Does our 'progressive' theatre industry only pay lip service to forward thinking?

(image credit: Emma Frankland, Rituals for Change)

If, as Judith Butler famously wrote, gender is a performance, then shouldn’t theatre be the most welcoming place for the myriad of identities that make up our society? And shouldn’t the theatre industry naturally provide a wealth of different stages for our genders to be performed upon? Theatre is arguably a more progressive industry than others, particularly in the contemporary theatre network. It encourages risk taking and questioning. It celebrates the pushing of boundaries. And yet when it really comes to something tricky, do we find that it is only really paying lip service to progressive thinking?

A recent study by Freeman of Pentabus and the Guardian found that of the top ten subsidised theatres in London, only 24% of directors were women, 23% of their creative teams were women. Women’s work isn’t celebrated equally either. “In 36 years of Olivier awards, women have won only twice for director … and four times for playwright”.

There is a battle to be fought here, most of us would agree. However, who’s battle is it? Of this ridiculously small number of women at high levels in the industry, how many are white, cisgendered, non-disabled women?

Discussions around gender in theatre so often focus solely on the narrative of the cisgender white Western European or North American female. It is a default setting, and it is an important fight, but where does it leave all the other women, those who are fighting battles of inequality on multiple fronts? Women who are transgendered, women who are disabled, women who are black, even those women who do not look the way we expect women to look. A woman can play Hamlet on a major commercial stage, but she must be unarguably a woman. There can be no confusion about the ‘real’ gender when we allow women to pretend to be something else for a moment.

So what about the times when there is a more balanced representation? A recent article in the Guardian listed all the upcoming shows at Edinburgh that ‘celebrate trans life’ but many of the shows listed aren’t about trans issues, or performed by trans people, they are about dressing for another gender, or they are about sexuality. This is particularly poor when there are actually many pieces of work at Edinburgh that do explore trans issues, or have transgender performers in them.
Emma Frankland’s latest piece 'Rituals for Change' is one of them and I spoke with her after a preview showing at South Street Arts Centre in Reading.

Emma Frankland and Abby Butcher have been exploring gender through their performative and provocative project 'None of Us is Yet a Robot'. The project has also been collaborating with other theatre makers who are also exploring and challenging gender and sexuality in theatre, such as Eilidh MacAskill whose hilarious and challenging piece 'Stud' will also be part of the Forest Fringe, under the banner of Buzzcut.

'Rituals for Change' is the latest of the performance outputs of this collaboration. They describe the project as ‘pouring fuel oil on the Blue Peter garden of gender’. It is not an exercise in political correctness, but neither is it about deliberately challenging or shocking. It is a genuine investigation, at times a thoughtful provocation, into what this performance that we call gender really is, and why we cling to a binary definition of it.

Whilst this piece isn’t exclusively about transgender issues, it explores the fragility and amorphous nature of identity and womanhood, and is performed by a transgender woman, who cannot help but bring a part of herself and her experience into the work.

It is refreshing to see a transgender person centre stage, playing out the story of a transgender person. We rarely see transgender people on our stages. And it is no wonder, when even roles that are written for non cis gendered characters are played by cis gendered performers. What does it mean for the non-binary gendered people of the theatre world when someone like Ben Whishaw in Susannah Clapp’s review of Bakkhai is described as ‘the most perfect portrayal of androgny’. Would we describe a white actor playing Othello as the most perfect portrayal of a black man? We might describe him as offering a perfect portrayal of jealousy, or of love, but fortunately we have moved beyond casting white actors above all else. Shouldn’t we consider the same for gender?

It signifies a change that there are so many great pieces of theatre exploring transgender issues and some that simply cast transgender people as performers. It is a change in attitude and a change in awareness, albeit slow.

'Rituals for Change' explores the very nature of change. In the work, change is presented to us as a gradual process, it never starts at a distinct place, and it never ends. There is no one moment when something ceases to be one thing and instantly transforms to another. Instead, change is a series of infinitely divisible moments that ultimately become so minute that you can no longer see the space between them. We all change in this way, every day, cell by cell, experience by experience. Emma Frankland, in 'Rituals for Change' asks us to look in the mirror at the person we were ten years ago, is that person a close friend to the ‘us’ we are now, a distant relative, or a complete stranger? Did we notice the change, was it gradual or did we wake up one day and find ourselves different?

