Some time ago, I discussed a potential new collaboration with one of Foxtale (international female theatre collective I founded in 2013) member’s, Emilia Oldani. We wanted to work on a performance together and were looking for a potential starting point. During our conversations, Emilia suggested one particular idea that inspired us both – the relationship between two women which is not in any way defined by men. And while this collaboration and the making of the show had to be postponed, the issue of two women working together in performance (or female double acts) has stuck with me and has been influencing my work since.
What we meant by ‘not in any way defined by men’, was a female performer and/or character relationship devoid of discussing men, sharing gossip about men or lusting after men – the fundamental aspects of many storylines in theatre, literature and film as well as everyday conversations that inevitably begin to define women. What is left once these are removed? What is at the core of female relationship? And also, what is at the core of female performer relationship onstage? What is its nature, character and tensions? How do we negotiate these in the rehearsal room and in performance?
A few months after talking to Emilia, I had a chance to begin looking into and answering some of these questions. For a couple of weeks I worked with a dance artist Vicci Riley in Liverpool, in the spaces kindly provided by the Bluecoat and LIC (Liverpool Improvisation Collective), and Metal Liverpool. We shared our practices, had many conversations, performed with and for each other and improvised together. At the end, we presented a semi-structured improvisation to a small invited audience. And while there were many other themes we touched upon during this process, the question of two women working together was always close by, at the back of our minds.
An aspect of us working together that I remember most was a continuous negotiation. Negotiating how you are together, in and outside of the rehearsal room, in and out of the performance.
How, while maintaining my own self and energy, I had to also be flexible enough to absorb some of Vicci’s way of working, to allow her energy influence mine. And our energies are very different! Vicci works with a gentler yet rigorously mindful and deep energy, while my energy is faster, often culminating in vigorous bursts. I believe that one of the crucial things in any performance is a strong connection between the performers (especially if it’s only the two of you!). In order to establish such connection, you cannot block one another. I also believe that you shouldn’t attempt to change each other. Instead, it’s about a negotiating dance with and around each other. You see this type of ‘dance’ when watching happy old couples in their homes – moving around, coming together and giving each other space. Negotiating mutual energy.
How, especially in our duet improvisations, we had to give each other space, thus opening up the space for the audience to fill in. This is a very tricky negotiation: to take up enough space for yourself without taking it away from the other. To be generous enough, but not so much that it begins to work against you. Also to be mindful but not too helpful or polite which can leave you ‘playing the second fiddle’. Of course, it is also a question of ego: wanting to be seen as ‘good’, even the temptation of wanting to be ‘better’ than the other. In winter of 2017 I saw Two Man Show by RashDash, two brilliant UK female performers. Both very well trained and impressive in their physicality and vocal work. Both working with strong presence. Both fully engaged, giving it all to the performance, etc. etc. Yet one was overshadowing the other - I was more inclined to watch one of them over the other. This left me deeply frustrated, probably due to the personal (and professional) fear of being overshadowed, of being the less ‘interesting’, less ‘watchable’ and less ‘talented’ one out of the two. But it also provoked a question: is such rivalry, the struggle to take up space and be the ‘shinier’ one in the spotlight useful to a (female or male or mixed) double act? And for me the answer is simple: no, it is not. It is much more fascinating to watch two people, on equal standing, in an ever changing relationship: together in close contact, separate yet together, separate and out of sync, even performing over each other when it’s done meaningfully. Negotiating mutual space.
How important it is to be honest, especially when you have to agree on creative decisions. If something doesn’t work, you have to honestly admit it to yourself and the other. And then find a solution. This also requires a level of courage and a lot of trust. Vicci and I had to find a solution for our final sharing: she is an improviser, while I structure the work before presenting. We tried to structure the performance – it didn’t work. Equally, we didn’t want to completely ignore the material we created thus far and do an open improvisation. So we did a semi-structured improvisation. We trusted for the work we’ve done over the past two weeks to come in when and if necessary. And it did. Negotiating bravely and honestly.
Most importantly, how female relationships are not just about the positive things (paying attention to each other’s energy, giving each other space, being helpful and honest). Female relationships can be purely functional, defined by your status and power (e.g. lady and her maid). There is also often a level of grit in these relationships. The darker side, the underbelly, the unpleasant, the subconscious – things that we don’t like to admit to ourselves and discuss, but that ring painfully true when you are exposed to them. Tania Batzoglou and Vanio Papadelli, whose short performance of Candid I saw earlier this year at Birkbeck as part of ‘Twofold’ event, dig deep precisely into this grit of female relationships. Again, two very strong female performers working together, only this time nobody is overshadowing anybody. Instead, they openly admit, even highlight, and play with the similarities and differences between them in life and in performance. There was evidence of a close, loving and supportive relationship between two women, yet also, and most importantly, glimpses of competitiveness, tension, frustration – the grit. It quickly became clear that in this grit, if you work with it instead of against it, if you voice it rather than ignore it, if you work through it rather than force through it, something deeper resides, something that goes beyond mere ‘bitchiness’ women are sometimes accused of. Negotiating through the grit.
During our performance sharing, Vicci and I were two women who co-existed in one space, with our respective worlds (and their grit) sitting next to one another, at times complimenting, at times contradicting or bleeding into one another. It was one of the most memorable structured improvisations I have ever done. And hopefully there will be more of those.
Currently, I am continuing to pay attention to the energy, space, honesty and grit of female double acts, this time with a performer and musician Miriam Gould. Last year we founded Double Trouble, a female double act engaged in an ongoing creative process, exploring the aftermath of displacement, belonging and heritage. Inescapably, we are also faced with the intricacies and challenges of two women co-creating, co-performing and co-existing together.
The negotiation continues.
Hands closing the gap where the mouth is supposed to be.
Inserting yourself into the furniture, into the wall, into the mirror…
Screeching – a mother losing her babe,
A seagull snatching another’s babe from their grip to feed her own.
The babe’s scull open, red blood pouring from its beak.
Hands caressing cold surfaces, shining surfaces.
Colours flashing in front of your eyes.
(Written after watching an improvisation by Vicci Riley, Metal, Liverpool, 2016)