WWLKD? In praise of pushy women.

The other day I tweeted something calling myself “pushy” which got quite an interesting reaction, and it made me think about gender politics.*

I was raised in a way that is perceived as stereotypically quite male. My father was a mathematician, my family numbers several scientists, and I was taught maths and encouraged into science and engineering-related play (Lego, and building robots) from literally the crib onwards.** I was allowed to dress however I wanted and within reason do whatever I wanted, which was mostly building things and running around exploring and climbing trees. My school encouraged my aptitude for maths, science and engineering. And because I didn’t have anyone trying to censor me, I never put limits on my own ambitions or personality.

I was fortunate to grow up completely unaware these were considered “not girl things” or that my personality was/is not “feminine”. I grew up thinking there were no boundaries on my ability to achieve. And then I got disabled and everything came to a complete halt for a long time, and when I started to recover I felt that I’d wasted so much time, I never wanted to have brakes on me again. When I started writing something just clicked, and I didn’t see any reason not to throw myself into it with everything I have. I was, and perhaps still am, quite naive in assuming my writing was the only thing that matters.

It should be the only thing that matters.

When I started writing, everyone told me how hard it was. Writing isn’t hard; dealing with people is hard. For the first time I’m having to deal with other people having opinions about me and coming off a lifetime of being mostly invisible that’s really fucking weird. I’ve been told I talk too much, that I’m too ambitious, too open about being ambitious, too forward, too shy, too angry, too apologetic, that I talk too much about feminism and disability rights. I’ve been told I’m a role model and an inspiration and a personal hero. It’s a lot to shoulder.

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Leslie Knope is my personal hero. It’s so refreshing to see a woman on TV who is smart and ambitious and unashamedly pushy. Leslie Knope is so extra it’s hilarious, but her ambitions are taken seriously. Be More Lesley.

Early in my acting career I was in a horrific fringe production where the cast were responsible for rewriting the “script” (a dire foreign language screenplay that had been Babelfished into English) into something vaguely understandable. Three of us argued for major edits, the others felt their job was to create as literal a translation as possible. When the production fell apart (for various reasons), one of the other actresses called me out for being “aggressive” but didn’t say a word to the men who had been arguing far more loudly and lengthily. It’s depressing to realise your behaviour is considered “pushy” or “aggressive” because of your gender. Do men ever get called pushy? Do men care if they’re thought of as being pushy?

Society conditions women to be nice, be caring, and to feel responsible for managing others’ emotions. Sometimes it can be hard not to feel pressure to make sure other people are comfortable, and blaming yourself if they’re not. In the past I’ve been guilty of not standing up for myself, letting people walk over me and put me in situations I wasn’t comfortable with, being too apologetic, and then getting angry at them for my inability to speak up. It’s such a passive aggressive thing to do, and quite a martyr thing, and it’s so toxic. But I’ve realised that as long as I behave according to my own standards and boundaries, it’s not my job police anyone else’s feelings. Be respectful of others, yes. But not try to predict or pre-apologise or second guess what people are thinking.

Last year a married co-worker kept aggressively hitting on me, and when I confronted him to tell him to stop, he turned it on me and tried to make out that I’d been pursuing him and he’d been too nice to tell me no. Which: fuck that. It ended up being a pretty good life lesson, and that life lesson really is: fuck that. You’re a grown man, you’re a decade older than me, a foot taller, you come from a wealthy and privileged background, and you’re in a position of power over me. Don’t play the victim and pretend you’re just too innocent and helpless and nice*** to stand up to some random woman. Take responsibility for your actions.

So I’ve decided I’m not going to give headspace to it any more. I’m quite self-aware. I have good boundaries and a decent ability to read people and read a room. I can tell when I’m not wanted and the last thing I’d ever want is to be somewhere where I’m not welcome. If I’m being too pushy, it’s on you to tell me. But there’s nothing wrong with being pushy.

Pushy women rule the world.

 

*Everything makes me think about gender politics.

**My dad put posters of the times tables over my crib and used to give me a pound for reciting them correctly.

***Nice Guy tm

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“Where do you get your ideas from?” Genesis of a play.

