Beating sexism through comedy: a one-woman show with an edge

August 23, 2017

Beating sexism through comedy: a one-woman show with an edge

AUNTY challenges the expectations of glamour from women in theatre. Photo: Supplied

An Auckland actor is challenging the expectations of beauty and glamour that surround women in theatre – and she does it all in a dressing gown.

Johanna Cosgrove, 25, is bringing her award-winning one-woman show AUNTY to the Basement Theatre next month.

After winning Best Comedy at this year’s Fringe Festival, Cosgrove has spent the past six months turning the 15-minute show into an hour-long performance, which has been performed in Whangarei and Christchurch.

Set at a family reunion barbeque, the show can be thought of as “Lyn of Tawa meets David Lynch”, she says.

Cosgrove plays Aunty, a foul-mouthed middle-aged matriarch complete with dressing gown, sunglasses and cigarette.

When creating the character, she took inspiration from family members and other women she knows.

“This character has grown into a fictional entity of a lot of older women in my life that I truly cherish.

“It’s a reflection of a certain culture in New Zealand, and a celebration of middle-aged women who are often totally disempowered in lots of ways in their lives.”

Producer Lauren Andrews said the character was “not just a parody, a one-way thing”.

“It’s a loving, completely rounded character.”

Producer Lauren Andrews (left) and the show's creator Johanna Cosgrove. Photo: Sophie Bateman

Andrews, who produced shows at the Basement long before meeting Cosgrove, said social media was an invaluable marketing tool.

“If you can create a groundswell underneath that, it’s brilliant. It’s been a massive shift for me in the last six months, realising that a poster in a cafĂ© has nowhere near the same amount of reach as a really funny video.”

She said the key was to maintain a distinct voice and consistent online presence to get people invested in the show.

Aunty has her own Facebook page featuring photos and videos of Cosgrove in character, some of which have thousands of views.

Cosgrove said the videos happened “organically”.

“Because I don’t have a director, it was just a way for me to make material and then look back at what I'd made. I ended up cutting them together and putting it out there.”

The show’s origins also stem from social media, with crowdfunding on Boosted, a New Zealand-based arts fundraising platform.

“Crowdfunding’s basically the only way you can get a solid chunk together, other than little fundraisers here and there,” said Cosgrove.

Andrews said it could be difficult not to annoy people with requests for funding.

“We’re trying to give them something back. That’s where the content comes in of being like you like this character, so you want to help out.”

Cosgrove said she would consider making YouTube videos or a web series, but her true passion was live performance.

After graduating from Toi Whakaari in 2014, she knew she wanted to make a comedy but felt hesitant because of her lack of experience.

“It’s this kind of imposter syndrome where you're like, I'm too young, a bit more experience, a few more credits . . . it was like, nah I'm just going to do something.”

She described AUNTY as a “pushback” against a theatre scene lacking compelling roles for women.

“Because I'm 25 and I'm an actor and I'm a female, there are so little roles comparatively to men . . . I felt really frustrated. So I was like, I'm going to make something that’s big and comedic and I’ll do it solo.”

Cosgrove admires Kiwi comedians like Rose Matafeo and Angella Dravid, and said that as a woman she felt she had to try harder to be taken seriously.

“That thing of having to be really staunch in what I want, potentially more so than if I was a male comedian.”

She said the way forward was for more women to write their own roles – “making work and connecting with each other”.

Andrews said she believed AUNTY was important in widening the variety of female characters in local theatre.

“It’s disbanding what it can be to be a woman comedian.”

While Cosgrove praised theatres like Basement and Silo for featuring female directors and women-centric shows, she said the Auckland theatre scene was still disproportionately male.

"It’s like dude city.”

Cosgrove said playing Aunty was a liberating experience in an industry that valued women for their appearance.

“I get to be so ugly and feel like I can be a hot mess because I'm in my dressing down and towel and no makeup. I don’t have to be beautiful for the audience.”

AUNTY will run at the Basement Theatre from September 12 to 16.

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