Guest Blog! Bending the Looking Glass, by Freya Bryson

Ahead of a two week run of Fitting at Alphabetti Theatre we welcome a guest blog by Freya Bryson, exploring the power in the face of controversy of female drag queens, and it’s bloody excellent.

“Make up, clothing, posturing could be fun and poke fun at the absurdity of gender and culturally hegemonic identities. . . we are all performing -even if only a little.”

“I was playing out the fabrication of my gender through inscribing the surface of my body. By playing with gender it reveals itself to be no more than a social construct of repeated acts.”

OK, enough with the quotes! Take it away, Freya . . .

 

Bending the looking glass

an exploration into the world of female drag queens

By Freya Bryson

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I did not wake up on the 8th of July expecting to be presented as the co-winner of best hair category at Curious Festival’s Vogue Ball. I did not envision being judged by drag star the Divine David with host Mutha Tucka, I had not known that my friend was a dab hand at Lucille ball lips and if you had asked me to walk a runway in platforms in front of an audience I would have politely told you to shut the front door. However, sometimes life grabs you by the metaphorical balls and tucks you in.

I have always been interested in gender, theatricality and the theatricality of gender. As a child I remember applying my mother’s lipstick with much gusto, the result of which made me resemble a garish tribal warrior rather than a Barbie queen; I was the black leotard at ballet class surrounded by flamingo spandex. I remember realising that there was an ideal – a bright, blonde, long haired, gazelle-limbed idolised ideal – endowed with privileges and instantaneous charm. I would look in the mirror with those images circling my head and examine myself coming up short. In truth I felt sub-feminine. One day I’d grow up into the bras and the lipstick, filling it out and becoming the definitive article, I assured myself.

This didn’t exactly occur as I had envisioned either. What happened is that I realised that ‘playing’ a woman became more elaborate and more subtle with heavier pay offs. Normative femininity was expected, hierarchal and valued; a sheath that moves so subtly against your skin that only you could detect any chaffing. When did it stop being child’s play?

I was drawn to drag quite simply because it looked fun. Make up, clothing, posturing could be fun and poke fun at the absurdity of gender and culturally hegemonic identities.  Watching films like Priscilla Queen of the Desert opened my eyes and mind to images of towering satire and aching beauty and to the sneaking suspicion that, to an extent, we are all performing –  even if only a little. Most films I watched as child had male protagonists so it wasn’t a stretch to feel through them and place myself in their shoes. In fact recent studies show that similarly male viewers have no issue identifying with female protagonists, but that’s an article for another time.

The point is that drag on screen seemed as accessible as any other activity or pursuit a leading character could partake in, but as I got older it became clear that drag queens were just for men: Flamboyant, feminine men, but for men none the less. Looking back I surprise myself at how easily I accepted this and it is only until relatively recently that I did a double take. Why can’t women be drag queens?

It turns out that there is female drag art and, although it tends to fly under the radar, it has still caused ripples of controversy. The increasing popularity of ‘faux’ drag is seen by some of the LGBTQ community as an unwanted invasion of cis women into queer male culture and space, an unwelcome fetishization encouraged by the increasing televised exposure of drag in the mainstream media. Some feminists view drag as ultimately degrading cultural appropriation, a misogynistic act the equivalent to black face – to partake in it is an act of betrayal.

This argument seems to miss the point that drag, particularly female drag, laughs at femininity not at women themselves, but at the societal box of tricks women have been encouraged to employ in ordered to pass as women. It strikes me that these rather defensive reactions to what can be argued as the final frontier of performance ultimately police female behaviour in terms of what is acceptable and this, as always, should be challenged.

Female drag artists are often known as faux or bio queens, although some performers reject these terms as ‘othering’ and delegitimising their contributions based on their genitalia. Female drag queens have experienced some of the worst examples of misogyny in gay clubs by members of the gay community who perceive these performers as co-opting their art form. Although this backlash may seem shocking this reaction should not be surprising considering its historical precedence.  In Classical Greece and in Shakespearean times women were prevented from performing, however, after the English restoration of 1660 thanks to Charles II women could walk the stage.  Many female drag queens feel that by performing their gender to such hyperbolic extremes they reclaim and empower their identity, allowing them to take up space.

