opinionated, passionate, argumentative, political, joyous women. It was exhilarating. I was inspired. I took a deep breath. There is no voice without breath.


Listening towards each other

What is it to ‘find a voice’? What do I mean when I say I was mute? I mean that the white noise of our culture, the internalised hum of voices - familial, cultural, political - describing what ‘woman’ ‘is’, or ‘can be’, or even ‘can hope to be’ (Hélène Cixous) - results in the denial of breath and the braced inability to receive oneself. A woman performer, denied self-reception, reflects back to her culture the images of her constructed femininity. And yet her very constitution as a performer suggests another voice: quietly and lovingly insistent, an ‘intimate kernel’ (Mladen Dolar), ever-present beneath the hum. It is the diva voce, the voice of her desire, striving to live a larger life (Adrienne Rich).

This, for me, is the legacy of The Magdalena Project: it has provided a context in which to engage critically, through my work, with the culture that has constructed me. This critical engagement is made possible through dialogue, through a listening toward each other that amplifies hearing. Margaret Cameron writes about this eloquently in Dramaturgy as Perceptible Practice, a reflection on her practice and our dialogue: “sometimes you hear what I do not. And in hearing you hear, I cannot unhear our hearing.

My last work, No Door on Her Mouth - a lyrical amputation, invokes choking divas, flightless women and handless maidens as it engages with female philosophical subjectivity. In the final stages of its development I would send poems I had written to Margaret Cameron who would read back to me only the parts she felt she could speak. It is one thing to hear oneself. Her gentle readings allowed me to receive myself. I received the intimate kernel, ever-present beneath the hum, my own diva voce. In the end, finding my voice was less about speaking and more about listening and receiving. In the process I surrendered that which was most dear to me: my desire to please. 


Community of minds and of practice

There is a clown at the heart of the performance identity I have constructed over the past two decades. And more than anything my clown wants to please. My clown has been crucial in transforming painful experience and personal passions (often deemed ‘neuroses’ by my culture) to artistic expression. In doing so she has spoken to the experiences of others and enabled the shift from personal to cultural voice. She has done this through humour and extreme ‘cartoon’ gesture. In No Door On Her Mouth, however, I surrendered the clown: her desire to please made it impossible for me to hear the voice of my own desire, and my desire wanted to speak unspeakable grief, to articulate multiple thresholds, to express dignity and poise.

When I first began performing No Door my closest colleagues did not hear ‘my voice’. I was told I sounded like someone else. When I submitted my writing for this book it was initially rejected. I was told that my article didn’t sound like me - it was lacking the humour and irony others have come to associate with ‘my voice’. It is fascinating that precisely the moment I feel I have finally, really, heard myself, received myself (and by ‘myself’ I am referring to multiple selves: myself as theatre performer-practitioner, as white western woman, as philosophical subject), it seems ‘I’ have disappeared to those who believe they know me. Initially frustrating this is nevertheless a joy to me: to be called to account by my community of minds and of practice, by those who believe they know me; to be challenged to find a way - in my theatre and my writing - to communicate the profound insights that have come to me through my theatre and my writing. This is the legacy of the Magdalena Project as I experience it. And because this legacy is so personally profound, I am challenged to re-engage with the Project in the Australian context and consider how it might continue into the future.



Magdalena Australia exists as an informal network of Australian women in contemporary theatre. Its formal iterations have included the 2003 international Magdalena Australia Festival, themed Theatre - Women - Travel, the 2008 Magdalena Brisbane Easter Gathering, 2010 Magdalena Perth Workshop Festival, the ongoing feminist reading group “Magdalena Talks Back” (Perth), and numerous collaborations and dialogues.

I have participated in organising some of these formal iterations because my need was very great: My need to find a community of minds and bodies with which to engage in dialogue about practice. The legacy of the Project, for me, is the profound dialogue that I enjoy with a handful of women from around the world. And most significantly the dialogue with Australian women practitioners with whom I engage: Julie Robson, Margaret Cameron, Nikki Heywood, Annette Tessoriero, Helen Sharp, Scotia Monkivitch, and Suzon Fuks to name but a consistent few. It occurs to me that Magdalena Australia might not exist into the future, beyond the women who have been networked by its iterations to date. But I would like to see it exist beyond us, with energy and with purpose. In the following I will point briefly towards the challenges as I perceive them and consider a way forward.


