“We look quite fit, actually.”
When I meet Mary Higgins and Ell Potter, they have just been emailed production photos from the latest run of their show HOTTER at the Soho Theatre.
“Of course we do!”
They apologise profusely for ignoring me as they scroll through the images, transfixed by the screen. I don’t hold it against them. They do look fantastic captured mid-movement, bathed in pink and red projections.
Ell tells me later that one of the things that her and Mary connected about in the early stages of their friendship was how they both had difficult relationships with their own bodies. “For a long time I really, really disliked, nay, hated my body,” she says with a melodramatic flourish. “I’m able to laugh at it now because of HOTTER, because there’s so much openness in the way we approach the subject.”
While the general conceit of ‘body positivity’ has been commercialised into something less than desirable, Higgins and Potter seem to be offering something much more thoughtful and powerful with HOTTER, a show that has been described as both an “interrogation of the female body”, and a “massive onstage orgasm”. Based on a series of interview recordings with women and non-binary people, the text of the show manages to encompass an impressive range of physical experiences, allowing for a connection with its audience on a deep, almost psychic level.
HOTTER has grown since its debut at the 2017 Edinburgh Fringe, adapting as Higgins and Potter honed in on their creative vision: “It was often one woman, or two-person shows that made me feel like this: when you leave something and it’s like your blood is electricity,” says Mary, “We wanted to make something that makes people feel like that.”
How did you meet?
Ell: We were at uni together, but we weren’t really friends. We properly met in third year, when Mary came up to me in a pub and literally said: ‘Do you want to make a two-woman show with me?’ I was like, ‘I don’t know you, but yeah, okay.’
Mary: I fancied Ell.
Ell: I didn’t realise that at the time. I was really intimidated by Mary. People used to call her ‘Scary Mary’ because she’s so cool. I mean, have you seen her? For posterity, she’s very cool.
Mary: So are you!
Ell: So am I, but I didn’t see myself as cool then. I know I’m cool now but I didn’t think I was then, and then I was like, ‘Well, Mary Higgins wants to make a show with me.’
What do you like most about working together?
Mary: Fucking everything! It’s the best thing in the world. I’ve never had a better experience, I never will have a better experience. Working with Ell is like having an extension of my own brain, but with the differences of Ell’s brain. But we agree on everything.
Ell: It’s funny because when we talk to other people who do duo stuff, they’re always like, ‘Oh yeah, but the arguments. Aren’t they terrible? We all feel that, don’t we?’ And I’m always like, ‘Umm, no, actually? No. Actually, no.’
Mary: We got the hardship out of the way early.
Ell: That’s true. We were together, and then we broke up while we were doing the show.
Mary: We weren’t together very long, I’d say about three months. But they were very intense months, because it was both of our first queer relationships. So it was a huge time for both of us, because it was when we were making the show the first time. We had started hanging out in final year, having spent two years vaguely knowing of each other. Now I spend more time with Ell than I spend with most other people I know.
Ell: I spend more time with Mary than I do with my identical twin.
What made you want to make work about bodies?
Mary: It was just at the forefront of both of our minds. And it was how we were bonding with each other, to talk about those things that you don’t like voicing, because they’re thoughts of disgust about yourself. Or jealousy of other people. Generally all the ugly bits, the ugly little monologue you’ve got going on in your head about what you look like and what other people look like, and how that correlates. We noticed that when we talked to each other about it, it did provide a sort of relief.
Ell: We felt we owed that feeling of catharsis to other people. In an ideal world, HOTTER’S aim is for anyone who’s seen the show to never feel embarrassed about their body every again. But it’s impossible, and it’s something we address in the show, the hypocrisy of attempting to transmit that message, when you yourself haven’t yet completely got there.
Mary: HOTTER very straight-forwardly celebrates women’s, trans, and non-binary people’s bodies and forms. FITTER hopes to extend the same act of generosity and celebration to men and masculine-presenting people. But it’s going to be naturally complicated by the fact that it’s difficult for Ell and I, as cis women who have grown up in a patriarchal world, to straight-forwardly celebrate something that has been damaging to us.
Tell me a bit more about FITTER. Where did the idea for that come from?
Ell: We had to think about the fact that when we went into making HOTTER, we didn’t ever think about why we weren’t interviewing men for it. I think we’re in this Goldilocks zone for women, in that we’re allowed to feel proud of our masturbation habits and body positive in a way that men aren’t allowed to feel proud of. They’re not allowed to express this self love in a way that’s fashionable for women to do now. Because if a man expresses that, it’s not fashionable or cool. It’s arrogant, or pornographic.
Mary: It’s been very eye-opening to talk to men about these things, and it’s very common to hear ‘I’ve never said this before’ or, even more, ‘I’ve never thought about that before’. It’s great. I’m sort of addicted to hearing the moment when someone first articulates something they’ve been thinking about for years. To be present for the first time someone puts words to feeling – I could live on that.
How do you feel about the reservations people have had with you embodying the thoughts of those who aren’t cis white women?
Ell: We always listen to them, because normally they are in much more of a position to have an opinion about it than we are. So, for example, there was a section we used to have in our show where we spoke the words of a non-binary person, and also a woman of colour who described a story of growing up and standing in the shade whenever she was outside. And we used to say those words aloud ourselves, and we got one review in particular that said ‘I don’t know how I feel about that’. And so we just changed it. We just use their recordings now, their actual voices. Because we were like, ‘Well, that’s a really good point.’
Mary: We don’t want anyone to feel excluded or uncomfortable by things in HOTTER. Feedback is generally welcome, unless the review’s written by a really old white man. Then we tend to ignore. But that’s one of the reasons that FITTER’S being made, because men would come up to us and say, ‘What about men?’ And at first I was like, ‘Oh, for god’s sake, what do you mean what about men?!’ But then I was like, ‘Well, what about men?’ I agree that I think we were right to not include cis men in HOTTER. They do deserve an hour each, masculinity and femininity, they blend. So, annoyingly, we are going to set up a kind of binary by having these two shows.
Ell: We have a job to queer that though.
Mary: It’s done, it’s already queered.
Ell: It’ll be fine, people will get it!
Mary: Maybe we’ll make a show called Spectrum next.
Words by Jenna Mahale
Photos by Holly Revell