If you’re the kind of masochist who reads comments under online articles (we should all know better by now), perhaps you’ll find agonising value in image-searching the word ‘feminist’. The results are equal parts positive hashtags and celebrity quotes and memes explaining logical faults in quasi-feminist thinking (if all men are pigs and women are equal to men, are we all pigs?), hand-written messages by women denouncing feminism (equality means respect, you dirty slut), and photos suggesting only unattractive women are feminist (BMI being the deciding factor). Feminism – you’ll be shocked to find out – is still a dirty, dirty word.
Embracing the dirt to reclaim it is Calm Down Dear, Camden People’s Theatre’s festival of “innovative feminist theatre”. That snappy definition leaves a lot of questions unanswered (because what is “innovative”, ‘feminist” or for that matter “theatre”?), but it also creaks open quite a few doors, allowing for a rare kind of diversity. Porn, motherhood, infantilisation, body image, penis envy, marriage, and PTSD are just some of the topics explored by artists who identify their practice as theatre, performance and Live Art. The four artists I talked to exemplify the spectrum of approaches on offer. Louise Orwin’s A Girl and A Gun is named after Godard’s assertion that a woman and a weapon are enough to make a film, and will feature a different male performer each night. None of Us is Yet a Robot continues to explore the politics of transition in Rituals for Change; embedded into an unpolished, almost primal devised aesthetic, it presents a formal contrast to Portrait – a monologue and humour-driven deep dive into the realities of being young, black and a woman in modern-day London, written and performed by Racheal Ofori. Permanently Visible on the other hand, collected stories and testimonies of sex workers, before creating Hula House, a site-specific, interactive show.
The formal and topical diversity, unsurprisingly, brings with itself a plurality of opinions on all range of topics. For one thing Orwin, Ofori, Emma Frankland (the artist leading None of Us is Yet a Robot) and Jenny Kondol and Sarah Xanthe (of Permanently Visible) all differ in their opinions on just how far the fourth-wave feminism has pushed us towards gender equality. Orwin reminds that the movement “is undoubtedly the domain of the western world”, while observing that working with teenage girls in London has made it “obvious that there are more young girls with access to political ideas and movements than ever before”. Emma Frankland is excited about a “new surge of interest in feminist politics and activism” but postulates that things are actually getting worse: “I was brought up in the 90’s when there was a definite sense that these issues were finally disappearing, but I was also being brought up as a white, able-bodied man. I now feel the reality is that mainstream culture is more misogynist than ever – with gender norms being enforced in far more rigid ways than before.”
The highflying misogynist culture resonates through the festival’s name, a direct quote of the re-elected PM David Cameron’s callous remark. Brian Logan, CPT’s Artistic Director, is suitably unconvinced we’ve reached peak gender equilibrium, though he notes that sexism and intolerance are at least increasingly called out. Calm Down Dear, from the theatre’s perspective, is a way of putting forward the idea that “feminism needn’t come in waves at all, but be a permanent positive part of our lives and landscapes, until we don’t need it anymore”. What that feminism entails and extends to is left to the artists to decide, through their practice; rather than tone policing, CPT sets the artists and audiences up for dialogues, focusing the public attention on emerging topics. Applications from cis male artists are still relatively rare; perhaps unsurprisingly, questions of footnoting the feminist agenda to a few weeks per year have been raised in the past. This is not lost on Logan, who offers a retort without so much as a prompt: “What’s also important, I should say, is that Calm Down Dear never becomes a means whereby feminist work is ghettoised in our programme. That doesn’t happen; we stage feminist work, and work of interest to feminist audiences, year-round. On that point, it feels just as important to assert what such a festival doesn’t do as what it does do.”
One thing that the festival undoubtedly does, is create a very specific context for performances that might otherwise not be tagged as feminist first and foremost. For some this might mean that audiences will sit down to watch a show with a fiercely clear-cut framework in mind. The artists beg to differ: even those who don’t self-identify their practice as feminist, consider the ‘thematic’ nature of the festival to be an inclusive, out-reaching force. Permanently Visible refrain from adopting labels, asserting instead that as young women they “inevitably come up with ideas that […] could be interpreted as feminist”. Still, they don’t see Calm Down Dear as a niche-market: “[…] the larger these feminist festivals get, the greater the chance of widening the circle and getting our message out into the mainstream.” Racheal Ofori didn’t think of her work as feminist until someone else labelled it as such at the festival two years ago. “Initially I was apprehensive as I affiliated the term with negative connotations.”, she admits. Two years later she is perhaps best equipped to consider how a feminist festival can reach out to shy feminists: “I think a lot of misconceptions with feminism exist because people can’t really talk or ask questions about things they don’t necessarily understand. So having the themed festival creates a space where this dialogue can happen!”
The apprehensions and misconceptions identified by Ofori, come hand in hand with such a loaded word – but they are not necessarily reserved for those on the other side of the table. The ever progressive Guardian, for example, sells t-shirts with feminist slogans, but keeps its “Women” section locked away under “Lifestyle”’ – as if exposure to sexism, wage disparity and inadequate maternity pay are choices people make in their efforts to pursue an adventurous existence. Emma Frankland, the only one of the four artists I interview to immediately identify her work as feminist, is also the only one who found the descriptor can be less than welcoming; ”It can be a tricky label to take on as a trans woman as many feminists (often from older generations) have issues with trans people – particularly trans women – and I have never wanted to be seen to invade space or claim titles that are not earned.“ Permanently Visible avoid deciding on whether mainstream feminism is inclusive of marginalised groups, observing instead that many of the women they encountered while developing Hula House “were of feminist standing”.
Ahead of a festival of feminist theatre, it’s perhaps important to note that performing arts can also reflect the entrenched inequalities. Ofori, a classically-trained actor, finds her casting breakdowns referring to ”a young black woman”; her white colleagues are sent ones after “a young woman”. Frankland, back in town from Edinburgh, is concerned about how trans narratives are appropriated for cisgender audiences and made to fit into heteronormative moulds; she describes seeing work hailed as progressive and finding it “potentially very damaging”. All are however supportive of ideas promoted by Calm Down Dear. Orwin, who headlined the festival’s first edition, thinks that CPT’s decision to make it an annual affair shows it was serious dedication, rather than bandwagon mentality, that acted as motivation: “I think the festival has been really important in defining a moment in time in the theatre/performance community, and in helping this kind of work develop a wider audience. That in itself feels like an important and wonderful thing for the political atmosphere surrounding these ideas”.