Caro Meets Theatre Interview

Libby Liburd: Muvvahood

By | Published on Thursday 2 November 2017

“We all know the stereotype: a teenager, wearing a tracksuit, smoking a fag, pushing a buggy, on her way to Lidl with her ASBO children that live off cheesy chips and must be rescued by Jamie Oliver.”
Libby Liburd starts a short tour of London at the Park Theatre this week, with a brilliant-sounding show that shines a light on what it’s really – really – like to be a single mother, and challenges the persistent and damaging stereotypes as mentioned above. I put some questions to her, ahead of her first performance.

CM: Can we start with the format of Muvvahood? It’s not quite what you’d describe as theatre, is it?
LL: You’re right, it’s not your typical theatre show! When I created Muvvahood I wanted to make something non-traditional that not only challenged pre-conceptions about single motherhood, but also pre-conceptions about theatre. I think we, as a society, have a tendency to just accept norms without question. I wanted to shake things up a bit. The show is part stand-up, part TED talk and part verbatim. Having that format allows me to include my own story and talk to the audience as myself – I think that’s been crucial. You can see that audiences know the context of the show and expect it to be 60 minutes of doom and gloom – it’s important that they’re able to relax and see that it really ain’t that kind of party! It’s a funny show, the comedy really helps with the light and shade. Also, having that format allows me to work directly with an audience to break down some of the more complex policy stuff that’s in the ‘TED talk’ part of the show. I use props, projections, all sorts. There’s no point just angrily ranting at an audience for an hour – they’ve paid good money to be entertained!

CM: And now, can you tell us what it’s all about?
LL: It’s a show about the realities of being a single mother. Generally, (see question 1) when I say that, the assumption is that it’s going to be a miserable show. I think that just really exemplifies the opinion that we, as a society, have about single mothers: that we’re all miserable and have rubbish lives. ‘Muvvahood’ isn’t that at all. Yes, there’s pain in there, but there’s also joy, resilience and a real sense of ‘bouncing back’, overcoming adversity.

It’s also really important to say that the show isn’t just for single mothers! Single motherhood is a roller-coaster, but many of those emotions are universal – whether parents or not, all human beings have painful experiences, joyful experiences, experiences that anger us, experiences that make us grow. Intrinsically, it’s a hopeful show.

CM:What made you decide to create a performance about the subject?
LL: I’ve been a single mother for the last ten years and in that time I just never saw any real, nuanced representations of single mothers on stage, film or TV. It’s the same tired old stereotype – the miserable single mum, the struggling single mum, the single mum sat at home in a dressing gown sobbing. Single mums are usually represented in a way that implies that they are so-called ‘bad mums’.

That kind of messaging is not only old and tired but it’s getting a bit offensive now. Theatre has the power to make change and we need to start seeing a range of families authentically represented onstage so that our children grow up seeing that their family unit is OK. If we want young people to become theatre goers, they need to see real stories onstage that they can relate to. The power of theatre is that it allows us to feel that we’re not alone, that someone else has our story. I was never seeing that, nor was my son. The show was driven my desire to change that.

CM: Obviously, it relates to your own experiences – what kind of things happened to you?
LL: In my time as a single mother I’ve had some pretty difficult experiences. I’ve experienced housing issues, financial difficulty, prejudice, the works. It’s often the smallest things that sting the most, hearing my family unit being labelled as a ‘broken home’ is always pretty tough; that label is used so casually and is so hurtful. We’ve struggled and we’ve had some really, really tough times but we are definitely NOT broken. We’ve also had some amazing times. I’ve raised a young man by myself and ultimately I’m incredibly proud of that.

CM: What research did you do to inform your project?
LL: The show began with me interviewing other single mothers. I sat with the women, interviewed them for about an hour, then transcribed their interviews and put snippets together to make the piece.

So originally Muvvahood was just a verbatim piece. But I noticed that all the women mentioned similar things – things I’d been through – housing issues, the financial strain, the prejudice. At that point I started to do some research into those things. I’d never seen my experience as part of a wider picture; I’d genuinely just thought mine was an isolated case.

I did months and months of research into the prejudices that single mothers face from the media, government, society and decision makers in general. I work with a fabulous director, Julie Addy, who helps me filter all the research I’ve done. If I included all my findings, it’d be an 8 hour show and would be boring as hell. So whilst you desperately want your audience to hear everything and to get the whole picture, Julie helps me stay on course. Ultimately we’re making a show and we can only include information and stories that serve the show. Editing is hard!

