‘When I demand press-ups, you get to your knees understand. Women are not capable of men’s press ups RAF regs, men on top as they say’
Ten days after my seventeenth birthday I joined the Royal Air Force, the reasons why become clear when you watch Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, my debut show as a writer-performer. From the first day of basic training, it was clear my experience as a woman would be different to that of my Dad and Grandad’s who had both previously served as Royal Marines.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot was nominated for Best New Play, Best New Production, Best Director and Best Actress in the 2015 Broadway World Awards and charts my journey as a serving airwoman from 1997-2001. The story celebrates female friendship, role models, my creative awakening and raises universal questions about gender inequality, sexual harassment and bullying in institutions.
I’ve been working professionally in the arts since 2005. Alongside my work as a performer, I run a creative education company. I led a workshop about ‘identity’ with young men and women and I decided I had to share my story.
There is a lack of representation of the female experience and my transition from military life into the arts is fairly uncommon. The idea of re-invention, having the courage to follow your dreams and speak up for what you believe in can hold a powerful message for future voices and audiences. It was time to write and speak out. I began to develop what was to become Whiskey Tango Foxtrot.
Supported by Arts Council England, I have been able to rediscover my story and the truth of what it is I want to say as an artist. I could never have imagined the power of this truth, my determination for zero tolerance and courage to creatively speak out. I was afraid to share the whole story, I carried a weight of loyalty and heritage. But throughout the development and the Edinburgh run, I gained courage from the audiences I spoke to, students I worked with who offered their experiences and feedback, and I knew I had to talk about it, talk about it all.
The darker moments of the story highlight my experience of sexual harassment. I was sent to a remote radar base on the Falkland Islands and I was the only woman amongst twenty-eight serving tri-service personnel. I was there to do a job but as I landed in the helicopter some of the men were lined up on the helipad ‘mooning’ me in.
I was asked to join them in the porta cabin bar, sit on a stool while the men danced around and manhandled me wearing nothing but rubber gloves on their genitals. This was all part of my ‘initiation ceremony’. I asked a superior if I could leave the mountain. I was told that life beyond the mountain would be made very difficult for me if I didn’t ‘stick it out’. The harassment continued and my official complaint trashed in exchange for a good report and a flight on a Tornado F3.
Fifteen years later, my complaint is now a script, published by Oberon Books, a self-penned autobiographical solo show, now on a UK tour. I was invited by the Channel Four News team to talk about my experiences of bullying and sexual harassment in the armed forces. This was a great opportunity to speak out to a wider audience, especially for other men and women who have been affected. I shared some of the video archives I include in the show…
With over 4.5 million views online in one week, and thousands more engaging with the tour of the show, my story has provoked urgent discussions and encouraged men and women who have been affected by bullying and sexual harassment in institutions to speak out. The power of creativity shines into the face of adversity and for me holds more weight than an official complaint, I will be heard.
Per ardua ad astra – Through adversity to the stars.
Whiskey Tango Foxtrot is currently touring the UK until 15 May 2015. Follow @MyTheatreMates on Twitter to win a pair of tickets to the show’s upcoming London dates at either the Rose and Crown Theatre (14-18 March) or the Tristan Bates Theatre (4-5 April).