Emma Frankland and company: We Dig

So tell me what you want, what you really, really want…

Ah, here they are, dancing into the space, five feisty gals, each with a story to tell. No, not the Spice Girls – but an equally refreshing burst of energy, redefining girl power for the 21st century.

In this case, the girls (Emma Frankland and company) are a bunch of trans women and trans feminine people, armed with spades and jackhammers, who are here to dig a hole. No, not a metaphorical hole. An actual great, big earthy hole in the ground of what is (was?) the stage of the Ovalhouse – a legendary South London venue that for decades has been ‘a hotbed of artistic activism’ and now about to be demolished, the theatre relocated to a new building in Brixton.

So there is proper, deep digging going on here, dust and rubble everywhere, and we are issued with plastic goggles. And yes – a hole is the ultimate (Freudian cliché) metaphor for female sexuality: the receptive space, the empty receptacle to be filled. The digging is real and the digging down is also a metaphor for excavating the past – a quasi-archaeological quest for recovering who and what has gone before. Actually, it’s not just symbolic, we have real archaeology here: along the way we learn that the diggers (another nice resonance, a nod in the direction of early anarchists The Diggers) have uncovered all sorts of treasures in this under-stage space – old shoes, newspapers, and myriad Coca Cola bottles and cans from the past 50 years. Thirsty work, theatre. A real, full can of Coke is unearthed and shared – as is a box containing a pumpkin pie made by stage manager Nemo. Time to take a break… But not for long. A woman’s work is never done.

As they dig, they tell stories: autobiographical snippets about growing up in a body not recognised as their own; reflections on their cultural heritage; historical evidence of the existence of trans women stretching back over millennia. This interweaves with a site-responsive reflection on the Ovalhouse itself, unearthing its magnificent history as the site for so much of London’s experimental performance over the past 50 years – including, as lead artist Emma Frankland flags up, the appearance of New York’s legendary gay/trans company Hot Peaches. 

There is a Deus Ex Machina moment towards the end of We Dig in which a surprise guest performer (on this occasion, La John Joseph – there will be someone different every night) calls for a time when theatre critics review work by queer or trans people without referring to them as such, just looking at the work – but in this case, that would be pretty difficult, as the piece is built around biography, and is both personal and political. Emma Frankland has worked in her own autobiography, the biographies of her four collaborators in the ensemble, and testimonies from trans women and trans gender/non binary people across the world. I don’t know if it is because I’ve known and loved her work for a long time, but when Emma takes the space, the ante feels upped – I sit up taller and listen as she riffs on the unity of all matter; the components of rock; and the need to dig down and get your hands dirty in life. I’m also drawn to Canadian artist Gein Wong, a strong, nurturing figure, embodying ancient sacred knowledge. I love the moment when she pulls up floorboards further along from the hole and teaches us how to plant garlic. Morgan M Page is also Canadian, but lives in London. She’s known mostly as a trans historian and writer/blogger. Her story of the recovered ‘male’ body replete with feminine dress and jewellery, buried many hundreds of years ago, offers her (and us) a link to a trans sisterhood stretching back through the years.

Tamarra is an Indonesian historian and artist who brings to the table (or building site, at least) the notion of the ‘chita chita’ (which may well not be how it is spelt) – the very special dream or wish that everyone holds in their heart. No one here wants world fame or riches. To be safe, to see their children grow, to have a slightly better home, to honour the earth. But mostly, to be safe, to feel safe, everywhere – that comes up again and again. They are ‘the children of stress’ – they dig to feel safe, to relieve themselves of the oppressive weight of the world’s judgement.

Travis Alabanza is local – a London-based writer and performer who recently won a Total Theatre Award for best emerging artist. Travis is the joker in the pack, always ready with a quip, playing it for laughs. Until there comes a point where they just can’t do it anymore. The comic veneer cracks, and – from the top of a scaffold tower, water pouring down from a fractured pipe –  Travis delivers a heartfelt rant on oppression, freedom and the strain of holding it all together.

We Dig is one of those performance pieces that constantly references the fact that it is a piece of theatre being constructed right here and now. Sometimes this works, and sometimes it slows the piece down. The show works best when each performer is delivering a heartfelt personal monologue (all five are gifted performers, each with a strong but very different stage presence); or when they collectively work together without words – the movement direction by Nando Messias is excellent, the spades used to provide rhythmic, percussive accompaniment to simple but strong choreographic motifs. A dust sheet is used for a brilliant moment of shadow theatre that passes all too quickly.

Less successful are the informal chats around the building site. Creating an ambience of supposedly casual, impromptu talk onstage is one of the hardest tasks for a theatre-maker, and there is a need for meticulous behind-the-scenes scripting and rehearsal to give the appearance of spontaneity. Especially hard when some performers are speaking in a second language, and most are performance artists rather than actors – so there is sometimes a lack of pace and zip in these sections. A dramaturg (Subira Wahogo) is credited, but no director – which is telling…

Viewed as activated installation/living sculpture, We Dig is wonderful – vibrant visual imagery, dynamic physical action, and luscious lighting working together to create powerful pictures that speak volumes. You dig?


Featured image (top): Emma Frankland and company: We Dig. Photo taken at Ovalhouse by Rosie Powell

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Dorothy Max Prior

About Dorothy Max Prior

Dorothy Max Prior is the editor of Total Theatre Magazine, and is also a performer, writer, dramaturg and choreographer/director working in theatre, dance, installation and outdoor arts. Much of her work is sited in public spaces or in venues other than regular theatres. She also writes essays and stories, some of which are published and some of which languish in bottom drawers – and she teaches drama, dance and creative non-fiction writing. www.dorothymaxprior.com