The end of an extraordinary year.
It feels very strange to be at home on New Year's Eve, and not to be working as Ada Campe tonight. I miss it.
I reach the end of 2020 with what is now a familiar sense of worry and loss - as well as a deep gratitude for the way that technology has made communication with friends, colleagues, and loved ones possible over the festive period.
Grateful to have moved house this year and had DIY as a practical distraction. Grateful to have had a relatively mild and short bout of what probably was COVID back in March. Grateful to those who reached out with freelance opportunities when so much of my work had been cancelled and income slashed. Grateful that my wife - a full-time teacher - has remained well despite the risks she has faced daily at work. Grateful for the support of colleagues and Ada Campe's wonderful agents Gag Reflex. Grateful that family and friends have been adhering to the various changing rules and restrictions. Grateful for the NHS and the hard work and dedication of all key workers.
2020 has forced me to push the boundaries of my work into new spaces. This has been a challenge, but also a good way to experiment, learn new skills and reach new audiences.
Some particular highlights include hosting Museums Showoff online, speaking at an Indonesian puppet festival about my research into Suffrage Punch and Judy shows, and being part of the British Academy Virtual Summer Showcase. It was great to be involved in the Being Human Festival again to share the amazing creative work of the Greenham Women Everywhere project, and to make new connections through online events, seminars, festivals and workshops. It's been very interesting to be part of the IPEN network and learn more about parliamentary engagement strategies around the world. My monograph came out in paperback, making it much more affordable, and it's been wonderful to be invited to speak about my research on the radio and on podcasts. I joined The Magic Circle and have also done online comedy shows and festivals as Ada Campe - feel very lucky to have had some live in person gigs too over the summer and performed two solo Ada shows despite the social distancing restrictions. Shoutout to all the producers, comics, variety and cabaret performers who have worked so hard to be creative and share work since the March shutdown and in very economically precarious circumstances.
One major highlight of 2020 has been organising suffrage play readings online. This has been a real treat and successful in ways I couldn't have imagined when setting up the first reading in August. Four months later and we've done fifteen play reading sessions, read twenty-two plays, and had forty-one performers involved so far - and the group is not only growing but keen to do more! More blog posts to follow about these readings...
Of course there has been much to be frustrated, angry and unhappy about - but I don't want to focus on that tonight. That has seemed uppermost almost every day for months - and as we all adjust to this new way of being I have to focus on the positive to move forward.
However. Whilst creating online content has meant we can reach people who wouldn't have been able to attend physical events for a variety of reasons - it's also excluded others who don't have access to the technology required. This is an ongoing concern and challenge going forward for those of us with a public engagement focus and for those who work in participatory, community based and applied contexts. 2021 will bring new ideas and technologies as well as opportunities to think about engagement and access. I hope we keep the attitude of openness that has been a welcome part of this year - and keep searching for ways to extend reach without exploiting the labour of those involved in the creative process.
Here's hoping the coming year brings a successful vaccination programme that means community spaces and the arts and performance industries can come back to life. They are much needed.
Wishing you all a safe, healthy and happy New Year and 2021!
The Royal Variety Performance is taking place at the Opera House in Blackpool tonight, and was last there in December 2009. On 14th November 2009 I woke up fully clothed and viciously hungover in a hotel room in Blackpool after an epic party night celebrating the end of another leg of the Vagina Monologues UK tour (I was on the tour understudying the celebs). We'd been guests of honour at Funny Girls and then hit the dancefloor at the Flying Handbag... and I don't remember much after that! However I had a day to waste before being driven back to London and decided to blow away the headache, cobwebs and that end of tour feeling by taking a walk along the seafront. It was out of season, rainy, windy, and forbidding but I just kept walking. Through the grey air and driving rain I saw some twinkling lights from a door and the words 'Palmistry' and 'Fortune Telling' and so headed towards it to escape from the weather.
Despite the fact that I'd been working as a magician's assistant for a few years and should have known better, I decided to go for it. I was now out of work, hungover, at a loose end and the chance to get a bit of personalised positivity in that bleak city seemed worth indulging in. About a minute into the reading I began to regret it - she was pleasant but the Barnum statements kept coming and although it was interesting to watch to a certain extent it felt too impersonal to play along with. And then - she suddenly looked at my hand, and then into my eyes, and said "Are you a performer?" I felt a surge of anticipation - yes, yes! I told her that the tour had just ended and I was heading, jobless, back to London. She looked at me intensely and in that moment I felt a genuine rush of excitement - what was this strange woman in this unpromising place on this sort of nothingish day going to say? What would be the pithy nugget of truth that might change everything? Would I look back on this moment as a turning point?
This is what she said:
"Can you get me tickets to the Royal Variety Show?"
I laughed out loud - at her and at myself - and said that there might be chums working on it and I could certainly ask. Left that little seafront studio with her email address on a scrap of paper and a genuine sense of buoyancy created by my own gullibility and ridiculousness.
So that's what I thought of when I heard the show was happening in Blackpool tonight!
