Getting into trouble: Jenny Diver and Brecht


Photo by Patrick Baldwin. Myself as Jenny Diver, in a skimpy black dress, legging and black heels. Standing in a sexy pose with a snarky smile on my face. I have my cane across the back of my shoulders almost like a weapon.

“Art is not a mirror in which to reflect reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.” (Bertolt Brecht)

Last week marked the start of my rehearsals for the ThreePenny Opera which is being put on by Graeae Theatre, the New Wolsey, Birmingham Rep, Nottingham Playhouse and the West Yorkshire Playhouse. I get the exciting challenge of playing Jenny Diver, Mack the Knife’s favorite whore. As an actor, this is an insanely exciting opportunity to be in a great show with a very talented group of people. As a researcher, it presents some interesting thoughts as well.

I have said previously that I like the idea of “trouble” in the academic sense of the word. This means spaces of tension or unresolved-ness where questions arise out of something being slightly strange or other than the norm. I think Brechtian theatre is an interesting style in which to play with trouble, because he has his concept of Verfremdungseffekt. This has been called the v-effect, alienation effect (when badly translated) and more recently either the estrangement effect or distentiation. A literal translation of the word is “to make strange”. The idea is that Brecht wanted to “distance” his audience from becoming too invested in the characters as he thought too much investment would distract from what he saw as the purpose of theatre: to invoke and inspire social and political change. i.e. by watching the play people would want to change the world and make it less corrupt. So an audience would follow and invest in a story only so far as they could learn from it. Trouble, as a concept, is not as inherently political. But it can be about making what seems “normal” or “real” strange by introducing things that are not of the norm into new spaces. For example, putting a bunch of disabled actors in a mainstream and widely viewed theatrical production, like the ThreePenny Opera, is outside of the norm for most people. (This is what Graeae does. It is a disability led company, so one might say they specialize in the good kind of trouble.)

I am diving into this trouble, or distentiation or whatever you want to call it through the hard skinned London prozzie, Jenny. I am a not-so-hard skinned USA-er who, by Brechtian standards, has had a pretty fucking easy life. As a disabled woman, I have certainly had to deal with my fair share of discrimination, but I have never reeeeaaally had to want for work, money, food, shelter, family or friends. I’m not rich, but I’ve always been cared for, and usually am able to do what I want in my life. I am very lucky. So playing Jenny is a bit of personal “trouble” because I am not a broken woman. I don’t have to have sex for money, I haven’t been in abusive relationships, etc. Of course, Brecht would say I don’t need to (and maybe shouldn’t) fully embody her. I need to represent her. What that means and how that will develop in this whole process and rehearsal period will be extremely interesting. I feel like representation often exists in things like gestures, body language, costume, etc. I wonder how visual this process is going to be, and what kind of “trouble” I as a blind actor will come across.

Last week, we focused pretty much on the music… in itself a beast of a task as Kurt Weill does not make it easy for anyone. This week, we knuckle down into the acting, so all things will be revealed in good time…

For info on the show, and to see some publicity shots visit:


Nuts and Bolts

Here are some useful things to know about my research. Again, please ask questions, debate, comment, etc. I am still getting to grips with most of this, so any thoughts and ideas are useful!

1. I’m looking for “trouble”. When I say this, I don’t mean it in a straight forward, “you did bad, go sit in time out” kind of way. Trouble in an academic sense is a space of tension, subversion or rupture. It is a place of conflict where things aren’t (and may never become) resolved. Though this might come from doing something like breaking a rule, the result is not as straight forward as the common understanding for the word trouble insinuates. For one thing, I don’t think trouble is “bad”. These places of tension often bring about possibilities for new questions, thoughts and ideas to occur. Trouble can (should?) be a place of creativity and insight as well as a method for laying down boundaries and rules. 

