I love to talk. Chat chat chat chat chat chat. Loud and long and clear. I love to talk, I hope I remember to hear. And at the Gendersaurus Rex workshop at the Festival Theatre’s new studio we had two days of chat about gender, sexuality and queerness in children’s performance. There is so much to talk about, but we had come together to try and play our way to some conclusions too. It was hard though, as we spent a day and a half of the two days just creating a shared language that meant we could discuss the ideas properly (one of the points made by organiser, Eilidh MacAskil, was that these aren’t inherently negative ‘issues’, they are ‘ideas’). But when you have never even considered the pronouns that you use about yourself, or whether or not you feel that you perform the same gender as you were assigned at birth, there is a long way to journey.
The conversation was supportive, questioning, mildly alarmed, caring, confused, clarifying and intense. We were all exhausted by the end, everyone listening hard to others and being very careful with their own language too. This is a world in which language is shown for the power it has. I was first going to write that language is more than usually powerful in this field, but that is not it. Ideas of ‘political correctness’ make us think about the language we use, we are careful about it, we realise it can hurt. This makes some people annoyed at the way their linguistic day-to-day is interrupted: common complaint from opponents is that they ‘can’t say anything any more’. But it’s how we should be with our words all the time: caring, careful of each other, loving and sensitive. We know, all of us, in the depths of our bones, that there is no greater lie than ‘sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never hurt me’. This project, which Eilidh has been working on for a year, on-and-off, is wordful. But so are we.
On the second day, though, we were forced from our comfortable sedentary chairs (yeah, sorry that I’m a fidget, Amy and Fiona (my sitting neighbours) the bouncing-moving-fiddling is a weirdly unavoidable part of concentration for this lazy woman) and we were up and about for half an hour to create 1 minute of solo material to perform to the group. I LOVED THIS BIT. The creation was exciting. I wanted to try, I had girded myself for nerve-wracking experiences – why else do we go to workshops? – but my hands were shaking in a way that I have come to more strongly recognise as the effect of this part of my job on my body. A druggy mix. We were supposed to be trying to explore/answer one of the questions that we had formulated for our introduction. Mine were:
- How do we prepare/empower the parents/teachers?
- What is good practice for not presuming the gender of children we work with?
- Do I need to identify myself as a hetero-cis* artist?
I chose to look at the third question as it had prompted the most debate when I first asked the questions. It also went along with my statement, which I got from THE INTERNET a couple of years ago, ‘privilege is invisible to itself’. It blew my mind when I first encountered it, and it sparked a lot of discussion in the room about the nature of privilege, about self-censorship, about authority of the artist. I think the feeling in the room was that I probably shouldn’t identify myself as a hetero-cis artist, but my feeling is still that, somehow, I should. But maybe that is just that I am trying to even up the scales by pushing down my side, rather than raising up the ‘queer’ side. But is there any other way? And does it push down my side? Should I leave it vague, choosing to use neutral pronouns for myself and my partner so that I can shrug off one layer of my privilege? But is that claiming a difference which I don’t have? Tricky stuff.
Once the half an hour was up, we shared each piece in a random order, without any introductions or chat between. It was brilliant. What struck me most about the piece that we created from our (slightly-more-than-but-not-loads-more-than) 15 minutes was not so much the content we explored, more the forms that we used. Backed into a creative corner people’s pieces were wildly different. Looking at some of the pieces I felt dumbfounded, I couldn’t help but imagine that to have made that I would have had to have come up with the practice and then the piece in that 30 minutes. But everyone came into the room with their own practice already. Mine feels like it isn’t ‘practice’ only because it comes so naturally to me now. But it is not just that. In comparing my piece with all the others I was able to identify that I am:
- verbose (I fitted into the minute by speakingincrediblyquickly)
- word focussed
- a literal artist
I knew the first two of these very well (look at the length of this post!). They are true in my whole life. It was the third, my literal tendency, which I had never expressed before. I have felt ‘square’ in the avant guard scene in Glasgow, I have known that I am not, for example, a Buzzcut artist. I was shocked and not a little disconcerted to find myself for a few short months (RIP the Arches) as an Arches artist. But I don’t think of myself as a literal person. I once went out with a person who simply didn’t do metaphor, and I spent a lot of time wondering how life was for them. How did they interact with the world if they couldn’t see things as other things? One English teacher who I really loved, earned my eternal adoration for saying in a report that I had an ‘idiosyncratic’ writing style (I’d never seen the word before) and that I had a skill for making connections between things. Yes, Mrs Adam, thank you. I, thriteen-year-old Ishbel, will now define myself by my ability to make connections for the rest of my life. (Also, sorry my spelling is so bad. I’ll really take it in hand within the next couple of months, but it will seriously slip again in my early twenties. Sory.) She did also tell me, for the first time, to write what I knew. She told me that my personal stories had real flare that my imaginative ones lacked. Maybe not unconnected with this too?
In my tiny piece I stood in my vest and introduced myself, and, as an aside mentioned the things that made life in the cold world difficult for me – lack of respect for artists, mental health, being Scottish. Returning to my introduction, I explained I’d had a totally normal childhood, describing being born with all my fingers and toes, to a married mother and a father, who took me to shows and theatre clubs, and supported me at uni, and now I’m married to a man who is a computer programmer. With each of these I put on a layer of clothing, until I was standing wrapped in jacket, hat, scarf, etc. I wanted to explore the fact that I tend to define myself by my outsideness: vegan, Scottish, feminist, woman, etc. But so much of what I have achieved in life has come to me because, usually without even thinking, the world predominantly defines me by my comforting centrality: white, middle-class, uni educated, hetero, able-bodied, etc etc etc. Frankly, using the items of clothing to represent my layers of protection afforded by my privilege is pretty much the most non-literal thing I have ever done in my career as a maker.
Other people danced and got us to sing, performed a poem about our discussions, read aloud from a hand sanitiser, played both parts in a dialogue that descended into single phonemes. One made us walk around them while they passed a magic visor (an A4 bit of paper) over their body which would allow us to see through to the skin beneath while we sang sexy songs in our heads. One person got us to close our eyes and listen to a repeating melody on one of those wee plinky-plonky, metal-wood instruments, with a sign telling us to sing if we wanted. MY GOODNESS. The shortness of the task magnified the differences so hugely. I came out invigorated, inspired and veeeeery sliiiiiightly down-trodden. But, you know, now I’m writing writing writing all the friendly-word-friends.
So cosy. So comfy.
I had explored a lot of the questions posed in the workshop before. Twitter has opened my eyes and expanded my feminism (where else would I have learned about intersectionality) and understanding in a way that gives the lie to all the bile about ‘clicktivism’ over the last few years. But one of the ideas that came out of the weekend for me, that I had never fully formed or read so succinctly, was that gender is comfortable, and sometimes you need to make an audience comfortable. The question is how to do that while undermining the constricting status quo. The word comfort resonated with me. I am a progressive who hates change. Comfort has a strong effect on me. Comfort in my ‘practice’, discomfort in claiming a ‘practice’ at all. Comfort in my ‘outsideness’, discomfort in my centrality.
It is too early to be comfortable with what I got from the workshop as yet, but I know that the purpose, to paraphrase a Judith Butler quotation that Eilidh used, is to help more people feel more comfortable in the world. That is good. Keep chatting. Keep doing.
*A good glossary of useful terms can be found here.