Hear Me Roar!

This discussion between Maddy, Jake and producer Leo Burtin took place in the days following Hear Me Roar!, a festival of feminist performance and discussion curated by Leo in Lancaster.

Although everything about the Hear Me Roar festival appealed to me – theatre + discussion + feminism = what’s not to like? – I couldn’t have spent all that time and money travelling London-to-Lancaster without Leo funding Dialogue as “critical friends” for the weekend. I’m interested in thinking here about the effect of anticipation: my anticipation as someone already very engaged in feminist thinking, and as someone coming away for the weekend; the reader’s anticipation knowing that I wasn’t attending in a spirit of distanced impartiality.

I suppose I feel anxious because my response to the festival is more friendly than critical. I have questions: although I enjoyed the full day of papers from feminist academics on representations of women and feminist politics in popular culture, it felt monolithic; is there a way of interspersing that thinking and dialogue through the course of the weekend? I didn’t stay for the whole of the Drunken Nights programme but couldn’t see how it fit into the festival: was it there for pragmatic reasons? How were the choices of work affected by the fact that Hear Me Roar was produced and shaped by a young gay man? Could more have been done to include the perspectives of older women, and women of colour?

But broadly my reaction to the festival was positive. In one of the academic presentations, it was argued that feminism is a spectrum – a simple idea, easily forgotten – and Hear Me Roar had lots of moments of enacting that spectrum. That could be within a single show: in Sister, by Rosana and Amy Cade, two different feminist lenses (lesbian and sex-worker) are placed side-by-side with an invitation to the audience member to align themselves as they choose. Or it could be within a triple bill: on the Friday night, extracts from a Renaissance play by a female playwright (which was like a checklist of contemporary tropes, an attempt to play men at their own game), sat alongside a tender modern play written by a man about a teenage girl slowly positioning herself against specific and general patriarchy, and a glittering performance by three women re-enacting drink binges. I’d be surprised if any audience member liked all three of these extracts equally, and I admire that attempt to hold a spectrum of tastes together in a room.

There are lots of questions for Leo above. I’m curious as to what expectations Jake (also a young gay man) brought to the festival, how educational it was for him – and if, for either of you, that was in any way the point?

Leo: I really appreciate the transparency you are offering here, Maddy – and I feel that probably, a lot of the overwhelmingly positive responses to the festival came from a similar place. There was a high level of anticipation: the people from the Centre for Gender and Women’s Studies had been really enthused at the idea of doing something in town; some of my Theatre Studies colleagues were excited to be able to see a few shows they’d missed elsewhere; and the artists were excited to have their work framed in this way.

Don’t get me wrong: we showed some outstanding work. For many of the pieces featured, it was the best version of them I had ever seen (and I had seen most of the festival pieces several times). But the more I think about it, the more I don’t think quality is necessarily what mattered. What mattered was that all the people there had responded to a very specific invitation – an invitation that had never been made in Lancaster (as far as I, or anyone I’ve spoken to, can recall).

What was important was being together in a ‘feminist space’. Everyone at the festival either self-defined as a feminist, highlighted an interest in the matter, or were curious enough to actively engage with it.

Brian Lobel once said to me: “If you’re inviting everyone, I don’t feel invited.”

I was puzzled by his statement at first, but the more I work it, the more I get it. The invitation wasn’t: “Oh, yes, there’s this thing going on, I mean, if you’re not doing anything, maybe you can give it a go, see what it’s like… oh yeah, and it’s mostly free…”

The invitation was: We’ve worked really hard, and we’re really excited to be inviting you to a feminist festival; there will be discussions, shows and a bit of a party. We really want you to come, because this really matters – and we don’t get together often enough. It’s not going to be shouty, or angry or preachy: it’s going to be a positive conversation starter.

There is a time for anger, but unlike the title suggests, Hear Me Roar wasn’t the time – and I’m so glad everyone played the game.

