Calm Down, Dear at Camden People’s Theatre’s is a three week season of theatre, performance, comedy, and conversation – featuring some of the most talked about shows of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe – about what it means to be a feminist.
In an effort to consider what feminist theatre might be in contemporary performance culture, I spoke to Kate Craddock, Amanda Monfrooe and Adrienne Truscott about the ways in which they position their work in relation to feminist discourse, the nature of their work and the shows they are presenting as part of the festival.
Diana Damian: Feminism has become more than an activist movement; it’s been moulded by context, problematized by socio-political norms, theorised incessantly across a wide spectrum of critical theory and owned , perhaps even embodied, by such a diverse collective both contemporary and historical. How do you as an artist see feminism now? How would you position yourself within feminist discourse, if you feel that is indeed something imperative for any artist working now?
Kate Craddock: I see feminism as imperative; not just for artists working today, but for everyone. Wherever current discourse stands, if we take it on a basic level to stand for equality, then it is fundamental. It remains a complex and nuanced debate. As a woman in my early 30’s I find myself surrounded by friends who are are making tough decisions that centre around making a choice between pursuing a career or starting a family. The fact that these still seem to be decisions that women have to face suggest that we’re still a long way off from experiencing equality. I think that these experiences inevitably influence me in my thinking and the work I want to make.
I work in Higher Education, and I regularly ask my students whether they class themselves as feminist at the start of a module, particularly when notions around gender will form part of the work we cover. Each time I have done this, I’ve been surprised by the fact there are only ever a few who initially raise their hands, whilst others resort to stereotyping. However, by the end of the module, I’ll ask the same question, and I’ll end up with a lecture theatre full of hands up in the air. In fact many of the students I have the pleasure of working with are very vocal, and increasingly so, and are making work that, although they might not articulate as being feminist, has a feminist agenda at its core. This feels positive.
Amanda Monfrooe: The feminist agenda, even the wide ranging discourses claiming themselves to be “feminist,” have at their core the same value: the equal distribution of agency (economic, political, physical, psychological, sexual, ecological, etc.) to women and in many cases this is extended to children. No wonder, then, that the movement has been fragmented (“moulded by context” as you say) by its many flag bearers. They have applied this core value to their agenda and so blurred the precise definition that has given other movements more visible successes. That has been its triumph – but as usual multi tasking is not prized above the obvious merits of a single monumental triumph (and thus the incessant critiques of doubters and internal struggles for an impossible, and self destructive unification among its champions.)
As with all political movements, “true” feminism” – as embodied by individuals working to undermine the engrained and probably regressive attitudes toward women and girls in our society as well as the fundamental, culturally-embedded attitudes in other parts of the world – has become a commodity for the main stream media. Girls sticking up for themselves, or not, is the story of the day and they sell stories. This week this is the story they are selling, selling “feminism” lite. Instead of the rape statistics in India or the sex trafficking of children in the UK we’re talking about Miley Cyrus twerking and tits. That means “feminism” is, like any other news story off the front page very shortly. That’s when it becomes old news and when that happens feminists will be restored to their place – in the past. The way we are talking about feminism in the mainstream is making it history already.
Feminism, as all truly progressive political movements will have moments of genuine resurgence, energy and change will be made but it will find its limits quickly and exist as an island. The world is too small and too diverse for the movement to achieve its goals – except on that island. This shouldn’t be disheartening. The hope is in finding yourself stranded there and not where I am.
Grayson Perry has recently set out that a good artist, an artist who is understood in her time and whose work results in a legacy of meaning must say something about her time. That is, to say something true and insightful about her time. There is no other imperative for any artist and I would take the humble self-reflective artist interested in an aesthetic question before the prophetic rages of the righteous. Because I can find truth in work where room is made for me. Where my mind is made up for me there can be no true understanding. A piece where I am asked to understand something about myself cannot be got rid of so easily. My work is feminist in this sense. It invites agency. If audiences don’t engage because it’s boring, fine. If they don’t engage because I’ve left no room for them than I have oppressed them – left no room for agency.
Do you think feminism, activism and performance are inherently tied together?
