20 September 2013

Report: new fat theatre

You wait for donkey's years to see something on a stage that bears some relationship to your life, your body and your values. You learn not to hold your breath or hope too much because, excuse the pun, the pickings are slim. Then a load of it comes at once and it turns out that the desert isn't as barren as it used to be. Is there something in the air? I don’t know.

I've written about Scottee and Amy Lamé's performance work, and my own ventures in Homosexual Death Drive, elsewhere on this blog. No doubt I'll come back to them but for now I want to turn my attention to two performances that I've seen recently where fat is a big part of the picture.

I doubt that anyone behind Phone Whore or Love n Stuff sat down and thought: "Aha! We'll make performances about fat people!" and it's true, these are not 'fat plays', and people who are not looking for this stuff would probably not notice it. But I am looking for fat performance and, to my eyes, these pieces are dripping with it.

Phone Whore is a solo performance written and acted by Cameryn Moore, who makes part of her living as a phone sex operator in North America. The show takes us through a busy shift, we get to see Moore in action, see how the business works, and consider wider philosophical themes about consent, fantasy and sex work. Phone Whore is one of a trilogy of shows and two street performances, all touring, that take a candid view of sex and invite the audience to examine some of their preconceptions. What makes this such a great piece is that you are able to witness Moore's skill as a performer and as a sex worker. She can really tell a story. There's none of the sanctimoniousness that often colours rhetoric and policy about sex work, Moore has empathy for her punters, and she invites the audience to judge less and understand better.

Moore has a long history as a radical fat queer activist. I once had the pleasure of participating in one of her workshops, an unforgettable experience of big, collective embodiment and movement. Phone Whore could not be described as particularly physical theatre, though the discrepancy between the fantasy women to whom she gives voice and her own body is central to the play, so in that sense there is a profound physicality to the work. This is not to say that she presents her fat self as inferior to the fantasy; she also claims her own sexual space in the performance. Both fantasy woman and solid, embodied, fat, queer can exist in the same moment, without judgement. I think this is what makes her portrayal of a fat sex worker so engaging and remarkable.

Love n Stuff by Tanika Gupta is a very different kind of performance. It is currently showing at the beloved Theatre Royal Stratford, home to theatre that is political, accessible, and rooted in the local community. A two-hander, Love n Stuff build on characters I first encountered in Gupta's show-stopping Wah Wah Girls, which played at the same theatre a year ago.

Rina Fatania and Tony Jayawardena star primarily as Bindi and Mansoor a middle-aged couple from Stratford. Mansoor is sick of E15 and has decided to move to Delhi, the problem is that Bindi does not want to go with him. In the process of resolving their differences, Fatania and Jayawardena play more than 20 characters between them, with only a few props and effects. Coupled with the breakneck pace of Gupta's script, the effect is speedy and electrifying. On the night I went, I saw people in the sell-out audience (always socially diverse at this theatre), me included, weeping and shaking with laughter.

This isn't a fat play, I think it's basically about love and belonging, a sense of place, with some thoughtful references to gender and the legacies of colonialism too. Kerry Michael, the director, is a lean kind of guy but Gupta ain't so skinny, and neither are Fatania and Jayawardena. Sometimes their bodies, Fatania's especially, are used for familiar laughs. Mansoor's retort that Bindi "used to be thin" is a punch-line that got a big reaction the night I was there, and her portrayal of a sexed-up woman was also familiar turf in the canon of fat stereotypes.

I rolled my eyes but forgave these moments because the rest of the play busted apart clichés at every turn. Bindi is a fat Asian woman with a PhD, she talks about never having had the calling to have kids, she has an emotional moment on the phone to her mum who is unable to recognise her achievements. Mansoor is an engineer, he has a career, he is a skilled person. Their marriage is mixed, he's Muslim and she's Hindu. Phone Whore takes place in a milieu that might recognise and name genderfuck, and here too the actors represent other genders seamlessly, queer roles, but it is to a mainstream audience without the usual postmodern self-importance. The actors in Love n Stuff are very physical. Fatania uses her heft to make space for herself, to punish and to seduce. There is at least one dance sequence. The performers are extremely active, jumping in and out of the many characters seemingly effortlessly. Their virtuoso skills light up the stage, it is fantastic to witness.

In his book and film The Celluloid Closet, Vito Russo reclaims the queer actors in cinema history that were always on the margins and never got a look-in. I often find myself doing this with fat characters, not only onscreen but also on stage, and in fact in any kind of performance. Like Russo and his readers, I think I am hungry for representation that speaks to me, and I scavenge it whenever I can. Neither Moore, nor Bindi and Mansoor are background characters, they are fully present at the centre of the performance. But my reading of them in terms of fat is still marginal; in many ways it feels like a sneaky reading, one that was not necessarily intended by the performers, playwright or director.

It's amazingly validating to see people like me telling stories about themselves. I am not Asian but I am a working class woman with a PhD and I live in Stratford and encounter people who look like Bindi and Mansoor every day. Part of the video backdrop for Love n Stuff was filmed along my road, these characters could easily be my friends and neighbours. I've also chosen not to have children and don't think of this as tragic in any way. I am not a phone sex worker, but I've thought about it, and I am an occasional pornographer. Free speech around sex, and feminist debates about that, are important to me. Seeing these tiny touchstones reflected in performance enables me to feel real in a context where I often feel, like Vito Russo's cinema queers, pushed to the side.