I’m so glad no one claimed their feminism was better than mine, or yours.

I’m so glad that for once, we all got together – sometimes to talk, sometimes to sit in silence in a darkened room, sometimes to share a drink…

The social element of Hear Me Roar was really important to me: having a ‘late night’ option to end the day with, to give people an opportunity to stay in the space of the festival, but in a slightly different context.

Which leads me to Drunken Nights. I had anticipated that some people would ask, “How is this a feminist event?” In many ways, I’m not all that interested in that question. In the same way that I’m not interested in the conversation about whether or not Beyoncé really is a feminist. But, as you highlight it, I will of course respond. Yes, it was pragmatic: I had committed to Drunken Nights prior to Hear Me Roar even being a thing; also, it was very robustly funded, and had all the resources necessary (marketing and otherwise) to be a very successful event, regardless of its inclusion in the festival programme. However, it didn’t take long for me to decide that it would sit among the rest of the weekend’s offerings, as legitimately as anything else.

For one thing, when I asked the Drunken Nights producers Chris Williams and Sheena Holliday to consider whether they’d want to be included, they didn’t think for much more than five seconds before saying yes. And they changed the time the event was due to start, and made provision to wait for any attendees from previous events. This said to me that they wanted to be a part of the conversation.

I could stop there as I am anxious of going into something that may start sounding like a justification or even an apology – but I guess there are a few other things which are interesting to note:

The Drunken Nights line-up featured a single male artist. I have done quite a lot of work on ‘the pub scene’, and for the male performer to be a minority is a rare sight.

I had also planned to make a connection between Eggs Collective’s performance at the previous event (playing off the idea of a ‘girls’ night out’, to put it overly simply) and Drunken Nights – I was interested in what happens when a relatively large group of people who all have in common their engagement with feminist discourse enter a male-dominated space and use a ‘feminist lens’ to look at Drunken Nights as an event which both utilises and subverts the Great British pub setting. I guess I could have made this clearer in the programme notes, and I guess I could look into writing a whole paper about this.

It turns out I might be more interested in the question ‘How is this feminism?’ than I care to admit.

A few of the things I did make clear in the programme notes – by way of responding to the seeming lack of diversity in the festival, and your thoughts around the accessibility of the symposium element – is that it was a pilot event, aiming to bring together three strands: academia, contemporary theatre/art practice and community-led activity. The festival only scratched the surface of all these things; and if it is to happen again, it’ll grow bolder and more ambitious for sure.

I liked the rigour in thinking, and the frame that opening with the symposium provided, but I also understand the ‘monolithic’ feel – threading things with academic discourses and explorations rather than book-ending a public programme with it is probably a really good idea.

Could more have been done to make the festival more diverse? The answer to this question is always yes.

A number of projects, notably by older women (and exploring ageing) fell through for various reasons including: not being funded, being offered a better fee and more exposure by the Southbank Centre for Women of the World and personal reasons (including health problems). A couple of projects around feminism and race also fell through for pragmatic reasons. A couple of conversations around feminism and disability never went past the early stages. But again, I’m not sure a justification would be that helpful.

I guess the one thing I have left to answer is being a young gay man.

A young expat – A young atheist Jew – A young man from a working class background who has become distinctly middle class – A single gay man – A man who was raised by women – A gay man with a bisexual sister – The son of a former sex worker – A young man with an invisible disability – A linguistics and theatre graduate…

I’m being cheeky here.

Yes, of course the festival would have looked different if someone else had made some of the choices I made. This is why the very first thing I did when I came up with the idea was to request a meeting with Gerry Harris, Celia Roberts and Imogen Tyler [leading academics at Lancaster University], all of whom are experts in feminism. For sure, Gerry would have not hesitated to call me out if at any point I had used problematic terminology or done anything ‘un-feminist’, even if by mistake. The second thing I did was put a call out, through which anyone could propose ideas. Everything that was proposed through this ‘community’ call out which was logistically possible was produced and featured in the festival.

