Hopefully you’ve seen our first and second public events from The Female Subject, called ‘CLAWS’ and ‘A-Z’. Our next one is coming up this Sunday called ‘Egg’ - make sure you tune in and catch it LIVE as it happens (by watching on our Citizen Theatre Facebook page)!
I thought I would take a moment to share with you how this project came about and what I’m hoping to achieve with it, because although the work can speak for itself, sometimes knowing a bit about what it has come out of helps your reading of it, or enriches the experience at least. I also wanted to share a bit about the process because it’s a new one for me in terms of creating work and I think for fellow artists, it’s always valuable to hear about someone’s process to remind you that development takes time (and that’s ok!) – despite the immediacy of the platform it’s being presented on.
About 2 ½ or 3 years ago I first had the idea of using a livestreaming platform to create new work. I had been self-producing plays up until this point and the last couple of projects didn’t make money – the opposite, they lost quite a bit. I was saddened by this because I felt like I had failed and after thinking that I had this freedom to create work myself and empower myself to become a director, it was seeming an unsustainable and impossible practice to keep up. After a bit of time and distance from it all, I started to think about what had gone wrong producing-wise and what would prevent a financial loss from happening again, whilst still creating work that was artistically fulfilling. I thought about the biggest expenses – hiring space (rehearsal & performance space) and all the big stuff and equipment that goes with that. Aside from film making (which can also be expensive and risky) or having people over to your house for an intimate performance, how do you get access to free space for performances? You go to the home of cheap and suspiciously free things…the internet.
I still wanted to make work that was happening live at some point and what I mean by this is I still wanted there to be an audience experiencing the event unfolding as it was actually unfolding. Although the actors might not feel the audience, there is the possibility for interaction, for connection however strange or distant it might seem (something we plan to explore in future seasons). At the time, livestreaming via apps like Periscope was just starting to take off and then when Facebook started offering livestreaming I knew I had to do something. But what?
The fear of not being able to create ‘good enough’ content was huge and I knew I needed to use this highly accessible and public forum for good, not evil. I have a post-grad degree in anthropology and had always been interested in the relationship between this academic discipline and what it had in common with the inherently publically engaged theatrical space. So I thought I would create a survey to do some social research on something.
After many ideas I started to think about what was important in my life at the time. My personal life had undergone a huge shift and I was closer to my family, living with them, as a result. But I also realised how different my life was to theirs and how many ‘firsts’ I had experienced, that no woman in my family had ever experienced before. I became so aware of this and it deeply interested me because I knew that I wasn’t the only one. I wanted to know how other women felt and what they thought about the ways women’s social power has changed over the last few generations. So that became the focus of the survey. At this point I had no idea how the data was going to help me make content for a livestreaming project, but I pressed ahead anyway.
The response was incredible. Around Aug-Sep 2016 over 60 women of various ages and backgrounds responded to the survey. It included questions such as “what firsts have you experienced as a woman in your family?” and a set of questions asking the respondent to consider how their ideas of what being a woman means might be the same or vastly different to other women in their families. The responses were candid, generous, direct and incredibly insightful. To all who took the survey, I thank you sincerely for this gift.
Going through all the material took many months and even after I had ascertained the key themes and ideas, I was still stuck. I started to write some terrible scenes, setting them in offices and kitchens... I showed them to a few people and couldn’t feel any momentum building. I wanted desperately to put something out there, so the people who took the survey didn’t feel let down or used. But it just wasn’t working.
After some time away and many conversations with Stu Brown (my partner in life and creativity), I realised that the work I was creating just wasn’t speaking to my aesthetic or artistic vision. It was too ‘real’. I’ve never operated well in realism. Anne Bogart quotes Robert Edmond Jones in her book, where he says that we revert to realism when we’re not quite up to the effort. Jones was all for expressionism and I think I am too. My favourite work sits at the extremes, is bold and has some weirdness or oddness about it as any of the Citizens will tell you (“that’s super weird” is an excellent compliment from me). One night after a revelatory conversation in the kitchen with Stu, suddenly I could see a way forward for this project that was deeply satisfying and exciting. It gave me that creative energy boost I had been longing for to kick start another project. I needed to use this platform to create the work I had always wanted to make, but had been too afraid and unskilled up until this point to pursue.
