A theatrical review and interview by TSKC's Bethan Screen.
Camden Etcetera Theatre, 2nd of August 2018
S/he/it Happens is a clown show, created and performed by Miranda Porter. They created the piece as part of their final project at drama school and have been developing it and refining it ever since.
To clarify, clown in this sense refers not to a terrifying entertainer in a full face of colourful make-up and too-big shoes, but the 20th century theatrical version of the term. In short the clown has a childlike desire to play, wants to make the audience laugh, to please them and to do the right thing. It is often performed with little to no text, as is the case with this show.
This premise of innocence and generosity to the audience and of trying to fit in ingeniously is applied to notions of gender and particularly dysphoria in the case of S/he/it Happens. We meet our flustered protagonist arriving late to work, sparkly eyed in round glasses and suit to a bland single desk office space. We see them panic at being late but not to worry they can adjust the clock to 8.55, and all is well.
What follows is what appears to a be a day in the life of Porter’s character. Banal yet hilarious play with a stapler and hole punch quickly quickly transforms to non-sexualised nudity as they quite literally wrestle with their gender; between their own appearance and emulating an epitome of masculinity; a ripped Calvin Klein model only dressed in red boxer shorts. I won’t reveal much except that while the audience laughs, winces and is moved by Porter’s charismatic and warm performance, foldable chairs, irons, a members of the audiences backs are employed in a desperate attempt to erase their breasts. ‘Boob puppetry’ is involved is involved (it’s incredible). Each time the office phone rings and interrupts the chaos on stage we hear Porter experiment with a lower voice and see their frustration grow. The result is slapstick, hilarious and inventive but tinged with confusion and sadness.
From the very first handshake and ‘morning’ (one of the few words used in this production) the audience are rooting for Porter's character. The wordless play on stage perfectly encapsulates a very physical struggle that language hasn’t quite caught up with. It's an intelligent and thoughtful concept that is impressively executed and performed. The audience interaction is necessary, yet at times feels too unstructured and the ending in time for the characters big 2 o’clock meeting is a little rushed. However perhaps this signals the circularity of the character we have come to love’s struggle, the journey to ‘fitting in’ and being comfortable in ones own skin is never ending.
Hi Miranda thanks for talking to TSKC, can you describe what you do as an artist or how you ‘brand’ yourself.
I’m a performer, director and facilitator of physical based performance. I also produced this show also but in the future I anticipate focusing less on producing. Then again, who knows!
Did you always want to be a performer/artist or is it an ongoing gradual realisation?
Ongoing, definitely! I was academic at school and was going to study Maths at university. I almost applied and then did a u-turn and realised I was most interested in performance. I thought I wanted to be an ‘actor’ (in a more traditional sense), but now I’m more interested in creating my own work, collaborating with other artists and devising, than working with a script.
What gave you the idea to create S/he/it Happens?
It was originally my final academic project (practical dissertation) which provided the impulse to start making something. I was inspired by solo clown shows and knew I wanted to make one and self-direct. In terms of the topic and subject material, I was very interested in gender and had already been researching and self-educating in my free time.
Did you choose the format of a solo clown show to explore the themes of gender dysphoria/trans/non-binary experience or did you decide to use that form because of the themes of the show?
From what I remember one informed the other. I can’t remember which one the chicken or the egg was. In practice I found they helped to each other. The clown is quite free in exploring gender.
What would you say are the main problems people who are trans or non-binary or who have body dysphoria face in the UK today? (Saying that out loud feels too massive on reflection!)
That’s very wide! When speaking to other trans performers, we are aware that the societal consciousness of trans narratives is fairly new. There needs to be a consideration of not creating a monolithic experience or point of view that “represents all trans people”. It does vary so much. Everyone is so different, which is great! It would be wonderful if we could tell many trans stories.
In terms of gender dysphoria, there’s not that much awareness or understanding of it outside the trans community. For example, after the show I often hear audience members use the term ‘body dysmorphia’ which is a very different issues to ‘gender dysphoria’.
