Guest Blog: Nastazja Somers Talks Female Sexuality On Stage
As the founder of HerStory Feminist Theatre Festival, I made a conscious decision a long time ago to only associate myself with feminist and political work that challenges the misrepresentation of women in theatre.
I founded HerStory on the basis of being an actress who, due to the lack of interesting roles, quickly became a theatre-maker. I also founded HerStory because I grew tired of talking to fellow female theatre-makers who felt discriminated against and felt that the opportunities for creating powerful and honest female work were very limited.
But frankly my biggest goal for HerStory was to create an unapologetic event where women were allowed to be angry, upset and bold with their work, where no one was judging them on the basis of their size, sexuality, race, nationality or religion. Because believe me, for a society that prides itself on being liberal, welcoming and tolerant, the theatre industry still has a massive lesson to learn when it comes to women and ethnic minorities.
If we are going to talk about the representation of women in theatre, we need to talk about sex. The way female sexuality has been and continues to be portrayed on stage is detrimental to changing the way women are perceived by contemporary society, and challenging that is vital to nurturing a future generation of theatre-makers that possesses an understanding of the complexity of the subject.
There is no doubt that female sexuality is an object of scrutiny; regardless of political stance, female desires and fantasies are still a taboo subject. Seeing women being in charge of their sexuality and, what's more, being comfortable with their sexuality is central to creating a platform for more women to keep creating pioneering work. Writers must understand that creating a sexual character does not mean creating yet another stereotypical female caricature.
Unfortunately female sexuality tends to exist on stage in relation to male characters. Women on stage use sex to achieve their goals, please the men around them or fulfil the director's vision of what female sexuality looks and feels like.
One of the most multifaceted and intriguing female characters in the history of modern playwriting, Blanche DuBois from Tennessee Williams' A Streetcar Named Desire, uses her sexual charms to manipulate those around her, but I am yet to see a production of this classic where even for a split second we get to see Blanche's own sexual needs and desires, not those of the directors who continue to misunderstand her femininity.
Long before HerStory, together with an Australian theatre maker Bj McNeill, I started No Offence Theatre, a theatre company dedicated to putting women centre stage. Our first project, written by Bj McNeill and inspired by real life events, Torn Apart (dissolution) tells the story of three couples in three different decades and three different bedrooms. The production has previously played twice in London, was showed at last year's Brighton Fringe and is now transferring to The Hope Theatre in Islington.
Sex and physicality play a massive part in the narrative of the story, and as a company we do not shy away from creating intimacy on stage, as by doing so we are aiming for staging real and unapologetic moments in which women are in charge of their sexuality.
The four female characters in Torn Apart (dissolution) are not portrayed as "sexy female characters", but sexual human beings who are not only allowed to give but also take. The production also asks questions about subjects such as consent, homosexuality and male repression, and from talking to many audience members in the past I have learned that whilst these themes can feel uncomfortable, they also feel very real and relevant to those who watch the production.
When I first started HerStory I could not predict the momentum it would gather. Throughout the past year I have produced four editions of the festival, each of them consisting of around 16 pieces. I have met many amazing women, lots of whom have become my friends. Torn Apart (dissolution) is going to be at The Hope Theatre this July, a fourth run of the production proof that there is need for more female-oriented work.
As I write this article I'm also prepping for an audition day, as myself and one of the leading vocal coaches and Shakespeare experts in the country, Barbara Houseman, are auditioning many talented women for our ALL FEMALE PROJECT. Challenging the status quo in the theatre is a constant battle, but as Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche writes: "The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story."