Award-winning performance artist Louise Orwin talks to our Arts contributor Carla Plieth about her latest project Oh Yes Oh No and its exploration of female sexual desire, the #MeToo movement, her creative process and more.
It is drizzling when I meet Orwin in a Café near London Bridge. Wearing a radiant turquoise sweater, Orwin is certainly someone who stands out, who feels at ease surrounded by people, and as I’ve been lucky to have seen her latest show, Oh Yes Oh No, I know that she indeed feels at ease on stage, too, and doesn’t shy away from tackling taboo topics. However, as I discover during our conversation, it’s not all as straightforward and easy as it seems.
I am interested to learn how Orwin’s career began and how she came to be where she is today. After all, she seems like a jack of all trades: she has several shows in her repertoire, was a co-founder of Steakhouse Live, an artist-run organisation producing performance festivals, and a femme-wrestler extraordinaire for Femme Feral’s Theresamaysmackdown. Moreover, she is the winner of the Flying Solo Award in 2015, as well as a finalist for the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award in 2019. Where it all began, however, is with the dream of becoming a writer or an actress during school. Eventually, Orwin went on to study English and Drama at Bristol University where she realised that she, in fact, did not want to become a writer or actress but something in between: “I performed in a lot of plays at Bristol but I hated being directed by other people. I must have been a bit of a control freak”, she says laughing. It was work she presented during her MA that led to one of several “happy accidents”, as she calls it, that would set off her career.
What fascinates me about Orwin’s work, especially since seeing her latest show Oh Yes Oh Noa few months ago, is how it poses questions about issues of femininity and sexual violence. I am also curious about the research process behind it. As she explains, her performances usually stem from a question forming in the back of her brain; a question about a problem or an aspect of life that she is not particularly happy with or doesn’t understand. Then, she begins researching and, eventually, the concept for a show develops. “With all my shows”, Orwin recounts, “I never know the format at the beginning. I do the research and then through what I find during it I decide on the best method of trying to ask that question on stage.” Consequently, her three shows, Pretty Ugly, A Girl and a Gun, and Oh Yes Oh No are rather different in performance, although all explore the topics of femininity and violence. Regarding her latest show, the question Orwin poses evolves around her sexual desire, following the end of a formative relationship and the subsequent freedom of being able to explore her sexuality for the first time in a while. The realisation that she now could ask for exactly what she wanted led Orwin to wonder, “What do I want? And why do I want the things I want? And is it okay to want the things I want.” Describing it as “a bit of neurosis around my sexuality”, the London-based artist proceeded as usual and went off to talk to other people about the questions that had arisen.
Initially interviewing female survivors of sexual violence, many of whom she had contacted through an acquaintance at Women’s Aid, Orwin realised she also wanted to talk to women and non-binary individuals who did not have similar experiences to herself. While this process turned out to be insightful and thought-provoking, it was also difficult as she noticed that about 90 per cent of the individuals she interviewed and who didn’t identify as survivors of sexual violence had, in fact, also experienced some form of abuse. When talking to these people about their sexuality, accounts of negative experiences would often come up in the conversations. Orwin would gently probe further, raising the notion that the experiences didn’t sound like they were consensual. What would follow were discussions about the nature of consent and how it works, often resulting in the epiphany that, yes, maybe these women and non-binary individuals had indeed experienced some sort of sexual violence.
Not only does there need to be a discussion about experiences of sexual violence, but also the reasons why there are few spaces to talk about them…
Although Orwin found the interview process and the time she spent in her studio listening to the tapes quite gruelling and traumatic, she also found the process quite therapeutic. Before, she had only ever talked about her experience in informal settings, at parties or in bathroom queues, with her and those she conversed with slightly drunk. Even though, at that moment, she felt quite cathartic about having found someone with a similar experience, the next morning was often followed by “a complete shame hangover”, with her questioning whether she had divulged too much or turned the talk into a therapy session.
Specifically interviewing and engaging in conversation with people about their experiences in preparation for Oh Yes Oh No, however, did not result in any feelings of shame. On the contrary, Orwin realised that these conversations were important to her and those she spoke to; she realised that it was important to have a space where one can talk freely and non-judgementally about such experiences. Not only does there need to be a discussion about experiences of sexual violence, but also the reasons why there are few spaces to talk about them, and consequently, how to create and maintain these spaces. Orwin has responded to such need by giving free, daylong workshops for femme-identifying individuals over 18, alongside her shows. Both offer the spaces she was missing.