I don’t tend to write or talk much about the actual writing process, mainly because I’m so still new I don’t feel I can necessarily offer much. But I’ve recently been working on a play that had what for me was an unusual conception, and I thought it might be helpful to detail it. One of the questions people constantly ask about writing is “where do your ideas come from?”and it’s a weirdly difficult question to answer. My first play Tortoise burst into life e so fully and immediately, I didn’t need to think about what or how to write. It’s easy to fall into the myth of inspiration striking out of the blue, and sometimes that does happen, but more often it’s just plain hard work and trying different pieces together till something fits. Some plays are lightning bolts. Some plays are jigsaw puzzles, except you have to carve all the pieces yourself, out of tissue paper, live snakes, and cheese.

Anyway.

Last week I was in the Birmingham Rep’s rehearsal rooms with Graeae, working on my new play ‘War Pig.’ And this is how War Pig came about:

1. It started from the title. “War Pig” became a Graeae running joke (don’t ask, but also do google it*) and I immediately fixed upon the idea of calling a play War Pig. I threw around a few ideas, but nothing stuck.

2. I’ve been doing regular ‘stuff’ with the Bush Theatre for about 18 months (got my feet under the table doing Neighbourhood Project and due to them being the nicest people ever just sort of stuck around*). In one workshop we were given a writing exercise: to create a character based on a button and a list of questions. I chose a military uniform button and created an elderly Jewish woman who was a military widow. I had my character, but nowhere to put her.

3. Then the women’s marches happened. I didn’t go, and bitterly regretted it. I felt moved to write something about the women’s march, as if it would make up for not being there. Could my elderly Jewish lady go on a woman’s march? Bit flat.

4. Late at night, wapped from travel, reality show-passing-as-documentary on. Elderly celebrities explore approaches to ageing in other cultures. Which somehow translates to Miriam Margolyes in a Florida retirement community. The nicest people in the world, with guns and Trump posters. Well, of course Donald Trump is the War Pig! Warped utopia is one of my favourite genres (settings?) anyway; it’s just so rich. What if my elderly Jewish lady was living in a Trump-loving idyll?

So there you have it. Two elderly Jewish ladies (I decided she needed a friend) living in a Florida retirement community in the heart of Trump country decide to organise a two-person woman’s march. Sounds like a play.

 
Other inspirations for War Pig: my mother; my grandparents; the X Files episode ‘Arcadia’; the one time I took an all-inclusive beach resort vacation and it was really fucking creepy.

*Someone else can take ‘War Elephant.’

** Haha YOU’RE NEVER GETTING RID OF ME.

Featured image by Dick Culbert from Gibsons, B.C., Canada (Sus Barbatus, the Bornean Bearded Pig) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons.

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Proudly Messy, or: Fuck Your Conditional Mental Illness Acceptance

I’ve been having a lot of conversations recently about mental illness stigma in theatre/acting, and the steps being taken to combat it. Everyone seems to agree it’s important. But everyone is so damn obsessed with proving how ‘okay’ they are with mental illness they forget the most crucial element: being okay with mental illness means being okay with the behaviour and symptoms of mental illness. No one judges someone with cancer or MS for being sad, tearful, angry, fatigued, etc. So why is it  that people with mental illness are often only accepted if they take their meds and ‘behave’, especially when the range of acceptable behaviour for people who are officially ‘sane’ is so broad?

Bad behaviour can be pretty damn rife here. I’m sure most people who work in theatre/screen have witnessed screaming tantrums, drug abuse. Directors doing impersonations of small Italian children making false child abuse allegations (“dadda spanka my botty-bot and I fink he like it!”).* That’s all fine and dandy if you aren’t labelled as mentally ill, especially if you’re a man, not to go into the gender politics.

I do not want your acceptance of my mental illness if it’s dependent on me playing along to some standard of what’s considered mentally healthy/acceptable behaviour, particularly if that standard doesn’t apply to everyone.

People always perceive your behaviour through the prism of their own experiences and perception of you, and if you are open about having ever struggled with mental health they perceive all your behaviour through the prism of “mental illness.” If you behave with anything other than 100% perfect Walton-esque TV-mom cheery stability it’s perceived as being evidence of mental instability, while an officially ‘mentally healthy’ person can go to more extreme behaviour without suffering the same judgement. (And I’m not even going go into the ways in which women are labelled as being crazy, hysterical, hormonal, etc. as a control mechanism.)

