Warming Up For A New Event

As 2012 opens Lucy and I are preparing for an altogether new event; the next Spirited Bodies will be in a new venue and with different artists. We have been very fortunate to work with artists of the Hesketh Hubbard organisation at The Mall Galleries for our first 3 events, and now an invitation has come from elsewhere. The new people are ‘London Drawing’ and they organise a great number of life drawing classes and events across London and further afield in the UK. They will be hosting Spirited Bodies 4 at Battersea Arts Centre on Saturday 11th February with a morning and an afternoon session; this is part of their ‘Drawing Theatre’ series.

The style of event will be more experimental than before and we will likely occupy various spaces in the expansive BAC. This allows us to try a few new things which we’ve been thinking about for a while. Firstly we can give models a break between each pose, where previously we tried to stick to the expectation of artists at The Mall who are used to professional models who shift from one pose to the next with very little stretching time in between. This should be much more suitable for models trying this for the first time. It gives them a chance to realign their bodies after the achy stillness that may arise.

Secondly we may be able to do a far greater proportion of quick poses, where before we were trying to conform more to a standard requirement. Quick poses range from 30 seconds in length to about 10 minutes – they can even be one long continuous slow motion movement. Again this is appropriate for new models and indeed those who just want to try it the once as staying still is not easy! It does mean the model has to think on her feet more though, and some people prefer to find one pose and stick to it for longer. This faster pace is in keeping with the less conventional practices of the ‘Drawing Theatre’. I have modelled for them many times and it is more fun and performance like than a usual life modelling session. There is often movement involved, sometimes costume and a set, and always a theme.

from the last 'Drawing Theatre' with Marega Palser dance theatre company

With different rooms available to us we can offer a women-only space (as in models, as the artists are mixed), a mens’ space, a couples space and perhaps a mixed space. It will depend on the requirements of our models, and the spaces given to us. Similarly, according to the models we find, a theme may suggest itself, and in this new context we are open to far more possibility.

drawing from 'Drawing Theatre' with Hens Teeth Theatre Company, November 2011
A model at the Hens Teeth 'Drawing Theatre'

If you have an idea to try modelling and February 11th suits you, then please get in touch. While the drawing takes place from 11-1pm and from 2-5pm, we will have time before each of these sessions to prepare models and introduce everyone. In addition I usually meet models in advance of the day if possible so that everything is clear.

We would like models to stay for either or both of the sessions as they prefer, understanding that 2 or 3 hours is plenty for a first time.

from The Wild Bride 'Drawing Theatre' with Kneehigh Theatre

The Drawing Theatre is a tutored life drawing workshop and many materials are provided, so that artists create images in a variety of media, from charcoal and pastel to collage and ink.

Zeroing In

Our recent events left us with much to celebrate, and think about. The ‘Naked Date’ was successful, went really smoothly, though admittedly for myself was eclipsed by putting on my first life drawing play, ‘Girl in Suitcase’. Lucy found all the models and many wanted to go into life modelling so there was less of a transformative angle, although still some, which I suppose made it slightly less moving, but far more relaxing. It felt more like we are an agency by which people may enter life modelling, so if it were to continue that way, I feel we would have to charge. Previously more women involved were overcoming body confidence issues so there was another satisfaction and a sense of giving back something of what we have gained not just in terms of know-how and encouragement, but also something that has helped us become who we are. The trickier task however of organising that sort of event, also requires funding, if not from the women themselves, then sponsorship, which while desirable, competes with my playwrighting/performing ambitions.

SB3 Naked Date

The play came together in a short space of time and managed to accommodate several cast changes. I drew heavily on scripts I’d written a couple of years ago, one of which about Mum struggling with MS, is a bit close to the bone. I had thought I’d prefer performing in Edinburgh to relative strangers, yet it was the home audience of family – including my parents – and friends that helped my personal piece to resonate. Technically Jaki, Aaron and I mastered the show more in Scotland, but I didn’t have the same adrenaline there. True, when we were streamed live on the Saturday evening some of those tingles came back, but I know a good live audience is of course what this play needs.

That’s not to say the Edinburgh audiences weren’t appreciative; they just weren’t large enough to really settle into. It felt like there was more room in the space for me to notice anything lacking, which while also being a state of mind, is nevertheless a factor when involving audience participation. The idea being that all the audience draws, so if only a few are present, it can be trickier to rally them on if they are unprepared for a good half hour of drawing. That didn’t stop me from accosting any unengaged hands during the show, but I guess if you’re new to it, it would be easier to relax with some charcoal if you felt surrounded by others in a similar boat. Still it meant I could spot the novices more easily haha!

The London venue, Mascara Bar, invited us back immediately and lots of people were very positive about it there. I’m not sure if I’d re-perform the play as it is, as I would very much like to write more of a fresh script, and have plenty new ideas.

One very valuable comment from an audience member at Mascara, was to include Jaki the actress playing my Mum in the modelling, and encourage the audience to draw her too. This made absolute sense with the meaning of the play and the fact that the character is paralysed, and was duly incorporated in Edinburgh.

