Claire Dowie has beef with theatre. A veteran director, writer and performer, she is renowned for her gut-punching plays: funny, visceral and intense, usually for solo performance, and always political. And yet she cannot stand the world of which she is usually considered a part.
“You sit there in the audience and you’re watching these people down there doing that thing and you’re not engaged with them whatsoever. As far as they’re concerned, because they’re actors, they don’t think that you exist. And I find that really annoying. That really annoys me. It doesn’t happen with opera, doesn’t happen with ballet, doesn’t happen with dance – the only thing it happens with is theatre, is that they pretend you’re not there. They just engage with each other, they look at themselves and they work with each other, and it’s like the audience is the last thing on their minds. I think that’s appalling. It turns theatre into an ‘Art Form’ which is so up itself. But you see I say all these things and then people won’t speak to me.”
Dowie has never shied away from controversy. It is what makes her plays so engaging: mixing lyricism with down-to-earth comedy, they make a point of trying to provoke a reaction. I saw her show H to He (I’m Turning Into A Man) earlier this year, and there was no way to remain passive – on stage she has an almost unstoppable force. It is this energy, this strong, warm, Brummy energy, which captures the audience and forces them to pay attention. “The audience have to be involved. They don’t have to have a verbal opinion, but the way they react to the piece is their opinion. They can’t escape it. If you address them directly then you have to elicit a response because if you’re not getting a response then you’re doing something wrong. When you walk on the stage you are interacting with the audience, so that the audience is part of the play, if you wanna call it a play.”
This outlook is what has led to her being called the founder of ‘stand-up theatre’, a genre which involves a rapport between performer and audience, something she wants to be seen a common alternative to straight theatre. “I do very much come from a stand-up background. You need to interact with the audience. Actors can’t cope with that; it’s the last thing they want. They’re cowards!’
In the early 90s Dowie was a rising star; cutting-edge and controversial, she was at the forefront of the stand-up theatre movement. “I used to love being a stand-up comedian, loved it, until television got involved with it and everybody started to get to get bland, they started changing their act to be on television, and it was like, I don’t want to be involved with this. Good television has to be for the masses, and I’m never gonna be for the masses.”
Dowie is still writing unflinching and forthright plays, and has published one novel. A writer accustomed to being labelled ‘radical’ for her feminist, gender-bending subject matter, she is now taught in secondary schools. “What I’ve noticed is that I’ve become more acceptable. I mean it’s really weird: I’m on the curriculum now for A-level. When I first started stuff (in the 80s) it was really radical – I’m talking men and women more or less being the same, sort of thing, and all that kind of stuff, it was – you know – it was running concurrent with gay liberation and all that, it was all happening at the same time, so that it was really, really radical. And now it’s all started to catch up, which is really great! When I do stuff I think ‘oh this is gonna be alright and it’s gonna be easy, and this is gonna be funny and people aren’t gonna get shocked by this’. But then I kind of do it and they kind of are! And that’s, like, really weird…”
A controversial feminist and gay rights playwright is now on the schools syllabus. This must be a positive move. “Yeah I think so, because I think feminism is sort of beginning to creep back in. It was all feminism and stuff like that in my time, in the 80s, and then that sort of got forgotten and it’s all gone backward, and it’s all getting very very misogynistic and hideous again, so now there’s a lot of feminist comedians and performers and stuff like that beginning to creep out of the woodwork. I went to a performance poetry thing about a year ago, at The Bush, and I sat there and thought, they are talking about what we were talking about in the 80s! It was the same thing, but they were doing it in high heeled shoes.
“Everybody should be feminist. I hated these last 10, 15 years, where everybody goes, ‘No, no, I’m not a feminist, I’m not a feminist!’ It’s like, well, you know, you’re working, you’ve got a job, what are you talking about, you’re an idiot!”
Despite this enthusiasm for the present resurgence, there is a definite nostalgia for the feminist movement of the 80s. “I remember we used to have all this feminist stuff, it was fabulous times, we had great times, and then suddenly everybody said, ‘Well, can we wear lipstick again?’ Then it all became sort of ‘post-feminist’, and then it became ‘ladettes’, and then it became men were running the game again, it was all so crap, you know.”
What does she think of the newest wave of feminism? “I’m too old now, I couldn’t care less anymore. But if I was young now, what would I be fighting for? It’s so subtle now. The arguments in those days were so black and white, you knew exactly what you were punching at, whereas now you can’t point at something definite and say, ‘Yes, that’s this’. You have to dig really deeply, and you think, oh, there’s something wrong here, but I’m not too sure that I can put my finger on it.
“But it’s the sort of feminism now that sort of includes men, in a way, men can join in now whereas they couldn’t before. Which is great!”
Has her work changed over the years? She laughs. “I dunno, it’s just what I wanna talk about. It’s the sort of thing that makes me angry. That’s all I’ve ever done: it doesn’t interest me if I’m not interested in it, and I’ve never wanted to do anything that’s not interesting.” She laughs again. “But that’s just the way I am, I mean I’m not gonna be bowing down to any bloody bloke!”