PlayList: November 2013

November was a very good month for feminist theatregoing. And agitating about the representation of women in our field, with the GAP Salon (Gender and Performance) which I cofounded with Susan Crothers and Kate Baiden in October. More on that in another post, but if you can’t wait, check out the GAP website and @GAPsalon on Twitter.

Calm Down Dear festival of feminism at Camden People’s Theatre. “The last thing it’ll make you do, dears, is calm down.” I think I saw about half of CPT’s fierce and fabulous festival of feminism from the end of October to mid-November. This company, besides being ambitious and fearless, is also in an ideal position to respond to up-to-the-minute trends and needs. Artistic Director Brian Logan told me that the idea for Calm Down Dear came when he was reading applications for another festival and noticed that many of the proposals had overtly feminist themes. So he decided to put out a call for a festival of feminism.

Pretty Ugly – Louise Orwin’s solo performance is built on a YouTube experiment in which she posted videos of three teenage girl personas she created, asking strangers on the internet if they were pretty or ugly (this is a massive trend, with thousands such videos attracting millions of sleazy comments). She says at the start of the piece (well, after writhing around on the floor lip synching to Britney Spears), “I started out an artist and ended up a teenager.” Towards the end, she reads from a giant menu marked SORRY: “I’m sorry you thought I was 15 and fair game.” and “I’m sorry you didn’t want to know the answer to any other questions.” And in the middle there is a lot of roller skating and lols and creepy internet people. The show is smart and funny and urgent, and I hope it comes back onstage again soon. Louise’s website would likely be the place to go to find out about that.

The Fanny Hill Project – 18th century pornographic fiction collides with a modern tale of prostitution. The most intriguing thing about this performance is the central character’s struggle to tell her own story without being interrupted, corrected, or squirted in the face with penis-shaped water pistols. The company, TheatreState, took the show to the Edinburgh Fringe this summer, so check out their site and reviews for more info.

The GB Project – The “GB” of the title is Gertrude Bell, a British archaeologist, writer, spy, and traveller whose name has been almost lost to history, though she lived an incredible life just last century. Writer/performer Kate Craddock unleashes a complicated, fragmented, contradictory portrait of this remarkable woman, projects photographs of her riding a camel alongside Winston Churchill and Lawrence of Arabia, imagines what it might have been like to be called on to help redraw borders in the Middle East after WWI, and puzzles over Bell’s anti-suffrage work and her contempt for other women, who seemed to her to be constrained to the domestic sphere and therefore unready to participate in politics and wider society. Craddock is clearly fascinated with her subject, and it’s contagious. There’s a in-depth and detailed review in Exeunt Magazine here, with much more about Bell, Craddock, and the show itself.

Nineties WomanRosie Wilby‘s “comedy documentary” takes us back a couple of decades to the headquarters of Matrix, York University’s student-run hand-written feminist newspaper. I’ve been listening keenly to the voices of feminists a generation ahead of me – lately I’ve heard a number of them say things like “we really thought we’d sorted this out in the 70s” and “there is a terrible amnesia about feminism, almost like it never existed,” and “feminism sold its soul in the 90s (something about the Spice Girls?)” and “things have actually got worse in the last 10 years.” In a article on the Theatre Communications Group website, Ellen Gavin took my breath away with this idea: “Almost three decades later [after I founded BRAVA for women in the arts, San Francisco] (in the time it would take to grow an army of new women playwrights from conception!) not much has changed.”  It’s tempting, faced with the enormity of tackling inequality across all sectors of our society, to focus on the here and now – and while that’s often a productive strategy, it’s also immensely valuable to look back and build on the foundations laid by those who came before us. Otherwise, as Wilby demonstrates with side-by-side comparisons of the Matrix front page from her university days and a recent edition of Matrix (both of which cover issues like date rape on campus and career vs children debates), how can we tell what has changed? Looking at those two front pages, on which the biggest difference is the publication date, the short, sad answer is: not much has.

Ban This Filth! –  In Alan Bissett’s one man show, he performs as American anti-pornography radical feminist Andrea Dworkin, and as himself, a man trying to figure out what the heck she’s talking about. It’s an intelligent, vulnerable piece, often hilarious – and extensively reviewed from performances at the Edinburgh Fringe and elsewhere, so I’ll point you to those for more details.

We, Object – This is exactly the kind of clever I came back to Britain for. The Figs in Wigs begin the show with different readings of the title: “we obJECT!”; “we [are] object;” “wee object” – that one sparks the objection: “this is not a show about small things,” which recurs frequently as tiny props flood the stage, from miniature wine glasses that become a talent-show musical instrument to miniature cheese-grater earrings (“what do you think of my earrings?” “they’re great.”) It’s part dance, part slideshow, part visual pun stand-up comedy, and all about objects and what they mean, especially when they’re human.