Kate Craddock: As an artist, I guess I’m always wary of labelling anything as being ‘political’ or ‘feminist’ – or labelling it as being anything specific in fact. These are terms that I think can unfortunately put new audiences off rather than bringing them in. I prefer to make work about ideas and concerns that seem relevant and urgent to me, and allow audiences to respond to the work in an open way- and if audiences respond to the work and describe it as being feminist, then that is great. It is however wonderful to be programmed in the CPT Festival- an open celebration of feminism, that I hope will provide a platform for debate and discussion. It feels like the term is being reclaimed and held up for scrutiny, that artists are asking the right questions about what it could and should stand for today.
Amanda Monfrooe: Activism is a political act, not an artistic one. That said, political acts require creativity and imagination and artistic flare. But activism is about having answers, proposing them, protesting wrong solutions proposed by others who are wrong. It requires the artwork to be composed of black and whites, rights and wrongs, and propose truth. Art is not. Not for me, anyway.
Adrienne Truscott: I don’t think that they are inherently tied together. If you are a female performer you have a great opportunity to be informed about the vast possibilities that feminism makes available to you, and to what and how you can communicate, intentionally or unintentionally to an audience – whether the intent is explicitly feminist or not.
Would you say you are an artist that your work itself is feminist in its strategies?
Kate Craddock: I believe strongly that theatre is a place for raising questions; for creating dialogue with audiences; for sharing; and for meaningful exchange to take place. I don’t know if these are particularly feminist ideals, but they feel like they come from me as a woman, and the way I want to exist and interact with the world around me.
Amanda Monfrooe: My intention is always to propose a question that I want the audience to ask themselves. And I do it in an entertaining way in the hope that they might just do that. Performance has been an effective in doing that – but it’s increasingly hard. People are less willing to work. I think this is a feminist strategy, but not necessary an active feminism. It is, as you put it, a strategy not an agenda.
Adrienne Truscott: I have been in lots of different kinds of work that is explicitly feminist – announces itself as such in its title, artistic statement, press, etc. and been asked and wondered myself if and when and how my own work is feminist. I know I have been a feminist since before I had a word for it, when I was very young I was sensitive to the problems of sexism. So earlier in my career my answer was always that I am a feminist – it is one of the main lenses through which I understand the world, so I assume and others should too. I don’t always think you get the most ‘mileage’ out of announcing what you’re doing – in some cases I think that can be really reductive in art. I can’t really think of any work I’ve made, even the most playful, absurd, abstract stuff that gender and class weren’t on my mind.
Theatre and performance have a complex and perhaps complicated relationship with feminism. On the one hand, there is more parity than ever before across the cultural landscape, but at the same time, there remains a certain sense of urgency to provide visibility and opportunities for women working in theatre now, for those artists engaged in gender politics and women’s rights. Where do you see yourself and your work in this landscape?
Kate Craddock: I see the landscape for women in theatre being one that is highly complex and problematic. It is great to see more women moving into more influential positions in theatre, I’m referring here to women like Vicky Featherstone and Erica Whyman, but still they remain exceptions. Were any women in the shortlist for the National job?
Amanda Monfrooe: The perceived complexities or complications perceived between feminism and theatre aren’t to do with feminism but with the agenda of art makers and art marketers. Feminism, like so many political movements, goes in and out of fashion. What is fashionable sells and what is not does not. The issues arise when the agenda set by programmers, producers, makers, gallerists, and directors does not jive with what is understood to be “feminist” theatre (speaking here of overtly political, activist theatre.)
That said, there does seem to be a wider interest in the absence of women in positions of power and visibility in the cultural sector. I think that it has got to be so extreme that it can no longer be ignored or palmed off as an “issue” we all live with. Possibly this is part of a wave of concern resulting from an increased sense of fear, isolation, and disparity in the lives of women in general. But I worry that the agenda of arts funding remains simplistic in its strategies.
Like any artist I can do nothing to resist – nor do I wish to protest – the fact that my work might be fashionable. It’s cynical, yes, but of course, the feminist label attached to my work is not only correct but today it happens to be profitable. I only hope that the female directors, producers, and writers in the mainstream who are really benefitting at the moment make serious inroads and enjoy the longevity of their male counterparts.
