Betty Grumble and Aisha Josiah on their Fringe shows

One-woman shows, identity and the power of storytelling with Betty Grumble and Aisha Josiah

Feature by Alice Lannon | 01 Aug 2017
  • Betty Grumble

"We gather together in live space – an ancient thing we do as humans – to storytell, and storytelling empowers us," enthuses self-proclaimed ‘sex clown’ Betty Grumble. "It connects us, helping us to feel community, and community makes us stronger. Performance art allows us to access our humanity in a world that is muting it."

Indeed, there is nothing at all muted about Ms Grumble (off-stage known as Emma Maye). Her new show, Love and Anger..., seems set to be a colourful, explosive and empowering performance. "It’s about the protest spirit. It’s fun and fleshy – it's about pleasure as a radical act."

Although her show seems pretty playful and zany, Grumble also speaks passionately about the more serious ideas behind it. Referencing her idol, Simone de Beauvoir, saying she believes that "if some of us are not free, none of us are. I want to explore ideas about being a body that resists within a world that is oppressive." She sees anger as a really positive thing, especially in the context of woman’s history, where women were told their anger was hysterical – and as she puts it, "the figure of the witch was a crazy bitch."

So, how, as a ‘professional sex clown’, does she strike a balance between humour and seriousness? "Well, laughter and laughing at enemies of grooviness can be a way of laughing back at and dismantling power," she says, a twinkle in her eye. "Laughter is our weaponry."

Last year she appeared at the Fringe with her show Sex Clown Saves the World, and this year she wants to continue moving through her ‘Womanifesto’ to explore further issues surrounding femininity and freedom. In particular, she is focussing on the idea of ‘eco-sexuality’. This is the idea of "repositioning the Earth from Mother to Lover" – in other words, viewing the Earth as a place you need to support and love, rather than a place that will love you unconditionally as a mother would. Grumble speaks animatedly: "There’s more of a sensuality of give and take. We are all the Earth – where do our bodies end and the Earth begin? The poetry to it opens up the discourse for environmentalism in a new way. And this idea extends beyond to other humans – we need to be good to each other."

So, Love and Anger is set to be one woman show that explores a lot of big and complex ideas in a visually intense way. Are there any specific challenges to telling one’s story as a solo female artist?

She reflects for a moment. "In the current climate of sensitivity and identity politics, I’ve been really conscious of how to speak, and when to speak. I really want to take care of the people who I invite into the room with me.

"It also is a challenge to sit with my own vulnerability. Being someone who uses their naked body and sexuality on stage, when creating the show I asked myself how I might deepen my own eroticism. This is a particularly radical idea, since I was focussing on specifically female pleasure which has obviously been considered taboo throughout history. I found myself constantly asking – ‘How do I deepen the love energy?’"

A very different, yet just as intriguing female storyteller is Aisha Josiah. The playwright's one woman performance piece, Dickless, is concerned with exploring the idea of how women may be placed into set roles by others, rather than determining these roles themselves. "The play is about adolescence, the ways people come to define themselves and why. It also explores the role sexuality plays in that – how you use it to define yourself, but also how other people use that to define you. There is an interesting connection between the two."

Following on from this idea of others projecting definitions onto you, Josiah talks about some of the challenges she faced with the different receptions of her play. "As a writer, you don’t really consider the reception you will get. For example, since I have a distinctly English voice, would the American audience at NYU, where it was first shown, ‘get it’? My professor didn’t know what to do with it – being a black and British writer, she had certain expectations for the piece (she strangely thought I was Nigerian, even though I am not). Now, it’s interesting taking the show to different places as there’s still a surprise about who the author is, and what the work is about."

Dickless seems to be a very nuanced portrayal of femininity and identity. Does the piece have a strong feminist message? Josiah contemplates. "One of the central character’s ‘superpowers’ is her way of being able to manipulate men, yet on the flip side she is also constantly at risk from men. It’s a story and a character that deals with gender, yet I don’t know if I would say she was a feminist since there is no larger purpose to what she does – it is very much a fight or flight spiral."

As with many women artists, definitions and categories seem like a frustrating issue for Josiah. "I’m not really sure where to place myself as a female writer. If I write about ‘women’s issues’, then I fall into a particular category. Yet if I don’t, it’s seen as a glaring omission. I just want to write whatever the hell comes to mind!"

Yet, for all of the definitions that are projected from society, Josiah sees storytelling as a way of becoming empowered through creating your own definition. "One of the cool things about a one person show is that there is always a layer above the character that you’re portraying, and that’s the character of the storyteller. And that’s just you."

What is the most special part of one woman shows – does Josiah find them empowering?

"It feels absolutely empowering! In my show, there’s something really powerful about watching a female character take on a male persona – both in the role of the storyteller and midway through the show when she literally takes on the part of a male character. I think that it highlights the common humanity that sometimes it's easy to forget even on stage, when you are so used to seeing actors play female roles and there are specific limits to what they can do, what role they’re allowed to play in the story."

Josiah concludes, "There’s just something so amazing about being able to say, ‘actually, this is how I see it from my point of view.’"

Two strong female voices, and two very intriguing shows. Both Aisha Josiah’s Dickless and Betty Grumble’s Love and Anger will no doubt take the Fringe by storm.

Betty Grumble: Love and Anger (or Sex Clown Saves the World Again!), Heroes @ Monkey Barrel, 3-27 Aug (not 9,14, 21), 8pm, £5
Dickless, New Town Theatre, 3-27 Aug (not 15), 6.50pm, £8-10