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Catherine Love: Spreading the debate

How two current examples of feminist performance are starting up discussion beyond the space of the theatre

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Louise Orwin, Pretty Ugly

Even the most casual browser of the internet could hardly fail to notice recent raging debates about the media representation of women. From open letters to Miley Cyrus to Charlotte Church's blistering John Peel lecture, the way in which women are treated and presented in the public eye is once again a matter of huge – and vital – discussion. So what does theatre have to add to this debate?

The very fact that we are talking about these issues and that this conversation is taking place across a wide range of platforms can only be a good thing. It would be disingenuous to suggest that there is anything new about feminist performance, but there certainly seems to be an explosion of recent shows addressing this subject matter in urgent, angry and eloquent ways. To take just one example, this surge in feminist thought is currently being demonstrated at Camden People's Theatre by Calm Down, Dear, a two and a half week festival featuring a wide and exciting range of feminist work.

What is particularly interesting, though, is that some of these shows are extending their discussion far beyond the space of the theatre. One of these, appearing at Calm, Down Dear over the next couple of weeks, is Louise Orwin's show Pretty Ugly. I say show, but the performance itself is just one small part of Orwin's project. She was inspired to take action when she came across a new YouTube trend for young girls to post videos of themselves online, asking strangers to rate them on their appearance. Angered and disturbed by both the trend and the abusive responses it generated, Orwin was determined to make it the subject of critical debate.

Orwin has since posted her own YouTube videos under a selection of different teenage aliases, as well as engaging directly with young girls to try to understand why this trend has gained momentum. The show will share Orwin's research and aim to engage audiences in thinking about this trend and the related issues it throws up, but the wider project and its possible repercussions remain hugely important in their own right.

Reading about what Orwin was doing reminded me of another performance artist, Bryony Kimmings, and her brilliant project Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model. While spending time with her nine-year-old niece Taylor, Kimmings found herself bitterly dismayed by the lack of suitable role models available for young girls, prompting her and Taylor to come up with Catherine Bennett – a dinosaur-loving, bike-riding, tuna pasta-eating pop star.

Kimmings' new alter ego has since set about shooting for fame, with the hope that if she can establish a high enough profile then other pop stars will follow in her footsteps. The space of the theatre, meanwhile, offers an opportunity to open up some of the problems that Kimmings, Taylor and Catherine Bennett are attempting to solve. The show, which visits Manchester and Cambridge this week, has been a massive critical success, but – like Pretty Ugly – it sits within a much bigger campaign.

For both Pretty Ugly and Credible Likeable Superstar Role Model, the multi-format nature of these projects might well end up being key to the impact they make. While performance – as the reaction to Kimmings' show proves – has the potential to leave a profound emotional and intellectual impression, it is other media that offer the widest dispersal of debate. As Kimmings and Orwin recognise, the theatre is a fantastic arena to discuss these issues, but it is only one weapon in the activist armoury.