The Ballad of Lois Ryan, written by Melbourne playwright Andrew Bovell, was originally developed and performed by the Melbourne Workers' Theatre in 1988.
The Brisbane production of The Ballad of Lois Ryan was directed primarily from design ideas. Ruby Red (director) and Lisa Smith (designer) defined these elements concurrently. Four construction workers, using scrap metal gleaned from Rocklea Spinning Mills and Montague bins, interpreted this brief to achieve the final installation. It is the installation which distinguishes the Brisbane production and which produced a unique artistic architecture for framing and containing the drama.
The play is based upon a true story of a textile worker crushed to death while operating a machine alone early one morning. The play unfolds Lois Ryan's personal struggle – the tensions between her marriage, working, domestic and social life. The play finds its origins in the social realism of the seventies. And it is concerned with that aspect of feminism which recovers women's history, telling "her story." This is also more typical of seventies art in Australia, coming out of the women's movement (such as Vivienne Binns' Mothers' Memories, Others ' Memories to cite a well known example). Both traditions are highly personalised and beg a 'realistic' rendition. Often this has the sad effect of creating a television soap-opera feel, which numbs rather than promotes audience participation. More importantly, realism, as an aesthetic, is problematic for feminist discourse. Realism is the dominant and most privileged form of expression in our society and is therefore inadequate for expressing the marginalised and alternative feminist vision. The stage installation, operating as a governing social metaphor, overcomes these stylistic limitations and articulates a new artistic space for the feminist and political concerns central to The Ballad of Lois Ryan.
The installation was created as a percussive set. The opening scene of the play (not in the original script) consisted of the three actors banging rhythmically on various parts of the installation. These sound metaphors for the incessantly operating textile factory were the first to be heard. Only after they were effectively 'drummed' home were human voices heard, breaking into the opening song. In this way, personal experience was subservient to a governing social metaphor – the play, like Lois' life, was dominated by the factory.
Metaphoric meaning with its paradigmatic associations weaves an elaborate texture for artistic expression. Its counterpart, syntagmatic and metonymic meaning, create a more singular and unified vision, emphasising the linear, progressive and developmental aspects of language. A once 'realistic' play, centred solely upon telling a story, The Ballad of Lois Ryan, when performed within an installation, became a metaphoric discourse upon artistic and social space.
The artistic space, originally conceived as a conventional stage set, became an unconventional installation/performance/theatrical space. In breaking from a prescribed formalism, in the open creative atmosphere of The Paint Factory, dramatic tradition gained new vitality. The three actors never left the stage, with no 'exits' or 'entrances' they were bound entirely within the installation.
The metaphoric space, now the central dictate to the dramatic action, was orchestrated chiefly by Paul Gabbert's lighting design, but also musically (written by lrene Vela, directed by Peter Stewart) and intermittently by a background slidesequence. These changing effects cast through the installation created metaphoric space (from intimate to vast) within which to contain the drama.
Most remarkable was the achievement of gendered spaces. Lois' husband, Mick, was also a factory worker, but he enjoyed the power and job satisfaction of being a union rep. For him the factory was a territory, a commanded space. For Lois, who disliked her work, enjoying no power, oppressed by financial necessity, the factory was a prison. Similarly with their domestic space, Mick is head of the household which is therefore also his territory: Lois, overburdened with the traditionally feminine domestic duties, is trapped and oppressed. These meanings are generated not merely through obvious displays of body language, but also through subtle spatial metaphors such as the wire cage of the shopping trolley; the intense coldness of the female workers' area of the factory; and Lois' only autonomous space, absent from her husband, in open country, on the river bank.
The Ballad of Lois Ryan, a small budget production for a community theatre audience, raises issues which are vital to the future of all artistic production. One has only to be reminded of such high-budget productions as A Cosmic Odyssey Nippon (World Expo on stage, 1988) to realise the creative potential of the interface of performance, theatre and installation.