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Lauren Gauge interviews Siobhan Knox co-director of Sex Workers’ Opera and cheers on marginalised theatre.

A heuristic show that sets out to expose social injustice is precisely my tipple right now. More and more we are seeing marginalised groups gain traction and air time on the stages of London and it’s thrilling.

Be it Schism at the Finborough subtly highlighting the needs of people with disabilities, People Places and Things at the National (then the Wyndham’s) vividly charting the rehabilitation of drug addicts or Liberian Girl at the CLF Theatre and Royal Court voicing the violent struggles of child refugees. And now this – Sex Workers' Opera. XX Experimental’s first full length production after stints of development at The Arcola. Sex Workers' Opera at The Pleasance is a shining example of art being used to amplify people’s voices.

XX Experimental’s aim is to humanise this particular marginalised community. In turn we hope for more plays featuring marginalised groups at their epicentre, but more than that we hope that as a society we can remove these divisive labels and see theatre purely for what it is as an open, inclusive art form.

How did the idea for an opera about sex workers come about?

Opera has a long rich tradition of featuring sex workers, for example Madame Butterfly and La traviata feature a sex worker as one of the main very tragic and very beautiful characters. Often they exist to make the male character see the error of their ways before dying at the end, acting fundamentally as a tragic plot device. We were very aware of that so it felt like the natural revenge for sex workers to reclaim opera for themselves and write an opera from their experiences, in their own words.

Art has a long history is misrepresenting sex workers – that leads to an increase in stigma, which leads to an increase in violence because if people view sex workers as tragic de-humanised creatures, people are more likely to put into place legislation and social conventions that treats them as such. We viewed Sex Workers' Opera in a playful sense, trying to combine two worlds that have traditionally always been associated. Alex and I (with XX Experimental Experience) have always been connected with action groups and political direct action groups working with marginalised sections of society. Art can instigate social change. Recently with cuts to arts and humanities and to libraries and education we are seeing people who have the time and money privilege to make art, predominantly only their voices are being heard. We’re making an opera with some of the most marginalised members of society and amplifying their voices and fighting back against the stigma that sex workers receive on a daily basis.

Opera can be seen as elitist and by contrast, sex workers as working class – how you do affirm or breakdown these two stereotypes in XX Experimental Experiences’ production?

It’s true, opera can be seen as elitist and something we try to do as a theatre company is open up those doors and say: art is for everyone. You don’t have to have 5 years training from a certain academy, anyone can do it – our members created an opera in 3 days for our first show. We want to disprove the idea that opera is written solely by rich, white, old, men. Equally being working class is true for a lot of sex workers, but not all. There are so many types of sex workers and through Sex Workers’ Opera we show there is no ‘one sex worker experience’ and no ‘one sex workers experience is more important than the other’.

Can you explain precisely what a ‘sex worker’ is, and what can it involve as a job, or career?

There are so many different types of sex worker. There are people who work as street workers; there are people who works as escorts; there are people who work on webcams; there are strippers. All people live and work in completely different ways. What we’re trying to do is show the humanity of the people who work in the sex industry.

In the show we feature stories from ‘cam-girls’, web cam models who have performed private shows for us, which we have recorded (with their permission and which we’ve paid them for) to include in the show. Usually clients pay around £1 per minute; you go in and they perform some kind of show for you. For us they’ve performed a poetry reading, they’ve performed with a ventriloquist dummy, all sorts of things! So in Sex Workers' Opera we have stories from cam-girls across the globe; stories from street workers in Argentina; we have stories from escorts in London; and stories from strippers in the USA. We pull all those stories together and weave them into an opera.

How has Sex Workers’ Opera as an idea, a project and an international company evolved since you started working together in 2014?

For the first show we put a call out to escort agencies, cam websites, sex workers forums, and went to sex worker activists events to try to gather people who would want to be involved in the project. Originally it was just a 3 day project. We kept it short because we understood it would be hard to ask people to make a bigger commitment what with the financial implication of giving up time, especially if you have dependents, and especially if you know very little about the project. Also in general sex workers are often wary of the media because they are so often misrepresented. So we gave ourselves three days to do the impossible: meet on Monday and perform a show on Wednesday. It happened and it was amazing with a sell-out audience. We thought it might be a one off, but it was so successful – the community group bonded so well; amazing people gave us incredible reviews and asked us: what’s next? So we engaged in a proper development run at the Arcola Theatre who took us in as part of their Creative Engagement Season in 2015. We had a week of development to add complexities and nuances to the themes of the show then we had a 4 day run (and added an extra night because we sold out again!) That was encouraging and formed our development period. Now we are doing 2 weeks of rehearsals and a full two week run – which is huge and it gives the themes of the show the time they deserve!