Adrienne Truscott: I think we’re at a really fascinating moment for women in performance. Work by women feels so powerful right now, and so exciting and so successful. And it feels very organic – like the performance landscape is so ready for this massive new infusion of forms, narratives and presentations or interpolations of ways of making sense of the world, that seem to be coming from women. Comedy seems to be incredibly integral to this moment – it makes me giddy with excitement. I think this is because of the simple fact that it is by its nature sly, fun and subversive when deployed intelligently, while it also, by its nature puts to rest the insipid and lazy old yarn that feminists aren’t funny.
Do you think it’s important to highlight feminist work in contexts such as the CPT festival, or to activate a more embedded feminist practice in theatre today?
Kate Craddock: I’ve always been someone who has actively sought to make things happen, both for myself and for the communities of people I am surrounded by. Most notably is GIFT: Gateshead International Festival of Theatre. GIFT is a contemporary theatre festival that I founded in 2011, and has provided me with a platform and opportunity to have influence and impact in a way that I think would have been harder to achieve through hierarchies that exist in more established institutions and organisations. There is a freedom and empowerment that comes with starting something yourself.
Adrienne Truscott: Increasingly feminism performance is simply a fact because it’s felt in our culture whether you call it that or not, whether you’re ‘for’ or ‘against’ it. I think what’s fascinating and exciting is how naturally embedded it is at this point.
I was having a discussion with a gentleman about feminism and feminism in performance, and though in general he is ‘down for the cause’ he hadn’t educated himself by actually reading any feminist theory, but did feel fine about commenting on feminism, without being able to discuss different strains of it, eras, conflicts within it, structures and strategies it has developed. And I thought, and said, you know, if it’s 2013, and you can read, and you have access to education or self-education in some way, and you’re not at all conversant in at least ‘one’ of the waves of feminism, your contribution to ‘the conversation’ isn’t entirely relevant. I didn’t even mean it as a ‘dis’ – it just struck me as absolutely true. It’s not a new fad! It’s like being in America and thinking you’ll never need to learn Spanish, or Russian or at least one other language, or not knowing anything about Islam and trying to have an opinion on American foreign policy, or wondering what’s happening in the world economy without reading at least the occasional article about China’s economy – or, from another angle, trying to talk about football if you don’t know it’s rules or goals. At a certain point, if you’re an adult and you don’t know a bit about feminism, you’re not really a full player in the larger conversation. I can’t believe how many people think we’re sort of ‘past’ sexism and misogyny, so festivals and such that celebrate and promote feminism are absolutely still magnificent and important.
Can you think of one artist or company whose work has influenced your own practice, whose strategies you might have found useful or inspiring?
Kate Craddock: I created this show in collaboration with writer and director Steve Gilroy, and one of the main discussions that really drove our creative process was through trying to understand how Gertrude Bell had managed to achieve the things she did, and the ways in which she would have operated in order to have been accepted and to become (in her own words) a ‘person’. She seemed to have an understanding of herself as being ‘sexless’, and saw this as a necessity in order to gain the respect and trust of her male counterparts.Our discussions then led to focus around the ways in which women in public life operate today- and often the contradictions that lie at the heart of this. This is something that features strongly in the show.
Gertrude is an extraordinarily complex and seemingly contradictory character, and certainly wouldn’t have classed herself as feminist! Despite the fact she was extremely successful at operating in a very male dominated world, and her achievements arguably surpassed those of her male counterparts, she has remained a complicated figure to view or celebrate through a feminist lens. Her writings suggest she had contempt for many of the women that surrounded her; she didn’t really appear to want all women to have the same level of success that she inevitably enjoyed; and most complex perhaps, she was the founding secretary of the women’s anti-suffrage league. It is almost as though she has proven too tricky to pin down- or to understand. But when viewed in her own socio-political and historical context, perhaps she begins to make more sense, and it seems she is being reclaimed by feminists. I recently saw Professor Helen Berry from Newcastle University deliver a paper that looked specifically at this which was inspiring.
