3 Questions

3 Questions with circus performer Laura Stokes

First things first: Laura Stokes is not kidding around. The multi-faceted performer has been working out of Germany for the past few years and has seen her fair share of the world. No stranger to New Mexico, she’s back in town to promote her new circus-esqe show, Call Me A Pussy, at the Center for Contemporary Arts (8 pm Friday-Sunday, July 15-17 and July 22-24. $25-40. 1050 Old Pecos Trail, (505) 982-1338). Stokes’ one-woman show introduces her thoughts on modern society to the broader world, and you spectators are just as much a part of the show as she is. SFR caught up with Stokes to discuss how circus and burlesque can express far more than you’d expect.

This show is described as a voluntary self objectification that breaks down larger societal issues. You don’t usually hear such themes in a circus-esque show, which tend to be ensembles. Why’d you choose to build a one-woman show as opposed to a larger group show?

There’s a lot of randomness that happened with building this show, but I’ve always been interested in the underlying feeling these shows bring, and how different it is to see a variety show by one person. It’s a question of what we perform for other people and what’s not performed. These archetypes I portray are much more highlighted than when you see a full cast playing different characters. It’s about cis female sexuality and bodily autonomy. There’s a joy in these stereotypes, it’s not a rejection. We all hold the culpability of the wounds of patriarchy. See, I was raised in the backwoods hippy country, but I’ve still wanted to put on lipstick and high heels. I haven’t been oppressed by that. But they can become hurtful to everyone. That becomes highlighted when it’s the same person doing this as opposed to multiple characters. It’s a multi-genre show, since my background is both contemporary circus and dance.

How does a show like this help combat things like prejudice and nationalism?

In watching the deconstruction of these stereotypes, I want to see transformation. I’ve been working on this show for eight years, and it’s more timely than I’d like it to be. A lot of this was written earlier—for example, I’ve got an Americana personality that was developed before the Trump presidency. Now in retrospect, the things that happened in real life are crazier than I figured. So I ask how do I portray this character without otherizing them? We’re all responsible for these things in some way. This might be far-reaching, but I believe in the potency for live performance to be a collective absolution.

For me, I’ve always tried to make work that’s specific enough to be provocative and evocative. Even with my own physical experience with the body—any audience member projects their own meaning. If you attempt to speak truth, you’re guaranteed to push someone away. I never go in with an agenda and a goal, but to create a container to look at subjects that might not be able to be looked at collectively. The role of entertainment has been ritual, and only recently have we separated that aspect. So much of our ritual and need for escape is happening in these digital mediums. I’m not creating these concepts, but we can look at them together here. With this show I’ve focused on comedy, that’s very new for my work.

You take inspiration from the burlesque movement and other historical times, stemming all the way back to the 1800s. Why examine the past so strongly when your show is a satire about the current world?

[Burlesque] was a low-class oriented movement. It was political and subversive, yet it was thrilling. I think comedy and humor are a way to deal with difficult subjects. My curiosity came from the neo-burlesque scene. I became fascinated by it. From the Victorian era to the US, it was predominately a female movement—one of the largest self-sustaining live performance networks in the US. All-female troupes were doing Shakespeare. It was the lower class society claiming high art. It’s worth looking into and drawing inspiration from. Burlesque has typically been popular in times of hardship. Accessible uplifting entertainment that’s not afraid to be taboo is needed right now.

Everyone and their grandmother has heard the word pussy. If men can use it in the way they have, I can reclaim it as a female. Pussy has been used in our times to describe weak, timid or fragile. But the female genitalia is the strongest and most adapting. So yeah, call me a pussy. If you wanna call me weak, find some other word.

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