Look out patriarchy, British theater performers are coming for you! The Camden People’s Theatre just wrapped up its 4th annual ‘Calm Down Dear’ festival, dedicated to furthering the feminist conversation through the medium of art. Named after the annoying phrase often uttered toward women who speak out loudly, and boldly, in a culture that still boasts plenty of hetero-masculine patriarchal norms, Calm Down Dear began in 2013 as a way to honor the achievements made by the feminist movement and to engage theater-goers in dialog about how feminism is relevant today.
In a review about the three-week event, Jessie Thompson from the Evening Standard pointed out how the phrase was also famously uttered by former Prime Minister David Cameron, to fellow MP Angela Eagle in the House of Commons in 2011.
“But as far as we know he never said ‘chill out bro to any male MPs,” added Jessie.
This year, the lineup tackled issues such as the prevalence of porn on the sex lives of millennial women (CrossLine Theatre’s ‘Cream Pie’) the highly sexualized, media fueled world of teenage girls (Tight Theatre’s ‘PUSSY’), as well as revenge porn, new fatherhood, the politics around pubic hair and internet dating. The festival also went national by teaming up with Bike Shed Theatre to host performances in Exeter.
Brian Logan, the artistic director of the Camden People’s Theatre told the Evening Standard that despite the annoying stereotypes about feminists simply being angry people, this was part of why the festival came about in the first place.
“We’re angry, depressed and frustrated at ongoing sexism and gender inequality, and want to do our bit to defeat that. And we want to celebrate the amazing achievements of the feminist movement and feminist artists,” he said.
And as we’ve stated many times on our platform, art and humor can often be a very engaging and powerful way to tackle serious issues and raise awareness about the need for change.
The festival wasn’t originally intended to be an annual event, instead it was borne out of a response to the growing current wave of feminism in 2013 that was starting to occupy mainstream media news headlines and entertainment. Once they realized what an opportunity it was to further the conversations around feminism and promote the work of feminist artists, the organizers knew they were onto something.
It has now become a recognizable brand, often referred to as the only British theater festival dedicated to feminism. The theme for the 2016 Calm Down Dear festival was men and feminism, which is a highly timely topic given the amount of conversations around why it is important for men to be part of the feminist conversation.
Part of the reason for this topic was the growing interest in participation from male artists over the past few years.
“In the wider culture, it’s hard not to notice an increasing engagement with some of the problems of masculinity. There seem to be more men inclined to interrogate their own gender rather than assume it’s inherently unremarkable; more men asking critical questions of themselves vis-à-vis feminism,” said Executive Director Amber Massie-Blomfield.
Brian Logan does point out that it is important to them the festival remains a predominantly female space, with male voices as complimentary.
“Our program as a whole is female-led, with male artists representing just 45% of our program. But we do think that male discourse is relevant to feminism, and indeed that feminist goals are unlikely to be achieved without active male participation,” he said.
During the festival a panel discussing male participation in feminism was held to hear different views on this issue, as the organizers have found a variety of opinions on this matter over the years.
They also talked about the need for more female representation in the theater world on a number of levels.
“Some good places to start would be with female leadership…and more female artistic directors generally, [as well as] working models to be re-imagined to accommodate the demands of childcare. A diminished obsession with Shakespeare and the works of dead white male playwrights. More female representation on the boards of major theaters. Redress the 2:1 imbalance in numbers of male and female actors employed by subsidized theaters,” said Brian.
They want to make sure that the theater industry is more accurately reflecting the communities they serve, and while they festival organizers say gender quotas could help, they would rather see the inequality addressed by the theater industry willing to make a change.
One of the artists was a beatboxer who goes by the name Testament. His performance of ‘The Privilege Show’ delved into how the birth of his daughter made him examine feminism in a new way.
“It made me really want to step up, so essentially I guess I’m exploring how I can be a better feminist. And coming at this from being an artist embedded in hip hop culture, which has so much misogyny going on, it seemed natural to subvert some stuff,” he told the Evening Standard.
He says men could benefit from being better listeners in regard to the ways women express the inequalities they face. Testament has had a number of his own epiphanies that have come from watching various feminist theater performances, and shares some insight he learned from talking to playwright Emma Adams:
“She said, ‘Patriarchy is doing the same things the old way, feminism is doing something a new way.’ It really challenged me,” he said.
One of the awesome things about having men and feminism as the theme is it allowed toxic masculinity to be part of the content seen on stage. Writer Oonagh Murphy and performer Tom Ross-Williams created ‘Give Me Your Skin’, a show about a man committing an act of violence, then traveling back in time to examine what led up to him making that bad decision, and what could have been different.
“Ultimately, we’re arguing that toxic masculinity, a set of rules that men are forced to live by, is the problem…The show is about testing out the nature/nurture debate and how feminism can be a powerful force in the lives of boys and men,” said Oonagh.
She continued to explain there is a failure toward men and boys when it comes to discussing ideas about gender in the mainstream, which they want to rectify with this performance. Male-on-male violence, depression and suicide being the number one killer of men under 45 in the UK is something she wants to draw more attention to.
“If we don’t talk to men in our conversations around gender, we’re talking into a vacuum and nothing changes,” she said.
That is a great way to sum up why ‘Calm Down Dear’ is contributing an important voice in the feminist conversation in the UK and engaging people in creative ways that perhaps politics or academia could not. We hope the festival can make its way across the pond to the US next year, or that this event will inspire more artists in the theater world to use this medium to further gender equality.