On a sunny afternoon at London’s Southbank Centre, Victoria Wright interviews Australian-born, now Scotland-based performer Caroline Bowditch about her show Falling in Love with Frida, shown as part of the Unlimited festival.
Victoria: Thanks for taking time out to see me Caroline. I’d like to start by asking you how you first discovered the work of Frida Kahlo?
Caroline: There was a retrospective of her work at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra when I was still living in Australia. I was there for another meeting and I had a free afternoon and thought I might as well go and get some culture.
So I arrived and there was the work of Frida Kahlo and her husband Diego Rivera. And I remember going ‘she’s a bit weird’ – I was about 28 at the time – ‘look at her…. monobrow!… she’s not very beautiful and so macabre, I mean why would you paint anything like that?!’
Never did I think that she could be a disabled artist and on such a pedestal, being presented in such a way. So I kind of dismissed her and didn’t really think about it anymore. And then a few years ago I saw the film Frida and I started to realise that she was a disabled artist and had lived with disability through her life.
I had a two-week residency – I’m an associate artist with Dance4 in Nottingham - and as part of the deal I get residencies and studio space and access to people. But I’d never had space and time like that on my own before. As with most artists, there’s usually that thing of ‘you’ve got 5 weeks to make a piece – come on!’ so the thought that I had two weeks where there was no outcome and I didn’t have to make anything, it was, as we would say in Australia, a bit of a dream time for me, to just have a moment to breathe and see what came.
I had no idea what I was going to arrive at. I wrote stuff every day and then I kind of just went, in a point of frustration with myself, ‘what do I know best out of anything else?’ and I thought ‘I know my bones’. I’ve always known my bones because my impairment affects my bones, so I’ve always been articulate about my bones. They have been the thing that I feel like in my whole body that I know best. I’m also a firm believer that stories live in our bodies.
I started to think about bones, skeletons, indigenous people in Australia and how they paint their bodies with the skeletons on the outside of their bodies in ceremonies, and then I started to think about the Day of the Dead and then before I knew it, I’d arrived at Frida. It was my bones and knowing my bones that led me to Frida.
Victoria: What came through for me watching the online promotional videos for Falling in Love with Frida was what Frida means to you. What research did you do to learn more about her life?
Caroline: I read everything that I possibly could in that two week period. I bought DVDs, I watched the film again. I read a lot and reflected. And that’s where the title of the show came from. She was all I talked about. I was having dinner with Rita Marcalo who’s another disabled artist, and as I was talking about it, she said to me ‘it sounds like you’re falling in love’.
Victoria: That’s lovely. I think it’s a beautiful way of putting it and I think that sometimes we do fall in love with a particular artist and just want to talk about them all the time. So when Rita said that to you, did it feel like an epiphany?
Caroline: It was like that. I wanted to know everything. I also went to Mexico and to her house and saw as much of her work as I could. I went to as many places that she’d been to that I knew of.
Victoria: Did that help?
Caroline: Absolutely. There’s so much sound in Mexico, that it just hits you like a wall. There are more people in Mexico City than live in the whole of Australia. There are so many people that life feels, not disposable, disposable is not the right word, but no one knows how long they’re going to be around. Their relationship to death is very different to this country’s and Australia’s. They talk about it, they celebrate it. That felt quite healthy to go ‘yeah, we remember you’. I went in late November and Day of the Dead [the Mexican holiday celebrating the lives of dead loved ones] is the 2nd of November, but there were still things up in Frida’s house that had been left.
Victoria: Was it commercialised there at all, like a gift shop with pens and items with her image on?
Caroline: Very much, everywhere. You can get Frida wherever you go in Mexico City. But the upper classes there don’t actually like Frida Kahlo. They think she’s rather chocolate box, like Jack Vettriano for the Scots. There’s a snobbery about her.
But there’s also a chunk of the country who don’t know she exists. They know of her name but don’t know what she did. So one of the interesting conversations I had with the Frida Kahlo museum was them talking about taking her work on tour on a bus so that the people in the provinces would be exposed to her work and know more about her.
Victoria: And so, when you went to visit her home and did your research, did you get more of an idea in your head as to what you wanted to do with your work?
Caroline: Originally it was going to be a dinner party, so we were all going to sit around a table and share food and stories in celebration because food was important to her and she would host these incredible dinner parties.
And then I made the realisation that that wasn’t necessarily very functional and it just sort of changed. We keep the table and it’s still a very intimate performance. We won’t perform this work for more than 60 people at a time because it’s important that I can see everybody that’s in the audience and I want them to feel that they’ve been seen as well. During Unlimited, it’s on the main stage at the Queen Elizabeth Hall and everyone is on stage with us.
Victoria: How did you get the other performers (dancers Nicole Guarino and Welly O'Brien) involved?
Caroline: I had briefly worked with both of the other dancers before, and choreographed on both of them and really loved their quality. I originally thought the piece would be a solo work but then I discovered I’m a natural collaborator. I’m really shit at making work on my own! I need other people to bounce ideas off and I need to see how things affect other people rather than just thinking about how they affect me. So I invited these other two performers to become a part of it.
