We are proud that Vital Xposure’s Artistic Director, Julie McNamara has been awarded a Miegunyah Distinguished Visiting Fellowship at the University of Melbourne for 2019. Julie Mc has continued her research into disability-led theatre-making and how this shifts the discourse on inclusive art where disability narratives are – and should be – truly embedded from the start.

On 3rd April she delivered a public lecture on ‘Cripping it Up: When Disability-led Theatre Awakens our Critical Consciousness to the Non-normative Body and Unruly Mind Unleashed in Public Spaces​‘, hosted by the Faculty Of Fine Arts and Music, University of Melbourne. It was received with great enthusiasm by audiences, we are sharing below just a few of the most heart-warming comments that went viral on social media:

“I have never felt as welcome, included, or valued and respected as I did on Wednesday evening when we journeyed to the VCA (Victorian College of the Arts) to hear the exceptionally insightful and sincere, yet still supremely well crafted and soul bearing words of the charismatic and dynamic Julie McNamara”

“Standing in front of projections providing visual images from disabled artist Alison Lapper – The Alternative Venus, Julie said a hard home truth – that we are all prejudiced”.

The lecture was filmed and you can now view it online via the link below. Please note that Captions can be activated by clicking on the ‘CC’ button at the bottom right of the video. Enjoy!

You can read more in Julie McNamara’s interview on ‘Precinct’, published by the University of Melbourne.

Congratulations Julie Mc!

Article by Russel Parton

First published on East End Review and Hackney Citizens, 24 August 2016

Inspired by the tragic story of war reporter Dorothy Lawrence, Blue Pen looks at the lives of women journalists whose voices have been silenced

A female journalist who disguised herself as a soldier and travelled to the front on a bicycle during the First World War is the inspiration for a film premiering next month at Hackney Picturehouse.

Blue Pen focuses on ten women journalists whose voices have been silenced through censorship, confinement in institutions and abuse.

Although largely set in the present day, the film’s title refers to the wartime government’s practice of censoring letters and reports from the front.

“I was considering the number of women journalists who are disappeared and executed to this day,” says Julie McNamara, the artistic director of Hackney-based theatre company Vital Xposure.

“So we began to make an experimental short film looking at censorship and blue pen, and Dorothy Lawrence’s story was the springboard.”

When the war broke out, Dorothy Lawrence was 19-year-old aspiring journalist brought up in the care of the church by a guardian whom she later claimed had raped her.

Although very few journalists were allowed to the front Lawrence felt she had every right to report on the war, and – in the era of the suffragettes – believed there was nothing a woman couldn’t do.

“She got the boat to Calais, bought a bicycle and then cycled to the front line,” says McNamara.

“Everyone she met along the way thought it was a jolly jape and that she’d never make it.”

Arrested by French police two miles short of the front line, she was ordered to turn back. Then in Paris she befriended a group of soldiers in a café. She persuaded them to smuggle her a uniform piece by piece and teach her how to march.

Lawrence arrived at the front in perfect disguise and enlisted under the name Sapper (Private) Dennis Smith. But two weeks later a young soldier wanting to earn his stripes “dobbed her in it”.

“All hell was let loose. She was investigated and of course they suspected she was a spy. Then they thought she was a ‘camp follower’, the term they used for legalised prostitutes working on the front line.”

The silencing of Dorothy Lawrence took various forms. Her writings were heavily censored, to the extent that she was never taken seriously. She was also threatened with court martial (even though women couldn’t serve in the armed forces) and placed in a nunnery in France, before being escorted back to Britain.

By 1925, Lawrence’s dreams of Fleet Street looked increasingly remote. Her heavily censored book Sapper Dorothy Lawrence: The Only English Woman Soldierflopped commercially, and after confiding to a doctor that her church guardian has raped her she was taken into care and later deemed insane.

She was committed first to the London County Mental Hospital and then institutionalised at the Colney Hatch Lunatic Asylum in Friern Barnet. She died at Friern Hospital in 1964 and was buried in a pauper’s grave in New Southgate Cemetery.

Blue Pen is more an art film than anything else and is not a dramatic film,” says McNamara.

“It begins with truth of Dorothy Lawrence’s story and creates in the audience’s mind an atmosphere of Dorothy Lawrence’s interrogation and what became of her.

