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sex workers opera
courtesy of Sex Workers' Opera

Meeting the makers of the sex work opera

This theatre company brings together the stories of the trade, spanning race, age and gender in a multi-platform performance

In a society that proclaims to be sexually liberated, it’s shocking that the portrayal of sex workers, on the frontline fighting for diversity and acceptance, are still pitifully shallow. The media is dominated by privileged, white mouths that block their ears when those working in the sex industry speak. To many, they're to be saved and spoken for. But, increasingly, there are more and more creative collaborations emerging to challenge this: enter Sex Workers’ Opera.

At any point, at least half of the cast of the opera will self define as working in the sex industry, featuring stories from sex industries the world over. These narratives span race, age and culture to demonstrate how, like any other job, the people are nuanced. With computer screens and whirring webcams, collective dance sequences and intense back and forths, it's certain the diversity of experience cannot be contained to one form.

Amusingly, the narrative of the performance is shaped around an argument between two feminists: the twist is that they are mother and daughter. Through their intimate relationship, the audience is exposed to the prejudices that certain types of feminists hold against women in the industry, and shown how stereotypes can be erased just by listening to sex workers. In an austerity-warped Britain, it is more vital than ever for theatre like Sex Workers’ Opera, as we attempt to move away from moralising an alternative economy that supports the trade. While this sounds kinda serious, the Sex Workers’ Opera is wickedly funny and tongue-in-cheek. We caught up with the founders, who just succeeded in funding their Kickstarter to produce a bigger show, to find out more about the Experimental Experience theatre company's project.

What are your creative backgrounds?

Siobhan Knox: Our background comes from rebel clowning, where we both met each other as well, trying to come up with a different way of protesting and creating social change through art. Somehow we went from the world of clowning and doing rebel actions on the streets to the world of art. For me, art has a moral obligation to represent people in their own words and terms, and so that’s what we are trying to do with this opera. It's about telling your own stories in your own words.

Alex Etchart: My background is also doing theatre reportage with friends living in Iraq, Syria, Kurdistan, Egypt and Iran: to amplify their voices, to learn from each other, to tell other people’s stories and humanise them. I had a particular focus on people who were living and choosing to stay in conflict regions. We took our creative action theatre out into the streets because we realised that the sort of inner child creativity is really powerful, especially when we are living in an urban society with all the everyday stresses of life, which make us too mature too quickly. So, the opera was actually our first on stage project.

Why did you think this creative strategy would be a good way to de-stigmatise sex work?

Knox: Opera has a really long history of showing sex workers in its stories, such as Madame Butterfly. But, all of these stories, they were written by old white men who we presume have never been sex workers. So, we are trying to reclaim opera for sex workers and show sex workers stories are a lot more broad than these cliche and one dimensional ways. If you represent people in these boring fashions, it plays directly into the hands of stigma, which is really damaging. With sex work, changing policy and fighting in Parliament – like the English Collective of Prostitutes do – is incredibly important, but we are trying to change the culture, like the images that people get fed everyday. Sex workers are presented in such a polarised way leading to stigma, leading to violence and leading to people seeing sex workers as less than human.

Alex Etchart: Policy and law affect things on the ground like being able to report things to the police. But, I think, policy is also a litmus test for the morals of a society and informs them. Everyday things like being outed at work, being unable to speak to about your experiences and the media’s savage fascination with details of people lives is also down to people’s personal opinions. Art is the battleground for changing these things, preventing this fear culture and judging each other. We hope that the opera will mean that people see past the binary or fixed identity as ‘sex worker’, and understand that each individual perceives their job in a different way, and not as the sole element of their identity.

With the rise of apps like Tinder and more open conversations about sexuality, has there also been a shift in attitudes towards sex work?

Knox: Yes. You can see with Amnesty supporting decriminalisation and a rise of quite interesting documentaries about sex work. Sure, some of those have been fairly problematic in their own ways, but we are seeing a rise of acceptance. There is still a long way to go. Generally, we have been preaching to the choir because a lot of our audience were sex workers, close with a sex worker or an ally. That is great because it is important to give back to the community, and it is so important for people who are marginalised to see themselves reflected in a realistic way on stage. But we really want to reach out to a broader audience and change people’s perceptions.

“Art is the battleground for changing these things, preventing this fear culture and judging each other” 

Etchart: As the savagery of the cuts are starting to kick in, not just to the most vulnerable, more people are dabbling in sex work. People are having to realise that most of us have friends or know someone who was involved in the industry once, and so we need portrayals that aren’t these immoral people or this tragic figure. It is just becoming more about surviving in London, when it's just another form of work. There is this really funny story about a show that Siobhan was at in Edinburgh: this guy was making crass and cliche comments like ‘what sort of place would you have to get to in your life to take money for sex’. A friend of ours turned around and said, 'I am actually a sex worker', and he was totally taken aback. Then another guy in the audience shouted that his girlfriend also used to work in the industry. At this point, the comedian was floundering. When this other girl walked in, he was obviously trying to reclaim his ‘power’ back and shouted at her in front of everyone: ‘do you strip on webcam too then’. She just turned round and said 'Yeah, sometimes, and I'm a student'. It was really amazing because it just totally crushed his privileged and ignorant expectations.

You mention that there is more content being made, but the media produced around sex work doesn’t yet include the voices of those working in the industry. Can you talk about why your creative and collaborative approach is vital?

Etchart: For us, it seems ridiculous not to properly include and represent people’s voices. For so long, rich and old white men, who have no connection to the experience, do this violent act of representing, and misrepresent people, based on their own misconceptions and class backgrounds. As a Latin American, I was influenced by the Brazilian theatre of the oppressed: we shouldn’t be swanning into places and telling the people there how things are. Theatre should be going to the community and the peasant populations of Brazil and getting them to act out the situations and question them. So, whilst this idea isn’t something totally new, it is a bit crazy and shocking that these ways of artistry are not at the heart of more forms of storytelling.

Book tickets to the Sex Workers' Opera for May 2016 here