Posted on: Thursday, April 16, 2015 by Fern Smith

In the early days of Volcano, I went for a bar job at The Oystercatcher in Mumbles. I was looking quite tidy: freshly bleached skinhead hair-cut, calf-length black dress and pink fluorescent lipstick. I got the job but they said I’d have to dress differently when I worked with the customers – they thought I was a transvestite.

The merging of on- and off-stage personae is greater when you can’t change your hair. I was playing Margaret Thatcher in Volcano’s Macbeth at the time. If I’d been an actress in a West End show I’d have worn a silver wig. The hair is often one of the strongest signifiers of male or female and when it blurs, we don’t know where we are. Before the skinhead it was a pillar-box red Mohican for V, and after it were black plastic hair weaves. I still had the Mohican shorn-to-the-scalp sides but (in addition) a topknot which could be worn as a menacing looking spider or a jaunty pineapple, depending on if I was playing Medea before or after being betrayed by Jason. The next hair transformation was more audacious. To play the dark lady of the Sonnets for L.O.V.E. I had to make the leap from androgyne to female, from punk hair to lady hair. This meant growing everything and going au naturel. This is when I really felt like a cross-dresser. High-heels, fake fur coat, Playtex underwear, vamp jewelry and make-up.

There has always been an element in Volcano’s work – especially the more stylized productions – which allowed or even encouraged one to experiment with gender. Probably the thing that has most shocked our audiences is not playing the knife-wielding siren of L.O.V.E., being karate kicked full-on in the belly in Medea:Sexwar, or doing push-ups whilst hanging off a ladder in After the Orgy, but simply the act of raising my arms to reveal under-arm hair. It was shocking then, 25 years ago when we started, and I fear (even though contemporary audiences are sometimes described as unshockable) even more so now. This was one of those accidental moments of enlightenment from our touring years which actually shocked me (so that’s what the real world is like?).

Although I/we have played with gender, I/we’ve been deadly serious at the same time. Volcano’s work was always fuelled by extremity and possibility. Why stop at portraying one gender when you could play two or even three? It was more the sexual politics of re-presentation that these early shows were concerned with than sex itself, though audiences and critics sometimes just honed in on the latter.

In theatre you can exist within the realm of the archetypal and that’s what we were doing – often representing or replaying conflicts between masculine/feminine, words/flesh, emotional/rational, spiritual/material. No wonder the first piece we really identified with as a touring company was Tony Harrison’s V (‘Class versus class, as bitter as before, the un-ending violence of us and them’). In order to play the conflict realistically you have to commit absolutely to both sides. We believed our work was both beautiful and brutal, but many could see only the brutal, the shocking, the provocative, and were blind to the beauty. Ionesco wrote opposing political manifestos which he would publish alongside one another. Being a committed absurdist makes some uneasy. What exactly is it you are committing yourself to? Perhaps all conflicts return to male v female, but with a more expanded definition of those concepts –Apollonian v Dionysian, colonial v colonized, yin v yang, capitalist v ecological…

Volcano was always, and is still, fascinated by invention and creation. Perhaps running your own theatre company is the closest thing you can get to running your own planet. You choose the language, behavior, conventions and much more besides. Perhaps going on tour is like visiting other planets. That’s why it is often grindingly hard when the natives of those planets don’t ‘get’ you or are hostile. You’ve sent out your visiting delegation with good intent and are sometimes received with anger, frustration, dismissiveness or just boredom. On occasions you are even banned from visiting other planets ever again (Worthing). But just sometimes, inhabitants of those planets want to join yours, and even do for a while before going off and starting their own. You have no other choice though, as it’s the only planet you can breathe the air on. It goes beyond taste and convention. It comes down to survival.

Planet Volcano is for me, beyond playing male or female, beyond good or evil. It has never been an either/or, all or nothing, but a both/and kind of planet. At its best it is a feast of the intellect and senses, at worst it can be confusing and chaotic.

Our early work was always an attempt to communicate and agitate (or activate). I always believed that theatre could change the world. We would do it by saying ‘look at this, is it right, wake, up, do something, make change’. We always believed we were a political company. The first step towards change is awareness. I sometimes felt like we would see ourselves as a big arrow drawing people’s attention to what needed changing. Twenty-five years on, even if things haven’t changed your strategy must. Possible options: give up and try something else; keep doing it for longer but do it better; be content with what is and enjoy the play; or perhaps maybe all or none of the above…

Fern Smith
From Inflammable Material, a retrospective for Volcano's 25th Birthday Party, 2013
Published 16th April 2015 to celebrate women sharing their stories over three years of the Everyday Sexism Project

Paul Davies

Fern Smith

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