Save the ILF!

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Photo: From the set of Graeae’s Threepenny Opera. A protest placard says “Save the ILF” with pound signs around it. It is leaning against a grey scaffolding tower that has a bright red noose hanging from the top of it. 

This particular blog is a slight diversion from my normal academic blather. I just want to quickly call attention to a big issue that is effecting thousands of people in the UK, including some very good friends of mine. 

I think everyone in the UK and the USA that I know is feeling the various financial crunching that both respective governments are implementing in a desperate attempt to save money. The problem with this, as often seems to be the case throughout history, is the ones who are getting most of the brunt of this are people who were not particularly well off to begin with. In the UK in particular, this government seems to have it out for the people that they would also label the “most vulnerable” in society. 

The independent living fund is wonderful. It has allowed people with various disabilities who need various levels of support to get that support. These individuals are then able to control what support they get and how it is used in order to facilitate an independent life. (Hence the name, independent living fund) Often the people using the ILF are individuals who need 24 hour care. By having that option, it allows more disabled people to work and do what they want to in their lives, and also gives employment to multiple PA’s who may otherwise be out of a job. Needless to say, without ILF funding, the quality of life of these individuals would greatly lessen, or disappear all together. 

Despite overwhelming proof of this and a long legal battle in which the courts actually ruled in favor of the ILF users, the government has decided to close ILF funding in 2015 without giving any real concrete description of what will happen to those who are dependent on ILF funding to live their lives. Alongside that, there are many skewed statistics about the numbers of people who need/use ILF funding. For example, they say closing the ILF has no effect on disabled children and young adults…. That is because the government closed the ILF to new applicants a few years ago thus meaning that many who need support have never received it. There is also overwhelming proof that the quality of life for these youngsters is not anything near what those with ILF support have.

I don’t use the ILF, but I have many friends who do, and I am terrified for them. Loosing this funding means anything from loosing quality of life, independence, the ability to work, to the care someone needs to stay comfortable, happy… alive? (Is that too far? Maybe… but when you tell someone who is quadriplegic that instead of having a care worker at night they can just wear “incontinence pads” if they need the loo… I mean come on. These are adults with dignity. Oh, and what if there’s a fire and there is no one to help them out of the house?)  

I came to the UK almost 8 years ago as a bright eyed, optimistic young blind actor looking for a home that accepted me artistically and individually. Having come from a country that, to be frank, could do with learning a few lessons around what it actually means to create safety nets and support for its people, I was overjoyed by how much the UK took care of its own. I couldn’t believe that by walking onto English soil as a student, I immediately got free health care with no questions asked, or free travel on public transport as an acknowledgement that I don’t have any other choices for how I get around as a blind individual. I looked at the benefit system and thought, “well it’s not perfect, but it’s better than the states!” And most of all, I met a whole community of disabled artists and individuals, including my ILF using friends, saw how independent and strong they were, and strove to join them in that strength. I thought this was a government that “got it” more than most, and was most definitely ahead of the curve in disability awareness. With these cuts, the UK will be taking many steps backwards in the way it treats its own citizens. 

My father visited me in London over the summer for the first time in a few years. This was the first time he had seen me comfortable in London as a city and able to navigate and move about without needing any help. One night in the pub he said over a drink I had bought him, “If you lived in America right now, you’d be on social security, stuck in a house without being able to work. Your quality of life is so much better here. I get why you want to stay in this city.”

I hate more than anything to think that quality of life, dignity and choice for anyone is being taken away. The ILF needs to be saved. Spread the word. Shout it loud, and don’t stop shouting until David Cameron and the other idiots currently pulling the strings get the message. 

News on ILF closure:

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-26471706

Personal messages from ILF users:

http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/closure-independent-living-fund-one-3231375

http://pennypepper.wordpress.com/2014/03/20/brief-thoughts-on-independence-and-the-closure-of-ilf-avebury/

http://www.newstatesman.com/politics/2014/03/back-basics-independent-living-fund

Petition against closing the ILF. Please sign!

http://aworkingclassman.com/govt-announces-closure-independent-living-fund-2/

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Jenny Diver, a creature of vision?

