A Fading Star on the Rise: Woman of the Hour

If you haven’t heard of Cassandra Barbitoll don’t worry, neither had we.

Sophie Joske’s solo show Woman of the Hour, premiering during FRINGE WORLD 2019, promises to bring audiences up to speed on all things Cassandra in just 50 hilarious minutes.

What will we have to say about the show? We don’t know yet, but we can barely contain ourselves while we wait to find out. Ever keen for inside information, we had a chat with Joske in the meantime.

Image courtesy of Mark Gambino

Image courtesy of Mark Gambino

Gutter Culture: Tell us about the Woman of the Hour, Cassandra Barbitoll.

Sophie Joske: Cassandra Barbitoll is a demon of rejected actresses that emerged from a weird back corner of my brain. She's a combination of old-Hollywood glamour girl, manic former child star and a nightmare version of myself in thirty years. She's the deluded heroine of her own epic melodrama, determined to be the star of the show, even if nobody will cast her. She's the star of her own life, but she'll play all the other characters as well.

GC: What would you say was the inspiration for this show?

SJ: I've been feeling the need to do another solo piece for a long time, but I wasn't sure about the concept. Before I started developing this show I was in a very weird place in my performing career. The last few years most of my projects have involved me playing myself (or a heightened, cartoony version, but still more or less me) and I've been craving a good character piece.

The idea for Woman of the Hour slowly emerged from two big ingredients pickling away in my brain: the tragic lives of old Hollywood actresses, and my own fears as a performing artist, chiefly that I would end up penniless, alone and bitter from a life of devoting myself to the stage. In Woman of the Hour I'm taking those fears, blowing them up to cartoonish proportions, and dressing them up in early 20th century drag. I play a woman who I fear turning out to be - chewed up and spat out by the entertainment industry, lonely and eccentric, and unable to take ownership of her own life. But Woman of the Hour is her time to shine, her opportunity to be the leading lady she always felt she should be. 

GC: You’ve talked about this work as a love letter to classic cinema - tell us about that. 

SJ: Earlier this year I started listening to a podcast called You Must Remember This. It’s all about uncovering the true histories of old Hollywood. I got really fascinated by the season devoted to 'Dead Blondes', discussing blonde actresses who died young, often in tragic and bizarre circumstances, and how in doing so became more famous than they had been in life. 

All of these stories combine to form a peculiar feminine ideal, one that is fragile, untouchable and eternally young. I started watching a lot of old movies and reading stories about actresses, how for many of these female stars, career success rarely seems to be met with longevity and a happy personal life. I also became obsessed with Joan Crawford, in particular the film Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, in which her and Bette Davis play sisters and former stars, whose lives enter a downward spiral of jealousy and resentment after living out of the spotlight for decades. I really can't overstate how great that film is. I was very inspired by Davis' character Jane, who is convinced that, well into middle age, she can return to the act that made her famous as a child. There are fantastic moments where she is confronted by her age and obscurity. Woman of the Hour is very much inspired by the women of Hollywood whose own public personas were as epic as the characters they played.

Image courtesy of Mark Gambino

Image courtesy of Mark Gambino

GC: No doubt some of Cassandra’s experiences and anecdotes are relevant to female experience in the performing arts. What’s your opinion on being a woman in this field?

SJ: That's a big question. The performing arts is a massive field, and I'm sure different female performers have differing experiences in their different disciplines. I imagine the experience of a being a female performing artist as a ballet dancer would be very different to that of a stand up comedian. Some consistent themes I have observed, in my own experience and in many of the stories about female performers that I've been devouring lately, is an emphasis on physical appearance, and a fear of becoming unemployable with age. These are two of the major themes I'm exploring in Woman of the Hour.

In stand up comedy, I found I had to strategise a way to make myself palatable for audiences. I eventually found myself deprecating my own physical appearance and my queerness in an attempt to make the audience comfortable. It was slowly grinding down my self-esteem and willingness to get up in the morning. Now, it's difficult to say how much of this self-deprecation was actually necessary to win over an audience, and how much of it was born of my own internalised shame. But I do think that when you're part of the demographic that makes up the majority of performers in a particular field, you're less likely to find yourself performing these psychological gymnastics. There's also less weight on you bombing when you're not 'the only one' on the lineup. 

Image courtesy of Mark Gambino

Image courtesy of Mark Gambino

Last year I did a theatre show with genius comic Anna Piper Scott called Almost Lesbians, which involved embracing our queerness and femme-ness onstage, and that was met with tremendous love and support, which I am still flabbergasted by. In my solo work, I've put stand up comedy on the back burner until I can find a way to do it that doesn't hurt myself. I may not do it again. But I am having a lot of fun exploring these ideas through weird, physical theatre comedy, and playing with big, bold characters that might come from me, but they are not really me.

GC: How has your experience affected or informed the creation of this show?

SJ: After making the decision to step back from stand up comedy, I had to consciously think about what I wanted to do instead. It's fair to say that the work I've been putting onstage for the last few years hasn't exactly been stand up, but a bit of a blend between stand up and theatre. Taking away the stand-up quotient, I wasn't totally sure what I was left with. But I did know that I wanted to find a way of making shows that was less sitting at a laptop, and more getting up and doing things. So, I got some physical theatre and clown training, and I've been doing some (often painful) improvising with the help of some very smart friends. It feels a bit like doing things backwards. Rather than sitting down, writing a show and then taking it onto a stage to rehearse, I'm getting up onstage and making things up and then writing down the good bits. It's hard, but often very fun, and a very necessary shake-up to the way I do things.

GC: What do you hope the show will prompt audiences to think about? Or, if you could speak to people considering the show, what would you, or Cassandra, say to them?

SJ: I promise it's going to be a good time. Yes, I definitely have a feminist agenda afoot, and I'm hoping that audiences will relate to having weird body-image feelings, feeling typecast by the world around you and struggling with the way you want to present yourself to the world. In this show I'm also pushing my theatrical comedy skills as far as they'll go, and allowing myself to be bigger, bolder and more brash than I have been before. It's going to be quite different to the work I've done before, but it's very, very silly and fun (the two main things I always strive for).

GC: Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know?

SJ: This Perth season is the very first incarnation of Cassandra, so this audience will be getting the freshest, most raw version of the show. Prepare yourselves. We don't know what she's capable of. 

Woman of the Hour runs 6-8 February. Get tickets here.