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Wah Wah Wah: An Interview with Bilal Baig & Celia Jade Green

July 31st, 2019     by Jackie Mlotek     Comments

Bilal Baig and Celia Green. Photo by: Tanja-Tiziana

Warnings: Discussions of sexual harassment

I remember the first time I got street harassed. I was 11 years old. A car was parked at a red light and I was crossing the street two minutes away from my parent’s house off of Bathurst Street. The inhabitants screamed at me and made a crude gesture out the window. At that time in my life, I was being fed the idea that attention from boys or men, of any kind, is all that matters to prove you’re hot and therefore worthy of existing. I was with a friend, and she said, “woo, they like you!”. And I smiled, gritted through my teeth, as every bone in my body seemed to shake and my skin ran cold. I still feel the same way every time this continues to happen and mutates as I get older. Sometimes it rings in my ears for my days, but sometimes I just laugh and carry on.

This is, of course, far from a unique experience - every woman or gender non-conforming person, further magnified by race, queerness, ability, and so many other factors - I know has been randomly harassed, or experienced serious random violence or intimate partner violence. We live in a world where violence and abuse and harassment is rampant for so many reasons, and we know it exists on a spectrum - meaning harassment, violence, and abuse exist on the same spectrum and come from the same place of disrespect, power, and deep rooted sexism and toxic masculinity. So we know this exists. Now what?

In a world full of binaries, it’s easy for us to say, like, “men are trash”, but there were also so many situations where it’s confusing. If someone you like or are interested in does something gross, but you liked them before and or are trying to ignore it, does it still count as harassment? If you’re not sure if it was anything at all? How does that come into play if you’re not attracted to, and never have been, to the people who are harassing you?

22 year old creator Celia Jade Green, and 24 year old director Bilal Baig ask just that and more in Celia’s first full length work, Wah Wah Wah.

Wah Wah Wah is Celia’s theatre piece combining movement, text, sound, and more to express her experiences based off of her time backpacking alone across Europe. Wah Wah Wah is a piece she’s been working on and evolving over the past few years. The press release says, “What happens if I love and hate it at the same time? Did anything even happen? Am I remembering things correctly?”.

These are questions so many people, especially women, queer and/or trans people, have asked themselves, and there’s a societal level of discomfort in engaging with the gray matter - even though that’s where the honest work is happening.

Our interview has been condensed below.

How would you describe Wah Wah Wah without giving too much away?

Bilal: It’s a young, queer woman’s journey backpacking across Europe. This illuminates for her all the kind of sexual microaggressions she’s encountered her whole life, which leads her to this moment that happens here in Toronto that rocks her world to the core where she feels compelled to speak about what’s been going to these people that have come to the theatre to listen. The audience is quite present in this work.

Celia: The struggle of communicating your experiences to people is quite present, and what it takes to speak about something that happened that was mildly traumatizing… or majorly.

B: It also makes me think about perception. Something that could be perceived as a minor encounter for someone in the audience, can be world rocking to our main character, Shelby, or vice versa. That’s what we’re also really interested in exploring.

C: And how different experiences can sit differently depending on what’s happened before. It’s not just about this one moment, it’s about 10 other moments that have also happened.

It’s very striking that you folks included the element of confusion - “Did anything even happen? Am I remembering things correctly?” - when it comes to sexual harassment. How do we see that in Wah Wah Wah?

C: It’s everywhere in the show - messiness, uncertainty, and doubt is all there because that was and still is so present in my experiences with harassment and sexual microaggressions.. The moments of clarity are so beautiful, but so rare. So much of it is this constant work to find clarity but on the way there you’re moving through doubt, questioning yourself, the person who hurt you, questioning your experiences, everything! I’m really interested in exploring the nuance of that. There’s sometimes an urge or a pressure to clean things up or provide answers around harassment, but maybe the answer is that these things are messy, and you’re sure one second and then not the next. And that messiness does not make your feelings or experiences less true.

I love art that engages with intense experiences/emotions through embodiment - it’s so interesting and enriching to our cultural discourse to see what can be created and expressed outside and within the realm of language. Can you speak to your experiences making work about such intense experiences with bodily movement?

C: I have a background in dance, I’ve been dancing since I was 10 or so, and movement is a big part of my artistic practice. I wouldn’t say there’s necessarily dance in the show, but it is highly physical. A lot of the choice to use movement is based off of the fact that there are a lot of feelings that are too complicated and too large for words. But what I can do is translate them through the body.. A lot of the time in the show, Shelby [the main character in the play] will talk about an experience, but maybe not necessarily how she felt but the feeling will be communicated through movement; a hand grabbing at the flesh of her cheek or sliding her body over a wooden chair. Physicality is a whole other being inside the show.

Celia Green. Photo by: Tanja-Tiziana

We know that queer and/or trans folks experience disproprtionate amount of harassment and violence, but mainstream narratives have largely been told from a heteronormative perspective. How did you express young and queer identity, and social locations in general, in this work?

