Lesbian Feminist Theatre

Presentation for Lesbian History Group, Sat 2 November 2019 by Zayeet and Vole

Za: Hi I’m zayeet. I’ve been known by many other names over the years but Zayeet will do for now. And…

Vole: I’m Vole, also a bit of a shape-shifter namewise. Previously known as Val Dykestein, currently known as Vole, or on stage as Dr Vole.

Za: We are part of Keep Earth Company which we’ll fill you in on later.

We’re here to talk a bit about lesbian feminist theatre, in an introductory, hopefully pique-your-interest kind of way, and to mostly tell you about what we’ve contributed to the genre.

I came to the UK in 1984. At that time I was doing an MA in theatre, which included playwriting, performing etc. But I already had a background in performance.

In the early 1970s I wrote, directed and played in a musical about lesbians who lived on women’s land, which was a fairly big movement at that time amongst certain women primarily in North America. A few years later I became a member of a lesbian feminist street theatre or guerrilla theatre, bit of both: Auntie Nuke and the Atom Sisters. We performed at demonstrations, in shopping centres, festivals and at feminist venues around the San Francisco Bay area. We had an amazing time parodying the patriarchy, covering various current political concerns.

I also performed in a comedy duo called Friends of Anemone and I did a lot of solo shows composed of skits and original songs. Our themes were always women centred, nature-celebrating, antitechnology, anticapitalism.

When I came to London, one thing I was interested in was learning a diversity of theatre modalities, internationally based. I went to performances and workshops of women from various countries, including studying for a bit with Anu Kapoor from whom I learned a style of theatre called ram-lila from South India. Associated with my MA, I gathered a motley collective of fabulous dykes who became Free Range Women. Together we devised Sprouts Came First which was partially based on that style of theatre.

Lezzannanas was another theatre collective I was involved with into the 1990s with Camilla Cancantata. One of our high points was performing at Lesbenwoche in Berlin. I also was a director of a community arts project, Artshare South-West, which included producing performances and workshops in all sorts of artforms.

Val and I did some one-off shows together – the Meshuggeneh Matzo Show, at the launch of a Jewish women’s night at Wesley House. And West Fried Story – a sketch we did with Camilla at Centerprise as a benefit for PSC (Palestine Solidarity Campaign).

You’ll hear more about Free Range Women and about Val soon, but now we thought we’d sing you a song from my early career.

Lesbian Ecstasy
It's not my fate
 to be a straight 
 i'm endowed with a lesbian destiny
 there's no doubt about it
 or way not to shout it 
 i'm filled up with lesbian ecstasy…

 Squirrels sing it from the treetops 
 Gulls squawk it from the waves
 The lizards live it and love it, don't you
 Elephants and their sisters
 Single cell creatures
 do do do do do what lesbians do

 It's not my fault
 if you're named Walt
 and can't share this lesbian energy
 i'd trade it for none
 all us women have fun
 in Amsterdam, Australia and Anglesey 

 Squirrels sing it from the treetops
 Gulls squawk it from the waves
 The lizards live it and love it, don't you
 Elephants and their sisters
 Single cell creatures
 do do do do do what lesbians do

 it's not a fact that i must act
 in a manner that pleases the average norm
 my pleasures are earthly 
 my spirit is firstly
 connected with women in wild forms

 Squirrels sing it from the treetops
 Gulls squawk it from the waves
 The lizards live it and love it, don't you
 Elephants and our sisters

 Single cell creatures
 do do do do do what lesbians 
 ooh ooh ooh ooh ooh what lesbians 
 do do do do do what lesbians do!

Vole, about myself:

I grew up in Hendon in a Jewish family. My parents loved music, books, comedy, theatre, opera, films – as members of the audience. I loved those things too but never imagined that I could become an actor, or even a singer. I put myself in a box marked “writer”, and sat in my room reading and writing. I did a degree in Male Studies – also known as English Literature – but towards the end of it I suddenly had a lightbulb moment of radicalisation.

