Fat Girls Don’t Dance

‘When I grow up, I’m going to be a dancer…and a singer and an actress…I’m going to be on stage…’

These are the opening lines of my one woman show, Fat Girls Don’t Dance. I have always known I wanted to be a performer. I started ballet and tap classes when I was just three years old, I sang everywhere I went and I used to put on plays for my family using a bench in our back garden as a stage.

I have also always known that my relationship with food is not a straightforward or particularly easy one. I used to hide food and eat in secret, even as a child. I would lie about how much or little I had eaten. I was obsessed with dieting and calories. I can even remember having a conversation with my Year 6 teacher about how I was going to lose weight but do it slowly and sensibly by eating a thousand calories a day, even though I didn’t really know what a calorie was, let alone how many I was consuming.

I was always a ‘chubby’ kid, but a confident and eccentric one. I loved singing and dancing and drama and I was good at it. As I got older I took on more classes. I was training in four types of dancing three days a week. I joined the school choir, the drama club, and attended a performing arts school on weekends.

However, the older I got the more I was aware of my body. I didn’t look like the other girls in my ballet class. They were all much taller and thinner than me. I was the best dancer in the class. I knew that. But they looked like ballerinas and I didn’t, which became painfully more obvious the older I got.

Eventually, this led to me trying to lose weight in very dangerous ways. I became obsessed with dieting and food, and although I lost weight in my late teens I started to binge and comfort eat. I yo-yoed through my early twenties, then steadily got bigger until I was clinically obese and emotionally unstable. It is only in the past few years I have started to accept and understand my relationship with food and made positive changes to make me feel happier and healthier.

Fat Girls Don’t Dance has been a massive part of this. It is an autobiographical account of my relationship with food in parallel with my development as a (pretty sick) dancer. I knew I wanted to write a show about body image after a particularly wine-fuelled Arvon course, but I didn’t know how to approach it. Then one day I was on the phone to my Dad, and out of the blue he asked me if I missed dancing and everything clicked.

Over the next year and a half I wrote down everything I could remember about dance classes and food and diets and losing and gaining weight. The supermarket aisle crises, Christmas binges, drunken dance-offs, nightmare auditions and exercise regimes. I recalled the party where a 14-year-old boy told a 14-year-old me that I didn’t look like a dancer, the casting director that told me I was ‘too fat to play pretty and too pretty to play fat’, and the boyfriend who said I looked like a different person because I’d lost weight.

I wanted the show to be very physical, telling my story not only with my voice but my body. I started dancing again, and choreographing physical work along with the words, including a pretty epic tap dance and what I now believe to be way too many sit ups.

I also wanted to make it funny and, at times at least, enjoyable to watch. I wanted it to be accessible and, although this topic is a very dark and serious one, humour is a great way of breaking down taboos and allowing us to relax and open up to each other.

Whenever I have performed Fat Girls Don’t Dance, whether that be in London or Bristol or the Edinburgh Fringe or in a school or on the glamorous shores of the Isle of Wight (thank you Ventnor) there will always be someone who says,

‘Yes. I get you. I understand. I feel that too.’

Body image is a huge issue that is not talked about openly enough. By performing this show I am sharing my own story in the hope that people will relate to it, or at least get that little bit closer to understanding the importance of positive body image, the struggles that are faced, especially by young girls, in achieving this, the expectations of dancers and performers, and the dangers and realities of eating disorders/disordered eating.

Fat Girls Don’t Dance is like a scrap book of my own experiences and how our perceptions of each other and ourselves can shape who we are and what we achieve.  This little book shows my journey through the bad and the good. A Fat Girl Manifesto, if you will. It explores what I believe are the experiences that have shaped me as a person, be them with friends, family, lovers, haters or strangers. I hope that you like it, reader. I hope it gets you laughing, maybe crying, talking and most importantly, dancing.

Lots of love, 

Bernard Kops at 90

Born in November 1926, the great post-war writer Bernard Kops will have his 90th Birthday later this year. Áine Ryan from Oberon Books went to meet him, to ask how it feels to reach this milestone.

The playwright, poet and novelist Bernard Kops will turn 90 this year. It’s the sort of milestone age, he jokes, that says ‘hello! I’m going to die soon! I’m still here!’ Going to meet Kops for tea and biscuits at this home near the Finchley Road, I also meet his wife Erica, two of his daughters, a son, a-son-in-law, a grandchild and three great-granddaughters. Sitting out in the communal garden which the area shares, there’s a real community feel, with the children having a water fight and interrupting our chat to get biscuits and kisses from their great-grandfather.

