A powerful, challenging, provocative and funny new play, Gazing, looking at female representation and autonomy, has been inspired by Kim Ayres’ photography exhibition ‘Women over Fifty’. It starts on Saturday at Dumfries and Galloway’s DG Arts Festival.
Ahead of its run this weekend, Lorna Irvine caught up with the creator, playwright Carolyn Yates, and cast member Linda Duncan McLaughlin, who stars alongside Kirsty Miller and Sheila Grier, to find out more.
‘Gazing’ asks big questions about older women’s bodies. Do you think theatre is a good platform to tackle societal taboos?
Linda Duncan McLaughlin: Absolutely. In all of the photos in the project that inspired the play, the women look directly out at the viewer: they are not objects to be viewed dispassionately, they hold the viewer’s gaze, return and challenge it. The actors in the play represent that gaze in live form, and ask the audience to examine their own attitudes to how women are represented and viewed.
Uncovering and speaking honestly about the taboos and the deleterious effect they have on women of all ages can help to heal the damage they wreak: live theatre is uniquely well-placed to do this because of its ability to reach out and touch the hearts and minds of its audience in a shared exploration of women’s experiences.
Carolyn Yates : As an avid theatregoer, I know theatre tackles societal taboos, but I hadn’t realised just how powerful it would be in this particular context. I’m one of the women who participated in Kim Ayres’ ‘Women Over Fifty’ project. He and I got into a conversation about what he’d do with the pictures, and it became clear that a conventional exhibition would turn the images into artwork, beautiful artwork to look at, but it would be read as art rather than interrogated through language. Theatre gives us a collective way to examine our visceral and cognitive responses to taboos. Kim and I discussed creating an online gallery, but that hands over power of the image and the possibility of the images being hijacked and used in ways that oppose what Kim was trying to do. He did make a very short film juxtaposing images with extracts from the women’s interviews with him about what it was like to be photographed naked.With the support of Luminate, Scotland’s creative ageing organisation, we presented the film and a panel discussion to audiences in Dumfries and Galloway. That made me realise that there was a real appetite and an audience (men and women) who wanted to think about the issues Kim had literally exposed. With the support of D& G Arts Festival and Dumfries and Galloway Unlimited’s Together Again Fund, I felt able to write a play that was uncompromisingly about what I wanted to say, question and explore.
There are moments of humour. Do you think humour is an effective way to ‘sweeten some pills’ for the audience?
CY: Yes, undoubtedly. I know I like that approach if I’m in an audience.But I find it hard to write ‘funny’. Working with this amazing, supportive cast, listening to their discussions about the script help me create humour in the final version. I don’t think they realise how much inspiration I took from them, but they may identify a few of the words!
LDM: For sure. Lecturing and polemic have their place, but we can make serious points without hectoring our audiences, and we hope that we can laugh at ourselves, too- so we hope that the show is funny, as well as challenging, and will provide a lot of laughs of recognition.
That said, there are moments where we are deadly serious, because we have to be. We thought about making a roll-call of all the women lost to male violence in the last year: but no matter how up-to-the-minute we were, there would always be another, new, lost one to add to the list. The idea that women are subject to male power, that they should be/act in certain ways, can result in deadly, awful consequences: the last year alone (and all the many years before it) is terrible witness to that. Something has to change, and we think it’s important to add our voices to the call to make that change happen sooner rather than (too much) later.
Has creating/working on ‘Gazing’ made you re-examine how you see yourself?
LDM: Yes, again. Much of the development work for the show has consisted of us sitting around talking, sharing experiences, anecdotes and stories (and cracking up laughing at many of them) which Carolyn then skilfully wove into the fabric of her original conception for the show. But the women who took part in Women Over 50 gave so generously of themselves and their bodies, and their empowered owning of their images has been insightful, informative and inspiring in equal measure. We’ve found much common ground and pointers to the future as we approach the next decades; it has made us begin to love our bodies just a little more, refuse to become invisible, and embrace the rallying cry: this is what a woman over 50 looks like: Deal. With. It.
CY: I don’t think it’s made me re-examine how I see myself, it’s helped me articulate that- with all the ambivalence and contradictions that are inherent at every stage of being a woman. It’s a truism to say old age is a time of reflection, but this is my reflection play. This is where I’ve put together a history of feminism since the 1970s with what I hear from women around me as we face ageing
Why do you think the male gaze is still such a problem,even now in 2021?
LDM: *Le sigh*… Because the ideal of beauty in the female is still centred in youth and fertility, promulgated by a media mostly controlled by men? Because the funding for art still resides mostly in big corporations and funding bodies, again controlled mostly by men? Or is it because women themselves accede to and help to perpetuate that ideal? If it’s this last one, then if we want change we have to drive it, don’t we? More women artists, celebrating more women of all ages, exploring more aspects of female power that have nothing to do with how we look on the outside might be a start. There’s nothing wrong with beauty (of whatever gender) per se; but we can’t just sit around demanding that the male gaze changes: we have to show how to look for (and see) something different, more lasting and more valuable.
CY: Same old, same old! Though I do think a lot of men are changing- slowly! I have two stepsons and five grandsons and the way they are fathers to their sons fills me with hope. I have to say, one of the attractions of Ken, my husband, was the way he was father to his sons. I’d like my stepsons to see the play because I’d like to hear their opinions about the male gaze. They are both very insightful and I value their opinions.
Where’s next for the play? Can you see it touring in 2022?
LDM: Well, hopefully. If the play goes down well in D&G we hope that there may be opportunities to develop it further and take it out more widely to Scotland and beyond.
CY: I’d love the play to continue touring, but I’d also like to put it within the context of an exhibition of Kim’s amazing photographs. The exhibition would colour the experience of the theatre piece, and vice versa. But that’s rather ambitious!
Gazing is at DG Arts Festival on Saturday, Nov 27th, followed by The Print Room, and Theatre Royal, Dumfries. Check press for more information.