A confession, and a provocation.
These last few years since becoming a full-time ponce-faced artist-about-town I’ve been really lucky to have worked with some amazing people. Even luckier that many of those people have come from walks of life different to my own, with backgrounds and heritages I’ve been able to learn about and benefit from in numerous wonderful ways.
“Different people” sounds like a strange distinction – I’ll use the term here for want of something better. I’ve plenty of related questions about the term ‘diversity’.
But recent experiences have made me want to do some thinking in public, working through some reflections on how folk work creatively with folk who come from different places in whatever way – geographically, culturally, physically, mentally.
And this relates to some thinking about how power is identified and shared when we create stuff together.
Quick bio: I’m white and male and middle-class. I was born in the English midlands but spent most of my childhood in Rio De Janeiro, before returning to rural Leicestershire for my teenage years, then moving to Bristol to study. I’ve been here ever since. As a side note, while Bristol is a multicultural place, history has conspired to keep its communities more segregated than is healthy – but even so my life here has never felt monocultural. At university I fell in love with a woman from England’s north east, a woman of Sri Lankan heritage, and after 22 years together her family is my family, her story and mine have become an expression of the same world.
But I exist in a position of power, I know that. And my ability to cross these cultural spaces is enabled by being white, middle-class, cis.
Have I experienced any kind of oppression, have I ever been othered? Hmmm. Now and then. I returned from Brazil with an accent and vocabulary that made me sound like a miniature Alan Bennett. This meant I got beaten up with alarming consistency for about six years at three different Leicestershire schools. The constant bullying took its toll – for a while it hindered me, changed me for the worse, made me stubborn and anti-social. So I have strong empathy with being picked out and kicked about… BUT my exit routes from any horrible experiences were made clearer thanks to the assumptions people were happy to make about me. I was a white kid with the ‘right’ vocabulary, after all. And later on as a young adult I sometimes abused those privileges, especially when my masculine self-confidence developed in some toxic and selfish directions.
My story of growing up has, I hope, seen me gradually identify and stop some of those harmful behaviours. But I can’t deny I’ve long felt a creative tension between the part of me that aspires to be an honest artist, aware of my own failings, using art to work things out for myself as well as for others to enjoy; and the part of me that wants to be socially aware, to be useful and good.
Obviously, blatantly, they’re not always opposing aims. But I think those of us with entrenched privilege have to interrogate these inner tensions as openly and honestly as possible, warts and all – because unfortunately, the default has usually been to ignore them.
When we talk about power within culture and the arts, we rightly talk a lot about responsibility and respect but we rarely talk about art’s relationship to the basic act of play. I wonder a lot about the push/pull between playful instinct and prejudice. I believe that artists tend to be people who haven’t completely grown up, and that’s a good thing. Our childhood games haven’t left us, we play for the sake of it, and in the modern world being true to this need and encouraging it in others is so so important because it sees people as creators of meaning, rather than just spending our entire lives as consumers.
It also of course means that artists can be naïve and needy and sometimes deliberately obtuse; again, good things in many cases. Sometimes we do stuff just to see what might happen next, often we can’t explain our thinking. In order to make the play comfortable we often frame it with rules, rules that can have the effect of making our games fun to watch. Artist and audience invent structures around things like craft, genre, community, language, authorship.
But these rules have other side-effects. Handled badly they can block other people from joining in with the fun. Most of the time we don’t see it. In the act of playing, of imagining, of feeling free, we don’t see ourselves shutting the door in people’s faces. How can such innocently joyful activity cause anyone pain, we ask? It can. Of course it can.
But what I’d like to argue here is that somewhere within each of our psyches there’s a kid who, more than anything, is excited by playing with kids from different places. Sometimes we’re shy to begin with. But in the end working out new stories together, inventing new rules and new ways of taking part is just The. Best. Thing.
You might have twigged by now that these thoughts are kind of broad and I’ve avoided talking too much about any one art form, but this is where I want to do a specific check-in on theatre. When we talk about the scope for sharing and playing with other kids, finding new rules, theatre excites me so much. Because it’s practically impossible for anyone to be a true authority when it comes to theatre.
Sure, you can study it theoretically and yep, you can know its history, you can be informed about its currency, but in the end we’re talking about an art form that doesn’t really have a memory. Even the most dedicated theatre-goer will not be able to see everything, to chart what every kind of performance does from night to night, the way that changes in attitude ripple through audiences across the world, the infinite possibilities for emotional engagement.
On some levels that’s true of all art forms, live music being an obvious example. But though in the last 150 years the acts of recording and mass distribution have become interwoven with the arts, in theatre there’s still a distinct resistance to bottling up the alchemy. There’s no way anyone’s going to be able to establish rock-solid formulae for the stage – and my argument is that this should make it easier to think up new languages, new combinations and presentations, approaches that include everyone. So why are those genuinely inclusive expressions so slow to appear?
Well, first up, because it’s fucking hard work, and not everyone wants to do it. We shouldn’t paint rosy pictures of freeform play when actually the real-world politics and brain-stretchy acts of empathy that accompany being an open artistic collaborator can feel, instead, like writing a thesis or being put on trial. The correct progress of society means that people will be rightfully angry about injustice. The imbalances are complex, and the moral responsibility for any solution rests with the people whose culture is and was responsible for the oppression. A huge question for me concerns how much help to ask for when trying to educate yourself – how much is respectful, or emotionally intelligent, or practically viable.
This has been a lot on my mind recently because of some very good experiences on theatre projects, and some very bad ones. I’ve been vacillating for the best part of 2 years as to how to identify and share these experiences – because while sincerely feeling the need to speak, I sincerely don’t want to hurt anyone.
