Femininity, Violence and Cinema: Interview with Louise Orwin

Louise Orwin’s piece of feminist experimental theatre, ‘A Girl and A Gun’, recently ran at Nottingham Playhouse. We spoke to her about the meaning behind her work and how it cleverly intertwines with film-making.

Can you tell us a little about your hit show A Girl and A Gun? What makes it so unique?

A Girl and A Gun is a live film-making experiment and theatre show which interrogates the allure of sex and violence on film, and the ridiculous and sometimes damaging gendered roles spoon fed to us through cinema. Personally, it’s about my own ambiguous relationship to cinema, and how as a woman and a feminist I am both attracted to and repulsed by the kind of imagery which is repeated over and over again in some of my favourite cinema, perhaps most specifically the image of the ‘femme fatale’.

On a slightly bigger scale, the show interrogates our appetite for violence on film, and how easily we can be drawn into beautiful cinematic images without questioning their politics, perhaps even disregarding our own politics. I think its experimental nature makes it truly unique. When it is described as an experiment it really means that. Every night I am joined on stage by an unprepared male performer who is asked to perform his role (reading lines and stage directions from an autocue) as fully as possible, but he is also told that if he is uncomfortable he can decline to perform. This means that, truly, anything can happen.

In the 50 years since Jean Luc Goddard claimed all you needed to make a film was a ‘girl and a gun’, do you think much has changed, and what is your opinion on the way women in the media are treated today?

Sadly I don’t think much has changed at all. I would say our attitudes towards women on film have changed (possibly with the recent popular burgeoning of feminism), and there are definitely fuller, more interesting roles for women in cinema now, but sadly the same tired old tropes continue to exist, and I think that’s largely due to living in a capitalist patriarchal society. Film-makers know that certain types of imagery and story lines will help a film sell, and largely they’re not wrong. I will say, though, that thanks to the internet, I feel the market is changing, audiences are becoming wiser and better read. Thanks to social media and film blogs, we have more cinephiles than ever, and hopefully if things keep going in the right direction soon enough big budget Hollywood will come to realise that tastes are changing. I think the recent Ghostbusters film is testament to this!

“The work interrogates how we can all participate in the culture of cinema just by watching”

Not only live theatre, but film-making too – how did you decide to combine the two elements so successfully?

For me, theatre is always about a live encounter. This notion becomes a starting point for my work, and it seemed particularly apt for the ideas behind this research. I wanted to question what the difference might be in watching something on film, and watching something live in front of you. I wondered whether the images of violence and degrading acts towards women might be more or less watchable when they were acted out in front of you. This also fed into the decision to have the other role in the show played by an unprepared male performer – in some ways he becomes a cipher for the audience’s involvement in the action too. Audiences tend to relate to this unprepared performer and from what I’ve heard, they begin to imagine themselves faced with the same decisions. In this way the work interrogates how we can all participate in the culture of cinema just by watching.

Other than participation, I was also really interested in the idea of the male gaze, and the gaze of the average cinema viewer. I’ve always tried to make theatre which is really cognisant of who is watching and when, and so by combining both forms I got to play around with these ideas. When watching the show anyone will notice how the cameras on stage become almost like a third character in the script. Many of the actions and lines in the show are knowingly delivered ‘to camera’ instead of to the audience. This gives the audience a new perspective on how images are set up, falsified, or enhanced by the camera. In some ways it subverts and strips away from the idea of the magic of cinema, and perhaps helps us to think about being more conscious of the images we decide to ‘buy into’ when we watch. When you watch this show, will you watch through the eyes of the camera lens, or will you watch as as live participant in a film-making experiment playing out in front of you?

Alongside the other differences to conventional theatre-making, you also have a different man playing ‘Him’ in each place you visit. How did this come about, and why do you think it is so effective?

Deciding that the role of ‘Him’ would be played by an unprepared male actor any night, came hand in hand with the decision to make the show into a live experiment. I wanted to combine the glossy façade of cinema with the liveness and ‘anything can go wrong’-ness of theatre. I love theatre that forces you to participate in what you’re watching, rather than letting you sit passively in the dark, and theatre that reminds you that you are watching fallible human beings on stage, that in many ways are just like you. In my mind this creates new ways of seeing and thinking about the world you live in, rather than taking you away to a fantasy world.

In every show the male participant is told that he should play the role as fully as possible, but that if anything makes him uncomfortable he is able bail out. This means that not only do audiences get to see an ‘everyman’ grapple with the ridiculous Hollywood tropes that are set for us, they get to see live decision making in action. How easy is it for us to play out the roles we are fed through cinema? The actions that may seem cool or sexy on film, how easy are they to recreate in front of a live audience? And how will these actions weigh our consciences? In this way, the show helps us to ‘see again’ many actions we are so used to seeing on film, in the help that perhaps we can see anew.

“It is hard to take up a role which is politically so at odds with the way I usually live my life”

 What has been your greatest challenge so far in creating and performing this production?

There are obvious challenges to the work, such as the technical set up (creating a film and a show at once), and the natural trepidation that comes with having an unprepared performer on stage with you every night (anything can go wrong). However, I would say that the greatest challenge is probably the emotional toll the show can take. The role I play (‘Her’) is reasonably masochistic in nature, and its hard to take up a role which is politically so at odds with the way I usually live my life. But I do know that this can make for very emotional watching for audience members too – I’ve had a few audience members come up to me in tears after the show wanting to talk, or people emailing me weeks later. And so, I suppose, in a way this emotional element also lasts long after the show finishes too. But I see this as a challenge I’m willing to take on, as it feels so important.

 Would you consider your work a feminist statement?

ABSOLUTELY! The show deals very clearly with gender stereotypes, and I’d say that the work is a clear challenge to these stereotypes. It’s my hope, though, that the show is enjoyable to watch regardless of whether you label yourself a feminist or not. I’ve had many men walk out of the show and tell me that they would never be able to watch some of their favourite films in the same way again… I consider that a good thing!

Sum up A Girl and A Gun in three words!

Sexy, punch-in-the-gut, alive.

Amy Wilcockson

Image courtesy of Louise Orwin and Stephen Forster, taken by Field and McGlynn

‘A Girl and A Gun’ is running at the Nottingham Playhouse’s Neville Studio on Friday 16th September at 8pm. Tickets are £8 for students, and can be purchased here.

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