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Guest Post: Nina Telegina on getting mad at history and ghostly visions

Nina Telegina is a writer and performance poet and a multiple poetry slam winner. She believes that poets can be doing a lot more to connect with and engage with their audience. She says she is always looking for ways to push the boundaries of the art form, through performance, drama, humour, or storytelling, and you can see the ways she might do this at Medway River Lit, when she brings her one-woman show to the festival!

'Renegades' tells the stories of some of the famous women you’ve never heard of: pirates, rebels, arsonist nuns, and sword fighter superstars that have been erased from history.

Photo of Nina Telegina in costume
Nina Telegina in costume

Where were all the women?

I created 'Renegades' because I got really mad.

I was researching epic heroes for another project, and fell into one of the Internet’s many rabbit holes. Lists of classical epic heroes always featured men: Hercules. Achilles. David. Gilgamesh. King Arthur.

Where were the women? I wondered.

Into the rabbit hole I dove to find a Wikipedia list of female warriors. The sheer number of these was astonishing. The list went on for ages, encompassing every continent and epoch. There were female pirates, female generals, female samurai… and I had only ever heard of Joan of Arc!

A few clicks through Wiki entries led me to new depths. Now I was looking at a legendary queen called Semiramis – I was still searching for epic heroes, after all.

Semiramis, so the story goes, was a semi-divine queen, raised by doves, who wove her way into power in Game of Thrones-style intrigue. Her path to the throne was littered with dead husbands and sexual escapades, and culminated in her cross-dressing as a warrior, and nobly leading soldiers to victory. She was like a female King Arthur, if the King Arthur legend had been written by George R. R. Martin.

Further down the rabbit hole again, and the plot thickened. It turned out that the Semiramis legend had originally been far less lascivious. For centuries it been added to by male writers, each taking the time to trash her name a bit more. In spite of this, she had been even more famous than Joan of Arc. Certainly as famous as Cleopatra.

Until suddenly she got written out of history.

The process of forgetting Semiramis is a little murky, but involves a great heap of institutionalized misogyny, a touch of demonology, and the dawn of conspiracy theories (I address this in my show).

This made me furious. Semiramis had easily been one of the most famous legendary women in European history. Bocaccio even described her as “the most important woman in history – second only to Eve!” And just like that, she had been wiped away.

The ghost of a pirate

From then on, came an obsessive on-and-off research period for 'Renegades'. There were endless lists of women worth talking about; many unsuccessful attempts to secure funding; terrifying budget spreadsheets that put the whole project out of reach; not to mention the prospect of historical research – I’m a theatre graduate, after all, not a historian!

It would have been entirely sensible to give up. Except for a visitation. Though I’m not a big believer in dreams and omens, I have had occasionally dreams that have made an immense impression on me. The most notable was a dream about Mozart, who told me a joke in German so funny that I woke up laughing. I don’t speak German – it was all in the delivery.

This visitation, however, was more sinister. I dreamt I was making the decision to give up on Renegades, when a Chinese pirate came along and sat down next to me. Not any pirate. Zheng Yi Sao – the most successful pirate of all time. And a notoriously bloodthirsty one. She had only to look at me. I knew what she meant.

I won’t overplay the image of waking up in a cold sweat – I didn’t; but it was startling. Whether you believe in ghosts, or in the subconscious mind, or in intuition, the final conclusion is actually much the same. These women existed. They had extraordinary lives. And they’ve been given up on again and again – to the point where we don’t remember them. 'Renegades' had to be made.

And so made it has been. The project has taken six months of concentrated research with the help of my research consultant Alison Kuznets. It’s visited four festivals in Kent and then Bristol. It is headed to the West End in May. And then onward to the Medway River Lit at the Glassbox Theatre, on June 6th.

The show is an interactive experience. It’s like if a rowdy stand-up comedy night gate-crashed a history lecture. Please don’t come to sit politely and be educated. You will be encouraged to swear, shout, and play along.

Bring your loudest voice, and your best (or worst) pirate impression. And by all means, have a beer before you come.

'Renegades' will be part of a theatre double-bill with Pauline Holmes' new play 'The Lion Queen' (read Pauline's post.) Booking will open in May.


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