I’ve worked in the industry since I was a child; I have seen some outrageous shit. This is simply not a job nor an industry that rewards or is possibly even compatible with perfect level emotions and behaviour. Not to be all wanky or promulgate the tortured artiste myth, but both writing and acting involve some pretty deep explorations of the soul. It’s messy, sometimes. Shit happens in rehearsal rooms that can take people to a pretty dark place sometimes; ditto writing. I know I couldn’t do my job without being willing to dive into that darkness and messiness.

I wrote some dialogue in my first play (set in, hey-hey, a mental hospital) talking about how psychiatric patients are the explorers of the psyche (I managed to work in a reference to the Trieste as part of some tortured metaphor) and I kinda still think that. Art needs to go to the frontiers, because some one has to.

Bathyscaphe_Trieste
This is a bathyscaphe, which is a good word. Mainly I didn’t want to use a cliched image or one promoting a stereotype of mental health.

I want to tell you a story: I was groped by an industry figure last year, and due to past experienced/PTSD it made me have a minor breakdown. Now I’m a smart, competent woman and I’ve lived with my own brain for a long time: I know how to take care of my shit. I am extremely proactive in managing my mental health. The minute I realised I was sinking I made a GP appointment, I made a therapy appointment, I started being vigilant about exercising and going outside in the mornings and filling my social calendar. I did everything right. I worked so hard and I did absolutely everything right and I managed to work and be productive throughout and to get over the breakdown completely in a matter of months.

And I was destroyed by it. It burned bridges. People noticeably distanced themselves.** One woman completely cut contact because apparently the fact I cried in front of them one time and told them that I’d been groped meant I had “poor boundaries” and was “unstable” (oh and apparently being groped was my own fault and I must never, ever tell anyone else**). I still don’t know what kind of gossip it might have sparked or what damage it’s done to my reputation or my career in the long-term. Of course the guy who got coked off his tits and ran around sticking his tongue into random people’s ears and grabbing strange women’s breasts in public doesn’t get accused of having poor boundaries.

Actually I don’t think I can ignore the gender politics. You know ***** ******? You know, that powerful guy every single young male actor has a horror story about? I’ve heard several blokes making casual reference (sometimes in front of large groups of strangers) to “oh that time ***** ****** told me he was going to bum me LOL.” I don’t know what’s more disturbing, that male victims of sexual harassment are expected to laugh it off, or that men are allowed to laugh it off.

Twitter informs me it is Mental Health Awareness Week. I don’t know how to finish writing this except to say: keep talking. And if anyone is suffering know I will never judge you.

* Okay that one’s probably unique.
** This is not to ignore those who were supportive, because honestly 90% of the people I told or who were around were overwhelmingly wonderful.
*** LOLNOPE.

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So I walked out on an audition: disability access and discrimination in acting

So last week I walked out of my first acting audition in a year and told the panel to remove my application.

In theory I quit acting when I started getting enough writing work to prove a full-time job, removing myself from Spotlight and Equity. But I l love acting, even though I hate being an actor and all the shit that comes with it, and occasionally something sounds so incredible you can’t say no.

I don’t actively seek out acting work but I was told about a project that exactly hit my interests, that was looking for disabled actors. I emailed and was asked to audition. Unfortunately the audition venue was not disabled accessible. Now, my mobility problems are relatively mild or at least fluctuate enough that I can pass as able-bodied, or cope with lack of access. Yeah I can crawl up stairs, but should I have to? If I’m in pain how can I do good work? I withdrew my application because I am sick of having to constantly compromise over basic legal rights, and I wouldn’t even mind so much but it’s flabbergasting that a company looking for disabled actors would not consider the possibility disabled actors might have access requirements. It’s a wonder to me that any disabled person ever becomes an actor at all. And honestly I got so used to it as an actor I took it for granted, but becoming a professional writer (and writing for the wonderful Graeae) has taught me I don’t have to compromise.

As an actor I always felt shy of speaking about disability issues, mostly because disabled actors do suffer such discrimination, but also because I uncomfortable with being able bodied-passing/having an invisible disability. I’d look at the few prominent actors with visible disabilities and rejoice in their success but feel alienated. For a long time I wasn’t sure if I could call myself a disabled actor or even what that term meant. I’ve since met other actors in the same boat, but too often disabled actors are treated as a homogenised mass. When you think about the range of people with disabilities that’s not only unhelpful, it’s downright ludicrous.

