Bertolt Brecht once said that “Art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it.”
Alex Etchart and Siobhan Knox have taken that Brecht quote to heart, and are using opera as a hammer to break down stereotypes, and help shape new conversations on sex work with their show, Sex Workers' Opera.
"All of us in the cast and crew are sex workers and allies." explains Knox, "There are no less than 50% sex workers in the project at all times and no one has to say whether they are a sex worker unless they want to."
They couldn’t have picked a better medium. In some ways, being an arts project gives them a bit more “wiggle room” when it comes to having these conversations. ”Because we’re an arts project, so we don't technically present as a political project…,” explains Etchart, “So essentially what happens when we get interviews…they tend to just give us a mic and say ‘So what’s your art about?’”
For Knox and Etchart, it is all about changing the conversation on sex work. Etchart notes that one of the main problems with the dominant discourse is the fact that too much time is spent focusing on “the same old argument about whether people should be allowed to live how they want to live and just do what they want to do.” The conversation needs to be much wider,” he says. Sex work is work. Exploitation exists but exploitation exists throughout capitalism, not just in the sex industry. Etchart uses the analogy of being a barista. “Some people work just to pay the bills and don't necessarily enjoy their job. Some people treat it as a vocation and it's a part of their identity,” he says, “No one comes to you and tries to tell you how miserable your job is and that you should leave your job on moral grounds.”
Knox also brings an academic background to the table—a background which, she says, helped her to see all the wrong ways to address important issues in conversation. “At the time, I was trying to do my dissertation on feminism,” she says. She was told that she could write about pornography only if she focused on the feminist arguments against pornography. “That’s all that people are interested in—seeing people fight against each other,” she says, “It shouldn’t be an argument anymore. It should be an act of listening.”
And it is true. Everyone does seem to have an opinion on sex work, despite the fact that many people have never actually stopped to listen to a sex worker. “We want people to realize that you probably know a sex worker,” explains Knox.
“Sex workers are always viewed as the other. Either exotic or tragic,” explains Etchart, ”The reality is sex workers are mothers, daughters, brothers and lovers. So you could easily know a sex workers but they haven’t told you because stigma is real. Art has a responsibility to represent people on their terms.”
And that’s where Knox and Etchart’s art met their activism.
Everything really began to fall into place when the Royal Opera House offered a training course in how to communally create an opera with people who had no experience with music or performing.
Both Knox and Etchart mention that they had a lot of connections within the activist community – Knox having connections to feminist activism and Etchart coming from a background of climate change activism. They wanted to explore the world of sex work activism and art. “We called it cultural direct action for a while,” explains Knox, “Our arts and our theater was always very much on the ground, grassroots. It was activism. It was ARTivism.”
The whole training course took about 10 days. Then after the training course, they set about trying to find sex workers to be part of their project. They put a call out for stories from sex workers across the globe. “We had to do a lot of research, put in time, energy, build trust basically,” explains Knox.
And that’s how Sex Workers' Opera was born.
The show includes stories from escorts, web cam models, strippers, burlesque performers, street workers, porn performers and dominatrixes, and makes every effort to make sure that one particular “voice” doesn’t dominate the discourse. Knox and Etchart went through escort websites and posted call outs on forums and message boards. Currently, their cast is strong, but they’re looking to diversify even more—amplifying the voices of persons of color who are involved in sex work, as well as male sex workers.
“It’s definitely a concern, and it’s definitely something we have to put a lot of thought into,” explains Knox about the show’s approach to diversifying the cast and the discourse. For example, Knox admits that, because preparation for the show took three days, they knew that those who would respond to their call would be more “privileged,” as it would be easiest for them to come, perform for free, and take those sorts of risks. To balance things out, and give other voices the opportunity to be heard, Etchart and Knox did a “public call out,” where they asked people from all over the world to send along their stories.
Also in the interests of balance, Knox and Etchart set things up in such a way that it is rare that cast members are standing on stage, telling their own story. They note that this helps to preserve anonymity, but also really makes the whole process much more “communal.” “We were all talking about the same kinds of things,” explains Knox, “It was really beautiful to share these stories and realize that we all dealt with similar issues: stigma, social violence and dealing with the police.”
And while allies are welcome to participate, Knox and Etchart make sure that their voices don’t dominate the discourse, or silence the sex workers themselves. There must never be less than 50% sex workers in the cast and crew, and all creative processes are creatively driven by sex workers. This ensures that each story is framed in a way that differs from the usual, moralizing and cliché stereotypes of sex work narratives so often seen in art and the media.
Knox elaborates on the thought, noting that, “We have been very strict and clear in the devising process that allies will take second place
Ultimately, Knox and Etchart feel that they have been pretty fortunate. They say that most allies who have expressed an interest in taking part in the project have genuinely been interested in listening and helping.
Putting on a production like this is not without its challenges. Knox mentions that everyone is excited about the production, and everyone wants them to come and perform it, but no institutions have wanted to fund it to date Also, there’s the issue of having to find performance space and practice space in London without having to “end up out of pocket and constantly in debt,” as they put it.
Etchart blames “institutional stigma” for these problems.
To try to help offset costs, Knox & Etchart started a crowdfunding campaign that is running through the 24th of next month.
But as the saying goes, “Without risk, there can be no reward.” Both Knox and Etchart agree that the night the show premiered was one of the best experiences of their lives. Knox remembers the producer coming in and saying “Congrats, we’ve sold out!” Everyone was shaking, she recalls. “What have we done?,” she remembers wondering, “We just got a group of people together—some of whom haven’t performed in a long time - and are putting them on stage after just three days!”
All that panic and fear began to fade away when everyone walked out to do the first song. Because they hadn’t had enough time for a full rehearsal, there was some improvisation but Knox recalls hearing the audience laughing and cheering. “Some of the cast were improvising, and it was going down really well,” she recalls.
Coming in at a close second for “best experience,” Etchart recalls one time that a person told their sex work story for the first time on stage. “It was a really cathartic experience for them,” he says.
That’s one thing about the cast and crew at Sex Workers' Opera. Their relationship doesn’t just end the minute the curtain falls and they step off the stage. “It’s a community,” says Etchart of the 18 person group. The stories they perform are not always easy, and people have to contend with stigma once the curtain drops. “We want to be able to support our community after the show,” he says.
If you're in the UK, go see the Sex Workers’ Opera at the Pleasance theatre in London from 17th May to 29th May buy tickets here: https://www.pleasance.co.uk/event/sex-workers-opera#overview
Support their crowdfunding campaign here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/xx-experiments/sex-workers-opera-bigger-braver-and-badder