One thing that my (queer) identity brought to the curation of the festival was a commitment to explore feminism in fun ways, and sometimes through varying degrees of absurd and/or mild provocation (Bush Rush, Mother’s Ruin, Eggs Collective). One thing my age brought to the festival was that in many ways, young people were the target audience. This was the ‘easy’ option: I have a clearer understanding of what might appeal to people my age; and I am more aware of the possible strategies to get young people to engage with feminism and the arts than I am of what works for a working mother of two…

The brilliant thing is, though, by having done the festival, regardless of those concerns – just getting it done and seeing what happens – means that we are having this conversation, and that a space has been created so that next time, anyone whose voice wasn’t loud enough this time can drop me a line and say Hear Me Roar!

Jake: The thing to note straight away – as someone who runs festivals, and as Leo has suggested several times – there is always the ‘we could do more’ debate that lingers after a new festival is born. There are questions, conversations and teasing of ideas but no matter how much evaluation you do there will always be more, so much more to do.

The thing that struck me most about reading your response Leo was how much you have managed to achieve in a short amount of time. Talking about creating a space for feminism in the heart of a city instead of behind lecture-room doors on the campus is really important for me. Feminism is somewhat of a challenge for me. I’ve spoken to Maddy several times about my own political awakening in recent years and feminism – calling myself a feminist and engaging in feminist conversations – is new and exciting. A festival of feminism though, wow, how can I fit into something like that? That’s what I initially thought, and I found the whole prospect pretty daunting, but actually being there, experiencing the discussions, seeing the work and seeing a safe and non-judgemental space be born is what held me close through the festival. That’s something to be proud of. Creating spaces for thought, where performances sit alongside big discussions on big topics with audiences and academics, that’s no easy thing.

For me it all comes back to context. In this there was equal success and failure (yes, big word, but let’s embrace that). Perhaps this is related to the Drunken Nights conversation, but I’m thinking about the whole festival. Feminism in all its glory needed to be more prominent, it needed to be mentioned or left open for discussion. The symposium papers were so thought-provoking and challenging towards feminist ideals it felt a shame that the conversation wasn’t extended further in the performances and the audiences. I’m not doubting that the shows presented didn’t have a feminist viewpoint, didn’t feature women and raise questions, but there needed to be more for audiences – and I use that word in the broadest term – to latch on to.

I guess for me it is about asking the following questions:
– How can the partnering with the university with the conference filter out into the wider weekend?
– How do you build a context for the festival and the work programmed within it?
– The Kate Bush flash mob event was brilliant, it helped to take the work out of the buildings and into the streets, but could it have sprung up more around Lancaster, subtly or otherwise?
– What was the ratio of audiences who were already actively engaged in feminism against those who were not?

I really love that quote from Brian Lobel, and I can see how the latter questions I ask feed into that. At what point do you throw open the doors to everyone, and at what point do you make it targeted? In many ways I agree: running a festival is all about targeting – but there has to be an element of outward facing, otherwise you’re just making art happen in a vacuum. This was one of my frustrations with attending In Between Time – the live art festival in Bristol – this year. Engagement with the wider Bristol community felt so void, as if the whole festival was made for live-art fans and no one else. I’m not saying Hearing Me Roar! was that, but I think the questions raised in the festival should have filtered out further. Maybe provocative ideas or papers delivered before or after performances, in the bar and in the streets. Something that allowed slippage.

Thinking about it now, I remember several times you commented on how rough you thought the festival was Leo, how things rubbed up against each other and had a relaxed feeling to them. In many ways they did, but I wonder how slippage could have happened more. The use of the Waterstones bookshop windows is a great example of slippage. Audiences engaging in feminism by looking at a shop window.