People with disabilities run the gamut from individuals at the peak of physical strength and fitness; athletes and dancers who put most able-bodied people to shame, to those whose bodies are not capable of the most basic tasks, to everyone in between. “Disabled actor” can mean someone who cannot walk, someone who can walk with help, someone who can sometimes walk, someone with no issue walking. It can mean someone with a serious chronic physical illness or someone in good health with a permanent injury that they may have been born with or may have suffered recently after a long life as an able-bodied person. It can mean someone who is physically able-bodied but has mental problems, or someone with vision or hearing difficulties. All of which require very different forms of accommodation.

Equity are working on a database of accessible casting venues and it’s shocking how many are not. Even Spotlight is not! Typecasting is a problem but if we can’t physically get into the room, we are literally and metaphorically being blocked out of our industry. What can we do? I give thanks every day that I’m lucky/talented/have sacrificed enough goats to Satan to make a living as a writer. It’s nice — no, it’s not nice, it’s sanity-saving — to be in a position to be able to walk away and refuse to compromise but I don’t know if that helps anyone else.

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My own personal pet peeve is people claiming they’re accessible when they’re not. In my experience no one ever says “no” to that question, perhaps because they think they’re not allowed to, or they’re frightened they’re going to be sued. But it’s okay, really; not everything is right for everyone. Not every single job is going to be suitable for the entire range of ability status. If you’re casting for a ballet dancer and the role requires pointe work, that is going to rule out some people with mobility issues. But there are disabled ballet dancers (who may or may not have access needs) who can do the job. Being disability-friendly doesn’t mean “open to anyone.” It means working your hardest not to exclude anyone who can do the job.

But it is extraordinary. A few years ago I had a screen test as part of a major TV network “disabled actor talent search.” The auditions were held in a basement in central London with a very small lift. I witnessed one person leaving as his wheelchair didn’t fit inside. And these are auditions specifically to discover disabled talent! It would be ironic if it wasn’t so painful. On another similar scheme I had a TV producer walk in and say, “What’s wrong with YOU?!”

I attended a [Major Theatre Company] workshop for amateur actors last year (as a novice director) and the workshop leader had a go at the attendees for sitting down during a break. “When professional actors work, we never ever sit down during the entire rehearsal session!” This upset me greatly, because it just seems so rooted in an inherent belief that acting and physical ability are inseparable. The ignorance in just assuming that everyone is able-bodied is extraordinary. Especially as this was a session aimed explicitly at regular people who are members of amateur dramatics societies, and the attendees were certainly far more diverse (in all ways, including age, body shape and background) than you’d find in a professional MTC rehearsal room. It might seem like a small thing, but allowing actors a short break to sit down might be the difference between a disabled person being able to participate or not. If you come into the rehearsal room with the attitude, “If you’re not able to stand and run around for hours without a break, you’re simply not capable of being an actor” is fundamentally ignorant of the hegemony of able-bodied privileged.

At the height or perhaps depth of my disability, when I was struggling with serious mobility problems, I was asked to attend a group workshop audition for a theatre company known for making physical theatre. Knowing their work I really wasn’t sure if this was right for me and talked with them extensively over email about my doubts. They assured me that were 100% disability friendly and insisted that I attend and that they could accommodate me. What this translated to was a wheelchair ramp and an audition room on the ground floor. But the auditionees all waited in a non-accessible second floor green room, and the audition itself required a level of physicality I wasn’t capable of (much, much running furiously around the room) so I was forced to spend half the session sitting by the side watching. The workshop leader making the utterly inexplicable decision to inform the entire room that I had “a sprained ankle” really didn’t help matters. I have no idea what was going through his head. Did he think he was helping me? Did he assume that my youth and appearance meant I couldn’t be the disabled actor he’d been told was attending? Had he been told at all? I don’t know.

But really, if being able to run around and jump over things is a requirement, that’s fine, but say so! Don’t pretend you’re able to accommodate mobility-disabled actors when what you really mean is “we have a wheelchair ramp but you’ll have to sit in a corner and watch.” Because I’m obviously not going to be able to actually audition, and I’m obviously not going to get the job. All it does is waste both of our time. Don’t do that. Please. Say no to me.

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Playwrights vs Directors and tiny new saplings: Who gets ownership of new plays?