CLAWS was drawing on the experiences some women had noted in the survey around discomfort when being in the company of certain men and the general angst and frustration that accompanies a feeling of objectification and disempowerment among women identifying people. But it was also a response to a live performance I saw years ago in Paris at Le Crazy Horse. Le Crazy Horse’s shows are highly sexual and epitomise the feminine ideals of ‘sexiness’ in ‘Western’ culture. They are very deliberate about what they do, seem to take their work seriously and many of the women in their shows talk about feeling a sense of empowerment when performing them. I’m not going to discuss my personal position on this, but I was really interested in the ways in which the kinds of erotic imagery created in their shows has become increasingly prevalent in mainstream media and entertainment over the two last decades or so. In the survey, some women noted the positive aspects of living in a society that makes more space for sexual content and women expressing their sexuality, whilst others commented on the damaging and limiting impacts. I also watched some of Jean Kilbourne's documentaries where she looked at how women are typically depicted in advertisements and her observation (that others have since picked up on) that women are often compartmentalised in advertisements, which dehumanises them. I wanted to take back some control of the dehumanising aspects of ‘sexiness’ and insert the human within the body parts themselves. Working with Citizen Jessica Vellucci, we came to the idea of scratching and itchiness. Where the piece starts to play against the audience expectation for a ‘sexy’ leg dance, the itching acts as a recognisable experience which sits uncomfortably in the thin ‘sexy’ stocking. Coupled with a toe poking out (a common occurrence for stocking wearers), the toenail – a real part of a woman’s foot, but usually a part that is contained, maintained and never destructive – tries to cut through the stocking to find the disconcerted flesh. It becomes an experience of refusing the conventional performance of sexy perfect legs, to attend to the human need that is not allowed.
A-Z was written in one go in about half an hour. It was a bit of a word vomit of all the things I got from the survey data. The handclap game was created with guest artist Rebecca Moore & Citizen Jordan Barr after some play and research and the idea was to capture a sense of that girlhood as it transitions to womanhood. It’s a bit of a ‘schooling’ for young women, a bit of a heads up about what it’s like, what’s great and what is annoying or downright dangerous or oppressing about being a woman identifying person. It aims to capture a sort of snapshot of what it’s like being a women at the moment, according to the survey respondents.
Egg was inspired by the women who wrote about the connection or lack thereof to their ancestors and generations of women in their families. One particular respondent included the fascinating fact that a baby girl is born with all the eggs she will have in her lifetime. These ideas just seemed too exciting and huge to not deal with. In ‘Egg’ we’re trying to capture a sense of that moment when you first realise (i.e. you mind is first boggled) that as a cis woman a small part of you existed long before your parents got together and there’s vastness and wonder in that. Explaining the piece to Citizen Willow Sizer she was also struck by the hugeness of the concept. The inclusion of Babooshka dolls was about finding a metaphor that encased that lineage, so to speak. Though it’s about a cis-woman experience, I hope that other people will be able to connect with the story too – there is wonder for all of us in thinking about lineage and ancestry.
Remember is pre-recorded thread that links all the pieces together and features guest artist Kaori Maeda-Judge. The voices that you hear in the piece were recorded by the performer and are direct (or almost) quotes from some of the data. The act of putting on make up can be such an involved process for some women. Drawing on Youtube instructional make up videos, it asks the question (one that I’ve thought of many times) “how much is too much” or “is it enough”? On that, it also asks the audience to consider what the implications of a ‘drag’ look might be for women trying to find a sense of power or indeed empowerment through make up. Similar to CLAWS, I think it’s less interesting to discuss my personal view and more interesting to ask the question and put the work out there as a way of prompting discussion among people. Everyone will have their own interpretation and ideas on the subject and they’re all valid.
We initially put the work out there as a private pilot to a small group of invited people and got really useful feedback – so thank you again to those people. That process gave us the confidence to present the current work to a public platform.
The public pilot season is intended as a sample of the work that is to come. It has also been a great way to see what kind of content people are interested in and how they are responding to having art on Facebook. I hope this livestreaming project is the start of a fulfilling and important aspect of my own artistic practice and that of the Citizen Theatre members too. But most of all, I hope it puts a spark in your day and gets you thinking.