Goddesses Vs 2nd Commandment

In 2015 I made performances with female friends. The ‘Girl in Suitcase’ play was reborn, structurally divided into seasons of the year, which represented phases in the life cycle of woman. Extraordinary goddesses led the way, soaring through time to articulate our feminine narrative.

Four friends brought different qualities and talents into the process. Sylvie was around at the beginning for the main development period which also included a red tent gathering with other girlfriends. Sylvie helped formulate the idea, and some of her poems were part of the script. I’d recently read ‘The Alphabet Versus the Goddess‘, about how misogyny culturally emerged alongside the written word. This made a big impression, partly because it suggested the significance of drawing in connection with cultures loving women. The text outlines the neurological impact of reading and writing, and charts how misogyny grew historically in tandem; leading us away from matriarchy and goddess worship as the left brain was privileged.

Smitten with the book I manoeuvred some of its thesis into the play. It talked about religion, mainly Christianity – how Mother Mary had been the centrepiece during the dark ages (obviously she still is to a great extent for Catholics but it seems she had been even more so), after which much of her power was removed. I fashioned a Madonna costume wearing a white dress, a blue sheet, and a white head covering, and narrated some historical detail. The second commandment basically forbids life drawing! That’s still a thing for many Muslims, but has been disregarded by most Christians and Jews these days.

Sylvie’s life was in a lot of flux. She suddenly had to move house a couple of weeks before the performance and cease involvement with the play. This threw me into a mild panic. Her circumstances were critical, so she just had to focus on fixing them. We could no longer be there for each other, having been super-involved up till that point. I had a performance to salvage and she, a very important life move. The script required more than one woman and there was minimal time to sort it out. I had to leave her to solve her crisis, as I cast my eye about and told female friends of my predicament.

Germanic Goddesses came to the rescue! Ursula was interested, and so was Sabine. Even with such a short time to go, I now felt supported by two good friends so my anxiety was relieved. They brought new inspiration – three powerful poems of Ursula’s were added to the script, and Sabine belly danced when performing Isis. We could easily cover all the roles between us, and have fun. What had been a very tricky situation was turned around and made a really lovely opportunity to be creative with other friends. Both of them – and Sylvie as well – had worked with me on Spirited Bodies events; being interviewed; telling their story; and in Ursula’s case singing on one occasion. So there was an understanding of how we work – and play together. Although rushed, this collaboration was fruitful.

Sabine sourced a stunning costume with long, shimmering wings for her dance and practised her moves meticulously. Ursula’s rich ode to the moon poem fitted perfectly, and another was a firebranding feminist call to arms – for menstrual rites. “Women! This is our blood!” we decried as she and Sabine delighted in pouring the period offering over my body. Building up to that she and I got body painted during the Autumn/Enchantress act. First of all we splashed paint on each other and Sabine drew on us before inviting the audience to make their own marks.

It was the first time ‘Girl in Suitcase‘ had not included the original scary art tutor scene – it had morphed into a sexist male tutor played by myself. I took more than one masculine role, as male voices were needed to hound “witches” in the middle ages. To obtain a suitable voice, I used a programme to alter mine.

We became a three person Kali with six arms, fronted by Ursula. Her Kali incantation of survival poem was also a piercing lament for the “witches” killed, sending chills like shockwaves. The menstrual ritual with fake blood (I didn’t start using my actual blood till the following year) came a little later, after which I was pretty sticky. I have done several shows especially in 2015 and 2016, which got royally messy, whichever kind of blood I used. If there wasn’t a shower in the building, the real endurance came after the show when you are meant to relax and celebrate. Either spending a long time taking up one basin and ruining the floor, or just wearing old clothes that stuck to my skin, bearing the discomfort with a glass of wine. That’s show biz!

We wore shawls and hunched over our walking sticks for the Winter act of Crones. Sabine wrapped me in a shroud and helped me into my coffin suitcase – where I had begun the tale in Spring. Sisterly mourning completed the show cycle.

It was a wholly different show now (to previous years’), and almost not about me personally at all. Artemis did have a very spikily charged monologue in the Summer act however, which reminds me I snuck in some of my deeper thoughts at the time. Rediscovering this script has been another revelation for me – similar to what I describe in Script Variations. I can’t believe I buried such a precious gem so long. Life was an emotional dodgems, with too much blocked out by smoking. I was trying to make my life work – but my goodness this had potential. Hey – I am grateful we had the opportunities we did and made the most of them even if only for a while. I can see how my difficult feelings regarding Mum’s condition, were barely fit for public consumption, and I was working out other matters through my relationships.