Tyranny of distance and virtual engagement

In 2003, when we organised the inaugural festival, one of the greatest challenges facing Australian women theatre-makers was the tyranny of distance within our own country. It takes five hours to fly (or a week to drive) from Perth to Brisbane. Mainstream theatre companies are meeting this challenge through developing co-productions that travel between capital cities, and mid-size venues currently collaborate to create touring circuits through major regional centres. Nevertheless, many of us who participated in the 2003 Festival continue to find ourselves operating outside the “mainstream” as we engage with form and content that is considered new and challenging. As such, we still face the challenges of geographical isolation. The “information revolution” has opened up pathways and opportunities for virtual engagement, and many use this technology to dialogue with and audience each other, and as a site for virtual performance 1. For the past twelve months I have used the technology extensively to collaborate on the administrative tasks that create the possibility for artists to come together physically in time and space.


Gendered opportunities and weary women

In Australia there is a significant gap between professional mainstream theatre opportunities (dominated by men) and all other types of theatre in Australia, which tend to be un/derfunded and dominated by women:


…some [women] prefer the artistic freedom found working in the margins, and many have found strength in the community, youth, independent and education sectors. But many have walked away, fatigued at forever being dubbed “emerging creatives” and “alternative” to an imposed norm. Many are frustrated by the banging on seemingly locked doors, the unanswered invites to see their work and the longitudinal development opportunities offered young male directors - whose artistic sensibilities align with those of the monolithic decision makers. The popular catch-cry that women directors are responsible for their plight because they do not network and pitch “like men” - derives from a gendered assumption that men pitch the “right” way.2


Everyone I know, every woman I know engaged in keeping a performance practice alive, is exhausted. Many of us have turned to the academy, to tertiary institutions and their PhD scholarships, as a strategy to stay afloat, to continue to make work, and to push the boundaries of form. Yet nowhere in Australia can I find a role model successfully melding an academic and arts career in a manner that nourishes rather than consumes. I see many burnt-out and exhausted women artists and artist-researchers. Some are more financially secure than others. But privileged weariness is still weariness.


An anecdote

Despite the glaring inequities, many young women practitioners operate under the illusion that they are entering an even playing field where they do not experience, or expect to experience, discrimination. Recently I was asked about The Magdalena Project by a young female theatre technician. She expressed polite interest as I recounted meeting the Project through the 1999 Magdalena Aotearoa Festival, my initial scepticism about a women-only event, the profound impact of discovering my capacity for self-limitation (my muteness). She told me she had never experienced discrimination in the workplace, that she is free to speak openly, that some of the best people she knows are men. Later, she refused to ask the (older, male) venue technician for help sorting out a problem. When I asked why, she complained of his constant joking around, never giving her the information she required in a straight-forward manner. I asked if he responded to her young male colleague in the same way. Her eyes widened.


Gender in/equity and politics of form

There is an assumption (in western society, at least) that feminism has done its job: we have legislated for equal pay for equal work, we have legislated for safety from violence (within and without the home), and we have legislated for freedom from sexual discrimination. I am interested in the assumption that women no longer experience discrimination, or when they do, that they will readily and easily enact those legislated rights. In Australia, the cultural lag that exists in our wider community is reflected within our theatre community where only 3.3 of 49 main-house plays to be produced in 2011 will be written by Australian women (and only .3 by an Aboriginal woman). More promisingly, recent main-stage season launches show an increase for women directors, rising from 27% (in 2009) to roughly 34% 3 in 2011. There continue to be more roles for men than women in mainstream theatre, and more female graduates than male from the tertiary performance courses. If Lucy Freeman, quoted above, is right in asserting that many productions generated by women are consideredalternative to an imposed norm”, then these figures insist we keep alive thorny questions of gender equity, and politics of form.


The tyranny of structure-less-ness

The international Project has for twenty-five years thrived in resisting formal structures and insisting on adopting organic and flexible ones. Nevertheless over time a hierarchy has asserted itself and most of us within the Project know to whom to address inquiries and invitations, whom to appraise of ideas and proposals for future gatherings. This flows both ways. In Australia, despite there being many women who have participated in organising and attending formal iterations of the Project, certain among us are routinely and consistently approached by the ‘mothers’ and ‘grandmothers’ of the Project to write, to perform, to publish. The challenge that an ‘unofficial’ hierarchy poses is that it will inevitably divide individuals between those who feel they have agency to act and initiate, and those who feel such agency is denied them. Those who feel denied will take their energy elsewhere, and each time this happens we are diminished.