One thing I’m increasingly interested in debating and mentally chewing over is the role of the playwright in rehearsals, the relationship between the creatives and the play, and in a broader sense the concept of shared ownership and authority over plays. I’ve had some rather… thought-provoking experiences in the relatively short time I’ve been writing, and I keep seeing blogs and discussions about it.

I was reading an article with playwright Joe Penhall the other day and he said:
“It’s quite an old-fashioned idea that we’re all here to serve the play, from front of house to costume to the director. That idea is gone, it’s archaeology, you will not find a director in town that wants just to serve the play, or you will but they won’t be a careerist director. The directors who want to build a career are all trying to find ways to put their stamp on it and reinvent it.”

And Jayne Benjulian, writing on American theatre culture (from 2011 but doing the rounds today and still as relevant), made this wise observation: “There is no manual that could possibly prepare [playwrights] for what they will encounter. Each time they enter a theater, they enter a culture with new rules. […] There are playwrights who demand to be equal partners with their directors. These playwrights are known as “difficult.” Here is what playwright Bill Cain would call “the cognitive dissonance of theater”: On the one hand, the playwright is told that theater is uniquely a writer’s medium; on the other, he is told to sit in the back and shut up.”

Theatre is so inherently collaborative, yet has few rules. We are expected to be joined by a mutual passion for ART that smooths over all differences in interpretation. But differences in interpretation can be huge. Of course a director should bring their own interpretation; a play text is not an IKEA instruction manual to be followed to the letter. But any directorial interpretation has to come from the script and be justified by the script. A director who tries to shove their own style onto a script that doesn’t fit it is a poor one.

My first play was a dark drama about mental illness but it had a lot of expressionistic and surrealist sort of wacky comedy in it, and the comedy was crucial. I wasn’t able to attend rehearsals for the first staging of it (it started out as a 30-minute festival piece) due to pneumonia, and I was excited to allow the director free rein. I still am excited by that, but it only works if writer and director have mutual respect and understanding of the text. I think it also helped that it was for a scratch festival performance, because such things are low-stakes opportunities to develop and play. The director took the play in a physical theatre-direction which was not especially my vision for it, but the directorial choices were informed by the text and I was very happy with the end results. The first director who was (temporarily) attached to the full-length play wanted to do it as a straight naturalistic drama, which meant instructing the actors to “play against the script”. I don’t know if that’s really how they interpreted the script or if it was just their personal style preference, but it meant some scenes did not and in my opinion could not work.

“Theresa Rebeck reminds us in her book Fire Free Zone, “in the rehearsal hall, the playwright is often asked not to speak directly to the actors because that could ‘confuse’ them—in other words, it might undermine the director’s authority.” That caution rests on a supposition, Cain says, that actors should not be confused. Might confusion serve as a productive force early in rehearsals? Might actors be more engaged in the process of the play’s meaning?” (Benjulian, 2011)

That’s a really interesting aspect, but “actors could get confused” is so euphemistic, isn’t it? Actors are not children. I find the opposite is often true. Actors generally sign on to plays because they like the script (and actors who don’t perhaps should be reconsidered – I had an actor once say on the first day of rehearsals, “I haven’t read the script but I really want to get a foot in the door with [director] because it would be really good for my career” – gah!). If actors like and have an emotional connection to the script and the character as written, what does it do to them and their process to have a director who wants to change it? I’ve had actors contacting me privately to complain about directors mangling the script’s intentions, which I just think is awful and puts me in a terrible position: of course I have an agenda in wanting the production that’s true to the text, but supporting mutiny is disastrous. I would always publicly support my director, but as a director if your actors are complaining that you don’t understand the script then something’s gone wrong.

