Sappho on the streets

For the past several days, I have been doing this:

Jessica 2

(Photo credit: David Robertson)

Right in the middle of the Royal Mile, I spell out the word ‘Sappho’ or the word ‘Lesbian’ with the rope we use in the show. And then I park myself behind the word and hold up flyers for the show. When people pass by, many of them reading the word, I smile at them gleefully. If they smile back, I offer them a flyer.

It is most frequently children who read aloud the word, or ask their parents to read it aloud for them. If someone says the word quite loudly, I call back ‘Yay!’ and pump my fist in the air. Sometimes people sit with me and we have a conversation: I tell them that the show is about Sappho, the first love poet, who lived in Ancient Greece on the island of Lesbos (hence Lesbian with a capital ‘L’, as, strictly speaking, Sappho was probably bisexual – not that they ever bothered with those labels). I tell them the show is an ‘acrobatic love story’ and share photos with them.

One man told me he had been to Lesbos and told me I had to visit. Two women holding hands came up to me and told me I had made their day, which, in turn, made my day. Tourists often take photos of me without asking, but I don’t mind; I volunteer to pose for them and encourage them to post their photos on Facebook.

I’m choosing this approach to promoting the show, because I’m finding that people are quickly becoming disillusioned by the Fringe artists who push flyers in their faces, quoting star ratings and reviews, and being generally loud and overwhelming. I’m attempting the quieter method because, this way, people come to me.

Other Fringe artists ask me why I bothered to promote the show so far in advance, since it opens a week into the festival and only plays for three days. I reply that, partly, we haven’t received much media coverage for this run of the show (nobody really wants to cover/review a show that is only playing in Edinburgh for three days, when most shows are playing for a month), so I’m doing what I can to get audiences.

But it’s more than that: for me, this rope thing has become a performance in itself. I engage with people directly: I make eye contact, I smile, I challenge them in my own subtle way. When they stand in front of the word ‘Lesbian’ and raise their eyebrows, I say ‘How’s my handwriting?’ as though my calligraphy skills would be at the forefront of their thoughts.

Even though I don’t identify as a ‘lesbian’ (I’m a ‘date whoever I want’ ‘who needs labels’ kinda girl), I happily play the role for the sake of publicity – especially because I don’t look like a stereotypical lesbian, so that in itself may challenge people’s expectations and make them question their assumptions about queer people. ‘Is she actually gay…?’ they might wonder. Does it matter?

Whether or not these passer-bys decide to see the show, I like to think I’m getting the words ‘Sappho’ and ‘Lesbian’ into their heads, normalizing the words, letting them stand on their own without making any real statement about them. They’re just there. There they are. They exist, and they become part of our vocabulary, if only for a moment.

I wouldn’t be able to do this in Russia. I wouldn’t be able to do this in most countries in the world. But here, I feel safe. I don’t feel threatened or ostracized or uncomfortable. I haven’t experienced even one dirty look about my choice of words. People sometimes laugh or roll their eyes at me, but I just smile back, kindly yet defiantly. And I wouldn’t have this privilege everywhere.

I am very lucky. We are all very lucky.

Sappho…in 9 fragments plays Thursday, August 8th, Friday, August 9th, and Saturday, August 10th at theSpace Venue 45 on Jeffrey Street. For more information and advance tickets: https://www.edfringe.com/whats-on/theatre/sappho-in-9-fragments

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ARTICLE: Xtra! Get Ready to Fringe

The Whole Nine Yards: Sappho …in 9 fragments is both seductive and romantic

by SERAFIN LARIVIERE

“Suffering Sappho!”

For those of us comic geeks who grew up adoring a certain star-spangled amazon, this frequently uttered epitaph was our first exposure to history’s most famous Greek lyric poet. But aside from Wonder Woman’s dubious endorsement, Sappho was much more than some vague deity in perpetual torment.

Born some 600 years before the (purported) birth of Christ, Sappho crafted thoughtful melodic poems about love and beauty that survive to this day in the form of fragmented papyrus scrolls and respectful mentions by other writers; even Roman lyric poet Horace was a fan. Her musings on the nature of passion continue to inspire other artists, and to many in the queer community, this woman from the island of Lesbos represents the quintessential lover of women. Her infatuated scribblings about other gals have inspired many of our Sapphic sisters, and she’s often characterized as the mother of lesbianism.

Canadian director Jessica Ruano’s knowledge of Sappho was limited to a few readings of assorted poems before she stumbled upon an interesting one-woman play by Jane Montgomery Griffiths. “I was in London looking for some ancient Greek plays for research when I found this script,” Ruano says.
“I had a very emotional response. I immediately started connecting it to various love affairs I’ve had. You can recognize yourself so easily in the writing.”

Griffiths’s play is taken largely from Sappho’s poetry; the playwright adapted her own translations of the Greek text into a narrative involving a love affair between the ancient muse and a young American chorus girl named Atthis. Sappho has taken on human flesh and is posing as the leading lady in a play, catching the attention of the introverted chorus girl.

“I relate to Atthis a lot,” Ruano says. “She’s insecure a lot of the time, she doesn’t believe in herself, and she’s always in her head, rethinking and rethinking... But she’s not afraid of  falling in love.”

And fall in love she does with the alluring and mercurial leading lady.

“Oh, Sappho is mad, she’s crazy, she’s wonderful,” Ruano says. “She’s so opinionated and very aware and political. But she’s also very emotional and occasionally emotionally violent. Sure she’s a bit of a diva, but she’s also prone to falling head over heels in love. It’s a fictional portrayal, of course, as we
know so little about her.”

One of the director’s favourite scenes between the two is a romantic interlude that leaves Ruano quite weak in the knees. “It’s such a wonderful seduction
scene,” she says. “They’re in Atthis’s apartment, and it’s messy and freezing cold. [Sappho] suddenly tells her to go to the corner and take off all of her clothes. It’s that beautifully awkward moment where someone who is really in charge of their sexuality takes over.”

Actress Victoria Grove portrays both characters in the piece, which Ruano adapts specifically to each venue as the play tours across North America and
Europe.

“What I wanted to do with this piece is use everything we have in the space,” Ruano says. “Let’s not make fixed features obstacles; let’s make them part of the play. It can change the audience’s perspective in powerful ways.”

SAPPHO . . . IN 9 FRAGMENTS, Fri, June 21–Sat, June 29, Arts Court Library, 2 Daly Ave, ottawafringe.com