Of course it can equally be argued that this is not the case; that the Project (in Australia and elsewhere) is there to support any woman theatre practitioner who dares to articulate her vision. Without a formal and transparent structure, however, it is difficult to shift the perception that some are more equal than others. And within the Australian context this lack of formal structure also means greater challenges in building momentum across geographical, political and philosophical distances. I would like to see Magdalena Australia survive beyond any of the women who helped bring the 2003 festival into being. I would love to see it continue with the same organic flexibility of structure that has enabled the wider international Project to flourish for twenty-five years. Within Australia, to cope with our particular challenges, I believe that this will require a formal, transparent and democratic structure.

I can almost hear Julia Varley: “Now that you have spoken your vision out loud you are responsible for making it happen.” And she is right. So despite the tyranny of distance, despite the weariness of women practitioners (my own included), the ‘othering’ of women’s theatre (and our participation in our ‘ghetto-isation’), despite the assumption that feminism has done its job and equity is assured, and despite the tyranny of structure-less-ness, my intention is to find a way forward for the Magdalena Project to exist in Australia and flourish into the future. I would like Magdalena Australia to be a source of energy, optimism, inspiration and strength to all women theatre-makers here. I will undertake to begin the necessary dialogue with the women who have participated in the formal iterations in Australia. My hope is that the future Project will be there for those who come after us, with their own unique needs, strong desires and special gifts.


1. Helen Varley Jameison (NZ) and Suzon Fuks (Aust) are two within the Project who really explore and champion this technology. See: and



2. Lucy Freeman, 2010.


3. The figure of 27% comes from Katherine Lyall Watson’s blog on titled “Gender Equity in Theatre” and posted 7 September, 2009. I arrived at the figure of 34% by perusing 6 company websites: Sydney Theatre Co, Melbourne Theatre Co, Queensland Theatre Co, State Theatre of South Australia, Malthouse and Black Swan. 34% represents 15 productions out of a total of 44. That’s 15 jobs, but not 15 women. Kate Cherry, AD of Black Swan, accounts for 5 of these, and other women directors scored more than one gig.



Thank you, Dawn for this perceptive and honest look at the state of play for Magdalena Australia and for women theatre makers in general.

As another exhausted, over-committed theatre maker/student/employee/mother/partner, I recognise much of what you've described. I want to engage and connect and support others, but where do I find the time to do it? What do I give up to fit more into my life? But, on the flip side: what support and revitalisation might come from engaging more?

I want to find the puzzle that's missing one me-shaped piece, rather than painting, cutting and creating a new puzzle. But maybe this is the point where Magdalena Australia finds itself ... perhaps it's time to create a new picture, one that can keep changing and growing to reflect the diversity of its members' needs and desires.


Katherine Lyall...

Thanks both to Dawn, for expounding your story, and the state of play, and to Katherine for responding with pretty much how I feel also.

That said, my experience is different in some respects to Dawn's, in that my clown within has no concept of pleasing others, on the contrary she is an uninhibited provocateur and when I have the courage to let her out I am truly myself.

I know some my inhibitions are due to my situation as a female in a male-dominated world. My clown doesn't give a stuff about such matters, and can be as male as anything, or not, when the notion takes her. However, I am talking about myself as a performer, director and writer here - in other words, as a practitioner.  When it comes to myself as producer, promoter or supplicant to the powers that be for opportunities to practice, that clown is nowhere to be found. That's one reason why I prefer to create my own work, and to work outside the mainstream.  

This situation applies whether I am dealing with male or female individuals or organisations.  I feel just as inhibited, dis-empowered, dis-enfranchised and unnecessary in the company of, for example, the male-dominated union, or funding bodies, or Magdalena.  The fact that the latter is, officially, as you say, structure-less, has not mitigated against an innate hierarchy which seems like a mountain to climb every time I encounter it. It makes it difficult for me to return to the fold, each time I remove myself because it just seems too hard, and I believe it also makes it difficult for new people to engage with the organisation for any length of time. And that's what has to happen if there is to be the generational follow through that we all hope for. 

I am not convinced that creating a formal structure would have the effect that Katherine proposes, of allowing for an evolutionary process, one that invites and allows for transformation.  But I'm open to be persuaded!


Thanks Katherine and Ffloyd for sharing your thoughts and feelings.


