Saturday 18 November 2017

How the lady grew into her all new stage role

Vertical view: Kate McGrew brings her cabaret show Sweet Pang to the Tiger Dublin Fringe
Vertical view: Kate McGrew brings her cabaret show Sweet Pang to the Tiger Dublin Fringe

Ireland has been kind to sex worker Kate McGrew. Not everyone wants to hear that. But there's no ignoring the opportunities out there for a 'ho' - to use one of this redoubtable woman's Twitter handles. Here in Ireland, Kate learned to pole dance. She appeared on the RTE reality TV show Connected and became a spokeswoman for the rights of workers in an industry which exists in dangerous secrecy. And here in Ireland, she found her voice as a performer.

As 'Lady Grew' Kate brings her one-woman cabaret show, Sweet Pang, to the Tiger Dublin Fringe next week. Let's rewind for a moment.

Born in Ohio around 35 years ago, Kate McGrew started performing in community theatre aged eight. She attained a BA in Theatre from Wesleyan University in Connecticut and moved to New York City, where she performed with the politically radical Theatre For The New City. To supplement her mealy actors' income, she started doing sex work. Performance in the social sense fell by the wayside.

Kate came here on a family holiday in August 2008 to trace her ancestors from Tyrone and Enniskillen. She was on a west of Ireland ferry when a local offered her a bed in his parents' house if she could tend their garden.

To her own parents' disappointment, she decided to stay. She settled in Cork, and found her way into stripping, pole dancing and sex work.

But one day at a reggae gig in the People's Park in Cork, one of the performers heard her singing from the audience. "I was harmonising or something," giggles this force of dynamite in a voice both raspy and girly. "The singer came up and said, 'do you want to sing in my band'?" And so she met the electronic music producers that helped launch her career as Lady Grew.

Sweet Pang is more of a 'cabarave', she says. It tells the story of "a sex worker pursued by zombie feminists". There is rapping and pole dancing, with some acrobatic verse too, singing the virtues of bodily autonomy. Kate describes herself as a 'post-feminist'.

Others have described her as an "immoral woman" (RTE radio) and a "vile harlot?" (to her face). Do they upset her? "The comments, they do roll off me. Some people, it's going to take longer to come round to it. It's the same thing as with gay people being able to marry. It's just a matter of time."

She could be a pop star, a circus acrobat, a high-class escort. Why theatre? "I mean seriously, are there many things that are less cool nowadays?" she says, romantically. "It's the medium where I can feel the freest creatively." (Though not that free: recently in California she was bitten by a spider. The wound on her thigh hasn't healed, so Irishwoman Aileen Ferris will be doing the pole dance.)

Kate says "one-woman show" is a misnomer, it takes so many people to get her onstage. But hers is a solitary route to stardom. She has no director. "I would love a director. I love working with people." Or agent? "I would love an agent. I want an agent!" Last year, she took to and raised the €2050 she needed for Sweet Pang. "This year, I funded it through sex work," she says. Even since moving from Cork to Dublin, sex is still her trade. "It can be snatching work wherever you can, sometimes."

In California, she often had a client to see after a show. "I'm happy to do sex work as long as I have to. Like any artist I'd say, I'd like to be completely self-sufficient for my shows. That would mean I could have an orchestra pit, 15 dancers with me onstage, seven poles! Even if I was doing that, I'd say there would be a couple of clients I'd see now and again, for..." She hesitates. "'For fun' is such a problematic thing to say, I get in a lot of trouble for saying it but it's true. It's fun."

Thus Lady Grew. The cabaret artist Camille O'Sullivan once told me she would like to wear dungarees on stage to fend off male predators. But Kate's show revels in an aggressive sexuality. Her parents, a retired vet and university professor, came to a version of it in Dublin last year, and sat in the front row. Did this not make everybody cringe? "My parents have always been so encouraging of my performing, they're delighted. For them, that outweighed their discomfort at the content."

"And this was before I had come out to them as a sex worker," she says. "My dad said, 'Where do you come up with that stuff?'"

Her parents have accepted, but "aren't delighted", with their daughter's career choice. "What was hard and continues to be hard is I know the stress and the worry that I'm causing them. But I felt I personally can do the best and most effective work that I can out, so I thought that we as a family are strong enough to bear it. What I'm fighting for is so much bigger than any of us. That's what I tell them. If throughout history people had been more concerned with keeping people comfortable, nothing would have ever changed."

Sweet Pang and Elk and Saintly form a double bill at the Chocolate Factory, Dublin, 14-17 September as part of Tiger Dublin Fringe

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