On Being Barbara: Alter Ego
23 August 2018
Since leaving Art College in 1994 where I studied performance art I have become lost and found many times. This untethered feeling is often the momentum I need to create my work.
For many years I co-hosted a club/performance night in London called MOONA, the lesbian arty party, as an alternative to the often artless lesbian scene. We presented life drawing, dressing up and comedy sketches. I can trace the seed of Barbara Brownskirt, my comedy alter ego, back to a particular MOONA evening in a church crypt for Camberwell Arts Festival. For this occasion I had written an act where I appeared as a patient from the Maudsley Hospital, deluded enough to believe she was a born again Virginia Woolf. The character barked ‘Woolf’ at the audience but the show was rough and problematic. I wasn’t comfortable portraying someone with mental health problems for comedic purposes (this was before mental health became a central theme to many people’s performance work and people started talking about it) so I began thinking about what kind of deluded character would evoke both pathos and comedy in an audience. What would they be like? I watched the lonely souls in the streets and workman’s cafes, wandering around in their cagoules and sensible shoes and I thought who are you? Who do you go home to?
I thought about all the durational performance art pieces I had sat through. I recalled the uncomfortable open poetry mic nights where you would hear self-indulgent rantings. I read about the Dunning–Kruger effect which is a cognitive bias in which people of low ability have illusory superiority and mistakenly assess their cognitive ability as greater than it is. Then someone sent me a link to Rik Mayall’s ‘Rik the Poet’ stand up character routine. He was intentionally awful, but the poetry was superbly constructed and oh, he was so very funny.
A lot of other things coincided around this time - I was having problems writing a second novel (after the success of my debut novel In Search of the Missing Eyelash) and I missed performing on stage. For a long time one of my email addresses included the name brownskirt, so I thought up a seventies forename Barbara and devised a costume based on the idea of stripping all femininity from my appearance. In the queer world of performance where intentionally looking like a woman/drag queen is about dragging up I would do the opposite - go drab, rather than drag. I chose a cagoule with the hood up so my hair was hidden (female hair is used as a major feminine signifier - take hair and make-up away and you are immediately stripped of any obvious gender). I found an A-line brown skirt in the charity shop, bought some small lace up canvas shoes and flesh coloured pop socks and got cracking on writing the best worst poetry I could. I performed her at the next MOONA and something clicked into place.
Barbara allows my dark, angry, vulnerable humour to play out through satire. And through performing her at the Edinburgh Fringe I have discovered what a delight it is to be me and not her. I am found again for a while.