Originally written for Exeunt.
We need to tell different stories. It’s a need that I’m reminded of every day, as I flick past the same narratives written and dominated by the same people, usually attempting to sell readers something in the process. Most of the stories that have been handed down to us represent only a tiny proportion of those who encounter them, or where we are represented it is in pale, limited colours – a faded watercolour version of who we really are.
Phenomenal People is, in a small but important way, attempting to shift that. The project from theatre producers Fuel is aimed at celebrating the stories of women in a world crowded with male narratives. And by women they mean all women, from Emily Davidson to your nan. It primarily exists online as a collection of profiles, uploaded by Fuel and by anyone who chooses to nominate their own phenomenal person, but it is also appearing in a series of live incarnations around the country, including at Camden People’s Theatre over the weekend.
This live version of the project sits somewhere between installation, performance and immersive experience. Immersive because designer Lizzie Clachan has created a gorgeous, enveloping indoor garden in the basement of Camden People’s Theatre, entirely transforming the space. Real grass – or so host Nic Green assures me – lines the floor, while trees appear at every turn. This lush, comforting cocoon in the middle of the city is completed by soothing lighting from Natasha Chivers and a sound design by Melanie Wilson that blends music (by women, of course) with snippets of female voices, all burbling away in the background like a distant brook.
At tables dotted around the space, visitors can browse the growing online catalogue of extraordinary women on iPad screens, as well as adding their own. And punctuating the green tranquillity are performances from a range of women, each celebrating their own phenomenal person through the medium of art. We get poetry from Malika Booker, an entertaining, breakneck Powerpoint presentation from Rachel Mars and a puppet show from Akiya Henry. Melanie Pappenheim lends her voice to the latest women to be nominated, curling her improvised sounds around their names, while Jenny Sealey joyously closes the afternoon with a signed rendition of “I Will Survive”.
In the spaces between performances, I find myself thinking about all the phenomenal women who have inspired me. The teachers who insisted that I had something to say. The incredible writers – Angela Carter, Virginia Woolf, Rebecca Solnit – who fed and continue to feed my imagination. The voices that help to define the soundtrack of my life: Patti Smith, PJ Harvey, Kate Bush, Stevie Nicks, Regina Spektor, Debbie Harry, Nina Simone. My mum. My grandmothers. My astonishing great aunt, who just jumped out of a plane aged 80 to raise money for charity. Countless others whose art and words and acts comfort and motivate me.
It is this continuing proliferation of narratives that feels more important than the live event itself. In this form, Phenomenal People is a celebration and a spur, allowing us to toast the women who have been nominated so far and offering fuel (pardon the pun) for visitors to go away and celebrate the women who have inspired them. As an event it’s not perfect – the digital and sound elements don’t feel as smoothly integrated into the whole as they might be, and some performances are more fully formed than others – but as a project it is intensely hopeful and galvanising. And I challenge anyone to find a better way of ending the week than attempting to sign and dance along to “I Will Survive” with a room full of generous, talented and helplessly laughing women.
Nominate your own phenomenal person at www.phenomenalpeople.org.uk.