And this is all very arty, but we can’t ignore the practical side. A playwright, particularly playwrights like me who are in the early stages, we have to be concerned with our own careers. I consider writing to be my job: it’s how I pay the bills and I plan to be a lifetime career writer. I’m not just wafting around making “art”. A bad production at this stage of my career, or a production that misrepresents me as a writer, could do genuine damage to my ability to get more jobs. A metaphor so clunky I’d never use it in a play: plays are like trees. Hamlet is the mightiest ancient oak. You can do anything to do it and it won’t die. You can fuck with it in any kind of way, cut it to shreds, edit it. You can set it in the past, present, or future; on a space station or underwater. You can make it a parable for any war or political situation you care to choose. You can stage it as a mime, kabuki, a dance, an opera. You can perform it in literally any language on earth, including Klingon, and it will still be Hamlet. Even if it’s shit, Hamlet is still Hamlet. There will never, ever be a production of Hamlet that’s so bad, it destroys Hamlet. But a piece of new writing is a helpless seedling. If the first production is terrible and done without due care it will die. I love the idea of handing a play over to a director and seeing what they create afresh (a production) out of the raw material (the script) you’ve given them. Love it. I have no issue with directors changing or radically interpreting my work. In a production of an existing play you can do whatever you like because you’re only doing it to that one production. The original script remains intact and future directors will be going to the original text. With a new play and especially a play being workshopped, whatever edits you make are for good.

In Britain we are constantly told how privileged we are as playwrights, that we are spoiled. I can’t count the number of times I’ve been told, “Of course if you were in Germany you wouldn’t even be allowed in the rehearsal room.” Personally I think the current obsession with and deification of German and Dutch contemporary theatre and the assumption of the position of the writer there is a bit reductive. I’ve seen great plays and terrible plays in Berlin. I mean, I love Katie Mitchell’s work but I’d hardly call her not a writer’s director. I’d consider her very much a writer’s director.

So what’s the answer? I don’t know, but I think respect for yourself and your work, even if you’re a beginner. I’ve said yes to things and to people because I was over-excited, or flattered (It’s like when you’re in high school and someone really popular asks you out and you’re so excited thinking, “OMG the headcheerleader just asked me out” it doesn’t occur to you to think about whether you’re actually compatible), or thought working with a ‘famous’ person would get the play attention, or felt I couldn’t let an opportunity slip by. Coming from acting where getting a foot in the door is difficult to the point you’re scared to turn down any opportunity has meant quite a dramatic attitude shift.

Fundamentally, know yourself and your own work. Ask questions. Ask for discussions before saying yes. And don’t be afraid to say no, because a no is not a rejection. There are two directors who I respect enormously, who I think are talented and whose productions I enjoy – but I would never allow either of them to direct one of my plays and I’m pretty sure the feeling is mutual because we’re just too different in our working styles. And that’s absolutely fine. But it’s taken some time and emotional maturing to get to that realisation and with everything it’s still a work in progress.

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van Hove’s Dutch Shakespeare and BSL: On disability, language, awkwardness, and accessibility in the arts

On Friday I watched a monologue of mine performed entirely in sign. On Sunday I watched six hours of Shakespeare performed entirely in Dutch.

I am spending a year writing with disabled theatre company Graeae as part of Write to Play, and last week saw a ‘sharing’ of some work-in-progress. A monologue extract from a sci-fi horror I’ve been developing was beautifully performed by actress Nadia Nadarajah, who happens to be deaf. My piece was performed in BSL (British Sign Language), and this is not only the first time I’ve worked on a theatre piece involving sign but the first time I’ve seen a piece performed in sign.

The experience of being in the rehearsal room and the process of interpreting my text into sign was fascinating; more so was the different reactions from an audience comprised of both deaf, hearing, signing and non-signing members.

One of the things about discussing (no less living with!) disability is the awkwardness factor. It’s uncomfortable to write about, but sometimes situations around disability can be awkward, or involve unknown etiquette. For example, I have a neurological condition which sometimes if tired causes me to make unconscious and uncontrollable odd facial expressions or grimaces; I have no idea to what extent this is even noticeable to others, but I feel uncomfortable at the thought this might make it harder for deaf people who lip read to understand me. But how do you even ask? I’m barely comfortable admitting to this on my own blog. For able-bodied people the sense of awkwardness and not knowing the correct etiquette can be embarrassing, and a common reaction to embarrassment is laughter. Watching your work performed for the first time is always horrible, but I have to admit I was rather thrown by some initial embarrassed laughter that seemed to be due to seeing an actor performing in BSL (Nadia’s character was recording a goodbye message to her family ahead of her probable execution – not exactly chuckletown). Audience members who were deaf or had experience with deafness or knew sign had a different response, both to the performance and to the laughter. Yet the audience as a whole very quickly got over any initial uncertainty.

