Bristol's Badass Burlesque Show

Interview: Sex Workers’ Opera

Siobhan and Alex Of Experimental Experience discuss their exciting new project, Sex Workers’ Opera.

Tell us about the Sex Workers’ Opera, how and when did you first come up with the idea?

The Opera really came about in a set of serendipitous events. As a young theatre group we were on the lookout for fresh ideas and inspiration. Our focus is in community arts and we have links to many grassroots activist organisations – so when we met Clouds Haberburg (who co-founded feminist opera company Better Strangers Opera) and they gave us the concept of the Sex Workers’ Opera – it seemed like the perfect project for us.

We then set to work building and strengthening our links within Sex Work Activism and the Royal Opera House subsidised our training in writing opera with community groups and we visioned the workshop model, the methods for involving Sex Work voices worldwide and crowdfunded the production.

Sew Workers' Opera (c) SWO

Sew Workers’ Opera (c) Manu Valcarce Photography

Why Opera?

Opera has a rich history of telling stories about Sex Workers, but never from the perspective of the Sex Workers themselves – La Traviata is an example of this. We wanted to subvert this tradition and create an anti-Opera – inspired by The Beggars Opera and the Threepenny Opera.  We use the term loosely, spanning music genres and theatre styles, from Opera to Hip-Hopera, invisible to immersive theatre, sound art to projected poetry and physical letters from around the world. We also wanted to contrast one of societies’ most silenced and stigmatised voices with one of it’s most respected institutions.

Why Sex Workers?

In art and the media Sex Workers are constantly misrepresented and spoken for. Think – how many times have you seen a narrative unfold on screen where a main character is a sex worker? Now think about those characters, how many of them either gave up their career because they were saved by their “one true love” – or just simply died at the end? It sounds simplistic but sadly this is almost the only way that Sex Workers are represented in art. We don’t hear from the voices of those with families, partners who accept and understand their work, or indeed those workers who don’t even love or hate their job but just view it as a job.

This one sided representation of Sex Workers only leads to more stigma. Considering there is already an incredible amount of stigma that currently surrounds Sex Workers, stigma that leads to very real risks such as being unable to report crimes for fear of not being believed, we believe that art has a moral obligation to start representing Sex Workers more accurately.

The movement to get Sex Workers’ voices heard is a fight that has been going on for a very long time, but now it seems that more everyday people are sitting up and listening. There is still so much more to be done and so much to learn but it feels as though the ball is rolling in a positive way and we are so glad to be a part of a growing movement.

Sew Workers' Opera (c) SWO

Sew Workers’ Opera (c) Manu Valcarce Photography

Do you have an overarching goal you wish to achieve with this Opera?

We want three main things:

1. For a particular group of workers in a particular moment in time to have a space to bond as a group, develop performance skills and create and share a piece of art which gives voice to their experiences.

2. To create a respected platform which normalise Sex Workers being able to tell their stories and express their political needs in their own words and on their own terms through their own creative process where the media and political machines are bent on silencing and misrepresentation.

3. To spread a workshop model for creation of meaningful art about their lives by marginalised groups.

How will you be training the volunteers who join you? What different skills do you expect to teach?

Everyone is creative and everyone is born an artist – that we cannot teach – however none of our group need any performance or theatre experience to be involved.

We always begin with group bonding and emotional sharing to build trust whilst sharing sensitive issues. We then provide vocal training, theatre training using Grotowskian Theatre Reportage, forum theatre and community music collective writing activities. It is as important to build an emotional empathic bond as a group as it is to create quality entertainment. That’s why we work hard on creating a safe space for group sharing complex personal experiences which uncover the socio-political issues with which we engage the public audience.

Sew Workers' Opera (c) SWO

Sew Workers’ Opera (c) Manu Valcarce Photography

Who are your operatic heroes? Are there any Operas or Opera Singers you would recommend to a novice interested in learning more about Opera?

It may sound ridiculous, coming from a group who wrote, created and performed an Opera in three days but no one in the cast or crew actually knows a great deal about Opera.

This is actually something that is very important to us. Opera, Theatre and Art can sometimes seem extremely exclusive and off limits. Something that you have to learn and study and invest a lot of time and money in to be included.

We are walking, talking and singing proof that this is simply not true. Some of our performers had never sung on stage before, and audience members commented assuming they had spent years in Drama school and were professional singers.

We are here to say – if you are interested in Opera, be your own hero! Find some friends and sing some songs. Get on stage and create something!

Sew Workers' Opera (c) SWO

Sew Workers’ Opera (c) Manu Valcarce Photography

How can Sex Workers get involved?

1. We are still looking for Sex Workers to be in the cast/crew from underrepresented groups i.e. male-bodied, trans and non-white

2. Wherever you are in the world you can send us a story from your work, whether positive, negative or complex, to be featured anonymously in the show, on the Story Blog on our website and in our educational booklet. More info is available here  and you can look at our collection so far here.

3. We will also create a scene based on audio stories/conversations/interviews so anyone who prefers to speak their story, or if you know anyone who cannot read/write who wants to contribute, can do so in audio form in English or their first language and we will source translators if necessary

4. We are looking to Skype with Sex Work communities outside of the UK during our development workshops so our community can ask how other groups want to be represented and we can develop a sense of global solidarity. If anyone wants to organise a preliminary Skype session with the Directors to establish safety they can email participate[at]

Sew Workers' Opera (c) SWO

Sew Workers’ Opera (c) Manu Valcarce Photography

What events do you have coming up? How can we support the Sex Workers Opera?

Come to our Christmas 1920’s Speakeasy Party fundraising for the show! Friday the 12th December 8pm at Tart Bar in Farringdon, London. We have a fantastic line-up of London’s top drag and burlesque acts coming down and all kinds of games and invisible theatre treats and surprises…(Clown lapdance anyone?) More info here.

Advance tickets are 25% off door price and early bird tickets have already sold out!

The full 2 hour show is coming back to London in January 2015 and will be bigger, braver, more personal and more global than before! It will be on at the Arcola Theatre in Dalston on January 26th, 27th, 28th and 29th.  Tickets available here.

We have no institutional funding which means we are not bound by any institutional agendas, but it means we have to bear all the costs ourselves as volunteers. To make the show possible we need to raise £5,000 in total. We are already 25% there but we need your help! Click here to give £1 or £1,000!

Sew Workers' Opera - Take a bow! (c) SWO

Sew Workers’ Opera – Take a bow! (c) Manu Valcarce Photography

You can find out more about Sex Workers’ Opera on their website and on Twitter. Don’t miss the Sex Workers’ Opera at the Arcola Theatre January 2015.

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This entry was posted on December 10, 2014 by in Coochie Crunch Blog and tagged , , .

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