Interview: Sara Alexander
by Angelique Jones
A tug of war between the brain and the clitoris? OTB wants to know more. This is how the latest play by critically-acclaimed Bella Heesom is described. ‘Rejoicing at Her Wondrous Vulva the Woman Applauded Herself’ queries, challenges and interrogates the shame that women are fed, resulting in a brilliant, biting and funny journey through pleasure, shame, pride and fury. The writer and actor Sara Alexander stars in the play, and Angelique Jones talks to her about age, female anatomy, liberation, writing, instinct, taking up space as a female artist in an unbalanced industry, challenging the male gaze and change.
Angelique Jones: How did you prep for your role as a clitoris? Did it feel more natural for you to inhabit the role of the brain or the clitoris?
Sara Alexander: Right from the start of the project (a chat in a bar at the Edinburgh festival, then trawling experimental theatre nights to try out five minutes of material at a time), Bella had me in mind to play the clitoris rather than the brain because she recognised my instinctual approach to creating character and a lean towards absurd humour and playfulness in the rehearsal room - qualities useful for the role. I tap into instinct. If something feels right, I follow my gut, whether that’s inside a rehearsal room or beyond. Prepping for the part looks a lot like allowing my subconscious to spur all my impulses in the room and switching off the part of my brain that evaluates and plans and considers and edits.
AJ: What does this story mean to you?
SA: It’s a story about a woman coming home to herself. Whatever tools you predominantly lean on to survive real life, be that logic or instinct, it’s a story that is a very real one, for women, and all humans. It’s about the expectations you receive and the messages that are planted inside your from the outside world and how, despite all that, you can lean toward your true nature. It’s a powerful, universal narrative.
Three words to encapsulate the play?
AJ: Did you find it liberating to play a part of female anatomy? To me, this seems as though it could be incredibly empowering, to give our sexual anatomy a voice.
SA: Beyond words! It is incredibly liberating! It’s the revolution steeped in pure pleasure. I think female joy is still the ultimate transgression. I love bringing playfulness to the character, one that is totally free of logic (which is represented by Bella as the Brain). These two characters are only one part of the play however, Bella also plays the young woman and I also play the character of the young woman’s sexual appetite, which is rawer and more free flowing than the clitoris. It is incredibly empowering because we are exploring the power of sexuality without a yearning for approval from an outside gaze. For me, gaze-free (my own included) expression is pure freedom.
AJ: Do you feel it’s important to have a close relationship with the writer when creating such intimate work together?
SA: The entire process has been incredibly collaborative and close. Bella drew out intimate conversations between us, then our director Donnacadh O’Briain would pose particular questions/tasks for us to feel our way through in improvisation. One session we improvised a scene for almost half an hour without stopping. In that session, an important nub was uncovered and Bella then worked it into the play. I can trace most of what she’s written back to our playing / experimenting inside the rehearsal rooms over these past years. It’s been really empowering to hear sensations, feelings and thoughts that I’ve expressed work their way into her choice of language.
AJ: Your work challenges the male gaze, and I’d like to know what your take on the female gaze is? Are you aiming to create one or do you believe there is already one that you can enter into?
SA: I think there absolutely is one, but I think it is often eclipsed, disregarded and misunderstood. I read something the other day that criticised a female-gaze piece for being whimsical and non-linear – the writer cited these this opposition to more familiar patriarchal structures as a weakness instead of a strength, utterly missing the point. Emotion, intuition and all non-logical, non-linear impulses are usually belittled, seen as something weaker than rationale.
For me, the female-gaze is about giving these hushed experiences space to be felt and explored. The female gaze we are exploring is about what is means to tap into a woman’s innate nature, what that really is, when stripped of accomplishments, outside information, received messages of how her sexuality should feel, act, look, taste. The female gaze in our show is one that is ancient and unfettered, feral and free. The opposite of all the qualities we are often encouraged to develop as modern, emancipated women.
"the female-gaze is about giving these hushed experiences space to be felt and explored. The female gaze we are exploring is about what is means to tap into a woman’s innate nature, what that really is"
AJ: Do you feel like you have a specific responsibility as an artist to portray an authentic experience of sex on stage? Authentically portraying sex and intimacy has been a very problematic endeavour in film and tv (with unrealistic expectations for both women and men to perform certain roles, look a certain way and expect certain things). This has had hugely negative effects on people growing up and the formation of our perception of ourselves. What does the stage offer you and this story that differs from what the screen can?
SA: What is special about our piece is that we are not specifically exploring what sex is between two people necessarily, but what the entire appetite for it feels like in the first place. I love how Audre Lorde expresses her love for the original Greek meaning of erotic, as an energy that drives all creation. Bella and I are interested in this all-encompassing energy - the character in the play’s appetite for everything, life itself.
We are working with the legendary choreographer Liz Ranken, a founding member of DV8, to explore ways Bella and I can be really intimate and bold with each other physically, that is an expression of the woman’s internal world. It’s really powerful because it’s not an enactment of sex but a physical realisation of how sexuality, sexual impulses and desires feel. I think Bella was interested in me expressing this most specifically because I do not have an air brushed body, I am strong and comfortable moving and I have cellulite, a belly that reveals its given birth several times, breasts that don’t point to the sky. When people first saw our first full length try-out version this was what a lot of them loved best – seeing two real bodies on stage without a whiff of sorrow for not being what we think we are supposed to be.
