Performance Artings

Tectonic plates were shifting in my world in Autumn 2015. Vibrations increased through the Summer, but I was late to detect attraction with a new mate, having been certain of his unsuitability. A friend of mine had pointed him out a few years before, “I think he’d be good for you!” No, I said. He’s far too normal. He has a job. Far too functional. It would never work. Nice guy though, and 100% reliable and trustworthy… a few things in common. A few important things it happened, like a penchant for participating in nude performance art adventures!

I am not consciously tactical when it comes to choosing partners, but perhaps over the years I had retrained my unconscious. I don’t have a checklist; it’s all about desire and chemistry. I know in advance something is going to happen because I can’t stop thinking about the person I am falling in love with. I barely sleep or eat, and once contact is established, consummation is not far off. There then follows inevitable fall-out over some months, for not having addressed (or even noticed!) major issues of concern ahead of diving in. Aspects of their life and personality which will bother me and possibly vice versa. I work hard for some years to fix this stuff, and they do too, but usually after 5 years or so, I or we give up. This pattern repeated with Steve, however since things calmed down after the initial shock; it has mainly been peaceful and rewarding.

It’s not cool to listen to The Smiths any more since Morrissey came out as unequivocally supporting the far right. That is a shame because some of their music is brilliant, and he knows that for lots of people it captures an essence of a generation’s emotion. I played one tune over and over in Autumn 2015; ‘Money Changes Everything’ (maybe it’s ok since Morrissey isn’t singing? – it’s basically a Marr number). I was experiencing a new kind of awe, fear and heated anticipation. I am a serial relationshipper, and each partner brings a whole scene change of characters, sounds, places, smells, tastes, moods… the anticipation of these is all wrapped up in the attraction. You have an idea what some of the change will look and feel like, and then there’s the unknown dimension that is like moving to a country you’ve never been to before or learning a new language.

With Steve, as soon as I was conscious of the attraction, I sensed that massive change was afoot. My partners didn’t usually have normal jobs, a reliable income or own a house. I said I didn’t have a checklist, well I probably had an anti-checklist for many years. Mustn’t have conventional trappings of the sort parents tend to approve. That’s why Steve wasn’t even considered, until… our paths just crossed a bit more often, and I couldn’t ignore an interesting tension. Nothing has actually changed in the circumstances of my living since we got together, but I have been on a lot more exciting holidays. In the past I only travelled for work, or to visit a friend. The exception was in Summer 2014 when I took off to the Highlands for a week of solitude.

It took me a while to adjust to letting him pay for holidays. Was I giving away my power? I don’t know, but I got used to it. Sharing those travels is very special. Moving in with him in Essex is not so likely at least while I can keep my home in London, because my life is based there. Until lockdown, travelling was the longest time we would spend with each other – trekking a rainforest in Ghana, a desert in the Cape, or sailing to Zanzibar. It wasn’t just touristing; I always learnt about the places or had personal reasons to visit them. It helped me appreciate more viscerally what the UK is, to see its effect on other parts of the world. For someone who comes from quite a few different countries (and I haven’t visited them all yet) it has been incredible to go to those places. I understand not only the UK past and present better, but also my ancestral heritage.

The first time we travelled together was in February 2016, to Venice. It rained almost till it flooded but not quite. We wrapped up warm, tried to hold onto our umbrellas, and I was able to practice my Italian which had been dormant for 11 years. By chance or destiny, we ran into Steve’s performance artist friend, Glynis Ackermann, who lives in Switzerland, and happened to be performing in a festival there in Venice! That unexpected introduction guided our next two trips, for having acquainted ourselves with the festival and its organisers, it naturally followed to bring more than my packing suitcase in future.

A movement sequence from the 20 minute Italian ‘performance art’ version, April 2016.

Although my work contained performance art I’d always thought of it as interactive theatre, and barely paid attention to the live art scene. Seeing a greater possibility of travelling with the show I readily repackaged it. With shorter performance slots of no more than 20 minutes usually, there was a stronger sense of community as several artists would all perform the same evening and enjoy each others’ shows. Much of 2016 was spent in this effort, with denser scripts and more visual action. Italian friends translated my script (my own italian was learnt by ear and works for getting by in conversation) for two different Venice festivals – in April and August.