CM: Which misconceptions or stereotypes do you find most irritating?
LL: There’s a few! The main one is this enduring stereotype of a single mother that doesn’t work, that got pregnant to get a council house and that doesn’t contribute to society. That one particularly drives me mad! Single mothers don’t work? Whether in paid work or not, I assure you, single mothers are working. It is incredibly hard to bring up a child, everyone knows that, and bringing a child up alone is especially hard – of course it’s work! And the majority of single parents are also in paid work, with an even higher percentage wanting to be in paid work and simply unable to due to childcare issues. As for getting pregnant to get a council house – do me a favour!

CM: I’m a non-single parent and I know many single parents who I really look up to because they seem to be doing a way better job than me, so I find it mad that this stigma happens. How has this come about? Is it largely political, do you think?
LL: I think with any kind of deep rooted stigma, it comes from the top down, so yes, I’d agree, it’s largely political. In my show, I’ve used quotes and footage from various politicians and people in power that have said some frankly disgusting things about single mothers. I think if those in power continually reinforce a very specific rhetoric against a certain group of people it then becomes a part of mainstream society’s thought and somehow becomes acceptable to discriminate against that group. Effectively those people in power’s words give society permission to think and act a certain way. Single mothers are easy targets – may of us feel vulnerable already, many of us are struggling already, we are already juggling a million things. It then becomes very hard to fight back when we’re attacked – whether by government or society in general. This show is my ‘fight back’.

CM: Are you politically motivated, then, in creating the show? Do you hope to provoke reaction or change with it?
LL: I think I probably am now! I don’t think anyone can spend so long with the research material as I have and not become politically motivated. When I realised the systemic prejudice against single mothers that I’d been unknowingly absorbing for years, I got angry. I really want the show to inform, to educate. The show explores political policy and prejudice but through the verbatim parts it also illuminates the human cost of these policies and prejudices.

The main feedback I’ve had from audience members is that they had no idea that this was going on. And I think for myself, I had no idea it was going on even though I was living it. I think that if we’re informed, we can make change, we can’t make change if we don’t know what’s going on! It’s exciting, because we’re in a time when people generally seem more politically engaged, they want to talk about things, they’re also open to having their minds changed.

CM: Can you tell us a bit about the events and initiatives you’re operating alongside the show?
LL: I’m so excited about these! I don’t just want to make theatre for ‘usual’ audiences, I want the work I make to be as accessible as possible. I obviously want single parents to be able to access the show. The main barriers for many single parents are money and childcare.

So across the dates I have a range of options that can help. I have discounted tickets across the venues and at Poplar Union it will be a relaxed performance with an on-site pay-what-you-can creche. Also, many single parents feel incredibly isolated and so I’ve also got post show discussions plus pre and post show workshops for single parents who want to explore the themes of the show but also get some group support. If there’s any single parent that wants to come to my show but feels they can’t afford it or is worried to come on their own, I can help. They just need to contact me through my website or social media channels.

CM: You’re performing on a number of occasions over the next month, but is it a show you’re planning on breaking out again in the future?
LL: There’s a lot of interest in the show touring nationally, which is something I’m really up for. However, I do have to remind people, I am still a single mum myself! I can’t afford to tour unless I get specific funding to support that and also if I’m off on tour, who’s home for my son? So it’s this constant juggling and balancing act for me. Of course, I want the show to be seen by as many people as possible but it needs to be manageable for me. It’s just me on the stage, I’m the only performer and the material is so personal that it’s exhausting at the best of times – then add on top of that all the other things a tour involves. Right now, I’m looking at ways to tour next year but I’m still totally in ‘how do I even do this?’ stage!

CM: What other plans do you have? What’s coming up next for you?
LL: I’m currently writing a new show which is super exciting. As an actor, I’ve just finished a three week run of a fabulous play. I’m becoming far more politically engaged and am starting to write and speak more in that arena too. I also do work with young people so I am currently working on several projects in that field. So I’m super busy, with loads of exciting things coming up. Whoever started that stereotype that single mothers don’t work needs to come and look at my schedule!

Libby performs ‘Muvvahood’ at The Park theatre from 3-4 Nov, at Poplar Union on 7 Nov, at Mirth, Marvel & Maud on 23 Nov, and 30 Nov-1 Dec at Pleasance Theatre. See this page here for a tour overview.

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