Things That Matter: Masculinity and the Male Condition in Tristan: A Song for the Superior Man

We joked during my interview with the maker and cast of Tristan: A Song for the Superior Man, opening at Gorman Arts Centre this week, about the trepidation associated with entering into conversations about gender. Someone said fraught. Someone else said misrepresented and misspoken. Confusion and terrifying came up.

Tristan is a new theatre work from Little Dove Theatre Art exploring the contemporary male condition, asking what it means to be a good man. If gender politics aren’t delicate enough in their own right, addressing the roles of men and masculinity therein can be particularly complicated, especially when you have designs on lending nuance and counter-narratives to what tends to be a myopic focus on the (often very real) shortcomings of the male and masculine elements of Western society.

So, the laughter was a little nervous.

The care and caution that characterised our chat was counterbalanced, however, by an awareness of a disconnect between what we see men to be online and in mainstream media, and what we know men to be in our own lives.

“I’ve known some really shitty men, the same way that I’ve known some really shitty women,” said Chenoeh Miller, director and maker of Tristan, “but I didn’t feel that there was enough of a voice for all the beautiful, good men. I just didn’t feel like they were being represented, well, anywhere. I mean, aside from one-on-one conversations with people.”

This recognition resonated with me. Representation is powerful. What does a good person, who also happens to be a man, look like and feel like, and how do they become that way? Without eclipsing other concerns, without proposing that it’s the only or most important question, it’s important to ask, and I’ve struggled to answer it in my own life.

Chenoeh set up a survey, calling on any man to volunteer their thoughts and experiences about masculinity and what being a man has meant to them. She then approached and assembled her cast—Raoul Craemer, Nick Delatovic, Chris Endrey, Erica Field and Oliver Levi-Malouf—and brought them her script. And promptly discovered that her script wasn’t what she wanted to hear.

“When I brought it into the room with everyone on about the third day, after we’d gone through some of their own stories, I actually felt a bit … I felt a bit foolish. The script just felt so not appropriate to these guys, it was their voice that I wanted to hear, not my own.”

Chenoeh Miller. Photo by Andrew Sikorski.

So Chenoeh and the cast began to work instead through their own stories, allocating vignettes, monologues and spoken word sections where the performers felt an affinity for certain material, or where their own stories were strong in their own right. The result is something true, and if the performers are to be believed, something poignant.

“I tell a story about my first experience with a much older man,” said Oliver, “and I feel like a lot of the time those kinds of perspectives aren’t honestly and candidly told, especially from gay men. Stories about gay men and their experience are usually wrapped in a tragic undercurrent or they’re stereotypical, super campy. I really love the opportunity to tell an authentic, honest story about a thing that happened to me, that’s also funny but also kind of not. It’s just kind of true, it’s part of my life.”

“They’re not your party stories,” noted Chris. “But that is so much more interesting to me than the idea of really fabricated theatre, where you’re trying to find the most poignant example of something to share with people. Unironically, the only way that you can find that poignancy and connection is by stripping back those egoistic and projected elements, which is what Chenoeh has walked us all through.”

For Raoul, the experience has been especially timely. “I feel like, on the surface, until last year, I was a really stereotypical male. … You know how you hear about men, they can’t deal with feelings or being in extreme emotional states. This last year, I’ve been, for the first time in my life, in really extreme emotional states. … I feel like art’s saving me again. … It’s just something so special that you can’t do, somehow, in your real life.”

The result, according to Erica, is both a document and an homage. “Confusion is not necessarily what we’re aiming for,” she said, “but to provide a multiplicity of experiences and encourage reflection on the men that we know in our lives, or that we may know, that are flawed and vulnerable, but also compassionate and try their best and sometimes fail, like we all do. It’s a very human thing, really. … I know some of the men who originally inspired the show and they’re just—not even some of the best men, they’re just some of the best people that I know, and have such a different experience of being male than the stereotypical experience is presented as. … I always think of the show as a real tribute to them.”

“I want people to have conversations,” Chenoeh followed on, then catching herself. “No, no, I wouldn’t even put that onto people, because the couple of times that we’ve all sat down, and when we first got into a discussion on gender, when we actually had that discussion on the last day of our creative development, I was like, why am I even making a show about men? These men don’t even feel like they’re men. What does that mean?”

It seems to me a brave and important thing to find yourself in the midst of a project that is, as Chenoeh said, “not what I thought it was,” and embrace and delight in it. I wouldn’t be the first to suggest that it might be a fundamental condition of important endeavours: acknowledging uncertainty and working within it without trying to force it into false resolution.

For Chenoeh, the driving motivation for the show, as with all her work, is making something that matters. “This is my big strength in life, being able to bring clever, great people together in the context of entertainment. It’s gotta be important, otherwise it’s a waste of time, and you feel like there’s no reason to exist.”

As Endrey observed at the close of our interview, Chenoeh has succeeded. “We have a play with the title Song for the Superior Man and it’s about masculinity. It’s terrifying for me to walk into that, because of the fraught nature of the context of that conversation, which this play is inevitably a part of. But because, in the creation and in the conception, it was so utterly apart from that … I think the people that see it can’t but have a great opportunity to engage with so many elements of that, and leave with a whole set of the same questions and conversations that we have. … It’s been lots of work and it’s been very rewarding, which I suppose is a metaphor for any emotional labour. It’s always difficult to look at and then inevitably rewarding, it can’t but be.”

It’s heartening to me to have such a committed groups of makers and performers in my hometown deliberating over the same questions that drive this website. To find out what those questions mean to you and what the conversations are that arise from them, take a seat in the audience.

Tristan: A Song for the Superior Man runs from Wednesday 29 November to Sunday 3 December 2017 in the Ralph Wilson Theatre at Gorman Arts Centre, Braddon ACT.

Header image by Andrew Sikorski.

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