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!
So - it has been announced that mid noughties show The L Word is coming back, with some of the original cast involved. I have the whole run on DVD, and although I haven't watched it since it ended in 2009, it was a ground breaking series, featuring openly lesbian performers, writers, musicians, and producers. While the portrayal of lesbians on tv hasn't moved forward as much as The L Word's creator Ilene Chaiken hoped it would have done since the show, the increasing number of online communities and online spaces queer women are part of and occupy has meant conversations about visibility, diversity, intersectionality, gender identity, and accountability of the media are much more audible in public space and in activist and campaigning groups. As many bloggers and articles have acknowledged, the portrayal of lesbians in the show will need to be much more representative of the diversity of LBT+ people than it was before in order to speak to audiences today.
The audience is certainly there! For Pride this year, I took part in the parade through London for the first time, and in some style as part of Parliout. It was fantastic fun to be on the bus and on the streets, cheering along with the crowds that lined the route. Issues around the representation of LGBT+ people in the promotional material produced by Pride in London, and concerns about the corporate take-over of Pride had been widely expressed before the march, particularly as some groups were not initially represented in the parade. While I certainly saw some dissent and protest from individuals over the course of the afternoon, seeing so many marchers from different organisations, unions, institutions and campaign groups was an undeniable joy.
Last week, in preparation for the discussion at Above the Arts on Women in Theatre, as part of Verve Festival, I decided to scan back through the last 12 months of reviews on The LGBTQ Arts Review to see how the gender imbalance in plays out in LGBT theatre. Admittedly, it's impossible for us to get to every LGBT show on in London, because there are simply too many (hurrah). However, it was no surprise that we covered 31 shows with male protagonists and / or about male sexuality, and only 9 with females. Trans stories are also incredibly rare.
Thoughts, reflections, bits of research