Eventually I started meeting lesbian feminists. I now realise how amazingly lucky I was to come out into that welcoming world of lesbian feminist politics and culture in the early 80s. I got involved in groups like WAVAW (women against violence against women) and Jewish Lesbians Fight Racism, and I spent all my time at AWP (A Woman’s Place) on the Embankment.

One day this womanZayeetinvited me to be part of her theatre group. I’d already started reading my poems in public. I was in Michele Roberts’ writing class at the City Lit. There was a rural residential weekend where we were doing the planning to put on our own poetry event, and someone overheard me singing in the bathroom. Since it was a case of “make your own entertainment”, she persuaded me to sing for the others that evening. I didn’t take a lot of persuading!

That was it – I was launched. So joining up with Free Range Women and putting on our play Sprouts Came First in 1986 was the best thing that had ever happened to me.

We’ll talk about the play itself later. First we’ll sing another of Zayeet’s songs. It’s from her play Fiddler in The Closet

If there were no rich men
 If there were no rich men
 yayadeyadeyadeyadeyadeyadeya dum
 All day long we’d dykey dykey doo
 If there were no white straight men!

 We wouldn’t have imperialism
 capi crappy zapitalism ku klux klan conservative
 If there were more trees instead of men
 More women-only space and women’s time

 We need a world of wild turkeys and geese
 The end of the family and war
 x-mas gone, and with it the shopping malls
 There would be no more people starving in the streets
 Plenty of borshch to go around
 And lots of feminist vegan matzo balls -
 yayadeyadeya (etc)

 If there were just women
 baleboostah bube meisa bubeleh babushka hoo-ha!
 No more gods and slavery and hate
 Everywhere we’d wildly celebrate
 Would there be too much revelry and mirth -
 If this were a lesbian earth?

Zayeet: Dyke theatre list
Some earlier theatre that led up to or were precursors to lesbian feminist theatre as we knew it in the 80s include:

Suffrage drama of which there was quite a bit. Amongst the better-known plays were How the vote was won by Cicely Hamilton as well as Votes for women by Elizabeth Robbins, which appeared at the Royal Court in 1907 – it was a more feminist version of Hedda Gabler. Edith Craig (daughter of Ellen Terry) set up the Pioneer Players (1911-20) She and her partner Christabel Marshall wrote plays for the actresses’ franchise league.

Women’s Liberation March

Then of course from the 60s a major influence was theatricality of political uprisings and marches including those to do with lesbian and gay rights, women’s liberation et cetera.

Moving along to the 1970s, there was the rise of fringe theatre itself which included the feminist theatre study group. In 1973 we saw the beginning of the Women’s Theatre Group which later became Sphinx. Theatre of Black Women was founded in 1982 by Bernadine Evaristo, Patricia Hilaire and Paulette Randall. There was also Monstrous Regiment and Gay Sweatshop which were mixed groups, the former being a mixed feminist group, the latter being a mixed gay and lesbian group, mostly gay actually.

Gertrude Stein and a Companion

Lesbian theatre groups abounded. A lesbian feminist play could be a play that was written by a lesbian or about lesbians or preferably both, preferably also acted by lesbians, with themes around coming out such as Any Woman Can from 1976, which in its first one-night performance in Leicester starred Miriam Margolyles, seen in this slide in another play, Gertrude Stein and a Companion – and Jackie Kay’s Twice Over at the Drill Hall in 1988.

Another theme was lesbian mothers, including about custody, such as Care and Control by Michelene Wandor. Very often plays were comic, spoofs set in the lesbian community. Or they might address wider serious issues such as nuclear disaster: The Day the Sheep Turned Pink by Cordelia Ditton and Maggie Ford; or male violence – 1981 Curfew by Siren. Another play by them was Pulp.

The Drill Hall was famed for lesbian pantos. Nona Sheppard and Bryony Lavery featured large. These will be covered later in Val’s talk.

Sprouts Came First

Another important venue was the Oval House, in Kennington, which Kate Crutchley ran in the 80s. Lots of the plays of these groups were put on there, including our play Sprouts Came First. Kate was one of my mentors, was incredibly supportive to the development of dyke theatre. It’s also worth mentioning the GLC (Greater London Council) here because they also offered a lot of resources to the community to express ourselves culturally. Also the Arts Council.

