With just a one day to go before first performance of The Absolute Truth About Absolutely Everything (22nd Sept (9pm), 6-8th Oct (7pm) at CPT), Olly discusses what it is to be a white, middle class, male, experimental theatre maker making a show that engages with feminist issues.
We live in a man’s world – in the sense that ‘power’ still overwhelmingly resides in the hands of men, and the structures and systems that make up society are inherently biased towards men. And yet, it is widely reported that there is a crisis of masculinity. This is a somewhat contradictory situation, but I do believe that in some way this crisis of masculinity is a symptom (albeit a regrettable one) of the progress we’re making, slowly, as society. The issue of men and feminism is popular at the moment, and this is reflected in the unprecedented number of male artists who are making work for this year’s Calm Down, Dear. I firmly believe that men should be a part of the feminist conversation – but that they should probably be doing a lot more listening than talking. This makes the starting point for theatre that engages in feminist issues, but made by men problematic.
The Absolute Truth About Absolutely Everything is a show about the relationship between power, gender and culture. I am a feminist, an experimental theatre maker, and a cultural materialist (I believe that we can see, through the art and culture people within a society create, what that society’s true values are). When I make performance, I look to play with the form it takes, as well as its content, to enable the work to explore its subject matter; and I look to connect the personal and the global. And so I have arrived at making a show about a crisis of masculinity, where I, a white, middle class, privileged male, ask different women to perform the show on my behalf. The show is a show – it’s theatrical, artificial – but it’s also real – each performer is unsure of what she’s complying with, what game she’s being asked to play. And so the show wilfully treads a complicated path in terms of ethics and power – and as soon as the audience bear witness to the show, they, too, are implicated in the precariousness of its ethics. Many times during the making of the show I have felt completely at sea – lost, unsure of my integrity and ability as an artist, but also as a person. Am I really a feminist? Am I exposing misogyny or perpetuating it? Do I have any right to be doing this? Am I some sort of heroic, provocative genius? Am I a fucking idiot? Perhaps this is what making art about important topics should feel like.
But why make it so precarious? Why engage audiences and a series of performers in this way? Why make it real? Well, because the issues are real, the issues are complicated, the issue is constantly evolving, but most of all because the struggle is real – each of our struggles, every day are real. My struggle is real. What struggle? WHAT STRUGGLE WHITE MAN!? Well, my struggle to be a feminist. Last week I was joined in rehearsals by the theatre maker and novelist Stella Duffy (who is on the panel for Women, Politics and Power on 4th October). Stella said something beautifully simple, that has stayed with me ever since: Sexism is men’s problem. It’s up to men to solve it. When we live in a misogynistic society, it’s a struggle for everyone to be a feminist. It is this that the show is about.
So, what should a theatre show that engages with feminist issues that’s made by a white, privileged, middle class man be? What should any theatre show that engages with feminist issues be? Should it be a celebration of feminism and feminist ideas? Should it expose the ways in which anti-feminism exists in our society? Should it propose solutions?
I think your answers to these questions depend on what you think theatre is for. For me it is about two things: entertainment and dialogue. What does the dialogue do? It creates a space – both literally and figuratively – for effective communication. It is only through effective communication, that empathy is possible, and I believe that the only true way to make progress is to enable people to truly empathise. What does the entertainment do? It enables people to enjoy the dialogue. But nonetheless, effective communication means dealing with difficult topics. And this show certainly engages with difficult topics – relationship breakdowns, violence, pornography. And it certainly flirts with the ethical boundaries of making performance. And it will almost certainly challenge its audience. But I hope it will also enable people to progress their own conversations – with themselves and with others – about gender and power. If it does that, I’ll be immensely happy – and consider it a job well done. And I hope it entertains people – I should say the show’s also, actually, pretty funny – because where would we be without laughter?