Features Published 19 September 2016

Give Me Your Skin

Tom Ross-Williams and Oonagh Murphy on playing out the tensions in queer politics through their new performance game, Give Me Your Skin.
Susanna Davies-Crook
Tom Ross-Williams and Oonagh Murphy perform a scratch of 'Give Me Your Skin'.

Tom Ross-Williams and Oonagh Murphy perform a scratch of ‘Give Me Your Skin’.

A new project by queer performance makers Oonagh Murphy and Tom Ross Williams sets the board for a game. But what are the rules? Are there any strategies for making it out alive? In conceiving of the game as patriarchy, the authors implicate all of us. Hidden cultural laws are exposed only as you break them, test them or try to exist outside of them. The body in the world and the body in the theatrical space become doubled, the boundaries porous.

Give Me Your Skin is a performance game that was created as part of a short residency at the BAC in July, and is being developed through workshops with diverse groups, performances and texts, with the aim of challenging and posing queer alternatives to acquiescence. Here, its creators talk gender, ‘toxic masculinity’, and how to make queer politics more accessible.

The title – ‘Give me Your Skin’, when googled, also comes up as a Parks and Recreation YouTube clip, it’s a 23 second excerpt with a small holo-projection saying ‘Oh I like your skin, [angrily] GIVE ME YOUR SKIN!’, which I found oddly appropriate. So where did your title come from?

Tom Ross-Williams: It came from a workshop where we were giving each other different tasks that were impossible, which were about trying to switch gender roles, and one of the things we wrote down was ‘give me your skin’, and there was a visceral violence to this statement and the impossibility of the situation which was really summed up in that phrase.

Oonagh Murphy: I’ve often thought of it as a statement of envy as well, for me I hear it as a woman saying to a man ‘give me your skin’, like let me inhabit your body and I would do things so differently.

I was thinking about this too, about embodiment, what it is to be both embodied and enabled and also trapped and envious, what it is to be within a skin.

OM: It can also have a positive connotation, which is like, ‘shed your skin, give it to me, unburden yourself of that’, then you’ll be freer as you say, rather than being oppressed by a kind of corporeal…the limitations of the body.

There is much discourse that considers a position of post-gender, or a Cyborgian state, where the boundaries of the body are not rigid or essential, so you’re not bound into a body as we know it. In this queerness you are pointing towards or this access out of patriarchy (the patriarchal game system) are you thinking post-gender? Do you see this as utopianism – a distant future? Or do these small performative interactions, small steps with the people you encounter, are they going to change the future?

OM: I find some of the discourse around cyborgs and post-gender can be elitist and leaves people behind, the people that we want to talk to don’t even have the access point of coming into a theatre to begin with. They don’t even have an access point of the HeforShe campaign, so for us ultimately rather than the futurity of post-gender as a concept, we want to step away from that discourse and move towards the people for whom that discourse would be a different language, and to make relationships with people that embody the ideals and ethics that the show is championing.

TRW: …and to shift the focus back on to practical pragmatic work. It reminds me of the slogan ‘I’ll be post-feminist in post-patriarchy’, we can’t talk about post-gender when we’re in such a difficult mess with it all. And actually in the first iteration of this development we were trying to attain a notion of post gender – what would that look like – then we had a moment where we thought actually the thing we’re trying to get to is the workshop.

I’m interested in this idea of gender potentially as a game as you describe it in your press release. It’s a game because in some ways its performative? But it’s serious in that it binds you. So you’re playing but you’re not playing, and it’s not funny. You talk about ‘game over’ as well and I’m wondering what that is, so could you talk about your notion of game and play with respect to gender?

OM: I read a thing in The Argonauts [Maggie Nelson] recently about the misinterpretation of Judith Butler positing gender as performance, which could be read as ‘play’, which describes people using it as ‘I get up today and today I’m going to be butch because I make this or this choice’, but that’s a simplified gender queering understanding of it. Actually what she meant is that we are all playing in a constrictive set of rules, so the idea isn’t that we have a choice to perform things, but we have a duty to perform certain roles.

And so, when you talk about ‘game over’, it’s flippant, but what is ‘game over’ for you, if gender is the game and we are trapped within the boundaries of the board, what is that?

OM: To be glib, we talk about it as the annihilation of the self or of others, so in very contemporary terms, shooting up a club and then shooting yourself, or in a less aggressive but no less upsetting way, taking your own life by jumping off a bridge. It’s about the end of something, and it seems that a lot of contemporary masculinity is about a drive towards destruction.