The complete 20 minute version of the August performance in Venice.

In April’s show, Steve was involved as a sort of prop, and as well in a longer, full length version in London in March, he had a speaking role. I have two scenes recorded from that show;

This show addressed feminist issues very directly in every version; about violence against women, gender inequality, and including in yer face menstrual art action.

Steve made his mark on how I approached performing that year, as we settled into being together. I went to the SPILL festival in Ipswich alone in the Autumn, to see how others do it – I’d made an unsuccessful application. It is a thought provoking genre of variety and endurance. It wasn’t all for me, and I felt there was a bit of a clique around who gets funding. Not surprising, I mean that’s normal. I peaked my head into that tent of curiosities, grafted applications full of appropriate artspeak, and finally found I didn’t fit so well. Theatre was my original love after all, but I do have room for live art happenings too, on or off-stage. The in-the-moment encounter speaks to my spontaneous soul, which is very fond of one-off performance art.

The image at the top of this post is from a show I did at Bethnal Green Working Mens Club in October 2016, at the Panic Sermons performance art event. The Venice shows were enabled by Steve’s passion for travel combining with my need for performance making, and both our love for nude art happenings. At the April festival we both took part in Glynis’ show as well as staging mine.

Glynis’ performance (called ‘Mobilé’) involved the three of us holding frames, with more nudes from an earlier version of her show projected onto us.

Script Variations ~ part 10

Noisy building work on my block in front of my flat sent me packing to Essex to play with volcanoes (and hang out with Steve, plant some seeds). When Dad texted did I want to meet tomorrow in Greenwich Park I said yes! Regular meeting up with him since the end of lockdown #1 last year, has been a high point of the pandemic for me. For us. Since Mum died nearly 3 years ago, he rightfully started making up time with getting into his music playing, catching up on Irish sessions and socialising. He needed it (Mum had been ill a long time.) But by 2020, he needed a rest. He had been out every night for 18 months perhaps.

With life radically simplified last year, he had more time for family, and it was truly a healing opportunity, still is. Being able to meet in parks when restrictions allow, is a very fine thing. We don’t live close enough for when the rules are tightest, to casually happen across each other in a local patch, so a little travel is necessary. It’s a risk I’d always want to take truth be told, after the horror of lockdown #1 in that respect. The not knowing if… when… And for people living alone, the isolation can be bleak. Being able to meet in a park is a very healthy option.

After spending time admiring ancient trees, elegant deer, Spring flowers, and passing on the week’s thoughts; I walked back to my place and he drove to his. In my flat without laptop, my usual screen suction was curbed. Mobile can’t hold me so long. I remembered old folders I’d wanted to organise; a chore not a treat. From when I’d been at drama school; feedback forms from Spirited Bodies; and especially a Girl in Suitcase script from 2014, through its many edited variations. This, contains golden nuggets in a raw unpolished slab. The file opens on a page which arrests my disinterest. What’s that I wrote? I remember it now but why has it eluded me lately when I had to produce my best work to impress X? I have to scan the play to see what I have done.

It goes like this. In 2009 when life was more precarious, I wrote two pieces of good script. In 2011 when my life was a bit more sorted, I combined them to create the first ‘Girl in Suitcase’. (2010 was a write off until Spirited Bodies began towards the end. 2012 and 2013 were entirely devoted to Spirited Bodies.) By 2014 I was itching to write and perform again, and I had stuff to get off my chest – the narrative of Mother/daughter relationship dysfunction, reached its zenith in the script. I pushed it too far in places, fluffing it out in others. As far as I could get away with. Further! Because I knew my parents wouldn’t see it – up too many stairs and we didn’t film it.

But the words written down – how did I block them from my – – remember that drug I was fond of?

