Jess Holly Bates is one half of the acclaimed duo behind The Offensive Nipple Show, alongside the talented and hilarious Jess Tuck. Directed by Bop Murdoch, this is a show unlike any other, featuring raucous physical comedy, an intelligent take on female empowerment and at least four nipples.
Before making its way across the ditch, The Offensive Nipple Show will pop-up at The Basement for one night only. We sat down with Jess to chat about watercooler vaginas, why being naked is empowering and what's next for the team behind The Offensive Nipple Show.
Could you speak a little about the show and what it's all about for those who don't know?
We call it a nipple sitcom from the breast's perspective, and The Offensive Nipple Show is all about two girls being a bit radical (and ordinary) with their bodies! It's a sketch show, featuring a giant nipple cabaret, lip-sync activism and watercooler vaginas. At the heart of it, for us, we think being silly and being empowered don't have to be mutually exclusive things. What does offensive mean when we determine the gaze? So it's highly lol-able, but it's also about carving out a seldom space for the female body to get desexualised - even if just for a moment.
There's much more to the play than nudity. Why was it important for their to be nakedness in the show?
We weren't sure there would be! When Sarah and I got nude for the first time in rehearsal, we just stared at each other from the wings and then ended up in these hysterical fits of laughter. We had no idea what we were doing. It wasn't until we had it in front of an audience that we realised what an impact being naked and ordinary was having - some people are scared to look at their own body, let alone someone else's!
Overwhelmingly, the response has been one of feeling empowered, which is why the post-show public skinny-dipping worked so well - people were dying to walk to Oriental Bay or bus to the beach with us, and get the opportunity to be comfortable in their skin.
It's really pretty magical what that can do. We have a hot dream of making this show every ten years, when I'll be 41 and she'll be 34, and what the show would mean then, how will it change? How will we have to market it? It's a fascinating experiment to see how our bodies, visibility and censorship change with age. At the moment, our view is, if people come because the word 'nipple' is in the title, those are the people who need to come and see the show the most.
What advice would you give people wanting to embrace their own bodies?
This is not an easy question - I've just been away with our Body Sovereignty Collective (an art collective that sprung off the back of Offensive Nipple) on a three day retreat trying to open this very conversation. It's impossible to know what that might look like for other people - but I always come back to dance, giving yourself permission to move your body and giving your body back to yourself as a gift. I think embracing your body is not something you can 'think' your way into, it's a practice. You have to return to it, over and over, and often learn the same act of relaxation over and over, to tune out our media-drowned culture and find something more authentic, and joyful, that works for your body.
What do you think is the core thing making people feel uncomfortable in their skin? How can we overcome it?
It's complex - but I think a huge source is gender violence, which is due in large part to women (in particular) feeling that they do not own their own bodies. And this runs on a scale from norms of consent to cutting your "beautiful" long hair off. It's strange where those voices come from. It might be your mum telling you not to cut your hair. It might be your grandmother telling you that breastfeeding a child in public is a promiscuous act. It might be your colleague incensed by the sight of your midriff. To me the major thing disconnecting us from our own bodies is the idea that something or someone else owns the right to do what you want with it. Again, it's an ongoing conversation - but making spaces of acceptance, silliness and honesty feel like a good start.
What has been your favourite response to the show?
A friend of mine, who told me she never even looked at her own body when she changed clothes - she felt so much shame at its very existence - she said it was mind-blowing to see two girls being ordinary and funny and joyful in their bodies. She didn't quite make it to the skinny dip, but she said she has started to look at her body now. And it's those little shifts, those tiny question marks that we plant, that if watered, will grow into something resistant and interesting and self-authorising. That's what makes this very very cool.
Have you faced any obstacles during the creation of the show?
What challenged us the most in the making process was making a show where two girls could support each other, not cut each other down. In devising, it's an unscripted process, so you are improvising with the most readily available tropes and cliches for entertaining theatre first. And you have to get them out of the way, so you can get to the juicy stuff! But so many of the representations of women flying around in our culture are dumb girls, or mean girls, that it took us quite a while to find alternative voices. Broad City is one of the lonely examples we just kept returning to: that girls could be ridiculous, and loveable, and adore each other, and people would pay to see that. I always say Sarah Tuck and I are fluorescent together, and judging by the audience response, I think it might just be true.
The play is at The Basement, one of the best performance venues in Auckland. How does the venue add to the experience?
The Basement are an incredible venue, their artist support is phenomenal, and they have wholeheartedly held the nipple conversation from start to finish. Now that the giant boob of the globe has been removed from the carpark, we can finally see them for what they are: the stronghold of emerging performance work in Auckland. Low ceilings, babe-ing staff and an excellent range of IPAs and APAs. Not that that impacts the show, but who doesn't love theatre with a good hoppy beverage in hand?
Could you tell us a little about what the show's fundraising for?
In our debut season at NZ Fringe in February, we won the Tiki Tour Ready Melbourne Fringe Award - setting us up in a premium venue for the Melbourne Fringe in September and basically insisting we take this show and its hairy conversation to Australia! So, as requested, we are performing 11 shows across Sydney and Melbourne, hosting two public skinny-dipping events, but also curating a Body Sovereignty Performance exhibition in Melbourne, where we collaborate with local Melbourne artists to generate new work celebrating body reclamation.
Everywhere we go, we set up this four-fold platform for public engagement, so its about spreading our legs into making the conversation as wide, and as accessible as possible. We're even flirting with the idea of a public breastfeeding picnic... watch this space! In order to get us there, we are crowdfunding on BOOSTED, but we are also doing one hot fundraising show, for those who missed out last time!
You've had a fairly storied accomplished career in theatre after only a few years. What's next for Jess Holly Bates and The Offensive Nipple Show?
Netflix and chill. I wish. In October I'm directing the season of Manawa Ora at Herald Theatre, a show working with rangatahi through the Nga Rangatahi Toa arts organisation - which will be a pretty incredible project! I'm currently working with The Blackbird Ensemble for their new show Afterlife, which we are devising for 2017. Sarah Tuck and Bop Murdoch, the Offensive Nipple collaborators, have just started a new business called CoLiberate, connecting creativity and wellbeing in an urban studio in Wellington. It's a pretty hot time to be alive for us, I'm not going to lie.
Help The Offensive Nipple Show get to the Melbourne Fringe by attending the one-off fundraising performance at The Basement on Monday, August 22.