It saddens me Ffloyd, (but does not surprise me) to hear that you have felt disenfranchised when you have tried to re-engage with the Project. This is precisely the challenge before us. Perhaps it is partly due to a perception that Magdalena Australia is 'an organisation' - it is not - and that there is something 'organised' with which to engage. At the moment Magdalena Australia is a network of women theatre-makers (and contemporary performance-makers). Some of these women have been networked by Magdalena events within Australia, others are curious. After attending the recent Magdalena@25 festival in Cardiff it seems very clear to me that the Magdalena Project exists most vibrantly through its physical manifestations. When one woman, or group of women coming together, organises a forum/workshop/performance/collaboration/festival that places women's theatre-work, and the aims and objectives of the Project at its heart, it results in women meeting each other through their work. In my experience this is overwhelmingly nourishing.


And perhaps we must be selfish in order to be generous. Katherine you say you are looking for something with a you-shaped (w)hole! What a wonderful image - what would feed you/your work? Is there a particular artist that you would like to do a workshop with? Bring her to Brisbane (or Australia) and call it a Magdalena Workshop. Or perhaps you would like to create a collaboration between a number of theatre artists. Or a weekend symposium. Or a festival. When we are hungry enough to create the thing that will feed us it can feed our community (other women artists) also.


I am musing on my desire to bring Margaret Cameron back to Brisbane to run workshops so I can continue my collaboration with her. I also plan to invite Madeleine MacNamara from Magdalena Aotearoa because I want to foster relationship between Australian and NZ women artists, plus I want to support her work. And she makes me laugh. I know Gilly Adams from Wales would like to travel to Australia next year and because I know her, like her, and have enormous respect for her as a person, a writer, and a dramaturg, I will endeavour to create workshop and lecture opportunities for her here. Now I can do all of these things as an individual, or as part of Magdalena Australia. If I manage to organise any or all of these I would like to call them 'Magdalena Australia' events. Similarly I would like others in this ‘dynamic network’ here in Australia to feel empowered to create workshops/performances/tours/events/opportunities that will feed themselves as artists. And if they have the aims of the Project at their heart they should also be called Magdalena Australia events. Magdalena Australia is not an organization that will ‘make things happen’ on behalf of individual or group dreams and desires. But as a network it can be activated to help deliver the physical/moral/emotional/philosophical/psychological support to help individual women create their work.


Here my question regarding structure and organisation re-surfaces: How can we (and do we need to) structure ourselves/our dynamic network so that individuals feel empowered to create events that bring them the juice they need to continue as women artists? And on a mundane practical level how do we ensure we’re not all putting in competing grants under the Magdalena Australia banner?


In the end, what is core is to dare to articulate your dream, your vision, and then know you are responsible for making it happen. This is at the heart of every Magdalena event, big and small, world-wide. Maybe just getting this conversation going is the first step towards unearthing possibilities.

Love and Respect to you both


Dawn Albinger

Thanks Dawn. I know I’m an awkward cuss, and I appreciate your clarifying the situation, regarding the difference between an organisation and a network.  I wonder if this doesn’t also explain why some prefer the lack of structure, since it is usual to associate a structure with some degree of organisation. Or maybe that’s just me!

I couldn’t agree more that it is the coming together for a “forum/workshop/performance/collaboration/festival that places women's theatre-work, and the aims and objectives of the Project at its heart”.  And when such events are set in motion by someone who has the particular need and the passion to see it happen, the nourishment derives not just from the sharing of practice and process, but also from the collaborations that occurs to make these events happen.

It’s wonderful to read your encouraging words, inspiring and challenging us all to think deeply about what we, as individuals and as collaborating artists, really want, and need.  Lot’s of food for thought there. The idea of a myriad of Magdalena Events all over the country, whereby women create work and share their ideas and skills with the support of their Magdalena networked colleagues is pretty darned exciting.

Good point re the competing grants. Unless, of course, we refuse to consider them to be in competition, but rather assume that they complement each other. We know the applications that tick the boxes are more likely to be successful, and also that it’s a bit of a lottery. I would like to think of those who are unsuccessful in securing funding, and those who want to remain completely outside of the system are part of the rich complexity of the creative landscape, and my own particular dream is to abolish competitive attitudes and language in any way shape or form from every aspect of society.  But I digress…

Why should grant applications have to include the Magdalena banner?  If they do, then does someone have to approve that inclusion? The question arises: can anyone claim an event to be a Magdalena event?