To briefly mention some of the groups that came along in the 80s that were either lesbian or followed by lesbians:

Berta Freistadt’s A Fine Undertaking, 1984, was a very funny parody set in a funeral home. And finally, Shameful Practice was a professional lesbian theatre company with a strong comedy element for all who need it.

That was loads of theatre!

Vole: “panto theory”

I have a theory.

Like many others of my generation, and probably other generations too, I wasn’t born into a lovingly, acceptingly lesbian environment. Most of us grow up alone, one of a kind, thinking There’s something wrong, I’m different, what’s the matter with me? One day, sooner or later, we realise.

But, growing up as lesbians in a straight world, we absorbed the images that surrounded us. If we even grew up in conditions where we had access to cultural artefacts, we might have heard those straight songs, seen those mainstream plays, and imagined ourselves replacing the male hero, rescuing the female character, running away from the world of men…

It’s been so rare for there to be a representation on the mainstream stage of a young lesbian realising who she is. When Alison Bechdel’s autobiographical graphic novel Fun Home was recently turned into a musical play, 10-year-old Alison sees a grown-up dyke in a cafe, and recognises that they have something in common. That this is the type of woman she could grow up to be. Her utter delight, and yearning, is beautifully captured in the song “Ring of Keys” – it’s the keys that this dyke wears on her belt as she swaggers up to the counter. The keys to Small Alison’s new world.

But for many of us, this never happened. For some of us, maybe it happened the other way round, much later on. As adults, we might go back to the stories, the dramas, the music that we grew up with, and we might re-run them, but this time with a lesbian sensibility. In our Fiddler on the Roof, or Fiddler in the Closet, Hodel might run off with a woman revolutionary.

The Sound of Music

For me, the funniest thing I ever saw, a moment of sheer delight, was the lesbian version of The Sound of Music at London Women’s Centre in 1991. I don’t have a programme or photos – it was staged in secret, because the tabloids had got hold of the fact that it was being illegally put on before the original version was out of copyright. The headline in the Sun was “Doh, a deer, a female queer”. (Boo, hiss). So all I have left is this mysterious ticket and the memory of lesbian Maria entering with her carpet bag and a big grin, on the way to become the new nanny for the children of whoever it was. I’m pretty sure the plot was based around the evil proponents of Clause 28.

For me, who had spent my childhood with a huge crush on Julie Andrews, as Maria, even as Mary Poppins for fucksake, it was like going back and seeing it all from the reverse viewpoint. Rewriting history into herstory: here was Maria and she was actually a dyke!

It would explain why I – and Zayeet, and others – love to rewrite those songs from musicals again and again. Why I choose to re-use those tunes that had so much significance for me then. It’s like rewriting our past to make it more ours, more authentically in keeping with our dykeliness.

In the discussion in the second half, please tell us if any of that resonates with you.

But the theory could explain why one of the most popular forms of lesbian feminist theatre I remember from the 80s and early 90s was the annual pantomime, usually at the Drill Hall. Pantomime wouldn’t have featured in everyone’s childhood – but many of us did enjoy those themes, those fairy stories, now re-run with a modern sensibility and a big helping of contemporary politics.

Traditional panto already has the Principal Boy played by a woman, slapping her thigh as Robyn Hood or Cinderella’s Prince. The lesbian pantos took it further, making the same-sex attraction more overt, the power of those high-status characters more effective as female leaders of the plot. We audience members participated with enthusiasm, cheering, shouting “She’s behind you!” and singing along with the musical numbers – which were often very well-crafted by the likes of Laka Daisical, Jan Ponsford who wrote the music for Fanny Whittington and Helen Glavin.

Zayeet: about Free Range Women

Coming on to our theatre company, Free Range Women and our play Sprouts Came First. It was a satire, or perhaps post-absurdist. After performing it for two weeks at Oval House Theatre, we repeated the play at Lauderdale House.

