Musical Theatre as Artistic Activism

An excerpt from Dr. Imogen Flower's academic study of the Sex Worker's Opera

June 2024
April 2024
June 17, 2024
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This article was created in partnership with Red Insight

When Alex Etchart and Siobhán Knox first launched Sex Worker’s Opera, nobody knew what to expect. Now in its tenth year, the project offers valuable lessons about creating opportunities for self-representation and self-advocacy within marginalized communities.

I’ve been doing research with Sex Worker’s Opera since 2017, and my work has revealed these five key take-homes on the potential of participatory models in art and social justice work.

Songs can be efficient and engaging ways to transmit political messages

The music of the Sex Worker’s Opera takes the form of fierce protest songs, jazzy belters, melodic ballads, operatic arias, experimental electronic improvisation and spoken word pieces. Though there’s plenty of fun in these musical numbers, each composition does serious work – communicating a set of complex political ideas specific to the sex worker rights movement, as well as wider movements around intersectional feminism and workers’ rights.

For example, the show-starter ‘Freedom Song’ slams prejudices and demands that the feminist case for bodily autonomy is inclusive of sex workers. It’s a powerful take-down of prohibitionist feminist arguments and a unified demand for an end to misogyny, in all its guises.

"'Freedom Song' talks about claiming your own voice, the savior mentality, their own community – whether that be feminists or sex workers – who are dictating what each other can and cannot do, solidarity as opposed to in-fighting, pride in oneself, and deciding what you will and will not do with your own body. That’s a lot of things to cover in one song." – Siobhán Knox, Sex Worker’s Opera director

Similarly, the song ‘Capitalist Blues’ takes critiques that are disproportionately piled onto sex work and applies them to jobs such as banking, driving a taxi, or working in an office. The song deconstructs arguments that a worker is morally unfit, unsafe, or “selling” themself, revealing the inconsistent logic that serves to delegitimize sex work while normalizing issues within other jobs.

Choices of musical style can also be politically significant. In opera, arias are solo pieces that offer insight into a particular character’s inner dialogue. In the Sex Worker’s Opera, arias are used to spotlight people and perspectives that might often be silenced. The use of an aria to place the focus on the experience of trans sex workers of color, for instance, makes it impossible to dismiss a voice that is otherwise systematically marginalized.

"There was no way to escape hearing the narrative because there’s that spotlight and it’s like, ‘Now you, the audience, are gonna hear this" – Sex Worker’s Opera member

Nurturing the connection between artist and audience can be a political strategy

The Sex Worker’s Opera is designed to make audiences feel like they know the performers and – by extension – encourage them to support the group’s political arguments. The show fosters greater empathy for sex workers, and instills a sense of responsibility for improving sex workers’ rights.

This performer-audience connection is built in a number of ways. At the beginning of the show, the audience is informed that performers are telling both their own stories and those sent in by sex workers around the world, and they don’t know which of the cast are sex workers and which are allies. As opposed to most popular musical theatre shows, Sex Worker’s Opera audiences watch and listen with the understanding that any of the performers might be sharing something that has actually happened to them.

Audience interaction is also a prominent feature throughout the show. Audience members are asked to hide performers beneath their coats during a police raid scene; front-row audience members receive lapdances.

The closing song, ‘Listen to Me’, involves performers walking into the audience and selecting an audience member to bring back onto the stage. This interaction demonstrates the potential of allyship and implicitly places responsibility on audience members to continue their support for sex workers’ rights beyond the curtain call.

"I’ve never so naturally stood up at the end of a show for a standing ovation. I felt like they’d been out there with us, to-ing and fro-ing and kind of playing with our emotions in lots of different ways. So I felt really connected to them, it was wonderful." – Audience member

It’s not just about the final product; it’s about how it’s made

Often, those involved in theatre productions will have clear-cut roles, such as playwright, director, composer, cast member, musician. But for community performance projects to be considered activist, they have to do things a little differently. It’s not enough to get people on-stage saying the right slogans and telling the right stories if there isn’t also a strong commitment to amplifying marginalized voices throughout the creative process.

In making the Sex Worker’s Opera, directors, performers and crew worked collaboratively to create the lyrics, music, script, choreography, set design and staging. The directors ultimately carried the creative responsibility and had to be pragmatic about what would work given shortages of time and resources.

