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Because we don't work in a vacuum.

by Becka McFadden

So this blog is about performance and perhaps this is a semi-hijack. Though perhaps not. Once, not so very long ago, I did a PhD grounded in the sociology of theatre and performance. The fundamental premise of this school of thought - unsurprisingly - is that what we do on stage is not distinct from what is happening in the world. Making art, we both respond to and co-create the social world in which we continue to live, love, vote, pay taxes and make more art.

A brief anecdote by way of illustration. During the dark days (though how comparatively luminous they seem in retrospect!) of George W. Bush's run for re-election, I was doing my MA in Theatre. Our programme was organised such that you could hold an almost fulltime-time job and still do it, as a result of which our classes started around 4:30 and rehearsals often continued past midnight. The night of the election coincided with a significant rehearsal of a political twentieth century European play that deals with the themes of social and sexual power, income disparity and revenge. Increasingly, we stopped rehearsing to hear updates from our dramaturg, who had a friend on the outside texting her as states declared - this was before smartphones. Eventually we gave up altogether and sat in a rapt state of commiseration, our collective misery deepening with each ping of her Nokia. A lone voice among the company asked why we had stopped. We were opening soon. We had to rehearse. No, actually. Sometimes we have to be human. Sometimes the work needs to pause for recalibration, for sharpening.

Looking back now, 2004 seems insanely idyllic. We have to be made of sterner stuff now, surely, else we would be stopping for recalibration multiple times a day. Still, even in the harrowing days of 2017, it's possible for the world to grind the work to a halt.

This has happened to me this week. I have been struggling to understand why I feel like I am suffocating, why it is hard to concentrate in a city I love, on work in which I am genuinely interested and invested. I have wracked my brain trying to understand why it suddenly feels inhabited by the sorts of creatures my childhood self imagined were hiding in the strange closet under my parents' stairs.

I think it's to do with this #metoo thing. I want to say more about it. I want to say how it's sitting with me a few days in. I want to say this in a longer and more nuanced form than is possible to say on Facebook. I want to say it here, in the context of my life's work.

I typed the status without thinking too much. I'm quite empathetic and sometimes my empathy gets in the way of my critical function, to the extent that I jump on social media bandwagons that are less nuanced than I would ideally like to be. But I am a feminist and I believe in solidarity. The #metoo campaign reminded me of #shoutyourabortion on Twitter a few years back. It's a small, disembodied action, but if it helps someone - a man who needs to clock in, a woman who's scared to speak up - and I can do it, then I'm happy to pile on. In that way it's analogous to performance making. The work is for others, right? Even if it's just one other, it's valuable. So you keep on.

So I typed me too and hit enter. Then I edited the post to include the reposting information and I hit enter again. Then I got on with my day.

I checked Facebook a few times throughout that day, as I am wont to. It didn't surprise me to see many people posting #metoo, or even offering stories of particular experiences. Some of those experiences were horrific. They caused me to repeat the thought I'd had when I posted the status the first time - thank god I've never experienced rape or profound abuse. I thought, I'm lucky to have just experienced the garden variety forms of sexual harassment that all women get.

When I posted I didn't even think of a particular example. I know when someone - hell, it's always a heterosexual man - is speaking to me as a woman and when they're acknowledging our common humanity. There's a palpable difference. That there IS a palpable difference in itself constitutes sexual harassment. As time has passed, however, the individual memories have lined up, unbidden, like monsters crawling out from under a bed or skeletons tumbling out of a closet:

the guy in the enclosed train carriage en route from Warsaw who asked me where to change trains for Prague so he'd know where I was going, then asked probing questions, sat next me and got as far as stroking my arm before I told him to fuck off, which he did, but then had a loud and scary phone call in a language I didn't understand, which left me terrified I'd be attacked when I changed trains at the station I'd tried to help him by identifying; the guy who flashed me as I went through the drive through of the fast-food restaurant next to my summer job when I was 17 and then lurked outside the office by my car, so that the summer associates had to take turns walking me out; the guy who slammed his entire body against mine and groped me as I tried to let myself back into my building after a great night out with friends; all the married men I thought were my friends who said that if I liked them really, I'd make out with them; the group of drunk men who lifted me over their heads when I walked into the basement room of a bar I knew well and touched me through my corduroy trousers; the guy who came up to me on a busy shopping street, whispered 'I will rape you' in my ear and kept going; the guy who stuck his tongue in my mouth at a nightclub; all the guys I've given my phone number when I didn't want to because I didn't know how to refuse them; the reasonably famous political dissident who groped me and suggested we mingle our energetic fields while surrounded by a coterie of young female admirers; the male friend I stayed with when I got the flu in a new city, thinking it was safer to do that than go home alone, who subsequently removed my clothes as I slept in order to look at me; the guy that groomed vulnerable, artistic young women, flattering them until he could get them alone and in bed where he would conveniently forget/lose/break the condom.

All those guys.

And I'm still lucky.

I rant a lot about normalisation. My doctoral research compelled me to contend with Czech normalisation - the period after the Prague Spring, during which the government essentially made a deal with the people, whereby their withdrawal from political dissidence granted them the time and space to tend their own gardens, literally. Act like everything's fine, and we're cool. I see a similar dynamic in play when I look, for example, at Trump - the extent to which we've normalised his diverse atrocities is appalling and stands out in even sharper relief alongside the entirely appropriate condemnation of Harvey Weinstein. The extent to which racism is normalised in the United States is appalling. The extent to which capitalism is normalised pretty much everywhere is appalling. The extent to which gender expectations and heteronormativity are normalised is appalling. I actively strive to oppose normalisation. I hope sometimes I succeed at least in highlighting its abnormality and, perhaps, other options.

#metoo has highlighted the extent to which I have been complicit in normalisation. This is not an oh-look-I'm-a-bigger-victim-than-I-thought post. This is a shit-what-a-blind-spot post. I have not dwelled in the memories of these events. Likely that's down to constant movement, an instinct for self-preservation, lovely people around me and a reasonably resilient psyche that has kept any single one of these events from destabilising me in a profound and persistent way. Taken together, though, the same cannot be said. I am destabilised. I feel appalled. I still feel lucky. I cannot image what it is to have experienced worse.

I am fond of encouraging my students to speak from process, to hold back from forcing conclusions or an ending that feels premature. I don't know where these reflections end or where the monster-skeletons go next, but they've brought me here, to a point of feeling sufficiently at sea that I need to share, by way of exorcism. So here they are, better, already. Better out than in.


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