We devised the piece together over a period of a few weeks. We each chose a kind of lesbian character/stereotype to portray. I was the narrator/foil/catalyst for the unfolding plot (if we can call it that), of a lesbian household and its meetings, meditations, collective living issues, like vegetarianism, love and relationships etc.

We also had a spiritual, goddessy-type character, and the others were three dykes who shared a flat in Deptford. One just wanted to go dancing every night, one was the nurturing cat-loving homebody, and Val here played Paula –

Vole: Paula… Tiklicorect!

Za: who was a full-time political activist. Meetings 24 hours a day, telling everyone what to do, and obsessing about what the US military were doing to the women at the Greenham Common peace camp. Destroying her own health in the process.

Vole: and given my penchant for musicals with really crap sexual politics, I found a song in Guys and Dolls which seemed to have potential for a bit of satire.

A lesbian can develop a cold

Vole:

Lesbian Stress”?

 It says in this book:
 The average revolutionary lesbian
 Inevitably overbooked,
 After her millionth meeting may react
 With psychosomatic symptoms
 Not easily overlooked
 Affecting the upper respiratory tract.
 In other words, just from waiting around
 For that fucker to give up his hold
 A lesbian can develop a cold!

 You can feed her all day
 With the Vitamin A and the Bromofizz
 But the medicine never gets anywhere near
 Where the trouble is
 When she’s getting a kind of a name for herself
 And that name ain’t Ms
 A lesbian can develop a cold.

 The dyke remaining non-existent
 As far as society goes
 Shows a dramatic tendency, see note
 (Oh – see note)
 Chronic organic syndrome
 Pains in the fingers and toes
 And trouble with the ears and nose and throat
 In other words, just from worrying if the revolution is on or orff
 A lesbian can develop a cough

 You can spray her wherever you figure the streptococci lurk
 You can give every shot for whatever she’s got
 But it just don’t work
 When she’s tired of being solicited by her solicitor’s clerk
 A lesbian can develop a cough

 And furthermore, just from stalling and stalling
 Each action and march and trip
 A lesbian can develop la grippe
 When they get on the train for Westminster
 To protest some MP’s crime
 They’ve got all the banners and placards
 And the mood’s sublime
 But someone’s forgotten the leaflets
 For the fourteenth time -
 A lesbian can develop la grippe!
 La grippe – from a lack of a proper kip.
 With the wheezes and the sneezes
 And a sinus that’s really the pip
 From a lack of a regular income
 And a feeling she’s growing blue mould
 A lesbian can develop a bad, bad… [achoo]

Vole: Agitprop

In thinking about lesbian feminist theatre, it occurred to us that much of women’s political activity has an inherently theatrical aspect. There has certainly been a strong tradition of musical protest – using music, whether vocal or instrumental, on marches and demos, or making music itself the protest. An example of the latter – which shows the crossover between feminism and the peace/anti-nuclear movement – is Camilla Cancantata’s choral piece Trident: A British War Crime, which we staged as a singing flashmob in the Scottish High Court in Edinburgh in 2004.

With protest as theatre, one striking example – again anti-nuclear weapons – was the Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp. The mass Embrace the Base actions, the dancing on the silos, the decorating of the fence, the confrontations with the police and the locals all had a theatrical aspect – visual symbolism being used to draw attention to the enormity of the threat posed by nuclear weapons.

And of course there is the music of Greenham – the many beautiful, or raucous, songs written there, or shared there. Our friend Paula Boulton has been archiving them and teaches them in workshops all round the country. Remember that Greenham was the cauldron into which many women jumped and emerged as lesbian feminists.

Boadicea: Radical feminism lives!

Going back to the seventies, thinking of strikingly theatrical feminist actions, we remembered the 1970 Miss World contest where Women’s Liberation activists flour-bombed the stage, shouting the slogan “We’re not beautiful, we’re not ugly, we’re angry!” I heard that they also released a troop of mice but I couldn’t find a reference for that. (An audience member confirmed that this was apocryphal.)

