Low Level Panic – Lisa chats with Justin Martin (Theatre interview)

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Low Level Panic at The Old Fitz Theatre is one of the most anticipated indie theatre events of 2016. Its presented by Thread Entertainment and Red Line Productions and directed by Justin Martin. Here’s the blurb from the Old Fitz website:

Here is a careful examination of the role of pornography in our society and the way it affects three young women in particular. Short scenes show how popular images of women influence the way they are seen by others and the way they see themselves. 

With a play particularly important for the way women are depicted, I grabbed the opportunity to quiz Justin Martin on some of the tougher aspects of making theatre about complex female subjects. He was kind enough to provide fascinating answers that will whet your appetite for the production, and give real insight into how a male director tackles such a show. Enjoy!

Low Level Panic is on at the Old Fitz from 12 July to 12 August. You can grab your tickets here. 

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Interview with Justin Martin

LT: Tell us a little about why you took on the project of Low Level Panic.

JM: I initially directed a production of the play in Ireland with my long time collaborator, composer, Claire Healy and we were responding to a series of public occurrences in which unsanctioned amateur video’s of women and men engaging publicly in sexual acts went viral. The response was sadly and predictably archaic. The girl was a “slut”, the boy a “legend” and the person who filmed it on his iPhone and posted it online an “innocent” bystander. The online activism in response to these events was unprecedented. People began banding around the idea of a fourth wave of feminism which was driven in part by advances in technology. We set about looking for a play which explored contemporary issues of the male and female gaze. In the process we stumbled upon Clare McIntyre’s 1989, award winning play Low Level Panic. In a way the production is sort of an experiment. Can you take a play written at the beginning of the third wave of feminism and without changing any words, update it for an audience at the cusp of what some are calling a seeming fourth wave in order to explore how far we’ve come and how far we still have to go. I hope dearly on some level that people will find the play dated. But our experience in Ireland was quite the opposite.

LT: In Low Level Panic, Clare McIntyre is a woman writing about women in a way no man could get away with. Do you sense a touch of irony from the playwright here in her approach given the subjects male and female writers are “permitted” to explore? Women have been pushed toward exploring “women’s subjects” in the past. Is Clare McIntyre pushing the envelope or playing with this idea?

JM: I think Clare is pushing the envelop but using a “permitted” subject matter to do so. The core of her play is an exploration of the female gaze but what’s brilliant about the idea of setting it in a bathroom is that she’s actually exploring the relationship between the male and the female gaze. She wonderfully uses the audience to explore some of the ideas discussed in Naomi Wolfe’s “The Beauty Myth” which was being written at around the same time.

LT: A common problem for female writers (playwrights included) writing about female sexuality is that they are misunderstood . How do you feel about taking these risks as a male director? Do you think Low Level Panic can be misunderstood as titillating or detrimental to women?

JM: It’s always a risk, but I fundamentally believe that many of the issues in the play, including pornography, sexual assault, female objectification etc can only be tackled by men and women working together. This generation has more men coming out saying they are feminists than ever before and I think that’s because there is in parts of the community a deep desire to find some sort of healing.

I fundamentally believe my job in directing this play is to facilitate three extraordinary actresses in their exploration of the female gaze. I certainly don’t feel “permitted” to dictate that. Clare’s character’s are sketched so wonderfully that each actress has said to me that many of the lines said in the play they’ve actually said in everyday life. At the same time I’m engaged in exploring the male gaze. The internet has fundamentally changed the way we view anonymity and voyeurism and I think Clare’s play, which uses the audience as both anonymous and voyeuristic, is uniquely placed to explore this change. I think what the play does, and we have tried to honour, is the inherent duality in the way women see women and the way men see women. The production at one moment might titilate but at the next will show the banal reality of someone cutting their toe nails or didactically wrestling with feminist ideas.

LT: How do you think Low Level Panic’s view of pornography will affect male audiences?

JM: In the play Mary says that “Pornography is the tip of the iceberg” and I think that is true of the play’s view of it. I think it is an extreme which becomes more mainstream throughout the play as it has done in society. What in previous generations might have been considered soft core porn, now advertises fizzy drinks and chocolate bars or is sent in the form of selfies or on instagram accounts. I think the play is more looking at the way we view women and the way they view themselves in a world where pornography has become mainstream.

LT: Do we (as a society) talk about pornography too much or not enough? 

JM: My personal feeling is that it’s not a question of more or less but a case of finding the right conversations to have. Forms of pornography have existed for a very long time. I think access, is conversation that needs to be talked about more, especially given most young teens know their way around new technology better than their parents. The long term effects on such access to social media, idealised images of women and porn is yet fully  discussed in the mainstream. Naomi Wolfe’s Beauty Myth feels as resonant today as ever. Only since the rise of the metrosexual have men even had the tiniest glimpse at the experience of living within it. And we haven’t coped particularly well on that front. The Beauty Myth is a male female issue and we need to find a way together to reverse or modify its effects.

Low Level Panic is on at The Old Fitz from 12 July to 12 August. You can grab your tickets here.

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