Calm down, it’s a festival of feminist theatre

Mary Paterson finds Calm Down Dear, a festival of innovative feminist performance, has a lot to say about the conventions of looking at women

, 6 October 2015

Now in its third year, Calm Down Dear is Camden People’s Theatre’s festival of innovative feminist theatre. Featuring shows from established performers such as Emma Frankland and Nicola Canavan, as well as younger artists and a group of “Tomorrow’s Feminists Today” – work produced with high school students – the festival promises to disobey the reference of its title: the Prime Minister’s patronizing put down to a female MP designed, like so many casual insults, to keep women in our place.

That place is often marked out by conventions of looking – the ways women are seen, judged and insidiously controlled. Accordingly, much of the festival is concerned with how women appear: stereotypes of beauty and childishness, the objectification of women’s bodies and the performance of identity.

Louise Orwin’s A Girl and a Gun takes a long, hard look at looking in cinema. It is a two-person show – with highly stereotyped roles named simply Him and Her – presented in a cinematic experience on stage. Multiple cameras feed three screens, which show different angles of the live event. These projections perform the alchemy of the lens, heightening the difference between the sweaty, fulsome bodies onstage and their cropped, glistening images on screen.

There is also an autocue screen embedded in the middle of the audience seating area, from which the actors read their lines and stage instructions. Sometimes the words they read are also projected behind them, at the back of the stage; sometimes audience members crane our necks to see what the actors are reading. Either way, in the small space of Camden People’s Theatre, this live reading gives the actors’ eyes a glazed-over look and mediates the live experience, creating a distance between us and them that makes me realize, with a jolt, how much of the pleasure of cinema lies in watching people who can’t watch you back.

He slips effortlessly into the role of every macho-cowboy-leading-man-hearthrob from every Hollywood movie you’ve ever seen

A Girl and a Gun starts with a man. “I’ve been told to tell you,” he says, “that I am reading this cold.” The stereotypical male role he goes on to perform is so familiar, so ubiquitous, that it can indeed be inhabited by an actor who has never seen the play before. More to the point, his disarming air of discovery mirrors the audience’s experience – like us, he is finding out what happens in real time. As he slips effortlessly into the role of every macho-cowboy-leading-man-hearthrob from every Hollywood movie you’ve ever seen, we do the same. It is a clever and effective device that makes sure the audience sympathises with Him, at the same time as highlighting the fact that, in cinema, the spectator’s view is almost always aligned with the man’s.

Orwin is also reading from the autocue, but her stage presence is more practiced, more knowing. She speaks with a breathy, Texan accent, swings her hips as she walks and occupies the stage as if she knows she is being watched.

The narrative of the show unfolds in layers of cliché – the chase, the romance, the shoot out, the death. It builds a house of cards with a hollow centre where the storyline should be. With no emotional payoff to distract us, the audience is left to see the lines of violence, sexuality and desire that bind together our popular myths. They snake over the characters, so that Him slithers unstoppably from hero to abuser; Her transforms from an alluring woman to a kind of sexualized burden.

Accumulating over time, these stories seem to engulf the people onstage, drowning them in the universal narrative of the movie screen. So compelling are the stories, in fact, that it is difficult to know whether the actors are going willingly into the ocean or being dragged under by the current. While she is twirling for the camera, for example, draping herself coquettishly over Him, or even kneeling with a gun in her mouth, Orwin dances ambiguously between enjoying the stereotype and submitting to its violence.

Inevitably, there is a death scene. But Her doesn’t die. Instead, she re-enacts the point of death over and over again, each death more theatrical than the last, rising to a cacophony of catastrophe that would be funny if it didn’t look like such hard work. This is the point in the show when Her begins to break free from the bounds of the cinematic female role. The mask begins to slip. She looks tired. She starts to miss the directions of the autocue. It seems like there might be room to subvert the unstoppable story, after all.

They talk as if consumer culture, freedom of information online and interpersonal relationships are all synonymous with the swipe of an iPad

Subverting the story is also the purpose of Cream Pie by CrossLine Theatre. A mixture of parody, verbatim interview material and slapstick, Cream Pie explores the territory of porn and, specifically, its effect on millennials – the first generation to have grown up with internet pornography available 24/7.

CrossLine Theatre is Kara Chamberlain and Natalia Knowlton. They inhabit multiple roles on stage – at times chatting to each other like infomercial presenters, at others speaking the words of the young men and women they have interviewed for this project and at others acting out the roles of compliant women or horny men from porn films.

