Actor, Theatre-Maker and Gender Activist: Tom Ross-Williams
Actor, Theatre-Maker and Gender Activist: Tom Ross-Williams
The first time I meet Tom Ross-Williams is not the most conventional of settings. I have just jumped onto his back and he is walking around on stage carrying me piggy-back style while talking about his negative experiences of masculinity. It’s all part of his new interactive show called ‘Give Me Your Skin’, conceived with best friend and co-creator Oonagh Murphy, that I’m watching at the Camden People’s Theatre as research before our interview. But little did he know we’d be meeting this way. Or getting so up close and personal so quickly.
Once the performance is over, I approach him and tell him my sneaky undercover journalistic secret. To his credit, he looks shocked for about a nanosecond and then bursts out laughing. Nothing like a bit of physical interaction to break the ice. Over a conciliatory cup of tea (and probably the best Wednesday night ice-breaker story ever), I get to asking him a bit more about the piece and the notion behind it.
“I started off making a solo show with Oonagh, who’s the co-creator of this show, doing a one-man solo piece called ‘Man Up’, which was about typical sort of things that men do that I didn’t really think I was part of”, he explained. “In a way, that was about trying to create a show that was both feminist, but also tackling some of the problems with masculinity. So that’s when Oonagh came on board and we started to make it in a way that was much more co-created.”
‘Give Me Your Skin’ weaves together narratives of violence, intimacy and gender norms, trying to offer a fresh perspective on the critique of gender equality, all while trying to remain fun and interactive. Consequently, in an effort to break down gender stereotypes, audience participation in a series of games is a large part of the production.
“A lot of political theatre is very critical and doesn’t have a lot of practical applications after you go”, Tom comments. “You leave and after you just think the world’s really terrible, and so we wanted to do something that we felt was both critical and had a way in which you could challenge that, and was solution-focused. And that’s where the whole interactive element came from.”
As part of the show, both Tom and Oonagh share stories of homophobia towards ‘that gay kid’ in school and re-stage a porn film with the roles reversed. But at the heart of ‘Give Me Your Skin’ is their platonic friendship. At the end of the show, they read out friendship vows to each other, promoting the idea that the best remedy for men feeling trapped by their masculinity is to learn from women.
In both his on-stage and written work, Tom describes himself as a queer performance maker and doesn’t shy away from the label. As well as acting, he volunteers for an organisation called Great Men, going into schools and working with teenage boys and running peer-led workshops from a feminist perspective around gender equality, consent and positive body types. He is also Co-Artistic Director of his own theatre company, Populace, working almost exclusively with all-female casts and majority female teams. Explaining the queer label, he sees it as a method of challenging social norms.
“Queer for me is a label that I’m very fond of because it breaks down a lot of boundaries”, he says. “I’m very happy to be called a gay man from the workshops I do with young people and young kids. If someone wants to ask me what I am, I think queer is a really nice way to feel inclusive”, he similarly adds by way of analysis. “So I have a lot of friends, women who are queer or lesbian, and it binds everyone who doesn’t fit into the heteronormative category”.
Likewise, Tom’s theatre work challenging patriarchy and gender norms most certainly fits the ‘social delinquent’ label, as he sees queer performance “as something challenging mainstream authority”.
“In terms of the show being queer, one of the things we feel very strongly is that we don’t want it to be an exclusive term, which is kind of a bit controversial, because a lot of queer people think you shouldn’t be able to be queer unless you’ve suffered the kind of oppression queer people face”, he states. “But I think if you, as a person who hasn’t faced that, want to join our side and fight the mainstream, then that’s really exciting. If you feel you want to rail against heteronormativity or any of those mainstream patriarchal ideas.”
During the performance, Tom also refers to himself as a ‘gentle-man’. Explaining the idea behind it, he sees the label as a useful political tool and call to action: “I was thinking about it in terms of what Sheryl Sandberg says about leaning in. What men could do in terms of feminism would be to lean out; and I think a way that they could do that would be to channel their gentleness, their gentleness to be someone who is malleable and doesn’t have to push forward when a woman pushes forward”, he says. “That’s the last thing that we want, for women to lean in and men to lean in further.”
As Co-Artistic director of Populace, he similarly aims to promote politics to a wide range of people, as well as provide a platform for issues and stories that need to be heard. In this way, Populace aims to instil a sense of positive political agency in audiences.
“We always try to take politics away from the politicians and make things about personal narrative”, he states. “We did a show in Leeds about a development coming up in a theatre space that was taking away from a lot of artists, and we made this piece about guerrilla gardening as a way to protest. So we’re looking at the ways you can fuse direct action with theatre.”
For Tom, the passive nature of theatre needs to be turned upside down and the energy of audiences channelled for positive good. “The thing that always frustrates me about theatre is that you always get a huge audience there, and then they just sort of go away”, he explains. “What if you could utilise that power of people coming together for something that’s really positive? And so another show we worked on was in protest of the anti-homosexuality laws in Russia. We made a flash mob ballet using Tchaikovsky, which was very tongue-in-cheek, about the absurdity of putting a ban on love”, he says, smiling. “So it’s sort of changed as it’s gone along.”
Populace also runs an annual event, ‘Reclaim The Future’, where artists of various disciplines are invited to rapidly respond to world events. “I’m trying to do a lot more campaigning”, he states. “I think the way that Populace would like to function in the future would be that each show would attach to a particular campaign”, he adds. “So for example, the show that we’re doing at the moment could attach to helping promote gender-neutral toilets in schools. And making another piece in the future around alternative parenting and liver transplants. One of the things I’d like to lobby would be to change transplants in England to being an opt-out system like they are in Wales, as it would have a real huge impact on people waiting for organs.”
So how does Tom’s craft help him to promote these goals better than other mediums could? “It’s partly because of that thing of an audience coming together, but I think it’s just the thing I know how to do”, he explains. “So it’s utilising what I’ve got, but also making sure that the workshops I do with young people or the grassroots stuff happens live. And I do believe theatre has the potential to change in a way that other mediums don’t, because there’s a quality to the liveness of it I think. You’ve got people in a room who are willing to be a bit converted; there’s something almost religious about a theatre. When else do you spend that time in your life kind of trusting some people that you’ve not met before to tell you a story or to be in that room with you?”
Aside from theatre’s live aspect, there’s also the emotional side, too. “I’m a very sensitive person, and love being close to emotions, to people’s genuine emotions”, he continues, “and so I find that far more affecting than the distance of film or of a fine art piece. Although I love all of that, I don’t access it in the same way, I guess”, he adds. “And I really like tactility and bodies in a room together. I think we lose that so much now. For me, the more time we can spend with other bodies in a space, like via protests or demonstrations, the better.”
By Vanessa Moore,
Photography by Paula Harrowing, Richard Lakos and Richard Davenport