As part of her Guest Editorship, Lisette Auton commissioned Dianne Casey to interview Bex Bowsher, a theatre maker, playwright and activist based in North East England.
Bex’s recent achievements include a North-East Artist Development bursary in 2018 to develop her new work Running Through Wheat Fields; an Imagined Look at Theresa’s May Life; a Live Lab Bursary in 2017 to develop her show Spoon Theory performed at Live Theatre Newcastle’s Elevator Festival; Write to Play with Graeae Theatre Company 2015-2016; RTYDS Director on three-month placement 2017 with Greyscale Theatre Company; Writer in Residence at West Yorkshire Playhouse in October 2016; member of the Writers’ Access Group run by the BBC Writers Room; and trustee of Unfolding Theatre, Newcastle.
From the first e-mail I know this is an artist that practices what she preaches, Bex thoughtfully asks if I’m good with steps when choosing a venue to meet. Enter stage left the force that is 28-year-old Bex Bowsher; writer, playwright, theatre maker, screen writer and activist.
We discuss Bex’s recent achievements and despite her success, Bex is honest and says she struggles;
“Live Bursary and presenting at the Elevator all look great on paper, but those projects were hard work. I always feel like I can do better and I’m honest about the struggles I face. Disabled people don’t want to make a fuss because we generally stand out anyway. It’s about becoming comfortable enough with what you can and can’t do for you not to worry about how you measure against other people.”
Bex was emerged in theatre from a young age;
“My mum was a drama teacher, my grandparents ran community panto. Basically my earliest memory of the theatre, I was four years old and I was a little rabbit and I had to chew through the ropes to rescue the princess from a wicked prince; it was a very crucial part!”
At 16 Bex was studying performing arts when she was hit by a car and spent two months in hospital, and then a year to recover.
“I went back to college after the accident, to try to keep going. I bumped into one of my tutors and said ‘I think I might go into a different field’, and the tutor looked at the wheelchair and agreed and said ‘Probably for the best’ For a 17-year-old, that was crushing.”
This encounter meant Bex decided to study Japanese instead, but two weeks before it began she changed her mind and enrolled for performing arts:
“I was dealing with body image, and everything you create at university is judged and it was giving me a complex and I’m a straight ‘A’ personality.”
“The first piece at university was physical theatre and we were all crawling across the floor and the tutor wanted to see it a couple of days before performance to give feedback and he looked at me and said ‘No don’t you do that, your movements are too ugly’.”
“And again at that time I was so in entrenched in this belief that that’s what I was, because I was disabled I was some sort of hideous beast, and because performing arts are so judgemental I knew I had to be more resilient and I realised I had the power to change that dialogue.”
Research I undertook after we spoke around training in the performing arts left me shocked. The Stage conducted exclusive research, which shows the extent of underrepresentation of disabled students in the UK leaving drama schools. Last year just 1 per cent of graduates declared a physical impairment covering mobility, sight and hearing impairments. Bex says about this;
“I think it’s important that disabled people get cast in disabled roles. It’s the same with any diverse group, until there is an equal chance getting any role I think able-bodied actors need to really consider if it is fair to take disabled roles as well.”
This leads us to discuss activism and intersectionality, and what these mean to Bex in the context of the wider debate on equality;
“So intersectionality describes where all those different prejudices come to play; race, colour, disability, gender. But I want to potentially come up with another word because it is kind of specific to black experience and I’m cautious not to be using my white experience, but as a disabled person.”
Activism is embedded within the theatre work Bex makes:
“I live and work in a way where I tried to honestly share my success, like with the Live Bursary (for Spoon Theory), it shined a light on a general struggle. People came up to me afterwards and said ‘That captured my battle with fibromyalgia.’ Or ‘My mum suffered and now I understand better.’ So that’s amazing. I’d love it to be worldwide. The fact that 30 people in the North East got an opportunity to talk about their experience and get the feeling that somebody sees them and understands makes a difference. What I can do is talk! What I can do is tell stories!”
We discuss Bex’s latest work, Running through the Wheatfields; An Imagined Look at Theresa May’s Life supported by NE Artist Development Network. Sick of Brexit, she’s writing a play about our current Prime Minster (at the time of interview…). Bex and Theresa May are definitely not an obvious pairing. She explains;
“Politically we are different ends of the spectrum, like we should have so much in common with such similar upbringing: Church of England priest fathers and teaching mothers. You would think we would have gleaned the same teachings from the church.”
“Theresa was asked what naughtiest thing she has ever had done and she was like ‘Oh I ran through the wheat field and the farmers weren’t too pleased.’ You could see in her eyes she was bypassing: ‘No I can’t say that, no I can’t say that,’ so I had an idea of what was all the things she rejected to say before she came up with that, buying for time and just playing on this idea of having to be a well-behaved woman.”
We talk more about the role of women which resonates with my feminism, and my work as a spoken word artist;
“I learnt at university that people don’t like women to interrupt them. It took me a long time to reflect on that, and realise it was my gender that was the issue. Dismissed and made smaller and the media made women fit into a very specific box, and through the accident I was getting the pressure to be a good disabled person, so not only was society telling me this, but the medical field was as well.”
We talk about what advice she would give to other young people out there, feeling like she once did:
“The most important thing is to surround yourself with people that make you feel good, that see you for all the things that you are worth. I have got rid of people that make me feel bad about myself and it’s amazing the difference with people that say ‘I’ve got you’.”
At the end of the interview, the feeling I am left with is that the future is in safe hands with Bex Bowsher. I see the spirit of the four-year-old rabbit gnawing through all the prejudice she had to face, not just for herself, but for all. She is working to be more, do more, do something; a true activist.