Feminist swag!

I’ve just published a review of Peggy Shaw’s recent solo show, Ruff, in the latest issue of  Performance Research (“On Affirmation”). PR is a scholarly journal published by Taylor & Francis; as part of their open-access policies*, T&F allow me to share this piece for free with 50 people. Just as Gerry Harris has done on her and Elaine Aston’s Drama Queens Review, I’m very pleased to make that offer available to readers of the blog. Click here for your free copy.

Regular readers will recognise part of this review from my post on Ruff last Spring; click here to read that one. And in the spirit of collaborative teaching, researching, and performance activism, I’d like to thank Keren Zaointz, the reviews editor for the journal, for the opportunity to reflect on Peggy’s new work in print, as well as Peggy’s longtime collaborator (and my dear colleague) Lois Weaver for sharing thoughts with me last autumn on the process of making the show.


(This is the promotional photo for “On Affirmation”. Oh yes.)

Enjoy – and feel free to pass the link along to others who might be keen!


*Open access is a complicated beast, too complicated for me to get into right here. But I’d like to note that, while I appreciate T&F’s opportunity to share my published work in their journals in this (limited) way, I do not, as an author, approve of the financial restrictions T&F place on my ability to reproduce my own work in other publications not solo-authored by me. The clause in my publishing contracts with T&F that stipulates my reprint rights and the potential costs of exercising some of those rights is to my mind both limiting and anti-collaborative, and I continue to insist it needs revision in order to be brought into line with the spirit of dynamic and interdisciplinary scholarship that open access is meant to support. I’ll do a full and less cryptic post on this issue in the near-ish future. For now, please download the review and enjoy, but don’t take this post as an endorsement of T&F’s policies on my part.

On “everyday feminism”

I’ve been a feminist for a very long time. I’ve self identified this way to students and in my research for my entire career so far. But when time came to name this blog, I hesitated about putting the word in the title. This wasn’t about being cagey; you can read about my feminist ethos on the “about” page, you can guess it from the title of my first solo-authored book (Violence Against Women in Early Modern Performance: Invisible Acts), and you can read my regular contributions to Fit is a Feminist Issue, which I always cross-post in this space. So my hesitation about labelling my blog “feminist” wasn’t about minimising or denying my feminist habitus. Rather, it was based in an anxiety about securing readership: I didn’t want the word to somehow limit the scope of the blog, for readers and, maybe, also for me. But what are the stakes of making such a choice? I’ve been thinking about this question a lot lately, largely because a confluence of recent, auspicious events has encouraged me to reflect anew on how I practice my feminism, and indeed about what contemporary feminist practice looks – or might look – like. (For more on “practice” used in this way, click here.)

The first of these auspicious events is a contract: I’ve just signed with Palgrave, my regular academic publisher, to write a book called Theatre& Feminism. Theatre& is a respected book series edited by my friends and colleagues Dan Rebellato and Jen Harvie; its volumes are short, accessible, and written with a student audience in mind. As I’ve begun preparing to write Theatre& Feminism, then, I’ve been reading as much as I can about what the term “feminism” might look and sound like to such an audience: I’ve been investigating blogs of all kinds, listening to interviews with women in the mainstream who call themselves (or not!) feminists, and reading books such as the superb Everyday Sexism by Laura Bates. (I really like and respect this book; I’ll do a full review of it on the blog when I’m finished with it. Meanwhile, visit the Everyday Sexism project here.)

Exploring feminism via the contemporary mainstream has been enormously eye-opening for me as an academic feminist; I’ve realized that as much as Western, Anglophone culture is still anxious about the term and its polemical, bra-burning connotations, we also seem to be undergoing a kind of feminist resurgence right now, especially among young, politically aware men and women. This is heartening and inspiring for me, but it’s also, I’m cautious to note, not a simple given. (Phew! It’s 2014 and we finally all “get” feminism. Um, sadly, no.) As I’ve learned from my students when I bring up this topic, not all the women (or men!) who engage with stuff like Everyday Sexism are interested in calling themselves feminists: there’s still something uncomfortably sticky about the word, and about what it might say about you if you were openly to wear the label.

