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Harry Josephine Giles


Interview

Poet and performer Harry Josephine Giles tells us about their new show Drone.

Image of Harry Josephine Giles

Harry Josephine Giles is a poet and performer. Their latest multimedia and spoken word show Drone is touring across the UK throughout April, May and June. Harry Josephine took time out of their busy schedule to give an insight into the show and what we can expect from the performance. 

Can you tell us a bit about your new show Drone?

Drone is about technology and anxiety, and how to live as part of systems of astonishing destruction. It’s a piece of gig theatre with poetry, electronic music and live visuals all playing off each other on stage to bring you a sensory storm.

I started writing the show when I realised that drones were the most emblematic technology of our new scary century: they’re the constant and universal surveillance of CCTV and social media, they’re tremendously violent action at a distance, they’re shiny new military technology and crappy consumer toys at the same time, they’re controlled and controlling. As well as bomb-droppers and bees and office workers, drones get used by both activists and cops to surveil their enemies, they get used in conservation schemes, they beam internet to censored zones. They’re everywhere and we’re all becoming drones, so I wanted to write about what that felt like.

So the show’s the story of what it’s like to be a drone! I embody the character of the drone, and I’m sort of operated by the music, the visuals and the text. I’m sad and angry and anxious and bitter and frustrated. I’m telling her story, which is also my story, and maybe a bigger one too. She’s not a good person, and can’t be, and it hurts.

Also, there are jokes.

Drone is described as collaborative piece incorporating sound, visual art and spoken word. What advantages do you think there are in bringing visuals and audio into a spoken word performance?

The first amazing thing is collaborating with other artists in different media: Neil Simpson on sounds and Jamie Wardrop on visuals. It’s a three-performer show: it’s not about the music scoring the text, or the visuals being a background, but the three of us responding to each other and working through the themes in our own way. It’s like playing in a band. That means relinquishing a bit of control, and opening up the performance to other people’s ideas, needs and expertises. I think that makes it more than three times as good.

There’s something else going on for me which is trying to bust the mould of the solo spoken word show, in which the performer confesses all the difficult things about their life and brings the audience to an uplifting conclusion. I love those shows, but I also want to see where else the medium can go. The drone’s not me (but she is), and the story’s more patchwork than linear, and we’re teasing, pleasing and confronting the audience all at once. I wrote it, and yes I perform it in a fabulous glittery dress, but I also want to shift my voice from the centre, literally distort it through pedals and my image through cameras, and see what other art can happen.

You have performed Drone on stage before. How has the show evolved over the years?

Aye, this show’s been five years in the making. The first version was just me and some found footage, and then I worked with Neil for a while to interweave music. Then we brought in Jamie to expand it through visuals, and Rob Jones to bring it all together with direction, and Stephanie Katie Hunter to produce the work to new heights. Each new version built on the last, and enabled us to get a bit more support in. I like making shows over a long period of time, to let things ferment and become deeper, richer — and making this kind of multi-artform work is also expensive and time consuming! As it’s gone on, it’s gotten more collaborative, more gig-like, more complex. It started out as a weird dreamy experiment, and now it’s a full on sensory spectacular.

As well taking in London, Glasgow and Edinburgh the Drone tour is visiting Kirkwall and Hoy. How important is it for you to take this show to audiences who may not have regular opportunities to see spoken word or performance?

Nah, Orkney’s heaving with storytelling and poetry and art of all forms! It’s a culturally rich and diverse place. But it’s where I’m from, so how could I not want to take the work I’m most proud of there? Something’s not real until you see what home makes of it, what the people who really know you make of it.

Yes, rural touring is important, but for the opposite reason: city arts scenes are a bubble, and their audiences are often over familiar and comfortable, and your work doesn’t necessarily get challenged. I live in Edinburgh, I get the richest conversations about my poetry when I perform in smaller towns and rural areas, because I get thoughts from different perspectives, because I’m shifted out of where’s comfortable and have to rethink what my words mean.

Your practice involves poetry, hosting events, performing, activism and a lot more. How do you manage your time and express self-care when developing your work?

I’ve gotten better at looking after myself over the years. I say no (with apologies) to more stuff. I schedule in at least one full writing day and at least one full day off a week, and I make liberal use of social media blockers. I make myself put new project ideas on the “When I Have Time” list rather than start them off. I only answer emails once a day. I acknowledge that living as an artist under late capitalism is always going to mean a compromise between what I want to make and how I can earn, and that sometimes I’m going to be overworked and broken because that’s what the economy does to me. When my body sounds alarm bells I cancel things (with apologies). I steal money, time and food from the rich whenever I can.

I also steal anything that is being sold to me as self-care. Self-care isn’t doing soothing things to make the kyriarchy hurt less: it’s drawing boundaries and maintaining them against exploiters, it’s putting on armour but with nice-smelling lotion underneath so it doesn’t chafe too much, it’s looking after your friends and comrades so that they can look after you, and it’s telling yourself that you and the world deserve better.

Can you tell us what you will be working on in the near future?

When Drone is wrapped up (and I hope it tours for a while yet!), the next show will be another multimedia collaboration based on my next book, which is an Orcadian science fiction verse novel called Deep Wheel Orcadia. It’s set on a space station orbiting a gas giant that’s 8 light years away and 500 years in the future, and that’s a bit like Orkney and a bit not. It’s a gay space communist fantasy written in a small language and about the small peace of small things.

Drone is touring the UK throughout April, May and June with performances at  The Tron, Glasgow 11th – 13th April, Camden’s People Theatre, London 2nd May, Sound Archive, Orkney 9th May, Gable End Theatre, Hoy 10th May and Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh 4th/5th June.