aside Poet and Performance Artist Alice Smith uses her art as activism to educate people about Domestic Abuse and Violence

Alice Smith
Photography Shivy Francis
Can you tell us a little about yourself?
My name is Alice Smith aka Swingerella. I am a mother, teacher, writer, performer, CEO of Goddesse Education, activist and global domestic abuse campaigner and above all – a survivor of domestic abuse. I began writing almost three years ago when I was extremely ill with PTSD following the end of an abusive relationship. I couldn’t work or look after my two boys – but I could write. I wrote 12 poems a day and this saved me from suicide and eventually became a surprising new career for me.
 What is your artistic/creative background?
I’ve always performed in some way. I was a dancer until the age of 15 and regularly appeared in shows. I was also from a musical family. My dad and brother were both in brass bands and I was a brass band child – every weekend we would follow the band around the country. This meant I got to see Alton Towers before it became a theme park. It also meant that I was always watching or creating performances of some kind – I played the clarinet in wind bands, jazz bands and orchestras until I was 17. When I was 7 I decided I wanted to be a writer and – because I was quite a solitary child in some ways – when I wasn’t performing I was writing.
 What motivated you to deal with your chosen submission subject?
Swingerella Superstar was a short film by Jazz Virk. I had sold out my first few shows in Birmingham (then called Swingerella’s Wrecking Ball World Tour.) My story was hidden somewhere in this first show as Swingerella – my outrageous drag queen alter ego – bullied the audience, threw up and at one point jumped out of a cake. I wanted to suggest that I was a survivor of domestic abuse but at that time was definitely not confident enough to appear on stage as me. I therefore used this poem and film to open the burlesque show to suggest the abuse hidden underneath the glitter and lace of this fabulous drag queen. It shocked audiences and some walked out at Brighton Fringe expecting a burlesque show. Yes it jarred with the original fun theatre piece but eventually it became the core of my message and my final version of the play which became Swingerella’s Dark Fairytale.
This film was important to me because it showed something I had previously kept hidden from myself. Without it I think I would have stayed in the world of burlesque as a quirky compere. It was the first time I had appeared in front of the camera as me and if you look closely you can see me shaking. This was because when the make up artist began painting on bruises and then sewed my mouth shut I was triggered. This was to happen every time I performed this show and this performance art quality became its strength – but also badly affected my mental health. When I made this film I never imagined that it would be live streamed in India and break indecency laws – or that the Daily Mail would subsequently place it online for people to ‘have their say.’ This incident in May 2015 really was stigmatisation of the victim. At this point I was definitely victim and not survivor. That changed.
What is your process when creating?
The way I create my art is to live it. When I performed Swingerella’s Dark Fairytale I went back to that abuse on stage. I was there. Twice a day at Edinburgh Fringe. This created a very powerful play which was Sunday Times recommended. It allowed me to return to past traumas again and again – sometimes this was good for my mental health but often it was not. I only write about what I am experiencing in my life at that moment. So my second play Alice in the Wilderness explored withdrawal from addictions (‘the drugs don’t work) and how torturous that can be. My favourite line is ‘My head is clearing but I’m fearing I never felt love. Not. Even. Once.’ It then moved to facing childhood trauma (which actually triggered me on the night offstage) and then homelessness. I was made homeless whilst I wrote it. I only performed this play once as it did trigger childhood memories for me. That shows just how raw my performances and writing are. My third play is about where I am now – in recovery from PTSD and trauma and looking back at my life without blame or shame. I couldn’t have written this play a year ago. Timing is everything for me when I create.I also like to trial poems and read the audience reaction. From this I can find out what works, what doesn’t and which darlings to kill. I don’t have a problem killing my darlings as I am a prolific writer with about 500 poems written and I write every day.I also like to swap Swingerella poems to mine and vice versa. With a different delivery they have a different impact on the audience – I do this for fun. I love to experiment with a live audience.
 Who are you influenced by within your artistic discipline, and who inspires you in general?
I’m not someone who is greatly influenced by others. I certainly don’t get inspired by other poets. Because I am so visual I visit art galleries for inspiration and often write poems based on pictures. I spend a lot of time alone and observe which sounds odd but gives me ideas from the things people say. I am really inspired by Lady Gaga for her inventiveness. I don’t mind admitting that I took her idea of getting changed in front of an audience to solve a problem I had in the running order of my show. I love the way she puts on or takes off the layers in front of the audience. I also get influences from the drag scene and – although I am no longer involved with burlesque – I did take a general theatricality and a love of tattoos and false eyelashes from my time working in it. I have to name check Dickens and Miss Havisham for Swingerella and also love Orwell (my favourite writer) and Alan Bennett.
What causes and world issues are you passionate about, campaign for, volunteer for…?
I am passionate about eliminating violence against women and girls. It is not just a hobby – it has become my life. As an activist, speaker and global campaigner on this issue I feel I survived for a reason – to create change in this area. It is quite a climb from lying in bed with PTSD and a pen to travelling to India and Berlin to speak and perform on a global scale with Goddesse Education. Sometimes I can’t quite believe it. Sometimes it is made more difficult by having PTSD. I think it happened so quickly because I focused on this and nothing else – I was hanging from a cliff edge and this work saved me from letting go. When my house was repossessed I had a decision – to be bitter and try and get personal revenge or channel that anger into creating social change. I decided to launch Goddess Education with a remit to create awareness of domestic abuse through creativity and the arts. Last year I performed at WAVE conference Berlin, Women’s Economic Forum in New Delhi and the Women’s Equality party inaugural conference. I was also really pleased to be able to be present in the House of Commons in December 2016 to see a new law passed which will make the government more accountable to provide support for domestic violence survivors.