Phone Whore and Love n Stuff are enormously rich theatrical experiences in their own right and also as great examples of fat performance and fat culture-building. That fat is part of the way Phone Whore and Love n Stuff tell their stories is the icing on the cake, as far as I'm concerned. Seeing these performances makes me think: that's us, these are our stories, here are possibilities for what we are and might become. We are here.

12 September 2013

Fat Yoga in the UK

A couple of friends told me about a series of four fat yoga classes in London, called Yoga for Larger Bodies, which takes place in a studio in Islington. The first session happened in June, I did one at the weekend, and there are two others scheduled for October and November.

Yoga has been closely affiliated with proto-health at every size for some time. I first came across it with the Yoga for Round Bodies videos by Genia Pauli Haddon and Linda DeMarco in the mid-1990s, though I'm not sure if they were the prime movers but they were clearly on to something. 'Yoga for Round Bodies' is now the name of at least three businesses offering fat yoga classes in North America. The market for fat yoga self help literature is fast becoming saturated and the selling of fat-size yoga accoutrements looks set to turn into a growth industry. It's become a thing and is now a thing close to where I live.

Yoga is a good thing for fat people because it is adaptable. Kay Erdwinn's article Teaching Yoga for Round Bodies is a great resource that explores some of the ways in which having a fat body affects one's practise. Yoga also focuses on self-improvement at one's own pace, rather than the competitiveness that is usually associated with sporting activity. Yoga is an activity that builds strength, balance, flexibility fairly easily for fat people, including those of us who are very fat. It helps with stress management. The associated woo makes yoga appeal to a substantial demographic in fat activism: the oddballs and the leftfield folk.

What strikes me about fat yoga is the endemic use of euphemism: bodies are 'round,' 'curvy,' 'large,' 'bigger'. There is a real reluctance within the sector to use the F-word. Perhaps this reflects a wider conservatism within the sport and exercise industry, or there is a belief that fat people need soft-talking. I think this is probably a misguided attempt to acknowledge that you have to be pretty heroic and strong to turn up to a group exercise class if you are fat. But sugar-coating fat bodies does not really address the underlying and endemic problem of fatphobia in fitness cultures, the stuff that requires we be strong and heroic in the first place. So I don't find the banal language reassuring, it's somewhat alienating to me. I'd rather the reality of fat hatred was acknowledged in less patronising terms but this would require providers to talk about shame, hate and oppression in their promotional material and this is difficult to turn into sexy marketing blurb.

I've been doing yoga on and off for a number of years. I started when I was a kid. I had a teacher who was into it and she agreed to teach another girl and I some moves. Yoga has often been a part of my performance training. My most extended period of yoga was towards the end of the 1990s when I was a regular at a local class. This attracted quite a large number of mostly fat, stiff and old people and was taught by an extremely thin, wiry and strong woman. Looking back, she was pretty ruthless with us! She rarely modified poses and, if we struggled, assured us that practice would help us improve. I internalised this message and, although I loved the teacher and the class, often felt that I should just try harder at things with which I struggled. I now see that some asanas are not feasible for fat people, or need substantial modifications. For example Child Pose is usually referred to as a relaxing and neutral position but if you have belly fat it is impossible to do without raising your bum in the air, head-butting the ground, and feeling as though you are tipping forwards perilously, which is not at all relaxing. I always thought it was a problem with me and my lack of flexibility but I have a body that really isn't going to be able to curl up into a tight ball, no matter how much I practise.

Yoga for Larger Bodies is a small class with an experienced and attentive teacher. It is not super-cheap, but it is good value, the sessions last two hours, you get lots of attention and care and it takes place in a very beautiful studio, with lots of light and a gorgeous sleeping resident cat called Pearl. I was nervous about getting on the mat again, mostly because of that Child's Pose shame I mentioned above, and also because I was worried about exacerbating my arthritis. Despite this, I showed up and I was glad that I did. Our teacher was really open to modifying moves, and she was non-judgmental and warm. She provided a really good environment for our group, and the atmosphere was kind and supportive as well as focussed. We warmed-up slowly and accomplished a lot in the session.

I felt a little tender the next day, and my arthritic joints needed some soothing, but I felt that this was worth it compared to the joy that I had felt in being embodied after a long period of fairly disembodied work and life. Even though I am older and more stiff, I was surprised by how much I could do, and the unexpected strength of my own body. Perhaps my body hadn't forgotten that earlier yoga training. Some moves will always be a challenge, it was a relief to read Erdwinn's observations about the difficulties of performing a smooth sun salutation if you are fat, but I was delighted that I was able to perform elements of it that I have found very difficult in the past (hello downward-facing dog). Throughout the class I noticed moments of deep compassion for my body, and the bodies of other fat people, and familiarity and peace in my own flesh and bones.

I don't know if Yoga for Larger Bodies is going to be a continuing class, or is a pilot for more regular fat yoga gatherings. Neither am I sure if it is the first fat yoga class in the UK, there may have been some attempts in the 1990s, and there are certainly other fat yoga practitioners in the country, but it's the only one I know of at the moment. I hope it develops because it was a really good experience and I want to go back.