In our latest Guest Blog, Ruby Lawrence talks about their process creating Pillow Talk and the ‘happy accidents’ that happen in the rehearsal process. Do not miss Pillow Talk at Camden People’s Theatre on Sat 2 Dec at 7:15pm. Click here for tickets.
Pillow Talk emerged a response to CPT’s excellent call-out for their 2017 HOTBED Festival of Sex, which asked the question: We live in a world saturated with sexual imagery – but how often do we talk about sex as it’s really felt, experienced or imagined? And why is that story so rarely explored on stage?
As a writer, a process I find fruitful is gathering large quantities of material from the general public, with some themes and questions in mind. Retaining plenty of flexibility, it is always a joy to see what emerges from this ‘collecting’ process, and invariably this content really shapes the final product. This was very much the case with Pillow Talk. I invited women to submit memories of things men had said to them before, during and after sex. They were not required to provide any further context to their submissions, although many chose to do so. These submissions form the main bulk of the piece – the sex talk,
Three women also came forward, happy to be interviewed about their relationship to, and experience of, sex. Their voices have been woven into an old jazz record, to create a soundscape for part of the show. The structure of the show mirrors that of the act of sex. The performer, Idgie Beau, has to first charm her audience, get herself physically ‘ready’, do the deed and finally leave them with some ‘post-coital pleasantries’.
When Idgie was tasked with inhabiting the words of men, we faced quite a few difficult decisions: should she pretend, straight up, to be a man? Or many men? How much character should be brought to the raw submissions? We’ve worked through these questions and experimented heavily, working towards something that has a palatable level of pacing and energy.
My goal was to place the female performer in a position of power over the sex talk material. Through her fluidity and humour I hoped she would be able to move through the material, essentially playing with it. It is testament to Idgie’s ability as an actress that she is able to do this, whilst shifting between three registers: direct address to a single audience member, direct address to the audience as a whole, and finally, a more internal, personal mode.
We live in a society that relentlessly sexualises women yet silences their authentic sexual experiences, and Pillow Talk has allowed us to explore a few ways theatre can counter this by offering an alternative framing of a female performer/the female body.
My favourite part of the piece, which feels like an antidote to the aforementioned sexualisation of the female body, was a bit of a happy accident. I incorporate a physical warm up into every rehearsal, and this is something Idgie and I really enjoy doing together. As an experiment, I asked Idgie to do a set warm up to the soundscape, just to see what would happen. We both loved the result. There was something refreshing and unusual about watching Idgie genuinely enjoying and committing to using her body, expending real effort and engrossing herself seriously in the sets of movements. It was compelling, not ‘sexy’ and had a nice sense of completion to it.
The presence of a live audience is absolutely crucial to Pillow Talk because Idgie is very reactive – their response to the material gives her something to grapple with. When the piece premiered earlier this year, there was a lot of laughter in the room, which was wonderful; Idgie’s relationship with the audience relies heavily on humour.
One question that has popped up throughout the process of making this, is: if a piece contains lots of men’s words, does that reduce its feminist potential? In this iteration of Pillow Talk, Idgie’s voice is much more present, but the question remains. That will be for other women to decide. I think it is possible to create work that resists the male gaze and a degree of absurdity is useful in achieving this. Paradoxically, I have found it a liberating process to use men’s words for my material. My thanks go out to all the women who have generously shared their memories.