Brisbane Festival Interview: Creator and Playright Edith Podesta on BITCH: The Origin of the Female Species

BITCH!”, one of the most complex insults in the English language, predominately used as a derogatory term towards women. But where did it come from?  And why is it used in this way?

BITCH: The Origin of The Female Species reflects upon the relationship between humans and animals, exploring the idea that women and dogs share the same kind of property status. Written by award winning playwright Edith Podesta, it tells the story of a man suffering a stroke through the eyes of his female dog.

Playing at this year’s Brisbane Festival, we caught up with Podesta to find out more about what inspired this story, what it’s like to work with animals and how feminism is evolving.

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What made you feel the need to tell this story?

Initially, the piece was solely an interrogation of the various meanings attributed to the word ‘BITCH’, a performative journey through the second wave of feminism in the 1960s and 70s, ending with an anthropomorphic return to the origins of Bitch through the eyes of a female dog.

Then a chance encounter in the Netherlands blew everything I was so sure of apart….While writing BITCH I was walking from the north to the south of the Netherlands. One night I stayed a night at bed and breakfast run by a husband and wife team. The wife explained to me that her husband had recently had a stroke and was now suffering from aphasia*, so if I needed anything in the night it was better that I approached her.

During the evening I observed the husband communicating with his dogs. In that moment he seemed to communicate freely with his limited vocabulary, perhaps freed from human judgment. It set off a chain of thinking that stayed with me while I continued my walk; that the judgment is the loneliest species (so removed by language and technology from nature); that we all wish to be understood, and that at its essence the feminist movement stems from the need to be heard while having the equal right to speak; that we all wish for the right to be free, free from shame, free to journey, and free to experience our limitless nature within the limits of man made culture.

*Aphasia is an impairment of language, affecting the production or comprehension of
speech and the ability to read or write

Do you see there being an aim or agenda for this production’s story, or is it simply an exploration?

I believe having a woman play a female dog will help audiences unpack the history that connects women and bitches in a visceral way. 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.
The relationship explored in the play between husband and wife, and man and his pet, intertwines with bigger themes of the relationship between animals and humans, and language-as-power.
There is no one aim or agenda, each member of the audience will take something different from the play when they leave the theatre. Its a play for people who like dogs, people who have a family member suffering from dementia or have suffered a stroke, and people who are interested in feminism.

Why do you think so many insults are centred around females, and female anatomy?

At one point being a woman meant being a weak second class citizen – what better way to insult a person by reminding them of their ‘lower status’…. To some people, Bitch 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.I’ll take the latter meaning any day.

Is it quite an animal-centric play, that is to say, should we expect trained dogs to be a big element of the show and if so what was that like working with animals?

I love working with animals, so much so that I made it my thesis topic for my masters degree.

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. 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.

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. 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.

The word feminist can be a loaded term for different people, how do you see the word feminist evolving in the future?

I think people shy away from the word because they believe it is anti-male, I think the word will be embraced when people understand the word as being pro-human. In a domestic situation it means wanting the best for your daughters as well as your sons – its that simple and yet the ramifications on a global scale are positively immense.

Best or perhaps worst moment you’ve been called a bitch?

I’m called bitch (in a comic way) all the time now by my theatre friends because of the play. I can’t remember the last time someone labeled me a Bitch in a derogatory way. But 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.

What are you looking forward to at Brisbane Festival and why?

I’m looking forward to Hawa by Hatch Theatrics. I missed seeing it the first time round in Singapore because it was sold out, so getting the chance to see it in Brisbane will be a real treat!

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BITCH: The Origin of The Female Species will be playing at the 2017 Brisbane Festival from September 20-23 at the Theatre Republic. Tickets available here.