Over the last few years I’ve seen Shakespeare performed in a range of languages I do not speak, including some of the Globe to Globe Festival’s 37 Shakespeare plays in 37 different languages. These productions were designed for audiences who for the most part did not speak the languages in question, and were interpreted using physicalities and staging to “explore Shakespeare’s cultural universality” by refracting the plays through different cultures and cultural experiences. Language, here, was no barrier to understanding.

But Shakespeare is Shakespeare, and Shakespeare is big enough to handle whatever you throw at it. There will never be a production of Hamlet so bad it makes the world go, “Wow I always thought Hamlet was a good play, turns out we were all wrong!” Even the worst Shakespeare production will only ever be considered a bad production, not a bad play. New writing does not have that luxury. A bad first production of a new play can kill it in infancy, because who can know if it’s the production or the play?

Although my piece was accompanied by a translator, a couple of people mentioned afterwards that they’d found it hard to connect with the material due to having to mentally combine the non-verbal acting with the transcription. That was sort of a lightbulb moment for me, because surely that’s what a lot of deaf audience members have to deal with every time they go to the theatre? A production might have one or two captioned performances in a run of several months (and how often is caption board placed in some discreet place or way off to the side so the “regular” audience members aren’t bothered by the intrusion of being reminded non able bodied people exist? Better hope deaf theatre-lovers have good osteopaths for all that neck strain!) and we consider than a triumph of accessibility.

Now, I am a very wordy writer. Too wordy. My writing is dense, and packed full of literary allusions, scientific jargon, and intricate wordplay. Inevitably if you are watching something in a language you do not speak, a certain level of understanding will be lost. A modern audience cannot watch a Shakespeare play – regardless of his universality and undying popularity – without some similar loss, due to language and pronunciation drift or simply lack of comprehensive knowledge of the politics and customs of his era. But watching something in a language you don’t speak doesn’t mean the words are lost, just that you are lost to them. The physicality of sign adds a rich dimension to an acting performance, but BSL is still a language; to interpret it as a physical theatre piece would be reductive and inaccurate. For non-signing members of the audience the words may have been absent but I’m sure audience members who did know BSL understood every word — possibly an experience they are not able to have with ‘traditional’ theatre performances.

In that context, performing in sign feels revolutionary. It’s flipping a paradigm in othering able bodied audience members – forcing them to stumble and reach that bit harder to stitch together comprehension. It’s shit that casting a deaf or disabled actress is considered revolutionary or remarkable at all, but maybe able bodied people (or members of any other privileged majority) would benefit from being othered a little bit. Like Rachel De-lahay said in her recent article on race in theatre: “We have to change the idea of normal.”

Which brings us back to van Hove’s startling and boundary-pushing (yet very white, and able-bodied) production. I’m sure Exeunt and the Stage have written hundreds of articles on watching theatre performed in a non-native language, so I won’t bother to give my opinion (mainly because I haven’t really formed one yet). The important point is no one considers a Shakespeare production performed in German or Dutch or Mandarin or hip hop to be anything but an artistic choice. In this context, the language barrier is considered a creative challenge to an intellectual audience, not an unfortunate accidental barrier. Why then is performing in sign perceived as something you have to put up with in order to meet diversity requirements, and not a unique skill bringing its own benefits and perspective?

The Globe just announced plans to work in BSL

Nadia Nadarajah interview

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Emma Watson’s breasts are not a feminist issue, or: Feminism is not the Hunger Games

I’ve identified as a feminist since I was about nine, so you’d think I’d be thrilled with the fact feminism is so very much on everyone’s lips these days. And I am, but gosh is it bringing some problematic shit with it.

Over recent years I’ve noticed a growing trend: mainstream publications ask women in the public eye, usually very young women, challenging questions about feminism. Which is fine if done in good faith, but it’s a little weird to be reading an interview with some seventeen-year-old starlet who’s been famous for five minutes and see them go from being asked “how do you keep your hair so shiny?” to “how can white women in the public eye acknowledge their own privilege and support intersectionality in an industry that exerts enormous pressure on women to conform and stay silent?” And you know, I could answer that, because I’m in my 30s, I studied gender studies at grad school, and I run a fricking feminist theatre company. If I couldn’t answer it I should quit my job. Is it realistic to expect every woman or girl in the public eye to be able to handle complex and often highly politically controversial questions with a high capacity for blowback, with real intellectual insight and grace, when she’s just trying to promote American Pie 19: The Mortgage Years?

