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Feature: Calm Down, Dear – feminism fights back

Posted on 22 October 2013 by Lauren Mooney


Earlier this year, when Brian Logan and Jenny Paton opened applications for the annual Sprint festival, they were struck by the sheer number that dealt with a recurrent theme: those “that had feminist themes – or at least addressed women’s experiences in particular.” It soon occurred to Logan and Paton that if this many people wanted to talk about the feminine experience, maybe they needed a platform. The result is Calm Down, Dear, a festival of feminist theatre, comedy and performance art, which opens at the Camden People’s Theatre later this month.

“As everyone’s been talking about lately, feminism is clearly enjoying a welcome boom,” says Logan. “In fact, we couldn’t quite believe that no one else was doing a feminism festival – or at least, not quite in the way we were envisaging one. In other words, this was an artists-led idea, we were just responding to what was very obviously already out there.”

It’s hard to say why, but it certainly seems feminism has taken a leap into the wider public consciousness over the past few years. A movement that Sara Pascoe, a comedian who will be performing her most recent Edinburgh Fringe show at Calm Down, Dear, sees as an inevitable journey away from the “anti-feminst backlash… based on the widespread misunderstanding that wanting women to have equal rights and respect was in some way connected to man-hating.”

The decision to include comedy as well as theatre in Calm Down, Dear is an interesting one – after all, surely female comedians like Pascoe must encounter some of the most career-hindering misogyny imaginable, courtesy of the women-aren’t-funny brigade? Not so, she assures me: the only thing people who make those kind of claims are doing is “displaying ignorance of comedy. I have never heard anyone who regularly frequents clubs say that… Also, I never feel the need to argue with people, or name funny women as outliers, as that seems to suggest that they are exceptions to a rule. I also don’t believe that any conversation or journalism investigating ‘are women funny?’ has ever done anything to help.”

What has helped? Well, if it things are changing and growing within the feminist movement, certainly in terms of young women’s attitudes, a certain amount must be attributed to the growth of the internet and online journalism. Giving a voice to women who would otherwise have gone without one, it has allowed feminist websites such as Vagenda and Jezebel to prosper, and feminist issues such as Caroline Criado-Perez’s banknotes campaign to receive greater recognition. Video/performance artist Louise Orwin sees the “emergence of feminist work into popular consciousness [as having] everything to do with the internet”, singing the praises of groups such as the Twitter Youth Feminist Army. “The internet gives us space to create communities in otherwise hostile landscapes, which is a wonderful thing.”

But Orwin knows only too well that there are two sides to that coin. She will be performing Pretty/Ugly at the festival, a performance art piece dealing with a recent trend in which teenage girls post videos to YouTube asking perfect strangers to rate their appearance. The first video Orwin saw of this type “had nearly 20,000 views – and hundreds of comments, most of them negative and vile. Then I noticed that there were hundreds upon hundreds of other videos posted in the same vein.”

Orwin notes that “these girls probably wouldn’t go up and ask a stranger face-to-face on the street whether they were pretty or ugly, so why do it online?”, and put like that, it’s hard to ignore the more disappointing side of feminism’s leap into the twenty-first century. As well as the way in which the internet can make a young woman’s already-complicated teenage years even harder to navigate, there is also the unavoidable fact that with freer speech comes louder shouting from the kind of people who don’t want to listen, and for every woman who manages to make her voice heard there are reams of, say, faceless Twitter trolls ready to threaten her with rape and murder. But then we have projects like Calm Down, Dear – with its huge variety of participants, the hundreds of audience members who will make it possible and many, many things to say that deserve hearing.

“We could have programmed the festival twice over and kept the quality high,” says Logan. “There’s a lot of good work out there that’s communicating about women’s lives today, and the injustices and prejudices they face.” Not content to interact only with the most culturally familiar aspects of feminism, or to preach to the converted, Logan and Paton have programmed work that will challenge people’s views on what feminism means and can achieve – work like artist Rosana Cade’s My Big Sister Taught Me This Lapdance.

Rosana Cade's 'My Big Sister Taught Me This Lapdace'

“As a lesbian, a skin-headed-queer, a hairy woman and the younger sister of a lap-dancing-porn-star-feminist, I find my views on female sexuality and the sex industry constantly conflicting,” says Cade. Well, you would. Dealing with the way both sisters approach feminism, Cade’s show is aware of the most diametrically opposed elements of “radical feminism and pro-sex feminism” that exist within her own family, as well as “opening up wider questions about family relationships and learned sexual behaviour.” Cade sees feminism as being the gateway to wider change; to “a world where everyone is celebrated as an individual.”

This is feminism that is a million, billion miles away from the reductive image of it perpetuated by misogynists; feminism as a viable means of changing the world, not just angry women and man-hating. Not that there isn’t still room for a bit of anger here and there; sometimes the only logical response is to be angry. The sense I got from speaking to this cross-section of feminist festival programmers, comedians, performers and artists, though, was of a brand of feminism that was hopeful, proactive and ultimately realistic. There was a feeling not of hatred for misogynists so much as pity – for example, from Pascoe, the comedian with nothing to say to people who claim women aren’t funny: “Mostly I think they don’t really mean it – and if they do, what laughter-bereft existences they must live, if their sisters, wives and female friends don’t crack them up.”