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Photo by Patrick Baldwin. Jenny in a pink corset, black hot pants, fishnets and black heels and Macheath in black slacks with suspenders, patent leather shoes, a clean white shirt and dreadlocks, circle each other like matadors holding an orange mobility cane between the two of them. They stare at each other intensely. Lighting is pinky/red, and scantily clad ladies are in the background playing various musical instruments.

I’m opening this with a question, because I feel like genuinely don’t know the answer. Is sex visual? By this I don’t mean intercourse. I mean looking fierce and sensual, and… well, sexy. I ask this because of my research on images and visuality in theatre, and because of the character I’m playing in Threepenny and the inevitable journey I have been going on with her over the last few months.

Jenny and mac

Photo by Patrick Baldwin: Jenny has her legs wrapped around Macheath’s waist. They are in a tight embrace. Mac dips Jenny low with a serious expression on his face. Jenny smiles.

Jenny diver is a hooker, a slut, a lady of the night, a whore. She sells sex. That is how she makes a living. If the above photos are any indication, the costume certainly makes sex visual, at least on the feminine side. I’m basically tangoing with a man wearing only a corset, heels and my underwear… ya know, like you do.

In process, I’ve been very aware of the sort of “male gaze” and such that seems appropriate in this setting. She invites them to look, so they do. Looking means they’re interested, which means she might get money which means she gets to eat that day. She also allows them to touch, particularly in the case of Macheath (though there are others in the play as well. I myself would not allow that kind of contact without at least a few dinner dates under my belt, but she’s… use to it. It’s her job.

Interestingly, there are a number of points in the script where it indicates quite clearly that Jenny is also looking at the person she is in dialogue. It became a bit of a running joke in my head that in one of the scenes between Jenny and Mac, a character says, “What are you looking at him like that for Jenny?” and I routinely forgot to look at Mac. Also, in the tango that Mac and Jenny do, there have been a number of clearly choreographed moments where we are either looking at each other, or away from each other. They are deliberate, visual moments. Those, I think are less about “sexiness” and more about passion and connection in a relationship. Regardless, I think it’s related given the characters and the setting (a brothel). They are two very sexually driven people, and their relationship is defined in a lot of ways by sex… as well as love, violence and a few other things.

So contact between Jenny and Mac is definitely visual, or at least is presented in that way. In my acting process, it feels much more visceral or tactile, both in my interactions with Macheath and other characters. As soon as there is physical contact, that’s when I feel like I can “see” them and therefore look and interact. Otherwise, they are either indiscriminate blobs in the distance, or they just sort of disappear, or maybe aren’t there all together. Obviously, when they speak, there is some ability to make contact. But as I’ve just said, much of the interactions are about looking and are therefore silent.

Also, in rehearsal, the choreographer gave me some very detailed ways to stand and move as Jenny. I.e. specific ways to hold my body, walk, how I put a hand on a hip, etc. These little changes, apparently, make her physical appearance much stronger. Getting that into my brain and body has taken a while as I have no real context for how or why that would be the case, and some of the movement feels pretty far from my own movement vocabulary. I’m going pretty much solely on what I’ve been told, how I’ve been directed and what has been described to me.

Along those lines, a friend of mine who saw one of our first previews mentioned that he didn’t think I was moving “like a whore”. He thought it was down to my shoes, which I was admittedly having some problems with as I don’t normally wear heels, and the ones I have are not the most comfortable things in the world. I also wonder if some of my potential problem was getting use to the body positioning and movement I had been given. I certainly can feel that my movement throughout this show has become more confident and comfortable as we get further into the tour, and to be honest, I’m not too bothered about looking like a whore in the stereotypical sense. (If we were casting this show traditionally, Jenny would probably be about 10 years older than me anyway) It does bring about an interesting question though… What would normative movement for a whore be? What would it look like? I actually have no idea how to answer that.

