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Features Published 22 April 2015

Hear Me Roar!

Hear Me Roar!, a festival of feminist performance and discussion, took place in Lancaster at the beginning of March 2015. Here, producer Leo Burtin and Dialogue’s Maddy Costa and Jake Orr reflect on the festival of feminist theatre.
Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa: lthough everything about the Hear Me Roar festival appealed to me – theatre + discussion + feminism = what’s not to like? – I couldn’t have spent all that time and money travelling London-to-Lancaster without Leo funding Dialogue as “critical friends” for the weekend. I feel anxious about this because my response to the festival is more friendly than critical. I do have questions, though. I enjoyed the full day of papers from feminist academics on representations of women and feminist politics in popular culture, but it felt monolithic; is there a way of interspersing that thinking and dialogue through the course of the weekend? I couldn’t see how the Drunken Nights programme fit into the festival: was it there for pragmatic reasons? How were the choices of work affected by the fact that Hear Me Roar was shaped by a young gay man? Could more have been done to include the perspectives of older women, and women of colour?

Leo Burtin: I appreciate the transparency you are offering here, Maddy – and I feel that a lot of the positive responses to the festival probably came from a similar place. The people from the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies had been really enthused at the idea of doing something in town; some of my Theatre Studies colleagues were excited to be able to see a few shows they’d missed elsewhere; and the artists were excited to have their work framed in this way.

Don’t get me wrong: we showed some outstanding work. But the more I think about it, the more I don’t think quality is necessarily what mattered. What mattered was that all the people there had responded to a very specific invitation to a ‘feminist space’.

Brian Lobel once said to me: “If you’re inviting everyone, I don’t feel invited.”

I was puzzled by his statement at first, but the more I work it, the more I get it. The invitation wasn’t: “If you’re not doing anything, maybe you can give it a go…” The invitation was: We’re excited to be inviting you to a feminist festival, and we want you to come, because this really matters.

There is a time for anger, but unlike the title suggests, Hear Me Roar wasn’t the time – and I’m so glad everyone played the game.

I’m so glad no one claimed their feminism was better than mine, or yours.

I’m so glad that for once, we all got together – sometimes to talk, sometimes to sit in silence in a darkened room, sometimes to share a drink…

The social element of Hear Me Roar was really important to me: having a ‘late night’ option to end the day with, to give people an opportunity to stay in the space of the festival, but in a slightly different context.

Which leads me to Drunken Nights. I had anticipated that some people would ask, “How is this a feminist event?” In many ways, I’m not that interested in that question. Also, I am anxious of going into something that may start sounding like a justification or an apology. But there are a few things which are interesting to note. Yes, it was pragmatic: I had committed to Drunken Nights prior to Hear Me Roar even being a thing; also, it was very robustly funded. However, I planned to make a connection between Eggs Collective’s performance, playing off the idea of a ‘girls’ night out’, and Drunken Nights; and I was interested in what happens when a group of people use a ‘feminist lens’ to look at Drunken Nights as an event which utilises and subverts the Great British pub setting. Also, the line-up featured a single male artist – and for the male performer to be a minority on the ‘pub scene’ is a rare sight.

I might be more interested in the question ‘How is this feminism?’ than I care to admit.

Could more have been done to make the festival more diverse? The answer to this question is always yes. A number of projects, notably by older women, fell through for various reasons, as did couple of projects around feminism and race. A couple of conversations around feminism and disability never went past the early stages. But again, I’m not sure a justification would be that helpful.

You ask about me being a young gay man.

A young expat – A young atheist Jew – A young man from a working class background who has become distinctly middle class – A single gay man – A man who was raised by women – A gay man with a bisexual sister – The son of a former sex worker – A young man with an invisible disability – A linguistics and theatre graduate…

I’m being cheeky here.

Yes, of course the festival would have looked different if someone else had made some of the choices I made. This is why the very first thing I did when I came up with the idea was to request a meeting with Gerry Harris, Celia Roberts and Imogen Tyler [leading academics at Lancaster University], all of whom are experts in feminism. Gerry would have not hesitated to call me out if at any point I had used problematic terminology or done anything ‘un-feminist’, even if by mistake.

One thing that my (queer) identity brought to the curation of the festival was a commitment to explore feminism in fun ways, through varying degrees of absurd and/or mild provocation. One thing my age brought to the festival was that young people were the target audience. This was the ‘easy’ option: I have a clearer understanding of how to get young people to engage with feminism and the arts than for a working mother of two…

The brilliant thing is, though, by having done the festival and seeing what happens, means we are having this conversation, and a space has been created so that next time, anyone whose voice wasn’t loud enough this time can drop me a line and say Hear Me Roar!

