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Sex workers accuse Griffin, Malthouse of exploitation

Richard Watts

The theatre companies deny claims that Peta Brady's Ugly Mugs exploits sex workers, saying it is a work of fiction.
Sex workers accuse Griffin, Malthouse of exploitation

Steve Le Marquand and Peta Brady in a scene from Ugly Mugs.

A Malthouse/Griffin co-production, Ugly Mugs – inspired in part by the 2013 murder of St Kilda sex worker Tracy Connelly and currently showing in Sydney – has come under attack, with allegations raised that it represents ‘both a breach of trust and an alarming low point in exploitation of sex workers’.


In an account published on the blog sexliesducttape on Monday, and endorsed by Scarlet Alliance and Vixen Collective, sex worker, sex worker activist and performance artist Jane Green, writes:

‘Imagine this: after being raped you tell your story, in confidence, to a local organisation so that it can be collected with others and in a closed publication circulated to help prevent offenders re-victimising others.  This publication is ‘closed’ because were it generally available, predators would recognise themselves in its pages and be able to change their appearance and behaviours, going on to commit further crimes with greater ease.

'Now imagine this: without your consent the account of your rape and those of other survivors are taken by someone who is not a member of your community, disclosed and used as thinly veiled “inspiration” for a play, while actual accounts are read out mid-scene.  A play with the same title as the closed publication meant to protect your community.  This is your rape played out on stage.  Permission not sought, nor considered relevant.’

According to Green, neither Malthouse or Griffin ‘were willing to accept sex workers concerns’ about the play's content and development. She has also accused playwright Peta Brady of ‘appropriation of sex workers stories’.

Brady has denied these claims, saying there had been detailed consultation with Melbourne sex workers during the play's development, as well as subsequent conversations in its original Melbourne season.

'I've had about eight question and answer sessions on this and nothing. Until now. It's such a shame because the conversations I've had with the sex workers that did come and were invited to rehearsal have been really positive,' Brady told ArtsHub.

On the issue of appropriation, Scarlet Alliance's Acting CEO, Jules Kim said: 'Sex worker self-representation is key to combating the stigma and misrepresentation of sex workers and sex workers experiences. Outsiders speaking about sex workers' experiences, including non-peer support workers, have a tendency to see sex workers as a vulnerable population in need of rescue and not as leaders in our own communities’ occupational rights, health and safety. The self representation of sex workers is crucial to changing these negative and inaccurate public and popular perceptions about sex work and sex workers.'

Using the Ugly Mugs publication in a dramatic context was in itself deeply problematic, according to Maria McMahon, Editor of Ugly Mugs at the Prostitutes’ Collective Victoria 1993-1997 and Sex Workers' Outreach Project 1997-2006.

'[It] is a clear violation of years of trust built up by sex worker organisations with sex workers who use the ugly mug as a system of support against the barriers created by bad laws, poor policing and society’s stigma and discrimination. Circulation was limited to sex worker to sex worker only, creating a closed circulation and distribution and "disclaimers" were developed to describe the purpose, circulation and how to destroy unwanted copies. The disclaimers in Ugly Mugs should have prevented Peta Brady thinking that she could even use the title as it creates increased risk for sex workers,’ McMahon said.

ArtsHub has subsequently been informed by several independent witnesses that in the recent past, the Ugly Mugs publication – both covers and interior pages – were prominently displayed in the windows of the Prostitutes' Collective of Victoria office in St Kilda, contradicting claims by Green, McMahon and others it was a 'closed circulation' publication.

Griffin Theatre Company responded to Green's criticisms on their own blog first thing Tuesday morning.

‘In Peta Brady’s play Ugly Mugs which is playing currently at Griffin, a doctor is conducting an autopsy on the corpse of a woman. He finds in her boot a photocopied newsletter called Ugly Mugs. He proceeds to read information from the newsletter in the course of the play,’ the statement reads in part.

‘The words that he reads are complete fiction. It is not a real copy of an Ugly Mugs issue. Peta Brady has not used anyone’s real stories of violence, abuse or rape in her script.

‘As an outreach worker for health services and a needle exchange program in Melbourne for many years she agrees that to use real material from a confidential source would be a gross invasion of privacy. The entire play is a fictional work, being inspired by extensive research and  observation in the field, intended to highlight the need for the decriminalisation of street work in Victoria.’

The companies' blog post also responds to claims that sex workers’ concerns were dismissed, noting that the play ‘was rehearsed in Melbourne and during rehearsals sex workers came into the room as consultants. Any concerns they had about representation were addressed by the playwright at that time.’

In response to the Griffin Theatre blog post, Green wrote on sexliesducttape this morning: 'You say – “We believe that this play describes violence not to glamorise it as entertainment, nor to create ‘pity’ for the ‘victims’”

'Let me be clear: since you have not lived my life, you cannot describe it.

'Let be be clearer still: you have no right to access the private accounts of rape, violence and trauma of my community and recycle these as entertainment, no matter how you attempt to justify it,' she wrote.

Marion Potts, Artistic Director of Malthouse Theatre and the director of Ugly Mugs in both Melbourne and Sydney, repudiated claims that confidences were broken during the play's development, or that members of the sex working community were not properly consulted.

'Those two points in particular need to be fleshed out in the context of this particular project, because obviously, it’s a work of fiction; it’s a dramatization that is based on Peta’s experiences in the community but there’s certainly no single fact that’s been quoted in the piece which is not a work of her own imagination,' she told ArtsHub.

'The next point is the idea that there was no consultation process, which is completely false; there was a very rigorous research and consultation process … as there is for every single piece that we do when we broach a new work and if there are areas that we don’t feel we have the knowledge or the experience to write about, then obviously we go and consult and research and we did that with this particular piece.'

Potts pointed out that the copy of the Ugly Mugs brochure which appears on-stage is a prop: 'It’s got chunks of script inside.'

She also questioned the claims of appropriation made on sexliesducttape both yesterday and today.

'This isn’t just a play about the sex working community, it’s a play about violence against women – and there’s a whole second strand of narrative that has very little to do with the Ugly Mugs brochure or the experiences of sex workers. It is a much bigger piece. And as to the question of who has the right to tell what story, as a female I feel – and as Peta is a female as well – I feel we have every right to tell the story about violence against women,' Potts concluded.

The Griffin/Malthouse co-production Ugly Mugs is showing at the SBW Stables Theatre in Kings Cross until 23 August.

About the author

Richard Watts is ArtsHub's national performing arts editor and Deputy Editor; he also presents the weekly program SmartArts on community radio station Three Triple R. The founder of the Emerging Writers' Festival, Richard currently serves on the boards of La Mama Theatre and the journal Going Down Swinging; he is also a member of the Green Room Awards Independent Theatre panel, and a life member of the Melbourne Queer Film Festival. Follow Richard on Twitter: @richardthewatts