Again, fine to ask if done in good faith. But what inevitably follows makes me believe these questions are often not asked in good faith. Like the Bat Signal, the word goes out to “The Feminists” – journalists around the world phone up every woman who’s even a little bit famous who speaks on or publicly identifies as a feminist, to give that all-important feminist thumbs up or down. And that becomes the global news story: “So-and-so ‘not Doing Feminism Right’ claims other Feminists.” Then the Twittersphere goes to town. I could go into a long debate here about equality feminism and choice feminism and white feminism and the ways in which feminism has been exploited, but my gut reaction here is: who the fuck made you – or anyone – the Boss of Feminism? By all means have your own opinions and voice (and God knows this blog is just my opinion and certainly not an attempt to censor anyone). If you feel a woman’s behaviour is problematic, point it out. But do it on your own terms. When the patriarchal mainstream media comes a knocking you don’t have to let them in.

Most of the reasons behind this media trend are likely purely commercial: stories about tits and catfights sell a whole lot better than reasoned articles about Irish abortion laws. But I genuinely believe there is a patriarchal agenda to pit women against each other in order to debunk feminism and promote the idea that women are too “bitchy” or “contrary” for feminism to be a working proposition.

I am not being paranoid: In 2014, a group of MRAs (Men’s Rights Activists) linked to an MRA troll campaign called ‘Operation Lollipop’ staged an underhand plot to create a hoax claiming that feminist organisations were campaigning to outlaw Father’s Day.
This is the best known of many troll campaigns and hoaxes on social media (remember #BikiniBridges?) The war on women is fought on many fronts.

 

Emma Watson has often spoken out about feminism. Emma Watson also possesses breasts, which she does not always keep covered up. Cue media and social media firestorm.

Now, there are lots of interesting potential areas for debate around Emma Watson (or Beyoncé, or Kim Kardashian, or Jennifer Lawrence, etc. etc.). I’d be fascinated by a proper debate on, for example, the ways in which female child stars balance their own interior journey through puberty to womanhood with publicly reinventing themselves as adult actors in the public eye and what that says about a culture in which youth and pubescence are exploited and commercialised. But I’m really not interested in giving Emma Watson marks out of ten for how well she’s “doing feminism.” Why is this so often the level of mainstream discourse? We’re talking about women’s lives, not their fifth grade book reports.

Ironically, the fact Emma Watson once analysed the messages and iconography of Beyoncé‘s work from a feminist perspective is being mispresented as a personal (and hypocritical) attack on Beyoncé.

There is also a sense that if you are graded and found to not be doing feminism according to what the peanut gallery deems acceptable, you are somehow out of the club entirely. Caitlin Moran has said some problematic as hell shit, but she’s also written an awful lot of powerful and important things (her “farmer analogy” on the exploitation of the female body in pop music is the perfect example of how to succinctly sum up the insidious sexist pressure of pop culture industries without engaging in slut shaming or judging individual women for giving in to/subverting on their own terms [delete as you consider appropriate] that pressure). Amazingly it is possible to recognise that people can say stuff that is stupid and wise and problematic and incredibly important all in the same person; that anyone who never does is actually a bit weird, and that acknowledging and praising the good that people do and say does not (unless they are literally a serial killer, or Donald Trump) mean you are excusing the less-good. Caitlin Moran is powerful and famous enough to sail, like some majestic badger-haired swan*, above it all. Not everyone can – and there are problematic aspects inherent in insisting everyone have the capacity to adhere to a certain standard of debate (which can require a certain level of educational privilege) before they’re allowed a seat at the table.

 

Point being, it’s important to always have debates about feminist issues and because celebrities are such cultural lightning rods often their words and actions will by necessity spark debate. And we cannot ignore problematic behaviour or censor our own reactions to it. But when did online feminism start feeling so much like the Hunger Games? This is not a ‘stop attacking other women’ rant – well, it kind of is slightly a ‘stop attacking other women’ rant – but it behoves me to point out that feminism is not a competition, there are no medals for being the last woman standing. And you really don’t want to be the last woman standing.

 

 

*Obviously that simile doesn’t work at all, I just enjoy the imagery of a badger/swan mashup.

 

 

 

 

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