Even so; the writing and scenography came from all of us. A true collaboration, created by necessity in different phases, much of it hastily. Working with the german goddesses grew our friendships, and particularly with Sabine, it helped inspire her in some new artistic direction. I wish we’d recorded Ursula’s Kali and Menstruation poems, because they shine through the script with timeless rhythm and urgency. Having this time now to look back with a bit more clarity and hindsight, is a gift. To stop and understand allows the lessons to settle. There is still time.

Not long after the March show, I was invited to perform it again in May, at a festival in Norwich called Dandifest. There were a few weeks until the date, but I was going away for two of them to Spain where I had a job. I asked Ursula and Sabine, but it happened both would be away for the performance date. What to do? Again, this was not a one woman show. I thought about who else to ask who might be able to take it on with me and save the day. There was my friend Lidia, also a life model and performer with strong feminist ideas.

Around this time my personal life was taking a change of course and I called her to catch up. She always had a lot to say, and I let her speak a while. In my memory I casually dropped in at the end of the call, oh I’ve got this show coming up, by the way there’s funding. That last bit of course important. Many of my projects are on a shoestring, and for the professional artist, we have limits on how much we can give in these situations. It wasn’t a huge amount, but it helped. Critically she was available, and I think quite keen of the opportunity to perform.

When Lidia commits, a lot of work happens. Work might start happening you hadn’t realised needed to happen. The game is upped, and preparations are rigorous. We had to make the show much tighter with just two of us. Because we were travelling with it, we didn’t have someone else to operate sound, which was too complicated to ask one of the Norwich crew. Lidia recorded all the sound in one long track, which possibly had to be stopped a couple of times during the show, when one of us was off-stage which wasn’t very often. Most of the time we had to be bang on queue with every move. Lidia had it covered, rehearsing us with dictatorial precision till we nailed it. She organised props; from the most ideal squirty body paint, the best fake blood recipe, I think two different extra long wigs, and she’d been inspired by Sabine.

Lidia had kindly filmed the last performance (see above) so she knew what she was dealing with, and now she was taking on some of the key roles. She was the belly dancing Isis (I’m not sure how much belly dancing she’d done before, but while I was in Spain I think she studied it) complete with wings; a very inviting enchantress; and I think as well a moon character with white shiney hair down to the ground (the photographer perhaps ran out of battery at that point).

There were some stand-out moments. Because we have both trained in physical theatre, we incorporated some contact improvisation after the Kali scene. This allowed the thick black paint which I had brushed on to her, to spread onto my body as well during the dynamic movement. We were running across the stage at each other, colliding and sliding one over another; pulling, resisting, and receiving impulses to send ourselves beyond or under. Imaginatively, this expressed the rage and torment of the women burnt as witches. Part of the text speaks of the Malleus Maleficarum, which ordered these killings on behalf of the church, and made it extremely dangerous for women to be seen to be – or just be – friends with each other. It underscored a genocide of female power and sisterly love. Our physical movement together, demonstrating unguarded connection, was also disturbed. Circumstance forced us against one another; to survive at all we would have to fight. Spiritually we were vanquished; brutalised and distraught.

That could have been the end, but our characters – now crones – did find means to live, and unbelievably regroup. With elderly wisdom (and new found gentle spirit) we invited the audience to model for us (some of them had been drawing the show). It was very cold in St Margarets Church (what an appropriate place!) with stone floor, and we were largely kept warm by our adrenaline. Most of our audience were not tempted in the slightest, but we did have one keen novice, who immediately stripped. He was quite drunk, and pleased of this chance which legitimised a likely urge he already felt (he’d been an avid body painting participant already). We duly got on the floor ourselves to sketch him while he posed to Bananarama’s Venus.

It was a lot of fun being part of the Dandifest and meeting their folk, not to mention that it provided reason to develop the piece. I’d met Christina when she’d come to Spirited Bodies at WOW, and now she introduced us to some wonderful artists she created with in Norwich. It was also a treat to have the Lidia experience. It made a difference working with someone who had a similar training, and intense feminism. There had always been something peculiarly familiar I felt with her, like we’d known each other in a past life. I mean, she understood part of me on a very deep level, and it was to do with trauma. There were particular dark things I didn’t have to explain – she just knew.

Giving Testimony: Breaking The Silence

I want to speak out: for too long I have been silent.

I have been told that my case will be closed but not officially confirmed.

I have learnt to be more quiet. I have learnt to love being more quiet, not having a mobile phone for nearly 4 months. Paying more attention to what’s around me, listening better to others and my own inner voice. Responding to emails when I am ready, looking at the internet and social media just sometimes. This has added enormous quality to my life. It wasn’t just because of the police investigation but the timing worked out, when my mobile naturally died, so long overloaded.

It was a good episode and so far has culminated in my rape survivor talk at WOW on March 11th. There was of course also doing a video testimony for the police, and that whole process, which as well resulted in the accused man being brought in for questioning. I am happy knowing that he knows that I was pissed off enough to report him now. It lets him know that his past actions could yet catch up with him and may be a warning to him regarding his present behaviour. It might make him more careful or even more dangerous… but he knows.