“It then moves on to give ten names from the last decade who have each been disappeared, the majority executed, and so the final question you’re left with is: what is it with the dangerousness of women telling the truth?”

Alongside the premiere of Blue Pen, the launch will also include a screening ofEmma Humphreys the Legacy, a documentary short about a teenage sex worker who spent ten years behind bars for killing her boyfriend and pimp, whose case eventually changed the law for those in abusive relationships who kill.

There will also be a panel discussion and live music from Lorraine Jordan, a singer-songwriter who wrote Anna’s Song, a tribute to assassinated Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya.

 

Blue Pen launch event
6 September
The Attic, Hackney Picturehouse
270 Mare Street
E8 1HE
More information and tickets

 

Why Blue Pen?

Julie McNamara talks about censorship of women’s voices in this experimental short film co-directed with Caglar Kimyoncu.

Interview by Emilia Teglia

In Autumn 2015 we toured a theatre production: The Disappearance of Dorothy Lawrence. At the close of the tour I felt that we had thoroughly disappeared her voice. I hadn’t achieved what I’d set out to do. I kept asking myself: where is the strength of her voice this extraordinary young journalist called Dorothy Lawrence? Why was her diary so heavily censored by the war office? Why is it not accessible? What is it they don’t want us to know all these years later?

In spite of the presence of her journal – Sapper Dorothy, published by Leonaur in 2010, we are still missing some of the facts. As you read through it you’re left with more questions than answers: “What did that mean?” or “how did she get away with that…?” and “she would have said more about that, of course she would! Why isn’t it here?” and then you realise that her writing, her original papers have been lost in the annals of a history re-told by men.

Dorothy was escorted home from France in the summer of 1915, she had been on the Frontline for just over two weeks. Initially confined to a nunnery before being taken through rigorous investigation, she was interrogated by over 20 officers, all confounded by her presence on the lines, not knowing what to make of her. You are not a spy, but who are you? What kind of a woman are you dressed as a man? And what on earth do we do with you now you’ve been discovered?  They couldn’t court martial her as women were not allowed to enlist. Her alter ego Denis Smith couldn’t be court martialled as he didn’t effectively exist.

Much emboldened by her experiences and by the growing strength of the suffragette movement at that time, Dorothy refused to be returned to the church Guardian where she had been taken for moral guidance in her teens. She reported that same Guardian for rape and was effectively silenced; diagnosed with Hysteria and removed to a lunatic asylum where she was confined for the rest of her life.

I began to look at what our successive governments have done with bright young women who disrupt the status quo.
Asylums were set up to provide sanctuary were they not? A creative and compassionate idea from the Quaker movement to begin with.
Those asylums became institutions for containment and control – a solution to so many social outcasts in an era of moral panics.

To begin with, the impetus for creating the film Blue Pen came from feeling that we had colluded with the deletion of Dorothy’s voice. That was the starting point. I sat and talked ideas through with Caglar Kimyoncu, who I have worked alongside for over 15 years. We wanted to look over the past hundred years, and ask ourselves: What do we do with dissenting voices? What do we do with the voices of women journalists today, particularly in times of conflict? And I discovered that too many of them had been executed or disappeared.

I am connected through a passion for celtic music to renowned singer and songwriter Lorraine Jordan, who wrote the song for Anna Politkovskaya, the journalist executed in 2006. Through Lorraine I met Mariana Katzarova, who created RAW – Reaching All Women in War. I started looking at their work on defenders of the truth who place themselves in grave danger or through no choice of their own are living in grave danger. All these journalists who face extreme circumstances in order to speak the truth, in the hope of saving lives. Of course this has gone on for centuries. Human beings are the most destructive species on earth. Women have been tortured and disappeared in every war ever fought. Sadly there are now more wars across the planet than ever. It has become too commonplace whilst we are all so driven by Capitalism. War is just another industry.
War makes money.

Silhouette next to door. Image by Caglar Kimyoncu

 

I was talking to Mariana Katsarova to ask her about Anna Politkovskaya who was executed ten years ago in Russia on the 6th of October. I wanted to use Anna’s image as part of the film. I wanted to select ten women journalists who have all been disappeared, one from each decade over the past 100 years whilst we are all commemorating the centenary of the first world war. I had a meeting with Mariana on Saturday and she said: “You want to pick my brain? You know how many people are out there? Women journalists who have been executed?” She has been monitoring it for some time.

