Imogen Stirling is an award winning performance poet, musician and theatre maker from Scotland. Her history lies in musical theatre but the spoken word is now a preferred medium for Stirling, who prefers the liberties and uniqueness this brand of performance offers. The Midsumma Festival is about to play host to Stirling’s highly lauded and award winning piece #Hypocrisy, which will see Stirling make her first visit to Australia.
Stirling says that much of #Hypocrisy is based on her experiences of working and travelling abroad as a white, middle class, Western woman and how she realised, in hindsight, just how much she had exploited her privilege during this time. “Our privilege as Westerners is a luxury we’re not taught to recognise and sometimes just having someone put words to a feeling you suspected but did not acknowledge can be the first step to altering your perspective,” she says. “Art is an important tool for sharing ideas and initiating discussion, so creating the show felt like a natural progression from my own thoughts on the topic.”
The show looks at themes like privilege, self-preservation, overwhelm, why we feel hopeless, and media influence – and how each of these contribute to an increasing sense of subjective compassion when it comes to human suffering. However, Stirling is quick to stress that the show is not looking to demonise, accuse, preach, nor claim to offer a solution – it’s merely an attempt to provoke conversation. “The feeling of hopelessness in the face of global misery is so powerful when it comes to keeping people placid, self-centred and apathetic – I hope that by reminding an audience of our common sense of humanity, I can restore a feeling of individual strength and shared purpose,” she says.
And change is a big part of Stirling’s reasons for creating the piece. “My aim with the piece is to unsettle in order to encourage change – setting the audience off kilter before reminding that it is us who can make that change happen,” she says. While the show intends to be provocative, Stirling’s hope is that the audience leaves on a note of hope rather than hopelessness.
#Hypocrisy began life after Stirling arrived back in Scotland from living abroad. She began ruminating on the ideas that were to form the core concept of the show for a few months before then beginning to write the piece in early 2018. It was first staged that August, at the Edinburgh Fringe (where it sold out), and much of the time in between was spent working closely with the show’s composer to create a score that married well with the script. The main challenge, she felt, was expressing ideas in a way that didn’t come across as preachy. “In any theatre classed as ‘political’ it’s all too easy to alienate an audience by forcing opinions,” she says. “I attempted to counter this through keeping the narrative as personal as possible – stressing that this was just my story and making clear that, although I sensed an element of universality in my experiences, I was never attempting to put across my ideas as dominant or ‘correct’.”
Stirling acknowledges that there have been so many positive elements to #Hypocrisy’s journey – performing the show in a whole range of exciting venues, working with some exceptional musicians, creating an album and book from the show – but the most important and satisfying part has definitely been the audience engagement. “The conversations I have with people after performances remind me why I created the show in the first place,” she says. “There is so much kindness, empathy, social rage and genuine desire to help in people – feelings that are often quashed by the sense of despair we have at our own insignificance. To see people feeling impassioned and active after the show is constantly inspiring.”
With her extensive background in music and theatre, performance has always been central to Stirling’s life. She discovered spoken word around two years ago and was really taken by the way it can be used alongside other genres to make unique, creative, direct art. Stirling cites Kate Tempest ( English spoken word performer, poet, recording artist, novelist and playwright) as her biggest influence with parallels drawn between them frequently. “Her fusing of poetry with hip hop, her use of long-form narrative structures, and her pairing of the political with the seemingly mundane are each highly inspiring to me,” says Stirling.
And how much convincing did Stirling need to make her first visit to our shores?
“Very little,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to visit the country and to be pairing that with performing at the festivals is a dream. The whole trip would have been daunting to attempt solo, but working in partnership with my friends and producers Somewhat Awkward has made for incredibly smooth preparation. There’s so much to look forward to in the trip but being part of the Adelaide Fringe for its 60th birthday is going to be real treat.”
#Hypocrisy fuses a modern take on poetry with an original music score to examine Western privilege and the power of the individual in an increasingly self-interested society. It’s a show that has toured widely around the UK and Europe, with Australia being the final leg of its journey. Stirling has often been described as a very musical performer, with a delivery style that sits somewhere between speech and song….and she promises that she’ll attempt to tone down the Scottish accent for the sake of Australian listeners…
So, if you’re looking for genre-blending theatre to make you laugh, cry and think, then #Hypocrisy is the show for you. “I’m so excited to be sharing the show with an Australian audience and would love to see you there,” says Stirling. It’s a modern form of poetry that is accessible and engaging, and handles difficult subject matter with a lightness of touch that leads to empowerment rather than despondency.
The Butterfly Club from January 13 – 18, and as part of Midsumma Festival from January 20 to 25.
Hares and Hyenas in Fitzroy on January 28 at 7pm and 9pm
Adelaide Fringe Festival at Nexus Arts Theatre from February 14 – 16
Headshot: Sarah Grant