Everyday Sexism Works in Progress – in addition to its scheduled programming, CPT commissioned three new pieces over the course of the festival to respond to the theme of “Everyday Sexism,” borrowing from the international catalogue of anecdotes that illustrate just how pervasive gender bias and violence is. These performances, each about 20 minutes, dealt with varied themes from “upskirting” (a growing trend of secretly photographing or videoing under a woman’s skirt in a public place) to wedding rituals, to workplace gender dynamics and “self-actualising” feminist group exercises. Some really interesting work from some really interesting artists – but unfortunately I’ve lost my programmes and the CPT website is under renovation. Hopefully once the site is back up, you’ll be able to find names and details in the archives.

Moon Project at OvalHouse. This was my first visit to OvalHouse, a 50-year-old venue for experimental and radical performance. The Moon Project begins with a hit-and-run accident that knocks a woman off her bicycle and changes the driver’s life. An original text by performer Rachel Blackman fuses with exquisite movement, images of space, and the beauty of the everyday.

Prince of Denmark at Ambassador Theatre. I’m devouring as much Hamlet-related material as I can get my hands on, trying to get the nebulous ideas for my own future production to take some kind of shape in my brain. The National Youth Theatre’s Shakespeare-esque imagining of Hamlet, Horatio, Ophelia, and Laertes’ adolescence was a fun and quirky way to spend an afternoon.

Brand New Ancients at the Royal Court. I can’t say enough good things about Kate Tempest’s spoken word performance. It’s not a medium I’m terribly familiar with, so it took a few minutes to adjust to the style and conventions. But once I got my bearings, I was completely swept away. She masterfully weaves together intergenerational stories of two London families, finding the epic in the everyday. The tube train becomes a chariot, a bar becomes a battleground, and a human who simply loves another human becomes a hero. The live score, played by a tuba, cello, violin, drums, and electronics, heightens the raw emotion of the piece, sneaking up on you until you start to think everyone around you might be a god. The show is touring the UK; go find it.

Our Glass House by CommonWealth at Camden People’s Theatre. I learned so much about installation theatre from this performance. Setting six simultaneous stories of domestic abuse in a council house, CommonWealth creates an intimate portrait of what it feels like to be trapped (sometimes literally – I was barricaded into a room with one of the performers at once point). The stories happen all over the house at the same time, so it’s impossible to get the narrative details of all the characters, but the performances are timed into emotive beats that form a journey that you feel instinctively rather than understand intellectually. Using music to synchronise the stories all over the house, we move through the dread of simply going through the front door, through various stages of fear, rationalisation, anger, and ultimately release in one form or another. Wherever you are in the house, you are watching one story and hearing the screams, sobs, or songs of another story on another floor. It’s an incredibly intense experience, beautifully executed, and astonishingly effective.

Mucky Kid at Theatre 503. The ultimate unreliable narrator, Mae tells multiple stories of her escape from prison. In circular versions of events, crimes, histories, and identities, this fascinating piece of new writing looks at child criminals, the prison system, and the nuances of forgiveness, with a stellar performance by Sonya Cassidy.

Nut at National Theatre Shed. Though Debbie Tucker Green’s play is intriguing, mysterious, and lyrical, my prevailing memory of this performance is of not being able to breathe. In the second row of the National Theatre’s 225-seat studio, I was very unpleasantly surprised to watch about a dozen cigarettes being lit over the course of the 70-minute performance. At least in Nut, smoking is a necessary (and brilliant) artistic element of the play, rather than a lazy marker of ‘cool,’ but a warning before I bought my ticket would have been nice. I could have sat in the balcony, and maybe then I would have other things to say about the piece.

Corpus Christi at The Space. Terrance McNally’s all-male Texan gay retelling of the story of Jesus was extremely controversial when it opened in 1998, amid death threats against the playwright. It’s a joyous and highly theatrical piece, with the actors introducing themselves by their own names before being baptised into character. Full of humour and irreverence, including awkward bathroom seductions and a gay marriage between two apostles, it’s a fun and campy retelling of an old, old story. Director John Fricker’s appropriately hand-made production featured an excellent cast, with the unearthly and delicate Andro Cowperthwaite as Joshua. I’m looking forward to OutFox Production’s next show, Gut Girls, which I worked on in 2006 at the University of Manchester and am excited to revisit.

The Count

16 performances

4 male directors / 2 female directors *many of the solo shows/devised works above do not credit a single director

4 male writers / 11 female writers

31 male actors / 35 female actors

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