I recently went to one of Lois Weaver’s infamous Long Table discussions on Live Art and Feminism. Lois describes The Long table as ‘a hybrid performance-installation-roundtable-discussion-dinner-party’. It’s a kind of open forum that allows anyone to come to the table to join a discussion around a certain issue. Imagine a Q&A session only without the questions and answers, and where no one is a specialist and everyone gets the chance to speak. In this case we were speaking about performance and feminism. It was a lively and thought provoking discussion and covered far too many things to talk about in detail here, but one moment sticks in my mind. Towards the end of the session one participant sat down at the table and asked, ‘why aren’t we putting any names on the table?’ It was true that whilst people were eager to discuss feminism in terms of its concepts, definitions, histories, herstories and personal experience we were hesitant to name specific feminist performance makers. Even when the provocation came from the speaker, even as she implored ‘I want to hear their names!’ people were reluctant to contribute any. Why was this? Why in a discussion about feminism and the arts, in a group of people who were primarily female, many of whom were artists and presumably all of which were feminists, why was no one naming any feminist performance makers? From where I was sitting there were three basic answers to this question:
- There aren’t any feminist performance makers.
This one is just facetious so I think it’s safe to rule it out straight away.
- There are lots but nobody knows any of their names.
This one could be more valid seeing as female artists have repeatedly been denied a place in the historical canon. However there is some material evidence from the discussion that suggests otherwise – the tablecloth. The Long Table discussion exists on two planes, verbal and written. The table is littered with pens and as one conversation develops through dialogue a second unfolds on the disposable paper table covering. By the end of the evening the tablecloth was graffitied with thoughts, quotes, questions and, most notably, names – perhaps a hundred or so feminist performance makers, both past and present. Here’s a list from just a small segment of the tablecloth that I photographed:
Figs in Wigs
Lauren Barri Holstein
Emile La Corbeille
Maria Teresa Gavazzi
Hewlett & Eaton
Idea Destroying Muros
Adolfina De Stefani
Eyes Wild Drag
So, clearly, we know a few names. Why then did no one voice them? Something seemed to be holding us back. Which leads me to…
- People are hesitant, or even scared, to label performance makers as ‘feminist’.
Now I would suggest this fear of being labelled as feminist comes from two places. Firstly is that over the last forty years feminism has had a pretty bad rap. People are quick to associate it with extreme (and often negative) political and social attitudes. Secondly is that labelling a performance maker ‘feminist’ could be seen as reductive, that it categorises and compartmentalises them, that it forces all their work to be about one thing.
I think both these ideas begin to become unfounded when we consider one thing: there is not one type of feminism; there is not a ‘right’ way to be a feminist. Feminism comes in a huge variety of forms, waves, movements and contexts all of which are valid and none of which are perfect. In fact I would argue that the continual effort to identify the correct mode of feminism, this systematic need to fit it into a catchy bite size dictionary definition, is an inherently patriarchal desire. The general principal being that if you can contain something it is easier to control it. For me what makes feminism, and indeed feminist theatre, so exciting is its potential to exist in so many different forms. In this sense, labelling someone as a feminist performance maker is only as reductive as your idea of feminism; if your concept of feminism is broad then so is your concept of what constitutes feminist theatre.
For me feminist performance can be Carolee Schneeman pulling a scroll out of her vagina or Lauren Barri Holstein pulling a plastic Bambi out of hers. It can also be receiving a lap dance from Rosana Cade or watching Adrienne Truscott, naked from the waist down, telling jokes about rape. It can be Bryony Kimmings creating an alternative pop star with her nine-year-old niece. It can be queer or trans artists – Scottee, Dickie Beau, Heather Cassils – using performance to discuss homophobia or to change the way we think about social constructions of gender. It can be a group of men reworking Wuthering Heights to speak about masculinity and the issue of male violence, an issue that is symptomatic of the problems of patriarchy. Feminist theatre might also be to do with its creative process. Content and subject matter aside, a piece of work made by a company of women, or a company led by women, could be seen as a feminist act in and of itself. Companies like Sh!t Theatre, GETINTHEBACKOFTHEVAN, Figs in Wigs, Eggs Collective, Brown Council and Post are changing the face of the male-dominated theatre landscape.
The programme at Calm Down Dear, a Feminist Festival of Performance at Camden People’s Theatre, seems to be reflecting the myriad forms that feminist theatre is operating under in contemporary performance today. In the interest of putting names on the table, here is a list of the feminist artists performing this month:
Figs in Wigs
I spoke to Brian Logan, the Co-Director at CPT who curated Calm Down Dear along with Jenny Paton, about his motivation for the festival. The idea was sparked by the prevalence of feminist themes in the applications for CPT’s SPRINT Festival, which took place in Spring this year. But funnily, even Brian thought twice about calling it ‘a feminist festival’ fearing artists might not wish to be defined as feminist: “It’s a measure of how stigmatised that word has become that I even had that thought,” he said, “but in fact I quickly decided it was a really important thing to do.”
The festival seems to be marking an important moment within contemporary theatre, where feminism is re-emerging across art forms as well as within the media and popular culture. Brian noted the explosion of feminism over the past few months but was hesitant to talk about it in terms of ‘popularity’: “Let’s not use the language of it being trendy or a fad…if you start talking about it like then that licenses it to disappear again. What we have to make sure is that this is just the rightful resurgence of something that should’ve never gone away.”
It’s important to remember that the resurgence of feminism is also an indicator that gender inequalities are still a huge problem. Brian spoke about the Guardian research into lack of female roles in every aspect of the theatre industry, illustrating how the glass ceiling is as double glazed as ever. As a feminist performance maker myself, I would argue that viewing feminism as reductive is dangerous because it masks the thing that is actually reductive; the ‘ism’ that is truly detrimental to our practice is sexism. Any limitation placed on work by calling the artist a feminist pales in comparison to the limits placed upon women through the regular discrimination of their sex/gender. The next question then, is how might we begin to translate more of the feminism from performance into our everyday lives? I won’t attempt to answer this now, but I will point you in the direction of The Everyday Sexism Project, who are also showcasing work at Calm Down Dear, and who are reminding us daily why being a feminist matters.
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.