Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Louise Orwin: Oh Yes Oh No

By | Published on Friday 8 November 2019

You’re probably aware of the work of Louise Orwin, the creative force behind shows like ‘A Girl And A Gun’ and ‘Pretty Ugly’. Or maybe you even know her via her most recent production, ‘Oh Yes Oh No’, an earlier incarnation of which won praise when it was staged at Camden People’s Theatre in 2017.

The most recent version of ‘Oh Yes Oh No’ has been touring the UK and now heads to London for a run at Battersea Arts Centre. I spoke to Louise to find out more about the show and the process of creating it.

CM: Can you start by explaining what sort of performance to expect? How would you describe it in terms of a genre?
LO: My work always sits somewhere in between performance art and theatre. It is highly visual and interactive and pushes against the conventions of theatre to ask its questions in as live a format as possible. I normally begin with a question – or lots of questions – and I see my role as maker not to provide answers for people, but to crack open as many taboo or unspoken about areas as possible.

Because my work is often based on research which shines light into the darkest corners of contemporary living, I’ve also heard my work described as ‘docu-theatre’ as well. I often think that if I wasn’t making live performance I’d be making visually striking documentary film.

I’ve always been fascinated by the lives of other people, and often when I begin to ask a question about my own life my first port of call is to ask others about theirs as a way to reflect on and understand my own. Human beings are weird and wonderful, and a constant source of inspiration.

CM: What’s the point of the show? What themes does it explore?
LO: ‘Oh Yes Oh No’ looks at how rape and rape culture colonise your brain, and how we can begin to rebuild and reclaim our sexuality and desires from this point.

As a survivor of sexual violence myself, I came to a point where I realised I felt so disempowered by the sexual experiences I’d had as a young person that I didn’t even know where to begin to try to reclaim them. I think I grew up believing that my body was there to be experienced by other people. I felt more and more that I had no idea how to connect to my own pleasure, my own desires.

In the first place, obviously, my own experience of rape was deeply traumatic and disempowering, but then also growing up in a culture with such a dearth of sex education – particularly around female sexual pleasure – and a proliferation of mainstream porn which presents women as objects to be used by men, and highly sexualised images of women all over the media, which again reinforces the idea that we are objects to be consumed by men, is also extremely disempowering.

In some ways I feel that the way porn and media treats women and infects your brain is a violence in itself, so – even if you haven’t experienced sexual violence – there is a sense in which many women and non-binary people feel so excluded by mainstream culture, that they have also experienced a form of violent disempowerment.

I knew I wanted to create the show to begin to ask questions about the way our desires are formed in a patriarchal society: a society which teaches us that sexuality is not for us, that our bodies are not for us. But I also wanted to create a space which felt empowering, where the voices of those who have been disempowered could be amplified.

CM: What made you want to explore these ideas in the context of a show?
LO: One of the ideas I came back to time and time again in the interviews and research I conducted was how rape culture wants you to be silent. It does not want you to speak out about your experiences of violence, much less speak about your experiences of pleasure.

From my own experience, I knew from a young age that those around me taught me to be quiet about my experience of rape and I know categorically that this only deepened the shame I felt around what had happened. It reinforced the idea that I was somehow to blame, and again this feeling of being supremely disempowered. I wasn’t allowed to have a voice.

Time and time again in the interviews, I sensed that the mere act of my interviewees verbalising their stories, and holding space for discussion around their experiences, was awesomely powerful. It seemed obvious to me that I needed to present this research and my questions in a format which would allow their voices to be heard, and would allow for the cracking open of discussion around these areas which become so taboo.

For this reason, the show is framed as a conversation between me and the audience, and includes audience participation – including some Barbie and Ken live role play with an audience member. I wanted to show to feel like a live discussion of these questions, and I know for a fact that the show creates heated discussion in my audiences often long after they’ve seen the show.

CM: What process did you go through in creating the show?
LO: ‘Oh Yes Oh No’s journey began back in 2015 when I began to question where my desires came from and how my sexuality had been formed.

At the time I had started therapy and was beginning to try to heal from an experience of sexual violence I had had as a teen, and began to wonder how much of an impact it had had on my burgeoning sexuality.

As I began to explore more I began to connect the dots between lots of other experiences in my life, and began to feel more than ever that I wanted to reclaim my desire from negative past experiences. But the more I explored the more it felt as if these experiences had sort of colonised my brain. I wanted to know how other survivors of sexual violence approached healing and reclaiming their desires too, so I began a period of conducting interviews with survivors all over the country.

At the same time, I also went to sex parties, held sex-themed workshops, and even tried my hand at some erotic writing mentored by a famous erotic writer. I wanted to try anything that helped me explore my desire in new ways. Let’s just say it was quite a colourful journey!

