Activists in Red Underwearby Marisa Carnesky
My new show Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman creates erotically charged bodily rituals as performance activism. Cyclical, monthly rituals that tune into the phases of the moon. In fact, it’s specifically about reinventing menstrual rituals. If you think that’s a bit icky or new age and not sexy or activist please read on, so I can challenge your ideas about women and blood, theatrical spectacle, red lipstick and changing the world.
I was always out to confront taboos
I’ve been making transgressive sexually charged risqué shows for about 25 years and have performed them in lots of different contexts, from clubs like Torture Garden and Duckie to arts centres like the ICA and the Barbican. From my beginnings in theatre and cabaret I was always out to confront taboos. Taboos around what is forbidden, around what is deemed tasteful when it comes to women’s bodies. I remember performing at Tuppy Owens Sex Maniac Ball with one of my early troupes ‘Vagina V Dentate’ in surreal bikini costumes adorned with lots of cat faces, mouths and teeth. We went around the party giving away menstrual themed ‘jewels’ hidden in our costumes we made from lingerie and strawberry jam. Our jewels looked very tasteful and aesthetic and pretty to wear even though we had pulled them out of our knickers, everyone seemed very pleased to receive them. Perhaps they did contain a few drops of real menstrual blood…it was a long time ago so I’m not sure now.
In the early nineties I was one of a breakthrough group of performers in London trying to differentiate the term ‘Burlesque’ from the common perception of stripping. Whilst I loved the original term ‘Striptease’ it was hard for a lot of club promoters at the time to make the leap that a new generation of cabaret performers were taking striptease out of gentlemen’s clubs and opening up the artform to audiences including women. That the new burlesque was getting really creative with the form and experimenting with its myriad possibilities. I took burlesque and a generation of its revivalists to my heart. Like the old school tie there are colleagues I have all over the world from that era, all who moved onto extraordinary further careers as performers and producers. We grew into ‘Showwomen’, a term I am keen to promote and write about. What is a theatrical woman with flair and vision if not a showwoman? At last showgirls can grow up and take the reins. I wonder what will happen to erotic and sexually engaged performance as women practitioners move into more positions of power as producers how we are able to shape and change perspectives.
red lipstick becomes a powerful metaphor
In the research for Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman I found out some incredible material about the origins of cosmetics possibly being menstrual, that the ritual of painting your fingernails and lips red could originate from women in early human culture signalling they were ready for sex because their period was over, thus adorning themselves with the last of their months menstrual blood. With an extraordinary cast I drew together from different eras of my career including cabaret legend Fancy Chance, Missa Blue, revolutionary sword swallower, Haitch Plewis, live artist and chorographer, Rhyannon Styles, trans author, activist and performer, Nao Nagai, pop performer and lighting designer, we went about making work rooted in physicalising ideas around cyclical transformation and change, images where you shed a skin, where red lipstick becomes a powerful metaphor, where Aunt Flo becomes a seductive showwoman. We looked at the shame loaded on the menstrual body in popular culture in old horror films and the hidden menstrual figures of mythology like Medusa and Kali. We looked at our own stories, how experiences of sex, birth control, gender, mothers and miscarriage shaped our relationships to our bodies. We looked at how these stories live in wider narratives and activism going on all over the world to readdress the taboo of menstruation from unfair taxes to cultural representation and women’s reproductive rights.
We invented the material for the show over nine months, meeting on the dark of the moon in an artist’s residency house called Metal in Southend and creating performance rituals that we took out onto the landscape, much to the confusion of passers-by. We ran around in red underwear screaming and jumping in the sea, we buried our menstrual blood in the ground. We laughed and dreamed up costumes and acts and we came together as a troupe. Never before had I led a devising process like this and directed material that simply and clearly evolved and defined itself with so much impact on the artist’s personal lives. We tried the show out to test audiences and a lot of people got emotional. Soho Theatre agreed to an initial run and we went onto do the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Now we’re back this autumn after a summer of working on it more and adding new stories and images, inspired by some of the street activism we got involved with over the last two years as the Menstronauts and out of the continued narratives with our own bodies.
So the Free Bleeders 2018 National Tour is on sale. Its sexy, it’s bloody, there is nudity, we break taboos and we mean every bloody word of it.
Lots of Love Marisa Carnesky x
Dr Carnesky’s Incredible Bleeding Woman is co commissioned by Attenborough Centre for the Performing Arts, Brighton
Feature image by Sarah Ainslie
Marisa’s dates are as follows:
26 October: Lancaster Arts https://www.lancasterarts.org/
1-2 November 8pm: Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts, Brighton https://www.
9th November: 8pm Drama Studio, University of Sheffield, http://www.enableus.group.
14 November: 8pm Colchester Arts Centre, Colchester – https://www.
15 November: 8pm Norwich Arts Centre norwichartscentre.co.uk
19-24 November: Soho Theatre, London https://sohotheatre.com/