Leah Shelton on creating and performing Bitch on Heat: “It’s pretty fucked up”

It’s a cool, crisp Wednesday in North London when I go to meet Leah Shelton, creator of Bitch on Heat, which plays at Soho Theatre from the 5th to the 14th of December. It’s that sort of early-Winter morning where the sun is out and the leaves are yet to drop brown from the trees that line the pavements, but it’s still at least five degrees too cold for your warmest coat.

We meet at Tram Store in Clapton, which is the kind of place that plays Khruangbin and everyone there knows it’s Khruangbin. Activated charcoal lattes are on the menu – I shudder at the thought. Leah seems fresh and energetic, ready to discuss what promises to be a boundary-pushing piece of work, and over the next twenty or so minutes we do exactly that. Our conversation, transcribed below, has been slightly edited for clarity.

James Witherspoon: We haven’t actually seen the show yet, which kind of puts us in the same position as our readers (that’s you, by the way). Can you tell us a little bit about what we should expect?

Leah Shelton: The tagline is “sexual politics in the age of all-you-can-eat”, and it’s really looking at all of the messaging that we get, whatever our gender or sexual persuasion, about how you should be – how you should be a good woman or how you should be a good man – and what are the origin stories of that; what are the myths of messaging. It’s very influenced by the conversations we’re having now around consent and those new understandings that we’re having as a society about that.

But it’s also pretty fucked up and visually crazy. We start with the story of Pandora, of course, the Greek origin myth. Pandora was built as a perfect woman and she was given as a gift to the first man on earth – very much the Eve story – and she was given the gift of a box. And she was told, “do not open this”, but she was also given the gift of curiosity so basically she was kind of fucked. She opened it and then she was responsible for all of the evils of mankind forevermore. That’s our starting point: I am Pandora, but I’m basically in this full latex sex doll suit and it immediately positions those things together. It’s like there’s this person and an object who is constrained by the image of a hyper-perfect woman.

And then it goes from there. There’s a whole load of sampling, there’s a whole lot of lip-syncing – I only say four words in the entire show. So we sample from that Zeus story, which almost takes the form of a Disney-like cartoon with the voice of God telling the story; we sample from 70’s romance novels on how to love a man and how to be a good wife and all of those things; we got a bit of Barry White in there; we got a speech about how women are food, which is all about how delectable women are; so it’s a layering of all these messages we receive, and it’s put to the audience in this wild juxtaposed way.

JW: So it’s a very visual show. Do you find that when you’re creating or conceptualising your work, your images come first or your ideas?

LS: Yeah, images really for me, always. It’s often very much that I start with the images alongside a story. For instance, with this show we have Pandora. I remember searching for images, and I found this image of this latex kind of… sex doll. It’s ridiculous, like, a live woman dressing up as a plastic sex doll! And we really took on that Greek epic feel – the opening has these Greek columns and it feels very epic with pot plants and topiary. But then it transforms, and the set becomes a table and then it becomes a bed with this hot pink 80’s frilly bedspread, and then it becomes a spa bath, of course, because you need a jacuzzi, right? And then it all kind of disintegrates and crumbles. For me, that’s massive, and I think that’s one of the things I’m really into – creating images – or an image saying one thing and the text saying something else.

JW: Is it a really physically demanding piece to perform, and if so how do you prepare to go through that every night?

LS: Yea, it’s quite physical – it’s also quite restrictive and intense just wearing that latex suit because I sweat, a lot, inside it. And then I do pole dancing with the severed head of the patriarchy on top of the pole. But, you know, I just do my warm-up regime and it’s fine. It’s not as demanding as my first show which, actually, I haven’t brought here but which I just toured through France in October. That was called Terror Australis and basically it’s all about the horror of Australia and the male Aussie bloke culture that we have.

JW: Wake in Fright?

LS: Yeah, exactly. So this is a bit less physical than that.

JW: Has the show changed at all? You’ve performed it at a whole bunch of festivals before coming here, and do you find it evolving as you move from place to place or does it stay the same from when you started out?

LS: I think the performance has evolved. And the audience response has made us understand what’s powerful about it. It’s not changed a lot though – we’re talking about adding a new scene which I don’t want to spoil. But even from the first time we did it, people were really affected at the end, which we didn’t really expect. It’s funny and ridiculous and stupid and then it kind of… I guess it has this fairly dark, reflective moment and that really spoke to people about those messages we don’t even realise we’ve had in our cultural conditioning. So it’s stuck reasonably close to what it was initially.

JW: And what was your path like going from the festival fringe scene to coming to Soho theatre?

LS: It’s taken a while to build all the networks. I’m new to London, but I think that people, your readers, and the audience know Ursula Martinez very well as a director and a producer. The producers of Hot Brown Honey are also producing this work, so people already have a sense of where I’m coming from.

I originally met Ursula in 2014. She got me to do her famous handkerchief act – she was looking for someone else to do that – so I performed that for a year in Las Vegas in a variety show. I did her thing, and I did some of my own short acts as well which was really fun and wild, and I’ve always been a fan of her solo work so when it came to making this work I wanted to push myself a bit further and I asked Ursula to be the director. I think that was great because it’s positioned me, and people already have a sense of the quality of the work.