It sounds so basic but it’s literally just a space for women and non-binary people to talk about sex – and that feels radical…
Sometimes those who sign up for the workshops don’t know what to expect. They’ve never talked explicitly about sex before but, according to Orwin, they’re usually the ones who get the most out of it. The general response to her workshops is echoed in Oh Yes Oh No, in Orwin’s own realisation that “it’s been so long since I asked myself what I want”. “I love them so much”, she explains, “because I think the show is important and I know people get stuff from it, but it’s a hard show to perform. But when I do these workshops, it’s just the loveliest healing experience. It sounds so basic but it’s literally just a space for women and non-binary people to talk about sex – and that feels radical.”
I was positively surprised by the audience that attended Oh Yes Oh No, as was Orwin. Describing her target audience as women, queer, non-binary millennials, she shares anecdotes of shows performed in the North of England that were primarily attended by white couples in their 60s and 70s. “Am I attracting a generation of swingers?”, Orwin asks laughing. We both agree it’s heartening that a show which so explicitly talks about sex and sexual violence finds such a wide audience. However, it is hard listening to Orwin revealing the negative experiences and feedback she’s received. When she premiered the first iteration of Oh Yes Oh No in London, she had a lot of negative experiences with men, although she had been used to this kind of feedback from previous shows: “I think men can be quite affronted by it. It’s funny because with Pretty Ugly and A Girl and a Gun, men have been quite vocal in expressing their distaste of it in the show and afterwards. What I’ve had with Oh Yes Oh No is not only that, but also the really gross men who come and will whistle through the show or approach me afterwards and make gross comments like, ‘Next time if you want to play sex games, give me a call’ or whatever.” I’m amazed by Orwin’s strength, and how she is not discouraged by these experiences but presses on even more and continues to create space for women and non-binary individuals. And while it’s great that some men appreciate and see the value of it, the space is not for them: “I hate this toxic idea that if women become empowered it’s taking something away from men”, she comments, because this is certainly not true.
We digress from her practice as an artist and reactions to her shows, and dive more deeply into the concepts of her work, more specifically, questions around sexuality and femininity. Orwin expresses her love for pop-culture and its self-reflexive potential to comment on the time we live in. Therefore, she tries to implement the aesthetics of pop-culture into her work. In doing so she forces “pop-culture to become like the biggest, most magnified, most ugly version of itself, so that people can see it again, refreshed.” When reminiscing about her childhood, Orwin says she was obsessed with the hyper-sexualised femme fatales of Hollywood. She now has a love-hate relationship with this era of cinema, as explored in A Girl and a Gun. Overall, she draws much of her inspiration from musicians and filmmakers, and generally from individuals who, although not necessarily connected to the topics she dissects, pose interesting questions or present interesting aesthetics. Early on in Oh Yes Oh No, Orwin seizes the notion that, from a young age, children learn what women and men are supposed to be and look like. Mainstream media often draws a picture of active, aggressive men and passive, accommodating women. At one point in the show, Orwin incorporates Barbie and Ken doll role-play in part drawing attention to the way toys bring stereotypes directly into children’s rooms, and will, to a certain extent, never leave them, as such constructs continue to be reinforced by other media (Hollywood films, advertising, porn, fashion etc.). “I think there’s this assumption”, she continues, “that, especially as women and non-binary people we should want certain things, and often that’s not the case. But we’re not given space to question that, we’re not given other options in terms of mainstream sexuality. Maybe if mainstream porn did reflect a wider variety of sexuality then maybe we’d want different things.” In the same way that we can’t really think of a concept we don’t have a word for, can we desire something without knowing that we are allowed to desire it? “I’m always interested in experiencing this stuff I have an attraction and repulsion to. So I think pop-culture falls into this category,” She adds.
…Having friends who are drag queens makes you realise that if they can appropriate femininity and wear it as drag, then why can’t I do the same?
