Challenging the chestnut

Thomas LaHood and Jo Randerson - image provided.
Photo by Julien Juanola
Thomas LaHood and Jo Randerson - image provided.
Kate Powell tests the boundaries of gender constructs and explores the yielding of toxic masculinity with Thomas La Hood.

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Stifling gender constructs 

Jo Randerson and Thomas LaHood are tackling a tough issue in a new season of their work.

Toxic masculinity’, an often misunderstood term, captures the attitude that the sole blueprint of being a man is rooted in toughness, aggression and the idea that discussing feelings is for pussies. Inextricably, it also conjures images of deplorable sexual and domestic violence statistics. I have survived encounters with toxic masculinity great and small. But I have also seen men victimised by it as well. 

It’s a key barrier to vital conversations around men’s wellness, mirrored again in our horrific suicide toll. Quite simply men are being shamed for being themselves. The impact of toxic masculinity is not gender discriminatory. It is a stifling gender ‘construct’ that can opress everyone. 

Tackling a power structure that has existed in Western society for millennia is no mean feat, but it is literally half of the reason that Barbarian Productions latest piece Soft N’ Hard is so important.


Photo by Julien Juanola

The narrative

In Soft ‘N Hard, husband and wife duo Thomas LaHood and Jo Randerson delve deeply into the tensions and imbalances between male and female gender roles in the 21st century, using humour and clowning to unpack these dense topics.

“Toxic masculinity is a narrative more than anything else,” says LaHood. “The manifestations of that narrative are in concepts like feeling like you have to be tough, for example. Often I think it’s a narrative that creates its own circles of logic and those circles can be really self destructive, particularly for men. But I think that all aspects of our lives are impacted by toxic patriarchal frameworks.”

LaHood says that despite having felt in touch with the feminine world from boyhood, toxic masculinity has been a spectre throughout his life.

“If anything, the draw towards making art is a response to not wanting to conform to conventional gender roles.”

Smells like there is a problem

Considering toxic masculinity within the theatre landscape, LaHood acknowledges that it was “definitely a problem historically; now like many industries we are in a state of flux. It’s the younger practitioners who are the most well versed and fluid in thinking.”

“I’m interested in the more insidious, slightly poisonous aspects of toxic masculinity. It’s like a gas leak - you’re sniffing around saying ‘I sort of can smell gas but I’m not sure’. It can be so invisible to us that it can evade our gaze.”

It's a tide that has been shifting since the 1980s with the topic being discussed in Foreskin's Lament and again in 2017 with Boys. When pressed for how Soft N’ Hard fits into this history, LaHood responds:

“I’m interested in the more insidious, slightly poisonous aspects of toxic masculinity. It’s like a gas leak - you’re sniffing around saying ‘I sort of can smell gas but I’m not sure’. It can be so invisible to us that it can evade our gaze.”

To explore this facet, LaHood spent a lot of time considering himself as well as his peers while crafting Soft ‘N Hard


Thomas LaHood and Jo Randerson - image provided.

The radical subversiveness of Jo Randerson

That this topic comes under the lens of Barbarian Productions adds another dimension to this ongoing conversation.

“It’s very much in the language and artistic voice of Jo’s body of work. I am very influenced by her radical, subversiveness and courageous use of comedy to address a curly question,” enthuses LaHood.

“It’s a more universalised work; we want to get straight to the point rather than couch it in gravitas or try and tell the gritty true story of the Kiwi bloke who struggles to self-realise in a world of toxic masculinity,” says LaHood. 

“I never related to that story anyway and I wonder if theatre is ever going to be the tool to reach the rugby heads of the world? I suspect not,” he muses. “So this is probably more of an offering to those who already have an inkling of gender politics and have these conversations privately.”

Comedy and catharsis

Given that the duo are exploring such complex issues, on first glance it seems counter intuitive that they are presenting them via clowning and largely silent.

LaHood, who has an extensive background in clowning explains: “It’s a finely tuned craft that can be used to unpack quite complex ideas. [Clowning] has both vulnerability and humour which are both important facets when discussing painful subjects. Vulnerability makes the comedy meaningful, giving it a place to land with the audience.”

The decision to remain largely silent is because “it’s more satisfying, powerful and direct...we were trying to use the limitations of not having text to push us and really communicate visually what we wanted to get across. In the end, we added a whole third sequence which is very dialogue driven, because the work needed that catharsis.”

Soft ‘N Hard

Tuesday 20 - Saturday 24 August, 7.30pm

Loft at Q Theatre. For more information: www.qtheatre.co.nz 
 

Written by

Kate Powell

15 Aug 2019

Kate is a cultural critic, curator and gallery essayist. She has held a variety of community-art focussed roles as a social media strategist, artist liaison, artistic director, and publicist. 

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