Returning to a One Woman show

The 2011 version of Girl in Suitcase was autobiographical, taken directly from experiences of growing up with and looking after my Mother. It was powerful, but I found it difficult to develop as it was literally so close to home. About my Mother’s deteriorating condition, I felt I was almost dancing with death in a manner of speaking, by writing what was and could be happening, and then performing together with fellow actress Jaki Loudon who admirably took on the role of my Mother (the show can be seen here). It can become a case of art affecting life, and the not knowing what is affecting what more, but the possibility of that being in your hands is not desirable, in terms of the creation of art.

with Jaki Loudon at the Mascara Bar, August 2011, taken by David Alexander Murphy

In 2014 I revived my performance, having had almost 3 years break. This time it was a one woman show where I was accompanied by live musicians. It was both autobiographical, and suitably abstract that it didn’t feel overtly revealing. There were two versions – one in Telegraph Hill festival, the other at Hampstead School of Art. The second accentuated the tragic aspect as I myself performed my Mother for some scenes, most gravely a scene from a hospital bed. Jollity was yet maintained by the stage presence of life model and performer friend Ursula, joining me on stage in another scene for naked dancing.

with Ursula at HSoA, taken by David Alexander Murphy

with Roddy & friends at The Telegraph at the Earl of Derby pub

In 2015 I explored ancient Goddesses with my friends, in London and Norwich. And this year I wanted to go solo again. Well almost solo, as my partner Steve joined me for a couple of scenes, so I was well assisted. This change of direction felt right partly because of the complication of attempting to get a few of us all available at the same time for rehearsals, let alone performances; and also because I wanted to travel with the show. Again this would be simpler just with Steve, as I know that all my friends who were involved last year have their own commitments which would inhibit them prioritising this. Steve and I on the other hand, are keen to travel together, and enjoy travelling with a sense of purpose and a means to connecting with a location.

The show was largely rewritten (I think one scene remained from the previous version), and is now all my own words (with some adjustments from Steve who also enjoys writing), after last year’s more collaborative effort. I would still be happy to revisit last year’s and indeed earlier versions, in the right circumstances.

The new structure comprised of two halves; the first focusing on objectification of woman, the second on reclamation of control and agency in woman’s life. These themes were explored in alternating scenes of movement, monologue, life modelling/drawing, body bloodening/painting/rope-binding, many of which involved audience interaction. Steve wrote about this performance very eloquently and comprehensively here, so I don’t have to! I will simply focus on a few areas of particular note to me.

The familiar life model and tutor scene was recast with Steve performing the tutor – his debut as an actor delivering lines. I was freed up from being a man, which I could appreciate more after not having enjoyed the role the last time round, at WOW. He represented the oppressive male in other scenes during the first half also, providing a figure for me to act against, standing for the law, and domestic violence. In the second half his role was reversed as he became submissive. During the bloodening scene in particular, he became recycled!

I feel I ought to explain a little about the recycling scene (which may be seen here), as it could be interpreted as insensitive or offensive. The monologue is me observing my own habits, not necessarily espousing them, upholding them as an ideal. Sometimes I am obsessive in saving things, holding on to them or reusing them, when arguably I would be better off chucking them far sooner. This applies to objects, substances (including menstrual blood), and also as noted, boyfriends! This is in part humorous, though also perhaps a little too painfully honest. Steve certainly found that part rather challenging as we are a relatively new partnership, and it was as if perhaps predicting our demise. He handled the challenge admirably however, embracing the sentiment and volunteering to be (recycled as) my seat as I posed covered in blood. He has always supported and encouraged my tendencies towards menstrual art, I would add even before we were together, he was sending me links to other performers and artists working along similar lines, as well as articles pertaining to the practice (who said courtship was dead?!)

Lovely quick drawings by Rodger, of the Bride scene, recycling poses, and movement pose

What was probably of greater concern was how exes may perceive this somewhat open interpretation of my ways. It could sound mean, “…it has to be beyond broken before I get rid of it…” In response I would say that this angle is but one dramatic take on my behaviour. Life is complicated and there are many layers. I go for fairly long-term relationships, averaging five years in length, and I am at an age now when I can look back and observe patterns repeated several times over. A lot is invested in the relationship, so letting go when things don’t seem to be going so well, is less straight forward. I want to really understand what is at play, and hopefully learn the lesson that is invariably there. I do believe that unless we complete fully segments of our lives, then problem areas will re-emerge in a new form until if and when we learn and are then freed to move on. There is no point running away from a difficult situation; it is better faced and confronted, then there may be progress.