I was watching a film from WOW – Women of the World festival, South bank, where they’re talking about how women’s voices are silenced. Speaking on behalf of the women of Syria, and the people of Syria, Kholoud Waleed was talking about the importance of understanding that actually the majority of people left in Syria are women. “The breadwinners are women,” she said, “What you see on your screens are the men out there in the streets, still in battle. Your perception out here is that we’re all terrorists”, she said. “That’s not the truth. 70% of Syrians left in the country are women – the carers, looking after those who could not leave.” And she said “I speak for them. And in the headquarters, believe it or not, in ISIS headquarters, one of our main reporters is a woman. Who of course is in full veil, so she can come and go freely with the women. People will talk to her. And she gets the most reports out.”

The thing to remember is that Blue Pen is not a documentary, it’s an experimental art film. We used actors, although we used them as authentically as we could; we used the real facts and some of the script is verbatim from women journalists returning from conflict zones; the shoot location is interesting because although the house used is in the South of France it is a house where they discovered a war diary. It’s haunted with the same old mess. And the location is very close to where France had one of its most shameful days in its’ history over the past 200 years.

I think our film will leave people with questions but I want them to feel stirred, I want them to feel moved, I want them to start asking questions themselves about the disappearance of women journalists and dissenting voices.

Blue Pen Information, Dates and Tickets.

Let Me Stay – Interview with Creatives by Naomi Cortes

Julie McNamara (writer and performer) and Paulette Randall (director) were interviewed by Naomi Cortes to share their inspiration and ideas for the production of Let Me Stay.

Share with us how you began to collaborate together?

Julie: I had read about Paulette’s work, when I was on placement with Talawa Theatre and I was looking for a new Director for a play I was working on. Other artists had suggested I contact her. So in 2009, whilst working on the production of Crossings we had an initial chat on the telephone and she suggested we meet for lunch.

Paulette: Yeah, from the phone call I followed my instinct and knew it was going to work. When we met for lunch we really connected about storytelling and music and I knew that her work was something I really wanted to explore.

Julie: I had no expectations and went to meet her with an open mind and an open heart and thought great she’s going to do the job.

Why did you decide to place your mother Shirley at the centre of Let Me Stay?

Julie: I’ve always listened to my mother’s stories and her mother before her, my grandmother.  My mother still remains one of the funniest women I have ever met, she’s extraordinary. She’s full of life and has a strong rebellious spirit and I just thought other people should meet her.

One day I was playing truant from school and was smoking a fag at home and mum came home unexpectedly. I was trying to hide it behind my back and she told me she’d seen it. I thought she was going to tell me off, but actually she was playing hooky from work and had walked out during an appraisal. I never forgot that day because we both had an afternoon together playing hooky and she told me why she had walked out. She didn’t know words like feminism, but she was the first real feminist I ever knew.

Writing Let Me Stay has become part of my own grief in letting go. My mother’s been living with Alzheimer’s for ten years. She has been many people to me and I have always been on shifting sands with her, it made me think about who we are to each other in each space we travel, in each world we inhabit.

It’s also about challenging all those ubiquitous images around what a terrible, dark tragedy it is to end your life with Alzheimer’s. I have to be honest. I’m witnessing somebody who is quite enjoying herself. She’s having the time of her life.

What made you think that now was the right time to explore Alzheimer’s in your work?

Julie: It was just before my mum’s physical tipping point. We had been working together on this for a while with songs and stories. I would share back what she had said, she would deny having said it, I would remind her she had and we would laugh.

Or I would show her pictures of things she had done. One of the funniest was when she had decorated a mug tree with chocolate bars and I showed her the photo of it. She asked who had done it, I explained she had and she said ‘well, that’s very clever!’. I thought it would be really sad if all of that was lost inside some dark story about how at the end of her life she withdrew away from it all. Shirley is dancing and grooving up and down the wards, very much the life and soul of the party.

Paulette, what attracted you to the story of Let Me Stay and working with Julie again?

Paulette: After our first time of working together, I said to Julie, I wanted to keep working with her. And when she came back from working in New Zealand and Australia, she confided in me that she was better known over there than in U.K. I thought this was a disgrace and I wanted people to know Julie McNamara here, because I think she has a really important voice and a beautiful, funny way of telling stories. Her work touches and moves people and with all the voices out there in theatre at the moment, there is nothing quite like hers.

