What would you do if you got the chance to interview Gracie Allen, Josephine Baker and Aphra Benh, a collection of female performers throughout history? Well I got that chance back in spring 2007 when they played the newly re-opened Toynbee Hall in Aldgate, as these women have come back to life, re-incarnate as Guerrilla Girls On Tour. The GGOT are a group of female activist performance artists, touring the world with the aim to highlight issues of sexism within the theatre industry and society as a whole. The women each take on the names of a dead woman artist and dons a gorilla mask with the aim to put the focus on the message, not themselves, as well as helping them to gain some much needed publicity to their cause.
LH: How did you all became involved in the Guerrilla Girls On Tour?
Aphra Behn: Well we were all born Guerrilla Girls.
Gracie Allen: We split from the original group in 2001. We were theatre artists and we were looking at discrimination in the theatre. We wanted to create performances so we branched out on our own. The girls actually split into three groups at that time. It had been going quite a long time, there was a lot of burnout and we needed fresh energy.
LH: I hear there was some acrimony with that split. Was that upsetting?
GA : Not anymore, it’s behind us now. But we did get sued! A couple of the girls had registered the copyright and they took the trademark without anyone else knowing and then sued everyone else. It was a big mess.
LH: What do you think you’ve achieved since you started and what do you think you’ve got left to achieve?
GA: Well the point was to try to end sexism one city at a time, and I think we’ve gotten to at least three or four cities! We’re taking London, so we’ll tick that off of our list.
Josephine Baker: I think that if we say what we haven’t achieved, there are still people out there who are against women being feminist, getting out there and speaking their minds. What we’re striving for is to try to reach those people. Every year we try to go somewhere different, giving the message to those thirsty for it and also maybe waking up some people who thought everything was fine and hopefully taking the apathy out of the younger people and getting them to be more pro-active.
LH: It’s interesting that you say that about younger people, do you think young people are more apathetic than they used to be?
GA: I think it’s easy for anyone to be apathetic. Society right now is a lot of watching TV and sitting around, sitting in our cars and sitting behind desks. It becomes a very sedentary way of thinking about life. At a lot of the campuses that we go to, the students voice that as a concern. They talk to their fellow students and say, ‘What do you think about this,’ and either their response is, ‘I don’t want to have an opinion because I don’t want to upset anyone,’ or, ‘I don’t care.’ I think it’s across a lot of the different age groups, but college students have particularly mentioned it to us and in the end they are the ones that are going to have to carry on. We want no-one to be apathetic about these things.
LH: Why is it important that you remain anonymous? Do you think there will ever be a point where you won’t need masks to distract from who you are to help get your message out?
GA: It’s got us a lot of attention and it puts the focus on the issues and not ourselves. When I wear this mask a lot more people listen to me than when I don’t.
JB: We are all theatre professionals and this gives me the anonymity to stand on stage and say, ‘Hey the Roundabout theatre in New York doesn’t do any plays by women, doesn’t that suck,’ and then later when I go and audition for the Roundabout, they won’t know it was me. It gives us protection as well.
LH: With the names of the dead women, you’re Aphra Behn and she was a writer in the seventeenth century and I find it really interesting that there doesn’t seem to be any shortage of women for you to choose from, yet the traditional view is that there was only Shakespeare. Do you think that is sexism at the time they were writing, or is it sexism now that prevents them being acknowledged now?
AB: It’s now, because they are not in the history books. The Cambridge History of Theatre doesn’t have a lot of these women. There was one that just came out; it was interesting to look to see if any of the women we talk about are in there. It’s interesting that the women get written out. We are letting them come back in. Part of the reason we use these pseudonyms is to promote womens history and not let these women’s lives and accomplishments die.