In September I did a show called 'An Afternoon with Ada Campe' at the Phoenix Arts Club in London. It was the longest bit of live performance I'd done since February, and was packed full with new material including a socially distanced magic trick and some songs - the first time Ada had sung on stage. It was great fun - and a second show called 'A Late Afternoon with Ada Campe' happened at Above the Stag Theatre in Vauxhall in November - simultaneously my first and last live appearance that month due to the implementation of the second lockdown in London.
After both shows I had a sort of post-show 'hangover' that lasted for days - the rush and excitement of performing live again and packing in so much new material at once was wonderful, but whereas in pre-COVID times I was used to finishing Ada shows with a great release of tension, for both of these the tension seemed to stay in my body... presumably because the chance to perform live has been so rare during 2020 that I didn't want to let the feeling or memory of it go.
When I first started performing as Ada Campe many years ago, the nerves on a performance day had me hiding under the duvet for hours, somehow pretending there wasn't a show that evening and waiting until the last possible moment before getting my props together and putting make-up on. Once I got to the venue everything would be fine, and over the years and with more experience I learned to change my response to nerves. No more hiding! Allowing your body to express performance nerves is important - and you learn to manage and see them in a positive way.
Performing solo in a comedy or cabaret venue is very different to being part of a double act or ensemble. It's exposing and all the responsibility to entertain falls on your shoulders. While there are many things that will affect the mood and receptiveness of the audience to your act - ultimately when you get on stage it's you and them. Part of the learning curve is learning to deal with it sometimes not going well, but the more experienced you get the more you learn to manage your emotions and expectations before, during and after your set. Before going on stage there's a sense of anticipation - how are they going to receive you, who has already been spoken to in the audience, and how can you make your act seem bespoke to those people, that venue and that moment. I manage pre-show nerves by listening and watching the audience, MC and other acts as much as possible to gather information about the energy and mood of the event.
During the show there's a constantly flowing heightened feedback loop - as a performer I try to suss out the audience, find good light, look for potential pliable volunteers, listen to how the mic sounds, keep an awareness of the tech booth, pay attention to the wider atmosphere of the room and do my set all at the same time. If there are interruptions or unexpected sounds you have to make a split second judgement about whether acknowledging them is necessary and could help build rapport, or whether by singling out individuals you'll derail your set and make the rest of the audience uncomfortable. You get better at this the more you do it, but it's always a judgement call in the moment. For example someone may be shouting out or making noises involuntarily and not with the intention to interrupt your set - and this requires very different handling to a deliberate heckler.
Decisions as to how to respond have to be made very quickly and instinctively. Are people chatting instead of watching the show? You have to work out why as quickly as possible. The main reasons are likely to be:
They are not interested in the show, or in your act.
They are drunk.
They can't see what's happening on stage.
Something has happened that you can't see.
One person is translating or describing the show to another.
Each one of these needs a different response from the performer - perhaps not a verbal one, but an adjustment to either highlight, ignore or downplay what is happening in order not to alienate the rest of the audience. If one act is hostile or loses patience with an audience member that can really make it hard for the MC and other acts to bring the energy back up for the rest of the show. Most situations can be dealt with through confident body language and direct communication where necessary and while wannabe comics often worry disproportionately about being heckled, in my experience it doesn't happen very often.
I was fortunate that both my September and November shows were full of wonderful audience members who were a pleasure to spend time with. It was also a delight to work with a live pianist to bring some different elements to Ada's act, and so good to be able to perform live at all. The 'hangover' part of it surprised and moved me - a sort of post-show nerves based on fear of never doing it again, rather than fear of doing it at all. Like all performance nerves though, it shows just how much I cared, and continue to care about doing a good job.
Here's to the next gig, whenever it is! In the meantime you can see a clip from my September show below:
Part of the joy of research is finding surprises in archives, newspapers, autobiographies and ephemera.
Often these stories don't fit the narrative of whatever writing task is at hand at that moment and so get forgotten, but since 2017 I've been thrilled to give many of them a wider audience on BBC Radio 3's Time Traveller series - broadcast every morning just after 10am as part of the live Essential Classics programme on Radio 3 and then subsequently collated into themes for the Time Traveller podcast. Through this series I've been able to tell over twenty stories from the past about magic, art, sport, theatre, music, dance, and of course the suffrage campaign.
In the first few months of 2012 I worked as a dresser on South Downs/The Browning Version at the Comedy Theatre in London. I was in the second year of my PhD, and also putting together the manuscript of The Methuen Drama Book of Suffrage Plays. Working in wardrobe on West End shows is intense - you're in eight shows a week and often also more for laundry calls, understudy runs, and maintenance sessions. It's also great fun - I've worked in wardrobe on nearly 30 West End shows since 1998 and been fortunate to work with and for some incredibly lovely and talented people on stage and off.
It was on that show that the idea of a suffrage themed 'top trumps' style game first came to me. I thought it would be a great way to introduce some of the amazing campaigners I was finding in my research - and talking about constantly! - to new audiences in an accessible and fun way.
My friend Greg who was then the deputy head of the wardrobe dept and is now a tailor was super encouraging of the idea and I mocked up a set to see if it would work. It did. Since that day I've been going on and on about this idea, keen to make it happen but not knowing how to do so.