The video wasn’t easy though I was fairly calm. I was nervous too, and the preceding days were challenging for how vulnerable I felt again. Being so re-immersed in that earlier difficult part of my life was a headfuck. I was glad to get it done and found the police ok to work with. Also the support of an advocate from Rape Crisis UK was highly appreciated. I want to state that anyone can access Rape Crisis and its sister organisations like Solace Women’s Aid (there are men’s ones too). You can get advice to find out whether it’s a good idea for you to go to the police. The legal process may not be advisable, and if it possibly is, then it’s great to be armed with knowledge in advance. The Rights of Women‘s ‘From Report To Court‘ is recommended reading as is this essay on institutionalised misogyny in the legal system.

There has been the added bonus that a good friend of mine was involved as a witness, though treated as a separate case. It has been a privilege if in fact awful, to share this with her, naturally for the solidarity. It is a little challenging for the legal system if witnesses know each other, as they may contaminate the evidence, so we were obliged not to discuss the case. At first we thought we were not allowed to communicate at all, which felt very wrong, but fortunately it was discovered that the law was not actually so restrictive.

What I want to say is, it was great to do this even so many years later, in fact because of that and being in a relatively strong place in my life now so that being the right time. It has helped me to re-examine the map of my life, what led to what and what that means for where I am now. The rape preceded an important part of my life that I wouldn’t ever change. The important part didn’t only happen because of the rape, but it was heavily informed by it. I made close bonds in a new community and lived an alternative, underground lifestyle. That shaped me so much that I can’t imagine changing it now. But the rape was not a positive act and it is right to seek justice however unlikely to be met. There is a sense of realigning my relationship with my own past; underlining that my departure from that time in my life, has its origins in rape. There was a very positive outcome to an unhappy family life; I made good out of a dark situation. Moving on entails examining the background circumstances more fully. That was an empowering solution for that time, but by no means solved all the problems.

I would like the man to be put on a register at the least as I think if he is free, he is dangerous. I would love to give talks to teenage girls and vulnerable young women about my experience, though I understand the landscape has shifted towards the online. Still, being vulnerable hasn’t changed so much. It’s about when you are in a desperate place and you have to leave home, or you just arrive in a country with no place to call home yet. You are more vulnerable, sometimes with few options. Men like this one I am talking about, know how to spot this, and to avoid being caught. In my case it was all too easy. Others are drugged. I wish I had been able to report him at the time. I think speaking out must be a lot easier now, not just for me so many years later, but for young women who have seen #MeToo. Of course it is one thing posting on social media and another to report to the police. Then you are obliged not to post online, so it really is a dichotomy. The police are not always useful, and cases can be extremely stressful. I wouldn’t want to go through with a court case unless I was one of several witnesses. Historic cases are difficult to prove. But if you report, then at some point the police may realise they have several allegations against the same man. Or if you have strong evidence yourself and are able, going to court may be viable.

None of the other women I shared the panel with at WOW had gone to the police, so often it isn’t appropriate. There may be family entanglements involved, or the perpetrator is not known… Speaking out is important for being listened to, for owning your story, for fully integrating complex and challenging realities. That is what I have found, and it gave me an appetite to dig deeper, go write more, share more in this way, whether speaking or writing. This is not new to me as several of my performances include personal experience, but somehow this feels more direct. There is not the spectacle, but simply rawness.

Giving a rape survivor talk has allowed me to look at my past through a contemporary lens. Rather than seeing the incident as just an unfortunate thing that happened and was bound to happen, I am ready to see it more for the damage it inflicted in its own right. I want to say out loud that what he did to me (and others) is wrong. Something ought to be done about him if it hasn’t already. I believe if not locked up, he would be dangerous, with a large appetite and no scruples. Even if he can’t be convicted there should be a way to warn women and teenage girls about him.

I met Winnie Li at WOW, she was leading the discussion session after our talks. She was one of the speakers I saw in 2016 at Giving Testimony, and she has written a book called Dark Chapter about her experience. She also started Clear Lines Festival in 2015 as a forum for discussing consent and sexual violence. I hope to join her for a meeting of Clear Lines supporters on April 17th. Her story is one of adult stranger rape and she was able to report and win a court case, most fortunately. She has an inspiring approach, as it changed the course of her life and she has made it into an extremely positive thing, for the benefit of others like myself as well as herself. She brings professionalism and confidence with leadership to an emerging scene; I hope to learn from her! She led the discussion with the equally inspirational Silke Grygier who founded the Survivors Collective and is an activist.