Pieces. I want to hammer myself for not continuing with that script all its rightful way. How could I just push it aside? It needed to be worked up, smoothed out and sharpened. It’s obvious! It reaches out from the page screaming for life —

Hold on, calm down. Real life. The script imagined her already dead. There’s only so much you can keep on with that before — I had to let real life be. Just be. It’s not that the script was unkind; really it gave a lot of depth and compassion, articulating far beyond what was actually verbally possible due to illness. But, that stuff just needs to play out by itself sometimes, without the interference of art, I felt. With respect.

And there was my real life as well as theirs/ours. Connecting with Outsiders and the Sex Maniacs Ball in 2013 for potential Spirited Bodies collaboration, while tantalisingly tempting — I hadn’t been prepared for the attendant trickiness I’d attracted — which took till the middle of 2014 to shake —

There was a lot going on that year. I was heading for a relationship jumble, and by the time I performed Girl in Suitcase again, it was 2015 and I’d decided it shouldn’t be about me any more. It was about mythical Goddesses! And that’s how some of my most daring play-writing got blackholed to the bottom of a file for 7 years.

I performed twice in 2014; in March at Telegraph Hill Festival; and in June at Hampstead School of Art. The THF show had one of the best audiences I’ve performed for. The house was packed and friends were turned away. I was practically walking on people as I tried to move round the stage. I was accompanied by 4 live musicians – Roddy Skeaping and friends, on strings and percussion. That was very powerful and added an extra live dimension where we jammed body and sound in real time. Luckily they were up for working together with me again for the HSOA show. In that second show, my friend – model, artist and performance poet Ursula Troche joined me on stage to perform a few scenes. We had a bit more space this time, another wonderful audience, and artistically the script was tighter. If there’s any performance of mine I could have filmed but didn’t – it was that one. I guess some things are meant to be ephemeral. I even lost most of the brilliant photographs taken by David Alexander Murphy, who I think also lost his copies. Computer melt downs. I just have a few photos. And feel somehow more complete for rediscovering that script.

Images above and below were taken by Ursula at the Hampstead School of Art ‘Girl in Suitcase’ performance, June 2014.

Equine Encounters ~ part 7

I want to share with you a happy experience I recently had with some horses. A friend of mine called Maureen who is an animal lover made a performance where she talked about how horses are empathic and some are taken to hospitals where children are very sick as they know exactly who to go and comfort. I had never experienced anything like that and have never been that close to horses before. Out the back, beyond the garden at my partner Steve’s, horses have often lived, so spending time there has been my first regular connection with them. Not like getting to know them individually so far, but frequently appreciating their presence and beauty.

There’s been some drama recently out the back sadly, as a few weeks ago in February, a bulldozer cleared lots of the land of all its wild shrubs, bushes, little trees… and it felt very traumatic on a physical level for me and Steve. It made us feel unwell, and realise how important that wild land is to us, like an extension of home. The idea of it being taken away felt horrific. It was like a tiny tiny tiny piece of the experience that indigenous peoples around the world have… so it was a bit of an awakening for us, which in itself is a good thing.

We feared the worst, but a neighbour told us the land is privately owned and that many years ago it was used as farmland, either for cattle or crops. Since foot and mouth disease or something like that over 10 years ago, it was left to go wild after all the animals had to be slaughtered. She thought perhaps it may be likely the land may return to being used for farming. It has mostly been left since that awful episode, and we have yet to discover its fate, but for now it’s been quite peaceful, and it’s still basically a green and brown field, just a lot fewer plants. Things quickly start growing again though. Lots of birds have returned to the garden. Our friend Victoria who is a Green Party activist said that if birds’ nests are removed after March 1st, whoever is responsible can be taken to court, as it is nesting season. The clearance happened before that date however, so that could be strategic, unfortunately.

Going back to the horses, all this while, five horses were living in one part of the field, separated by hedges and a ditch. I was grateful they are still there, and when we go for walks across the field, we can see there is a gap in the hedge where the horses could leave their section and just wander all over the place, but we never saw them doing that since the clearance. Sometimes we saw hoof marks and dung, so we realised that now and again they must roam. A couple of weeks ago, one night as is typical for me, I couldn’t sleep, and at 5 in the morning got up to pour my frustration into my diary. I came downstairs and after I’d been writing, I thought I’d peep out the curtain to see the early morning light.