You’ve also referred to it as ‘toxic masculinity’…

TRW: One of the difficulties with the phrase ‘toxic masculinity’ is that its often used by men’s groups to suggest that then there is a really healthy attitude towards masculinity, I’m not suggesting that healthy masculinity cannot exist, but … the answer to toxic masculinity is not to sit down as a group of men and talk about how we can be better men, it’s not about existing within a vacuum of gender, it’s about trying to make an effort to exist as a better human, and we are positing the suggestion that dismantling those gender norms is the way to combat toxic masculinity… the tool that we use for that in the show is by promoting and suggesting queer experience.

You both work separately, but have come together on this, What, personally, is this exploration offering and why is it important to you both?

TRW: This is very much trying to replicate our lived experience, alongside our artistic practice. Over the past few years Oonagh and I have become much more actively involved in gender politics and queer activism and so we’re finding a theatrical mode that both allows us to put our money where our mouths are – this is what we’ve been doing as people, and here are our products of that, and this is what our theory is, and feel free to tell us that’s not right, but if it isn’t right then let’s talk about how we can make it right.

There’s something about writing and putting something on the line which is very definite. With internet call-out culture, people are being educated every day with what is the correct terminology, what’s offensive, what we should be looking to achieve, which whilst necessary, can become quite anxiety-inducing, even if you have read all of Judith Butler. I wonder if there’s something about performance that may allow a position within that that can be freeing, where you’re not reflecting inwards your own ignorance, but where it can be explored together?

OM: Performance allows you to play out those tensions and those anxieties live, both between ourselves and with an audience and the complications that that brings. I definitely agree with you in the sense it can be crippling to work through the ethics checklist, and the ‘is this exactly what I mean when I say this?’. I think performance allows you to communicate on different levels at the same time and those levels, those layers, can be in contradiction to each other. So you might be putting across a definitive statement on one level, but on another level you see that you’re existing within a game structure where there’s metaphorically a gun to your head, so its the poetics that allow it to be a little more complicated.

TRW: We’ve been talking a lot about the word refraction in this work, and how we can refract all of that theoretical language through our own personal experience and hopefully by putting that through our own subjectivity, we allow ourselves to be fallible.

So then how do you address accessibility and audience?

OM: At this stage there is a collaborator missing from the room which is the young people we will ultimately do workshops with alongside the show.

TRW: The symbiosis between community engagement and experimental theatre is something that we are learning how to negotiate through this process.

Certainly when I’m in the room doing work around gender and sexuality with young people, seeing even over 3 hours the difference that can make, that for me is the hope. For example when I was working with an organisation called Great Men, I was talking with a bunch of boys about domestic violence and violence against women, and one of them said, ‘of course Chris Brown would hit Rihanna, dun tho’, and one of the things about the workshop is that you don’t challenge that immediately but the process of the workshop will challenge that, and then by the end of it, it was that same boy who was saying ‘if a girl wanted to be a different gender I would be OK with that’. You can’t ensure that is something he’d take through with him for the rest of his life, but even seeing that dramatic shift for a 15 year old boy in that time for me felt like the most important thing we can be doing around those conversations.

Are there any specific actions or movements or moments in the piece that you feel really attached to or you feel you’ve really found something with it that points to what it is you’re trying to do?

TRW: Juxtaposing a series of different hypothesis around the manifesto. I have always liked an objective correlative, the idea of creating a tapestry. In the same way that you need to dismantle patriarchy through a number of different ways, we also need to create a whole gamut of actions to be able to do that with.

What did you learn from the scratch? I’m particularly thinking of the real relationship that you find and reveal to us – the very present journey that you share in the piece in, for example, Tom’s attempt to be a gentle man.

OM: I think that we underestimated the positive effect that the presentation of our relationship as a counterpoint to the more bleak elements of the show would have, so in a sense we’re looking at how to bring our queer real life selves more into the piece. The process has very much been about finding out how much is too much, what is self-indulgent versus what is comforting or galvanising.

How did your audience change or shape the future of the piece? Did anything surprise you?

TRW: I think the audience’s willingness to engage in conversation surprised us. And what we are trying to do now is find more ways to break the hierarchy between us the performers and our audience. So that rather than an audience coming in on our conversation, it feels like a communal a struggle from the start of the piece.

Give Me Your Skin will be performed at Camden Peoples’ Theatre from 28-29 Sept, 2016. More info here.