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The Sex Workers' Opera is back - bigger, braver and more powerful than ever

Posted at 17:08 on 25 May 2016 by Pandora / Blake

Tags: gender politics, politics, review, sex worker rights, Sex Workers' Opera

Since I last blogged about the Sex Workers Opera it has had two years to grow and develop under the direction of Siobhan Knox and Alex Etchart. I watched it last year at the Arcola Theatre; a longer run than its two-night debut in 2014, with new scenes and polish added. Since then, they have crowd-funded the budget for a bigger, better-rehearsed, more ambitious production - and they have also, incredibly, received Arts Council Funding; a fantastic validation by mainstream culture of a marginalised community production, and a useful boost in terms of perceived respectability, as well as being practically useful in providing much-needed extra cash. The cast and crew made incredible use of their budget, and as a result the show has significantly leveled up. Who knew that with adequate funding, artists could produce their best work? It's almost as if money made things easier.

It was, more or less, watching the Sex Worker's Opera - and picking up an invitation to sex worker breakfasts in the ladies loos - that got me involved in the sex worker activist community. Since then, I've organised with the Sex Worker Open University and the English Collective of Prostitutes; I've attended breakfasts and the poledancing class run by the same community enough times to form intimate friendships, although not as much as I would like. So this time, watching the Opera was a much more personal experience. I knew almost everyone on stage (and already had crushes on nearly all of them, which were made all the more acute by watching the sheer talent exhibited during the show) and consider many of them good friends. I felt like a proud sister, beaming with pleasure at the skill of the performance. As a sex workers rights activist I felt included in the solidarity and community that we were invited to witness among the cast members - in fact a clipping of my voice is used at one point in the performance, ranting passionately about the stupidity of the UK porn laws, so I really was, literally included. 

As a result this was a much more emotional performance for me than either of the two times I've previously seen the show. It's raw to begin with. The Sex Workers' Opera combines humour and seriousness in complex layers; satire and sarcasm sometimes operating on several levels as they take the piss out of sex worker stereotypes, stigma, anti-sex work rhetoric and, good-naturedly, themselves. Right from the opening performance by writer and composer Alex Etchart, channelling both Frank'n'Furter and Harold Zidler (Jim Broadbent's character in Moulin Rouge) as he delivers a satirical verse prologue while wearing pink top hat and tails, ironically referring to the cast as "my girls (but they aren't all mine)", the show pastiches multiple theatrical conventions and sex work tropes. "Half of the bodies you will see on stage tonight are sex workers" he declares dramatically - a useful bit of obfuscation to protect the privacy of the cast (and confound the voyeuristic gaze of any audience member who thinks they can tell the difference between someone who does sex work and someone who doesn't), but also a poke at the objectifying language with which we are often described. The performers of the Sex Worker's Opera are, of course, far more than mere bodies. The depth, humanity and three-dimensionality of people who do this work is one of the central themes of the show.

This is the most diverse Sex Worker's Opera yet. It's a joy to see male, female, trans and non-binary sex workers represented, including people of colour, and the stories told range from street workers to rent boys, escorts, cammers, strippers, brothel-workers and porn performers, pro-subs and pro-doms, and many other flavours of this incredibly varied industry. At the same time those categories are blurred and questioned, with several stories explicitly deconstructing our expectations of role, sexuality and gender.

Without undermining the importance of these themes, it's a brilliantly comic show. It's impossible to list all the funny bits. One song satirises three sex worker stereotypes - a repentant nun, a tragic 'prostituted woman' and a Pretty Woman waiting to be swept off her feet by a rich man. Another song explores stigma, with mother, boyfriend and friend initially offering loving support to a sex worker before withdrawing it, becoming less and less loving and more hilariously manic as they impose their concern on her. (I would have actually loved there to be more of the supportive bit, it was so deliciously affirming - particularly the boyfriend who sings "I love it when I hear your screams through the bedroom wall, and know that they're fake.") But it's not only anti-sex work tropes that get the comic treatment. The funniest scene by far is the one in which different porn performers tell their stories, and deliver frantic, goofy physical performances parodying a variety of pornographic genres, before a politician comes down on each of them in turn, banning them all - except the submissive schoolgirl gagging on cock, of course. In the eyes of the patriarchy, she's fine.