I’d just got stuck into Everyday Sexism when I was invited to appear on a public roundtable a couple of weeks ago as part of Queen Mary’s “Peopling the Palaces” festival. Curated by Lois Weaver, the roundtable was intended to explore the place of feminism alongside Live Art today; somehow, though, in the moment it turned into a debate about what the term “feminism” means now. This wasn’t unexpected or even unusual; as Lois noted to the audience, whenever she has hosted events like this in the past – and she’s been hosting them a good long while! – audience members and contributors alike always seem to circle back onto the problem of language. And then we, too, get stuck.

Luckily, however, on this occasion we managed to get unstuck – thanks largely to my colleague Caoimhe McAvinchey. Prompted by my description of what it was like for me, as a feminist scholar, to read Bates’ common-sense book, Caoimhe suggested that what we perhaps need most of all, feminist scholars and “mainstream” feminists alike, is a project that chronicles gestures of “everyday feminism”: the things we do, both men and women, each day that constitute the promotion of sex and gender equality, both in public and in private.

Caoimhe’s words were a revelation to me. Feminism as a practice of everyday life! Why had I not considered this before? Provoked to think about feminism in this way – as a kind of doing that does not always need a fixed label, but that should nevertheless demand attention be paid – I started seeing “everyday” feminism everywhere. Including in event number three: my reading of a terrific new article by the performance scholar and blogger Jessica Pabón about the feminist labour of female graffiti crews in Brazil and Chile. Pabon’s field research turned up a group of intelligent and talented young women who are working, right now, in a non-traditional field, supporting one another in that work, collaborating on its making, and even helping one another to raise their children “at the wall”, in the tradition of the graffitera – yet staunchly refusing to call themselves feminists. Why? For these women, Pabón explains, feminism has connotations of public activism in which they do not see themselves engaging. It reads to them as ideological and as polemical, and as such it registers as outside the reality they choose to inhabit as working female artists.

So far so ignorant! – or so an academic feminist (myself included) might say. But Pabón helpfully follows another line: what if, she asks, we took these women seriously as working feminists, feminists in their actions, in their doing rather than in their labelling? She writes:

We have lost sight because the power of the word — claiming and naming a self and an act as feminist — trumps the invisible, individual feminist acts happening everyday by a generation of women raised by, or at least privy to, feminist ideals. Instead of seeing the various modes of feminism being performed differently as a hindrance, and instead of seeing the failure of feminism to attract a unilateral following, with the example set by [these graffiteras] we can reinvest these terms with the dynamism of movement. (114)

The notion of feminism not simply as “a movement”, but as movement, strikes me, if not perhaps as revolutionary (Pabón builds here on the ideas of the remarkable Latina feminist and human rights activist Gloria Anzaldua), then as undeniably useful for working through what and how feminism means right now to exactly the kinds of ordinary men and women attracted to things like the Everyday Sexism project and the remarkable example of activists such as Malala Yousafzai. How does doing feminism, rather than “being feminists,” work for this group of people? And how might we recognise and build on that?

Of course, ultimately, language does matter: being able to identity as a feminist and not automatically call to mind unhelpful, stereotypical images of breast-beating barricade-huggers or hairy women’s studies lecturers is a big part of what it means to bring feminism into the mainstream. But maybe that’s not step one; maybe it’s step two. First, I think we need to ask: how do we take the lessons of “everyday feminism” as practiced by, for example, Pabón’s artist subjects and use those lessons to turn the language of feminism into “everyday” discourse?

Enter my final event. Yesterday at the gym I listened to a recent interview with the Canadian actress Mackenzie Davis on the cultural affairs show Q, hosted by Jian Ghomeshi. Davis is the star of the new AMC series Halt and Catch Fire; she is also a graduate of the English and Women’s Studies programs at McGill University in Montreal. And she’s a feminist: out and proud. Recently, Lena Dunham – another out and proud feminist and successful TV actor, writer and producer – shouted out to Davis for her willingness to voice her politics in public (something Dunham also does, and does brilliantly). Unsurprisingly, Ghomeshi picked up on this call-out and queried Davis on what it meant to her to be praised, publicly, for calling herself a feminist. Davis had this to say:

…culturally there’s this weird thing where we vilify the word, and people need to step around it, so I think the best thing is just for us to talk about it and be like ‘oh no, it’s just about human rights! It’s just about civil rights!’ …[Feminism] is a wonderful thing and I studied it, so I … have the luxury of having a more nuanced understanding of it and not just this cultural idea of it being a bad word that we need to stay away from. But I’d like to make it so that you don’t have to be in gender studies, or study it, in order to know that feminism isn’t a bad word.