Sex Workers’ Opera is a community project, how have you worked with sex workers directly and what has that process been like for you as a director?

We always prioritise the community aspect of the show. Often our community members hadn’t ever sat down with their peers who do the same job as them and had an honest conversation about what they do. We have a clause in our contract that the company is made up of 50% sex workers and 50% sex workers’ allies. No one has to reveal which they are. They all have to reveal that to us at the beginning of the process because all allies have to be vouched for by a sex worker and we have to get the numbers right to ensure all creative processes are sex worker led to ensure it’s a true representation. In our group everyone ended up sharing with each other anyway because they were so happy to be in a group of accepting people who wanted to listen.

Day 1 in the process was spent bonding, sharing vulnerabilities and that’s a huge part of what Alex and I use as a key method in workshopping. We got to a place where we had group trust. We were sharing difficult stories and stories from different cultures from all across the world. We then worked through a lot of improvisations. Sex workers seem to be naturally gifted at improvisation because that’s often what they do.

In terms of process it’s quite tricky as a director because we’re a very big community project; originally it was only for three days so we involved as many people as we could. They’ve all continued with the project so now we have twelve in our cast and a mini-orchestra as well. We don’t know how it will work out in the future, but there’s a group in Barcelona that have told us they’re planning on making a show for themselves based on some of the ideas that we have unearthed and they’ve asked if we could do some training with them. That’s very cool. We have a wide community, we’ve gone international.

We’ve also worked with English Collective of Prostitutes, The Sex Works Open University and East London Strippers Collective, and they were immensely helpful in sharing our call out, providing us connections and welcoming us into this growing community. We are so grateful that Sex Workers’ Opera can be a part of this growing community speaking out for sex workers activism. People have been fighting for these voices to be heard for years but now it feels like there is a growing momentum, especially with Amnesty International supporting decriminalisation last year. People are becoming more aware of this cultural narrative.

It would be easy to think of sex workers as a victimised employment but equally people choose this career path and find it both liberating and lucrative – what did you find was the most common reason for working as a sex worker, and their outlooks on their profession?

It’s interesting because there isn’t a common reason. If I had to say a common reason I’d say capitalism, because it’s just a form of work and there are so many different reasons for picking a line of work. Some people pick sex work because they don’t have any other choices; some people choose it because they prefer to live a certain way or work a certain number of hours. People send in stories from all over the world and there are so many different reasons – that’s echoed in the community group. We all wanted to prioritise telling multiple sex workers experiences to be more inclusive. In the show there are 50 different stories from 17 countries. Even still, there is still no ‘one experience’.

Some people who you assume are doing x and having a really awful time say, ‘No I love my work!’ and others who live in London – who you could assume is a more privileged worker – says, ‘I hate this. I’m just doing this to support my kids.’ We have this baggage in our head that makes us think sex work is different to another type of job but in reality – why do people work in Topshop? Some people love it and plan on making it their career, others are just doing it to buy a pint at the end of the week, or support their kids.

Congratulations to you, Alex Etchart and Clare on gaining your first Arts Council investment. For emerging theatre companies, many of whom make work on the Off West End theatre scene, ACE funding can be something of a bucket-list item – from your experience of this process what advice can you give those theatre companies wanting to take their productions to the next step?

Prepare yourself for lots of sleepless nights, gather caffeine drinks! The main things we found helpful were being in communication with the Arts Council – setting up meetings early to discuss how the process works, because sometimes the forms are very daunting. The Arts Council are so will to give their help and set up a meeting to hear your ideas and give you helpful pointers on the confusing sections. Because unless you’re trained in writing funding applications it’s difficult to start, you don’t even know what terminology to use.

Secondly, leave enough time to write a great bid. We wrote an opera with 15 people in 2 days so we’re not the sort of people who have spare time. You need time to turn around a bid twice, in case you need to submit it again. What the Arts Council are looking for is that you have planned your project and it’s realistic – you may as well try, and persevere. Don’t be scared to talk to people about it – that’s the key.