As for empowering individuals to “create events that bring them the juice they need to continue as women artists”, clearly the Magdalena Project has provided such inspiration over the years by bringing together women at every point of this multi-faceted spectrum, including the newbies. That’s why I think the best thing we can do as Magdalena Australia is come together to DO STUFF.  Sorry, that just burst out of me.  And I don’t mean right now, for one thing I haven’t the time or resources at the moment and I don’t want to miss out. 

How’s this for a suggestion: we share our particular dreams, such as those you outline above, articulate our own ‘me-shaped’ needs, and maybe that conversation will result in a new kind of event, or series of events.  I certainly believe that the quiet ones, the insecure ones, the inexperienced artists are more readily engaged and encouraged when they are presented with opportunities to do stuff, with a definite time-scale and goal to aim for.

Love and Respect back to you! 



Thanks Flloyd, you make some good points and some good suggestions. I'm particularly interested in hearing from you and other women artists about their 'me-shaped' needs.

If I am reading you correctly it sounds as though one of your Flloyd-shaped needs is to work towards some kind of event that connects you and your work to other women theatre-makers and their work - for a day or longer. But not right now. When? And what, exactly, would be the focus? What gets your creative juices flowing? My guess is, as you suggest, that if we get this conversation bubbling, individual women will start to connect with others who have similar 'me-shaped holes and this could lead to a variety of meetings, projects, events, etc. Maybe some will be organised by others and you will attend. Maybe you will organise something in the future that others attend. Maybe some will occur that do not interest you. That's okay, too!

Nothing will happen if our hopes/dreams/visions/desires remain unarticulated. I would encourage anyone reading this to see if she can say, in 11 words or less what would fit her 'me-shaped hole'.  And I would like to caution, with heart and humour, that once you have articulated a dream/vision you are responsible for making it happen. And that doesn't mean you have to do it alone. 

My 11 words:

"Weekly feminist reading group; core focus:practice-led performance/arts research"

I have the need. I have a venue in the Brisbane CBD. 6pm - 7.30/8pm Wednesdays, starting in October. I would love to hear from any Brisbane or visiting performers/performance-makers/researchers who would be interested to participate. 


Dawn Albinger

Great idea, Dawn.  Here are my 11 words

"Annual gathering of mentored creative development and work-in-progress presentations"

And now, to explain why not now for me: I am intending to hand down my thesis by the end of this year, which means I have to focus all my attention on actually writing it.  So much as I would love to dive back into promoting and touring my latest show, as well as creating some offshoots from it, I have to be very disciplined and restrain myself.  This is why I am presently rationing my activities and the level of commitment I can offer to helping others. As I'm sure you appreciate, anything that takes one's focus away from the topic results in twice as much energy expended in getting it back.  That includes engaging in this kind of discussion, which is fun, refreshing, provocative and creative, but sadly, for me, off topic!

As soon as it's done, and I'm a Free Woman again, I hope there will be lots of opportunities for me to get involved in any way shape or form.

That said, with regard to my suggestion of regular annual, or perhaps bienniel (is that the right term for every 2 years?) gatherings, I have two things to say.

1) The Brisbane Easter Gathering provided a challenging, inspiring and productive springboard for my show, which received full production last November in Brisbane and March/April in Phoenix.  Hence I believe that kind of event can do the same again, and more. I'd be happy to participate at every level of engagement, as organiser, mentor, facilitator and creative developer - after I've finished with the thesis.

2) In 2009 I set up a new Fringe Festival here in Brissie, called BITS Festival (Brisbane Independent Theatre Sampler), to facilitate and encourage independent theatre makers to create short pieces, extracts, examples of their work or work in progress, in a non-curated environment.  It worked pretty well, but last year I was not in a position to run it again myself. Nor this year.  And in the meantime, Paul Osuch has established the Anywhere Festival, which I believe supplies the demand for open, non-curated fringe theatre.  So that leaves the name BITS Festival up for grabs, and the concept of a festival of short pieces, as well as its reputation.  If anyone wants to take it on, change it, build on it, please let me know.  The business name and website are about to expire, I'm not going to pay unless they are going to be used.  I don't believe in running at a loss!

with good cheer






Brilliant Flloyd, I appreciate your engagement and your time. I do understand re phd commitments  - I am due to submit in a few short months also! So I am going to pause here, mull over your offerings, and get back to my own phd writing. 

I have found even this small exchange nourishing and look forward to others joining the conversation, and to future events that bring us together in time and space around our work.

Thanks again, 


Dawn Albinger