Shout Out Friday – Amy de Bhrún

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I first came across Amy de Bhrún when I heard about her through her sister, actress and singer Fiona Browne. My sister and I went to see her one woman show The Female of the Species at the Mayfield Restaurant in Dublin a couple of years ago. She was funny, poignant and gorgeous, clearly a talented actress and a terrific writer to boot.

Hopping between London and Dublin, film work and a thriving career as a voice over artist, Amy has diligently set about creating a model of being an actor that has an autonomy and independence that is seldom achieved.

Now about to take her new show I See You, inspired by the life of trailblazer Lady Mary Heath to the Theatre Upstairs in Dublin this May, Amy has created a crowdfunding campaign so that she can properly finance the venture. People seldom think about the cost of doing a show and assume that we make theatre for the love of it, which we do, but we also have to eat and pay the rent.

Amy’s aim is to raise €4000 which will go towards paying her actors, director and crew. costume, set and promotional materials. This is not a huge amount of money and she’s almost there! Let’s get behind her and get her and Lady Mary Heath’s story heard.

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Happy International Women’s Day!

 

Photo on 05-02-2016 at 12.36 #2Two years ago today I launched the podcast and blog at the Waking the Feminist event in Dublin for International Women’s Day. I invited my friend Noni Stapleton to be my first interviewee and we mostly cackled through our chat. My vision for the podcast has grown and expanded and only now am I beginning to get the chance to create what I’ve always hoped for the site.

Over the coming weeks, I’ll be writing a series of posts on keeping creative. I went back to my conversation with Noni and took notes and came up with four things that I think were key to her creativity and mine. The best way to come along for the ride is to listen to our conversation and follow along as I unpack it. Then we’ll catch up with Noni again in a few weeks and find out what’s been happening with her and her play Charolais in the intervening couple of years (spoiler alert: a LOT has happened!).

I’ve lined up conversations with some other inspiring women who I know will have a lot to offer to us.

So stay tuned and if you’re interested in getting the whole series as an ebook at the end, sign up for my newsletter. Subscribers will also get to hear first about a couple of upcoming events I’m involved with. The newsletter goes out next week so be sure not to miss out.

There’s no Live Friday Shoutout tomorrow as I’m at a conference for a couple of days but check back in next week when I’ve got a great chat lined up with a wonderful artist who you’re going to want to get behind!

Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes, so you never miss an episode.

In the meantime, keep struttin’ and bellowin’!

 

Shout Out Friday – replay

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Here’s the low down on how our sell out show The Vagina Monologues that played at the Lyric theatre on the 25th of February came to be.

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Rage

The Vagina Monologues (2)This was awesome to discovery yesterday morning and when I called just now to see if any of the extra seats they’d released were left, I was told they too had gone. So on Sunday night we will have a full house which for an actor is a wonderful feeling. When you stand up on that stage, with all the preparation you’ve done, all the presence you’re bringing, knowing that there are people there ready to go on a journey with you is half the battle.

There’s a rule of thumb where a show will only be cancelled if there’s the same number of audience as there is cast. So it only takes one more person to take their seat for a show to go ahead. I’ve been in a play where there was a cast of seven and we had heard that there were only seven people in the audience.  At the last minute, an eighth audience member walked in and took his seat and with a sigh of resignation the stage manager gave us the OK to start the show. There is not much more sad than a sizeable cast on a stage and a tiny audience.

Theatre is magic. It’s an incredible privilege as an actor to take the audience on a journey. It’s a sacred thing for an audience member to suspend their disbelief and allow an actor to embody a story and to take them places that they may never have been before – even to very uncomfortable places. The power is of course in the imagination of the audience. The actor and writer make suggestions, the audience create the picture, each one with different nuances but glorious nonetheless.

So on Sunday night, we will hold space for the words of the Eve Ensler to take the audience to places that may make them laugh, or cry, or feel uncomfortable or affirmed. Through our bodies, we’ll give presence to the voices and bodies of the many women Ensler interviewed in the creation of the piece.