I certainly felt liberated on that hallowed night at the ball. By exaggerating femininity to grotesque levels I felt emboldened by owning my look and by pushing beauty into monstrous territory. It can be argued that our capitalist society feeds on women feeling insecure about their bodies in order to fund a billion dollar beauty industry. By turning up the volume to spinal tap amp setting 11 I ultimately exposed these feminine hallmarks as tools of power and artifice and by taking up space, by exaggerating the line of my silhouette I didn’t feel as much beautiful as I did powerful.  Fearsome.  Fierce. The ridiculousness I was exhibiting paradoxically made me feel like I had the last laugh.  Judith Butler’s notions never felt more close to the bone: I was playing out the fabrication of my gender through inscribing the surface of my body. By playing with gender it reveals itself to be no more than a social construct of repeated acts, the qualities of which are dictated by the time in which it’s conceived.

My intention had been to go with a friend and spectate at the ball held at breeze collective in Newcastle as part of Curious Festival, to take notes and to soak up the vibes. The taxi ride had been strained. I had felt the need to explain my appearance to the visibly freaked out driver, which had resulted in as little as a nod and an awkward cough. Deciding to save my sashaying for later, I arrived at my friend’s door via the lift. ‘Oh’ she said ‘So we’re doing this tonight? Okay can do. Your hair is amazing, by the way’. With deft motion she flipped up the seats on her couch to reveal an extensive wig and make up section that I had hitherto been completely oblivious to.  Before you could say big pink furry box she had glued down her eyebrows and drawn two bright blue beautifully arched lines and dark-lined lips that can only be described as Lucille Ball takes an acid tab. Turns out that my friend was old hat to drag and went by the name of Ivy Profen for many years.

Due to my prior research I was wary about the reactions my friend and I may raise. Fortunately my anxiety was unfounded.  Whilst drying our hands in the gender neutral toilets adjusting my orange afro wig’s sunflowers a statuesque vision popped out of the cubicle complete with glitter, head fronds and beard. This vision was Mutha Tucka, the host for the ball. ‘You have to enter the hair category. If you don’t I will literally drag you off your seat.’ After realising they were entirely serious I decided that regardless of any qualms I had I could not take the risk or pass up the opportunity. I quickly settled upon the name Sappho Monroe, although in hindsight I wish I had gone with Madame Ovary.

My stomach was knotted as the categories and vogue dancers rolled by – each performer blurring into a mesmerising parade Fellini would have been proud of.  Lumberjack kings with homemade axes chopped at the scenery, vogue dancers contorted and snapped shapes with grace and agility and familiar faces were transmuted into angular screen goddesses of yesteryear.  Finally it was our turn.

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The room was hot with flashes of camera phones as I strutted as best as I could ripping off the petals of a sunflower I had brought with me in a comic display of he loves me he loves me not. I was initially hoping it was enough before the adrenaline and sheer elation set in. Did I just do that?

Whatever it was it was enough for me. Turns out blowing student maintenance money on an impulsive wig purchase back in the day was actually a sound investment as I co-won the hair category with drag artist Crystal Meth who shone in a look that screamed Blade Runner/Fifth Element future noir.  The Vogue Ball was utopian in its diversity, its innovativeness and in its inclusivity.

There are many things I have discovered on this investigative drag journey: orange foundation covers eyebrows best, glitter is affectionately called circus herpes due to its staying power and I have been reminded the very simple truth that art and expression should be for everyone. Since time immemorial people have been subverting gender. No one community or sex can lay claim to it and its high time women get under that feverish spot light. After all, in the words of RuPaul ‘You were born naked and the rest is drag’.

 

Fitting os at Alphabetti Theatre from Feb 25th – March 7th (excluding Sun and Mon March 1 and 2)

 

 

 

 

 

 

Poetry and Magic for National Poetry Day

Last night I was involved in the Fringe event for A Quite Enormous Poetry Night organised by Ben Norris for National Poetry Day, showcasing a whole host of the UKs best poets. It was an incredible night. The theme of the event was truth and I was involved as part of the entertainment through Nottingham Playhouse before the show as a magician. Well, not a magician. But doing magic tricks. Or else, exploring visibility and invisibility. It’s a section from my latest show, Fitting, which is about non-binary gender, cross dressing, appearance, disappearance. . . and magic.

 

The excerpt I was performing is a cup and ball trick accompanied by a spoken piece of text looking at how wearing different clothes can make me feel more visible, or more invisible . . . and how both, alternately, can sometimes feel called for. It’s one of the first pieces I wrote for the show and kind of sums up the heart of it for me.