In terms of reliving dysphoria, the main challenge is access to healthcare services such including therapy, hormones and surgery. On the NHS (the public health service of the UK) people wait years or, if they can, they go private which is very experience. I hope accessibility to trans healthcare improves. With the show I try to articulate how difficult it can be to wait for healthcare and live with gender dysphoria day-to-day.
Performing alone would be many performers worst nightmare, I think it’s a really brave thing to do. In the creative process how did you generate material when your work is so audience based?
I worked with a camera a lot of the time. I enjoy watching myself back when there is some direct engagement/acknowledgement of the audience. I’m still working out best balance of breaking the fourth wall and allowing the audience to see the character alone in their office. If you choose the right moments to break the fourth wall they can have more impact. I think I tend to check in a lot (a term in clowning for a look to the audience), maybe too much, so I have to pull that tendency back.
I don’t feel alone while performing the show because I am always present with my operator and the audience, who sometimes come onstage with me.
I have practiced and become accustomed to directing the focus as a solo performer; tempo, rhythm, use of gaze (particularly important in clowning, both with and without a nose)… I would say how you use and throw focus is quite different as a solo performer compared to when you are sharing the focus with someone else on stage.
You studied in Spain for 5 months at a drama school in Murcia. As an in international magazine each of us working remotely (including Ashuni in Spain) we’d love to know how did this experience shape you and your practice/work?
Quite drastically! While I was studying out there, I struggled with the language. All my classmates and my housemates were Spanish who spoke little/no English. Even though my Spanish improved a lot, I missed my persona in English of being quick witted, fast and forthcoming with ideas and contributing to conversations. That completely shifted in Spain. I was listening really hard to keep up and didn’t feel as confident to contribute ideas and suggestions.
I started watching more physical based work and I really admired and was thankful for work that I could understand as an international audience member. I was inspired to make it and challenge myself to communicate beyond language barriers, which has become part of my artistic policy. (Although saying that, I am excited to make a new show that uses language and text more than this one, which is almost textless.) I’m looking forward to touring this show internationally. I performed it in Spain and Finland and the response was very positive. If the physicality can articulate the experience it doesn’t matter that I don’t know how to say ‘gender dysphoria’ in Spanish or Finnish!
This issue is about the colour yellow, what does that mean to you?
I don’t have a strong affinity with the colour yellow. I don’t have any yellow things or clothes.
In terms of the industry, we need to keep improving casting and this means talking about yellow-face and whitewashing. I’m certainly not the best person to be talking about East Asian roles and castings, but I recommend checking out Constance Wu’s (starring in Crazy Rich Asians coming out this summer) recent tweet (@ConstanceWu) on representation. Also @CriticsOfColour on Twitter, or ‘British East Asian actors ‘face prejudice in theatre and TV‘ article by the BBC.
Yellow is part of our series, a year of colours, with the previous issue being Red. Are there any other colours that you are particularly inspire you? Do you use colour when creating the visual language for your piece or not really?
Red came up a lot with this show. Perhaps it was the association with the red nose of clowning. The boxer shorts the clown wears are red, but I chose them because of the pose of the model. Red is the clown’s/character’s favourite colour. There are a lot of red things in the show: the stationary on the desk, the watch, the chair. I don’t think it is a gendered colour, not that any colour need be, nor should be, gendered!
What other artists inspire/influence your work?
Kallo Collective (Finnish theatre company). During my degree, I wrote a project about them and interviewed them. Now I’m very humbled to be collaborating with them on a couple of things...they dropped in as a Skype audience while I was making this show!
Where can we find more about you and your work?
Emerging artist Miranda Porter is a performer, director and facilitator of physical based performance. They studied at Rose Bruford College, graduating in 2017, in addition to training with Philippe Gaulier, Angela de Castro and at ESAD Murcia in Spain. They recently worked as assistant director on Wild Life by The Ding Foundation and as a peer facilitator for Generation Arts, providing drama training for marginalised young people.
S/he/it Happens is Miranda's first solo show, developed with mentors Angela de Castro and members of Kallo Collective. The piece is a physical comedy exploring gender dysphoria of the chest and trans/non-binary gender identity. The piece has been performed across the UK and in Finland and Spain, with a recent sell-out run at Brighton Fringe.