And then forward to the late eighties with Thatcher’s introduction of Clause 28, a.k.a. Section 28, of the Local Government Act [the one in which lesbians and gay men were described as promoting homosexuality and “pretend families”]. The many L & G actions against Clause 28 included dykes bravely abseiling into the House of Lords [from the gallery], and attempting to take over the BBC Six O’Clock News [on 23 May 1988]. My friend Kirsten Hearn wrote a song to immortalise that – “Nicholas Witchell / Is all of a twitchell / With dykes chained to his desk”.

One of Claudia Clare’s Clause 28 pots

And some women, myself included, invaded a show home at the Ideal Home Exhibition and hung banners from the windows saying “Lesbians aren’t pretending”. The only surviving record of that action brings in another artform – Claudia Clare, one of the invaders, immortalised it in pottery.

Oxford Lesbian Strength 1986

Lesbian Strength marches often included a cabaret and disco afterwards – I was involved in organising (and performing in) some of the cabarets in London, and Free Range Women performed after the Oxford Lesbian Strength march in 1986.

Camden Dykes Get their Claws Out

Slide 4, not shown on the day, indicates some of the creativity and irony that was used by lesbians responding to government/patriarchal oppression: there were a number of events whose titles referenced Clause 28. This slide showed a cabaret called “Camden Dykes Get their Claws Out” with a picture of a crab; I organised a poetry reading called “All the Nice Girls Love an Abseiler” along with Berta Freistadt and Eve Featherstone.

There was a musical entertainment as well as the political speeches at this year’s Lesbian Strength march in Leeds.

Keep Earth Company (KECo)

KECo playing at Denmark Farm

Zayeet: Our latest theatre collective, Keep Earth Company, grew out of a lesbian gathering we attended in West Yorkshire in August 2018. At the planning session, asked for suggestions of workshops and activities I suggested creating a play. Another woman wanted to run a song-writing workshop. So we joined forces and with interested women devised a musical. We combined our passion for animal spirits, mycorrhizal networks of trees, and finding a frequency to end patriarchy.

The members of Keep Earth Company live too far from each other to meet often, so we are now a loose sisterhood. If anyone would like to get involved, let us know and we’ll fill you in on how we operate now to keep to our shared direction.

Vole: Our colleague Paula says that she organised the open mic evening at FiLia last month and the performers who came forward were 90% lesbians. Song, drama, comedy, poetry were all represented. She feels that there is a clear thirst for lesbian culture.

KECo rehearsing at Denmark Farm

Here’s one of the songs we wrote together as KECo:

OUR RESISTANCE (short version)

In my ears the words of women
 Sapphic sisters sowing seeds
 From forever to forever
 Telling, telling, telling of our resistance, our resistance
 Women’s circles, rings of mushrooms
 Touch my bones and sing my spirit
 We will never be forgotten
 Someone will remember our existence, our existence

 (Listen, listen, listen…)

 Life force thrumming through the networks
 Power drumming underground
 Sounds of Sapphic sisters singing
 Listen to the song of our resistance, our resistance 

 REPEAT last 4 lines, ending with
 Listen to the song of our resistance, our resistance, our resistance!

Bibliography: LESBIAN FEMINIST THEATRE

Methuen Drama Book of Suffrage Plays

Putting Your Daughters on the Stage: lesbian theatre from the 1970s to the 1990s, Sandra Freeman

Lesbian Playwrights in Britain, Rose Collis

The Cambridge Paperback Guide to Theatre, Sarah Stanton and Martin Banham (see lesbian theatre entry)

Contemporary Feminist Theatres: To Each Her Own, Lizbeth Goodman

Women in Theatre, Julia Pascal. Contemporary Theatre Review, 1995, Vol 2#3 (introduction available at https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=kBuPAgAAQBAJ&printsec=frontcover#v=onepage&q&f=false)

The Impact of Feminism on the Theatre, Michelene Wandor

Siren Theatre talk: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N-nXa70aRYE

https://teara.govt.nz/en/video/30296/topp-twins – short clip of New Zealand’s musical comedy duo the Topp Twins

http://www.unfinishedhistories.com – “Recording the History of Alternative Theatre” (searchable for names, companies, etc)

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