Kops

Bernard Kops

Bernard knows exactly what he wants to chat about. ‘I’ll tell you what’s going on with me.’ He says more than once. ‘I’m feeling a bit bereft because all the writers I came up with, they’ve all died, and I have no-one’. The recent passing of his friend and colleague Arnold Wesker has clearly affected him. But Kops still writes every day, so I ask if the people of London still inspire his characters and stories. ‘No’, he says, ‘it’s much more interior now. Parents, children, dying, living.’

‘I’m very anti-God at the moment’ he warns, before treating me to a reading of some new poems he’s been working on for an upcoming collection. The poem he wants to read is about his mother. A child’s view of a vast, warm, all-engulfing mother who gathers her family in her arms, mixed with images of the stress and worry of raising seven children with little money, and of the wider story of his family – genocide, holocaust, missing mothers, entire generations of missing mothers.

East London, 1950s

We speak a lot about Kops’ childhood and upbringing, and I’m fascinated by stories of London in the 40s and 50s. ‘There’s a place in the East End called Toynbee Hall, and on a sign it said ‘Drama Classes’, so I joined! The first play we did was a Sean O’Casey play, and I loved O’Casey, and he took me to other marvellous writers – Irish mainly – and poets, especially poets! And because I’m Jewish, there’s a kind of thing with the Irish… resonant… very similar.’ At one of these classes, the first play Kops ever wrote was about an IRA gunman hiding out, inspired in part by Sean O’Casey’s The Shadow of a Gunman. ‘Desperation, alienation, surviving against everything, and poverty were all in my head.’ Kops says, again aligning the Jewish experience with the Irish.

Local gardens

The local gardens

‘As a young boy I had no education because we were so poor, and the war bombed us out of our house. And then one day I walked into a library. If you’ve read the poem ‘Whitechapel Library, Aldgate East’ that will tell you the story of my life, really.’ ‘We lived in Shoreditch, and at that time it was stinking, you could push your finger into the walls of the house.’ Having no money to take his wife of 62 years, Erica, on a first date, he took her instead to the Italian Catholic church in Clerkenwell to Christmas Eve mass. The plan backfired when the strong incense which filled the chapel made Erica faint, causing a scene, much to the annoyance of the priest! Bernard still laughs at these stories, and talks about Erica at any opportunity. ‘She is beautiful and wonderful, but still down-to-earth and practical.’ ‘I live in a kind of little paradise’ he summarises. And, sitting in the sunshine discussing Yeats, Frost, and O’Casey with one of the most prolific and talented writers of our time, I have to agree.

Bernard Kops will turn 90 this November, with celebrations and events planned throughout Autumn ’16 at venues such as JW3 and The Jewish Museum.

Bernard and Erica, married 62 years

Bernard and Erica, married 62 years

‘The hand that held the pen will be forgotten’ Barney Norris on Brian Friel, and what a writer can leave behind

friel-2

Brian Friel

Upon reading of Brian Friel’s death last month, I took down from my shelves a collection of interviews he had given over the decades. Friel is deliciously pugilistic in his public statements, and I delighted in the book, as it freewheeled through a life’s hits and misses, as journalistic fashions came and went, as the man himself refused to mellow or to dim. I hope every interesting playwright is the subject of such a book – I look forward to reading them all.

One gem of an idea I found between the covers of that collection was a piece of advice Tyrone Guthrie gave the young Friel – that ‘a writer only survives as a body of work’. The nuances of this are quite subtle. It warns, of course, that the hand that held the pen will be forgotten; but I think Friel took it to mean that individual plays are less important than the accumulated whole – he placed the emphasis on ‘body’, and reminded all us writers in doing so not to get hung up on the show the critics go for, but to develop a repertoire and keep ploughing on.

9781783199174The relationship between writers and their ‘body of work’, as opposed to the individual projects they undertake, has always been of interest to me. Yeats, instinctively given to the retrospective mood, was dreaming of a uniform edition of his work while still in his twenties; the other great elegist in the language, Hardy, took a deeply devotional approach to the same project later in life when collecting his ‘Wessex edition’. I suspect both men’s differently unrealised personal lives put them keenly in mind of Yeats’s line that what was possible for a poet was ‘perfection of the life or of the work’. If the life you live happens most vividly, most deeply in what you write, and you come to feel better embodied by that ‘body of work’ than the body you were born in, the curation of that will naturally become a central ritual.

