Originally published by @femalearts
Rosie Wilby is a comedian, musician, writer and broadcaster. As a comedian, she has performed at Sydney Mardi Gras, The Comedy Store, Latitude Festival and on Radio 4. As a musician she has performed at Glastonbury Festival, Ronnie Scotts and on Carlton TV. For the past few years she has toured her series of solo shows exploring the themes of sex and relationship, and her new work in progress ‘The Conscious Uncoupling’ will be showing at The Black Box Festival (Etcetera Theatre) later this month.
Interview by Amie Taylor (@spoonsparkle)
AT: Hello Rosie. Before we talk about your current show, ‘The Conscious Uncoupling’, let’s start with you telling us a little about your past work that you’ve done around relationships – you’ve had two shows on previously: ‘The Science of Sex’ and ‘Is Monogamy Dead?’ Could you tell us a little about those and how this trio of shows began?
RW: Yes. I’d been doing stand-up since about 2006, when I was in the final of the Funny Women competition, and I’d been a musician before that. When I started doing stand-up there was the pressure to get a laugh every how-ever-many seconds, and not really any space to explore things as deeply as in a solo show. So I started writing solo shows to take to Edinburgh, I fairly quickly started mixing genres: comedy and theatre, I’d create a bit of a character, and explore the emotional side more deeply – as well as having the pure silliness. Relationships have always been a factor that I’ve talked about onstage, first as a musician, then as a comedian and now in my solo shows. I suppose being gay and coming out really informed that. I came out at university in the early 1990s, when teachers in school still weren’t able to mention homosexuality, so it was a difficult time. It was always quite a big deal for me to be open about who I was, and I think I wilfully, deliberately had my ‘gayness’ on display – I wanted to proudly say ‘I’m a woman. I’m a feminist. And I love women.’ I mean I love men too, but in a different way. And so relationships always came to the fore.
I did the ‘Science of Sex’ in 2009 / 10. That was a spoof lecture about sexual attraction, and the origins of our sexual identity. I did some fascinating tests, undertaken by Dr Qazi Rahman at King’s College London; he’d been doing these tests to look at why we might be a certain sexual orientation. There are things like shape rotation, word fluency and memory, and in these skills and these tests that you do there’s a strong correlation between gay men and straight women. Lesbians are a tiny bit all over the place. [They laugh] It’s interesting because those parts of the brain associated with completing those types of tasks (such as map reading) are actually formed in the brain during pregnancy, so there’s some indication that we are born gay, and he’s been investigating that thorny question. So I did these tests and had the graphs printed out. I also looked in to pheromones and why we’re attracted to certain people. I had fun with the history of sex research and how attraction works and used all of these elements in the show. I performed it as a character in my white lab coat and safety goggles. It was the lesson about sex I wish I’d had, rather than my red-faced biology teacher going ‘ahhh, now we’re going to talk about making love.’
AT: That’s weird, I had a dream the other night about my old Sex Ed teacher, and the next day was thinking about how basic Sex Ed was when I was at school, it was only one lesson, and was only about straight sex for reproduction purposes. I wish I could have had your lesson, it would have been much better! And so ‘Is Monogamy Dead’ was your second show…
RW: Yes, the second show in the relationship trilogy, as it’s become known. That was my show in 2013, which is still running occasionally* at some science festivals, philosophy festivals, it developed in to a TED talk and radio debates, as well as various news articles. That all all came from one or two articles I read on non-mongamy, which was not something I’d ever thought about – I’d always been totally monogamous, or serially monogamous. I think in modern times we think we’re choosing life monogamy, but really we’re choosing serial monogamy. That all started to blow my mind as I began to read about open relationships and polyamory and people having those relationships really ethically. It was also really scary to look at the stats of how many people were apparently having affairs – in an anonymous survey.