And then our fourth performer is our BSL interpreter (Yvonne Strain). She’s integral to the work, costumed and part of it the whole time, and that feels really important. I’d never worked an interpreter into my work before. I had a loose structure for the piece and she came in for a couple of days of rehearsals with us and watched it. Then she would ask me to give more details about the stories I was telling because sign-language is so specific in a way, one sign can mean many things, so the explanation behind each sign became really important. The more formed it became, the more we started to work her into what was happening. She’s now become embedded in the piece as much as we have in a way.
Victoria: Sounds like a really interesting process. How long do you think it took you from the beginning to the finished piece?
Caroline: I don’t know that it’ll ever be finished but it’s been 18 months to get to this point. I was really lucky in that I had the residency in November 2012, then I did a sharing in May 2013 and then had my second residences when the other two girls came for just one day at the end of 2013.
Then I went to Mexico and then I started making the production in February 2014. We were lucky we had 6 preview shows before we went to premiere in May and then we’ve just had a week long run doing 2 or 3 shows a day in Edinburgh.
Victoria: How did you find the Edinburgh Fringe Festival?
Caroline: It was amazing. The piece was so well received. We only had seating for 12 people as it was held in a tiny meeting room. We got incredible reviews and I came away with a Herald Angel award. We figured out that we had 0.3% chance of getting one! And we got one… so incredible really.
Victoria: Do you think disability arts is getting more understood and appreciated in its own right these days, and moving away from being seen as community or art therapy?
Caroline: Absolutely. The Fringe is not curated anyway but I think the work of disabled artists is changing. I remember when I first moved to the UK I had a real adverse reaction to the kind of disability arts work I was seeing because it felt like it was telling people off.
It didn’t feel clever or developed. It just felt angry. And I could understand why people don’t necessarily want to come and watch this. Because why would you want to sit somewhere where it feels like you’re in trouble for an hour and a half? Why is that pleasant for anybody? So I’d avoided it and I didn’t know if I wanted to be part of the disability arts scene, I wasn’t sure of lots of those things.
Victoria: Would you now say that ‘yes, I’m a disabled artist’ or do you think your disability is one of a number of factors behind who you are as a performer?
Caroline: If I think of the social model part of calling myself a disabled artist, actually I’m not because I’m very well supported and invested in by Creative Scotland. I’ve had loads of opportunities and I think using the word ‘disabled’ suggests that there are all sorts of obstacles. But the obstacles are more and more falling away for me. So, yes it is part of my identity. I have a disability but the social model sense of disabled artists has become less relevant to me because I have no axe to grind as it were. I don’t feel excluded or that I’m missing out on things.
Victoria: Do you think that Creative Scotland has more inclusive ideas, so that when you are given grants, you’re not given it out of the ‘disability bucket’ of money, you’re just seen as Caroline who’s a dancer and a performer?
Caroline: I think equality is one of the three key principles at Creative Scotland. So when applications come in, they’re looking for ‘what’s your sense of equality?’ It is absolutely implicit in everything.
There’s an expectation about equality and they will invest in that equality, rather than going, “here’s a few breadcrumbs, go away and see what you can do with that and prove that you can do something.”
They are investing large sums of money in artists that they feel have got potential. Luckily for me I am one of those artists. I feel very lucky to be based in Scotland as a disabled artist because I’m working in a system that says “yes”, rather than “prove it”.
Victoria: Would you say there’s a community of disabled artists in Scotland?
Caroline: Absolutely. We all hang out together! We have weekends away together. We have every New Year together. Robert Softley Gale and his partner Nathan, and Marc Brew and Claire Cunningham and myself regularly come together for social gatherings.
Victoria: And is that funded? Do you tell Creative Scotland that it’s a workshop?!
Caroline: Ha ha! No, it’s all self funded. But I think it’s been important to have that peer support. We all do support each other and see each other’s work and give feedback and I think by investing in those friendships, we are also investing in each other as artists and allowing ideas to grow. We dream up a show every time we’re together, that we will all be in at some point!
Victoria: You said earlier on that you don’t think Falling in Love with Frida is finished yet. Do you think it will turn into something else or lead to a sequel piece? Or are you looking forward to putting her to bed and doing something different?
Caroline: I think the fascinating thing is that people have said to me ‘I really love the show, what are you doing next?’, and I’m like ‘I just made this piece! I just want to ride the Frida wave for a while.’ And I think there is a constant thing of ‘what’s happening next? What’s happening next?’ It’s taken me 18 months effectively to make this piece. I’m just going to sit in it for a while, and continue to add new text. Because effectively I talk in the show as well as dance, I always add new bits in or say things in a different way. The structure of the piece stays as it is, but I add more detail and it becomes more layered. So I think it will continue to gradually grow.
Victoria: If we can briefly go back a bit to your childhood, what made you decide that you wanted to be a performer? Was it something you were always interested in?