Her preoccupation with things she is both attracted to and repulsed by continually informs her work. Her perception of femininity is similar: it is something she wants to showcase and, at the same time, it can be a challenge, a burden, that needs to be negotiated and reclaimed. “I’ve always seen my femininity as a gilded cage. It’s funny because the older I get, the more I can learn to love my femmeness. I really think that is because I have a lot of friends who are drag queens. I think having friends who are drag queens makes you realise that if they can appropriate femininity and wear it as drag, then why can’t I do the same? It’s not necessarily that I have a cultural trapping, but I do also recognise that the flipside of that is that there have been times in my youth where I felt I couldn’t go outside the house without make-up on. I recognise the power in being a femme presenting woman, a white woman as well. I know that there’s a privilege in that I can use the way I look to my own advantage, but I also know that it can be a trap at times.”
My work…opens up forums for the processing of difficult emotions and difficult questions and that’s why I never want to be didactic about what I do.
Upon my asking, Orwin agrees 100 per cent that sexuality is political. But where do politics and sexuality cross, overlap, and contradict each other? Can one be a feminist and simultaneously be sexually submissive, wanting to be dominated in the bedroom? “I love that idea but I just don’t believe that one position doesn’t in some way compromise the other”, Orwin admits. Although she supports the key message of the sex-positivity movement, Orwin expresses her frustration regarding it, saying that especially women, non-binary individuals, and people of colour can’t as easily separate, or as she calls it, ‘fence off’, their sexuality from their politics as “we’re kind of at the bottom of the food chain” and in a vulnerable position.
This also leads to one of the aspects I particularly appreciate about Orwin’s work – namely that it could easily be didactic, but it’s not. Instead, it always keeps its distance from providing pre-formed answers and creating a binary of right and wrong, good and bad. In order to avoid presenting her audience with a set answer, Orwin opens up the space she occupies – be it in a theatre or gallery – to her audience: “I’m aware that if there is an answer, it’s not the same for everyone out there. I think what I’ve discovered through my work is creating these spaces sort of opens up forums for the processing of difficult emotions and difficult questions, and that’s why I never really want to be didactic about what I do.” Orwin believes that the #MeToo movement has opened up the possibility to discuss difficult question in the way she does, but there is still a long way to go. We are certainly not in a post-MeToo era, she feels, but “still really deeply deeply in it.” Even though #MeToo might have made it easier to talk about rape culture, it’s still difficult. “A lot of the show is about how rape culture wants you to be silent”, Orwin says thoughtfully. “It wants you to be silent in terms of not talking about your negative experiences, it wants you to be silent because it doesn’t want you to ask for what you want, it doesn’t want you to feel empowered in your body.”
Orwin is currently in the early stages of her next show which she aims to bring onto the stage in late 2020. Contrary to her three previous shows, it will be a collaborative project titled Cry Cry Kill Kill. Reflecting on performing alone during her previous shows, she reflects, “It’s funny because earlier you were saying like ‘Why do you work on your own?’ Well, you know, because I’m a control freak and I like calling the shots. I’m still doing that with this one, but oh my God, I’m not lonely for the first time in ages. So that’s really nice.” To Orwin, it feels like it could be the last in the series of her works that explores femininity and violence, but who knows. I ask whether she can tell us a bit more about what her new show will look like and it certainly sounds fantastic. Cry Cry Kill Kill will explore femme-rage, what happens in a sort of post-MeToo world, and what it means to be a survivor in this space, imagining “a future where you don’t have to be the victim and you don’t have to be the monster.” Orwin describes her upcoming show as “a hyper-theatrical look at horror films, chaos and wrestling, which will be messy and essentially take up a lot of space”, inspired by her work with Theresamaysmackdown. “Where previous works of mine have been fierce but maybe quite melancholic or looked at difficult questions, this one is really trying to rip open the whole tapestry of things I’ve been working on and try to find a way out. There’s loads of fake blood, there’s wrestling, and there’s loads of women and non-binary people on stage, and I’m just so excited by it.” We at Lucy Writers are also excited by Orwin’s upcoming projects. Fake blood, wrestling and loads of women and non-binary people on stage – what’s there not to love?!
To buy the play text of Louise Orwin’s Oh Yes Oh No, click here.
Lucy Writers would like to express our utmost thanks to Louise Orwin and Carla Plieth for allowing us to publish this interview.