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Camden People’s Theatre: Embracing feminism with Calm Down Dear

By | Published on Tuesday 22 October 2013


The award winning Camden People’s Theatre has a reputation for providing a space for the controversial, the ground breaking, and the experimental. The recent new wave of feminism, born out of the internet and social media and of late making itself felt in performances written and controlled by women, inspired the venue’s managers to organise their latest festival, Calm Down Dear. We spoke to CPT’s Brian Logan to find out more.

TW: What made you decide to hold a feminism themed festival?
BL: Earlier this year, we put out a call for submissions – as we do every year – for our annual festival of new and unusual theatre, Sprint. We were struck by the high number of feminist-themed applications – or at least, proposals for shows on female-specific subjects and exploring experiences of the world that were particular to women. So we knew something was brewing, and at CPT, we always programme first and foremost in response to what artists are already doing and want to do.

We also wanted to respond to the research published by the Guardian late in 2012 about the persistent gender imbalance in theatre, whereby more men than women are employed in the industry by a ratio of 2:1. And – beyond the theatre world – it was clear early in 2013 when we started planning this festival (although not as clear as it’s subsequently become) that something quite profound was afoot with regard to feminism. A word that (some) people had been squeamish about using was coming back into currency. A movement that has been sidelined (in some quarters) was coming back to the heart of things – and about time. I’m talking about Caroline Criado-Perez and the Everyday Sexism hashtag and rape jokes in comedy and a government of public schoolboys who learned their gender politics in a gentleman’s club. And lots more.

So: a feminist new wave was accumulating power. And we wanted to make an event happen that gave that some focus, and celebrated it, and helped make connections that might support it.

TW: How did you decide on that name?
BL: When the phrase (courtesy of David Cameron via Michael Winner, of course) was raised as a possible title, it was immediately irresistible. It very pithily sums up a big part of the problem, which is the unthinking chauvinism of much public discourse. And the persistence of old-school attitudes to gender, as if feminism had never happened.

The way some men still try and put women back in their box when they speak up – and of course, this was going to be a festival in which lots of women (and some men) spoke up loudly and proudly and refused to go back into any box. And of course, the title’s funny, and a little provocative and gauntlet-throwing (You’ve got to be careful with the hashtag, though – it can give the wrong impression!).

TW: How important do you think it is to focus on feminist issues in the present climate?
BL: It’s important in the sense that events like ours can ensure that lots of disparate activity doesn’t go unnoticed. Festivals and curated bringings-together of various strands of activity can help generate a sense of a movement, a moment or a critical mass.

More generally, it’s important because women are still subject to a range of age-old (and some new) inequalities, injustices and challenges, many of which have been exacerbated by the government’s policy of deliberate so-called ‘austerity’, which has hit women harder, as has been well documented. It’s important I think to respond to the new wave of feminist thought and action, and join in with it, to make sure that it makes tangible gains in the real world and to ensure that it isn’t allowed (or forced) to dissipate.

TW: Do you think you can turn this into an annual event?
BL: I’m sure we could – but we haven’t yet decided whether that’d be a good or necessary thing. We’re artist and audience-led at CPT, so we’ll see how this festival goes, and gauge whether there’s an appetite for more. And we’ll respond accordingly. As a rule, we like to try new things rather than rest on laurels – but the initial response to Calm Down, Dear has been so overwhelming that we’ll certainly consider doing it (or something similar) again.

TW: Can you tell us something about the range of the events? They seem to be fairly cross-genre.
BL: It is cross genre, but it’s first and foremost a festival of innovative theatre and performance. Our approach to work from other art-forms was that, yes, we wanted some, because one of the things Calm Down, Dear is trying to do is create opportunities for theatre-makers to meet and exchange ideas with – for example – comedians, filmmakers, gamers, and so on.

But we’ve only got non-theatre stuff in there if it too is bold and innovative – which Bridget Christie and Adrienne Truscott’s comedy shows definitely are – and if it made too great a claim on our attention to resist. So it would have felt perverse to us to spurn the chance to bring in some of the trailblazing stand-up shows that made such a splash on the Edinburgh Fringe this year – because that’s part of the feminist story we want to tell.

Apart from that, we’ve got a whole range of stuff in our party/cabaret night in the middle of the festival (Sat 2 Nov), including spoken word and audio installations. We’ve got live art and interactive one-on-one performance; for example, Rosana Cade’s once-seen, never-forgotten ‘My Big Sister Taught Me This Lapdance’.

We’ve got a short films night curated by our festival partner Underwire, and an Open Space discussion day exploring the challenges and opportunities facing independent female theatre-makers. And we’ve got a participatory night dedicated to exploring the overlaps between feminism and videogames, ‘Beta Public’, on Fri 8 Nov.

TW: Do you expect audiences for these shows to be woman-dominated…? Or do you think the average male CPT–goer is just as likely to be interested?
BL: I’d guess we’ll have more woman audience members than men, but it may not be ‘woman-dominated’. There are a handful of shows by men in the programme, which demonstrates I think that some of the main ‘feminist’ questions facing all of us are concerns for men too – the sexualisation / pornification of society, for example, about which Alan Bissett has made his extraordinary show BAN THIS FILTH! (Tue 5 Nov). More broadly, if you’re a man who wants to live in an equal and equitable society, then you care about feminism and the questions that these artists are raising. So I’d hope and expect that the festival’s attendance reflects that.

TW: There are a few critically acclaimed comedy acts as part of the festival programme. Do you think it’s still difficult to market female comedians – given that so many seem still to think that “women just aren’t funny”?
BL: I think the male bias of TV panel shows, and the bias in favour of male performers on comedy clubs bills and on ‘Live at the Apollo’ – and there are plenty other examples – do nothing to subvert the lazy idea that stand-up is a mainly (some would say “naturally”) male art-form. So women comics are to some extent always pushing against those old ideas and those persistent prejudices.

But things are changing. There are plenty successful female comics now, at all levels of the industry, and they practise in a wide range of comic styles. So one by one the old ideas about women and comedy are being broken down. And I think the story of this year’s Edinburgh Fringe – with shows from Bridget Christie and Adrienne Truscott and Sara Pascoe, among others, dominating the comedy agenda – will definitely dislodge another few bricks from the wall of “they’re not funny” prejudice around women in comedy.

TW: Are you looking forward to any events in particular?
BL: Before it’s even opened, the story of the festival has been the global buzz around Louise Orwin’s ‘Pretty Ugly’ – which has been featured in the news media in Spain, America, France, Russia and of course here too. We knew when we first developed Louise’s show at CPT that she was on to something special, which would generate interest – but we didn’t expect this!

So I’m looking forward to seeing the finished version of her extraordinary docu-theatre piece about teenage girls and social media. I’m pretty excited to see Kate Craddock’s The GB Project too – just because I’m so chuffed that we’ve got this remarkable inquiry into history, and politics, and what’s expected of women in public life, into our festival. And then, we’ve got the all-new, keenly awaited follow-up to Luisa Omielan’s cult smash ‘What Would Beyonce Do?’ How can you not be excited about that?

The festival takes place from Tuesday 22 Oct until Sunday 11 Nov. To find info, listings and to book tickets, see the Camden People’s Theatre website, which is right here.

LINKS: | CPT’s facebook page |