Not having been told to draw Jaki didn’t stop my Dad from sketching a small army of her wheelchair-bound character! Indeed Jaki kept her facial expressions for the character Sara the entire time on stage so this was more character modelling than life.

Mother love and a tutor called Karn – Lucy Saunders asked me some questions about creating the show ‘Girl In Suitcase’

The show is very autobiographical, and while it is not especially about my Mother being from a different time with different expectations, I guess it also is. It is about a cross-generational clash, and the mending of this. It is about a character with little or negative outlook in life, made worse by her disability. It is about the parallels in the daughter’s life, and how through the Mother’s need, their relationship is softened and made closer. The Mother is approaching death, and this throws a bold new light on their lives.

Another inspiration is life modelling, and a particular tutor I worked with at Heatherleys back at the beginning of ’09. She walked with a stick and was totally eccentric. Visually she was striking, and her character had presence. She slightly resembled my Mother as she was over 10 years ago walking with a stick. As I modelled and listened to her meanderings to the class, I conjured up a fictional character of her, an evil version who continually shifts between trying to be sinisterly kind to the model (who may also be a trafficked woman) and being downright nasty and torturing. I was playing with the idea of being a model and feeling trapped in one’s role, particularly as a woman. Unable to move and when you might have an issue with your predicament, often you silence it under the guise of thinking it through more thoroughly just to be sure you really do have a problem before you tell anyone about it.

There was a link with women in the sex industry where I also used to work, and how many of them feel trapped. The play only touches on that aspect, but for me it’s a big link with making a living out of my body’s natural propensity to be attractive to men. I may be a good model also, but being honest and what I’ve learnt from doing SB, many artists are not very kind, they want slim, pretty women, not too old, and if not someone more unusual. I sent an older friend who has done SB to cover me at the Mall one week, and a female artist said after she’d modelled, that she may not be good looking, but at least she could hold the pose. I suppose that was meant to be an honest compliment.

A specific inspiration was having to take over caring for my Mum when Dad was incapacitated for a while. It shocked the hell out of me, what was involved and how much of the carer’s life it takes up, and how little I felt I could give, given that my Mum had never shown me love when I was young. It wasn’t until she nearly died under a year before this time of caring for her, that she started to tell us, her family, that she loves us and is sorry about not being kinder before. Now she tells me every time I see her, it’s the first thing she says.

Another inspiration was modelling for London Drawing at Battersea Arts Centre when I had to be Emmeline Pankhurst hacking her own clothes off in a minor hysterical fit! It was so performative and an interesting way to hi-light the significance of clothes to us as humans. Nudity is foregrounded by the removal of clothes.

I would have used more physical theatre if working with Szilvi, but with Jaki, the possibility of performing the script about Mum became obvious and she is a trained actress, not so much physical theatre performer. There are still elements of physical work in the more surreal/dream scene sequence, as in a few movements and gestures we are hinting at the emotional and psychological development of a character over the course of 20 years of her life say. It becomes symbolic and is a visual metaphor. I don’t want to spoon feed the audience!

The show could indeed be performed by someone else if they so wanted, and it is mostly quite straight forward and text-based. The part where I life model and instigate the audience to draw could be made individual to whoever was doing it, as I intend to partly adlib that part according to the audience response.

The themes are personal and female emancipation, also caring for the sick and elderly, mother/daughter relationships, and our relationship with our bodies. Also as you say how the onset of impending death may alter our fundamental view of life and throw everything into a sharp focus.

Caring for the elderly is poignant with our aging population.

Embracing our nudity is quite a popular theme at least in the West currently, and continues to shake dominant cultural beliefs. Talking to Anita the other day who was brought up Muslim in Malaysia illuminated that cross-cultural realm of women – from places where showing much skin is punishable or at least frowned upon – who then lead a Western life and may move between worlds. The world is changing fast and even her friends in Malaysia who cannot express themselves fully in their life in public, do so more and more online.

The show is particularly about my experience of feeling disenchanted with a conventional way of doing things/growing up, so rebelling; and then coming out the other end a bit more grown up. So in that sense it speaks to possibly people like me, who could just be anyone who’s ever been disillusioned (ok let’s keep this broad!) It’s about finding a salvation through some sort of patience and endurance. It’s about a positive outcome of a once negative situation so it’s quite optimistic. It’s about facing death so it’s realistic too, i.e. not just idealistic.

How does my experience translated through art help others connect? Not sure. Mum likes it because she feels represented on stage, but that’s a bit specific; more generally a main character is heavily disabled and faces the possibility of assisted suicide. Just showing some hard stuff, can be a relief to people who live that and could do with not feeling alone. Having said that there’s a lot of humour there, even if dark.

By being naked on stage and juxtaposing that with a clothed character and their interactions, that points up our awkwardness as a society or humanity, with facing ourselves as we nakedly are as humans. Also I start talking directly to the audience (whilst nude), so that’s a bit weird!