I was struck not just by the thoughtfulness, honesty, and forthrightness of Davis’ remarks here, but also by her clear-eyed comment on the relationship between “academic” and “mainstream” attitudes toward feminism. She’s lucky, she notes, to have the “luxury” to think about feminism outside of the fear the term sometimes (often) inspires; as a public figure with this privilege, she feels responsible for disseminating how basic, at its core, feminism really is: it’s just about human rights, it’s just about civil rights. It’s not an ideology or a polemic: if we’d just listen carefully, we’d hear that it’s about fairness and equality and treating one another with the spirit of fairness and equality in mind, always.

And so I return to Caoimhe’s “everyday feminism.” What might be an everyday feminist action? It need not itself be ground-swelling; everyday feminist doings may be profoundly small, and even unique to you or me. The point is that they embody the spirit of feminist practice – even, and perhaps especially, if we’ve never considered such things in such a light before. That kind, respectful way you spoke to that strange-looking young man or woman just now? The response you offered to that not especially progressive statement about how you look, or who you’re with? Your refusal to put up with something that might fall into the category of “everyday sexism”? Or your support for that person (man or woman) who might be experiencing a moment of everyday sexism themselves? Yup, all of those things.

Caoimhe and I, along with our terrific feminist peers at QM, are working on ways to turn a collection of everyday feminist gestures into some kind of broader feminist action; meanwhile, I want to encourage you to share yours – with your students, teachers, friends, peers, partners, with a younger person (or older person!) you know, or here in the comments section. I’ll start; here’s mine.

My mom is really ill right now, and my father, who was a “traditional” dad his entire life, has become her full time caregiver. He is struggling with the weight of this work – not because he’s a man, but because it’s just really, incredibly hard work. Knowing as I do that this kind of caregiving labour has historically been “woman’s work”, and thus that my dad probably doesn’t know how to do all of the parts of it, I’ve been trying to support him, and especially to encourage him to get more rest, take good care of himself, and share his hurt and anger with me and others who can help. As an academic feminist I know it’s very hard for some men to admit when they need help – because men of my dad’s generation in Europe were socialised to regard themselves as strong and self-sufficient, the bearers and not the feelers of pain – so I’ve been encouraging him to get as much help as he needs, and I’ve been doing what I can to assist with that.

You might say I’m just being a good daughter. Nope: I’m being a good daughter and a good feminist.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

(Me and dad, Napa Valley, 2010)

Pass it on,



On teaching as “practice”

Last night I participated on a panel at Birkbeck, University of London, speaking to students on the Master’s course in Text and Performance (from which I graduated in 1999!) about the relationship between scholarship and artistic practice in the academy. With me were my distinguished colleagues Allan Read, from King’s College London, and Dan Rebellato, from Royal Holloway. Allan, whose route to the academy came through years of grass-routes theatre-making, offered a lively talk about that history; Dan, who is a playwright as well as an internationally known name in theatre and performance studies, talked about his inclination to understand artistic practice and scholarly work as separate endeavours with separate, and unique, spheres of influence. (For those of you not inside the profession: this is a rather contrarian perspective – usefully so.) I wasn’t nervous going into the panel, but I was nervous (a bit, anyway) after hearing Dan and Allan speak so naturally and eloquently about their work as theatre makers. They clearly have an artistic practice, as well as being scholars. I am not an artist, and I have never identified as one. I am simply a scholar, and a teacher. Suddenly the things I wanted to say seemed rather irrelevant, even small.

Now, I should qualify my looming anxiety by saying that, of course, I had felt it earlier: I felt it when my friend and colleague Aoife Monks, who runs the Birkbeck course, asked me to participate on the panel, and I then thought about it throughout my preparation for the event itself. The questions I asked myself, as a result of this feeling and thinking, were:

If I’m not an artist, what’s my practice?

What is my relationship to art and theatre-making, practically as well as theoretically, as a scholar of performance who works in a community of artists as well as academics?

And, perhaps most important:

What does “practice” mean to me, anyway?