What did I see? The horses were all outside the garden, right there just hanging about, eating some grass or having a lie down. They always move around together as a gang. I was amazed – all through the day time, they just stay in their area, but here they were, and of all the places they could be, they were outside our place. I felt deeply moved by their special presence, like they were protecting me, like this was a sign of their mysterious and advanced emotional intelligence. I looked at them for quite a while, maybe 20 minutes and they just stayed there. I returned to bed filled with joy.

Again a few nights after that, I got up at 4 unable to sleep. This time didn’t feel like writing, but thought I’d take a look out the window. It was darker this time, but I soon made out some horse shaped blobs right there! Because I wondered if I was imagining it I stayed for ages to be sure, and gradually I saw them move a bit, walk, and as my eyes acclimatised I could see they really were all there, outside the house again. I am blown away by this phenomenon and hope it bodes well for the future of the field.

The horses in the picture above are those who are present now. The ones below used to live on the field for a few years until Summer last year. Then there were no horses for several months and I missed them, until the recent mini herd came along. As you can see, the original cohort were more numerous and free. We don’t know what happened to them but they were awesome too, and often came to say hello during the daytime. Once, they even got into the garden while we were away, made a right mess, and had trouble getting out again, like naughty teenagers! Love all these horsey characters.

Pandemic Perambulations ~ part 6

One year ago on the evening of Monday 23rd March 2020, I made a getaway from London. To say I escaped to Basildon doesn’t quite sound right; but that’s what happened. I’d first travelled over on the Friday 20th, not sure for how long, and as the weekend progressed I realised this might be a longer evacuation. So Steve and I both travelled to mine on Monday to grab as much of my stuff as possible. We arrived in Brockley as Boris was giving his ‘We’re going into a National Lockdown tonight’ speech. I took my bicycle, bike pump, laptop, loads of clothes and basil plant for what could be months.

a year ago!

I had never thought I would want to live in this brexit/ukip hinterland. After 4 and a half years together however, I’d been starting to spend more time at Steve’s in the last few months. We’d discovered some favourite local walking places and quirky pubs. Like Barge Gladys in Benfleet – a pub on a boat, firmly entrenched in the mud, and the 1980s. And just since the Autumn of 2019, our new top hang-out was The Railway pub in Southend. This is a place with a community we could belong with; lots of live alternative music, vegan food, environmentalist activists… Finding it accidentally one evening on our way back to Southend station, was like catching sight of an oasis in Mali. What one had imagined might be a rough dive of punch-up posturing, past the next bronze dune was a cool spot.

In an area where I have seen tourist gift shops unashamedly displaying golliwog dolls in their shop windows, the faded seaside glamour of the beachfront arcades and fast food smells are reassuring only because their commitment to existence suggests gentrification will upcycle its way into other areas first, before it manages to gain a beard trim round there. I like my non-dairy chai latte don’t get me wrong, but in a fibre optic speed changing world, some places staying the same since my childhood can feel oddly grounding. It suggests old communities are probably still intact too.

I exaggerate for there have been changes – pretty lit-up fountains with changing colours by the pavement, and bright beach hut-like smoking shelters along with all the public loos catering for junkies. And the Summer seaside crowds are multi-cultural families of every shade splashing in the sun from Shoeburyness to Chalkwell. I don’t know what they think about those dated gift shop relics, or what it’s like in school. But their colours, fabrics and international head pieces are gloriously taking up space next to us, whoever we are. I’ve seen people who are not white in The Railway too, as it is a pub where intergenerational everyone is welcome who respects our togetherness.

We’d seen the tall black Victorian facade of The Railway, from Southend station platform on our way home from walks. One day we passed in front of the building and saw the sign above its door; ‘Fuck Boris – Migrants Welcome’; the vegan menu on the wall, and notices for live music gigs. This was a promising sign I had not expected, like finding a new place to call home sometimes. Quickly we became devotees, wondering how we hadn’t known about it before. In a way like other parts of Southend, it can seem in a time warp. Both Steve and I used to love going to indie and alternative music gigs in small venues in the early 90s. We didn’t know each other then though our paths could have crossed in the London scene. This Railway place looks and feels like that; unchanged in a good way. It may be the only place like it for miles, so some of its clientele probably travel a way to be there.

