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Interview: Emma Baskeyfield on her work-in-progress show 'Go Figure'

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"While I’ve got blades, you’ve got nerve to call me fucking ‘sweet’": theatre maker, practitioner and puppeteer Emma Baskeyfield finishes her work-in-progress show Go Figure with defiance.

Music, audio-recordings of Emma’s voice, mime, puppetry and a spoken-word performance at the end combine to paint the picture of her and her sister’s experience of growing up. This experience was one of confusion bordering on disgust at bodily changes. The show illustrates the difficulty of trying to navigate these emotions in a landscape composed of the unyielding traditional rules of figure-skating. 

Image credit: Manfred Richter via Pixabay

A passion, impaired

Go Figure certainly doesn't feel ‘in-progress’ but has a magical home-made quality to it, which defines a show where skate-bags become tiny bedrooms at the flick of a (remote-control) switch; where Emma moves the set’s furniture around on roller-skates; and where she undresses and dresses again… on roller-skates, wheels catching in the leg-holes of her leotard. At one point she’s applying make-up so frantically that she looks like she’s going to injure herself. These are perfect representations of the analogy she makes in our interview after the show:

"It’s like eating your favourite meal, but you’re only allowed to eat it if its covered in salt. Far too much salt. Someone’s poured a bucket of salt over your favourite meal and suddenly its disgusting and you can’t eat it. There’s this thing you really love, flying round the ice, but you can only do it if you’re wearing a dress and skating with a boy and if you put all this make-up on your face. You can only skate to the sort of music they tell you is appropriate, and suddenly you’re thinking 'I don’t think I really like this anymore, but I do want to like this, I’m really good at this’ and suddenly you’re compromised."

Theatre as a coping mechanism

Figure-skating rules appear on the back wall at various moments throughout the show, towering over her as she affectionately moves two puppets that look like artist’s mannequins - her and her sister gliding across the ice. These rules don’t cover periods-on-ice, and the skating trainer is "used to first aid with no blood. He is not used to blood with first aid." Today, Emma can down a menstrual cup of (fake) blood with no qualms. I ask her if she had needed to gain that acceptance and distance from the experience in order to write a show about it, or if theatre could work as a tool for coping with difficult experiences whilst one’s in the midst of them:

"Theatre can really help people work through things if handled well," she tells me. "My last show was particularly sensitive, it was about mental health and sexual violence and autobiographical. Things were straight-up and laid-bare but it was sassy too, not doom and gloom. It was me reclaiming my voice and being fabulous, and that show came out of a time that was really tough for me. Making that show was probably the best thing I could have done at that point, but it wouldn’t be the best thing for everyone."

Her process of making Glitter in the Wound was "an art of mind-vomiting. I made lots of notes and recordings of how I felt. When I’d get really angry or upset I would just write things down, and then I’d format them into a show. That process of curating something was a really great way of working through my emotions, as I’d start thinking about what they meant and what I wanted the audience to take away from them. [Go Figure] is certainly not as raw and bare for me". 

Body positivity

Yet although Emma is no longer struggling with the things she talks about in this show, she has learnt more about herself whilst making it. "I told myself I would never weigh myself, told myself ‘right, I’m not going to care about how I look, I’m going to be wonderfully comfortable in my own skin la la la," and I had thought that was where I was at. But weirdly, in making this show I had a bit of a body wobble - for the first time in years. I put some jeans on and they didn't fit and I had a crisis over it. That’s never happened to me. I thought I was this great, big, strong, immovable pillar of body positivity, to the point where I would preach a little bit, thinking, and sometimes saying things like, 'stop talking about diets, you're better than that'. But I’ve realised that I’m just as vulnerable, susceptible to thinking those things about myself. No one is immune to it, and you can hardly be annoyed at other people for not being at the same stage as you."

She adds, "the show could have been something like [mock game-show host voice] ‘Emma used to hate her body a bit, and she did ice skating, but she didn't want to wear the dresses, and she didn't really know who she liked, but now she does, and it’s fine! And she doesn't really do skating anymore but if she did she’d be sassy!’ but that wouldn't be honest, and I’m still trying to work out what the show is about too."

Theatre as activism

One part of Emma’s show which is extremely powerful is when she implores the audience to look at her, in her bra and pants, and choose one thing we would change about her body. One thing which, a little bigger or smaller maybe, a little less hairy, would improve her appearance. She tells us to move past thinking ‘oh, I wouldn't change a thing’ and to really think about what she’s asked. And then she asks us to do the same thing about someone close to us. Are we any happier for it?

She tells me that theatre is such a good platform for activism and exercises like this because "people can’t scroll past you. People don't form relationships with abstract photos or videos, they form relationships with people. There is something powerful about actually having someone in front of you, just being themselves, particularly for autobiographical work. The audience also have to stick with you for however long, they’re captive in a way, and there’s this sense that the audience are ready to listen and you have something important to say."

Rough around the edges

Towards the end of the piece Emma speaks about her friend’s eating disorder and the impact this had on her. I ask her if this recording, with its background noise almost (and sometimes completely) drowning out her voice, is the most difficult for the audience to hear because it is the most difficult part for her to talk about. It’s not. It only has traffic in the background because it was an off-the-cuff recording she made walking back from the theatre one day. "I’m not polished," she says, "that’s the whole point. I want it to look a bit rough around the edges because that’s what makes me, me. I could come out with a sparkling set but it would feel very different. It’s actually just me and my clothing rail."

As an audience member, the ‘rough around the edges’ nature of the show is its greatest appeal. It makes us feel that we are together with Emma rather than watching her. The audio-recordings have a big role to play here. "There is something tender in this sort of storytelling. Having an audio-recording is very different to me being on stage, like ‘hey, I’m talking to you, audience, with all my facial expressions for you to see, and I implore you to give me some sort of feedback’. Actually, it’s a lovely experience when we are all listening to something together, and sometimes I forget that I’m listening to myself. It’s quite a nice leveller between performer and audience - we’re all just having a gentle listen."

Authenticity and unpredictability

I ask her if there is something about performing that makes her feel more comfortable discussing complex personal issues than she would in her everyday life. "I almost can be more myself on stage," she replies, "you’d think you’d be the performance version of yourself but actually, you’ve created your own space, you’ve chosen the music, you’ve chosen the lights you like, so you've made the most comfortable space for yourself. You might choose to make the most uncomfortable space, but you still give yourself the best possible platform for you to be able to express yourself and so of course it’s easier, for me at least."

Nevertheless, Emma’s favourite thing about theatre is that you never know what is going to happen. "I never know when I’m going to fall over in the show. People think it’s really carefully choreographed and sometimes it is, but mostly it’s not. When you’re watching something else, again, you might see something on the programme but they could have written that months ago. You never know what you’re going to get, and that can be good and not so good too. As an audience member, there’s a certain joy in handing yourself over to someone else for the next forty minutes or hour or so, and being willing to listen and, as a performer, there’s a joy in being willing and open to share. So open that you’re there in your bra and pants, telling the audience about a time you perioded all over an ice rink, and laying yourself bare because you feel comfortable to. But sometimes, even if you don't feel comfortable, it’s such a joyful experience to see all that support."

Emma will be taking her show to the Theatre Royal Plymouth in December; tickets can be booked here.

Lead image credit: Manfred Richter via Pixabay




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