Caroline: I was never a sporty type, for obvious reasons! I was encouraged to go into music and drama at school. I loved it, but I never got a lead role. They were always really great at including me but I was never going to be Anna in the King and I in their heads. So when I went to university I did a major in performing arts and I got to do music and drama but I also had to do dance, which I hated, as the teacher had no idea what to do with me, and would just say ‘you go over there and make up your own version’.
Obviously I didn’t enjoy that at all. In 1996 Candoco Dance Company were coming to Australia for the first time and because someone knew that I had some dance experience, they contacted me and said ‘we’re trying to get a group of disabled people together as Candoco are coming, and we want to train them up a bit, so that when Candoco arrives, we can actually look like we have some confident people in this country’. So I was lucky enough to be a part of this thing called Moveable Dance which was a 12 week course in contact improvisation. I was 26 at the time. And it was the first time in my life that I felt like I had landed in my skin. I discovered what this strange and awkward body, that had felt so wrong in the world for so long, could do, rather than worrying about what it couldn’t do. And it was just a complete addiction from then on.
Victoria: And when you saw Candoco, did you feel like, ‘ahhh! I always knew I was good at dancing and performing?!’
Caroline: No – I didn’t ever think ‘I know that I’m good at it’ but I remember thinking ‘I want to do this for the rest of my life, it’s what I want to do for my job’. After the 12 week course had finished, we realised that we wanted to keep working together, so we set up a company called Weave Movement Theatre which is still running. I’m about to go back to Australia and teach an intensive weekend with them. So I’ve almost gone completely 360 from where I started almost 20 years ago, to now working with them with all the experiences that I’ve had and got over here, which is lovely and exciting.
Victoria: During your career, have you ever felt you’d experienced discrimination as a performer?
Caroline: Yeah. I worked with Scottish Dance Theatre for four years and toured with them and one of the pieces was a tiny 3 and half minute piece called The Long and the Short of It. It was once written up as a community dance piece, obviously based on the fact that I have a disability, and therefore it went back to the things that you were taking about earlier where it’s not seen as the same quality, it’s therapy, it’s community dance, and the reviewer was kind of saying ‘is it right to have it sit alongside such a professional dance company?’ So not blatant discrimination but it was interesting that that sort of perception was still out there. But in so many ways we’ve moved past that now which is exciting.
Victoria: Do you ever feel that you are, whether you want to be or not, a role model for other disabled artists or disabled people watching you as audience members? Do you feel you have a responsibility to kick down doors, shatter glass ceiling and kick ass?
Caroline: Very much! I think having a role as dance agent for change with Scottish Dance Theatre for four years very much taught me that. I have the opportunity to work with young disabled and non-disabled people and my thought is ‘you can do anything and dance is something for you and if you want to try it and have a go, then do it and I will support you whatever happens’. So I feel very much that I have a responsibility.
I’m involved with a project with Coventry University called InVisible Difference and they are following my progress over the next three years. I once had a conversation with one of the researchers and I said ‘I think that the work that I‘ve made is quite palatable to an audience’ - this was before Falling in Love with Frida. And she just said ‘Do you realise that you just described yourself as being palatable to an audience?’ I was absolutely mortified that I had used that word. I realised that I was trying to make contemporary dance that was somehow going to make me look like I was non-disabled, like that was the aspiration, that I can dance just as well as them, rather than going ‘actually, I don’t want to dance like them, because they dance like every other person actually, I want to do my dance, the dance that works for my body, rather than aspiring to dance like it works for a non-disabled body. So I suppose with Frida, she’s not very palatable in a way. Thinking back to when I first saw Frida’s work, it’s not all palatable, it’s absolutely harrowing. It’s not pretty. It’s violent and uncomfortable. I think I had found myself moving away from doing that by making myself feel like I needed to be liked.
Victoria: Had you found yourself trying to perform more for other people’s approval?
Caroline: Yeah. People love Falling in Love with Frida because it makes them accept themselves. Frida didn’t give a shit and I love that! But everyone fell in love with her because she was so sure of herself. I think the interesting thing that got revealed to me during the research was discovering that. And I think I have the potential to be a bit like this too, to come across as this confident, strong person, got my shit together kind of way. But for her, there is always this insecurity and sense of façade, this sense of making ourselves how we need to be in the world and how I need to be in the world in order to be accepted and acceptable. I think this piece has made me really reflect on that and go ‘why do you do that? Why do you have to have everyone else’s approval? Why do you want to be liked so much?’ so it’s been a really interesting process from that perspective.
Victoria: What do you hope your audiences will get out of your show and reflect on after they’ve watched Falling in Love with Frida?
Caroline: I think for me it’s a reflection on life and Frida’s life and my own, and people have described it as if I’m holding up a mirror to them. At one of the presentations that was given this morning, someone was talking about how the more real you are, the more universal you become. I think and hope that everyone goes away realising that there’s a little bit of Frida in all of us.
Victoria: Thank you so much Caroline.