So I guess the general question I have is, is sex visual and if so, what does it look like? I can make some guesses based on my experience, but am curious to know what others think.

What does it mean to be “stunning”?

So the last few weeks have been epically busy. Threepenny Opera has come up to Nottingham Playhouse, we’ve had a very long tech week and a great press night and opening week. We have had the fortune of getting some amazing reviews as well. It is lovely and extremely fulfilling to be part of a show that is being received well. That being said, we have had some very… strange responses from our audiences. 

I think when one is trained in theatre, particularly musical theatre, music theatre and (to a certain degree) opera, you get use to having some kind of audience reaction. In particular, after a musical number, one learns to expect at least some polite applause. And with this show, I mean for goodness sake, the music is extremely challenging, and some of the songs are really freakin’ catchy. In short, we’re working our asses off to keep this show entertaining… so why aren’t people applauding?

This was our reaction after Saturday’s matinee and evening performances. Both had very little audience reaction during the show, and then very strong and enthusiastic applause in the curtain call. Along with this, there are some very funny lines in the piece that have previously gotten laughs that weren’t yesterday… All the while, the cast had felt that we had done strong performances. The dialogue was well paced, the singing was strong, the band played well, etc. We chalked it up to weird audiences… then we went to the bar and had a chat with a few people who had seen the show.

Apparently people wanted to laugh, to applaud and react. They didn’t because of the subject matter. Yes, Mack the Knife is a catchy and well known song, but it is about a man who rapes and murders people. “He’s a sadist, he’s a rapist and they haven’t caught him yet!” is the final lyric. And yes, there is a lot of dry humor in the piece, but it is around very serious political and social issues. People that we spoke to said that they felt by laughing, clapping and otherwise having a good time they would be somehow condoning the horrible things that happen in the story. 

They also said that they were “stunned” for most of the play, particularly in the first act which does hit you a bit like a sledge hammer after our pre-show antics. People were busy analyzing the large amount of intellectual and sensory information they were receiving, which left less space in their minds to be “entertained”. In this sense, our show is “stunning” in a much more literal way than one may usually use that phrase in relation to art. People watching it apparently couldn’t move!

Add to that the fact that a large majority of the audience is probably not use to seeing disabled actors on stage… disabled actors who are often cracking jokes in and around disability politics that might leave people unsure of the PC way to respond… there is a hell of a lot to take in with this piece. 

That or they thought we were shit and were being nice… ha! (I don’t really think that is true. The responses were very enthusiastic, articulate and thought out, which is hard to simulate when lying)

It makes me think that we would be doing Brecht proud with this version of his show. We’ve made people think, feel disgusted by the way of the world and wish for change. They spend the whole piece not knowing what is coming, so they can’t engage with the story in order to just be “entertained”. In fact, most people have said things like, “I don’t think I could call this piece enjoyable. It’s hard to watch, but it’s a fantastic show.” This must be what Brecht’s V-effect (distentiation, estrangement effect, whatever you want to call it) is suppose to do. 

As actors, it is important for us to remember that we are not doing a standard musical piece, which means we won’t get standard audience responses. It’s very easy to think that little or no audience responses = shit show, which can be damaging to the moral of a cast and a piece. With this one, I think it’s best we stay strong, trust the piece we have, and keep on working our asses off. We’re certainly having a blast, which always helps!

That being said, if any of you come and want to clap, laugh and cheer, you are more than welcome… none of us will think you’re condoning rape or murder if you do!

There is one more week of Threepenny at the Nottingham Playhouse. We close here on the 8th of March and then move to the New Wolsey Ipswich from March 11th-22nd. After that we have Birmingham and Leeds to look forward to! Full tour information is here: http://www.graeae.org/productions/the-threepenny-opera/