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Artist in residence ready to put the focus on #ExtraordinaryWomen at the 2018 Lichfield Festival

Ground-breaking work by women will be showcased as the 2018 Lichfield Festival gets underway this week.

The #ExtraordinaryWomen focus of this year’s event will see a series of performances in film, song, stage and dance taking place to mark the centenary of votes for women.

One of those at the heart of the initiative is one of the festival’s six artists in residence, singer Jessica Walker.

Jessica Walker

Jessica Walker

Her cabaret Soldiers, Sirens and Suffragettes has been created especially for Lichfield, with pianist and fellow artist in residence Joseph Atkins, and it follows her acclaimed Peace Cabaret at the 2017 Festival.

Jessica takes the original Berlin scene of the late 1920s and early 30s as her starting point: “This was a world of underground artists, who were experimenting with subversive and new ideas about politics and sexuality, and expressing it in song.

“Many of these artists were banned in the 30s, and their work burned by the Nazis. It’s clear this was a new, fresh way of sharing important ideas, but delivering them in a highly entertaining way.

“I like to think this is what I’m doing in all of my shows.”

Soldiers, Sirens and Suffragettes, at the city’s McKenzie’s Restaurant on July 9, is essentially a journey through girl power in song; from Joan of Arc right through to the song-bird activists of the hippy era.

Jessica explained that the research for the piece had been fascinating: “I looked through a lot of online song archives and unearthed some strange Suffragette songs, most of them very rude about the suffragettes!

“For the sirens I tried to choose women who were not only sexy and well known, but who had tremendous ownership of their talent, and who did extraordinary things. This was hard with the earlier women, because they just didn’t get published as song writers. Mae West, however, was a fantastic businesswoman as well as most definitely being a siren.

“For the soldiers I looked mainly at the music hall repertoire, and specifically the male impersonators, many of whom dressed as soldiers when they sang.”

The idea of women impersonating men in music hall and cabaret, and gender fluidity more generally, crops up in several of Jessica’s creative projects.

“The power of cabaret is taking your audience on a journey, making them feel something, and maybe being a little bit dangerous,” she said.

“Gender fluidity and cabaret go hand in hand, and have done since Spoliansky wrote a song called Masculine and feminine in 1920s Weimar. For me personally, I present quite an androgynous image in performance. I like to think that means I appeal to everyone.”

The creative process has involved a lot of sifting through the potential material and some tricky artistic choices about what to discard before working out a good order for what remains.

Jessica said: “I give every programme a narrative arc, so sometimes very odd things end up next to each other – Leonard Cohen next to Doris Day for instance.

“You really see the history of women’s empowerment played out, because the earlier singers are just singers, and the later ones – like Joan Baez – are writing their own material.

“I have spent recent years of my performing life unearthing stories of the hidden and the unheard. There are many years of history to put women back into. On the simplest level, historically, men wrote the history books, and many women never wrote anything about their own lives, so to all intents and purposes they were erased.

“I think it’s so important to start to redress the balance and mark some of these forgotten lives.”

An ‘extraordinary woman’ of a different kind, Pat Kirkwood is Angry at the Garrick Studio on July 14 is Jessica’s widely-acclaimed, one-woman show about one of the greatest, but now almost forgotten, wartime variety stars.

Named Britain’s first wartime star in 1939, Pat Kirkwood became a household name through songs like Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered but her fortunes tumbled after a fateful meeting with the Duke of Edinburgh, the repercussions of which lasted her whole life.

Another of Jessica’s shows for the festival takes place at the Swinfen Hall Hotel. In A Century of Popular Song on July 10, she and Joseph Atkins conjure up the unique atmosphere of each decade from the Victorian music hall to the swinging 60s.

Jessica the type of venue and time of day give each show its own identity.

“If I know it’s an afternoon show, and people are having tea, I probably won’t put in either the most depressing songs, or the rudest ones,” she said. “I don’t want to put people off their sandwiches.

“But when people are seated at tables I feel I have a much more intimate connection with them. I can move among them, in true cabaret style and even sit on the odd lap.

“In the more traditional set up of the Garrick, I can’t do that, but I have the advantage of stage lighting, which immediately elevates the songs into little pieces of theatre. So both situations have their pluses.”

Other events in the #ExtraordinaryWomen series including the Malachites Theatre Company’s suffrage-inspired Taming of the Shrew, Fascinating Aida star Liza Pulman’s critically-acclaimed show Liza Sings Streisand and Sondheim’s Women: Send in the Clowns, featuring West End soloists as lovers, wives, witches and pie-making psychotics from Sondheim’s musicals.

And Jessica’s own incredibly busy week also includes directing actresses Fran Jackson and Julie Legrand in her new production of two of Alan Bennett’s Talking Heads – Her Big Chance and A Lady of Letters.

“I’m also looking forward to meeting my audiences, performing in the splendour of the cathedral as part of the celebration of Bernstein and Gershwin and introducing my mother to the delights of Lichfield,” she said.

Details of all Lichfield Festival events are at www.lichfieldfestival.org.

A volunteer wrote this. Say thanks with a coffee.

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