B: When I first saw this piece, Celia was 19. I think there was such a power in just that body telling those stories - it’s not a 30 year old playing a 19 year old. I think what also complicates the narrative is this question that exists in the play: “if I am a queer woman, why have I spent so much time thinking about men and how they have treated me?” In line with Celia’s artistry, which is about being incredibly, almost uncomfortably, honest with your truth and what you’re going through, that’s what lives inside this play too.

C: It’s interesting, when I did that first performance [in 2016], I had come out maybe a year before. There used to be a line in the play, “Is it necessary to tell people that I am queer and explain my “no” to their boyfriend questions? I don’t want to make anyone uncomfortable. I don’t want to make myself uncomfortable.” It reveals so much about my queer journey! At first I had hesitations about writing my queerness into this work…but then, I’m like, I’m creating the problem that exists! There’s no stories that I’ve come across that touch on the nuanced nature of being a woman who has only ever been in relationships with women, thinking about your relationship to men and how you’re perceived by them. It feels very complicated, but very important to talk about even if it is confusing and sometimes embarrassing. I feel so grateful to have Bilal to help guide me into that territory.

B: I also think because the work is so specific, it has created a space where lots of different perspectives can come in. I feel quite deeply connected to the material, and I think that’s only because Celia has zeroed in on the truth - which I just think the city and art needs more and more space for. We also have a really cool team that’s reflective of different ideas and experiences so, that really excites me!

C: I was mentored by Amy Nostbakken when I was first creating this work, and one of the first things she said to me was, “Go to that honest place to the thing you don’t want to say…. And, that’s what you explore.”.

B: Also, when I think about social location, it’s all young, broke artists making this happen. I want to spotlight and honour that. C: Like the core team is all under 25 years old.

B: I’m trying to shift the ways I think about how art and theatre is made. I’m starting to use the word gift: what is the gift we’re giving specific communities when we make work? I often feel crushed by responsibility because I’m queer and trans and South Asian and there’s people who my work represents or speaks to and that can be such a nearly debilitating thought. So I start to think about what is the gift inside my work for these people - for survivors, for young queer and trans survivors, what is the gift that we’re giving? When we are honest we are reflecting humanity back to people. And, we may be helping people see something that they didn’t see or are choosing not to see. We talk about retraumatization and exploitation in our process a lot too, and that’s not what we’re interested in doing.

C: It is about revealing these thoughts and feelings that feel full of shame or make you feel isolated as a way of diffusing their power. Those feelings can be paralyzing- we have to find a way out of that paralysis. For me I think it’s by sharing stories and feelings and experiences honestly and openly in all their complicated messy glory.

You two have been working on this for a really long time! Could you talk a bit about your process in a mentorship?

C: We had a workshopping period last summer. I went away to Brussels and was at P.A.R.T.S (Performing Arts Research and Training Institute) and did a week long residency through their Summer Studios program and did movement creation and some writing. Bilal had given a bunch of writing and movement prompts, which is kind of what kickstarted this newer version of the piece. When I came back from Brussels we had another period of development together up at Stone Boat Farm Artist Retreat putting things up on their feet.

B: It was so amazing, we were in a barn last August and literally had all these snippets of scenes, q-cards that Celia created through these prompts that I’ve given her. We Frankensteined a version of the script together. And that’s continued to evolve. It’s a really exciting way to work and we’ve developed a bit of a vocabulary and shorthand, and we can be very honest with each other.

Self portrait: Bilal Baig and Celia Green.

Do you have anything you’d want to tell young artists?

B: I spent a lot of time really doubting myself and my artistry and my worth and I’m so excited about the future of young people who would, by any means, find it within themselves to believe in themselves and believe in whatever they want to do, and let that be the thing that guides them in the world. I know with so many young artists, the world is already hard on them, and then they’re hard on themselves, too, and it just kind of breaks my heart because I was in that place, too. And, I think we are at the centre of our own experiences and we know how to tell our stories and that could look like a million different things. I’m just really excited to hear the future, and young people are right there and should have every opportunity to express themselves however they want. Absolutely thank you to the elders that got us here, but to trust that we can carve our paths however we want.

C: It’s so much about following what you know is true. Like, knowing deep in yourself. It’s so tempting to look for others for answers but you have to - keep listening to what is inside yourself and remembering that you know…. Because you do know! In my experience it takes practice to listen to what your body, your own self is telling you.

B: And trusting that.

C: You know a lot!

B: Your gut is good.

Wah Wah Wah is presented in partnership with Paprika Festival, and is a part of the SummerWorks Presentations programming in Toronto. The show opens on Thursday, August 8, and has performances on the 10th, 11th, 17th and 18th. Buy your festival passes or single tickets here!

Accessibility: ASL Performance- Sunday, August 18th, 3:30 PM, Relaxed Performance – Saturday, August 17th, 5:15 PM

Tags: art, gender, queer, violence

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