Ever since we made that discovery, I had given up a portion of resistance to moving in with Steve or living in that direction. The lockdown getaway therefore came at a time when I was ready. Even if we couldn’t go to The Railway for a few months, I now had faith there were people I’d like to be friends with a bit closer by, and a place where they can gather when lockdown passes. And during the last year that I’ve spent Much more time in the area, each walk venturing in a slightly new direction reveals more curiosities, where I’ll want to delve and uncover. It can take a while to properly see what lies beneath the surface sometimes, and that’s what keeps this South Essex coast and riverbank way appealing and exciting. There is treasure in the marshland; under the pier, behind the theme park and in the backstreets of town. A place which keeps surprising, and where what at first may look ugly, could be in transition.

Me and Steve on the way to The Railway for Halloween 2020
Being witchy at The Railway
Kiss or treat?
The last time we were at The Railway, 4th November for a gig by awesome Ren Stedman whose mushroom T-shirt I am wearing

Learning Reflection ~ part 5

My counselling classes became the highlight of my week, getting to know a reasonable cross-section of people from my area. Women outnumbered men, and there were not people in their 60s and older, but otherwise there was a fair amount of diversity. The teaching of the course had to be covid adapted to ensure safety as far as possible. That meant some mask wearing, distancing, tables and chairs disinfected before the class, and a one way system around the building.

We got used to checking-in, in a big circle at the start of each class. Sharing where we were at, how we were feeling and what had been going on for us. We also got to practise little sessions of counselling each other, taking it in turns in small groups. It requires being open with strangers and in some ways you may experience a fast-track of getting to know each other. To do this course at any time could be transformative, including the accompanying regular journals and a couple of essays. In a pandemic and a lockdown, it was heightened, because we were spending more time with each other, than many of us were with our families and other loved ones. During the Autumn term the course occupied me substantially – practically, emotionally, even spiritually. I mean I engaged on a pretty deep level, probably because I am familiar with being open in performances. As well, unlike most class members, I wasn’t working much nor do I have a family to look after, so I had a lot of space and time for the course. I never missed a class, and I enjoyed learning about the theory of counselling and history of its development, really appreciating being able to borrow books from the college library.

The course teaches some useful ideas and techniques, about how to listen and respond; how to improve one’s empathic connection with others. While some of that capacity is innate, it can be developed. I think the course could be helpful for many many people. I discovered during my time on the course, that several of my friends had done it, or a version of it at some point in their lives. Some had pursued it further, all the way to become counsellors, but most had simply found it useful personally or towards other vocations. I could see why. In a small yet profound way, it can teach you how to do some therapy on yourself. It could help you notice issues you weren’t so aware of, and re-assess your self-image, perhaps with an openness to development. It can subtley alter the way you relate with others, in a positive way.

This was all very good stuff and for a few months I thought how fortunate that the pandemic had afforded me this opportunity I would otherwise not have considered, and which turned out to be so fruitful. Our class were blessed to have a very sweet tutor who made us all feel so welcome and that she was interested in us. At least that was my experience, and such an attitude is exemplary of what we learnt to call ‘unconditional positive regard’, a required element of being an effective counsellor, according to the person-centred approach.

The teacher is very important on a personal level with this course I thought, as in the students’ journals and essays, they must open up about intimate aspects of their lives and personal histories. These things are not revealed to the other class members necessarily, but the teacher holds the whole class together. It was a very special experience, and I realised I found it healing because I had not felt so comfortable or ready to open up at university or drama school. So my last experience of education was not so ideal. With drama, similar to counselling, you do have to get on with the other students for it to work well. They are not subjects you develop particularly in isolation. Except perhaps for downtime in between, absorbing what has been learnt.