My first act of such curation happened this year, when Oberon collected my short plays At First Sight (2011), Fear of Music (2013) and Every You Every Me (2015) in a volume titled What You Wish For in Youth. This means all the dramatic work I’d admit to is available from a single source (Oberon also publish my plays Visitors and Eventide). I was surprised how important this turned out to be to me – how proud I’ve ended up feeling of What You Wish For in Youth. I’ve always admired the determination of writers like Caryl Churchill to focus on the next thing, to always be doing something new, but getting my short plays into this livery couldn’t help but feel meaningful. I think perhaps because my first plays were staged while my company, Up In Arms, was just beginning, and so didn’t receive ever so much public attention, it feels particularly gratifying to find a way to make them available to people. But it also felt good, I admit, to start laying a claim to a ‘body of work’ – if for no other reason than to announce that I’m in for the long haul, and plan, in Friel and Guthrie’s terminology, to survive.

Barney Norris has published two full-length plays and a collection of short plays with Oberon Books (so far). He founded the touring theatre company Up In Arms with Alice Hamilton in 2008. He won the Critics’ Circle Most Promising Playwright Award and the Offie Award for Most Promising Playwright for Visitors (Arcola Theatre, tour and Bush Theatre). His books include To Bodies Gone: The Theatre of Peter Gill.  His first novel, Five Rivers Met On A Wooded Plain, will be published in 2016.

See more of Barney Norris’ writing on the Oberon Books website
Learn more about Up in Arms theatre company on their website

Barney Norris

The Death of Seamus Heaney

Playwright Daragh Carville pays tribute to the late Seamus Heaney, and shares his memories of an inspirational man.

The words ‘Seamus Heaney’ and ‘Death’ have been linked ever since the very beginning of his career, with the publication of ‘Death of a Naturalist’ in 1966. Death has been a constant presence in his work ever since; from the heartbreaking loss of the little brother in ‘Mid Term Break’ through to the many elegies for friends and fellow artists in the most recent collections. In between, there were the victims of the Troubles commemorated in poems such as ‘Casualty’, the ancient dead of the bog-bodies poems, and the Dante-esque revenants given voice in ‘Station Island’ and elsewhere. Death – and rebirth, of course, and renewal – is everywhere in Heaney. And yet seeing the words ‘Seamus Heaney’s death’ together brings a profound psychic shock. As if there’s been some kind of mix-up. As if those words just don’t belong together at all.

Like many of us, I first encountered Seamus Heaney’s poetry at school. At St Patrick’s College in Armagh, we studied his Selected Poems for O Level, a nineteen-eighties paperback edition with a big black and white photograph of the man on the cover, squinting into the camera, half smiling, wearing an old duffle coat. The first poem was of course ‘Digging’. I loved the rolling music of the words, the precise sense of place and the feeling that the poems were both new and ancient, as if they had somehow tapped into all of the present and all of the past.

Some time in the mid eighties, Heaney came to do a reading in Armagh and we were brought along by our English teacher, Paul McAvinchey. And there he was, the man himself, in living colour. He looked exactly like himself. Actually he looked, as a classroom wag put it, as if he’d arrived on his pushbike: his big bush of hair blown back, his face shining, weather-beaten. You half expected to see a pair of bicycle clips around the cuffs of his trousers. And he was smiling. He was always smiling.

Seamus Heaney (Image courtesy of The Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre, Armagh)

Seamus Heaney (Image courtesy of The Market Place Theatre and Arts Centre, Armagh)

Heaney often spoke of the impact of his first encounter with the poetry of Patrick Kavanagh, the sense that Kavanagh gave him ‘permission’ to write about his own experience, about ‘the nettles behind the henhouse’. My own first encounter with Heaney did something like that for me. We were also studying Shakespeare and Chaucer for O Level and I loved their words too, their worlds. But this man was from just up the road. He was the kind of man you would see in Armagh appraising livestock in the Shambles Market or ordering a drink at the bar in the Charlemont Arms. He was one of us. An ordinary man but one who did extraordinary things. And he gave you permission to try and do something like that yourself. He gave you permission to go for it.

Continue reading