The third edition of Calm Down Dear has now started, the festival filling Camden People’s Theatre with feminist performance work from a broad spectrum of theatre makers and activists. Building on the successes of previous editions (festival headliner Louise Orwin returns after Pretty Ugly in 2013) the 2015 program highlights the renewed urgency and relevancy of performance that engages with the still unequal position of women in contemporary society, and the embedded histories that form the basis of that inequality. The feminisms of Calm Down Dear are plural and distinct, and the program spans a wide range of gender identity, class, age and experience.
Performances are self-contained and independent, but curated to compliment and enrich each other by association. Here I’ll try to pull some of those emerging themes and confluences together, and highlight some moments of synchronicity and dialogue in the shows that I’ve seen so far. It is of course interesting to come to a feminist theatre festival as a man (or male member of the audience at least). I am still a feminist, and a passionate one, but I come aware that there is a gap in my understanding, between the theories of feminism and an abstract understanding of the ways in which inequality impacts women in society, and the lived experience of that inequality. That is part of the excitement of the festival program, the importance of engaging with different ideas as they emerge, and of articulating your own position as a watcher in relation to them. Anyone, of any gender identity, has a role to play. As Brian Logan (CPT’s artistic director) recently wrote for The Stage, this third edition of the festival ‘complicates the idea that feminism is the domain of one gender alone more than ever before’.
Louise Orwin’s A Girl and A Gun is a Quentin Tarantino/John Ford vampy duologue, Orwin and a male performer (who changes every night) acting out a southern noir gun fantasy for the benefit of the audience and multiple camera feeds. Its critique lies mainly in its style, an appropriation of the mythical girls of action cinema and the weaponry that accompanies them, jumping off from Godard’s assertion that ‘All you need to make a movie is a girl and a gun’. The knowing use of stylistic touches familiar from the performance’s cinematic influences (the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, a red dress, 60’s Americana) is pleasurable to watch but uneasily so, familiar but faintly troubling in relation to the subject matter of the performance. Cinema, especially American cinema, is so steeped in the tropes of the femme fatale and the fatal shootout that our enjoyment of these films is never entirely unproblematic. The distracting frame of two live feeds behind the action on stage, which emphasise lips, faces, legs and eyes, drives home the seductive distortion of the screen in comparison to the live.
A stark contrast exists in Orwin’s assured performance as a screen siren and the progress of the unprepared male performer. In the show the subordination of the character ‘Her’ to ‘Him’ is a reversal of the male performer’s on-the-spot reading of a script Orwin has set out for him. Interestingly, an unprepared male performer is present in both A Girl and A Gun and Roxanne Carney’s Eat the Cake, shown as part of Big Bang #1, the first of the festival’s showcase evenings of new work by emerging artists. Drawn from an open call for performers in Orwin’s show, and pulled from the audience in Carney’s, both men perform the directions of the artists in front of the audience for the first time. The agency lies with the female architects of the show, the choice facing the male performers whether to follow the written instructions or refuse. The complicity of the audience in wanting the performer to do it ‘right’ and questioning the ethics of the instructions is engaging and thought-provoking. Do we as an audience want the male performer to grab Orwin by the throat? Is it made more or less palatable by the knowledge that she was the instigator of the situation? At one point in Carney’s show the audience-participant pours an entire bottle of Coke down her throat, all whilst she is handcuffed at the wrists. These are difficult images and uncomfortable watches, and the politics of both performances live in that tension and unease. Both Orwin and Carney could push that ambiguity still further, allowing more instances where the tension between what their co-performer is asked to do, and what they might want to do, is allowed to come to the fore.
None of Us is Yet a Robot’s Rituals for Change, presented in a double bill with Orwin’s performance on Friday night, offers a very different aesthetic exploration of gendered perspectives. Emma Frankland’s quiet ceremonies of grounding create a composed backdrop to her narration of transition and affirmation of identity. Chopping wood and sifting dirt, lighting candles and decanting water, Frankland holds the audience’s attention through an unvarnished presentation of direct experience. Under naked lights, with a wobbly vinyl soundtrack, it feels as though the audience have gathered around to share that experience rather than sat to witness a spectacle. By the end, as Frankland ascends a narrow scaffold, the atmosphere has become intimate and almost confessional, a late night ritual indeed. Rituals for Change is particularly interesting when watched in such close proximity to A Girl and A Gun, as even though the style of performance shifts radically from stylised composition to task-based narration, the politics of appearance and the involuntarily applied symbols of gendered bodies remain explicit.
On Saturday evening Big Bang #1 pointed clearly to the strength and influence of the current work being made by companies of women and female performers in London and the UK, a wave of performance that CPT, with other venues, has nurtured. Hunt and Darton task-based tropicalia in The Gran Show by Viki Browne, and the Figs in Wigs-esque glitter glam dance in Carney’s Eat the Cake highlighted the way that performance style and ethos filter down, through audiences, to the next emerging wave of artists. As with any multi-act evening, the importance of sticking to the timeslot was paramount, and the unfortunate overrunning of the first three pieces meant that I had to duck out of the second half of the evening. Both Carney and Browne showed promising command of their material though, as did Libby Liburd in Muvvahood. Liburd’s piece took a more traditional monologue format, but its verbatim explorations of single-motherhood in the age of austerity hit home in an affecting manner. Liburd’s performance was a clear moment of hard political feminism, a stark reminder that, as well as being subject to cultural and implicit discrimination, women still face explicit material and institutional discrimination in housing and welfare, intersected by the vagaries of the class system.
Rachael Ofori’s Portrait is similarly based on a familiar monologue format, but one that was fully developed and performed with consummate skill. As both writer and performer, Ofori flicks between disparate and distinct characters inspired by instances from her own life and experiences. Different voices and identities fade in and out, the most vivid the sharp indictments of superficial liberal guilt and the homogenising of black voices (and particularly of young black women). Ofori is a truly gifted actor, and as a writer manages to craft several believable characters with their own identities and subjectivities clear. There is a slight disjunction between the obviously UK based characters and the roles that articulate an American identity, as they partly undo the sense of this being a specific, grounded story from Ofori’s own experience. It may try to cover slightly too much ground, but it is a strong work that feels as relevant to the concerns of the festival as it is enjoyable as an assured performance.
CrossLine Theatre’s Cream Pie, appearing in a double-bill with Portrait, was a parodic exploration of porn; relations to it, its production and its impact on society. The piece took stories and testimonies from friends and contemporaries of the performers as its basis, showcasing a mix of millennial experiences with and attitudes to porn, interspersed with comic sketches of porn consumption and/or production. Entertainingly performed by Kara Chamberlain and Natalia Knowlton, it did however draw on quite a narrow base of experiences, leaving it feeling perhaps slightly under-researched. One of its central questions, ‘What would feminist porn look like?’ would certainly have been enriched by asking some of the people who actually make feminist porn (of which there are several), or from delving deeper into the questions that are raised by its existence. Cream Pie occasionally runs the risk of being uncritical of its own sources, and of not fully framing the equally subjective position of its makers. It could have engaged further with feminism’s internal debates around porn, for example, or with the UK government’s recent scandalous censorship of the domestic porn industry. These are all potential avenues for further development of the piece after this, its premiere. Like each performance I’ve seen though, it raised questions and nuances that are well worthy of deeper consideration. Each evening has left me with enduring images and provoked further thought, around my own position as a member of the audience, my assumptions, and the relationship between a patriarchal society and those of us who would change it.
Calm Down Dear continues at the Camden People’s Theatre until 11th October. Read more about the individual performances, and book tickets, on their website here.