Rachael Clerke describes herself as a maker of performances, drawings, writings and films. Rachael is based in Bristol in England, but is originally from Edinburgh. She studied Theatre and writing at Dartington College of Arts, which she describes as having been a very small, pretty radical art school in Devon that unfortunately doesn’t exist any more. Rachael now shares a big studio with 15 of her friends in the city centre of Bristol, which in her words is ‘a good place to create’.
Rachael works about half the time with her company Clerke and Joy (www.clerkeandjoy.com) and the other half of the time on her own making solo shows and writing. So we asked her a few questions.
What motivated you to deal with the word ‘girl’ in your writing?
“I performed my solo show How to achieve redemption as a Scot through the medium of Braveheart at the Edinburgh fringe last year. It’s an autobiographical show about identity politics (and Braveheart) as a fairly disenfranchised Scottish person.”
It was the first time I’d performed at the fringe, and the first time I’d had a show extensively reviewed, almost every day. About half way through the fringe I realised that I was being referred to as a ‘girl’ in reviews rather than a woman. I also realised that none of my male friends were being called ‘boys’. Talking to other young female artists made me realise how widespread this practice was, and that I wasn’t the only person who had a problem with it.”
Rachael Clerke – Just a Girl
Around 2.45pm every day throughout August in a tiny room at the Pleasance, Alice Roots of all-female performance group Figs in Wigs clenched a microphone between her knees and bent double to speak into it. “Someone described us as ‘very, very silly girls’ ” she says. “And they were being serious”. In the audience we laughed knowingly. Knowing that it happens, knowing that we’re better than that. Knowing that we would never do that, never say something like that. We get it.
But do we get it? That ‘someone’ was a female journalist writing for a national newspaper. Someone who would have been seeing up to eight Edinburgh fringe performances a day. Someone who should be well aware of the waves that young women are making in this scene – someone who should get it. And she’s not the only one. Another reviewer, also female, in the same publication branded me a ‘brave girl’ in a write-up of my show How to achieve redemption as a Scot through the medium of Braveheart just two days later. It was meant as a compliment; it was a nice review. But it didn’t feel like that. Because suddenly, with that one word I was brave despite my age, despite my gender. A kid making a good go of it. No longer a working artist with three years research behind my show. Just another girl who thought, perhaps misguidedly, that she had something to say. That she might be able to do this.
Last year’s fringe was full of strong, smart women with something to say, and the articulacy to say it – I would suggest more than ever before – but again and again I read about these ‘girls’, and it confused me because that’s not what I saw. Whether you like the shows we make or not is irrelevant: because these women are just that – women.
And you may think I’m being picky, that surely, this doesn’t really matter. That there are bigger fish to fry, and I should take my good review graciously and be quiet, but I believe that language is important.
Britney Spears, or her songwriters, asserted that she was not a girl (though, admittedly, also not yet a woman) at the age of 20. My generation did not have this luxury. Graduating in the middle of the worst recession since the 1930s, many of us were girls for much longer than we wanted. We were shop-girls, bar-maids, wait-resses and a league of other depressingly gendered ‘smiling jobs’ that we took to pay the bills. We were also girls in the job-centre – “you’re a smart girl! Why did you do a theatre degree?!” – and girls who had to move back in with our parents. Well I don’t want to be a girl any more. I’m bored of smiling. Now I want to talk.
In a culture where artists can still feel like the bottom of the art-world pecking order – delicately negotiating relationships with venues that might book us and journalists that might give us a nice review – I’m worried that we’re not talking enough. And I think there are conversations we need to have.
Let’s at least start those conversations with the right word.
Why have you chosen the medium you use for your art?
“I don’t really have one set medium when I create work. This is a piece of writing, normally I work in performance, and I often integrate films, on-line work and drawings into what I do. I try to choose the right medium for the idea rather than the other way round.”
Who are you influenced by? What inspired you and your art?
“At the moment I’m influenced by satirical TV programmes like Brass Eye and The Thick of It, architectural photography and YouTube videos of drag kings. I love the work of New York performance companies like The TEAM and Elevator Repair Service. I read a lot of novels, and I’m pretty into manifestos.”
What does feminism mean to you and do you consider yourself to be a feminist?
“Feminism to me is a lot about eradicating the idea of the white, middle-class, middle-aged male as our idea of the ‘default human’. I’m definitely a feminist.”
Do you feel women have to conform to social norms and stereotypes to be taken seriously? Do you have any experiences of this?
“I recently spent a day dressed as a new character I am developing. She’s a very norm-core looking sporty woman, with a long wig and brand name clothes. I felt totally invisible, whilst being aware that I was wearing this ridiculous disguise. I’m not sure if people would have taken me more seriously, but they definitely noticed me less than they do normally, with short hair and scruffy boots on. It’s a small example, but it made me think about this.”
Do you think that women and men are equal in today’s societies around the world? Have you any experience of this?
“Unfortunately we’re not equal yet. I think things are improving, but we’ve still got a long way to go. I have too many experiences to list, I’m sure every woman does… Clerke and Joy recently performed at a theatre festival in where we were the only show with female characters who did anything more on stage than be beaten up or raped. I think art is always a reflection of society and this was a pretty worrying one.”
What causes and world issues are you passionate about, campaign for, volunteer for etc…..?
“Women’s rights, housing equality, the NHS…”
How can your art be used to create change and is this something you want for your art?
“I want my art to ask difficult questions about the world, and change things by doing that.”
What made you want to get involved with our non-profit ART SAVES LIVES INTERNATIONAL mission?
“I think we always need more things like this!”
What does the statement ART SAVES LIVES mean to you and has art in anyway “saved” your life in any way?
“Art gives people a voice, again and again. That’s so underrated.”
What are your goals as with your art?
“To keep making it. To keep starting conversations.”
What is your next project or piece that you are working on?
“I’m making a one-woman drag satire about concrete. I think it’s going to be called Cuncrete”