AJ: On taking up space as a female artist in the industry – what has your experience been?
SA: My initial experiences, for the first decade of my adult career, were playing characters twenty years younger than I was.
After I had children I was categorically told that there simply were not roles for women in their thirties, but that it might get meaty when I reached fifty. I received the message that I could no longer play younger characters because I had a child - though I never fitted in to the commercial version of kind-washing-powder mum or cooks-dinner-for-husband-and-kids-every-night mum. As a mother, I would, and could only be, seen as that. My agent explained that it simply meant there were no parts for me.
I waded in a sea of confusion and rage for several years after that, navigating an inner search for what I wanted to do in my creative life. It was heart-breaking to feel that the most important role in my life to date, the one that had stripped me to the core and made me feel things I’d never known before – motherhood – was ripping me out of the outside world even though I was contributing to it in the most profound way.
I traced that sense of invisibility, grieved for what I thought I hoped to do and then focused inward. That’s when I found writing and I’m delighted that over the five years that followed I finished my first novel with a further two book deal. Through expressing my new voice I also ignited a different creative confidence in general. A confidence for making and leaning on whatever made me feel the most soul-fed rather than only searching for validation from the outside. I sought collaboration and the kind of people who I would chime with. This more truthful approach to my creative life literally lead me to Bella and Donnacadh, and being part of the kind of work I’ve always wanted to participate in.
AJ: You’re addressing large, poignant themes such as pleasure, shame, pride and fury in the play. Which emotion came easier to you to explore?
SA: I have to thank my experience of becoming a mother for igniting all of the above emotions. However, I don’t think I could ever say some emotions are easier to tap into than others – some are perhaps more comfortable in my body (pleasure) but expressing any emotion requires you to surrender totally to that sensation. The act of giving in to an emotional state whole-heartedly, something we are usually encouraged not to do but which is an essential part of a rehearsal process, is the same whether it’s a comfortable or not.
AJ: Your impressive body of work explores female creativity and those struggles as a woman expressing herself through the arts. How do you feel about that interplay between the professional and emotional effects it has on women who, generally, are expected to deal with heightened pressures imposed on them for what they “should” be doing (i.e motherhood, being a wife etc.)?
SA: It makes a huge impact and I think this is a source of power. I don’t subscribe to the idea of compartmentalising aspects of my self. It doesn’t work for me. Drawing on experiences of every kind makes me a richer collaborator. Being open to the comfortable sensations of expression as well as the periods when that expression has not been invited, is a source of truthful life experience which is the only valuable tool we have. It doesn’t matter if you’ve had a decade of experience in real life, its about how courageous you are to share that unique experience so that others can see themselves reflected, challenged, celebrated.
We won’t ever change the ‘should’, there will always be new ones after we’ve dismantled the old, but you can totally control how much the ‘shoulds’ penetrate your own philosophy and way of living. I can be told all the ‘shoulds’ but tap into what my own directives are despite them. It unlocks others around me too. Most of us are predisposed to internalise the ‘shoulds’. That doesn’t mean we have to.
I reject the idea of separating the professional and emotional. For me, it’s about drawing on both at the same time, unifying those skills. When I’m writing, I’m expressing rich inner lives of the characters, with diligence and daily discipline. When I’m performing I need to share the same. When I’m mothering or being present for my partner I need to be authentic and honest. It’s intertwined and I think that’s a healthy thing. An imposed separation of different aspects of myself is not helpful, it splinters my experience, robbing me of a creative, authentic place to create from.
AJ: What tools do you use to just keep creating and taking up space as a woman artist, and how do you deal with negativity?
SA: Practical tools: literally my pitchfork at my allotment. Our plot earths me, feeds me (literally and soulfully). It’s a space where I can express myself. I whimsically decorate our shed – someone gifted us a small piano which I keep there and I grow stuff in random things.
Extended silence. It’s life and death in a tiny stretch of land, cyclical and beautiful.
I also know I need a lot of movement and body work to feel balanced. I adore my bike and lifting weights (beginner but eager).
I feed my sensual self to eclipse the cloying whispers of Doubt so that on darker days, when Doubt is having a field day, I have the sustenance to not give in to negativity. Rather, I acknowledge it, sit with it, curl up and refuel so I can keep making.
Growing two sons is also a privilege, pressure and daily reminder to keep growing into the most authentic version of a female artist I can be, so that they might take that received experience out into the world for other women and of course themselves.
AJ: Three words to encapsulate the play?
SA: Honest. Explosive. JOYOUS.
Sara Alexander will be performing in 'Rejoicing at Her Wondrous Vulva the Woman Applauded Herself' at the Ovalhouse Theatre 9th-25th May and her next novel The Last Concerto, is published by HQ in August.
Find out more about Sara and her work here.
Words by Angelique Jones. Angelique is a freelance writer working in film, with a passion for travel and yoga She is starring in a feature film this summer which she has also co-written. As well as being Film Editor for OTB, she is also Art Director for Last Maps and is a qualified Hatha Yoga Teacher. You'll find Angelique working on a film somewhere, practising yoga and doodling sketches.
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