But finally - in 2018 it has! It was totally worth the wait. Suffra-Greats! is a reality.
Want to see a preview of Ada Campe and the Psychic Duck in London before it goes to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe in August? You can!
Here are the dates and details of all the July previews:
My second edited collection with Methuen Drama is being published on the 2nd July! It contains twelve pieces in all - a wide variety of material written by female and male suffragist writers between 1908-1914.
Spanning different styles and genres, the pieces explore many issues that interested feminist and suffragist campaigners such as the value of women's work, domestic and economic inequality, visibility in public space, direct action and its consequences, sexual double standards, and the influence of the media on public opinion. This collection builds on my first volume of plays, published in 2013. If you get both you will have an impressive collection of playable, accessible and fascinating plays that speak to us directly about how the suffrage movement represented itself on the stage and through the medium of performance.
Here's a little bit about each of the plays to whet your appetites!
It's been a couple of months now since my job at Parliament finished - and I've been meaning to write about some of the creative outputs of my time as part of the Vote 100 team. I was part of an AHRC funded project called 'What Difference Did the War Make? World War One and Votes for Women' run by the University of Lincoln and UK Parliament Vote 100 alongside the University of Plymouth. The project outputs included three panel events in Lincoln, Plymouth and London discussing not only the project topic but the work and legacy of past and present female Members of Parliament, alongside workshops for young people, and an exhibition in Parliament and online. You can see that exhibition here: www.parliament.uk
I'm not going to talk about those outputs in this blog post though. Instead this is a brief introduction to some of the other outputs involving project research that happened over the course of my year there - outputs I'm really excited about and that reached out to different audiences in different spaces. There's music, games, theatre, and sweets!
My Time Traveller piece broadcast on BBC Radio 3's Essential Classics on Thursday 8th February 2018, was entitled 'Suffragettes on the Run' - and you can listen to it here (it's 1hr and 12 minutes into the programme)
Music Hall star and Actresses' Franchise League member Marie Lloyd, no stranger to campaigning for the rights of performers within the theatrical profession, lent her support to suffrage societies by singing at the WFL’s Old World Fair at Caxton Hall in 1909 as part of a series of concerts to raise funds, and appearing in How The Vote Was Won in the same year, presumably as the character of Maudie Spark, the music hall comedienne. As an influential, wealthy and famous performer, she was able to support the sisterhood of suffragists in unique ways. One such gesture involved her allowing her theatrical hamper to be used to smuggle a militant speaker into a meeting at the London Pavilion in 1913. Marked ‘Marie Lloyd, Pavilion. Luggage in advance,’ the hamper contained the WSPU speaker Annie Kenney, who was out of prison on licence after a period of hunger-striking and subject to immediate re-arrest under the ‘Cat and Mouse’ Act if she appeared in public.
Kenney wrote about the incident in her autobiography, Memories of a Militant, recalling the workmen who unknowingly delivered her to the theatre in the hamper making ‘growls…about the weight, about actresses having no consideration for the poor men who had to carry their baggage, and so on. I was turned, toppled, banged, dropped, before one of them got me (in my hamper, of course) on to his back.’
The ruse worked, and despite the police officers stationed around the entrances to the theatre, Kenney made it inside unnoticed.
The London Pavilion was a regular site for WSPU meetings in 1913, and the building that housed the theatre is still a prominent part of Piccadilly Circus. I remember it housing waxworks music show 'Rock Circus' when I was a child and it most recently was the site of Ripley's Believe it or Not. Built in 1885, it functioned as a music hall and variety venue until 1912, when it became the home of a string of musicals. as well as mixed bills. You can see a London Pavilion programme from 1913 here - and on the bill is a performance by Graham Moffat's company of Scottish Players. Moffat was a suffragist and the author of suffrage play 'The Maid and the Magistrate', published by the AFL. His wife, actress Maggie Moffat, was the second Scottish suffragist to be imprisoned for campaigning, when she was arrested in 1907. The Glasgow WSPU delegate for the Women's Parliament in Caxton Hall, Maggie Moffat was one of fifty-three women arrested when mounted police broke up a group of women marching peacefully to the House of Commons with a resolution for the Prime Minister. She was subsequently imprisoned in the second division in Holloway.
But back to the story in question!
I wrote a blog post about suffrage plays for the Vote 100 project - you can read it here. Whilst doing it, I began to compile a list of all the professional performances of suffrage plays, old and new, since 2008... and I'd like you to check yours or one you attended or one that you are putting on next year is on the list, and if not, comment on this post so I can add it to the list!
I am including:
At the moment I am not including projects or performances that have only taken place in formal education institutions, so schools, colleges and universities... unless those performances were/are open to the public or are made available to the public online through video, audio or other online dissemination.
Please don't be cross if yours is not there - comment and I will add it to the list. This first list is purely made up of projects and performances I remember being in, putting on, attending or knowing about so is limited by those factors.
Please comment and let's make it a much better and more inclusive and more extensive list!
Thoughts, reflections, bits of research