Tue. Mar 2nd, 2021

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No excuses necessary: why fringe theatre isn’t playing the victim

4 min read

Theatre-makers are creating personal work that might be hard to deal with but that shouldn’t make it out of bounds for artists, critics or audiences

‘I don’t want a pat on the head for being a disabled person performing Beckett’ … Jess Thom.

‘I don’t want a pat on the head for being a disabled person performing Beckett’ … Jess Thom.
Photograph: Linda Nylind/The Guardian

Last weekend’s The Sick of the Fringe festival in London was an invigorating mix of performance and discussion exploring the body and the mind. There was a fascinating session in which Lost Watch Theatre, Emma Frankland and Laura Dannequin reflected on their relationship with pieces they made in the past. Can Dannequin continue performing her show Hardy Animal, which is about chronic pain, when that pain is no longer a part of her?

I took part in another panel discussion, Starring Your Pain, about how critics might approach reviewing work that has been made from a position of physical or mental illness. The Exeunt critic Rosemary Waugh talked about responding to Dannequin’s Hardy Animal as someone who has lived with chronic pain herself.

Starring Your Pain took as its starting point dance critic Arlene Croce’s 1994 New Yorker essay Discussing the Undiscussable, in which she wrote about why she refused to review Bill T Jones’s Aids-inspired dance piece Still/Here, which she called “victim art” that put itself beyond criticism. “I can’t review someone I feel sorry for or hopeless about,” declared Croce. Poor her.

Fortunately, times change. We now don’t consider artists who choose to excavate their own lives and experiences as putting themselves beyond criticism. Instead, perhaps they are demanding that the critic finds a new language to respond to new forms. Which are everywhere. There is no better example in London currently than See Me Now, part of the Young Vic’s Taking Part programme of participatory work. With the help of writer Molly Taylor and director Mimi Poskitt, a group of current and former sex workers present themselves with unaffected grace and a theatrical knowingness that constantly plays on the idea that being a sex worker has a strong performative element.

See Me Now is not special pleading: it mines individual lives in just the same way that Tennessee Williams mined his own guilt, pain and family life in The Glass Menagerie. Shows that spring directly from lived experience are seldom less rigorous in terms of their theatrical process, and often more so. According to Imogen Brodie, the director of the Young Vic’s Taking Part strand, works such as See Me Now go through “the same processes that we would apply to any other piece of theatre we make … It is of the same quality. We make no excuses for it.”

That’s a world away from Croce’s idea that she would somehow be forced to compromise her criticism when faced with the real, the painful and the dying. What artist would want critical compromise? As Susan Sontag observed, “a work of art may appeal to our sympathy” but it is not necessarily “validated by the worthiness of this appeal”. Shows such as Hardy Animal, See Me Now or Jess Thom’s brilliant Backstage in Biscuit Land, about her Tourette’s syndrome, are no less artful than Tennessee Williams’ plays in the way they use personal experience. Because something is difficult to make or to watch doesn’t mean it is out of bounds for the artist or beyond the scope of the critic.

In a session at the festival entitled Reclaiming Mouth, Thom argued convincingly for the way personal experience can be applied to existing texts with illuminating results. She is working on a production of Beckett’s Not I that she hopes to take to the Edinburgh fringe this year in a co-production with Battersea Arts Centre. In a session exploring what happens when Tourette’s tics meet text – apparently the Beckett estate has been supportive – Thom suggested that Mouth in Not I is quite clearly neuro-diverse, just as she is.

“As soon as I read it I recognised her. It felt almost creepy,” says Thom, who wonders whether, because of her tics, she might have an advantage when it comes to performing Not I, a piece that is often cited for the challenges it presents any actor performing it. “Mouth talks of the uncontrollable stream of words that comes out of her mouth and having to rush to the nearest lavatory to pour them out. Well, I’ve had to do that,” says Thom. She adds that Mouth is often seen as isolated, but “she only needs to be as isolated as her community allows”.

A lot of the work and discussion in The Sick of the Fringe was to do with the personal and the autobiographical, and Thom raised questions about who has the right to perform what and to whom. “I don’t want to get a pat on the head for being a disabled person performing Beckett,” she said. But she hopes to raise questions about the “cultural curation that happens around work that is and isn’t accessible to disabled people. I’m often irritated with the assumptions made about the kind of theatre that is thought of as being suitable for relaxed performances.”

Not I should break the mould.

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