In this blog post, director Lucy Dear talks about her journey from a theatre student/feminist activist, realising she was in an abusive relationship, to creating and directing All In Your Head.
“Where are all the women?!” was the battle cry to my father and the TV during football matches, my protests later graduating to joining the boys’ only football team. In my tertiary days, my first solo performance was a commentary on women’s beauty rituals, where I prepared myself as a Christmas turkey in a one-woman show as a statement about the consumption of women’s bodies in society. It would be pretty accurate to say I’ve always been interested in “women’s issues”.
It was at Queen Mary University where I learned the power performance has in social change, under the politics and performance teachings of Lois Weaver and Peggy Shaw of Split Britches, and Paul Heritage from People’s Palace Projects.
For much of my career I’ve put this learning into practice, working in applied theatre, much of it speaking to protecting and supporting women.
I’ve worked for Tender; designed projects teaching young women how to identify red flags in relationships; delivered gender equality workshops for Plan International; run girls’ projects exploring healthy and unhealthy relationships as a drama practitioner; written dissertations on gender roles; participated in feminist rallies…
Yet with all of these ‘feminist’ credentials, I somehow still found myself in the arms of an abuser.
As cliche as it sounds, I didn’t realise I was in an abusive relationship, or how much it was changing me. It started well, of course. We were happy, and I felt like I could breathe into the embrace. Later it became a tight grip, which grew tighter as time went on.
12 months in, a friend told me I’d physically changed, that the way I held myself was different these days, that I’d literally shrunk to make myself smaller. I guess when it’s gradual and it’s happening to you, you just don’t notice. Many others echoed this, commenting that my behaviour altered massively and I was no longer myself. The insidious nature of these relationships is what All In Your Head is about, and the direction the show is travelling.
In every sense of the word, my relationship became work. There were no lines between the professional and personal – being a facilitator became a requirement for my out of work life too. I had to expertly avoid conflict, delicately navigating conversation minefields to provide the necessary smoke and mirrors which made us seem like a Hallmark couple.
In reality, what started as a two-man show soon became my sole responsibility to perform, instead of admitting I didn’t know how to get out. While living in a relationship based essentially on fear, I also feared the shame of others knowing how weak and incapable I felt of leaving and the judgement for staying. Why wouldn’t she just leave, right?
Once, I sat in A&E explaining my situation to different consultants across 8 hours, before seeing a specialist who opened our conversation with: “Yes, but did he hit you?”
It wasn’t enough that I had been continuously gaslit about the abuse inside my relationship – It was now happening on the outside through the voice of medical professionals.
I joined women’s support groups, and realised after all we had collectively endured, we still felt socially conditioned to avoid “making a scene”. Our experiences were shared behind closed doors in a secret club where the shame was carried by the survivors instead of the abusers. I understood why they needed to be private, but still felt an enormous sense of injustice in keeping all of our perpetrators’ crimes a secret, a place where survivors carried their wounds silently until they had healed. If we were to share our story more publicly, we’d likely be called “crazy and hysterical”, or painted with some other stereotype designed by the patriarchy to remind women what their place “should” be.
I’d left the relationship, and was supposedly “free” but it still haunted me – it affected my ability to make decisions without second guessing myself, trust my judgement and trust others. I saw relationships around me and catchy pop songs about unhealthy relationships through a fresh set of eyes.
Finding a place in women’s spaces and with specialist support helped me feel both heard and held. This was the warm embrace I needed, a gentle hold with no trickery where I could safely exhale. The women in these groups came from a range of classes, ages, races, abilities, and walks of life. Yet, the whole group shared stories which were a cardboard cutout of mine. This extreme affinity was comforting yet daunting. I felt imposter syndrome, that I didn’t belong there because others’ stories were “much worse than mine”. I was kindly reassured that there is no hierarchy when it comes to abuse.
In women’s groups I was introduced to new framing and terminology that replaced the views I’d grown up with – Disney Princesses being rescued by a Prince. I was now being taught to beware of the “rescuer” in relationships who comes along and tries to fix everything. The Fallen Princesses series by Dina Goldstein spurred me on in the way it disrupted the ‘happily ever after’ motif and gendered expectations in relationships
I learned and unlearned. It is never a survivor’s fault, and I was told a perpetrators’ teeth will fit your wounds exactly – by quickly identifying the survivor’s weakness or insecurity, and weaponising it. This helped validate my experience, release self-blame, and feel less ‘crazy’.
As somebody who has used theatre as both healing and activism, I felt compelled to create a performance centred on my first-hand experiences of abuse, and take steps to dispel the myth that myself and other women still carried from being told: “It’s All In Your Head”
A work friend shared Calm Down Dear, the feminist theatre festival, and I was immediately drawn to it. It felt like a good fit, not just because of our mutual surname.
Inimigo Oculto (Hidden Enemy) was a site-specific theatre show I saw at Brazil’s Casa Rio (People’s Palace Project) that had made me feel less alone in my experience of my relationship, and silently understood. The show had the audience follow different relationships around a house, witnessing various instances of abuse – both physical and mental, displaying coercive control and manipulation.
I had expected to struggle to understand a show performed in Portuguese, but instead I completely got it. I felt less alone, I felt seen, and admired the bravery involved in creating something so important. There was a deep feeling of intimacy by bringing the audience into a house, silently watching the abuse take place.