And if there’s one thing I want our audience to feel it’s rage. And this might be a hard thing to hear. But I am done being polite. What is happening to women, what has been thrust upon women for eons must stop.

I had a conversation a while ago with a woman who told me how it took her years to understand that the behaviour of her partner, his manipulation, coercion, control was actually not normal. He may not have beaten her physically, she may not have had bruises or broken bones but she lived in constant fear that nothing she did was to his satisfaction and he was constantly changing the goal posts. The toll this took on her emotional and mental well being was such that now she has chronic physical ailments long after she managed to get out from under the same roof.

Gaslighting, dismissing, controlling, emotionally blackmailing are all acts of violence – perhaps not overtly physical but the effects of emotional violence can ultimately have an impact physically. The body can only take so much and it is intricately connected to the health of the mind and spirit.

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Eve Ensler’s book  In the Body of the World deals frankly and openly with her own disconnection from her body due to the abuse she suffered as a child and how her battle with uterine cancer led her back to connection and embodiment. She had to go through a difficult to get there. There was pain she had to face up to to heal. A profoundly moving part of her story is the connection she made with women in the Democratic Republic of Congo with whom she’d spent time.  Many had suffered wounds like traumatic fistulae from having been victims of rape as a weapon of war. Ensler then experienced the same injury due to her cancer surgery. Something about embodying a similar wound brought her closer to wholeness and connection to the wider world.

Violence doesn’t just happen to those women over there or behind that closed door or to a anonymous woman in a different social circle. It’s happening everywhere and to the extent that it happens to one of us, it happens to all of us. Because we’re all connected really. Our bodies are being violated, objectified, dismissed, sexualised without our consent. Our bodies are despised, found wanting, shamed. Our bodies are beaten, bruised and broken on a daily basis and it has to stop.

I’m glad we have a sell out show on Sunday night because it means more money can go to Women’s Aid here in Northern Ireland and to women directly affected by domestic violence. 10% of the proceeds will also go to Ensler’s V-Day campaign which works globally to bring awareness to the issue of violence against women.

To those of you who can’t make the show, please consider donating the price of the ticket (£10/$14/€11) to Women’s Aid or V-Day or a women’s shelter local to you. To the rest of you who were lucky enough to get a ticket, come prepared to laugh, cry and rage with us and let’s see if we can’t start to see change happen.

Don’t forget to like and follow Strut and Bellow on Facebook and Instagram. Subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. And stop by for my Facebook/Instagram live on Friday morning (11am GMT) when I will be giving a shout out to the amazing creative team behind our production of The Vagina Monologues at the Lyric. 

The V Word

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There’s nothing quite like it. Being in a room with other actresses giggling over the various names for our most intimate body parts. There’s nothing quite like being in a room with other actresses full stop. But add to the mix a very female subject matter, the fact that most of us have children and therefore have either had to take time out from our careers or have a constant struggle to manage both and some fairly dark Northern Irish humour and you’ve got a recipe for sheer joy.

I didn’t know many of our team of actresses well before this project but what I can tell you is that they are all great and their commitment is second to none (don’t forget, this is all voluntary, no one’s getting paid). Having had limited female camaraderie in recent months since our move, this feels like a warm bath at the end of a very long day. I’m the newbie, the unknown entity but I’ve been welcomed and accepted as one of the tribe and that has been every bit as special as getting the play on its feet.

The V word. It’s been fascinating jumping in the deep end and delving into the text. It’s at once hilarious, outrageous, informative and desperately, desperately sad. It’s a very strong reminder that for many women around the world, their bodies are not their own. Women have been conditioned to consider their bodies dirty, defiled and disposable and the very idea of a woman having bodily autonomy is taboo in many cultures.

The V word. Standing up on a stage and talking about vaginas is of course empowering but there’s something else going on just below the surface and that is vulnerability. It’s an act of courage to speak about these things in a public space and why indeed shouldn’t we talk about our bodies and the joy we can derive from them, the sadness that we’re made to feel because of them. We all carry our own unspoken shames and fears about our bodies, our disappointments and our scars and, I know for me personally, I’m grateful to have someone else’s words to give voice to some of my feelings.