Can you share with us the biggest revelation that you’ve experienced during the making of Sex Workers’ Opera?

It’s all been such a revelation. In particular we’ve being doing lots of ‘cultural direct action’ – going onto the streets, going into the Underground and turning it into a group therapy session; taking a bunch of people and playing hide and seek in a shopping mall – it’s the idea of reclaiming public space, viewing and doing things differently. That was our dream: to play with form and experiment with different ways of making people think, different ways of action to make political change. What is more direct action than getting a group of marginalised and de-humanised people together and performing fearlessly on stage in front of people who just wanted to come and ‘have a nice experience at the theatre’, and then changing their minds, and hearts and ideas, and making them see that these are real people like me and you, people with real experiences like me and you? That’s the biggest revelation: the idea that a theatre show can be so politically powerful.

Tell us more about your process of devising and the influences for this piece?

We come from the culture of the theatre of the oppressed, finding different ways people can act out their own oppression and find ways of escaping their own oppression. In terms of devising, most of the songs that are written are either written by a sex worker themselves or they work with us collaboratively. For example, ‘The Freedom Song’ at the beginning and ‘The End Song’ are written by us communally as a group and the scenes are often written in the moment as we read through stories and improvise; they evolve into scenes which later get scripted. Sometimes Alex and I have chords that we think sound nice together, we bring them into rehearsals and write to the melody together. It’s very free flowing but it seems to have worked so far. It’s an ever changing show. We’re finalising the script now, but all the scenes are communally created.

What were your original intentions behind the production and how have they developed through the journey of the production?

Bring together group of people to make a communal and safe bonding experience, connecting with stories from around the world and putting on a somewhat decent show. We have definitely exceeded this intention beyond our wildest dreams. We now have a show which people enjoy seeing, which people have written amazing reviews about and people continue to want to come and see it. We have a wonderful supportive network and we are working alongside brilliant people in the sex work community. A future dream for us would be to go around the world to work with similar groups and work with them to tell their stories. Maybe bring the same model, but so that different people in different countries can have the opportunity to tell their stories and have a greater global impact.

You describe the show as a multi-media, cross-genre performance. What can an audience expect when coming to see Sex Workers’ Opera?

Expect to have your expectations shattered. It’s interesting because audiences who have seen it have said ‘it was much funnier than I thought it was going to be’. A lot of people say it challenges their expectations of what being a sex worker is. A lot of people have the 1 dimensional view that sex workers are these exotic outgoing creatures or these very vulnerable tragic people but they are complex human beings. There’s an arc to the piece which includes a range of scenes, poetry to songs, laid out in a cabaret style but with an over-arching narrative. It’s strung together with a journey, a narrative of two characters: one who is an anti sex work mother and one who is her sex worker daughter. We’re go through the story with them and their myriad experiences as they work out intergenerational feminism and their relationship. We wanted to show the huge spectrum of sex work experiences and cabaret style suited our piece in showcasing these. Expect the show to be as varied as our company. We have arias in there but we also have jazz, hip hop and dance!

Sex Workers' Opera runs at The Pleasance Theatre, London Tuesday 17th May – Sunday 29th May 2016.
Follow Sex Workers' Opera on twitter @sexworkersopera
http://www.sexworkersopera.com/






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Interview with Glyn Maxwell

Interview with writer Coda Quashie

Interview with Sarah Mann

Interview with Yolanda Mpele

Interview with Howard Barker

Interview with Brian Timoney

Interview with Laura Stevens

Interview with John Sandy

Interview with Philly Greenwood

Interview with Dean Stalham

Interview with Jack McNamara

Interview with Caroline Partridge

Meet People Show artist Gareth Brierley

Interview with George Mann

Meet Phillip Brook, star of Uncle Barry at the Blue Elephant

Interview with Fin Kennedy

Interview with James Graham

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown V

Interview with Cath Whitefield, now appearing at The Gate

Interview with Lavern Archer

Royal Court Announces Autumn Season

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown IV

Marketing Managers on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown III

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown II

Marketers On The Verge Of A Nervous Breakdown

Arcola to Create World's First Carbon Neutral Theatre

Interview with Nell Leyshon, Writer of Glass Eels at the Hampstead Theatre

A New Start for the Southwark Playhouse

The Mark Shenton Show

Theatre has moved on - whatever we critics think

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