Features Published 16 October 2015

Calm Down Dear: Babies, Fantasies and Breaking Down Binaries

Lewis Church rounds up the second half of Camden People's Theatre's festival of new feminist performance. Photo: Eilidh Macaskill in Stud
Lewis Church

Calm Down Dear 2015 continued over the past two weeks in its mission to explore contemporary manifestations of different feminisms through performance, art and discussion. Like previous editions, this year’s program continues to bring together emerging and experienced artists in the now familiar double-bill show nights as well as the conversation events and bar discussions that are integral to any festival. Building on the excellent work already presented, in this second half the program more explicitly began to explore alternatives to tired gender binaries and the simplistic identification of those who the term ‘feminist’ might apply to. Ira Brand’s Break Yourself, Eilidh MacAskill’s Stud and Lucy J Skilbeck’s Joan (performed by Lucy Jane Parkinson), all share a concern with the boundary between female and male, but also a sense of humour and playfulness in their characterisation that echoes the increasingly ridiculous insistence that there should defined and limiting gender roles for anybody. Nicola Canavan’s Raising the Skirt project, Rebecca Biscuit’s Oh Baby, Artful Badger’s Inhabit and Johanne Hauge’s piece An Unauthorised Biography overlap in their concern for some of these same issues, but more to dissect the roles and expectations for women in society. That might be an expectation of maternal aspirations, or of shame and dissatisfaction with their own body, or of bashfulness about desires and sexual experiences.

Ira Brand’s work-in-progress showing of her new solo Break Yourself began the questioning of gender binaries that ran through several of the shows, using humour as well as pathos to ask interesting questions of identification with others. Brand performs the processes of becoming another character, building a male character, Ollie, up in front of the audience. Brand’s storytelling skill spins believable yarns about pub table hook-ups and daydreams that feel both imagined and real at the same time. They are a fantasy that could easily be true if Brand (or you, or I) acted as we sometimes think we might in a certain situation. Brand’s ability to draw an audience in skewers a particular quality of modern maleness, the shy confidence of an early-thirties singleton, coming alive when discussing his faintly sad identification with Bruce Springsteen. In a section of questions and answers the audience are at first unwilling to engage, but as questions start to flow the necessity of it becomes apparent. Brand is constructing the character, using some of the classic techniques of an actor to provoke answers that she may herself have never considered. At this stage of development of the piece this section is essential for raw material, even if there may be hit and miss iterations depending on the willingness of the audience to jump in. As the piece finishes with a dance routine and mime to Springsteen’s ‘Dancing in the Dark’, there’s a euphoria in the room and a lot of head nodding. No matter who takes that song as their own, it’s a great tune.

Artful Badger’s Inhabit, another work-in-progress piece, moves its five performers in simple choreography, each delivering a short monologue drawn from their individual experiences of life as young women from different backgrounds and experiences. Uniformly dressed, each performer in turn highlights their very different personalities. From a red chorus to a set of individuals, it’s like getting to know the back-story of each member of a crowd. Whilst some of the choreography is a little predictable, mining familiar tropes of contemporary dance, at certain moments there are flashes of really engaging movement, with a one-person rave movement being repeated by audience members in the bar afterwards with delight. Its potential for further development perhaps rests on being able to build on the strengths of this showing, developing the format from the turn-based structure to something more engaging that brings the level of the choreography up to the standard of the other content.

The Saturday evening combination of Canavan’s Raising the Skirt, Biscuit’s Oh Baby and Hauge’s An Unauthorised Biography felt rather like the festival in microcosm, with social activism, biography and history jostling for ways to be as women in a conflicted society. Canavan’s work, which has been displayed in CPT’s foyer throughout the festival, was explained further by the artist and her collaborator, Dawn Felicia Knox, in a short process presentation, detailing the workshops that led to the production of the pictures outside. Reclaiming the agency of female genitals, which, as I learnt, are not even accurately described when referred to as a ‘vagina’, the project seeks to highlight the differences of women’s bodies and combat the pressure to keep them hid. Through historical research into the mythological power of the cunt (Canavan’s preferred term), striking images of women asserting their dominance over the shame imposed upon their bodies are produced, both within the workshops and through an online database and social activism through lobbying and documentation. I felt, and the other audience seemed, struck by how important and basic such a rethink is, and both Canavan and Knox encouraged contribution and participation in the project. If you’d like to know more, visit their website here.

Both Biscuit and Hauge’s pieces feature the unmistakable silhouette of a pregnant woman, although the fake baby bumps worn by both performers are not the only areas of overlap. Both use personal experience to discuss pressures placed on women, whether the expectation to have children, or to regulate desire. A soundtrack of classic soul accompanies Biscuit’s verbatim and auto-biographical material, delivered from between the twinkling a-frame that is her set. It’s a ramshackle yet disarmingly solid structure. Like the best soul tracks, its sweet and gentle presentation underscores a deeper, perhaps darker message. It probably doesn’t need to try to be as funny as it is, as for me the best sections were the quiet ones (particularly the section in Spanish), the quiet moments of emotional connection. Hauge, similarly could improve some material by letting it breath, allowing her monologue sections the time they deserve, and trimming some of the visual chaos. Both pieces functioned well together as different riffs on some of the same material, different experiences and aesthetic tendencies aimed at the same target.

Joan and Stud were similarly well-paired, and fantastic pieces with which to wind up my experience of Calm Down Dear 2015. Joan, developed by Lucy J Skilbeck and performed by champion drag king Lucy Jane Parkinson (Drag Idol UK champion 2014 LoUis Cyfer) is a fresh and uncompromising take on the story of Joan of Arc, told with the voice of a young adult from the English north. There is a jarring quality to the mix of brutality and cabaret. It’s a traditional cabaret banter and set up, a cabaret style like your parents might imagine rather than new trendy work. This ridiculousness though is exciting and enjoyable rather than trite, playful and not cliché. Joan of Arc is a story we all know, although in the watching I found that I knew far less than I thought, and had thought far less deeply about it than I knew. The relation to gender roles, and the foregrounded drag of Joan’s taking on armour was highlighted subtly and with emotional heft. Its entertainment doesn’t disguise its innovation, but highlights the poignancy with which the story is presented.

This combination of humour and entertainment with the poignant was equally present in Stud, Eilidh MacAskill’s penis-envy western solo, a DIY horse whispering of gender identity. Whilst its stylistic touchstones are familiar, the house façade of the western and the Mr Ed vibe are brought together in a performance that manages to be both incredibly likeable and enjoyable as a thing to watch, and a genuinely thought-provoking meditation on the connections between Freud, boy genitalia, girl genitalia, gender and childhood identification with horses. Rapidly switching volume and accent, MacAskill’s delivery is charming and just the right side of unnerving, its weirdness an excellent aspect of the performance. Actually the slow realisation of the weirdness of everything, the creeping sense of inanimate objects being invested with more meaning than is ‘normal’ was a key aspect of my experience watching the piece. It makes sense in context, but is built slowly, one conceptual leap after another. Rather like some of Freud’s theories themselves then, the show has an internal and persuasive logic that defeats simple explanation.

Like any festival, Calm Down Dear operates on both the level of the individual pieces and the program as a whole. What has been a pleasure about attending as much as I could of this year’s edition was the chance to see the curatorial imperatives at work, to see concrete expression of marketing blurb and press releases. The festival has introduced new work, from new performers and established, and carried on its important exploration of the resonance the feminism has in a modern society. Its project feels urgent and important, and a necessary way to highlight both the breadth of work dealing with these issues, and the importance of making connections across it.

For more festivals of performance from the Camden People’s Theatre, visit its website here.

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