Sometimes I compared notes with my friends who’d studied counselling before. In what ways were their courses similar to mine, and what had they found difficult? In respect of the latter, one artist friend who’d gotten far further in the training than I, observed acutely, that as an artist her responses to case study examples given on the course, were not always what was considered correct. Her vision was perhaps too wide, when a more selective perspective may be sought to usefully apply counselling in our society.

Ethics are a set of guidelines and some rules; and I too struggled with taking on some of the practice. The confidentiality breach which requires breaking the confidence of a client because they mention certain elements of danger or illegality, for example, means that some people living outside the law, may never reasonably open up to a counsellor. They might simply have been born into that predicament, but then they are easily trapped there. I remembered coming across such characters in my past, and their absolute fear of social services. It’s not an easy issue to resolve; there has to be safeguarding for a lot of good reasons. But I couldn’t help identifying with those isolated on the wrong side of the law. Perhaps my empathy was not the right sort?

It became apparent that taking such a stance may not be helpful, and possibly made me less relateable to other class members. On the other hand, talking about the issues, opening up that conversation was valuable for us and I felt supported. Level 2 is just a very beginning towards counselling so I had a lot more to learn. After Christmas it was all online and the transition felt awkward for me. I easily completed that first level (oddly number 2), but found building trust and further connections really challenged online, so decided not to continue. It had been an extremely valuable, precious encounter that would stay with me. For now, however, I felt called to return to art, and the garden!

I have been writing that my first performance was 12 years ago. That’s not strictly true. On my drama school course, in 2004 I created a 20 minute piece as a final project. It was in a way, a very early version of  ‘Growing Roots’, drawn from the same material. It had even involved an ex-boyfriend of mine from the time of the narrative, so that he could tell some of his story too. I think I probably wanted some solidarity, because it felt scary and brave to be so open at that time. I do have a recording of that show somewhere, but it’s one of those things I find cringey to watch now! I was still so relatively early on in my processing of the events I was describing. Some things just take years.

Just now I watched a documentary film by Benjamin Ree called ‘The Painter and the Thief’. Two paintings by a Czech woman artist – Barbora Kysilkova – living in Norway, were stolen from a gallery. When the thief is caught, she gets to know him and develops a friendship. He becomes her muse, and she gets to know something of the mind of a junkie to the extent that both grow considerably from their bond. His ways were familiar to me; he reminded me of people I used to know. Seeing the film I identified strongly with the protagonists. It made me think – after writing this post it seemed to encapsulate my feeling – I would rather be free as an artist to build friendship or artistic connection where I am drawn to with whoever, than have to operate by the rules of the confidentiality breach. There are other ways too in which one may have to curb potential friendship in a counselling relationship, in order to be professional. I’m not sure if I’m ready for that (or ever will be). I feel like, because of who I have been, I must keep myself open, and not attempt to consent to a system of rules that could crush part of my spirit. I think that sounds harsh, and there are lots of amazing artist-counsellors out there, and counsellors who know how to negotiate these straits without compromising their soul. But for me that’s what I feel for now. Very likely, if the course had stayed in the classroom, my experience would be quite different.

On the course I reflected about how I have had therapy a couple of relatively brief times in my life. It made a difference in a gentle way, and when I was in my final year at drama school, it did support my stability. At this time it was part of a sort of informal package, because it took place at a centre which held a women’s day on the same day. Fortuitously I didn’t have a class that day and was able to connect with lots of more diverse women than at college, in a healing, supportive environment. I think that aspect helped just as much as the counselling itself, but for sure the counselling was a backbone.

Lockdown Rewind ~ part 4

How do we stay relevent in lockdown? I feel for the doctors, nurses, hospital and other medical staff who have been pushed to their limits and exposed to the highest risks, on the frontline of the pandemic. All the essential workers; and some who lost their lives as a result. Many are not paid or appreciated enough. They weren’t or aren’t looked after properly for a long time, and I wonder how the teachers are now. There are other jobs too that keep the wheels of society’s machines oiled, like my partner working for the council. They don’t all have to leave the house, but they are needed, and often their workloads have increased in the stressed circumstances of the changeable pandemic.

