Catherine Hoffmann

The theatre maker rallies against economic shame as a device to keep people powerless, and explains why that means breastfeeding a rat

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I decided to make my solo show, Free Lunch with the StenchWench, a while back after rats, fleas and pigeons descended upon me in my flat at different times throughout the year, bringing with them not only intense emotional reactions but also a gift of new material I couldn’t ignore. When my Airbnb guest, Laura from Munich, packed her bags in the middle of the night ravaged by fleas, I knew that the shame this brought up couldn’t be ignored. These were familiar feelings from the past – of not measuring up, being discovered and feeling dirty. I knew I had to go into this difficult terrain and bring these pests kicking and screaming into the light.

I had spent my life trying to fit in, covering up, aspiring to be middle class, ashamed of growing up poor, economically struggling as an artist. Even my father and grandmother tried to distance themselves from their working class roots so they could become ‘socially mobile’ but struggled. My gran’s dream for me was always to get a proper job and marry someone from the BBC, but what about just celebrating who we are right now? What is this stupid class thing anyway? Where are the voices, which explore these experiences?

I wrote Ten tips on being feckless and poor whilst pretending not to be as an act of dissent, a way of showing again this process of conforming to this idealised image of how to be.

I wanted to make a piece where I would expose myself, pushing towards the grotesque even, so that I could defiantly say: “Here I am”, after years of hiding. Time to come clean – I am the Stenchwench. It is OK to be without anything, to be poor, to say: “No, I am not going to shrink anymore and neither should anyone else”. Time to uncover.

In the show I lift the lid on a rat cooking in hot chocolate, breastfeed it, sticking it in my grey austerity pants, cook and burn food, talk and eat with my mouth full, scratch furiously and scrabble about – all visceral, abject attempts to basically humiliate myself. I make myself blush, straining to make my face go red whilst trying to spit out words but can’t. I show myself naked, expose family material, betray my mother – washing the dirty laundry in public so to speak. All the things I should feel shamed of but instead I illuminate these actions to relinquish them, to say no to shame.

It’s important to mention that humour plays a big part in the show and songs are sung throughout too. Some of them are made from family interviews such as my dad’s punk rock song Gresham Road in Brixton – a song about Levi 501s and the luxury of moving into a council house in the 50s.

There are loads of us strugglers out there and by presenting the work I’m hoping more voices can come out to rally and a share experiences. The device of shame in relation to class and economics in the UK is the most pervasive device to keep millions of people feeling small and powerless and it’s getting worse. Time to fly in the face of this, so bring on the rats and the austerity pants and the flea circus!

Free Lunch with the StenchWench is on tour in the UK and will be at Live Art Bistro, Leeds, 22 March

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