CM: It feels like this is a very political show. Would you agree?
LO: The show is highly political. I believe that we are tapestries formed of everything in our perception: the day to day politics we encounter embedded in the television we watch, the books we read, the images we consume, and in our interactions with each other.

And in terms of the themes raised in this show, I believe gender politics have a lot to answer for in terms of the effect on our bodies, our desire and our sexuality. The show asks hard questions about how complicit we are in terms of the politics we bring into our sex lives too – whether we are aware of it or not. It asks about whether sexual fantasy ever could or should be completely fenced off from politics.

This particular question seems to provoke heated debate again and again, as it should- it’s a super important question. I’m a huge fan of the current sex positivity movement, but some corners of this movement seem to think that we should be allowed to pursue anything we want sexually, as long as it’s carried out in a safe, consensual environment.

But I’m not sure I entirely agree. When sex is usually an interaction with the other, even if you are being responsible about your own actions – how can you ever be sure the other person is being responsible for theirs?

CM: Is the show aimed at a particular demographic?
LO: It’s aimed at anyone who’s ever questioned their sexuality or desire, or anyone who has ever wondered how their upbringing or cultural landscape has conditioned their lives – so probably lots of people.

First and foremost I made this show for survivors of sexual violence, and for that reason I think it resonates deeply with most women and non binary people. I’ve been pleasantly surprised that the show seems to have struck a chord with many men though as well.

There is frank discussion of consent in the show, and especially instances where it can become ‘murky’ or exist in the grey areas: I think these parts of the show can be especially difficult for men to witness. But this usually means the work is doing its job.

CM: You talked about the impact of things like the media and porn. Do you think these things mould people’s desires and fantasies? If so, is that a bad thing?
LO: I believe people’s desire and fantasies are created through a mixture of nature and nurture, and there’s no doubting that porn and media have a huge impact on the things that turn us on. And I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing – in fact it can be a beautiful thing when we allow ourselves to be inspired by the world around us.

However, I think where it does get tricky is when the only sex education that young people have is through mainstream porn, or ‘punish-fucking’ as I call it, which shows the same thing over and over: men doing things to women. Men as powerful aggressors. Women as passive objects. And increasingly mainstream porn is borrowing practices from the ‘kink’ world, but leaving essential ideas such as informed consent.

I’ve been really pleased to see a new trend of female-focused porn arising though, which can only be a good thing. A question I kept asking myself time and time again was would I like the things I like if I had been offered more options, more diversity growing up? I would love to see a world which show us as diverse a range of sexual practices and fantasies as possible, and crucially focusing on the pleasure of all parties involved.

CM: This show was first on at Camden People’s Theatre a couple of years ago: in what ways has it been changed or developed since then?
LO: I first premiered the show in 2017 at Camden People’s Theatre, and mid-way through the run a strange thing happened. I began to lose my voice. Obviously for a performer, this is quite a distressing thing to happen. But it also felt ridiculously ironic, considering the fact that I was making a show about how to reclaim your voice, when you feel it has been taken from you.

Recovering from vocal chord surgery, I began to realise that this first iteration of the show wasn’t quite the show I had intended to make. Possibly due to the fact that I was still recovering from my own personal trauma, and possibly due to the weight of trying to hold space for all the other voices in the show.

Once I’d recovered from surgery I set about trying to remake the show, to ensure that I felt as strong as possible in it. I think the result is that the show is punchier than ever and I feel more empowered performing it these days. I hope that those who watch it can feel that, and feel empowered too.

CM: What further plans do you have for the show?
LO: The show is currently coming towards the end of a major UK and international tour, with two weeks at Battersea Arts Centre in London, and then Chichester at the end of November. There are currently a few more dates planned for 2020 too, which will be announced at the top of the year.

The playtext and a series of essays around the making of the show have also just been published by Oberon, and I’ll also be continuing to run workshops around the show’s themes.

These workshops are something that first began as part of the research for the show, but they felt so necessary in creating a safe space for femmes and non binary people to explore ideas around sex and desire that I’ve continued doing them throughout the tour. They are truly one of my favourite parts of the work!

CM: Do you have any new projects in the pipeline?
LO: Yes, I’m currently making a new show about rage and wrestling called ‘Cry Cry Kill Kill’ which will be premiering in 2020. I’m super excited about this one… I’m keeping it under my belt for now, but more details will be announced soon!

CM: And what else is coming up for as we approach the end of 2019?
LO: Other than focusing on finishing this year’s tour and making the new show, I’m looking forward to a rest at the end of the year! It’s been a huge year for me and my company, with more tour dates than I’ve ever done before, which I’m super proud of – but it’s time for a rest now .

Louise Orwin appears in ‘Oh Yes Oh No’ at Battersea Arts Centre from 12-23 Nov. For more information and to book tickets, see the venue website here.

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Photo: Alex Brenner