I did the Fringe circuit, almost like a work-in-progress season in Brisbane, then I did Perth and Adelaide, and then from there I’ve done a major festival and coming here to Soho has been done through the buzz that was generated at the fringes. It’s the same as in Edinburgh where you know it’s a hard slog but it also can be really valuable, because producers can come see the work and you can get the work seen and get it fast-tracked.

JW: I know the show hasn’t even begun yet, but do you have plans to take it elsewhere afterwards?

LS: Ideally, I really want to use this to build more connections in the UK and in Europe. And the connections I built just doing that season in France – I’m going to bring some of those producers over to see the show – so, my hope is that it will spark off a whole bunch of relationships and connections. And not only taking the show elsewhere but connecting with other artists and makers here, especially in the experimental scene and the feminist underground scene. I feel like I have a bunch of mates already in that world like Jonny Woo and Ursula, and there’s that kind of cabaret scene definitely, but building that is really all part of the conversations you have afterwards.

JW: And was it through Ursula that you came across your lighting and sound designers?

LS: It’s actually pretty much the same team as Terror Australis, but with Ursula added which is great, because we knew it worked. We have a shorthand, and the sound, because it’s so integral to the work… my sound designer is amazing, he’s got this incredible back catalogue in his brain and it really is painstaking just looking for samples and looking for things that could work, and it’s just time trawling through things, so the fact that he’s got a massive bunch of things he can just throw at it is perfect.

One of the whims is that we found this amazing dating/romance record I was telling you about earlier. It’s by this woman, Helen Gurley Brown, and she used to be the editor of Cosmopolitan in the 70’s. She was quite forward-thinking and had some feminist views that were ahead of her time – she thought that women should be able to enjoy sex and have sex before marriage. But she’s got this record, and side A is how to love a man, and side B is how to love a woman. And she gives you advice like “if you’re going to cheat on your husband then maybe don’t do it with your boss, do it with someone else; and when you’re talking to a man, listen like you’re snake charmed” and all of these quite ridiculous things. And we found this great section in the show which is like “how to say no.” You know, “it’s easy to say yes to a man but it’s hard to say no. Here’s how you do it”, and she gives a number of really convoluted excuses and, like “you call him up and you tell him that ‘I’m seeing this other guy but I really like you but I shouldn’t’” and it’s really ridiculous when you consider the kinds of conversations that we’re having now and you’re like can’t you just say no thanks? So that was really fun. She’s really fun, Helen…. Where was I going with that?

Oh yeah, Kenneth is my sound designer and he’s great.

JW: And do you find it takes a lot longer to rehearse and prepare this kind of show because it’s all lip-syncing?

LS: Maybe… I think what takes a longer time is the development of the show. It’s devised, we’re starting without anything, so in a way the making of it takes a long time. And, for me, part of that making is me learning the text. And I really love lip-syncing, and I enjoy that specific thing. My background is in dance and this intense form of Japanese physical theatre called Suzuki actor training method so I’m quite into repetition and getting things really specific.

JW: And you don’t feel any additional pressure? On the night, there’s no room for error whereas, with a more conventional script, there’s quite a lot of space for improvisation.

LS: I’m a big believer in the idea that within a tight framework you can actually be quite free. I really enjoy the contradiction between restraint and freedom. But you’re right – if something dramatic goes wrong… I don’t know, part of the set collapses or something like that… it’s harder to cover because the soundtrack keeps going… Touchwood that’s not ever going to bloody happen!

JW: Of course not! In an ideal world where the set doesn’t collapse, what would you like the audience to take away from the piece?

LS: I think it’s twofold in a way. I’ve had some really great conversations with men, especially a bit older and a bit more conservative, who I think… it’s made them see the world from a slightly different perspective. At the end of the day, my impetus to make work is political, and it’s feminist, and I want to see if I can make people reconsider how they see the world and ideally to become allies in that and to realise it’s a collective shift we need to make culturally, and then working together about how we do that. I think it’s about changing our attitudes and changing the things we’re conditioned to think from a young age. It’s those conversations.

JW: And what are your thoughts in general about theatre as a method for social change? I’ve spoken to a lot of people who would argue that theatre has a very stereotypically liberal audience, especially fringe theatre, and that progressive messages are inevitably going to land uncontroversially with that kind of audience. If so, how do you feel that we can get these kinds of messages out to a much wider group of people?

LS: It’s a really valid question, and part of the reason, actually, why I present works in a fringe context in Australia is because you can reach more of a mainstream audience. Using forms like cabaret and comedy and something that maybe feels a bit sexy, you can almost trick some people to come in. And they’ll still have a good time and they’ll still be entertained but maybe I’ve tricked them into thinking about feminism for a minute. So that’s the area I’m interested in, and I think there’s really big potential in that genre.

And comedy, too. If you look at Hannah Gadsby’s stand-up, for instance, stand-up is a mainstream type of art-form and she’s used it effectively and politically. And I think my work tries to straddle the cabaret and the theatre and almost the burlesque world to be able to speak to those mainstream people that are maybe not as converted as the regular theatregoers. But I don’t know, I’m interested to see what conversations we have at Soho Theatre – I think that place pulls a fairly diverse crowd.

Bitch on Heat plays at the Soho Theatre from December 5th – 14th. Tickets and info available here.

James is a postgraduate law student at LSE, and London Student's Chief Arts Editor/Film Editor. He wants you to know that Christopher Nolan is overrated.

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