However, the core principle was one of cultural democracy, which community artist and writer François Matarasso has defined as: ‘art by, for and with everyone’. This concept is foundational to community arts practice.

Regardless of prior experience, everyone involved in the Sex Worker’s Opera project is encouraged to create, and the directors have put structures in place to make this as comfortable and natural an experience as possible. They've facilitated collaborative songwriting workshops, and welcomed original song contributions from individual members. Stories that had been sent into the project, or that came from members themselves, became the basis of the devised script through improvisation and writing workshops. The significant overlap between sex work and art was celebrated, with members bringing spectacular pole dance routines and complex BDSM techniques onto the stage.

"I think everyone who is a sex worker is an artist, to a degree anyway. You know, there is an art to sex work in its myriad forms, and I can attest that probably everyone else felt like an artist, or felt valued as an artist, with Sex Worker’s Opera." – Sex Worker’s Opera member

Though collaborative processes can take longer and their outcomes are less predictable, it was integral to the ethos of the project that sex workers in the group had control over representations of their lives, work and community. The participatory, community-led processes behind Sex Worker’s Opera helped to establish it as an activist, and genuinely inclusive project, on and off the stage.

It’s not an activist participatory project unless people are cared for

Another factor that has affected the Sex Worker’s Opera’s ability to sustain its activist integrity is the ethic of care at the center of the project. Care ethics is an area of feminist theory that highlights the need to tend to interpersonal relationships as a foundational aspect of social justice work.

"It’s family. I think Sex Worker’s Opera was probably the first time I’ve actually felt a family within theatre, because the care factor was first and foremost." – Sex Worker’s Opera member

Care is evident in the steps taken to help sex workers to participate without jeopardizing their anonymity or safety. The cast is made up of 50% sex workers and 50% allies, and the audience does not know who is who. This enables sex workers to be involved without automatically outing themselves.

Likewise, there have been ways for sex workers to be involved without performing on-stage. Over 100 workers in 18 countries across 6 continents have sent stories into the global Voice facet of the project, for example. Overall, caring has meant respecting individual people’s access needs and limits, and finding ways of working with – rather than against – these.

"The directors would often be working their asses off to give me the chance to work on the same quality level of other performers, who didn’t need so much effort, language, organizing, listening. There were solutions for me to be part of it." – Sex Worker’s Opera member

Equally, because the Sex Worker’s Opera is a show by and for sex workers, any sex workers in the audience must also be cared for. One way the performers handle this is by avoiding depictions of client violence. They also give a trigger warning during the performance that allows people to leave temporarily during scenes that might be disturbing.

Other projects that ask community members to share their stories will also benefit from simple caring measures that prioritize the needs of those involved. Caring relationships are another way that projects can commit to social justice behind the scenes, as well as on the stage.

Community art is important even if it doesn’t immediately change the political landscape

It would be great if we could say that, after ten years of Sex Worker’s Opera, we had seen laws change to stop criminalizing sex work. But we haven’t. Sex worker activists around the world have worked tirelessly for years to make this happen, and it’s unlikely that a musical theatre performance is going to be the clincher.

Thinking about the impact of an activist project like Sex Worker’s Opera involves looking for different outcomes. It is significant, for example, when performers talk about being proud of the show, or feeling a sense of ownership over it. After centuries of misrepresentation, it suggests that Sex Worker’s Opera is a cultural product sex workers can finally get behind. Similarly, performers’ reflections of feeling heard by the audience have been a welcome contrast to experiences of being silenced.

"You can say whatever you want in that context and they have to listen. They’re just sitting there… you might not have that power elsewhere in the world to say certain sorts of stuff to that large group of people." – Sex Worker’s Opera member

The opportunity for audiences to listen to sex workers’ stories also positioned Sex Worker’s Opera as a powerful tool for public education. One audience member described it as ‘a sledgehammer shaping the opinions of people’. Accordingly, pieces from the show have been used in lectures, workshops and radio programmes to move discussions past the question ‘Should sex work exist?’ and toward a more sophisticated conversation about legal models, working conditions and policy changes.

Marginalized-led community art projects might not be able to solve all our political problems. But projects like Sex Worker’s Opera lead by example; they use participatory models to show up for communities first, and – only once that foundation is in place – work to create art for social change. The result is sustainable, relevant and innovative artistic activism that supports community-led political efforts.

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