Their parodies of the porn industry are accurate but slight. I may laugh at a woman knowingly eating a cucumber as if it is a penis on stage, while pretending, with a nod and a wink, to be 16-years-old. But I am still looking at a woman in her underwear bending her body to look as young and attractive as possible. What would it take to truly subvert the fact that submissive, sexualized female bodies are both ubiquitous and endlessly in demand? Or that we, as people with female bodies, are destined to appear in relation to this desire, whether we like it or not?

The millennials who have been interviewed and are now ventriloquised onstage are reflective and thoughtful. Nevertheless, they have a deep acceptance of porn as a kind of consumer right. Despite different opinions about what to watch or indeed whether it is ‘good’ for you, all the interviewees seem to associate watching porn with their own sexual freedoms. They talk as if consumer culture, freedom of information online and interpersonal relationships are all synonymous with the swipe of an iPad. Watching their words play through and over the bodies of two young women in the theatre is the most moving part of the show. It feels like a slow kind of violence, the kind that cannot be seen but only felt for years to come.

Being able to deconstruct the system doesn’t necessarily stop the system wielding power

Halfway through Emma Frankland’s show Rituals for Change, she addresses the audience about how it feels to be looked at in the street. This experience is not something she wants -“not an opt in” – yet she is complicit, “because sometimes the looking validates me.” In the midst of an affecting, physical performance of transformation and identity, Frankland has described the complexity that lies at the heart of CrossLine’s show – that being able to deconstruct the system doesn’t necessarily stop the system wielding power.

Rituals for Change begins with chopping wood. Frankland swings an axe above her head, wipes her brow, and splinters the wood across the stage. This dramatic start shows us that the axe is sharp – creating real tension when Frankland threatens to cut off her finger in a few minutes’ time – and that appearance is not. Frankland, a transgender woman, strikes a momentarily masculine pose, before delving into the show.

Like Orwin and CrossLine, Frankland is concerned with what it means to appear and to be. But rather than examine the limits of stereotypes, Frankland explores the nature and potential of change. Her show is bookended by two powerful speeches about identity. “We, who are changed…,” Frankland begins, and at first “we” could mean the actor’s own selves. By the end, however, “We, who are changed” certainly includes everyone – a type of collectivity not based on difference – and not least “we” the audience, changed and transformed by watching someone construct, reconstruct and exceed their identities onstage.

Rituals for Change is less about defining parameters than defying them

Frankland works with a mound of earth, clay, candles, water and a pile of scaffolding. She builds, buries and mixes these materials to create new forms – a new body, gleaming in soft light; a mound of earth resembling a camping settlement or a burial mound; a shaft of light that catches the rings beneath her eyes and make her body look like it has no edges at all. She builds a tower out of scaffolding whilst describing the nature of the body (mostly water) and her oestrogen pills (made of clay).

Rituals for Change is, then, less about defining parameters than defying them. While the show sweeps between definitions of appearance, perception and material, it does not discard any part of the process. Just as the “we” Frankland creates – her and us and all our selves – cannot be contained in stereotypes, so we cannot throw away the materials of our circumstances. The relationship between interior and exterior, Frankland says at one point, is not incidental – it is fundamental. Like clay, water and earth, we can be moved, transformed, made and remade afresh.

The tower grows right up to the ceiling. And it constrains the performer – forcing her to bend her body round its corners, to squeeze into its spaces. But it also protects her – it creates a structure to stay in, to overcome, and to climb, until Frankland is high up at the top of the room, speaking through the lighting rig.
At one point, she lets a sheet of polythene hang from the top level. The plastic is smeared in wet clay and lit by flickering candles from below; a dress hangs behind the polythene, its arms waving in a soft breeze. Together, the dress and the polythene look like they are dancing. We, all of us, our materials, our movements and our choices, are not simply what we are right now. We, all of us, are not simply how we appear.

Calm Down Dear is at the Camden People’s Theatre until 19 December, 2015.

Images are from the productions and are used with permission.
Image 1: By Field & McGlynn. From A Girl and a Gun. Louise Orwin sits on a crate, wearing a blue dress and red beret, holding a pink assault rifle in one hand and holding her other up, squashing red berries so the juice runs down her arm. The background is yellow.
Image 2: Close up of a red lipsticked mouth licking cream off a pie.
Image 3: From Rituals for Change. Emma Frankland is leaning over, looking down, concentrating; in the background, a hand and arm is projected, with some sort of string or twigs intertwining over the wrist.

Mary Paterson is a writer and curator based in London

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