We met the lovely Imogen Butler-Cole at the VAULT launch party - while we were all being silly and dancing the night away - but got to talk to her seriously about her show, Foreign Body, which deals with recovery after sexual assault. Imogen gave us some wonderful answers about the importance of this kind of work, and the powerful message behind her debut solo show.
What drove you to make Foreign Body?
Foreign Body is about healing after sexual assault - my own story, those of eight other survivors, and that of the perpetrator of one of my own assaults. Before I decided to tell my own story I was exploring the theme more widely and the main aim was to de-stigmatise the conversation around sexual violence. I felt that if we are not able to speak about it we would not be able to change it. As we worked we realised that true stories often make for the most powerful political theatre.
As it happened I was simultaneously going through a therapeutic process having recently uncovered my own story of surviving three separate sexual assaults. I had just met two other incredible women (through The Forgiveness Project) who had publicly shared their own stories and they both agreed for me to use their voices in the play. The work of The Forgiveness Project also inspired me to reach out to the perpetrator of one of these assaults to start a kind of reconciliation process. This suddenly jumped out at us as being quite a compelling story so we went from there. Eventually the perpetrator of this one assault agreed to have his voice included in the play and this now provides the cornerstone of the piece.
My motivation has continued to be opening up the conversation around sexual assault and in turn hopefully opening some minds to the reality that it affects us all in some way.
Who is Foreign Body for?
1 in 3 women face sexual assault in their lifetimes. We are all affected and we are all responsible. Therefore I think it is for everyone. It is time, as the #MeToo movement has shown us, for us to face up to the fact that we all know people who have been affected by this previously unspoken crime. The play can be uplifting for survivors as it points to a journey of healing and the fact that we can all be powerful again. It can be educative for people who know survivors and maybe aren't sure how best to support them, or who want to understand their experiences without burdening their friend by asking them to talk about it. It is also for people who may have crossed lines without knowing it, and for those who may be at risk of doing so. Finally it is for anyone who passionately believes that we must address this issue and find a more positive way to move forward.
Why is theatre a great platform for feminist discussion?
One of the things I'm loving about being at VAULT is the #ReVAULT group set up by a bunch of women who are all keen to support each other's work. We are all joining up to go and see shows together so we can discuss them afterwards, as well as sharing tips about maximising our time at the festival. I love the way women come together like this rather than feeling like we're in competition with each other. I think feminism is one of the reasons we are motivated to do this - we realise that we all need to move upwards together and if we try to push ourselves up in isolation we are actually just keeping other women down.
More personally with Foreign Body I stage discussion panels after every single show. I have special guests every night and we will be addressing different themes. For me this play is actually like a spring board into the discussion - it is there to serve the conversation as much as it is a stand alone piece of theatre. Particularly with this topic that has been so stigmatised for so long it feels as though we need the play as a jumping off point for the conversation. Otherwise people can feel uncomfortable talking about sexual violence - where do we begin? How do we make sure we say the right thing? With an issue that is so complex and so emotionally charged it can help to relate a set of personal experiences that the audience can then respond to in conversation. We will be covering some nuanced topics such as race and reporting sexual violence, the portrayal of sexual violence in the media and gender and sexual assault.
What challenges have you faced when it comes to staging issues surrounding sexual assault?
One challenge has been in dealing sensitively with the material that other survivors have contributed. Ten women agreed to entrust me with their most vulnerable stories and there's a weight of responsibility that comes with that. I made sure that I prioritised their wellbeing throughout the process, from having someone to sit with them before and after the interviews to checking in with how much of the material they were willing for me to use, to giving them the choice of being named or anonymous, and always making sure they know when and where performances are going to take place.
Similarly a responsibility has been entrusted to me by the perpetrator of one of my assaults who allowed me to record him and use his voice in the play. It's complicated by the fact we are both part of a friendship group, some others of whom have now seen the play. I suspect that some of that group don't agree with my decision to use his voice but other than the voice he is completely anonymous and I would never name him publicly. To me the benefits of opening up the perspective of a perpetrator to scrutiny outweigh the need to keep his actions private. In the end it was his choice to do what he did and it should be my choice to respond to that in the way I feel best serves the conversation.
Making this piece has been an exacting process personally. There have been several moments - usually in the lead up to presenting each version of the piece for the first time, before I've known how it was going to be received - when I have questioned why I was doing it, and if I would be able to go through with it. Once just prior to a week's rehearsal for the final R&D I was badly triggered reading the victim statement of Brock Turner's victim at Stanford. I felt weak and vulnerable for several days following the triggering and was unsure if I would recover in time. I took this to a friend and to the therapist I was working with at the time. They both helped me realise that it was more important for me to be safe than to go through with those performances. As it happened I felt strong enough to continue and we completed the piece in time. Now I have performed the play so many times and the response has always been so positive that I don't have the same doubts before shows. I do often feel physically tired and it takes determination laced with a dash of righteous rage - and a focus on the need to tell these stories - to get me ready at the start of each show. In general though I feel strong and am exhilarated about being a part of this vital conversation.
What was the last show that moved you to action?
A lot of the plays I am watching at the moment are exploring race. This is partly as the next project I am working on will be about whiteness and the urgent need for white people to take responsibility for racial inequality and harmful attitudes around race. We are the cause of the problem and it has too long been seen as an issue for people of colour to navigate. So my play will examine my part in that problem. My thinking has been inspired by Koko Brown's WHITE, Lions and Tigers, The Brother's Size and The Barber Shop Chronicles. I haven't yet seen Selina Thompson's salt. but I am hoping to in autumn when it returns to the UK after an international tour.
What shows at VAULT are you looking forward to?
I am looking forward to a lot of the female-led shows. In order of appearance Bicycles and Fish, The Vagina Dialogues, Good Girl, Ok Bye, Boots, The Things That Do Not C(o)unt and Big Bad are all firmly on my radar. And I can't wait to see Follow Suit and A Clown Show About Rain!
You can see Foreign Body this week at VAULT Festival before Follow Suit from 7-11 March!