This show is the funniest yet, but it's also the saddest. The re-enactment of the Soho raids is more polished, and more jarring, than ever. We hear stories of needy clients and violent boyfriends; evictions and child custody battles. It's all far too real. The most heartbreaking song tells the story of a stripper forced to work while pregnant after escaping an abusive relationship, and subsequently suffering a miscarriage. But the rawest moment for me started when a woman stands on stage reading the history of the Cross Bones Graveyard, a forgotten cemetary for sex workers who were denied Christian burial in times past, and has been reclaimed as a memorial ground for the sex workers rights movement. Their memory is particularly honoured on 17 December, the International Day to End Violence Against Sex Workers. Now the cast stand hand in hand, inviting the audience to join them in observing a minute's silence in memory of the sex workers who were killed this year by violence experienced on the job. We are explicitly reminded that this violence falls disproportionately on trans women, who already carry the heaviest burden of systemic oppression - trans women of colour even more so. 

In the previous hour, I had laughed until my sides hurt; beamed ear to ear with affection and pride. Now, I felt as if my ribs were prised open. Since I last saw this show a sex worker friend of mine has died; she was a trans woman. As the minute's silence went on I tried to stop my sobs from disrupting the silence, but I couldn't stop tears from coursing down my face. The friend sitting beside me reached out and took my hand, in quiet solidarity. I grieved more fully than I had been able to before, weeping for my friend and for every other like her, so unfairly taken from us by violence and stigma.

And yet: for all this emotional intensity, this raw opening of wounds, the Sex Worker's Opera manages to avoid ever being melodramatic in its sorrow. In between the flamboyant, theatrical and often hilarious vignettes, the saddest stories are told with a gentle simplicity. We aren't invited to be pitying or voyeuristic; only to feel empathy, human to human.

For all the love, lust, laughter, grief and anger the performances provoke, the production as a whole is structured supportively. The comedy is engaging and cathartic; and the heartache, when it comes, is handled with care - and lifted, tenderly, with a warm and affectionate return to the positive themes of resilience and community. As an emotional process it is remarkably well facilitated. Telling their stories, the cast creates a safe space for communicating shared experiences - from bitching about boring clients to railing against harmful legislation. In listening, the audience is invited into a space that is normally reserved for sex workers only.

Although I was torn open by that minute's silence (and I'm sure other moments were triggering to other audience members in other ways) I wasn't left feeling bereft. The Sex Workers Opera is as deft in generating joy as sorrow, and ultimately ends on a note of celebration and solidarity.

For me personally, watching the show for the third time, the most affecting theme was that of community. For all the good and bad things about sex work - and the Opera freely depicts both - perhaps the best thing of all is the mutual support and solidarity that sex workers share with each other. I know that many of the cast have given me that support since I first saw them on stage two years ago; and it was beautiful to see that love expressed in this production. 

If I had to sum up the message of the show, I would focus on these points. Firstly, that any criminalisation of sex work is detrimental to the people who do it, particularly those who are already disadvantaged. Secondly, that sex workers are human beings - multifaceted and complex, diverse enough to explode all the stereotypes - and each of us is so much more than the work we do. Thirdly, and perhaps most of all: if we talk about sex work, we need to listen to sex workers. And with its engaging humour, witty lyrics and charismatic performances, the Sex Workers Opera makes that very easy to do.  

The Telegraph - Sex Workers' Opera is set to take London by storm 

Schmopera - In Review: Sex Worker's Opera 

The Conversation - All you need to know about the Sex Workers' Opera

Latino Life - Sex Workers' Opera

The Londonist - Review: Sex Workers' Opera Is Provocative But Tasteful

The Independent - The opera that shows what sex workers really think

The Mirror - Meet the stars of the sex worker's opera

Timeout - Sex Workers' Opera



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