I’m not yet at that glorious nirvana of complete comfort in my own skin. There’s still the young woman in me desperately comparing my body shape with others and finding it wanting. There’s the anxiety over the changes that are happening as my body ages. In a culture where women’s bodies are still commodified and objectified, it’s an act of defiance to speak the female truth about the female body in a female voice. It’s a reclaiming of the autonomy and modelling a different way of existing in the world.

This becomes especially important to those of us who are raising daughters and find ourselves reinforcing the old conditioning, however unconsciously – be quiet, be nice, stand back, bow down. In order that my daughter be free to be her true self, she needs to see me model it. She needs to see me embrace my own self, to get up off my knees, shake off the old ways, to strut and to bellow.

I look back at the women in my family, my maternal heritage and see all the ways we’ve been kept down and held back. I’ve seen my mother’s generation push back and move beyond the tightly formed boundaries. And now there’s my generation, my cousins and I who get to take another step forward. I can’t wait to see the leaps my daughter and my nieces make. I feel proud to lay the groundwork for them.

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Sign up for my newsletter for news about an upcoming version of The Vagina Monologues that I’m involved with. Don’t forget to follow me on Instagram and Facebook and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. If you’re looking for an inspiring conversation with a leading Irish feminist activist, check out the episode where I chat to Lian Bell, founder of the Waking the Feminist movement. 

Shout out Friday – Jane Fonda

jane-fonda-aHi there, here’s the replay of my Live Shout Out Friday where I give a shout out to the magnificent Jane Fonda whose autobiography My Life so far I found really inspiring. Her take on the spirituality and the patriarchy gave voice to a lot of my own feelings around there Christianity has lost its way.

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I also gave a shout out to local North Down artist Rachel Calder whose lamps are so exquisite. I mean just look at this. She’s at craft fairs locally in the Co. Down area but I reckon it won’t be long before these beauties find home. Follow her on instagram @rachelcalderdesigns and you might even see some shots of her gorgeous golden retriever Ellie too.

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Risen

With St. Valentine’s Day around the corner, you could be holding one of two postures; excited to share the love, whatever that might look like, or cynically smirking in a corner and despising the Hallmark romanticism of the day. You may be delightedly planning cards or gifts to a lover or a friend or bemoaning the fact that no sooner had the tinsel been taken down, the Easter eggs where on the supermarket shelves and the card displays turned a nauseating tone of pink. Somebody somewhere’s making money and so the world turns. Eve Ensler2.jpg

February, in recent years, has a different focus for me. Some years ago, I came across a video online with women dancing in a campaign to end violence against women. It was, I came to learn, part of the V-Day, the playwright Eve Ensler’s campaign to raise awareness, and so end, violence against women and girls. The movement had started 20 years ago with the production of her play The Vagina Monologues, a daring attempt to put women’s voices about the most intimate parts of their lives and bodies centre stage. It was shameless, joyous and empowering and since then, every February she has made the rights available for free for women’s groups all around the world so that they can participate in the global campaign.

The movement has grown to become One Billion Rising, where flashmobs of dancers take over streets and public areas letting their bodies and voices bear witness to the injustice, inequality and violence they face.

I’ve always been a good girl. I did well at school, behaved at home and generally never put a foot wrong. I consciously chose my Christian faith when I was a child of 8 and found it empowered me to be a force for good in the world. When I became a minor celebrity in the late 90s, I was never one to grace the covers of tabloids with lurid tales of my exploits. Rather, I was the one using my profile to focus attention on issues of justice and inequality. Around the same time, Ensler’s play was getting plenty of notice with famous actresses lining up to take part. While women’s issues were front and centre in my heart and mind I would have balked at the thought of getting up on a stage and talking about the intimate issues at the heart of The Vagina Monologues. There was still a part of me that felt that this was not the sort of thing a good Christian girl could be part of.

