Features Published 25 September 2014

Everyday Feminism

Louise Orwin, Susanna Hislop and Hannah Silva on making feminist theatre and the Calm Down Dear Festival, which opens this week at Camden People's Theatre.
Catherine Love

Hanna Silva’s Schlock! Photo: Field and McGlynn

Do you think feminist discourse has shifted in the last couple of years? And if so, how do you situate your performance practice within that changing discourse?

Louise Orwin: I think there certainly has been a renewed interest in feminism that has appeared over the last two to three years. I think a kind of ‘pop’ feminism has emerged thanks to prominent figures in the press speaking out as feminists, and also with the help of the internet. I’ve been pleased to see a new wave of teenage feminists find their voice with the help of twitter and blog sites. I’m not sure how much the discourse has changed however. I think its interesting to look at how the internet can simultaneously give voice both to a new generation of feminists and also the widespread institutionalised misogyny which is out there. I always try to present work which clearly shows how deeply embedded our politics are in pop culture, and how much that can affect us on an almost subconscious level. Indeed, it is a point of contention in my practice: that I make deeply feminist work and yet struggle to live by the standards that I feel I should. It is important to me that my work can present this struggle.

Hannah Silva:  Today I saw the ‘womenagainstfeminism’ tweets, a documentary about how women are now ‘as bad as men’ when it comes to drinking, and ‘worse than men’ when it comes to physical violence – followed by a female police officer explained that lip gloss is more effective on violent men than handcuffs… Then I saw Sky News were reporting a rise in eating disorders and ‘thinspiration’ on social media, and I saw a male poet perform a piece telling women to put down the women’s magazines and accept their bodies… which I found very condescending, but others praised as an excellent ‘feminist’ poem. This is a pretty confusing and contradictory landscape, it’s also a shifting landscape… I don’t know where ‘feminist discourse’ sits… I don’t know how to ‘situate’ my practice. I suppose the idea of ‘situating’ my practice is a strange one to me, because it seems static. If I had stopped moving, if I was just sitting somewhere, situated somewhere, then I’d have no reason to make theatre.

Susanna Hislop: Yes – I think across the arts, and just in general, there has been a shift in feminist discourse – both a rise in popular feminism, and, in response to that, a resurgence of more rigorous and radical debate and examination. Ten years ago you hardly ever heard the word mentioned in the mainstream media, now you hear it everywhere – which has been both a help and a hindrance to the cause (it’s a cliche, and problematic, to talk about Beyonce, but look at the response to Emma Watson’s recent speech: it’s pretty ludicrous that when a hollywood-glamorous, extremely career-enforcedly thin woman says some common-sensical things, it is represented in the headlines as a groundbreaking shift in feminist discourse).

Susanna Hislop's How Does a Snake Shed Its Skin?

Susanna Hislop’s How Does a Snake Shed Its Skin?

Is the “feminist theatre/performance” label something that you identify with, or do you think it can limit the ways in which your work is seen, received and discussed?

Louise Orwin: I have always made what is widely considered feminist work, and often describe myself as a feminist practitioner. Today I am happy to describe it as such, but I do remember a few years where my work was often described as ‘angry’, which I believe is mostly to do with the fact that it was brazenly feminist. I think I struggled with that then, and worried that this might deter people, or distract from the message. Now however I think it is a really important thing. I firmly believe that we need to re-embrace the ‘F’ word. I would hope, of course, that the work could be considered within other contexts too, but if I’m making work which explicitly deals with political issues that I feel need to be discussed then I’m not going to shy from being categorised as a feminist practitioner.

Hanna Silva: I have very little control over the way my work is ‘seen, received and discussed’. For instance, these questions are more about feminism than they are about my performance work, and I’m struggling to answer them. Although it feels right that Schlock! is described as a feminist piece, I’m finding it difficult to pin down where it should be ‘situated’ in relation to ‘contemporary feminist discourse’! And then there are many aspects of my work that we are not discussing here, as I can’t see how to tie them into these questions. For instance, parts of Schlock! are in British Sign Language, which I’m learning for the show. I’m finding the translation process fascinating, it forces my work out of abstraction, it physicalises the mother/child relationship that I’m exploring and it’s introduced me to a different community. My work has always been dependent on voice and sound, so this process is forcing me to find a new form of expression. But I’m not sure what that has to do with feminist theatre… so in this instance, and with the upmost respect to Exeunt and its writers… yes, the subject of this article is limiting the way my work is discussed.

Susanna Hislop: I don’t like labels in general. Which is in fact a major preoccupation of my show, How Does a Snake Shed its Skin? At best they’re limiting, at worst they’re products of an intensely commercialised and corporate society trying to fit everything into a USP. At the same time, I am a feminist and this show – and my first show, Of Women and Horses I Have Known – are performances exploring women and female identity, so it would be disingenuous for me to suggest that I can’t identify with that label in some way. What’s strange though, is that I feel recently, being a ‘feminist writer/performer’ has almost become my USP: that because the corporate/media world has somehow decided feminism is in the zeitgeist/fashionable at the moment, suddenly my work has a ‘hook’.

