A poet friend I was chatting to yesterday described what I do as a combination of cabaret and live art. I’d confessed that no one seems to see me as ‘a proper poet.’ It’s true, even at the poetry open mics I perform at I’m usually introduced as a burlesque performer. There I am, no props, regular clothes, reading from a folder like all the other poets, and still a clown. The odd ball complex follows me no matter what tribe I try to belong to, and I think maybe I am ok with that now.
Ah, dear reader, I am so happy, so relieved, so grateful. I performed the full version of ‘Jeu Jeu la Foille’s Testy Manifesto’ this past Saturday at The Star Inn in Guildford, and it could not have gone better. After two years of wrestling with that show, trying to make it make sense, wondering what the point of it all was…it’s out, and it’s not bad either – I’m very proud of it.
I remembered the advice I was given just before my very first burlesque performance, when I was quaking with fear backstage, and my friends found me, hugged me, and said ‘Just have fun.’ But how the shit can a show about domestic abuse be FUN? That was something I couldn’t fathom two weeks ago. How can something so terrible, be beautiful? It’s still a long way from being the comfortable, elasticated trousers that ‘Frontal Lobotomy’ is, but fun was had for sure.
The feedback I have received so far has been very positive. Audience members that know me personally have said that in places it was heart-wrenching, as they knew the backstory, they knew it was true, even though I’ve left a lot of the details out. People have commented on the conversation I have with the skeleton near the start, asking if that was based on a real discussion I had with the perpetrator. The actual subject of the conversation was made up, but the way it is written is very effective for demonstrating what it sounds like to talk to an abusive person – utterly absurd and crazy-making.
I play several different characters, and one that people seemed to enjoy was a woman who enters in disguise, and begins talking about ‘her friend’ who is experiencing domestic abuse. She becomes so impassioned that her disguise slips off, and she’s left on the floor, raw and exposed. I had so much fun working with this character that I pulled a muscle in my arm during rehearsals.
No one seemed to mind that in four sections of the show I am speaking in French. I love my revolutionary character; she lends the political angle, she narrates the personal story from outside, and she stops the energy from flagging. It doesn’t matter if the audience don’t understand every word, she is a lot of fun, and there is more to find with her.
Thinking about it, the three moments or characters I have mentioned above all came from ideas other people had upon reading a draft of the script, seeing a scratch performance, or playing with an idea in a workshop. It may be a solo show, but it wasn’t made in isolation. Even the seemingly innocuous comments people made during my process have been mulled over, developed, put down, picked up again…they’ve swum around my brain for two years as invisible collaborators and provocateurs. It’s the sweat, graft and pulled muscles that are mine.
However, the thing that really excites me about this show is that there is a possibility I could perform it for some women’s groups. A friend of my mums who was in the audience last week works for the probation service, and has contacts in some domestic abuse agencies. It could be seen by the people it was written for - other survivors. I did an interview with SATEDA recently that I’ll include below; they asked good questions, and my answers give a bit more background to the show, why I wrote it, and the difficulties I had making it. SATEDA and Solace Women’s Aid are the two of the many DA agencies I reached out to over the last Winter, when I was writing a funding application, and although the bid wasn’t successful, we’ve remained in contact, and I’m grateful for their support.
No other performances of ‘Testy Manifesto’ are scheduled, as nothing is certain with the pandemic, but I have 200+ photos of this one (courtesy of Jon Ellis) and a lovely afterglow to bask in for now.
‘A little rain never hurt no one.’
With love and thunderstorms,
Tell us a little bit about yourself and what you do.
What I do tends to take many forms, but primarily I’m a writer and a teacher, with a focus on puppetry and poetry. I lead a strange and scandalous double life as Jeu Jeu la Foille, who is my performance persona, and she allows my more serious and studious side to take a back seat now and then.
I have an endless fascination and curiosity for pretty much everything, the more fantastical the better, and the only thing that seems to slow me down is being in or near water.
What are your biggest influences?
From 2010 to 2019 I was a burlesque performer, and an added bonus of that was getting to see all sorts of cabaret and variety performance, and meeting a whole tribe of like-minded weirdos, who continue to inspire and challenge me. I trained as a clown and mime artist at a physical theatre school, so I’m drawn to performance styles on the circus/immersive/non-traditional spectrum.
But without a doubt, my biggest influence is Tom Waits, and were it not for him I may have never found my voice an artist and written my first solo show ‘Jeu Jeu la Foille’s Frontal Lobotomy.’
According to your blog post, the story behind Testy Manifesto was derived from personal experience. What inspired you to share it?
Going through an experience with intimate partner violence was the most harrowing and transformative thing that has ever happened to me. While I was in it my only goal was to survive and get through each day. When it finally ended – four non-molestation orders, three court appearances, two house moves and countless police interviews later – I was left with a lot of emotional pain, and so many questions. Why did this happen to me? Why does this happen to so many people? Any why isn’t everyone talking about it?
I began writing ‘Testy Manifesto’ in the spring of 2019, starting with little poems, as a way of staying grounded and processing it, and that gradually developed into the performance it is now. Since then lots more has happened in the public sphere with regard to domestic abuse and people are talking about it more openly; this spurred me on and kept me going when I was floundering and nothing I was creating seemed to make any sense.
I’ve ended up with a poetic treatment of my experiences with intimate partner violence, that encompasses activism, storytelling and some moments that I hope reveal the sides of victimhood we don’t usually see. There is also the healthy dose of irony, irreverence and silliness that Jeu Jeu is known for.
What were the obstacles you had to overcome when creating this performance?
You mean apart from breaking down in tears every time I tried to write or rehearse any of it?! There was a lot of stickiness to move through, a great deal of mental wrestling. Words are extremely powerful, and I’ve had to remind myself to stay playful with the material, and not try to pre-empt or mitigate the audiences experience of it. Friends and family that saw the in-progress performances or read the script have found it hard to take, as I did such an Oscar-winning performance of pretending everything was fine while the abuse was happening. The challenge has been to keep it as personal and authentic as possible, without being too preachy, prescriptive or graphic, but still take risks and push myself as a creator. I’ve dubbed it my ‘difficult second album.’
Is there any healing advice you would like to share with SATEDA’s audience?
For survivors I’d say give it time and be extremely gentle with yourself. I was so impatient with my recovery, I used to think ‘Well there’s no immediate danger anymore, so why haven’t I pinged back to my normal happy, busy self already?’ It really doesn’t work like that. I found attending the Freedom Program and reading the accompanying book ‘Living with the Dominator’ very helpful to combat the isolation and shame I felt initially, and for the past eighteen months I’ve regularly seen a counsellor who has knowledge of domestic abuse. Most importantly I’d say, find your joy – it’s an opportunity to focus on yourself and discover what truly lights you up, in whatever way that’s possible for you.
Could you share with us your website and social media links, as well as performance dates?
I’m sharing the complete ‘Testy Manifesto’ at Guildford Fringe on Saturday 24th July in the afternoon. Booking link here: Jeu Jeu la Foille’s Testy Manifesto « Guildford Fringe Festival
Website: www.jeujeulafoille.com My blog is Jeu Jeu la Foille - Nowhere to go but everywhere and there you can read more on my process on making the show, and some of the backstory to it, as well as other poems I’ve written which aren’t part of ‘Testy Manifesto.’