Calm Down, Dear, then, is an exciting thing at an exciting time, in a rapidly changing twenty-first century with a long way to go and all to play for. As Logan commented, it is still unfortunately true that “in the traditional theatres, female representation isn’t great among the ranks of playwrights, directors and so on”, and here is a festival full of (mostly) women with things to say, being given a place to say it.

“We didn’t need to socially engineer this lineup,” Logan adds. “It genuinely is a roster of riveting work, proudly and unselfconsciously feminist, and addressing the world from a female perspective (usually), without fear… It’s pointing the way to a better future, I’m sure.”

Calm Down, Dear: A Festival of Feminism runs at Camden People’s Theatre from 22 October until 10 November. For details of the full line-up and tickets, visit CPT’s website.

Photos: The Fanny Hill Project by Theatre State and Rosana Cade’s My Big Sister Taught Me This Lapdance.

Lauren Mooney

Lauren Mooney

Lauren graduated with an English degree from the University of Liverpool before moving to London. Aside from reviewing for AYT and her day job at Free Word, she also writes for Exeunt and TheatreGuide London, and helps make the London Horror Festival happen.

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Edinburgh Fringe Review: XY

Posted on 22 August 2013 by Devawn Wilkinson


Star Rating:
(2/5 stars)

I was left more than a little cold by today’s line-up at Papercut Theatre’s rotating showcase of short plays, XY. The project is an infinitely intriguing one to say the least: a very specific brief was issued to 16 playwrights, commissioning them to script short works that don’t specify genders for any character. It’s an exercise I assume aims to play with assumptions and generalisations about men and women, to liberate and refresh character-writing, to occupy a place of neutrality. Imagine that – a series of new works by up-and-coming writers that could break down stereotypes or even pass the Bechdel Test with flying colours, because in case you didn’t know, we’re in dire need of such work at the Fringe..

Yet, having seen the actual outcomes, I can’t quite see what, if any, bearing the brief actually had on their content. The opening piece about a pair of super-safety-conscious siblings is harmless enough – rather too harmless in fact, because it’s pretty much unmemorable. The worst offender in terms of gender bias is probably the inexplicable sci-fi body-swap which comprises mostly of what might be the most uninformed, cliche-clogged conversation about sexism ever… plus there’s definitely some slavishly specific and quite lazy gendering of the characters. Maybe that’s down to very particular directorial choices that don’t reflect the text faithfully, but in terms of XY‘s ambitions, it still counts as failure.

Perhaps I’m being overzealous with the extent of my affront here, but that frustration comes out of a very real feeling of disappointment with an involving idea that falls so short of expectation. To pitch these productions as radical and innovative when they’re quite clearly neither, seems rather unfair. Dreams of genre-defining gender deconstruction aside, I expected, at the very least, a series of self-contained stories served well by the constraints of the form, but the quality of the writing itself is wildly uneven across the board. Only Sara Pascoe’s The Endings Part Two – a brief glance into the manic fantasy world of three possibly neglected children who role-play pregnancies (and then miscarriages) – shows a hint of stylistic flair. For the most part, though, the plays are predictable, stilted and pretty much underwhelming works.  I certainly can’t speak for every one of the 16 plays that are on rotation as part of XY, but the selection I encountered didn’t exactly fill me with hope.

XY is playing at the Pleasance Courtyard  as part of the Edinburgh Fringe Festival until 25 August. For more information and tickets, please see the Edinburgh Fringe Website.

Devawn Wilkinson

Devawn Wilkinson

Devawn is a London-based writer, performance poet and aspiring theatre-maker. As a reviewer, she has written for A Younger Theatre, Theatre Royal Stratford East and Exeunt Magazine.

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Review: XY

Posted on 10 December 2012 by Alice Longhurst

Theatre 503, a small stage above the Latchmere pub on Battersea Park Road, has a reputation for staging provocative new writing. Led since 2006 by Artistic Directors Tim Roseman, who left the theatre in September of this year, and Paul Robinson, the theatre’s most notable success has been The Mountaintop written by Katori Hall, a fictional depiction of Martin Luther King’s last hours which transferred to the West End and won an Olivier Award for Best New play in 2010. Theatre 503 certainly has no qualms about pushing boundaries, staging shows like Porn: The Musical and Take Two Every Four Hours which discusses terminal illness, and allowing first-time writers space and freedom to experiment.

Papercut Theatre’s XY falls within this long tradition of original, challenging new plays. Four authors were chosen to write a short play for three actors, without denoting the gender of their characters, and six directors were selected to stage one of the plays as they saw fit. The sequence opens with Tobias Wright’s Spineless which explores when office politics gets nasty and sexual harassment accusations get used as a bargaining tool. It’s an entertaining opener, although Director Bruce Adams makes the gender-play is too obvious by casting the oppressive boss as a stereotypical bossy career-woman, and the quality of acting is poor, with the exception of Daniel Ward as the unfortunate employee.

