The Game is a theatre show, a piece of activism and a symbolic act. It borrows the form of a gameshow and explores the act of buying sex by representing the real lived experience of women who have sold it. It was devised by THEATREclub’s Gemma Collins, Grace Dyas and Lauren Larkin with Rachel Moran, Mia deFaoite and other women who have exited prostitution and women currently involved in sex work. Collins and Larkin play the hosts of the game. They also play themselves representing the women in the stories they tell, stepping in and out of different characters and always reminding us that they are still themselves, standing in for other women who aren’t onstage. The show consciously creates space between the lived experiences and their representation onstage through lines like ‘this is not happening now, to us, but it did happen to someone’.
Onstage with the two actors are male volunteers (tonight there are three) who have offered their services as players of the game. They’re there because a few weeks before the show they answered a call to be part of something that redresses misogyny. Beyond this, they each have a personal reason for choosing to be there, which they take turns to read from a card near the start of the show. From the beginning, I feel afraid for these men. They have agreed to act as stand-ins for the men in stories that it transpires will involve extreme acts of violence. They have such noble reasons for being there. We have been told that they don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, there are so many of us watching…it feels like they are in such a vulnerable position. There’s a phenomenal amount of trust on their part involved in their being there, and I would hate to see it abused. It feels that there is something ‘real’ at stake, in a very immediate way.
I needn’t worry. The volunteers are very well looked after by the performance, as are Collins and Larkin. There is a continuous negotiation of consent between the people onstage, and great care is taken to ensure that no one feels trapped or coerced. Performers and volunteers start out by demonstrating to each other, one on one, where on their bodies they are OK with being touched during the show. This plays out like a dance that reminds me as I watch just how important personal space is to me and how uncomfortable it is when I feel it being invaded or overstepped, even in the most minor of ways.
The volunteers also have pre-determined lines they can speak at any time to express their discomfort or to remind us of the distance between them and the violent words and actions expressed in the piece. These lines, like ‘I’m not enjoying this, but I’ll pretend to enjoy it’ or ‘this isn’t happening to me, it’s happening to someone else’ echo the coping strategies of some of the sex workers whose testimonies make up the piece. There is also an assigned place that they can look, on the back wall of the theatre, when they don’t know where else to look.
The negotiation and care taken by the performance in itself functions as a demonstration of how the responsibility that we all have towards one another as human beings can be honoured in the real world outside the theatre. And it places the acts of abuse and dehumanisation suffered by some of the women whose words are spoken during the piece in stark relief as we are reminded of just how much their humanity was denied by their abusers in the darker moments described.
Despite all the care that is taken, I can’t help but still feel uncomfortable at times as I watch the men play along, allowing themselves to be used as props or puppets by the performance. It’s something that I wouldn’t change; this interplay between form and content is a huge part of how the show succeeds.
Another mark of its success for me is the way that it manages not to simplify a complicated issue. During the show, we hear Collins and Larkin speak the words of women with drastically disparate experiences of prostitution and we hear from different sides of the debate about how sex work should be dealt with by legislation. We hear from women who feel empowered by sex work and who object to arguments that they feel deny their right to choose what to do with their own bodies. We also hear from women who have survived horrific violence and coercion and who think of prostitution as commercialised sexual abuse. The opportunity to hear all of these stories feels like a gift. Through their telling, we are offered an insight into what it means to survive trauma, stigma, shame and abuse. We can bear witness to the courage and strength of girls and women who did what they could to survive poverty, to survive abuse, to survive addiction and, in some cases, to survive prostitution.
Ultimately, ‘The Game’ is not an intellectual exercise and it’s not a scientific study or an academic article. It doesn’t reach for a single objective truth about its subject matter. Instead, it is an impressive presentation of many different subjective truths. The strongest impression I’m left with immediately after the show is a powerful emotional resonance that allows me to feel - really feel, in the pit of my stomach - a ripple of the deep trauma that was experienced by one of these women. As such, it brought me closer to the heart of her suffering than a newspaper article, for example, could ever do. Is it problematic if this identification with her trauma temporarily blows the expressed feelings of empowerment of others out of the water? Not for me. As the emotional dust settles, I find that the other voices heard throughout the production are not lost on me. They are still there. I don’t know if I’m any closer to knowing which approach will best achieve harm reduction in this area, but I’m certainly not likely to forget the urgency of the question. And I feel compelled to seek out and listen closely to the voices of women on all sides of the argument who know more about this than I do.
Meabhdh for DRAFF