What are the parts of ourselves that we hold on to throughout this process of change in our lives? What is the constant thing that enables a person to still be identifiably that person? So much of who we are changes all the time, our tastes, our style, our hair, our body shape, our friends, our knowledge, our emotions, our reactions, our speed, our skill, it is all changing. So why are we so keen to hold on to gender? Why are we so adamant that gender cannot, does not, must not change?

The shock and violence that our society responds with when someone perceived to be male wears a piece of clothing deemed only acceptable for females, belies a strange fascination and fear with gender fluidity. These fear-driven attitudes are fragile, and hypocritical. A kilt is a sign of masculinity, but another kind of skirt will illicit verbal and physical abuse from strangers. It is in these hypocritical gaps that we may present a challenge, plant seeds of doubt. And this is where normalised and positive representation of trans gender people are so important.

Emma talks to me after the performance, about the conflict between a desire for people to recognise that gender is not about sexuality but the support that the gay, lesbian and bisexual rights groups offer to transgender people. She stresses that the T needs the LGB far more than the other way round, but all recognise that there is solidarity in numbers. Stonewall’s recent decision to support trans people’s rights as well as those of lesbian, gay and bisexual people is a reflection of a growing understanding that whilst these things may all be muddled together somewhat unhelpfully, the prejudice they aim to overcome is the same.

Emma talks about the shock of discovering misogyny, coming face to face with it, having lived as a white European male, the pinnacle of ‘privilege’ in many people’s eyes. She describes how, in a patriarchal society, it is the worst thing possible to give up that privilege, and ‘become’ the societally perceived, weaker, feebler sex. Of course, she is merely performing her real gender, at this time. She has not become something new. We all are versions of ourselves, moving through time, shifting and evolving daily. But that is less easy to understand, and there’s no box to fit it in.

Emma builds a tower in the centre of the space during 'Rituals for Change', piece of heavy scaffolding by piece of scaffolding, climbing it level by level, we begin to feel the risk and precariousness that she is talking about. We watch her look at her gender from each of these levels, and at us. She stands at the top and presents us with some kind of battle cry ‘we who are changing, we who invite trouble, we who waiver, we who leave this place different than when we arrived’. We are with her. It is profoundly moving.

Theatre should be exactly this, we enter the space as ourselves and when we leave, we are irreversibly changed. Theatre that takes real risks can bring about real change. We do not always have to confirm our existing beliefs. Every experience we have changes us, shapes us, leaves a trace, and it is something we should hold precious, we should mark and revere.

A performance that has power and connection with its audience is the most likely to leave a trace. 'Rituals for Change' achieves this with deceptive ease. This is a private, evocative piece of theatre, and it is the human body before us that is at the heart of every ritual performed. It asks us to examine the many genders that we all are, the space between them and the way in which our identities change. It encourages us to celebrate change, to embrace the freedom that it provides. The tone is powerfully contradictory; delicate yet strong, confident and unapologetic yet subtle and fragile and quiet.

When we look at the boxes that we have made for our own identities, what are the symbols that we have chosen to communicate ourselves to others? How many of these did we truly choose for ourselves, and how many were given to us by the
society we live in? How safe do we feel in questioning them, can we consider not using those symbols every day, can we go outside without putting makeup on, without shaving our legs or armpits? Can we see a way out of these boxes?

Perhaps the fascination with gender fluidity is partly that is represents a profound form of freedom and honesty that so many of us are guilty of denying ourselves, and others.

In the fight for gender equality, we must be careful not to move from one set of excluding boxes to another and call it progression. We must embrace the fluidity of human experience, the people who exist in between the binary. That’s where most of us really are, we just don’t realise it.

(c) Liz Allum 2015

Rituals for Change will be at the Forest Fringe, Edinburgh 24th - 28th August http://forestfringe.co.uk/edinburgh2015/artists/none-of-us-is-yet-a-robot/

Author's review: 
0