The show also sprung from my own rather difficult break up, with the woman that ‘The Science of Sex’ was dedicated to, in a very lovely ‘I’m in love’ kind of way. We’d then broken up and I was in another, very different, relationship, which was much more of a companionship, and I say that with the greatest respect to my partner, who is amazing. It made me think very deeply about the many different types of relationship we have, and still there is only one word for ‘love’, one word for ‘friend’, and there are so many different areas in-between. For instance a friend of ours seemed to start having an affair, maybe not consummated, perhaps just emotional; we knew both her and her girlfriend, but she started turning up to my gigs with this other person, and we felt very much caught in the middle of it. It all made me start thinking about affairs and how difficult that all is, and I wanted to ask how can we navigate this more compassionately and more honestly. I asked the question in a survey: ‘What counts as infidelity?’ And a huge number of people said it was more of the emotional things, such as staying up all night talking to someone else or loving someone else without having a sexual relationship. So what defines a relationship or not isn’t as binary as we think. It got me thinking that we have this interconnected universe of relationships in the sense we’re all in lots of relationships, which is how someone who identifies as polyamorous may see it. I think even if you’re sexually monogamous there are lots of people you love and connect with. I began to think quite deeply and one chapter in the book I’m writing is about break-ups and our language around break-ups, and how we could look at doing that more compassionately, and where possible maintain a friendship and talk about the relationship changing rather than it ending. I know it’s not always possible, though historically in the lesbian community, people did used to work it out because it was a small community and people would still see one another. So that is what has bought me on this journey to create a new work in progress, which is called ‘The Conscious Uncoupling’, but it’s about my less-conscious break up, but thinking about why we need to look at it more consciously.
AT: So that’s your new show that you’re working on now, which you’re previewing at The Black Box Festival…
RW: Yes, it’s a work in progress performance, and the festival is at The Etcetera Theatre, in Camden which is lovely, especially because I’ve got a bit of a history of doing stuff there over the years. And because it’s a work in progress I’m just charging £5, so the audience will be guinea pigs, and I hope will give me some feedback afterwards.
AT: Great, so tell us a little bit about ‘conscious uncoupling’ what it means and where that phrase came from…
RW: Well, it’s a phrase we now associate quite strongly with Gwyneth Paltrow, because her and Chris Martin famously used that phrase when they split in, I think, early 2014. It seemed like it was this really new, weird, sci-fi, hippy-dippy, liberal phrase which they were using to dress up a separation as something nice, but actually it’s not a phrase that Gwyneth Paltrow invented, it came from a relationship therapist who claims she thought up the phrase. I think the principles of it are celebrating what was good about the relationship, and trying to maintain a friendship. I do worry that we seem to be going in the opposite direction of people going quiet and closing off relationships – now you hear a lot about things such as ghosting –
AT: Which was in the media a lot this year…
RW: Yes, there’s a New York psychotherapist Esther Perel, who’s been talking about that and saying we need to bring back relationship accountability, I suppose that ties in to what I’m looking at as well, about using conscious and compassionate language. I’m very much a fan of people making up their own language; if you don’t want to use the phrase conscious uncoupling, you don’t have to. You don’t have to do everything Gwyneth Paltrow does, you don’t have to sit at home steaming your vagina –
AT: [laughs] Which she’s also famous for –
RW: Yes, but there’ll be none of that in my show! But make up your own language, the poly community have been really good at doing that for different types of relationships. I love that. We could empower ourselves by just making up our own words. And I suppose the message of my show is that we should be more conscious, compassionate and accountable when we end relationships. Even brief ones – I think you have a responsibility to somebody if you’ve had some kind of connection. I don’t think you can just shut that without some real conversation.
AT: Thank you Rosie. The Conscious Uncoupling can be seen as a work in progress at The Black Box Festival, at The Etcetera Theatre (Camden) on the 25th January 2016, 7pm. You can book tickets here: https://www.ticketea.co.uk/tickets-theatre-blackbox-the-conscious-uncoupling/
*You can also catch ‘Monogamy is Dead’ on 12th February, 2016 at the Spread Eagle pub in Croydon. http://www.spreadeaglecroydon.co.uk/whats-on/is-monogamy-dead
And The Science of Sex is performing on the 27th February. https://sw.tickets.red61.com/performances.php?eventId=18:448