Drunken Chorus

Drunken Chorus

Jake Orr: The thing to note straight away – as someone who runs festivals – there is always the ‘we could do more’ debate that lingers after a new festival is born. The thing that struck me most reading your response Leo was how much you have managed to achieve in a short amount of time, creating a space for feminism in the heart of a city instead of behind lecture-room doors.

Feminism is somewhat of a challenge for me. Calling myself a feminist and engaging in feminist conversations is new and exciting. A festival of feminism though, wow, how can I fit into something like that? That’s what I initially thought, and I found the whole prospect pretty daunting, but actually being there, experiencing the discussions, seeing the work and seeing a safe and non-judgemental space be born is what held me close through the festival. That’s something to be proud of.

For me it all comes back to context. In this there was equal success and failure (yes, big word, but let’s embrace that). Feminism in all its glory needed to be more prominent, it needed to be mentioned or left open for discussion. The symposium papers were so thought-provoking and challenging it felt a shame that the conversation wasn’t extended further in the performances and the audiences.

I love that quote from Brian Lobel, and in many ways I agree. Running a festival is all about targeting – but there has to be an element of outward facing, otherwise you’re just making art happen in a vacuum. This was one of my frustrations with attending In Between Time – the live art festival in Bristol – this year. Engagement with the wider Bristol community felt so void, as if the whole festival was made for live-art fans and no one else. I’m not saying Hearing Me Roar! was that, but I think the questions raised in the festival should have filtered out further. Maybe provocative ideas or papers delivered before or after performances, in the bar and in the streets. Something that allowed slippage.

Something that I would have liked to have seen was more of your presence Leo, or the central academics at the events. Giving context to the work. Why was it programmed, what does it mean for you to be a feminist, what does this work potentially say in the line-up? The programme notes could have been an effective way of engaging in that discourse.

The thing that I took most from the weekend is the space for feminism. I love how across a whole weekend it seemed that feminism just swept me up and took over so much of my thinking and feeling. It was like putting new lenses in my glasses for the weekend and then on returning to London I had to replace them with my old glasses but I could still see flickers of feminism like light bursts.

Maddy Costa: Reading over this, I’m struck by how banal my initial critique sounds, how Leo recognises that he sounds like he’s justifying himself, how placatory Jake at first comes across as being… What is a fruitful dialogue between artist (producer) and critic(s)? Who is it fruitful for? I hope people will find this interesting, I hope it might resonate with questions others ask about how to present festival programmes and engage with audiences – but I’m also aware of wanting to explain everything, so that it doesn’t sound as though the three of us are having a conversation in a vacuum.

This is where I think it’s interesting that, having created a festival specifically for Lancaster, Leo then invited two London-based writers to attend. There’s something here about the desire for an outside eye that undermines the vacuum narrative – and accepts the possibility of context not being fully understood. Not that I think that’s what Jake means by context: he’s talking about making the feminist angles more visible and explicit. My favourite paragraph in this entire dialogue is the one in which Leo defines and re-defines himself: like Jake, I would have loved more of that personal context.

But more explicit feminist contextualisation? I’m not sure. I like the way Leo trusted the audience to make connections for themselves: to read their own ideas about feminism into Lowri Evans’ Secret Life of You and Me (in which feminist argument – for instance, it’s ridiculous that women are expected to conform to lifestyle images peddled in magazines – was a subtle layer among many layers) or Eggs Collective’s Get A Round, without being told what to look for.

I love the “commitment to explore feminism in fun ways”. I’ve been struck over the past couple of years by how many young women think feminism is a thing of the past: the battles have been won, they can do anything they want. To me, feminism is needed as much as ever. Jake’s desire for the feminist perspective to be spoken out loud reflects the need to help people really get that. It’s also why I think focusing on young people wasn’t the “easy” option: it required getting through to people for whom feminism is an outdated concept.

Saying that, is there really a single answer to “how is this feminist?”? One of the things I most valued across the weekend was academic Gerry Harris declaring that feminism isn’t singular: it’s a spectrum. Hear Me Roar! recognised that there isn’t a homogeneous “feminist” but a multiplicity of feminist perspectives that it found intriguing and wanted to reflect. That was the best thing about it.

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Maddy Costa

Maddy Costa writes about theatre and music, as much as possible at the same time. Preferably with a recipe included. An occasional contributor to the Guardian, she found one blog (Deliq) wasn't enough, so now co-hosts four. She is critical writer, or critic in residence, or embedded critic, with Chris Goode & Company; through her work with them, and with Dialogue, the organisation she co-founded with Jake Orr, she is attempting to rethink the relationship between people who make, watch and write about theatre. At least once a week she decides she should stop writing about theatre and do something more useful instead.

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