One might hope a situation would be fixed before leaving a partner, but maybe only some elements are. Equally there may be parts in the other that we have recognised will never work for us, as we have tried until we have made things more broken. I think that’s where I was going with that line, but again, the initial inspiration for it may have been a piece of junk shelving unit I found in a skip.

Real blood and its smell are challenging, especially as the audience come right up close to me to paint on my body, over the bloodstains. Then there is the mingling and chatting after the show. I haven’t washed yet, or covered up, and a significant amount of the blood may have been spilt over the stage as well. This is of course the point.

The body painting has long been a ritual of the audience leaving their mark on me before I “die” at the end of the show. They have witnessed me, heard my story, and by this scene towards the finale, may have formed some impression of me to which they can respond artistically if they wish, beyond drawing me. It is also a chance to connect with me physically. There is a sensuality to brushing on skin, an added intimacy which can be pleasurable, if not ticklish or beyond the bounds of comfort. I open myself up to them and place a certain amount of trust in their hands.

The penultimate scene about competitive women, where I address this very delicate subject is naturally garnered from my real life experiences, and is recent material. I have never felt the tension of competitiveness with various women in my field before to such a degree. It is largely unspoken. Steve was uncomfortable with me writing about this let alone performing it, but I pressed him – nothing has felt so triggering of my emotions during the last year, and I don’t believe it’s all in my head. I don’t think I’m alone, and I think there may be a value to sharing this aloud. I don’t think it’s just my issue, and I think it has gotten worse since the Tory government took hold. We really are all competing more – for income, recognition and opportunities, and social media has made that more blatantly apparent than ever. I’m not convinced that men feel this the same way but fully prepared to hear that they are. It may depend what field one is in. Certainly if you make a living from the arts, you are likely to be vulnerable. I personally felt that it would be worse for me not to say such important things in what is my very intimate show, my chance to reveal my true self. I could choose for that just to be a more polished, ‘public’ version of me, but really, what value would there be in that? I celebrate and I bare all of myself, in the same space. It is an exercise in self discovery and revelation.

While men have generally enjoyed privilege for hundreds, thousands of years; we women are still learning how to exercise that. We are finding our feet, and I really enjoyed feeling and playing with mine during the naked dance sequence, letting loose for a few moments of public wildness and abandon! The ultimate movement of liberation.

The above were all taken by

The same scene may be seen here as performed in Venice; and that show was beautifully documented by Steve here.

I think I will discuss the Venice show myself another time. I am just in the process of reworking it for a further performance there coming up in August. It is wonderful the way it is evolving, for a shorter (20 minutes) show, for an international audience, who were not previously known to me. Truly I am currently very drawn towards revisiting the Mother and daughter script, from when playwrighting was more immediate to me than performance art. Creating convincing dialogue seemed easier somehow before social media took off, eating up our attention span, but it is something I enjoyed and would love to get back to.

Goddess in Suitcase; part 1

Making the show for Telegraph Hill festival 2015

I choose itinerant self-employed work as it allows me freedom to be myself and to create. Girl in Suitcase is a theatrical performance art work, which engages the audience to draw the spectacle (and participate in further ways). I love making my own work and all the mistakes that go with it. The space, time and energy I take to create is sacred for me.

As a life model I am paid to please others primarily (though I enjoy it too), for their specifications. With Spirited Bodies I create a space for others to develop within (naturally the benefit is mutual). With Girl in Suitcase, while I am not without consideration for the audience, I am mainly doing the work for myself as well as the others involved, and for now (what is wonderful is) without worrying about selling tickets. If there is a very small audience that’s fine. The show is always a work in progress and without funding, it is subject to severe limitations. And yet, there is an unknown magic waiting to take place during the spectacle in the hearts and minds of all present. The unknown of what is Live, full of real life.