 

Getting into learning some magic has been an interesting process for me (I’m not the most dextrous of people!) and last night, sitting at a stall, performing again and again for whoever was passing by and interested in what I was doing was the most full on learning experience I’ve had with it yet. It turns out doing magic close up like that repeatedly is entirely different from doing it on stage as part of a theatre show. In the same way, perhaps, that working jokes into a poetry set feels different from performing stand up comedy. There’s a different set of expectations.

 

There’s something lovely though, when it works well, about the moments of shock and amusement you can create for people with the simplest tricks. It feels childlike. Innocent. Despite being centred around essentially lying. And at the same time, finding truth. I’m looking forward to getting better and better at them as the tour of the show begins and continues.

 

Speaking of visibility and invisibility, I’m just starting to feel the onset of the year’s first winter blues, and feeling the compulsion to hibernate. Which will be interesting when set against touring. Hoping that being busy and on the road will help keep me pushing forward. Hope to see you out there.

 

Here’s the text from the show that sits against the trick:

 

Sometimes it feels risky being visible.

Sometimes it feels risky being invisible.

Did I just say the same thing twice?

Sometimes it feels risky being visible, sometimes it feels risky being invisible.

When I’m wearing those clothes, I often feel more visible.

Sometimes, I’m not wearing those clothes, but I want to be visible.

And that’s frustrating, but I can live with it.

Sometimes, I am wearing those clothes and I want to be visible.

And that’s great. I think that people should want to be more visible.

Especially when it’s sunny.

Sometimes, I’m not wearing those clothes, and, actually, I want to be invisible.

And those days are difficult, but it’s OK, because it feels like I am. Invisible.

Sometimes, I am wearing those clothes, and all of a sudden,

I want to be invisible.

Sometimes in the morning, when I’m lying in bed,

I don’t know, when I get up,

whether I’m going to want to be visible, or invisible.

And then there’s a risk of finding out.

Sometimes in the afternoon when I’m lying in bed,

I don’t know, when I get up,

whether I’m going to want to be visible, or invisible.

Whether I might want to transform.

And then there’s the risk of having to do something about it.

Three Weeks to Go until Emerge Mansfield!

For the last few months, I’ve been taking on the most challenging job I’ve ever done, as a Lead Artist on the Emerge Project run by the Mighty Creatives.

In this context, Lead Artist has meant going into two schools – Brunts Academy and Beech Academy in Mansfield – to work with young people there to put their artistic ideas together into a festival programme – Emerge Mansfield, on Saturday April 6th!

Over the course of the job, I’ve gone from workshop facilitator to venue scout to event manager, marketeer, director, programmer as well as an artist on a development programme. Early on we managed to secure the gorgeous Rufford Abbey in Ollerton as a venue and are now to set to pack it with a programme that I’m massively excited about.

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We’ve had so many dedicated, enthusiastic, talented young artists across the two schools and have a massive range of artforms to offer, from visual art and installation to theatre, dance, music, poetry, workshops and family entertainment. We’ve built an island inspired by the Tempest and filled it with clay monsters, we’ve made shields with Shakespearean coats of arms. We have an original short play based on Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead which is so sharp and witty and will involve interaction with a video screen. We’ve got a packed poetry and music stage with performers from Nottingham and Mansfield.

We’ve also managed to source some outside bookings and I’m massively excited to be bringing Zest Theatre’s two person show First Person, which is an outdoor, walk-about, interactive piece following two players on a quest for happiness with silent disco headphones!

Mainly though, the incredible thing has been seeing great work from so many young people come together. As one person, it’s been difficult to keep close track of everything being made. There’s been enormous help from teachers at both schools who have been closely involved in setting all this up with me, but there’s been a certain amount of faith involved too regarding great ideas coming good – and that faith and work is set to come brilliantly good!

The unique thing about the Emerge programme has been that, as well as a development opportunity for the young artists I’m working with, it’s also been a development opportunity for me and the other emerging and mid-career artists running the other 7 festivals which will be happening across the Midlands on the same day. The role was advertised as that, and it really has been that – I feel like I’ve learned a massive amount and picked up a huge amount of skillsets in different areas.

As a way to go into my first year of being fully freelance, it’s been a proper gem of a job – I’ve had the time and structure to build my own working routines and a nice big scary-at-first-and-now-still-scary-but-massively-exciting event to build it all up to

And after around six months of development, we’re now 3 weeks from the festival!

