Looking at the Incoming Festival line up, you’ll no doubt be inspired by the sheer diversity of emerging artists, performers and theatre-makers selected to present their work at the New Diorama Theatre in June. Among these are at least four companies, all making disparate work but sharing that unique commonality that we collectively like to call ‘being female’. I was fortunate enough to get to speak with two of the above about their experiences as performance-makers and more specifically, as all-female ensembles on the fringe scene.
I met first with Rachel Porter, one fifth of glitter-covered, pun-filled Figs in Wigs whose show Show Off is playing at Incoming. I was particularly interested in how these women felt about being grouped with and compared to other female groups – was this comparison beneficial or could it in fact be reductive?
‘I really value being placed alongside artists making fantastic work and if it’s women making fantastic work, that’s even better’
‘There is a kindred-spirit thing’, Porter explains and certainly what resounds between all the women I speak to is just how much they continue to be influenced and inspired by their peers. Unsurprisingly, questions about the kind of work that influences them results in some of the most lengthy and impassioned answers.
The Figs met at Queen Mary University in London, beginning as a mixed gender group. After graduating, Porter explains, ‘It was clear who wanted to continue and it just happened that we were all girls’.
The somewhat unintentional composition of Figs in Wigs is a helpful hint to any audience, critic or fellow performer to move away from using gender as a defining focus.
‘When you get two groups of women, instead of thinking about what those women are doing individually it becomes about the comparison and relationships between them’, continues Porter, acknowledging the evident difficulties of looking at work through any single lens.
Alice Roots, adds to the conversation a few days later by email: ‘I am really interested in how groups of people work collaboratively: the roles, decision making processes and general methods of working. I think comparing collaborative approaches to making is far more interesting than using gender as a binding topic.’
With collaborative approaches as the focus however, other challenges set in. Roots continues: ‘As a company of five one problem we come up against constantly is the juggling of time, space and money.’
With the results of the election still hot, the conversation with Porter inevitably turns to the enduring cuts to arts funding. As we move into different territory, it becomes clear that there are countless ‘binding topics’ with which we can compare and contrast the work we see at this year’s Incoming Festival, and perhaps many that are both more tangible and more constructive than the use of gender.
‘A lot of it is accidental’, says Porter, referring to the groups flamboyant, alien-like and non-gender specific costumes. Here is a gentle reminder that at least some of what we see has emerged unintentionally and naturally from the circumstances these artists find themselves within, rather than from any clear-cut, gender-governed decision making process. These performers don’t continuously think ‘I’m a woman, how does a woman make performance?’ – they just make it.
An acceptance of the accidental, which as any artist knows is a huge part of making work, when considered with the all-female label in mind may just provide that bit of understanding critics and audiences need to be able to dig a little deeper.
I manage to steal a half an hour’s phone call with Sara Cocker, Lowri Evans and Léonie Higgins of Eggs Collective while they are on a short break from their get-in at Battersea Arts Centre. We also fall into discussion about the election and Eggs chime in with some fighting talk: ‘More than ever we’ve got something to push against’.
Eggs Collective started making their show, Get Around, their addition to Incoming Festival, the day UKIP got a seat in the European Parliament. They tell me that the stimulus for Get Around came from a desire to explore the divide and conquer culture that has become so central to our British lives.
‘The show looks like a particularly messy night out but I think actually it has a lot more to do with the idea of belonging and how difficult that can be or feel right now – as humans as well as women’
With a muffled loudspeaker on both sides, the girl’s voices are blurred together into one enthusiastic wave of answers and opinions, but the resounding feeling is one of optimism and solidarity in the all-female description I’m wavering on –
‘It gives us an identity. There is strength in numbers and how wonderful to be part of a wave – it’s really powerful and I think it can tip the scales’
One Egg aptly describes it as a bit like wearing a uniform – ‘It’s nice feeling connected, even though if you put our work together its very different’. Like a uniform, the similarity unifies and equalises and it becomes that very unification which creates the conditions needed to reveal diversity.
As a company somewhere in between the theatre and live art scenes, Porter explains that Figs in Wigs strive to draw in hybrid audiences by actively disrupting the boundaries between style and form and most importantly; that this disruption becomes uniting in itself: ‘The kind of work that we’re making really can be for anyone.’
Eggs Collective mention another unifying factor that I’ve missed out: the simply being a part of a theatre and performance festival like Incoming: ‘It helps you feel less isolated’, one Egg adds, ‘whoever you are’.
‘For us now, our work is informed by feminism and by being women but it’s about way more than that’, say Eggs, and that’s just the way these two companies should be looked at if we hope to open our minds to those more profound insights and fully appreciate the work that they share and that we’re fortunate enough to see.
Incoming Festival is on 1-10 June. For more information click here. Show Off by Figs in Wigs is on 4 June. Eggs Collective Get A Round by Eggs Collective is on 8 June.