This November, Come As You Are Festival comes to Exeter Phoenix, bringing a storm of theatre, comedy, poetry, and more.
The festival explores gender diversity in Exeter, celebrating themes of gender and identity while simultaneously laying them across the operating table and picking up the scalpel. The weekend of the 16th – 17th will kick off with a panel discussion featuring local LGBTQ+ organisations, exploring the issues faced by the local trans and non-binary community. Later on Saturday evening comes a raucous night of poetry and drag at the LGBTQ+ edition of Spork!
Sunday features a series of LGBTQ+ performances at the Phoenix. I caught up with Libby Norman to talk about their work and upcoming performance, Breaking Up With JK Rowling, on Sunday evening.
Libby is a performance artist and fan artist who has taken their work to SPILL Festival of Performance as well as Malmö, Sweden and Vierte Welt, Berlin. Their performance work concerns the realm of fandom: “Like some people write fanfiction, I make fan performance work. I do some independent research in this area as well. My performance work pushes the research I do about fandom and vice versa.
“I’m interested in the role of the fan as a performer, even when they are not doing performance work themselves, in what you would traditionally consider to be non-live interactions or activities. For example, the way that fans interact with each other online, in the digital space. I’m particularly interested in looking at transformative work, which is fanfic or fan art that pictures interactions between characters from different worlds, doing things that aren’t dictated by the original source material.”
Breaking Up With JK Rowling will feature performance, discussion, tattoo artistry and a collaborative deconstruction and reconstruction of JK Rowling’s texts.
You can view the full festival programme and book tickets here.
Read more of our interview below:
SK: Tell me about Breaking Up With JK Rowling.
LN: I first produced Breaking Up With JK Rowling as a part of SPILL Festival of Performance about a year ago. In that form, it was an installation and set of performed moments which ran throughout the whole festival. The performance itself has two parts or two halves to it.
The first is more text based. It’s me reading a semi-autobiographical, dreamlike text I’ve written about my journey through Harry Potter fandom, particularly from the age of 5 until now. Whilst that’s happening, my best friend in the whole world, Hava, is going over a tattoo on my leg that I got as a part of a different fan performance I made the year before. Then, for the second half, we go into a more informal, discursive, less performative section. It’s really sweet and possibly my favourite bit.
SK: Is that a discussion with the audience?
LN: Kind of a discussion. It’s mostly hanging out, and we do some procedures on my childhood Harry Potter books.
SK: “We” meaning you and the audience?
LN: Yeah, if they want to – they obviously don’t have to.
SK: That’s really interesting, because JK Rowling is such an authoritative figure on her own work. She’s come out years after the books saying, “this is canon, that’s canon”, constantly redefining it herself. Is that something you explore?
LN: Yeah, I mean, that’s one of the main drivers in the piece – JK Rowling as a gatekeeper. It speaks more broadly to fan culture in general, the privileging that can be put upon “canon” and how important that is to your sense of belonging as a fan or what kind of activities as a fan are “acceptable” or “not acceptable”.
Because we know that fan culture is not necessarily deemed as an acceptable thing to do, right? It’s deemed excessive and non-productive. And these are the kinds of things I love about it, and that really resonate with me as a queer and a trans person. Excess, non-productiveness, and non-reproductiveness define those experiences for me. Fandom is such an interesting place where there is an intersection between those two different ways of moving through mass culture.
So there’s JK Rowling as this gatekeeper figure. Retconning was a huge driver behind me making the piece, particularly the way in which she retcons ‘otherness’ in the books – it’s just ultimately mean and reeks of…
SK: Celebrities jumping on “woke” culture?
LN: Well, not even jumping on. It’s the utilisation of otherness for capital gains by people who that have no lived experience of that.
And that’s not new, it’s not necessarily an interesting thing to point out. We’re already aware of it. But I think what the piece kind of aims to do is engage with these things that we know exist, as people who are queer, trans, people of colour – anything outside of hegemony. It tries to approach dealing with what happens when pop culture co-opts your identity in a fetishizing way that erases you.
SK: And quite often you’ll find that as a minority, the only narratives about yourself that exist are those of suffering, that don’t reflect joy and pleasure and companionship. Like “Lupin is a werewolf” as an ‘allegory’ for AIDS.
SK: Your performance is situated between a one man show about masculinity, and how men are situated as subjects in the media; and on the other end, a show about homophobia and a witch hunt for two men that took place around Exeter and Bristol in the 1950s. Those are quite definitive in how they approach the topic of gender and gender identity. What would you say about your performance’s place in that line-up, what it might aim to interrogate as a part of that day?