Hope to see you there (you know, if you’re in the area or fancy a day trip) x

 

 

Follow the Story on our Facebook page here – http://www.facebook.com/EmergeMansfield2019

Make me feel less anxious/even more excited and tell me you’re ‘GOING’ at our event page here (if you want to) – https://www.facebook.com/events/312378206088521/

Find out more about Mighty Creatives and the Emerge Project here – https://www.themightycreatives.com/our-work/emerge

Happy Belated Birthday Babble Gum

Babble Gum, the night I helped set up in Newcastle with Marie Lightman and Alix Bromwich, turned 2 in September – right after I moved back to Nottingham.

It was an important thing to be involved in for me, as it gave me some sense of roots in a place I often felt fairly rootless.

I’ve just been looking back through old notebooks, and found a poem I wrote for Babble Gum’s birthday that I didn’t end up getting to share on the night.

So I thought I’d post it here:

 

Dear Babble Gum,

It feels like a long time since edition 1,

nestled under the arches just along

from that rollerskating horse

at the very, very bottom of Westgate Road.

 

Babble Gum,

you taught me a new way to talk

to strangers and friends.

 

Two years in this city,

lonely under the pink clouds and sandstone cornices,

you were a community to wrap words

and grinning teeth around,

a growing gathering clustered to listen

to offered thoughts from the mezzanine floor

where the bowling alley usually was.

 

Then across town to Settle Down,

no mic, back room, pub up the road, then here –

 

The Cumberland Arms,

a building which breathes history

and sweats poetry

 

History of fiddles and folk

crammed in rooms filled with chatter and smoke,

history of piss ups, festivals, music,

and a history of spoken word.

 

You’ve grown up, Babble Gum.

 

You had shoes to fill and you’ve filled em.

And you gave me a place in this city.

 

Happy 2nd Birthday.

 

 

Letters to Myself and Lego Horses

Letters to Myself is a project which invites people to be nice to themselves, by taking some time out to write to themselves, either in the past, present or future.

On Saturday I was lucky enough to be able to perform a rehearsed reading of the latest iteration of the script, alongside Lauren Hurwood and directed by Allie Butler.

It was an absolute pleasure. The newest script sees two characters stuck, for differing lengths of time, in a sort of limbo world – a place to drop out of life into – in which letters written by people to themselves are archived. The idea, then, seems to be that an act of self-kindness can extend beyond writing to yourself and spending some time listening to what other people say to themselves too.

Backing this mythical setting though, well developed in itself, are stories from real people. Not all of them are rosy, many expressing regret and sadness and remembering difficult times.

But over the course of a day and a half’s rehearsal and discussion and two performances at The Word in South Shields (a beautiful building well worth checking out), the real raw beauty of these letters revealthemselves, and there is something uplifting in sharing in common experience whether happy or not, with friends and strangers.

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I’d fully recommend looking into the Letters to Myself project if you get a chance. Being involved was brilliant.

In other news, The Fifth Size Book Adventure (AKA I Like Big Books And I Cannot Lie) came and went last month. My giant lego horse building equipment and instruction video/ child friendly exploration of animal abuse and violent death seemed to go well. Having stressed and to’d and fro’d with it for months, it was lovely to dip my toes into visual performance/film art and have the experience of something I’ve made existing in a public space for a good week and a half even when I’m not there to perform it.

 

People interacted with and seemed to enjoy the set up and, from buying costumes in charity shops to visiting the National Gallery to dragging up and dicking about with a camera in my brother’s drum room, it was good fun to make.

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Going to de-rig it was sad. I’ll build one last horse before I pack it away, I thought. But someone already had. So I got to kick it down instead. Which is the best bit.

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In terms of the ‘What Comes Next?’ suggestion board that went along with the video and the lego, the one that seemed to take off was suggestions for songs on the general themes of animals, destruction and homicide. Think anywhere from ‘Psycho Killer’ to ‘Animal’ to ‘The Four Horsemen’ . . . so I’ll be sticking a playlist up, as well as making the instruction video public on Youtube

Gigging

So you know when you like doing a thing but seem to end up not doing it, almost because you know you like it? Maybe it’s that. Or maybe I was just doing theatre stuff and stuck in the mindset, as I sometimes am, that I can only be one thing, despite being a fingers-in-pies jack-of-all-trades most of the time.