Whilst training, I chose a course which was about working with specific communities. So, creating work with Julie was the first time in my career I worked with a mixed ability group. And that was terrifying and exhilarating because I didn’t know what to expect, it was going in at the deep end for me, but it was a brilliant opportunity.

And we both knew from the beginning of Let Me Stay that this was just the starting point, that the show had a life and that’s quite exciting.

Tell us about a magical moment which happens onstage?

Paulette: We were looking for things which could be found during the play amongst the many boxes on the set. And Julie found an old record box of singles and in it was a copy of Queen Bitch by David Bowie. And written on the label was ‘this is no reference to you!’

Julie: And it was in my dad’s handwriting. I had never seen this before.

Paulette: It’s brilliant, funny and beautiful. It’s a great track.

Julie: So, every time I take that out on stage, it’s like a message from my dad.

The journey within the production is incredibly personal and intimate, how do you manage to maintain this onstage whilst working within the conventions of theatre?

Paulette: I have to remember that Julie is the writer and the performer. I have to honour both those roles. Sometimes when I’m directing Julie we will talk about what the writer would say if they were in the room. And I remind her in rehearsals that the script is more eloquent and tells the story in a more successful way than if you were just saying it.

Julie: Once I have made the decision to commit it to the page, my role as the writer is very different to Julie who is remembering. I think I’m a savage editor of my own work and I’m quite happy for it to be a live process. The first script you take into rehearsal is like a road map but it’s not necessarily where we’ll end up. What I love is being able to surrender that to Paulette and saying ‘there you go’.

And being in the show, I then surrender the connection to Julie McNamara the person who has lived that moment. The director is the boss. I trust Paulette with my life, she’s a great director.

We know that music can make people living with Alzheimer’s experience great joy. How important is music to the production?

Julie: It all started with Shirley. I began recording her singing, when she started losing her language. I know that music is in a different part of the brain to language and her singing voice is sweet. I recorded quite a few tracks of her singing.

Paulette: To add to what Julie has said, one of the things I love about her work is the music. I discovered that there had been music and song in everything she’s done, it’s an integral part of her life. So it wasn’t surprising to me that music was being included in Let Me Stay. And it’s also a cultural thing, there are certain communities where singing is important. It’s important to storytelling.

Finally, what gift would you like your audiences to leave with?

Julie: A sense of hope. Alzheimer’s is not an apologetic withdrawal from life.

Paulette: Being able to not fear something you don’t understand…embrace it.

 

Libby Watson on the design process for the show

I chose to make a setting of different shaped boxes to reflect the idea of Shirley’s world in a state of compartments and change. Some of the boxes are closed and are never looked into and some of them get reopened and the contents remembered. The wall of boxes also gives us a fragmented view of the photographs that we project onto it, a comment on the loss of lucidity in memory. The white of the boxes was chosen as a positive statement and to give us a feeling of some kind of interior space. It can represent wallpaper and windows or just be an abstract wall with lit up boxes at the end showing glimmers of clarity

The chair was chosen to reflect Shirley’s vivacious and glamorous nature. It meant that we could look at her past in a way that celebrated her personality. It is also a style form the 60’s and one that I can imagine Gina Lollobrigida having in her italian sitting room. I wanted it to be a chair that Shirley would love and one that she would enjoy sitting in.

The second circular carpet for the BSL interpreter makes their space connected to the set and therefore to the show. It is a mini version of the playing space and the white circular carpet acts as it’s own individual spotlight.

 

Caglar Kimyoncu, who created the visuals for Let Me Stay shares some of his thoughts…

I’ve filmed and photographed Julie and her environment for over 15 years and her work often contains autobiographical elements. I then met Shirley and she was very welcoming. Every time I saw her in Liverpool or London, she shared her past ‘lives’ through stories and songs. Shirley loved the camera and the camera loved her.

Shirley is a natural star with a unique way of telling stories, singing and linking things together and Julie is a very good story teller. The images and sounds of Shirley on screen and stage create dialogue and a conflict between Julie’s interpretation of Shirley and Shirley as herself. This is true to their relationship in life.

 

Let Me Stay toured UK and internationally between 2013 and 2015. Shirley McNamara saw one of the latest shows at a care home in Liverpool. She sung along with her own recorded voice and at the end of the show, she stood up and warmly thanked her audience.