Content warning: this article discusses harassment and sexual violence
On March 17, 2015, 17-year-old Masa Vukotic was stabbed to death in a Melbourne park while out on her evening walk. After her murder, Victoria Police detective inspector Mick Hughes suggested women avoid walking through parks alone.
Vukotic’s death – and Hughes’s now-infamous comment – prompted actor and theatre-maker Kasey Gambling (from all-female Melbourne production company The Honeytrap) to write The Maze. The intimate and immersive show puts a single audience member in the shoes of a woman walking home alone at night.
“I wrote it in 2016 and it’s only gotten more relevant since then, sadly,” Gambling tells Broadsheet. The theme is all too familiar.
Last June, 22-year-old Eurydice Dixon was raped and murdered in inner-city Melbourne on her way home from a stand-up set. Her killer had followed her five kilometres across the city.
Last month, 21-year-old Aiia Maasarwe was raped and murdered, in Melbourne’s northern suburbs, on her way home from a comedy show. She was on a video call – something many women have done to feel safer when walking alone at night – to her sister when she was attacked.
Each time there is an attack, sections of the community place the onus on women to keep themselves safe: to stay alert, to not walk alone, to not wear headphones, to avoid public spaces. It’s a tendency that frustrates Gambling.
“The response from detective inspector Mick Hughes … just enraged me,” she says. “That instead of telling men to respect women he was telling women not to go outside … that remark was the impetus for writing The Maze. I wanted to make something that looked at how women and non-binary people are taught to police their use of these spaces and the heightened awareness required of them to navigate them.”
The show offers its audience of one a glimpse of the casual and direct misogyny women experience on the street. It won the 2017 Melbourne Fringe NSW Tour Ready Award and The Summerhall Award in Edinburgh. It’s also a recipient of the Adelaide Fringe Artists Fund. With one audience member per show, the tiny revenue would otherwise have made the show impossible to stage.
The single audience member follows actor Libby Brockman through the dark city streets, listening to her inner monologue through a set of headphones. Behind every corner, in every dark alley, those footsteps behind her, is a potential threat. It’s a disturbingly recognisable scene for many.
“You’re privy to the woman’s internal monologue: her reactions to the harassment she’s facing, as well as the strategies she’s considering to keep herself safe,” says Gambling. “Taking out one headphone, putting her keys in her fist, turning left here … ”
The audience becomes a spectator to incidents of harassment, which play out with male actors. Most of the time.
“Unsurprisingly, and sadly, when I’ve [staged] it in Melbourne I’ve had random men approach my audience member,” says Gambling. “But we have safety procedures in place so the audience members know what’s real. We also have minders, so we moved them along quickly.”
The audience’s role blurs the line between bystander and participant. Gambling says male viewers, in particular, tend to feel complicit. For women it’s validation, a reflection of their own experiences.
“The men I’ve spoken to afterwards … they’re really confronted by it. And that’s really great. That’s what I want,” says Gambling. “The actor you’re following is a woman, so in effect it looks like you’re following a woman and that’s another layer for men when they’re experiencing the performance.”
Gambling says the audience breakdown has been around two-thirds women. She hopes more men will see the show. She also acknowledges the guys who buy tickets are “likely to be more progressive to start with”. But that doesn’t mean they won’t learn something. “My partner is very progressive but there are things he’ll never experience as a cis man,” she says.
“I wanted to make [men] aware of what they take for granted. Something as simple as walking home at night.” And most importantly, making it home alive.
The Maze runs from March 8 to 16. Tickets are limited, and available through the Adelaide Fringe website. The exact location will be emailed to ticket holders.
If you would like to speak with someone about an experience you have had, or would like information, please call 1800Respect on 1800 737 732 or visit 1800respect.org.au.