Solidarity is a way of standing beside another person

interview with Julia Varley

Reconstruction Women’s fund announces the interview with Julia Varley:

Solidarity is a way of standing beside another person, to exchange, give and receive.

In continuing our work on the program Feminist Philanthropy, where we try, next to the actions for collecting money and encouraging individual donations, to present you the remarkable women who move boundaries, teach us new issues, inspire and make a personal impact – we have an opportunity to present you an exceptional woman Julia Varley, actress, director, professor and writer. She is art director of Transit Festival, and the editor of The Open Page, magazine dedicated to the work of women in theatre. Julia joined Odin Theatre in 1976 and is still active in it.

Julia, why is it important to organise feminist festivals and gatherings as you organise?

It goes back a long way, to 1983 when we had a meeting of different theatre groups and at a certain point we were dreaming of another meeting and we said “Yes, but the next time we will not invite the whole groups, we will just invite the people we like from the groups.” And we realised that the people we liked were the women of the groups. Because at that time, in the 1980s, the women in the theatre groups were the ones who were asking questions, who had the need to meet and share. It was from that environment that the Magdalena started in 1986. Women who felt isolated in their groups, as if they were the only ones to have questions and problems, suddenly realised they shared all of this with many other women in very many different contexts and countries. I think this is still valid today: you give women who work in very different places a sense that they belong to a network, that there are women in other countries who have the same kind of problems, questions, curiosities, so they don’t feel alone. Even though they go back to their own countries and might be isolated, they don’t feel alone because they know that there are many other women who are living the same kind of experiences. They can exchange. It is a technical exchange of the theatre craft, but also a human exchange. When you go away from a festival like Transit or Magdalena, you go away feeling much stronger. You return to your work with the kind of energy that you really need. When you have the chance to share with others, you go back feeling that you can go on a little bit further. Often we get tired, we lose motivation as the world outside is so hard and the problems are enormous. If you feel alone, you lack strength, and coming together can give the strength back to you.

Why is it important to invest money in women’s human rights, and particularly into women’s art?

I think that as women working in theatre we have a big responsibility and I talked about this in the symposium the other day. We have a responsibility because we know how to think with the body, in a way which is not just rational, but includes feelings, sensations, all the parts that you know without being able to explain them. We have a capacity of creating situations in which exchange is possible, of working in a group. In theatre you always work with other people and you create a ritual, a structure, within which stories can be told with an expression that goes beyond the pure personal to assume other meanings. Because of all this knowledge that we have as theatre people, I feel that we have a responsibility towards what is happening in the world. We can really give something. We will never be able to change the world, but we can change small things that have a meaning for some people. To do this it is important to have a financial backup and support, for example to do workshops with women who cannot pay or to present a performance in a place where theatre never goes or organise a meeting.

Along the same lines: do you think it is important to have feminist funds and do you know about them?

I certainly know about certain women like Geddy Aniksdal, who for her 60th birthday made a fund for travel for women. This is not a very big thing but instead of giving her presents, we gave her money which she then invested and paid, for instance, for Madeline McNamara’s ticket to come to Transit. There are lots of initiatives of this kind. They are not always called feminist because the meaning of a word depends on the context. Like saying communist: I always say to my little brother that I am a communist as a provocation, but if I was in Poland or in ex-Yugoslavia I would be more careful in using the word, because it has a different history there. Also the word feminist depends very much of the context you are in. Of course it is a word that I vindicate and which we should be able to use, but I would imagine that in some countries one says “women’s funds”. It is like that in India, where I know that there are funds that are given to support the Women in Pink who intervene to help those women who have been subjected to violence at home.

And the last question: what does the concept of solidarity mean to you?

I remember when Jill Greenhalgh hosted the Magdalena Festival in 2004, in Cardiff, one of the titles I used for a talk was “The Solidarity of Rigour”. Too often at women’s festivals there is a solidarity which I find shallow, a way of clapping and congratulating even when the work is not of good quality, trying to be encouraging but superficially. For me, solidarity is a way of really standing beside another person, to exchange, give and receive. Solidarity can also be very critical. You can go to a person and say “This does not work; you have to do something to make it better.” Solidarity can also be inviting a performance you know is not particularly good, but you invite it to a situation like Transit, which is protected, to give the actress an experience that helps her grow. Solidarity can be putting two teachers together who have never worked together in a workshop because they will be forced to find collaboration and it will be a new challenge for them. Solidarity is not just something which always sounds and looks nice, it can be quite hard. But I think it is necessary, because if we have to grow as women, find our autonomous strength and be able to write about our work, show and organise our work, we need people beside us who don’t just let us do anything, but take care that we give our best. 

Thank-you a lot.

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