It reminded me of the silent audiences I came across in real life where people said they saw the signs, but chose not to get involved or more often didn’t know how to help.
It reminded me of being shouted at in a taxi, my eyes burning a hole in the driver’s head to will them to help. It reminded me of hoping my neighbours would hear incidents, and call the police.
It gave me a lens to process all of this through – the voyeurism of onlookers watching abuse happen, while ignoring the “believe women” chorus we had joined.
Why is upholding etiquette more important than causing a scene, when there is no etiquette behind the scenes?
My idea to write a one-woman show about my experiences was warmly welcomed by the strong women in my life, and their encouragement led me to the decision of: “F**k it”, followed by writing a proposal for Calm Down Dear.
Submitting the proposal felt like a milestone in itself, then I found out it was successful. My “F**k it” turned into “Oh, shit” pretty quickly, with the realisation that I now had to follow through – something that was very hidden, would now be very seen.
A show based on my own experiences needed to be delivered, however I still regularly teetered between wondering whether my experiences were real, or imagined?
I started running on adrenaline – at levels which haven’t dropped throughout the project – and reached out to the friends I’d made in support groups in the hope of sharing their stories too. I shared these questions and provocations with them:
If my relationship was a colour it would be…
If my relationship was a song it would be…
In the beginning of the relationship it was…
Then it was…
At the end of the relationship it was…
The one bit of advice I would give is…
I sat in awe of the answers they generously shared with me – their bravery fed mine, and vice-versa. One woman voluntarily wrote the sassiest letter to her ex that she will never send, but deserves to be heard very loudly – you’ll hear her story, and others, word for word in our show.
My initial vision was for a show where one woman gives a voice to multiple women’s stories, and for that woman to be the incredibly talented Naomi Sparrow – somebody who I’d worked with a lot, and had performed in Chickenshed Theatre’s survivors’ projects. She has always been a joy to work with, which is just as well, as we had to form a lockdown bubble.
I turned to another group of incredible women, enlisting trusted theatre friends to help with the R&D. The fearless and inspirational career coach Sarah Samson made applying for Arts Council funding look easy, and that was my next goal.
Then the pandemic happened: calls to domestic abuse helplines doubled, theatres closed, and Calm Down Dear was cancelled.
I dedicated my time to applying for Arts Council funding, supported by theatres I’d worked with – like The Unicorn theatre – whose furloughed staff were redeployed to support freelancers like myself with applications.
Workshops on applying for funding were popping up, and filled my now empty calendar. This support was priceless, made even more invaluable when my funding application was granted.
The funding reignited my fire, allowing me to surround myself with talented, creative women to bring these stories to life and livestream.
My first wishlist woman was Cheryl Ndione, a woman who I knew had the energy and brilliance to produce the project.
Cheryl connected me to Safaa Benson-Effiom, who had experience of writing scripts about consent, I read her work, I clicked with her immediately – it was a no-brainer. We laughed about the state of the world, lamenting societal and gender norms, and the toxic lyrics and movie lines shaping pop culture.
With a Producer and Scriptwriter on board, I knew a Wellbeing Practitioner was another critical team member. I called Lou Platt, knowing part of this journey would necessarily involve diving deep into past trauma to deliver something that authentically portrays this critical issue.
Whether a show resonates personally or not, every production needs a Wellbeing Practitioner – somebody whose crucial role is to look after the wellbeing of a team. Lou ran group sessions with the team and individual ones with me, providing space and encouraging us to put our wellbeing first and not secondary to our roles on a project.
As part of the R&D process we listened to Labour MP Rosie Duffield’s speech about Domestic Abuse, read about the stages of abuse (idealise, devalue, discard), and shared our own experiences of relationships with each other, frighteningly seeing that abuse in relationships is all too common. We felt like we were digging deep to find the precious gems we hoped others would see worth in.
Lockdown restrictions tightened again and theatres closed, leaving my home as the only place left to house the show – a show about my domestic abuse in my domestic space. It was very close to home indeed.
Intimacy aside, I still had to figure out how to make this show work. Much of the online theatre I’d seen had actors ignore their environment and the pandemic, but we saw an opportunity in acknowledging both and we chose to lean in.
Anna Reid expertly designed the ‘set’ – directing me with precision to rearrange lamps in my home and stuff my personal possessions into cupboards, painting the world of the piece with cleverly orchestrated home furnishings and a very keen eye.
We asked survivors to record their voices, and everyone single one of them stepped forward commenting on how empowering it felt to do so. Sound Designer Helena Almeida worked her magic to create a sound tapestry that weaves its way through the show from pop song mega mixes to finessing stunning acapella recordings sung by survivors. Cheryl brought in Anny Ma, who caused a media and marketing storm and turned our words into wonders.
Our panelists Rebecca Twydell from West Mercia Women’s Aid, survivor and advocate Cara Craven, Researcher Dr Emma Katz, and Lynne Tooze from Respond joined us, and will be sharing their thoughts and expertise after the performance.
My hope for the show is that people gain something from this performance, and consider the real women and real women’s lives who were brave enough to build it.
I hope it encourages someone to check in on their friend, neighbour, or a stranger, and think twice about just walking past. With a performance date of Valentine’s Day, I hope the audience considers that it’s red flags, not just roses, which many women will see that day and many days after.