The next offerings, Sara Pascoe’s The Endings and German Munoz’s Hopelessly Devoted to You, are the two which are repeated in the second half under another director. This introduces an interesting tension between writing and directing, although the differences are so subtle that I feel more freedom or more imagination on the part of the directors would have produced greater engagement and significance. Unfortunately, such repetition with very little variation suggested comparison between the competence of the actors more than anything else, creating a competition in which the far stronger performances in Director Rebecca Manson Jones’ The Endings and Director Amanda Castro’ Hopelessly Devoted to You stood out.

Discussing fetishes about disabilities and wheelchair users, Hopelessly Devoted to You brings up unusual, contemporary issues about acceptance and relationships, while The Endings is a wonderfully absurd tale of three kids, Biggy, Normal and Tiny who live in a strange world inhabited by the violent Egg and mysterious Spoon. These two nicely discuss the issue of gender; the category of male or female seems unimportant and ambiguous in the characters of Biggy, Normal and Tiny, while the two versions of Hopelessly Devoted to You make an important point by comparing the relationship between two lesbians and a straight couple and challenging how this changes our perceptions of the situation. The points raised here are fascinating, but ultimately cannot make up for the variable quality of acting and the tediousness of repeating two very similar versions of two plays. If you’re a huge fan of Groundhog Day, you’ll love it. If not, stay well away.

XY was at Theatre 503 on 9 and 10 December 2012. For more information visit the Papercut Theatre website.

Alice Longhurst

Alice Longhurst

Alice studies Liberal Arts at Kings College London with a focus on literature, history and Spanish. She has notions of entering the vicious world of journalism when her heady university days are over, although she would much rather prefer to find a way to make ends meet as an arts critic and writer of fiction.

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Review: Blast Off

Posted on 11 July 2012 by Camilla Gurtler

Science fiction rarely treads the boards, with the exception of a certain Spiderman musical, which ended in disaster with four major accidents. So Misshapen Theatre’s Blast Off at the Soho Theatre is a welcome change. Luckily without any webs and spiders.

Blast Off is a collection of short theatre pieces written by various upcoming writing talents in London. The show opens with A Live Presentation by Dr Rothstatter on S.S.O.M.C.A.T written by Gabriel Bisset-Smith, and is a sketch with hypnotists on how they can affect people’s minds. The sketch is directed at the audience and a girl is picked out from the seats as a volunteer – an actor, of course – and the madness commences as actress Ursula Early is made to pretend to be chicken, Hamlet, to speak French, weep, sing and end as an evil spirit. Early is hilarious and full of energy and, together with Matt Spencer who plays the painfully geeky Simon Smith, they redirect the sketch from a bit of dusty acting and playing for laughs into something that is actually genuinely funny.

Jon Brittain takes over and introduces the night of sci-fi with a promise of geeky encounters on stage. Jokes about the new Spider Man make the audience giggle and, despite Brittain being nervous, we are launched into the rest of the night with a hope of sci-fi humour.

The Story of the Cryogenically Frozen Humanoid and the Impending Hen Party (or the Martian Cabaret) – even the title makes you out of breath – is a bit cringy, as the actors seem to have lost faith in what they are doing. There are a few funny moments as they all cross-dress and sing about life on Mars, but the sketch is staggering between a good laugh and a high school nativity play. The rest of the short sketches continue with funny moments, but the writing is either a bit dull or clouded by rusty acting.

However, everything is forgotten as the night ends with Just the Few of Us by Sara Pascoe. A couple think they’re the last people on Earth after a virus has killed everyone. Joel (Brett Goldstein) is left with his hysterical girlfriend (Margaret Cabourne Smith) who weeps for her dying pets and their messed-up relationship. All changes when Joel’s ex-girlfriend (brilliant Cariad Lloyd) appears with the revelation that all of Joel’s ex-girlfriends are alive. Joel is left to face the horrid fact that his sperm makes his women immune to the virus and he has to save humanity from extinction. That, and living with all his exes. The writing is fast-paced, inventive and funny, and the cast do it justice and enthral the audience. No wonder this piece got the most applause.

Blast Off made a lot of promises but rarely delivered. The collection of pieces seemed more like a showcase for nervous drama school graduates launching themselves into the business, and though it had very funny moments and a Comedy Central twang, it never really lifted the roof as a whole performance. But I would gladly go back just to watch Sara Pascoe’s piece and Brett Goldstein’s frustration.

Blast Off ran at the Soho Theatre on 10 July. For information about what’s on at the Soho Theatre, visit the website.

Camilla Gurtler

Camilla Gurtler

Camilla is currently training as a director on the Young Directors’ Programme with StoneCrabs Theatre Company. Camilla has worked as a director, actress and writer in Denmark and London, and loves Shakespeare, greek tragedies and children’s theatre. She’s obsessed with coffee, dislikes ranting on stage and hates the colour yellow. Especially mustard-yellow.

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