While some might say that feminism and Christianity are anything but compatible, I had always held both as strong parts of my identity. I advocated for women’s full inclusion in the church. I organised women’s groups in whatever congregation I happened to belong to. In recent years, I have preached regularly and led Sunday services. Believing strongly that the original message of Jesus was hope and liberation for all people and that women were not intrinsically less than men, I pushed forward in my attempts to make change from the inside.

But I was keeping my firmly held identity as a good daughter. I was still within a structure and culture that was patriarchal at its core and I still aimed to please. And this led to an increasing discomfort at the deepest levels of my being.

My involvement with the Mothers Artists Makers movement in Dublin, advocating for more visibility for female artists who also have children and better work place conditions for all parents in the arts, increased my discomfort. So many women I spoke to had been hurt, dismissed, ignored by the church – perhaps not my particular ecclesiastical corner but by calling myself Christian I found myself, however subconsciously, put in the same box.

There are some amazing women working within the church who are speaking up for women and there are changes happening certainly. Women like Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessey, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Jen Hatmaker, Sr. Joan Chittister, Rita Nakashima Brock. But as the tide of female empowerment rises, as the voices of the #MeToo movement are finally, finally, heard it’s become increasingly clear to me that right now, I can’t be in the box with them.

The last sermon I preached was in the summer of 2016. The reading of the day was from Luke’s Gospel where Jesus tells the people the story of the lost sheep. (You can look it up at Luke 15: 1 – 10). Jesus’ parables have been recorded by Luke for a revolutionary community of men, women, Jews, Gentiles, slave and free who are trying to live a completely new way of being in the world, where old divisions have melted away and the teachings of their master Jesus are put into practise. The story of the lost sheep is of a shepherd who has 100 sheep and one has wandered off and the shepherd leaves the 99 and goes off looking for that one naughty little bleater, finds it, brings it home and celebrates with a party. It’s traditionally been interpreted in terms of us being the naughty little bleaters that go wandering off and God being the poor suffering shepherd who has to risk the 99’s safety by coming to get us and bring us home – whether we want to come of not, I might add!

In preparing the sermon however, the same phrase kept leaping out at me.

‘Which of you, having a hundred sheep and losing one of them, does not leave the ninety nine in the wilderness and go after the one until he finds it?’

The gospel or good news of the Jesus story is abundant life for all, here and now, not in some disembodied place in the future, and the message time and time again in the life of Jesus and that of the early church was that this abundant life was specifically for those who needed it most. I had to question whether the church as I knew it was part of the good news to the poor, dispossessed, disenfranchised, oppressed, downtrodden, ignored, voiceless in my culture and society or whether in fact it was complicit in the systems that keep people down and specifically the system that keep women down.

So I took a step back. The cognitive dissonance of feeling out of step with my spirit meant I stepped down from no less than 4 preaching engagements in the months following that last sermon. I scaled back my Sunday morning attendance and since we’ve moved north, I’ve not been to church. I’m currently on an indefinite sabbatical from church membership. I want to find out if there is a way for me to live my faith out from under a patriarchal system. I keep asking myself, what would Mary of Magdala’s spiritual community have looked like? Might it have looked more like the Jesus I read about in the Gospels than our present day church does?

There’s no such thing as the perfect church. That’s not what I’m looking for. I am looking for a radical new paradigm and perhaps it’s out there, and I just haven’t come across it yet. I’ve always been the good girl, the good daughter, so to step outside the lines like this is a big thing for me but I really believe that I’m being called out of the fold, to leave behind the Ninety Nine in the wilderness of the patriarchal system to dance and sing and act alongside and on behalf of the women rising in movements like the V Day initiative.

This February, my focus is to step into this space with my body, heart and soul. Valentine, the saint who’s day we celebrate on the 14th, was martyred for his faith in this abundant life and new way of being in the world, for marrying couples who otherwise would have been separated when the young single men were to be sent to war as canon fodder for a Roman Emperor. He defiantly resisted a system of oppression.