2. I’m going to use the word “crip” a lot. This too is an academic term. Shocked? Good. That’s the point. There is a whole section in disability studies that calls itself “crip theory.” (Look up Robert McRuer and/or Carrie Sandahl if you don’t believe me) It is based in methodologies from other identity based studies like queer theory and feminist studies. The use of the word is meant to be a tongue and cheek provocation. It is also a common word in disability culture. We all call each other crips, and when we do we’re not just referring to physical disability. Blindies like me get to get in on the action too, as do any others who fit under the disability umbrella if they so choose. 

3. Everything can be a performance, or at least “performative”. Crip theory and queer theory take on the idea of “performativity” which is… difficult to explain in a few sentences. In essence it means that pretty much everything you do, and everything you associate as yourself is performed. Gender, sexuality, culture, social class, and yes, disability (among other things) all have aspects of them that are based in societal structures and expectations that are taught to us from childhood. If this seems unlikely, think about toys that are given to children. The average five year old girl and boy have the same hormonal make up, yet what will the little girl be likely to want for her birthday? What will the boy? These are taught behaviors that are repeated continuously until they become “normative” or what is considered to be normal. Obviously, this is not universal for everyone, but the general systems that are in place are pretty obvious once you start looking for them. 

4. I’m an actor who has trained a in modern, western school setting, which means that I have been taught that an actor’s best tool is her imagination. I am really curious about what the imagination is and what it does for an actor. What images does imagination create? What are those images made of? In particular, I want to know how much of these images are visual, and more to the point, how often methods of acting, training actors, directing actors, etc. expect this imagination output to be visual? The academic way I am phrasing this in my thesis at present god something like, “Is acting ocularcentric (visual)? If so, where does the ocular sit in acting processes?” (blahhh!! …so much for not using words that no one understands!)

So essentially, I am a crip actor who wants to trouble the “image” in imagination. Make sense? No? Good. That’s about where I’m at with it too!

The beginning…

Hello! So, I’m a performer. I act, sing, play musical instruments and dangle from various aerial circus contraptions (trapezes, silks, ropes, etc) whenever I get the chance. I’m also a Phd student, and my research is focused on performance… though try as I may to avoid it, a bit of philosophy keeps sneaking in as well. I am hoping to use this blog to help develop my voice as a researcher, and to discuss questions, themes and troubles in my research. Discussion is highly welcome, so please follow and comment! Oh!  Also, I’m registered blind (or legally blind for my American peeps). I state this not as inspiration porn; I’m not looking for sympathy or admiration. I mention it because it’s part of my research and my identity, and is therefore important. My research is based in…

It’s always a bit daunting to try and explain your research when you’re in the middle of it… often because you’re not quite sure what it is going to be yet. However, throughout these blogs, hopefully it will become clearer to everyone… including myself.

I will also state for the record that I do not want to become an academic that uses language that no one can understand… that being said, to a certain degree, dense wording is the language of the academic world. If you want to live in it, you have to learn to speak it. So I will occasionally throw words out there like “ocularcentric,” or “performativity” or “normative” or “phenomenological”. Needless to say, if I stop making sense, please tell me, and I will try to explain myself.

I won’t go too in depth about my research at the moment (every time I try I write a novel, which makes me think it needs its own blog) other than to say that I am looking at how disability, visual impairment in particular, interacts with various performance practices, processes and techniques. This is particularly interesting for me at the moment as starting Monday, I will be going into rehearsals for Graeae and The New Wolsey Theatre’s production of ThreePenny Opera by the lovely and very German Bertolt Brecht. Info for the show is here:

Come and see if you can! I’ll be playing Jenny Diver, and I have to say, I’ve never been so excited to be classified as a hooker… or maybe I should say, “lady of the night”. A friend of mine once joked that the difference between a “slut” and “lady of the night” is the pay bracket… How she knows that is anyone’s guess. Anyway, I digress!

Graeae is a disability led theatre company with some unique and exciting ways of working and presenting theatre, and Brecht plays use a very specific style of performance, so this is a golden opportunity for me. I anticipate that I will get tons out of this experience, and hope you enjoy me sharing my findings as I go.