LN: I’ve not seen either Tom’s or James’s pieces, but speaking from a personal understanding of where my own work sits in relation to this festival – although the content of my performance is wholly informed by my lived experience as a queer trans person, the most essential part of it is the fact that the piece enacts performance methodology that is born from those lived experiences.
If there’s one thing that I want to be able to do – it’s really nice just to share space with hopefully other queer and trans people who have been in love with a mass media icon or franchise. And whether they still are or not, it’s about finding a way to look after yourself by networking your love for things and for people in a way that is…
LN: Yeah, it’s affirming, but it’s also hopefully not governed by the etiquettes and expected behaviours of performance spaces and theatres. It is very difficult to experience work in a way that is ‘queer’. So, as an audience member and a performer, it’s really hard to use queer methodologies in those spaces because they’re not designed for us.
The festival being a festival of gender, and the fact that there aren’t actually very many gender variant people on the bill, speaks for itself, I think, and speaks for the demographic of Exeter and the ways in which outreach is done. If anything, I really hope the way my piece has been programmed will open up a space that is usually more…
SK: Usually more about spectacle?
LN: Not necessarily. It’s a way of taking care of each other more, in spaces that don’t necessarily invite care as part of your mode of engaging with them.
SK: Because “everything we love erases us.”
LN: Yeah. Great quote by me. #famous
SK: In your show, there’s a tension between things that are erased and things that are permanent: erasure in terms of these texts and the ways that we’re interpolated to “do” fandom a certain way, and permanence, in terms of being tattooed and the almost uncomfortable element of being tattooed by another performer onstage. Is that a conscious tension?
LN: Yeah, erasure’s a big part of it. Fans who work transformatively, for example, do such a great job of sitting in those seats of erasure. Self-insertion is a type of fan work that I think is really fantastic – just forcibly shoving yourself in.
SK: But it’s really looked down upon, isn’t it?
LN: I know! It’s huge. Like, Mary Sues, for example, this trope of whiny women who insert themselves into a narrative that is not deemed to be acceptable to them. So firstly, that’s a driver, because I love the way that fans sit within erasure, the way that they unpick those things out of necessity. I think it makes apparent the amount of labour that’s necessitated when you are a person who is erased.
Permanence is also a big part of it. What I would hate, and what I hope the piece doesn’t do, is encourage you just to “cancel” JK Rowling. That’s not fun. It’s not fair and it’s toxic. What it does, paradoxically, is often erases things that are a huge part of your development. I found a lot of queerness through Harry Potter and through its fan community. To “cancel” that whole part of my development, as a young queer person who hadn’t worked out I was trans yet, would be ridiculously reductive. It ultimately will only set out to achieve the things that fandom can and should do so well to overwrite or underwrite.
So there is, like you mention, this tension that sits between me and the permanence of my best friend tattooing me – she isn’t even there as another performer, she’s there as my best friend. Hava, the audience and I take agency in permanent acts and permanent acts of erasure. There’s some text erasing that we do together. We make some great smut and erotica by erasing segments of the books, and we share them.
But the thing about that – it’s about finding a soft way to do that. It’s not an act of erasing a bit of yourself, or JK and Harry Potter. It’s using erasure as a tool in a way that is so much softer.
SK: Where the emphasis is connecting with each other.
LN: Yeah. That’s the thing.
SK: How do you feel, performing at a festival that celebrates and features gender diversity?
LN: I’m so glad that it’s happening. The producers at the Phoenix have been up against it in terms of what they’ve been able to do because of their budget. Natalie McGrath being on board and putting in her own Arts Council funding in to enable new performance work about gender is really wicked.
I want to emphasise the importance of outreach to trans communities, particularly in rural areas, when it comes to performance work. I think that it’s super important that the outreach work that we do for things like this is laboured on.
SK: It needs to be a more active engagement.
LN: Yeah. It has to be. And you know, I grew up near Exeter. I moved to London and have performed work all over the shop. This is the first time my work’s been programmed in my hometown, and it’s big and it’s kind of scary. It’s a big deal to come back to your home town, making work about transness when you’re not actually out to everyone you know back here.
So I’m glad that Phoenix have been really supportive with putting on the work, both creatively and pastorally. I’m really glad that it’s happening. I’m really looking forward to Phoenix getting the support they need to keep doing this, to keep outreaching and extending their hands to people like me. No one should have to perform for free, especially not trans people.
Book tickets to Breaking Up With JK Rowling here.
Keep up with Libby: http://www.libbynorman.com and @libby_fanworks on Instagram.