Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Athena Stevens: Late Night Staring At High Res Pixels

By | Published on Monday 25 January 2021

I’ve been looking forward to ‘Late Night Staring At High Res Pixels’ ever since I heard that it was to be broadcast digitally via Finborough Theatre. It’s a play – or a story – that is to be delivered in short instalments all through February and which focuses on issues of consent.

To find out more about the series, and about the acclaimed creator behind it, I spoke to writer and performer Athena Stevens about the show, her career, and coping with COVID.

CM: Can we start by talking about the technicalities of ‘Late Night Staring At High Res Pixels’ as delivered digitally? How will an audience access it? How many instalments are there and how long are they? 
AS: Sure. We are calling this medium a “series of asides”, because it doesn’t fit in appropriately to being just theatre or just film, or necessarily a web-series as we know it. However, it is serial.

Audiences will access the piece on the Finborough Theatre’s YouTube channel during #FinboroughForFree. There will be 28 instalments which will be released daily at 6pm from 1 Feb–28 Feb, and the whole series will be available to view until 31 Mar.

The piece will simultaneously be available with captions via Scenesaver. Each episode will be between five and ten minutes long.

CM: It began as a stage play, didn’t it? How did you go about adapting it for this medium?
AS: When I sat down to write the piece in the fall of 2019, I of course envisioned it as two women in separate spaces onstage. There was no other platform that would be worth telling this story through. But, of course, 2020 threw that all up in the air.

The play, itself, hasn’t actually changed that much. It was always two women delivering alternate monologues of, on average, 250 words long. There was very little adapting to do in terms of the writing and the vision.

It was just that, given COVID-19 restrictions, both performers really were in their separate spaces, unable to reach out and touch one another. 

CM: How have you found working in a digital medium? Do you think you’ll be doing more of it in the future?
AS: Well, let’s back up a bit! I’ve been telling stories online using equipment such as DSLRs, iPhones and iPads since 2013. So I was doing it long before it was cool!

The truth is, back before I could get any script read by literary managers, artistic directors and theatres, I had figured out that if I wanted to produce, perform, write, or hone any of my crafts, the best way to do so was to use YouTube. Even if it meant the audience was going to be small and the effect would be a tiny raindrop in the pond.

I was told repeatedly by some professional actors and theatre makers who I adored that I would never get anywhere putting my work online. “That’s not real theatre”, they would tell me, “and nobody respects it”. I agree that digital storytelling is different to theatre, but I think given this year, we’re all beginning to respect it a little bit more.

My dissertation for my MA in Creative Entrepreneurship at UEA was on Alternate Reality Gaming Through Digital Storytelling . So I don’t think the question is, “Can I see myself doing more work via a digital medium in the future?” The better question is: who else will be joining me?

CM: Tell us what it’s all about, now. What story does it tell?
AS: ‘Late Night Staring At High Res Pixels’ revolves around the issue of assumed consent and assumed intimacy. Too often, we’ve mistaken the phrase “she won’t mind” for having someone’s consent. This simply isn’t the case. To give consent is an action that must be done willingly – it cannot be based on an assumption.

So the story is essentially about what happens when a man shares a topless photo of his girlfriend to his female best friend, under the assumption that neither of them – but particularly the woman in the photo – would mind.

What starts as a simple act, soon evolves into an unfurling of the reality that all of us assume consent from the people we have power over when it is convenient for us to do so.

We still expect a story about two women with a man in the middle to dissolve into a competitive catfight – that seems to be the only narrative we have in such a trio. However, both women respect each other enough to reject that narrative and go on to something more. 

CM: What inspired you to focus on the subject matter and these themes?
AS: I’m a former spokesperson for the Women’s Equality Party, and one of our core missions is about ending violence against women and girls.

That wasn’t my remit as spokesperson, though; my remit was talking about how women were portrayed in the media. So, for the longest time I thought that violence against women and girls was a side issue – something that didn’t necessarily concern me in my particular position.

And then slowly, I started to see how the men around me, even men I thought to be friends, took consent away from me and the women in their lives by not asking. By assuming, by asserting their power with the question “you don’t actually mind, do you?”, after they had already gone through with an act.

It became impossible for me to avoid the fact that in our society, unequal relationships in power between men and women are still very much the norm. It doesn’t matter if it develops into emotional abuse or full-on domestic violence, the result is still trauma.

And if I didn’t point out this reality to my friends who were taking advantage of these relationships in this way, then I too could potentially become complicit in the abuse of another woman. I’m not willing to do that, even if it means bringing conflict onto myself. 

CM: It’s a subject that I think is a serious one facing all women. Do you think work like yours has the potential to effect change in regard to things like this?
AS: I hope so, otherwise I am wasting my time! I really believe my remit as an artist – whether I’m performing, writing, or helping other creatives do the same – is to put language to trauma.