This series of self-searching questions got me to think a bit about the word “practice” as such – not in isolation, of course, but nevertheless outside of the specific, theatrical context in which Aoife’s prompt for the panel was embedded.

In its simplest form, “practice” means to try something a bunch of times in the hope of getting better at it. I “practice” the piano. I “practice” riding my road bike really quickly up the hill. I “practice” reading the monologue in front of the mirror while I try not to crack up laughing. That kind of thing. In its most practical form – which is connected to craft work and to the labour of making that work – “practice” means the same but more: I make this work again and again, in slightly different and (maybe) more sophisticated iterations each time. I learn from mistakes and develop what I’m doing as I go. In this sense, I “develop” my “practice” at the same time as I develop my craft – I build on what I’m doing, physically but also psychologically and pedagogically, and I learn in a meta-critical way about what is working and what is not (in other words, I practice learning about my craft, about what works and what doesn’t, even as I do more of the things that work and drop the things that don’t). So “practice” here means specifically to evolve, to grow, to search, to learn, to discover. Really, it’s a term that describes a way of living and being and working in the world – far removed from the sense of onerous and painful rehearsal that I associated with it as a kid.

Now, back to the panel – and specifically to the moment when Dan ended his presentation and I had to get up and tell the students that I was, anticlimactically, not an artist and had no exciting slide show of work to share. I need not have worried. As it turns out, not only were my colleagues and the students receptive to my “riff” on the idea of practice in place of a thoroughgoing discussion of my (nonexistent) art, but I also drew strength from the idea of taking what Allan and Dan had put on the table and shaping it a bit differently – practicing it afresh, maybe.

I shared some of my scholarly background to start, talking about how influenced I have been by the time I spent in Texas, in 2005, when I was a postdoctoral fellow in the “Performance as Public Practice” program at UT Austin. That program, I realised even as I spoke, shaped for me my first sense of “practice” as something that teachers and scholars, as well as artists, do to and for and in the world – that we do as acts of conscious public-ness, as acts of open (and hopefully critically generous) engagement with the many communities in which we are embedded. From Austin, I went on to work casually with a number of different artists, including Tara Beagan and Jennifer H. Capraru, learning from them and in turn offering them support in the academic dissemination of their work; I think back on this labour as a crucial part of my practice as a scholar of contemporary performance. I also learned, from my time at UT, to think about the teaching of performance as itself a practice – a variation on the making of performance as artistry.

What’s at stake in calling my teaching in and about theatre and performance a “practice”? A labour of craft, one that I rehearse and refine, again and again, in the hopes of learning about it, discovering new things, improving? What are the outcomes of such a practice, for me and for my communities?

One of the benefits of using this term in this context, I think, comes from its malleability, but also from its precision. If I am to have a practice, I need to understand something of its workings, and to think about those workings regularly (keeping them oiled, maybe, like my bicycle chain). I need to have, maintain, and hone an ethos about the relationships engendered in my classrooms and my broader teaching spaces (including my office, my inbox, the coffee shops where I meet my students). I need to understand my methodologies, so that I might unmake and remake them. I need to have strategies for managing problems and failures, and I need to reflect on these regularly. I need to know what ideas and plans to keep working on, and what stuff to leave alone because, for now, it is in optimal shape. I need to treat the work of teaching, perhaps, just a bit like the tough yet fragile clay in a potter’s hands – with quiet respect as well as urgency.

Further, if “practice” as a verb (“practise” in the UK) means to work (on) one’s metier, “practice” as a noun – for me anyway – signifies a collective. I go to the practice to meet my friends and become a better soccer player. We meet to practice our scene together. (Or my favourite, from the gloriously craft-focused, community-driven TV series about post-Katrina New Orleans, Treme: Big Chief Lambreaux and his cohort meet every week for “Indian Practice”, more often just before Mardi Gras, when the whole city practices together.) So when I “practice” as a performance scholar and teacher, I hope always (or as often as possible) to do it in a group – whether that group is a cohort of students, or a small clutch of peer collaborators, or sometimes both. Thinking about when and how my practice is solitary, and when and how it is messily collective, is also a useful prompt to thinking about the ways in which the work of teaching performance ebbs and flows out of the solo and into the community.

One small, innocuous word, yet so much to think on. Thanks Aoife, Allan, and Dan for the opportunity.