Being an artist can feel like a luxury that is not strictly needed, along with other jobs and roles not deemed necessary enough for the risk to be accommodated. Some have been able to thrive or at least get by, making their work online instead. There are advantages, but so much is missed that way as well.

I was a bit lost in the Summer, unsure what to do with myself. Really allowed myself to feel the emptiness, the gap in my life where work had been. I’d gotten a lot from gardening earlier on, at a time when things felt so scary we weren’t sure which way the world might go. But the garden had been sorted, and was just busy quietly growing vegetables. Beyond a bit of watering and harvesting each day, it was taking care of itself.

If I wasn’t going to make my work online, then what? Sensing I needed a focus, Steve suggested I go to college; study something. When he said that, there was just one thing I thought I’d like to do. There are lots of subjects I’d like to know more about but wouldn’t require going to college. Training to be a counsellor however, seemed like something I could either do, or make use of in my work in a more artistic medium, so I looked up the options.

I wanted somewhere local so I may benefit from in-person teaching if it was possible. The local Higher Education college a couple of streets from where I live had an open day imminently, where it was possible to enrol. I booked a place to check out the Level 2 counselling skills course, and during the day I spent there, much of it waiting or filling out forms, I did enrol. Something new was going to happen and I was excited! I’d had to complete a 500 word essay as part of the application process, and sat in an empty art room alone, describing a period of change in my life. It flowed out without hesitation, and I thought, I could get into this subject. I’d just written a 4000 word blog post about gender inclusivity, so this felt like a picnic.

When it came to the actual enrolling, after a long queue, the guy who saw me asked about my employment situation and finances, and quickly surmised I was eligible for a free place. This was going well. The thing that absolutely sealed the deal, much more important than the fee in fact, was this course would be taught in-person. I was thrilled. I would be in a class with other students and a tutor once a week for 5 hours, over 18 weeks. That was an enriching prospect and I was looking forward to learning something new.

I had one major performance gig lined up for the Autumn in November – at an eco-feminist festival organised by Art from Heart. As well as going to college, I needed to prepare a show, and I was potentially starting from scratch. It had originally been scheduled for April… and if it had been then, I probably would have performed a version of ‘Growing Roots’. I was aware however, that show did not really fit the theme. Which goes to show how much I wanted to make that play, because it didn’t have any sort of commission, or fit with anything I’d been asked to do. Although Dani at LifeArt Stockwell‘s openness to me performing however I wanted, gave me a supportive space in January 2020.

Now I had more time, and had psychicly moved on from ‘Growing Roots’, it made sense to think afresh about this performance. Where on the eco-feminist spectrum did I incline to zone in? While that is a theme close to my heart, when it comes to feeling an artistic drive towards writing a story, the means of being hooked are not always obvious. There was however a guideline from my friend Judit, who runs Art from Heart, especially for me. When I had performed at her festival in 2019, I had created the ‘Roots’ show, which only loosely connected to the ecology theme. About some of my activist ancestors, I’d sourced original memoirs and letters to tell much of the narrative, plus written one monologue so that at least one female character could speak. The play had overall been received very well, presented largely as an audio piece with visual tableaux on stage.

Judit’s suggestion for my contribution at her next festival had been, “Now write just about your female ancestors”.

What an interesting and valuable instruction! It would have to be more fictional, and to be credible, involve plenty of historical research. A very thoughtful exercise, essentially rewriting history with some of the untold stories, imaginatively drawn to fill important gaps. To rebalance my ancestral blueprint informing who I am – but the wider symbolism meant adding to a growing shift in awareness about women’s and non-binary part in the past, as well as going forward. It’s a shift which I believe helps to heal everyone including men. I sometimes wonder how much I am affected, influenced by there being a long line of men on one side of my family at least, who we know about, have been written about. They are considered important and relevent. It’s also true that some of the women were prominent in their own right; but that wasn’t impressed upon me as I was growing up, the way the men were.