What do the statements “art saves lives” and “art creates change” mean to you; and have your artistic and creative outlets saved your life in anyway and do you think your message within them could help create change in the world?

I know from personal experience that art can save lives. It saved mine. Especially in the field of mental health, art is an amazing way of expressing very difficult emotions that could lead us to harm ourselves if left unexpressed. Before trauma I only ever wrote in prose. After trauma I began to write short poems. They were the only way to express very, very difficult emotions following rape, emotional abuse, financial abuse and the killing of a pet. They were a way of expressing how it felt to have slept next to someone who had tried to kill you. I used to squirm as I wrote them but I honestly think I would not have been able to keep going without writing. It was a form of artistic blood letting.
I know that my poetry can create change – because it has. People tell me that they have left partners after seeing the show. Many, many people who hear it reject the art and reject me. That’s still change. With Swingerella there is a problem separating art from the artist. For me and for the audience. Goddesse Education plans to go into schools to teach children about mutual respect with art based materials – that’s a change that will prevent cycles of abuse before they start.
 What are your present and future goals for your art?
In some ways my goals are always changing. I am still searching for my market as the message is hard hitting and not always welcome. I plan to write and perform my third play this year at Birmingham Fest in July and also perform my second play Alice in the Wilderness at Wilderness Festival, Glastonbury and Into the Wild Festival. Swingerella has been featured in magazines and an exhibition and I plan to develop this visual side for her further instead of performing as her. Because performing as her affects my mental health. Next year I plan to create one play out of the trilogy and direct it with other actors in role. I also plan to perform in India again later in the year and possibly Europe and Canada. As well as theatre I want to develop campaigning and activism as this gives me a sense of solidarity with other women – and with my message this is a lonely life.
Alice Smith

Have you experienced any form of discrimination; and if so what was it based on and how did you deal with this?

I believe I have lived a rather charmed adult life until three years ago when I was diagnosed with PTSD and became a survivor of domestic abuse – and had my house repossessed. I now feel that the system that I worked for during a 20 year stretch bringing up children turned on me. Although I had been a homeowner for 20 years and never missed a bill I was treated like a criminal in court. The judicial system discriminates against the victims and is coercive with the abusers who play the system. I then faced further discrimination in the private rental system who turned me away with quite open disgust in some cases. Finally I faced discrimination at work. First for my PTSD (I was told by the Headmaster that I couldn’t have PTSD as I hadn’t been in combat and the Deputy shouted at my back as I left the room ‘No one can prove you aren’t lying!’) Next for my material. Every time head teachers find my website they dismiss me. They say it’s Swingerella but I think it’s more about someone within their ranks being so open about domestic abuse. I don’t think they want a survivor who lost their house teaching children – it’s a simple as that.

What are your opinions on what causes discrimination?

I think discrimination is based on fear and control. Fear of ‘the other’ – what we don’t understand and haven’t experienced. And control – to keep what we have to ourselves and stop other people taking it. Which is essentially still fear.

What do you do to actively stand against discrimination and have you ever had to intervene as a witness to it?

Through Goddesse Education I highlight discrimination of survivors. This is primarily focused on the judicial system which is – in my view – coercive with the abuser re: safety of the victim, in court, social services and sometimes with the police. I originally wanted Goddesse Education to work to change the legal system in this country but decided to focus on working within the education system to explore with boys their notions of healthy relationships with girls. The aim is to reduce discrimination of women by men in the future. I do however still think that the entire judicial system in the UK requires a rewrite with both men and women involved as the system we currently live by is outdated and written by men with an underlying assumption that women are property.

What are your opinions on labels and stereotypes?