As for the place, well the burlesque bar in Stoke Newington is meaningful because it’s through an old contact of my drugged-up sex industry past as she works there. And it’s in an area where lots of that old group of friends live and I once lived. Many of the girls in that group work in burlesque, domination, stripping… So I am revisiting my past with a new edge. The nice thing is this bar is run by women and they are right into promoting female-led performance.

As for Edinburgh, the origin of the contact is through the same group of friends, and the guy I have been introduced to there runs a programme to promote free education. He is quite inspirational, though far too academic for me, but he likes Spirited Bodies as it sort of covers a feminist/evolutionary development angle that he digs but cannot encompass in his own projects… or who knows, maybe he will! So the gig has come about through a desire to promote Spirited Bodies, and the enthusiasm that generates with like-minded, socially conscious (if that’s the word) people.

I sorted out a London show so I could practise on friends and anyone else who comes along.

Not working on any other projects currently. Would like to develop this show after I’ve seen how it works and doesn’t. Show could evolve dramatically according to cast, funding, will…

There will be charcoal, pencils, paper etc and boards for people to draw with at the show.

Girl In Suitcase

This is the performance project I am working on for The Edinburgh Fringe Festival. It began when I was looking for advice about funding and direction for Spirited Bodies, as a possible social enterprise. A new contact in the life drawing world put me in touch with one Alex Dunedin, the director of The Ragged University (http://www.ragged-online.com/), an organisation promoting free education which is available for all. Based in Edinburgh and preferring face to face encounters, I paid him a visit in early May.

Alex is a natural academic and overwhelmed me with knowledge and avenues I could explore to enhance Spirited Bodies, but what stood out the most was when he mentioned he had a slot in The Festival, and would I like to contribute a presentation about my work with Spirited Bodies, and as a life model. I immediately translated ‘presentation’ into ‘Performance’, and then there was no going back. Theatre was my first love and where I have always intended to return; this life modelling lark was never meant to take up so much time! But I am a fussy figure and had to wait for the right opportunity.

In 2009 I created a performance with a friend, Szilvia Keffert, which began with a surreal scene of a life model having an eerie nightmare. We had wanted to resurrect this piece for some time and here was a chance. As it happened Szilvi is more dedicated to theatre than me, and was already committed to a number of other shows.

I searched for another partner and travelled again to Edinburgh, this time to visit Liz Windsor, a very close friend of my boyfriend. He thought she might fill the role, and certainly she was keen to try life modelling. We modelled for each other, and then for an artist friend of hers, Philippa Carter (http://laspecola.blogspot.com/), who recently trained at the Florence Academy of Art. Beautiful sketches ensued, though we were not able to hold still for more than a little time – she being used to poses lasting months!

Liz & Esther; 'pleased to meet you'

Seeing these images now I am moved; and reminded of this unusual encounter, whereby I initiated a new model into this art of stillness. Physically we are quite similar, though I am just a fraction smaller in all dimensions, proportionally we match well. There was the being close and for some time, and touching, a woman I had really just met! Her feeling me as I lightly started to wobble in part of my leg, though it would not have been apparent to an onlooker. This our first (and best?) pose, daringly interlinked, most emotive of the session.

Though wrapping myself between Liz’s legs more serpent-like would have been stunning, my own contortion would not allow it. As it is her weighted pose contrasts my curves very pleasingly.

Sweet partnership! Finally I struggled in rehearsal to direct the most forthcoming Miss Windsor adequately, she having no prior experience in performance. I had to admit to not having much of a plan, rather being keen of her acquaintance. I had come across her briefly years ago in shadier pastures, and had been startled then by her presence, so curiosity did lead me to her. My stay with her corroborates my theory that being naked if not sexual in the company of another may lead to enhanced bonding in the shortest of time. We caught up the years betwixt us through a late night and some poses. Unforgettable Liz, I look forward to knowing her more.

She held me as if an older sister (who is actually younger), and she certainly treated me during my stay to a great deal of help on this journey. She has a natural interest in the surrounding culture of her home (http://www.happeningedinburgh.co.uk/). An industrial gothic scene in common, we have loved some of the same men, trampled the same dance floors and partaken in all sorts of parallel sleep-deprived behaviour.

For now I have returned to London with an evolved script, and to an older actress to complement my nudity. One thing I learned with Liz; 2 similarly bodied women would likely extort much comparison in an audience and we would have to address this performatively. For now that is not my theme after all, instead a cross-generational relationship.

Many loving thanks as always to my incredibly patient boyfriend Aaron. And dear Lucia for finding us.

‘Girl In suitcase’ will show at ‘The Mascara Bar’, Stoke Newington, London on Saturday 6th August, 8:30pm, £4.

And in Edinburgh from 12th – 14th August, 7:30pm at ‘Out Of The Blue’ – (http://www.leithonthefringe.com/the-shows/girl-suitcase/) Though the listing has not yet been updated, the cast now includes Jaki Loudon.

There will be an additional mini performance in record shop ‘Elvis Shakespeare’ on Saturday 13th August at 2pm.

Drawing materials provided for all shows by Cass Art (http://cassart.co.uk/)