Kate McGrew is one of my favourite people. She is the perfect human embodiment of "zero fucks given." She has a curiosity and positivity that is infectious and more confidence than any of us could ever hope to have, which is only matched by her kindness and warmth. As a fellow American, Kate and I share a similar story of coming to Ireland on a family holiday, falling in love with the place (for better or worse), and sticking around. She is a performer, a singer, and a sex worker. The sex work both affords her the opportunity to create her art as well as inspires it.
Kate is an outspoken and articulate advocate of the decriminalisation of her industry, and her new show, Sweet Pang, which runs from tonight till the 17th, is a testament to that. I asked her a few questions about the show:
Who is Sweet Pang, and what is her mission in life?
"Sweet Pang is a sex worker in a parallel universe. Tho she has many passions, she is being forced to focus on survival. Sex workers are hunted by a pack of Radical Feminist Zombies, hell-bent on enslaving clients and eating hookers for strength. When her client dies during sex, Pang devises a plan to eradicate the Rad-Fem Zombies, and it becomes her mission to rid the world of their dangerous hypocrisy."
In the past few years, we’ve seen the debate surrounding sex work really start to ramp up, especially after Amnesty International announced their proposed policy to call for its decriminalisation. How do you feel about the timing of the Tiger Fringe festival and how Sweet Pang might contribute to the debate?
I hope it will give us all a much needed laugh! The show takes the "dead hooker" trope and flips it on its head in an effort to give audiences another way of seeing a sex worker, to disrupt the toxic ubiquitousness of the simple phrase "dead hooker" serving alone as a punchline. And then, there is a lot of symbolism in there, particularly around The Rad-Fem Zombies (prohibitionists), who enslave clients (use tools of the patriarchy by dictating what we can/cannot do with our bodies, by taking away an option for us to make money, by silencing and dismissing our voices), and eat hookers for strength (by feeding on the salacious stories of sex workers, by placing women who had a horrible time in sex work to tell and re-live their stories again and again to further their prohibitionist aim, by thriving on our interactions alone as what to blame for misogyny - without having to do the work to think broader).
The Dublin Theatre Festival is also featuring a play about sex work called “The Game.” How do you feel the two shows compare? Do they compare?
This is hard for me to talk about because as an artist it does not feel great to criticise anothers' work. I will say this because it is a very different matter when what we are talking about is not a question of art but of safety. I feel that this group is being ethically sloppy. The show is being directed by a woman who has stated that she believes sex work to be "commercialized sex abuse", and has said that she does not believe migrants who came to a country to do one job and ended up doing sex work, and suffer much abuse from clients and police can still say that they want decrim, that they just want to be able to work as safely as possible. So if the nuance of a concept like "choice", and the complexity of lived realities of people in extremely pressurized situations are missing, then what is being created cannot be more than minstrelsy. The perpetuation of the reductive, sensationalist, dehumanizing concept of "selling your body" directly leads to sex workers' consent meaning nothing, to sex workers being uniquely abused, raped, and murdered. That is some really deep misogyny to be perpetuating, and the repercussions for us are serious.
These actresses do not have to wake up in the morning to face clients and a world to whom it has been suggested that it is acceptable to question whether or not they deserve rights. So how the two compare I don't know, because I won't be seeing it. A focus on clients and why they want to buy sex is harmful in a political climate where we see, from evidence that is specifically neutral and specifically source-referenced, that attempts to criminalize clients harms the workers themselves, yet we are still considering it, because people so want to believe that an amount of criminalization will make a thing go away. That conversation becomes a distraction from the crucial point right now - that specifically for the worst situations in the industry, we've gotta give these women as much legal recourse as possible. And there are so many male and trans* workers! Come to think of it there is one single sentence in my show that addresses why men buy sex and damn, is it simple!!
By chance you cast one of my good friends, Aileen Ferris, in the show. Tell us about the casting process, and what set Aileen apart from the rest of the crowd?
Aileen is a little gem of a human who contacted me saying "I'm responding to a call-out by Arlene Caffrey (her fabulous teacher). I'm interested in your show but I want to make sure I'm okay with the theme. I know it's about sex work and I need you to know that I feel very strongly about the importance of Decrim, and would not be comfortable supporting anything else." I burst out laughing and thought "I've found my girl!" Sure enough, when we met in the studio she was a lovely dancer and most importantly, willing to clown. It's been awesome working with her, and she even brought some extra lines to the show!
You’re a stage performer, musician, and last year you starred in RTE’s show Connected. Has the public-facing side of your career impacted your sex-work? If so, how?
I do get a lot of clients who want to commend me on my work, and my other pursuits, and then I have clients with whom we both pretend like we don't know. As in, I can tell he's seen me on tv or read about me, and we are both pretending that that awareness doesn't exist. That's fun in its own way because part of what is nice about sex work is the escape, the luxury of fantasy, and there's a maintenance of the spark that can come from having boundaries.
You’ve done earlier shows with the Sweet Pang character. What has changed and how has she developed? Will you be touring the show after Tiger Fringe?
This show is the natural follow-on from its origins. When I did my new show "Hooker P.I." recently in the San Diego International Fringe Fest, it was obvious that this whoring private investigator was Sweet Pang in the next chapter. So this "Sweet Pang" show in the Chocolate Factory is the super organic coming together of the two. Definitly watch this space for where the show goes next. I think Pang goes on to be a politician.