I myself felt a little different for being less innocent if just as vulnerable as my fellow panel speakers. It is just the nature of my circumstances that I was already in some question with the law; I had chosen an underground path. That feels a very valuable thing as society isn’t like that in the same way now, to have followed a less travelled path. Everything is more diversified now with the internet, yet still an oppressive mainstream dominates. We do enjoy considerable freedom of choice and expression here however, which I appreciate keenly. One of the other speakers regularly speaks as a survivor representative on the radio or does magazine interviews I think. Her name is Sophie Yates Lu.

As I grow older I become more interested in the bigger picture of my origins, beyond the immediate time of my life, into the past of various strands of my ancestry. It makes such a rich composition that touches on lots of 20th century history from fleeing Lithuanian pogroms, migrating to South Africa, founding the South African Communist Party, escaping McCarthyism to bring up a family in East Berlin, and living on one of the last colonial plantations in East Africa. With all this in mind, the smaller events of my individual life are put into a grander perspective. I may be relatively unusual for being such a mongrel in terms of having various origins, but all our ancestors lived in vastly different periods of human history, no matter where we come from. Taking it all in, I feel less victim, more survivor, and more connected to different facets in my character.

I wonder how my life may resonate with others, my particular story, who it might reach? I always felt no one could have reached me when I needed it most, as I was not open to it. So who might I reach? Simply being the best version of myself that I can must spread the most positive energy. It may have all manner of outcomes and that I could never plan.

A recent chance experience in Hamburg reminded me of one of the most effective forms of therapy I have come across. Death metal, head banging and loud industrial/noise music/sound. This kind of music saved me when I was a teenager. It’s the sort of thing that sensible parents work hard to avoid their offspring encountering, but sometimes there is a powerful catharsis available through the medium of live performance, the direct connection with singer (or growler!) or simply received via the sound. If you are in a place in life where you feel a great deal of anger, and find that there is no reasonable recourse to justice apparent, that can leave enormous frustration and an intensification of toxic anger. This is very unhealthy if left unchecked, as the impulse to seek revenge being thwarted by fear/legal implications, there is no place for the anger to channel except inwards to the sufferer, possibly affecting others too.

I recommend a good dose of death metal (or similar). Just seeing or hearing someone else expressing what appears to be angry dark emotions (I have wondered if sometimes they are in fact exploring more nuanced, sensitive mental states, though in their screams and roars it is hard to discern, I imagine they must as they produce so much!) seems to validate my own anger. It says, ‘It’s fine to feel this way – for whatever reason – and you don’t need to hide it. In fact you should definitely not hide it, but show it loudly and not holding back.’ Then to join in by dancing/head banging or growling/screaming along allows you to share in the righteous reclaiming of that part of you that felt forced into the shadows. At least that’s how it worked for me. It was my regular practice aged 16 – 20 perhaps, sometimes weekly or more often. It aided the processing of unhappy emotions, and shifted my sense of disaffected outsiderhood towards focusing on a state of elation found in dancing free-form with others. It is a tribal thing, to all be pounding the ground together rhythmically at the same time, to sweat the night through. The dance floor was a temple, the DJ/bands priests and the clubbers a congregation. It was not lost on us as we stomped to Ministry‘s ‘Psalm 69‘. That the psychedelic messages on all the record covers told us to take a trip, to drop out, to groove and feel the love (and the anger) but also to reject mainstream culture and capitalist consumerism, served as a wider political framework to hold such disillusioned youth.

I was visiting my friend Sabine in Hamburg over Easter and she is a musician who recently moved back to her home city from London. We wanted to see some live music and quite randomly picked something from the listings which none of us knew, and nor did we research. Just took a chance. I might not have chosen it had I known it was death metal, but I was so pleased we did. It took me back to the clubs of my youth and the immense source of power I found them to be! An issue that had been plaguing me relentlessly recently, now found a place to be deposited.

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Rolo Tomassi at head CRASH 31/3/18

In Rolo Tomassi‘s combination of rage and sensuality, soaring synthscapes and earthly torment, I found redemption. The switch in my head to release such negative emotions was flicked. I left the head CRASH venue just off the Reeperbahn, a happier, more connected and grounded person than the distraught harpy who arrived earlier. Modern life – mass produced culture leaves swathes of loneliness, devastation, anger and deep sadness amongst us. But there are natural remedies out there if you look hard enough!

Recently I wrote and performed Girl in Suitcase, once more at my local Telegraph Hill Festival. I had the tremendous musical support of Sarah Kent, and as well other friends were involved too. It was a wonderful opportunity to be celebratory and make something I wanted to, be an expression of myself in the moment! With some preparation of course… So I leave you with a few photographs by Judit Prieto. I was developing some of my narrative here, particularly about being a life model. The slideshow is very indulgent; for the non-nudity collection please see here! This was the Equinox performance at The Telegraph pub on March 20th 2018.

 

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