An interview with Rachel Lincoln

Amy Gunn

Battersea Arts Centre offers fresh new artists the chance to develop their latest ideas in front of an audience. Freshly Scratched invites members of the public to watch these work-in-progress pieces and offer their feedback on what they see. It’s a brilliant opportunity for those successful applicants who can test drive their performance, at any stage of development, to see the reaction of a crowd.

It was at one of these events that I stumbled upon performance artist Rachel Lincoln and her delightful piece Lie Back and Think of England. A charmingly funny critique of the state of sex education in Britain. After introducing myself following her performance, we later met up to discuss the work.

‘It’s a mixture of visual theatre with a little bit of clowning and mime.’ Lincoln explains over a cup of tea. ‘I play a supply teacher who comes into a classroom and she’s very excited to be there, until she realises from looking at the notes from the previous teacher that she has to teach sex education. It makes her really uncomfortable and she then has to find a way to teach this class. The show is her journey in doing that.’

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Lincoln’s show addresses the shortcomings of sex education in schools. The work is borne of a frustration with the lack of information available to teenagers. She strongly believes that if more young people had these kinds of discussions they might develop a better level of self respect – an understanding of what they do or don’t feel comfortable with.

She acknowledges our collective unease on the subject but does not condone this as a reason for lack of education.

‘It’s scary how little we talk about it – it’s an important subject that needs to be spoken about even if it’s difficult to talk about.’ The current curriculum does not address pornography, or the implications of social media and online relationships. This is distressing to consider, as most teenage relationships have a strong basis in online communication.

Lincoln’s creation of the work stemmed from her education in France.

‘I was studying at the Jaques LeCoq school, exploring the theme of sex in class with a group of my female classmates. Through exploring that, I realised everyone has had a really different experiences with sex education – some are taught abstinence only, some are taught to feel real shame about sex. Others are given loads of education. It made me want to explore this further.’

Lincoln’s research has spanned decades to see how the curriculum is evolving.

‘It’s called sex and relationships education now. It is improving, but we still have a way to go. The physical aspects of sex are getting better, but the emotional side needs to catch up.’

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Lincoln works with director Vanessa Mecke and dramaturg Anna Beecher to create the work. her process starts with physical improvisation, which is recorded and refined in collaboration with Meche and Beecher.

Since her appearance at Battersea Arts Centre, Lincoln is preparing for a performance at the Pulse Festival in Ipswich. She will be competing in the Suitcase Prize, an eco-positive award recognising companies who are able to tour using public transport. Further plans for the work include a spot at Glastonbury and a hour-long show for the Edinburgh Fringe festival.

Lincoln has chosen to portray the character non-verbally; there is no speech in the performance whatsoever. It’s a brilliant way to embody our nation’s silence on the matter.

‘If people are finding it hard to talk about this, why not push that further? My training is very much influenced by movement and clowning. The set up of a classroom like an audience. It helps things to be uncomfortable. I wanted to explore other ways of storytelling.

‘She doesn’t have the words to express what needs to be said, so she has to delve into her own experiences.’

These experiences are touched upon through, um, inventive use of a felt pen and lid.

‘It’s a little bit crude but hopefully funny,’ Rachel laughs as we recall her frenzied portrayal of a young couple in their first sexual encounter. The incorporation of puppetry gives a very ad-hoc juvenile feel. Lincoln’s performance is light hearted and silly, but packs a punch in terms of the issue she is trying to highlight.

Lie Back and Think of England is by no means the ideal sex ed class that Lincoln aspires to for young people. Her character is nervous and awkward when faced with the task of teaching the class (the audience) about sex.

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Her intended audience is more adult, those who can appreciate these problems in our school system and can take steps to improve matters. In addition to her work, Lincoln hopes to expand the piece into an educational performance, taking her character into schools to encourage discussion amongst those it affects through workshops.

The performance shows great promise, addressing something that has been outdated for so long. I can’t wait to see this show in Edinburgh!

Lie Back and Think of England is performing at The Pulse Festival on 30 May, at Glastonbury Festival on the 26 June and at C Nova at Edinburgh Fringe 30 July to 25 August.

You can follow Rachel Lincoln on twitter, or check out her website.

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About Amy Gunn

Amy is the Arts Editor at Vada. She is a theatre director, and notorious lesbian, living in London. She enjoys making theatre which challenges an audience and believes the arts are a fantastic platform on which we can communicate ideas, particularly on representation of sexuality. @terribleladygay