I enjoy the process immensely and like to work with friends. Earlier versions of the show, from 2011 – 2014 were autobiographical, about mine and my Mother’s life and were sometimes one or two women shows. The recent show began its life with my friend Sylvie Rouhani and I wanting to make a performance relating to the cycle of the moon, and the ages of woman, or different phases of a woman’s life. I was ready to depart from the personal, and expand into the more universal, and that was a wonderful feeling, like I’d completed some sort of performance therapy phase.

My friend Lucy Saunders had given me a book for Christmas – ‘The Alphabet Versus the Goddess’ by Leonard Shlain, and I was blown away by its feminist take on history and literacy. That inspired me to look at the ages of woman, through history – Goddess culture of the further past, and subsequent lower status of women since the Judeo-Christian-Islamic takeover. We started plotting the structure and themes in January and formulating the script in February. Sylvie was going through some upheaval in her life and could not continue with the show in March, so I asked Ursula Troche and Sabine Zollner to join me. The show was completed in the 3 weeks prior to performance with minimal rehearsals, but some new written and movement material from Ursula and Sabine.

Ursula Troche

Ursula Troche

While the process felt fractured and pressured towards the end, the show benefitted from being the product of 4 women finally, and I hope each of the women gained too. With Sabine’s belly dancing Isis, and Ursula’s call-to-arms poetry, we added to Sylvie’s powerful words. I also wrote parts as well as choreographed, directed and edited.

Isis has an incredible costume (with enormous wings!) and sensual dance which brought a new level of spectacle. Here are some words from Sabine about her involvement in the show;

“I called Esther on a Saturday early March and found her in distress. She told me that the lady she worked with on the third version of her play – Girl In Suitcase – had just let her know she could not continue to work on it, but the performance date was already set – for 3 weeks later.

I had seen the first version of GIS in March 2014 but had missed the second performance where the play had developed further.
I knew Esther was working on a third version and that it was emerging from a one woman show to something else, involving the moon and poems and getting less abstract than before but more related to life models, female feelings and divine figures.
I asked more questions during our phone conversation and discovered that some things appeared like déjà-vues to me: the goddesses Isis and Artemis whom she mentioned had crossed my path before and I was particularly intrigued by the Egyptian Isis of whom I had a clear picture in my head without knowing what exactly she was about at that point. Everything seemed very obvious when Esther explained she hadn’t thought about costumes yet and I remembered a belly dance performance called ‘Isis dance’ I had seen 20 years ago.
I said I had some ideas for Isis as I have 2 Egyptian dance costumes and could add a special veil to them, actually called ‘Isis wings’.
I quickly realised that due to the pressing time scale, the roles and the fact that I’d do this with Esther and Ursula whom I had known for a while too was some sort of fate for me to push myself to try performing – something that I always wanted to try. I knew I could perform as a belly dancer (which I had done a long time ago) but never performed spoken lines!
So I offered to step in.
Said and done we had only two rehearsal dates which made clear that there had to be some improvisation.
I went through my oriental music, let Esther pick the pieces she liked best and then did a very loose choreography on them.
My first lines as Isis were single words – a sequence of unrelated nouns. Esther let me invent movements for these which was relatively easy compared to speaking them out loud.
There was also a short exchange of words between Isis and Mother Mary and I found myself keen to make this scene funny and entertaining.
I think I always liked to make people laugh.
So the day of the performance came and I was not very nervous at all. I knew the space and as people were drawing I knew how they felt as I draw a lot myself.
I also liked my outfit very much – my friend gave me a hair piece and with some help my chest had temporarily grown to quite an impressive size. I also re-discovered heavy eyeliner from a long time ago (which I haven’t abandoned after the play since).
I deeply enjoyed being in the play and as I was one with my role and within our group of three I couldn’t feel more comfortable.
Afterwards, someone asked me if I wanted to model for him which was rewarding and the artwork that was produced was superb.
I met more than one person whom I knew from before but who hadn’t recognised me which made me think that I must look very different “in real life”. I don’t feel different though. Some food for thought.
The least comfortable part was probably seeing the photos and video footage of the evening for the first time. I am very critical with myself – especially as I am not a professional dancer and far from being an actor. However, it was maybe alright. But I also understood that the footage doesn’t matter too much.
The magic of theatre is very closely related to the moment of the performance and everything that goes with it – the energy of the performers and the audience and how they interact. After the play it is over and if it is performed another time these dynamics could be of completely different nature.
And I was glad to have been part of this.”