Psychologists know that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder happens when our brain is unable to process traumatic events into a logical story. It’s one thing to be able to say “I was abused” or “I was raped”, but very often if something terrible happens to you, you have no idea what language to use.

Stories act as a reflection so that we can start to bring “unspeakable trauma” into a conversation.

I also hope that my creative work, such as this piece, gives an opportunity for grace. If the statistics are right, we all know men who have raped women. We all know people who have abused others. They are in our meeting rooms, at our dinner tables, perhaps even in our own beds.

But I also believe that, more often than not, these perpetrators – if I can be so blunt as to call them that – have no idea that what they are doing is abusive. When people find their identity in being “a good person”, it becomes impossible for them to hear that they might be anything else.

The truth is, we all do really bad stuff – sometimes knowingly, sometimes ignorantly. And if we don’t think we are capable of getting it horribly wrong, we won’t listen to anyone who calls us out, even when it’s because they love us too much to allow us to go on with damaging habits.

But sometimes a story, a piece of creative work, can act as a mirror to reality, allowing us to privately identify ourselves in the actions of a character and examine what we are, and what our capacity for wrongdoing is, before someone pulls back the shades and exposes us in full. 

As much as I want to give language to women who have been abused in this way through this series, I also want to give a language to those who have hurt people that they love so that they can see their actions in a clear light. 

CM: Can you tell us a bit about yourself? Did you always want to be a writer? What path have you followed to become one?
AS: Well first of all, I’m a writer and an actor. The writing was always a given: by the time I was four, I had my father taking dictation for me every evening in a small journal so that I could practice writing. 

The performance side of things was not quite as straightforward. For years I’d said, “I really want to be an actor, but since disabled people can’t do that, I’m going to become a _____”. The blank would change from lawyer to teacher to radiologist to colour-namer for Crayola.

But I studied theatre and philosophy at university because I quickly figured out that if I didn’t give this acting thing a shot and put my all into it, I was a hypocrite in regard to everything in which I believed: both in terms of my faith and in terms of an underlying belief that if I worked hard at something, I would get to where I wanted to be.

As an adult looking back, I recognise the complexities of those beliefs: they don’t work out for everyone. I had to literally relearn how to speak in order to be understood onstage. And then I had to start writing plays because there was no one casting me as an actor.

It hasn’t been a straight path, and at times I’ve been very close to giving up. But for whatever reason, whenever I was about to throw in the towel, something amazing would happen to make me say, “Well, it would be silly to give up now!”

CM: How has the last year been for you? What impact has the pandemic had on your work?
AS: I was extraordinarily blessed as a freelancer because by the time March – and the first lockdown – rolled around, I had been working in the industry as both an actor and writer for six months with no pause. That level of opportunity had never been afforded to me before.

The second week in March was the first week off I had had in ages, and wouldn’t you know it, I got a cold. A cold that wouldn’t go away and that then developed into a persistent dry cough. Six weeks later, it would be confirmed that I had developed COVID, and not just any COVID, long COVID.

I already manage on-going issues in terms of maintaining my energy, and managing annoyances such as chronic pain and insomnia, but this was unlike anything I’d ever experienced. To say I have never been so tired in my entire life doesn’t capture what happened.

I would lay down in bed with no muscle tone in my entire body, something that is next to impossible for someone with my disability. I was unable to work for weeks, months. Even when I slowly got back to work in June, I could only manage about eight to ten hours a week. It wasn’t until August, some five months later, that I really began to feel like my old self again, but even now I still have relapses of extreme fatigue. 

After August, I was slowly able to start writing and performing again – even completing a daily exercise routine with my movement coach to rebuild my physical strength. However, just before Christmas, one of my personal assistants contracted COVID, which of course has a knock on effect both on me and the infrastructure around me. This month, I am not able to be back at my desk full time, writing and performing.

It’s a year that I have learned to treasure for its emotional depths, despite its difficulties. It’s certainly one that I don’t think I will be forgetting anytime soon!

CM: What aims and ambitions do you have for the future?
AS: I try to distil my personal goals down to three categories. No matter what phase of life I’m in, it seems to have worked pretty well thus far, and I haven’t had to change routes much. They are: (1) To love people around me well. (2) To tell great stories. (3) And to do what needs to be done to keep myself healthy. Sounds about right for the era that we are in.

Daily episodes of ‘Late Night Staring At High Res Pixels’ will be released via the Finborough Theatre YouTube Channel as part of #FinboroughForFree from 1-28 Feb, and a full film will be available from 1-31 Mar. See this page here for more info.

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