Festival puts feminist work front and centre

From a water ballet about periods to cabaret Glittery Clittery, a record number of female performers and shows focusing on the female body feature in this year's Melbourne Fringe.

Whether you've got one, like what they do or have always been curious, now is the time to embrace the female anatomy, with vaginas firmly in the spotlight at the festival.

The obsession — which examines the politics of pussy as well as the biology — reflects changing social attitudes, according to Fringe creative director and CEO Simon Abrahams.

"I can only assume that when we have a pussy-grabbing President of the United States that women are making extraordinary feminist work to fight back and make political statements," he said.

"We've got quite a political festival — a lot of people making work about sex, gender, sexuality, really exploring some of the darker sides of our culture."

Provoked by this year's festival theme "out of the echo chamber", Mr Abrahams said artists had been encouraged to use music, dance, theatre and comedy to get conversations started, and inspire debate and questioning.

"You can sing things and dance things you can never say, you can make people feel something," he said.

"It's about emotions, about communicating with people on an entirely different level than writing an opinion piece in the newspaper ... to me it has so much more impact expressing it through creative means."

Vaginas on show

Fringe festivals globally are recognised for pushing the boundaries of adventurous and vibrant arts, and the volume of performances and costumes inspired by women's reproductive organs makes Melbourne Fringe no exception.

The Last Ovum is a four-hour improvisational sound and visual performance that immerses audiences in a space representing a woman's ovary.

"I'm interested in the female cycles, the taboos around fertility and infertility, menopause and all those kind of things," creator and performer Angela Clarke said.

"They don't get openly discussed ... often we don't have the language to talk about it, but we can do it through performance and through song."

The groundbreaking 1996 play The Vagina Monologues, exploring women's sexuality and issues, will be performed in sign language by Deafferent Theatre.

"Auslan is a very visual language and a lot of the signs they have tend to be explicit," actor and Auslan interpreter Ilana Charnelle Gelbart said.

"We started rehearsal and I was a bit embarrassed by the content, thinking 'we can't sign that', and I think that's exactly why we need to do it on stage because it is still a bit taboo, which in 2017 it shouldn't be."

Finding joy and fun in sexuality is the goal of onomatopoeic cabaret show Glittery Clittery by the Fringe Wives Club.

Their brand of #glamtavism (glamour activism), is about stopping the shame and embarrassment that sometimes shrouds female sexuality.

"I think you can make political comment in a fun, celebratory, revelatory way, and Fringe is a place to let your hair loose," Mr Abrahams said.

A Crimson Tide performance about periods

Predicted to make a splash is Melbourne's feminist water ballet squad The Clams — who are "swimming the story of menstrual cycles".

With a show titled Crimson Tide — You Better Bloody Believe It, It's A Water Ballet About Periods, the group is hard to overlook.

Performers bring what is usually hidden in women's underwear to the surface, sporting bright red bathers and floatation devices shaped like giant tampons.

"It's a very joyful and tongue-in-cheeky look at the menstrual cycle, but it's all in the name of advocating for menstrual health and access to menstrual hygiene, calling out sexist tampon taxes, and advocating for equality," Clams member Aimee Carruthers said.

Priding themselves on their lack of real training or professionalism in this sport, this former feminist book club embraced water ballet just over a year ago to explore a topic largely shushed in society.

"We're just trying to decrease the stigma around periods and make it more of a common thing to talk about, like any other normal body function," Clam Bri Hammond said.

Ms Carruthers added: "There's unrealistic expectations of women to feel like they're the pretty presentable sex and talking openly about medical issues or what is happening with your biology is such a no no. I think we've been taught to be ashamed of our vaginas, and I guess the resurgence at the moment is 'hang on, there's a lot of us with them'."

Fringe helps array of performers shine

Mr Arbahams said he loves The Clams because "they're just a bunch of everyday people who decided to make a political statement through art".

"They're not professional artists, they're citizens who have something to say," he said.

Mr Abrahams said Fringe festivals are by nature inclusive, as they are uncurated and combined professional and amateur performances.

"Anyone that wants to perform work can, where there are cultural gatekeepers at other festivals, Fringe welcomes all," he said.

"There's no doubt that Melbourne Fringe is a safe environment for artists to create things in a supportive environment.

"But it is a mainstream festival and can cut through to general public as well — it's a way to break out of the echo chamber and get some impact across city."

Mr Abrahams said ticket sales to shows like The Clams proved the public was ready to see all these vaginas on stage.

"It's already one of our top sellers ... a water ballet about menstrual cycles by everyday citizens can sell better than mainstream comedian," he said.