In the case of this show – an autobiographical one-woman show constructed through three icons of female identity: Marilyn Monroe, Virginia Woolf and Margaret Thatcher – it’s understandable, even if for me this work is just as much about mental health, list-making and the notion of personality. But something I found really weird is how people have been responding to the book I have just written – Stories in the Stars: An Atlas of Constellations. It’s a playful, rattle bag of stories reimagining constellation myths and legends from around the world, but recently I was asked to talk about it in terms of its/my feminist content/ agenda. I don’t know how I feel about that.

Louise Orwin's Pretty Ugly

Louise Orwin’s Pretty Ugly

Similarly, how important is the idea of a feminist festival? On one level it is significant that this discourse is being offered a platform, but is there also a danger that, by collecting this work together in the context of a festival, it is seen as something alternative and cut off from mainstream discussion?

Louise Orwin: I’m sure there is a part of me which hates the idea that a festival might be jumping on a bandwagon of ‘fashionable feminism’ and cashing in on that [shudder], and yet, even if that was the case (which it’s not!), I truly believe anything that can bring more awareness to such important issues can’t be a bad thing. There is so much feminist work being made at the moment that doesn’t get seen, that I think bringing a festival together to shed light on this movement is a great thing- it says: ‘we’re still here and we’re still fighting’. I think that’s so important to show, even if its just to dispel those myths that feminism is no longer necessary.

Hannah Silva: The work that is presented at CPT is already seen as alternative and cut off from the mainstream. But feminism is a part of ‘mainstream discussion’, so actually I suspect the theme of the festival helps bring attention to the work.

Susanna Hislop: I think it is important and necessary – which may sound like a contradiction to what I was saying before. But the difference is that a festival is run by producers, or in this case a venue. If CPT had gone out and commissioned all the artists in the festival to make a show about feminism, then I would have problems with that. But what this festival seems to be doing is responding to something artists are already doing, to work they are making organically. Which is important. And exciting. And I feel very proud to be a part of it. Gargh. It’s very difficult to write about all this – I suppose what I mean is when I make work I feel the critical brain (is this feminist? how does it engage with politically urgent issues?) is very dangerous to the creative brain – but when I watch it, I engage passionately in those dialogues. And I feel feminism and even more so gender identity politics are very very important and urgent issues.

In what ways does your piece engage with contemporary feminist discourse?

Hannah Silva: Young women around the world read Fifty Shades of Grey, and they’re making a Hollywood movie out of it (Hollywood producers that is, not the young women). I find the book shocking and sad, the protagonist is manipulated into accepting a kind of relationship that she doesn’t want… ‘So you felt demeaned, debased, abused, and assaulted… do you think you could just try to embrace these feelings, deal with them, for me? That’s what a submissive would do…’ And we’re supposed to buy the idea that she’s a bit ‘feisty’… With Schlock! I’m not providing a critique of the book, but I am interesting in going deeper into the emotion that I felt when reading it. I’m writing through the book, and through Kathy Acker’s writings too in order to ask what it is to be a woman, a body, a mother… In the end it is about my relationship to Kathy Acker’s writings, sexuality, physicality and death.

Louise Orwin: Pretty Ugly shines a light on a dark corner of misogyny on the internet, and deals directly with what the current generation of teenage girls are struggling with. It presents two years worth of research in this field; one of which I spent living as 3 teenage girls online. I think I always knew it would be a difficult year, but even I wasn’t prepared for the level of violent, institutionalised misogyny I was to encounter. The show asks many questions about the findings of my research, and questions my position as a researcher within it as well. I think it problematizes these issues, rather than seeking to give any answers; and in that way I hope to present issues which are consistently discussed in the press (especially sensationalist journalism such as the Daily Mail) in a new light. I hope it teases out the complexity of these issues. In this way the show deals with current feminist discourse in the way that it shows an immediate and urgent need for feminism in our current socio-political climate.

The Calm Down Dear festival runs from 25th September until 12th October at CPT, London. Louise Orwin’s Pretty Ugly is on 25th September, Susuanna Hislop’s How Does A Snake Shed Its Skin? is on 1st October and Hannah Silva’s Schlock! is on  8th October

 

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Catherine Love

Catherine is a freelance arts journalist and theatre critic. She writes regularly for titles including The Guardian, The Stage and WhatsOnStage. She is also currently an AHRC funded PhD candidate at Royal Holloway, University of London, pursuing research into the relationship between text and performance in 21st century British theatre.

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