Julia Taudevin on shock value and Canadian punk terrorists

Julia '˜AJ' Taudevin talks about the Canadian punk terrorists who inspired her new show and why she wasn't prepared to compromise on its shock value, writes David Pollock

Julia Taudevin (second right) collaborates with composer Kim Moore (second left) and musicians Susan Bear (left) and Julie Eisenstein (right). Picture: John Devlin
Julia Taudevin (second right) collaborates with composer Kim Moore (second left) and musicians Susan Bear (left) and Julie Eisenstein (right). Picture: John Devlin

‘Fight Club for feminism!” exclaims Julia “AJ” Taudevin, at the suggestion that this sounds like a perfect reduced description of her new play. “I like it. I hadn’t thought of it like that, but feel free to use it.”

We’re sitting in the Traverse Theatre discussing the Glasgow-based theatre-maker’s Blow Off, which will appear in the same venue for two Edinburgh performances only, both on the same day. The Fight Club connection, I put to her, comes purely from the fact both feature a building being destroyed as a metaphor for what else might need torn down in society.

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Taudevin seems to agree. She describes the piece itself as being like “an attack” – it takes the form of a gig, with live collaboration from composer Kim Moore and musicians Julie Eisenstein and Susan Bear (the latter pair form Glasgow shoegaze duo Tuff Love), and Taudevin wants the intensity of a short, sharp, singular experience for the audience, rather than that of an extended theatre run.

Her longer-run work can be experienced this year at Summerhall, where she’s the co-director of the Fringe First-winning Heads Up; its sole actor, Kieran Hurley, is her partner, and she was also involved in the creation of his pieces Beats, Hitch and Chalk Farm (she co-wrote the latter). She says this piece was inspired by her reading of the book Direct Action: Memoirs Of An Urban Guerrilla by the Canadian anarchist Ann Hansen – she also mentions the Direct Action group’s Juliet Belmas.

“I understand them to have been among the first domestic terrorists,” says Taudevin. “They called themselves ‘urban anti-capitalist feminist guerrillas’, and they blew a lot of stuff up. They never killed anyone, their targets were big, symbolic ones like coal mines, porn shops and the like.”

The group were active in the 1980s, and were eventually caught and sent to prison. Hansen was given life but served eight years and became a writer in Ontario upon her release. Taudevin says one passage in the biography, in particular, spoke to her. “It was when Ann was talking about Juliet, who was the younger of the partnership,” she says. “She said she was someone who had grown up really normally, as someone who had nothing to be angry about. I remember reading that and thinking, ‘f***, that’s it, that’s my experience’ – of a normal, white, middle-class woman, who is told ‘you have no right to be angry, so just accept it’.”

The potent combination in this story fired her imagination, from the feminist point of view which she recognised so well, to the thread of defiant anti-capitalism and the implicit questioning of what actually defines a terrorist in the 21st century. Another aspect which appealed was the fact that Hansen was a punk, and this fused with Taudevin’s own love for the feminist Riot Grrrl movement of the 1990s, particularly the music of Kathleen Hanna, founder of the bands Bikini Kill, Le Tigre and The Julie Ruin.

“I love the way she claimed punk as a space for women,” says Taudevin. “She said in her gigs to the men, ‘you’re welcome but get to the back, this is a female space and you won’t dominate it with your male aggression’. There’s something about that, about taking punk and making it sound female… about making a space for women, sure, but more to the point about making a space for women to be angry in. That’s what’s really important, because it doesn’t really exist in a male-dominated society.”

Alighting on the desire long ago to create a piece which combined feminism and music in this way, Taudevin says her works with Hurley have almost acted as a research process for this very personal project, in that they’ve taught her a lot about how the theatrical impact of the spoken word can be enhanced when music becomes an integral part of the performance. Eventually, she began collaborating with Glasgow musician and composer Kim Moore, formerly of the city’s indie-pop quartet Zoey Van Goey and also the sound artist for Jenna Watt’s Fringe First-winning Faslane, which can be seen this month at Summerhall. The pair, along with Eisenstein and Bear, perform the show as a concert, with the text woven between and throughout the songs.

“The end result really has at its heart the combination of our creative voices as individuals,” says Moore, describing a fluid and collaborative writing process. “At times we’re a band with Julia as our fierce frontwoman, at times we step out ourselves, but we’re always her band – always with her, always present to support and explore her character’s internal chaos and intentions.”

Describing herself as “a mongrel’ (her family are half from the Isle of Lewis and half Australian; she was raised in Indonesia and lived in London before moving to Glasgow nine years ago), Taudevin has finally arrived at a piece of work dealing in themes which have been important to her all her life. In the end, she had to do it herself by getting the funding together for this performance and a few other one-offs throughout the autumn; the Traverse has been supportive (she notes it’s a venue run by women), as has co-director Graham Eatough.

Although it explicitly doesn’t condone terrorism, and the lead character doesn’t achieve her goal – at least, not in a way she finds satisfying, says Taudevin archly – every official conversation the creator has had around this piece has involved some suggestion of compromise of form or content. “And that’s just not something I’m prepared to do with this project,” she says. It would kind of defeat the point.

• Blow Off , Traverse Theatre, tomorrow, then touring to Dundee Rep Theatre, 22 September