Karin McCracken: Female Desire
What does female desire mean to you? Have you ever stepped back from the films, magazines and books that frame the narrative of female sexuality to consider your own personal experience of desire? If yes, would you dare talk to anyone about it? The subject of female sexuality and desire sits as a taboo in our society. The silence and shame that hangs heavy over it contributes to a rape culture that is devastatingly pervasive. As women, we are discouraged to talk about the personal, complex and varied nature of our own desire. It is this that theatre makers Eleanor Bishop and Julia Croft with Karin McCracken are about to boldly and joyously crack open in their new work, Body Double. Promised to be uplifting and empowering, there has never been a show of its kind in New Zealand and I spoke to Karin about what drives her work ahead of the Wellington premiere.
It is not an enviable position to stand on stage in front of strangers (and more importantly friends, family, partners and ex-lovers) and talk candidly about desire, sex, love and disappointments. When asked what is challenging about doing this performance, Karin admits, “Lots. For all the same reasons that we’ve made the show. Talking about this stuff isn't something that many of us have much practice in. It is all our own experiences and writing, so it all feels quite personal. Let’s just say, I’ve had to make some phone calls…”
Body Double intimately explores the complex nature of female sexuality and desire. Performing as each other’s body doubles, Karin and Julia entice us to consider the way as women we view ourselves against the way we are portrayed. There are some deeply rooted conditionings that women hold around sex, and Karin has been determined to explore where these emotions come from and outright reject them. Part of the creation process she admits has been “battling those residual feelings of shame related to sex.” This work fundamentally questions the possibility of whether women can form a sexual identity that isn’t defined by films, books, porn and men. Opening a can of worms? Exactly. And it's time that this can was opened.
These conversations, says Karin, are essential to shifting damaging attitudes and beliefs that perpetuate rape culture. “We don’t talk about why sex should be good. This is a huge conversation that we don’t have in public. And we particularly have a problem talking about that with young women. People being able to talk about sex is part of the cultural change we need to see to end sexual violence.”
"People being able to talk about sex is part of the cultural change we need to see to end sexual violence."
This is not the first time that Karin has courageously made herself vulnerable on stage in order to evoke conversation around these themes. This year she has been performing Jane Doe, also written and directed by Eleanor Bishop, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Jane Doe confronts rape culture in response to a number of sexual assaults on college campuses in America. One in particular where a young girl was raped after she had passed out. Karin, as the solo performer in the show, is responsible for holding the space in a way that honours the subject matter and allows the audience to safely participate. Jane Doe, she explains, is about us grieving. It draws out the despair that we collectively feel about the continued objectification of and violence towards women.
Previous to acting full-time, Karin worked as a sexual assault prevention educator for the Sexual Abuse Prevention Network. She is well-schooled on the subject matter. “With my work, I literally spent two years talking about this constantly.” she explains. Couple that with being a proud feminist, and you’ve got someone who is pretty determined to see some change and she believes that theatre has a unique power to stimulate that change. “I think theatre can hold change in a way that conversations sometimes can’t. Being in a room with live bodies in this generous format which can be beautiful and sad and visually stunning. That has a capacity to shift how people think. Or even to allow people to breathe the same thing for awhile.”
The personal impact of working in the area of sexual abuse prevention followed by a month of sustained performances of Jane Doe no doubt leaves its mark on the soul. She has noticed that sexual violence and awareness of personal safety have slipped into her conscious thought more than they used to. She has had to reflect on moments in her own past in uncomfortable ways which while ultimately valuable has been a challenging process to work through. And then there is the weight. “I get tired though,” she admits, “I get tired.” But she says that it has built an enormous capacity for empathy within her. She says that she is "filled with admiration and respect for women generally, and especially those who work in the sector. “I carry that around with me,” she says, “and it’s a beautiful feeling of solidarity.”
The shift in content with Body Double is a welcome change. “It’s so fun! There’s a lot of humour and joyousness in the show. It’s also really hard because some of it’s about disappointment, unfulfillment, weirdly a lot of it is about love and that can be hard to reflect on but it’s also a show about pleasure.”
“People often consider me a pessimist or maybe even a fatalist, but at the heart of it I am a haggard optimist."
But ‘hard’ is not something that Karin shies away from. Both Jane Doe and Body Double have challenged her to some pretty serious introspection. There are big personal barriers that have to be overcome to truly embrace these themes and be able to perform them with integrity and honesty; necessary ingredients to convince an audience to continue to consider these topics beyond the theatre.
For Karin, she says that her journey of understanding desire has been framed around “actually having a connection between the body and the mind and being able to think through what do I want physically outside of what you’ve been told to want, or outside of what someone wants from you.” Working through that has been the first challenge, the next will be taking those personal insights and experiences to the stage and revelling in this taboo subject in front of friends and strangers.
Through their vulnerability in subject matter and on stage, Eleanor, Julia and Karin are challenging us to take these conversations and broaden them. To talk, to laugh, to support and share in our own desire and sexuality in a way that broadens the collective understanding of what defines female sexuality. At the heart of this work is an optimism that is ultimately uplifting; an optimism that says, despite the weight of all this history, we can change this. “People often consider me a pessimist or maybe even a fatalist,” Karin confesses, “but at the heart of it I am a haggard optimist. I think we can change things and we can all work together in a way that solves problems that we face. There’s lots of people that would roll their eyes and say ‘we can’t change rape culture. It will always be a problem’, and I don’t agree. I think we can end it.
Body Double plays:
- Premiere season opens at BATS Theatre, Wellington, 10th - 25th November, 8pm (Book here).
- Auckland Arts Festival, 21st - 29th March 2018, 8pm, Q Loft (Book here).