Foreign body

Guest Post: Imogen Butler-Cole on ‘Foreign Body’ at VAULT Festival

Today we have the wonderful and inspiring Imogen Butler-Cole with us, talking about Foreign Body, a play for the movement.

Foreign Body tells the story, through testimonial recordings, of Imogen’s healing following sexual assault alongside that of eight other survivors and of the perpetrator of one of the assaults.

What is Foreign Body about?

Foreign Body is a physical theatre play about healing after sexual assault – my own story, those of eight other survivors, and that of the perpetrator of one of my own assaults. It is told through verbatim – interviews with the people whose stories are being told, played in voice over. It is a solo performance but in this way we manage to tell several peoples’ stories.

What drove you to make Foreign Body?

Before I decided to tell my own story I was exploring the theme more widely and the main aim was to de-stigmatise the conversation around sexual violence. I felt that if we are not able to speak about it we would not be able to change it. As we worked we realised that true stories often make for the most powerful political theatre.

As it happened I was simultaneously going through a therapeutic process having recently uncovered my own story of surviving three separate sexual assaults. I had just met two other incredible women who had publicly shared their own stories and they both agreed for me to use their voices in the play. I was also inspired to reach out to the perpetrator of one of these assaults to start a kind of reconciliation process. This suddenly jumped out at the director and me as being quite a compelling story so we went from there. Eventually the perpetrator of this one assault agreed to have his voice included in the play and this now provides the cornerstone of the piece.

My motivation has continued to be opening up the conversation around sexual assault and in turn hopefully opening some minds to the reality that it affects us all in some way.

Who is Foreign Body for?

1 in 3 women face sexual assault in our lifetimes. We are all affected and we are all responsible. Therefore I think it is for everyone. It is time, as the #MeToo movement has shown us, for us to face up to the fact that we all know people who have been affected by this previously unspoken crime. The play can be uplifting for survivors as it points to a journey of healing and the fact that we can all be powerful again. It can be educative for people who know survivors and maybe aren’t sure how best to support them, or who want to understand their experiences without burdening their friend by asking them to talk about it. It is also for people who may have crossed lines without knowing it, and for those who may be at risk of doing so. Finally it is for anyone who passionately believes that we must address this issue and find a more positive way to move forward.

I stage discussion panels after every single show. I have special guests every night and we will be addressing different themes. For me this play is actually like a springboard into the discussion – it is there to serve the conversation as much as it is a stand alone piece of theatre. Particularly with this topic that has been so stigmatised for so long it feels as though we need the play as a jumping off point for the conversation. Otherwise people can feel uncomfortable talking about sexual violence – where do we begin? How do we make sure we say the right thing? With an issue that is so complex and so emotionally charged it can help to relate a set of personal experiences that the audience can then respond to in conversation. We will be covering some nuanced topics such as race and reporting sexual violence, the portrayal of sexual violence in the media and gender and sexual assault.

What challenges have you faced when it comes to staging issues surrounding sexual assault?

One challenge has been in dealing sensitively with the material that other survivors have contributed. Ten women agreed to entrust me with their most vulnerable stories and there’s a weight of responsibility that comes with that. I made sure that I prioritised their wellbeing throughout the process, from having someone to sit with them before and after the interviews to checking in with how much of the material they were willing for me to use, to giving them the choice of being named or anonymous, and always making sure they know when and where performances are going to take place.

Making this piece has been an exacting process personally. There have been several moments – usually in the lead up to presenting each version of the piece for the first time, before I’ve known how it was going to be received – when I have questioned why I was doing it, and if I would be able to go through with it. Once just prior to a week’s rehearsal for the final R&D I was badly triggered reading the victim statement of Brock Turner’s victim at Stanford. I felt weak and vulnerable for several days following the triggering and was unsure if I would recover in time. I took this to a friend and to the therapist I was working with at the time. They both helped me realise that it was more important for me to be safe than to go through with those performances. As it happened I felt strong enough to continue and we completed the piece in time. Now I have performed the play so many times and the response has always been so positive that I don’t have the same doubts before shows. I do often feel physically tired and it takes determination laced with a dash of righteous rage – and a focus on the need to tell these stories – to get me ready at the start of each show. In general though I feel strong and am exhilarated about being a part of this vital conversation.

How can we see Foreign Body?

Foreign Body will be at the VAULT Festival from 7-11 March at 6pm.

Tickets are available here:

VAULT Festival takes place at The Vaults, Leake Street, London SE1 7NN

Each night there will be a themed post-show panel discussion with two very special guests:

7th March:  Dr Nina Burrowes (Psychologist and Campaigner), Sejal Chad (Psychotherapist); The Psychology of Recovery

8th March:  Sirin Kale (Broadly), Nathalie McDermott (On Road Media); Portrayal of Sexual Assault in the Media

9th March:  Laura Haynes (UN Women), Rachael Krishna (BuzzFeed); The Global Impact of

10th March | 3pm:  Tanaka Mhishi (Poet and Performer); Gender and Sexual Violence

10th March | 6pm:  Nimco Ali (Daughters of Eve, WEP), Lucy-Anne Holmes (No More Page 3); Activism & Sexual Assault

11th March:  Sharmaine Lovegrove (Dialogue Books), Sereena Al Noor (An Essential Woman); Race and Reporting Sexual Violence


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