On Monday night I went to the press night for ‘We Dig’ at the Ovalhouse, part of their final season in their Oval based building before it is demolished and they take up their new home in Brixton in the Spring. All of the artists involved have been invited not just to create art, but also to help take the building apart. Definitely a unique opportunity.
Created by Emma Frankland, ‘We Dig’ opens with her talking about the history of the Ovalhouse as a community and theatre space and how over the years it has provided a safe space for those whose voices were not welcomed in mainstream society. This creates the emotional backdrop needed to add weight to the destruction of the space. This is a physical location weighted in history, and she is part of the creative team tasked with demolishing it.
Emma is not alone in digging a massive hole in the main downstairs space. To quote her, she does not want to “do this alone” and she has invited some trans fem friends to help her. Their arrival is both dramatic and goose-bump inducing. A riot of noise and destruction. She is joined on the building site by Travis Alabanza, Morgan M. Page, Gein Wong and Tamarra. There is an additional guest performance towards the end of the show, but as I’m not sure if it will be the same performer every night, I won’t dwell on it, despite the profound emotional impact that specific performance had on me.
Following the riot of sound, our performers literally start digging (yes, this is very much a ronseal moment). Sitting in the front row I’m armed with safety glasses and ear plugs, a first for me as a theatre-goer. There is something incredibly cathartic in the act of building a story while simultaneously destroying a space. This is a highly symbolic and moving piece of performance art. Love, acceptance, history and our devastation of our own planet are all thematic threads. There is something elemental about the show as earth, fire, water are clearly represented, even as the air around us fills with dust.
These wonderful performers have created something that speaks to the trans experience in a deeply female way. I can not deny that I am nervous writing these words, given the political hot potato that is gender identity, but I’m abandoning the urge to self-censure because I think it is important for me to say that as a cis (I hate that term) woman I related with these stories and performances at a visceral level. My inner witch was itching to start digging in the dirt if only to have an excuse to join their storytelling community. I felt linked to their stories, I felt love for those sharing them, and a profound respect for the deep rooted history of trans-gendered identity, something I clearly need to learn more about.
There is something incredibly moving about this piece. History is unearthed, fragile dreams are shared, and bonds are built. Mother nature is a strong presence, particularly in Gein Wong’s beautiful thread (I will be planting garlic this autumn, thank you!), and Emma Frankland’s jack hammer wielding riff about rocks.
Trying to explain or dissect this show any further would feel like a destructive (or unnecessarily deconstructive) act. It needs to be experienced not explained, and I suspect that responses to the piece will vary based on who you are, and how you are feeling at the time. I went into the show feeling emotionally raw and frankly anti-social, but I left feeling inspired, and with a deep sense of connection and sisterhood.
If you want to find out how you’ll respond to the unique, moving and beautifully dusty ‘We Dig’, it is running at the Ovalhouse until Saturday 19th October.