Something that I would have liked to have seen was more of your presence Leo, or the central academics at the events. Giving context to the work. Why was it programmed, what does it mean for you to be a feminist, what does this work potentially say in the line-up? You mentioned the programme notes and I agree that could have been an effective way of engaging in that discourse.

The thing that I took most from the weekend, and something that has been highlighted, is the space for feminism. That is so important. To create a space in which these ideas can be questioned, challenged, even on the tiniest level teased out. That’s what excited me about Hear Me Roar! I love how across a whole weekend it seemed that feminism just swept me up and took over so much of my thinking and feeling. It was like putting new lenses in my glasses for the weekend and then on returning to London I had to replace them with my old glasses but I could still see flickers of feminism like light bursts.

Maddy: Reading back over our discussion, I’m struck by how anodyne and banal my initial critique sounds, how often Leo recognises that he sounds like he’s justifying himself, how placatory Jake comes across as being… What is a fruitful dialogue between artist (producer) and critic(s)? Who is it fruitful for? I hope people will read this and find it interesting, I hope it might resonate with questions others ask about how to present festival programmes, how to engage with audiences, how to interweave academic thinking – but I’m also aware of wanting to explain everything, so that it doesn’t sound as though the three of us are having a conversation in a vacuum…

This is where I think it’s interesting that, having created a festival specifically for Lancaster, answering what he felt to be a need in that particular location, Leo then invited two London-based writers to attend. There’s something here about the desire for an outside eye, an external perspective, that undermines the vacuum narrative – and accepts the possibility of context not being fully understood. Not that I think that’s actually what Jake means by context: really he’s talking about making the feminist angles more visible and explicit. I think my favourite paragraph in this entire dialogue is the one in which Leo defines and re-defines himself: that insight into all the aspects of yourself that you’ve brought to bear on this festival is fascinating (also, it makes me feel somewhat ashamed for being so gender essentialist!). Like Jake, I would have loved more of that personal context.

But more explicit feminist contextualisation? I’m not sure. I rather like the way you trusted your audience to make connections for themselves: to read their own ideas about feminism into Lowri Evans’ Secret Life of You and Me (in which feminist argument – for instance, it’s ridiculous that women are expected to conform to these lifestyle images peddled in magazines – was a subtle layer among many layers) or Eggs Collective’s Get A Round, without being told what to look for.

I love the “commitment to explore feminism in fun ways”: I bang on about this ad nauseum, but my introduction to feminism was through music and fanzines, not newspaper articles and academic studies. It was personal and it was flawed and it spoke to me in my language. There are a lot of really fantastic young feminist voices being heard now, but I’ve been incredibly struck over the past couple of years by how many young women I speak to for whom feminism is a thing of the past: the battles have been won, they can do anything they want, and it just isn’t needed any more. To me, feminism is needed as much as ever. We’re fighting much the same battles about who we’re supposed to be, how we’re supposed to behave, how we’re expected to fit into a man’s world, and when there what we can expect to be paid, as we were 20, 40, 60 years ago. And this, I suppose, is what makes me think that contextualisation is vital: it’s what made the day of academic-led thinking that opened the festival a vital framework, and I think reflects Jake’s desire for the feminist perspective to be spoken out loud, to help people really get it. It’s also why I think focusing on young people wasn’t the “easy” option: it required getting through to people for whom feminism is an outdated concept.

Saying that, is there really a single answer to “how is this feminist?”? I know I’m repeating myself, but one of the things I most valued across the whole weekend was Gerry Harris’ discussion of The Vagina Monologues, which declared loudly that feminism isn’t singular: it’s a spectrum. My approach to feminism has changed a lot in the past 20 years, because of what I’ve experienced in the workplace and in the home, because of what I’ve read, because of what other women have experienced. I’ve shifted along the spectrum myself. Hear Me Roar! recognised that there isn’t a homogeneous “feminist” but a multiplicity of feminist perspectives that it found intriguing and wanted to reflect. And that was definitely the best thing about it.