As a teacher and a mother I am worried at the use of stereotypes by Trump to divide people in America and use fear to control. I am extremely concerned that this president names and accuses groups of people and taps into that fear in all of us – fear of the ‘other.’ In particular his treatment of the trans community is a cause for concern. I do not feel he acknowledges that some people are trans. To him they are ‘misguided.’

What are your opinions on national identity and in your opinion does nationalism create or deter discrimination?

I definitely think that nationalism fuels discrimination. We are multicultural and living together. Nationalism says ‘Let’s divide into groups. Let’s compete. We are different.’ Be proud of your citizenship but let’s not cultivate that fear of the ‘other.’ Humans are naturally curious – let’s cultivate that curiosity about each other instead.

What is your opinion on privilege? (what is privilege? click here)

I’m going to be controversial now. I get really pissed off by this idea of privilege. There. I said it. To me it’s class hatred and inverted racism. The first time I heard it was when I came back from India. I had a lot of ‘friends’ tell me that they didn’t want to associate with me because I was portrayed as a fame seeking piece of white trash who hated India in the tabloids on my return from WEF in Delhi. I was also body shamed by the press and called an indecent drag queen. Basically these so called friends believed that I had gone over to India, not obeyed their laws and brought my white trash views down on unsuspecting people. Bollocks. That was the press agenda not mine. In fact I had been invited to attend and the organisers knew there was nudity to suggest vulnerability and the after effects of a rape. My point is – this was a story of an artist deciding to go and perform her work. Other people added the race issue calling me a white supremacist. I would say to them – white working class children of the 70s were not privileged. They grew up poor and looked down on by the middles classes who owned their own homes and taught them. As girls we were pawed by men from an early age. This was the era of Jim’ll Fix It. I refuse to believe that this childhood was privileged. It was hell. Do not call me privileged or we will fall out. This is where I ruffle a lot of feathers. Let’s talk about humans behaving as humans – nothing more. No – teaching social privilege is not a priority in my view. Teaching boys how to view and treat girls is.

Have you ever experienced social stigmatisation and if so what was it based on and how did you deal with this?

I feel that I am stigmatised regularly in my work. I am continually asked to leave my teaching jobs for the simple fact that I am a survivor with PTSD. I have also been asked to leave a full time role when I had PTSD as they said I was ‘unsafe’ and that they wanted ‘someone who could stand in front of a class full time.’ So far I have been asked to leave ten jobs for the work I do. They name Swingerella but I think it is stigmatisation of the victim. Whilst working for NCS (National Citizenship service) in the summer I asked for mental health breaks as there were no breaks from 8 am – 5pm. The leader demoted me from organising a showcase to switching on the lights and then did it herself as she felt I wasn’t capable. (I produced an Edinburgh Fringe show remember.) When I first ended my abusive relationship I was a wreck living in a very unsafe, life threatening situation. On returning to my full time teaching role after only 6 weeks off no one would sit next to me at lunchtime and no one talked to me. These had been my friends for 5 years. This was my introduction to the world of stigma – the world of the domestic abuse survivor. Now I’m used to it but then it just made me feel more and more ill. Like there was something seriously wrong with me.

Do you support or take part in any anti-stigma organisations or charities and if so which ones and why?

I support mental health charities which seek to bring mental health issues out into the open. 1 in 4 is a charity in London that helps the 1 in 4 young people who develop a mental health problem after experiencing domestic abuse in their home. I also support the Sheroes cafe in India and plan to visit. The Sheroes are acid attack victims who are creating business ventures and campaigning for an end to the open sale of acid in India (currently the equivalent of 90p in markets.) I chose to support these because they are close to my campaigning – both deal with the effects of abuse on the family.

In your own words please tell us how you feel the arts and creativity can further help to empower, communicate and educate people with regards to discrimination, privilege and stigmatisation?

I think performance art is a very powerful tool for getting people to discuss stigmatisation. Having a visual image of suffragettes (a silent performance art piece I performed in recently which was devised by Hannah Mary of Mental Spaces) got people in Wolverhampton reacting to the stigmatisation of women. I am developing a silent performance art piece for India to help women question and explore stigmatisation following acid attack and/or assault. In addition I plan to do another silent piece at Edinburgh Fringe. This way of communicating is powerful and helps us to transcend the boundaries of race and speech. I am convinced that art can be used to focus on the fact that we are all humans and that it is non human behaviour we need to address – not race, not gender. Let’s be human.


Alice Smith - Goddesse Education
Alice Smith – Goddesse Education

If you would like to find out more about Alice Smith and her work please follow these links:

Website

Instagram

Twitter

Goddesse Education Facebook Page

Youtube


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