Valentine inspires me. Jesus inspires me. Mary of Magdala inspires me. Eve Ensler inspires me.

I am woke. I am out of the box. I am beyond the fold. I am risen.

Sign up for my newsletter for news about an upcoming version of The Vagina Monologues that I’m involved with. Don’t forget to follow me on Instagram and Facebook and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes. If you’re looking for an inspiring conversation with a leading Irish feminist activist, check out the episode where I chat to Lian Bell, founder of the Waking the Feminist movement. 

Shout Out Friday

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So I did my first live feed on Facebook and Instagram and today I gave a shout out to St. Brigid as her feast day was a couple of days ago on the 1st of February.

In the video I share the story of her encounter with the King of Leinster and how her faith and determination can inspire us all as creative women to #takethespace we need to expand our vision.

Shout out also to Gemma @mutha.hood for the awesome Strong Girls Club sweater which you can buy at her wonderful site Muthahood Goods.

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Have a great weekend. Spread that cloak wide.

Melanie

Imbolc

I hereby declare January a write off.

I also hereby declare that from now on I’m not even going to consider January a suitable time to start anything, launch anything, set myself up for anything because I am finally getting it into my thick 21st century mind/body that Spring doesn’t start till February.

And Spring is when the energy kicks back in after the long dark months of winter. Those six darkest weeks of year from the winter solstice to Imbolc – the ancient Celtic announcement of Spring – are the toughest part of the year and not the time to try and burst out of the ground and flourish. When the inevitable blast of new year cold weather hits, any wee flower attempting to grow is going to get pummelled.

IMG_0203It’s been an incremental thing but my exploration of the Celtic calendar, with its clearly delineated and defined feminine and masculine energies throughout the year, is finally beginning to make sense. My body naturally wants to follow the rhythm of the seasons and though there’s a natural impatience and desire to get the new year off to a bang after Christmas, it inevitably ends up being more of a whimper.

In the Celtic tradition, the year begins in the dark, in November with the festival of Samhain, a wild letting go of all that the previous year was and a welcoming of the dark. Dolores Whelan in her beautiful book Ever Ancient Ever Knew – Celtic Spirituality for the 21st century talks about the year being divided into two; giamos relating to darkness and winter and the feminine and samos relating to light and summer and the masculine.

During the giamos time, the non-doing mode of being and the qualities of receptivity and non-linear time are valued. Here, the slow, non-rational intuitive ways are dominant.

Now why on earth didn’t I read this six weeks ago, enjoy Christmas and let the dark days roll till now? Why didn’t I just relish the little hope of extra light in the evenings, pushing the dark back ever so slightly and hinting at change? Well, the body has a deeper knowing and mine allowed itself to get knocked sideways with a bug that flattened my energy and nobbled my productivity for the guts of January. Our whole family have been battling germs and viruses and we are all ready now for the sun to come once again and blast the bugs to kingdom come.

The first of February is St. Brigid’s day. In archetypal language, Brigid is the Maiden, the symbol of youth, rebirth and healing. She emerges from the Cailleach or Crone as a sign of fertility and raw life force. Her pre-Christian origins have her as a Goddess and some say that she has only been appropriated into the Christian tradition in an attempt to win converts.

Whatever her origins, she is a useful herald for the beginning of spring, a potent sign that a new time of creativity and energy has arrived. Now is the time to ask what creativity bud is wanting to flower, what spark of an idea is wanting to burst forth? Now is the time to build, trusting that light and warmth will return in abundance and the sun will shine again.

February’s theme is all about women rising to co-incide with the One Billion Rising Campaign and in the coming weeks I’ll be exploring some themes around the current rise in feminine energy we’re seeing lately. I’ll also have some announcements to make so to be the first to hear, sign up for my newsletter. And don’t forget to subscribe to the Strut and Bellow podcast on iTunes where you can find conversations with inspiring women who make.