Well anyway, I’d got to a point last year where I was doing so few poetry gigs I wondered whether I even merited the title poet anymore.

But in the last few months there’s been a fair flurry. Them gigs they’re like buses! Walk in front of one without looking and you’ll get knocked flat by a captive audience. Or something. (I like it when poetry gigs knock you flat. My best one for that was doing a couple of poems in a big tent when I was camping with friends and extended friends of family a few years ago. I like those gigs).

So yeah, the flurry. Here’s a re-cap.

Back in May, I got the chance to perform in Montréal at an event called Words and Music. Having assumed I’d be able to do one or two poems, I then found out I had a 30 minute paid set, which was the longest set I’d had in monthsandmonthsandmonths, and left me feeling a little out of my depth for the first time in ages, which was a lovely feeling.

In a moment of serendipity, at said event, I also re-met the wonderful Rachel McCrum, who I’d first met at an impromptu poetry cipher halfway down Niddry Street during the 2016 Edinburgh Free Fringe, and who’s tour with the equally wonderful Caroline Bird, who’s been a tutor to me on several writing retreats, I went to see in Sheffield, with my friend from Canada, who also knows Rachel. Yup. Their show together was incredible. Two fantastic writers and performers.

So then I came back from Canada, won the Nottingham Poetry Society Slam on a visit to Nottingham in June, which given my connections to Notts felt like an honour, and then got the chance, in August, to support the irrepressible and candescent Neil Hilborn in Newcastle as part of his UK tour. That was an incredible show – there was intro music. There was a fan barrier. Everyone was standing up. The night before, I’d done another gig at Kith and Kin Café in Whitley Bay in which 50 people crammed into a small back room, with the audience’s knees a foot away from the performers.

I love both of these types of gigs. I probably find the big ones easier (despite what I said about the gig in the tent earlier, I never promise to be consistent), which I think is just a quirk of personality. I remember in uni I had two friends who played guitar – Dan was the front man of a 3-piece grunge band and would happily play to sold out concert halls. John would gladly belt his heart out to a roomful of five of us after a night out in the living room. Dan, the front man, told me he could never do what John, the living room serenader, could do, and vice versa. Horses for courses innit.

More recently, I also had the chance to perform in Alphabetti Theatre’s brand-spankin new venue for the first time, as part of a work-in-progress sharing of a new project called Underworlds by Tidy Carnage TheatreTidy Carnage Theatre – it sounds like a really interesting project. A large scale, immersive theatre experience focusing on memory and false memory, is the plan. Watch this space.

 

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I’ll be back at Alphabetti tomorrow to host the superb variety night that is Alphabetti Soup, which I’m a tad nervous for – I’ve written, directed and acted for Soup before, but hosting feels like a different kettle of fish. I’m gonna be like in charge of making sure everyone has a good time and that. For the whole night! Should be fun.

Then the next gig sees me back at Alphabetti again for a fundraiser night called The Blind Busker. There may be more gigs in the meantime, keep an eye on the gigs page.

Meanwhile, Five Years with Neal Pike continues to go from strength to strength – we opened the Nottingham Playhouse Playground Festival on Tuesday and have our beady eyes on plenty more opportunities to develop and perform in the near future.

It feels nice to be busy again. Having got a second job earlier this year and temporarily thrown myself into working 50-hour weeks, getting more art work is good. It’s for and with other people, as well as me, and it keeps me in better shape mentally than anything else I’ve tried my hand at. So that’s good.

If you’ve read this, cheers. I don’t know who, if anyone, does. It’s been nice for me to recap on the last few months. If you liked it, let me know.

Upcoming gigs

Got a couple of cracking gigs coming up that I’m massively looking forward to.

On August 16th, I’ll be performing in Whitley Bay at Kith and Kin for a night called ‘Growing Up’. The event’s here and their blurb is brilliant. Worth a read in itself.

I’m going to be on the bill with Zoë Murtagh, Anna Ryder, Sarah Bird, Siân Lucy Armstrong and Immie Wright which is a stella line-up. I love Anna and Zoe’s stuff and looking forward to seeing the others.

Then the very next night on Aug 17th, I’m going to be supporting Neil Hilborn at The Riverside in Newcastle! Neil Hilborn’s a worthy giant on the spoken word scene and I’ve been watching his videos for years. So this is pretty . . . well . . . I’m nervous and hell and grinning simultaneously. Absolutely cannot wait.