Judit’s suggestion feels timely, welcome, and currently I am eagerly immersing myself in it. Before the course began I got stuck into the new enquiry, probing Dad for useful documents (he is the family historian) as well as searching online for material about the era, movements of the day, and known figures involved. Very quickly a Victorian cast of torch bearers and trouble makers opened up, and I knew I’d have no problem generating drama. Of course the November date was cancelled – and didn’t go online – but we are now aiming with hope, for October.

The featured image above, is of me performing my great grandmother Rivkah. Below I am performing my grandmother Mary, as well as the statue of Liberty. Both images are taken from the ‘Roots’ performance in 2019 at ‘We Grow into the Forest’ festival. Photographs by Judit Prieto.

Equinox Unravellings ~ part 3

Today it is twelve years since I first got out of a suitcase on stage, naked except for a bandage around my head. Where had this idea come from? I don’t remember but I had a large suitcase I’d found in the street, which I’d used when I’d moved house over a year before. That move happened in a year – 2007 – of several moves across London – from Muswell Hill to Battersea, to Wood Green, and then to East Dulwich where I stayed. That final move also heralded the beginning of my life modelling career as I began to get in touch with artist contacts my sister had passed on. All that suitcase action – which was accentuated by some of the moves happening in public transport dribs and drabs (the Battersea home was a squat so there was this flexibility) clearly left its mark in my subconscious. The large suitcase played a very significant role when I was moving to a new home on buses, as long as its wheels still worked (at one stage they broke but I found another suitable case). It could hold a lot of my stuff, so each journey made my new home more real and personal, as I tried to settle during a very changeable year. Finally the case helped to bring me to the place where I became a model. This episode surely fed into my imagination. It made me think of women migrating – and my performance partner Szilvi had migrated to the UK as had my mum. Some of the painful poses tutors demanded of me put me in mind of being a slave, so I thought of the sex slave trade of women from eastern europe. All these images and connections…

The suitcase stood outside my room on the landing of the top floor where I lived above a greasy spoon. That particular stretch of East Dulwich still had a way to go towards gentrification back then. So the case regularly caught my eye as I climbed the stairs to my room, after a hard day’s modelling. I think the bandage idea came from Szilvi, who suggested it when she saw me in the case. She had Naomi Wolf’s book, ‘The Beauty Myth’ and the cover reminded her of my position. She lent me the book and no doubt that reading fed into the fire that stoked up Spirited Bodies, 18 months later.

I was modelling at Heatherleys and a spell under the late and very eccentric, beloved tutor called Karn, produced a piece of writing in my breaks, from which I wrote the opening sequence. Bent over her stick as she walked, or using it to point out an unusual vanishing point; never predicatable – always keeping the students guessing – she inspired me too. And reminded me of my mum some years earlier still walking with a stick. A character was born as I responded to her instructions in her off-the-wall life room. Lots of tutors try to make students look and think differently. Karn certainly achieved it, by coming out with the most seemingly obscure, disparate stories, anecdotes, advice. Their meaning, if it was ever gleaned, trained the mind towards the cryptic. She had a nerve, ignoring students’ pleas of “what do you mean..?” and they learnt to wait. I think she had a degenerative disease which contributed to her sheer nerve to be as uncompromisingly, inexplicably, yet brilliantly odd. She had us all spellbound.

For reasons of being in very different mental headspaces, Szilvi and I could no longer work together. I am ever grateful for the opportunity she presented me with however. Later that year my dad became briefly incapacitated and couldn’t look after mum. My sister and I were drafted in to help; and dealing with that challenge was the subject of my next performance writing. 2009 was very significant in that regard, for writing and seizing random and awkwardly charged opportunities. It felt very very good and so pleasing to realise this calling, finally in my early 30s. Working out how to develop and continue was my next mission and took another year to manifest. That was a very fraught year, negotiating radical change I needed to make.

I was thinking of that recently; that longing and waiting for change process. When you really want a big shift, like moving up to the next level, and you run out of ideas how to make it happen. You keep trying, but after a while you have to sit back and sort of wait for things beyond your control to align favourably, without taking your eye off the ball. There might be a series of applications, carefully waiting in the balance. In the end it’s a freak encounter which gives you the breakthrough.

Today’s videos include that original opening sequence

and, the Equinox performance from 2018