For the past few years I’ve been inspired by Anne Bogart’s writings- most particularly through the way in which she articulates the importance of context; of ensemble; of audience relationships and collaboration.
Other key inspirational female figures have been women who I studied with-Anna Furse and Geraldine Pilgrim at Goldsmiths where I studied for an MA many years ago being two very brilliant examples
Amanda Monfrooe: I was recently introduced to Peggy Shaw and she transformed how I saw my future. She reminded me that I’m making work to make work. Therein lies success. Now she can do no wrong for audiences and critics. But to earn their patience she’s worked for a long time. Typical. But a good reminder that in making work like I do I can’t hope for a conventional career where I enjoy external validation – much less acclaim. That’s simply not the scale I’m operating on. And she’s reminded me that scale has nothing to do with integrity.
Adrienne Truscott: There are so and too many to mention, across so many spectrums – right now, late at night, what comes to me is something that affected me recently and stays with me: while reading Tina Fey’s book Bossypants last year, the section where she quotes Amy Poehler getting frustrated in the SNL writer’s room while goofing and brainstorming and getting some negative flack for what she was doing, and her yelling back, ‘I don’t fucking care if you think it’s cute [or not].” Then Tina follows up with:
“With that exchange, a cosmic shift took place. Amy made it clear that she wasn’t there to be cute. She wasn’t there to play wives and girlfriends in the boys’ scenes. She was there to do what she wanted to do and she did not fucking care if you like it …”
That was so great to read. And I feel like I see women around me all the time right now just making amazing work, and that thing, that old thing where you wonder ‘if it’s going to work ‘out there’ or ‘for them’ doesn’t seem to be one of the obstacles any more. And that seems seismic in terms of what’s possible now.
Finally, can you tell us a bit about your contribution to the Festival?
Kate Craddock: This piece of work, The GB Project (reviewed here by Exeunt), is inherently feminist in that I set out to tell the story of an extraordinary woman who has largely remained hidden, and outside the public domain. Her story was somewhat trumped by her male contemporaries, notably T E Lawrence. However with multiple films currently in the making, it won’t be long before Gertrude Bell becomes associated with a particular Hollywood actress- and her story becomes more widely known. I just fear what Hollywood might do to her- something again the show addresses.
Amanda Monfrooe: This year I made a piece of work that failed as a piece of feminist propaganda. This didn’t matter to me because of course that’s not what it was intended to be. But what I wanted to say went unheard because of the project’s apparently overt “feminist” agenda. So, this is my apology. It’s a quiet spoken word piece in which I finally confess to my mistakes and upbraid myself for failing the sisterhood by rummaging through the smouldering remains of that original piece. Picking my way through missteps in the hope that I can finally say what I meant to say in the first place. But this will be a test of strength as in the cold light of an unadorned stage, face to face with my audience without the mask of actors, puppets, and props I will speak to the problem of performing feminism.
Adrienne Truscottt: I’m bringing a show called Adrienne Truscottt’s Asking For It: A One-Lady Rape About Comedy Starring Her Pussy and Little Else. It’s a stand up show that addresses rape culture and rape jokes in comedy ….what you, or I can or can’t joke about – what the logic out there is. But it’s funny! And really light on its feet in lots of ways, even though it addresses heavy stuff. I had started making jokes that I found liberating – they just came out of me and felt like the best and most articulate way to express how twisted and insane and absurd a lot of the rhetoric out there is.
Kate Craddock is a performer and theatre maker based in Gateshead. In 2011, she founded GIFT: Gateshead International Festival of Theatre.
Amanda Monfrooe is a US-born, UK-based cultural critic, performance maker and dramaturg who has worked in collaboration with Arika, National Theatre of Scotland, The Arches, Rene Baker and Puppet Animation Scotland.
Adrienne Truscott has been performing in and creating diverse work in NYC for the last ten years, both as a solo performer and as part of her neo-vaudevillian collaboration with Tanya Gagne, The Wau Wau Sisters.
Calm Down Dear- A Festival of Feminist Theatre continues at Camden People’s Theatre until 10th November 2013. For more information please visit their website.