Talking Taboo in the Theatre

There is surely no better way to break apart and bust taboos, than to unpack them, loud and proud, in a public space, and there can be no greater thrill than to make work that leads this conversation. Is it the responsibility of theatre to do this? And is it up to the challenge?

It feels to me like we are living and making work in a golden age of taboo-busting. The fringe is filled with shows about the complexities of life’s difficulties, with topics from Trump to sexual abuse, it sometimes feels like nothing is off limits. I perpetually feel that perhaps it has always been this way and I just failed to notice until it was my turn around to bust some taboos myself, after-all, through history, the stage has been a natural home for bringing to light the unspeakable truths of our world. Why else did the legality of censorship exist on the UK stage until well into the 1960s? It was introduced in the first place as a way of curbing political satire (Thanks a bunch, Lord Chamberlain…) but in a way he just cemented the fact that theatre has a loud mouth. Theatre is a threat. Theatre is a taboo-busting matchstick, just waiting to be struck. But if theatre is just a product of society, would it be more accurate to say it is simply riding the crest of a perpetual wave of society’s conversation? If that is the case, it is that conversation is what is leading the busting, not the theatre itself. In which case, shouldn’t we be asking, how do we keep abreast of it?

I am not going to out any of theatre’s great debates to bed here, but what I will do is take a look at a small selection of taboo-busting productions, including my current production The Forgetting of Carol-Ann with The Write Network, and consider some questions.

Fringe theatre, with its (usually, relatively) short production periods, shoe-string budgets and black-box/ festival venue-hopping may have limited reach, but has an immediacy like no other art form. A play can be programmed before it is even finished, or with small productions teams where writer, director and producer are more often in the same room, change drastically in the course of a run. These qualities lend themselves to engaging in the most current of conversations. A current news story could change not just the ending but the direction of an entire piece. Sure, The National theatre can chime in on Brexit (a year later) with My Country; a work in progress (2017) with the full weight of the poet laureate and selected members of the British public behind it, but it is the fringe where you see topics that are usually off the cards, on the table. Niche topics, that would never fill thousands of seats.

the fringe where you see topics that are usually off the cards, on the table.

London’s Vault Festival, which has just put on it’s biggest year to date, is a barometer of what taboo-busting fringe theatre is to come next. This year, Boys “a celebration of Manhood”, took a hard look at what has been termed ‘toxic-masculinity’. A conversation that has been gaining more ground with the rise of forth wave feminism more explicitly inviting the male voice into the equality conversation. It was high on my agenda of shows to see, but I couldn’t even get in (on my coveted yellow crew pass), as it was sold-out. Theatre-goers aren’t just engaging with this latest taboo topic, they are packing out underground venues for it. Of course this is not a new issue, VICE published a very interesting article on the subject at the advent of the Southbank Centre’s ‘Being a Man’ festival, back in 2015 (you can check it out here: https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/dp5k3k/will-the-being-a-man-festival-break-the-taboo-of-masculine-self-examination) In this case, as in the case of many others, theatre is riding the crest of a wave in the way it addresses this taboo topic. It is not itself proposing but is pushing, it forms a vital theatrical part of a wider conversation.

I am currently working on a new play with The Write Network, written by and starring Paula David, in which the main character is going through the menopause. She is in fact, peri-menopausal which I must be honest, I had to Google (and you may now need to do the same!) which goes to show that it is a niche topic indeed. Whilst this new play is not radically reinventing the wheel, the menopause is still a radical subject to be putting on the stage. On the train home from a rehearsal two weeks ago, there was an article about it slapped on the back of my Guardian Weekly confirming Paula’s inclinations that drove her to write the play: “The absence of the menopause in popular culture shows that it remains taboo”, Suzanne Moore declared. Once again, through fringe theatre, we are part of a wider conversation. And what has really struck me, is that as with Boys, there is an appetite for it. We are taking it to the Brighton fringe, where it is appearing in opening week, no less. As part of the production team I am involved with the marketing for the show, so naturally I am thinking about bums on seats. Is the menopause as “sexy” as toxic masculinity? I am asking myself as I draft marketing plans. Forgive the industry term, but in this particular analogy it is an interesting one. I would love to be proven wrong, but I don’t believe taboo-busting theatre can stand alone. Without the reach and the hook the wider conversation provides, these shows would never be programmed in the first place. Fringe may be more free than some other mediums, but there are still gate-keepers.

Is the menopause as “sexy” as toxic masculinity?

In Paula’s play The Forgetting of Carol Anne, her written word is combined with her original songs. One in particular sticks in my head. “My turn…”, Carol Anne sings, “Give me my turn…”. We have, in a sense been given ‘our turn’. The wheels of society have turned, a gap has opened, a light shone down… and we have a platform from which we can take our turn to talk about a taboo topic. A taboo topic that affects every woman to some degree, and women’s stories are ‘having a moment’ (according to Radio 4’s Front Row at least, among other media sources). We will share Paula’s personal experiences with rooms (hopefully) filled with strangers. If we are lucky we may even ignite some comment in the form of reviews or on blogs, perhaps if we are very fortunate even in the wider press. But this is what concerns me. We can’t just let it be “our turn”, we want to ignite that match, ride that wave and see change that lasts. We don’t want to remain topical in this moment, we don’t just want permission to speak now.

Brexit is ongoing, and so we don’t want a token Brexit play, with all due respect National Theatre, we want an on-going conversation. This fortunately looks set to continue, with SPILL Festival, in it’s 11th year of international companies presenting works that promote contemporary arts and activism, today announcing it received 633 entries for 2018.

Similarly, we at The Write Network don’t want The Forgetting… to stand alone in isolation. The same aforementioned Guardian article reported that there are 3.5 million women over 50 in the workplace, and 45% of them say they have suffered menopausal symptoms difficult to deal with; many have considered leaving work. Half of them said their symptoms had made their working life worse. This is a problem that is not going away and we want to address that. We don’t want to talk taboo for taboos sake, we don’t want our “turn” on the stage. We want to ignite something larger. We don’t want to ride a wave, we want to be the drop in the ocean that starts ripples out to wider seas.

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