I’m angry and hopeful in equal measures about these failures and successes; sometimes shakingly angry, reduced to incoherent noises and literal head-desking. But because I don’t want these thoughts to end up sounding like the worst part of the internet I decided to choose my words with care. In fact I got so careful, I became tied up in semantic knots and completely stopped writing for a while. And then, one evening, found myself chatting about it all with Clare Reddington, creative director at Watershed, who suggested: name the good stuff, don’t name the bad. So that’s what I’m going to do.
With one exception. I’m going to name and shame myself.
A little background to my confession: I’ve been working for about four years on a play about a part of the world I’ve not yet been to, and some communities I’ve not, so far, met. As is usual for me the idea came not from a pressing theme or a desire to explore an intellectual concept, but from an image that came to mind unbidden, and an emotional connection to something hidden deep within that precise image.
In this case the image was reasonably complex, but it hit me fully formed, and culturally specific.
It portrayed a collector of music – a folklorist of the kind who wandered between American communities in the early part of the 20th century, recording blues, hillbilly dances, field hollers, railroad work songs – and a black bluesman with whom the folklorist has a decades-long working relationship. They’re on a tour of prisons in the deep south of the USA, on the hunt for new material for the national archives, with the bluesman also performing for the inmates as they go. As well as recording the prisoners, they’re rushing to capture the bluesman’s back catalogue onto the newly available high-quality medium of magnetic tape. They’re on their last prison stop, and although they don’t know for sure this will be their final session together, they both feel it keenly, the pressure is on. And they discover that in this last prison, the only room which is soundproofed enough to record in is the execution chamber that houses the electric chair. The whole action of the play happens in this room.
I instantly fell in love with the horrible complications of that image. I fell in love with the people in the room almost as quickly, and felt I had to write the play. And here’s what I mean about the tensions between the playful artist and the responsible one, because looking back, the first draft of that play was written by a middle-class white man who did not know what the fuck he was doing.
That first draft is still in circulation somewhere, copies of it exist in the world. You come to terms with that as a writer. I don’t hope they’re lost or destroyed, but I do think that anyone reading them, knowing that they’re drafted by a Caucasian European, would rightfully have some ethical questions, would be correct in calling the first draft at very best a little naïve – and I can also clearly imagine a series of arguments that would see that first draft as racist.
That possibility has always been alive for me when working on this text. It was something I recognised from the start, but the horribly predictable thing is that for all my supposed wokeness the cultural insensitivities HAPPENED ANYWAY.
A call-back, here, to earlier when I was talking about the comforts we create around rules, genres, craft: you might have thought I was making a clarion call for ditching that stuff. God, no. To be aware of them as comforts and defaults, yes; to question and adapt as often as possible, yes. But in this case it was an issue of craft and good old-fashioned interrogation of the text that would make things, if not correct, then certainly better.
Here’s what happened with the first version of that play: I stuck to something I considered an emotional truth, something that felt honest… and it did harm.
For a long time I’ve hated that playwrights are asked to automatically sum up what their play is ‘about’. I resist the request as often as I can because I have problems with the foregrounding of authorial messages and all-encompassing themes in modern British new writing, the categorisation of the experience.
I don’t like toploading an audience with a big moral cue: “hey everybody, this play is about cultural appropriation!!!” for instance. But in writing this particular play, there was something I absolutely had to accept and express: the play I was writing was about cultural appropriation.
It was about how the music I love, the music I’ve grown up with, was taken from someone else, from enslaved people on the other side of the world who died long before I was born. About the violence we do when making or framing beautiful things. It was about the very fact that a white man was writing this story as fiction, as well as it being a reflection on my own personal cross-cultural relationships.
This play was definitively, practically and ethically about something, and while I didn’t necessarily have to say as much to my audience, I was severely fucking up if I DIDN’T SAY IT TO MYSELF. But I fucking didn’t, did I? That first draft skirted around the ethics, hedged its bets, used the setting as an aesthetic choice more than a statement, saying – as I often do as writer – “hey, any emotion is allowed in this space.” And if someone picked up that draft and told me it was racist? I would be shocked, and shamed, and I would have to agree.
I sometimes think we ought to run workshops in shame. In the deployment of shame as a positive and useful and empathetic energy. Which isn’t to deny its pain, and that it’s so often present because of other people’s fear and suffering. But the modern world has a way of pushing shame into a dead-end and labelling it a loser’s emotion – so people do everything they can, internally and externally, to avoid it. Shame’s history as a religious and cross-cultural tool of oppression doesn’t help, but the hopeful part of me wants to reclaim the recognition of shame as a progressive weapon for change.
In terms of my big mistakes with this one play, I was lucky. My shame happened in private (uh, relatively speaking… until now…) and I had, and have, the support systems to cope with it – not least the ability to address and think through the problems over a long period of time, to examine possible solutions without undue pressure, to educate myself better.
But what if I’d started the entire exercise by looking at that initial image, that creative desire, and asked myself: what shame is here, and how can that be good for the world?
What if those of us with power and privilege did that more often, earlier than we might do now?
What power is at play, what damage could it do? And what if answering these questions told us something about how long things might take, what kind of thinking would be involved, who to invite into the thinking?
One of the most important working experiences of my life so far has been composing and sound designing for Royal Exchange Theatre / Chris Goode & Co’s version of Derek Jarman’s art-punk film Jubilee. Within the rules I’ve laid out for myself of naming the successes but not the failures, this is a weird one – because that binary feels reductive in this case. Working on Jubilee simply felt like being alive. What category does that fall under?
Early in rehearsals Chris said that first and foremost, he wanted Jubilee to be about the people on stage. This was a complex and ambitious invitation, one that felt instantly full of heart, because if you asked me to summarise where the people in that room came from the only reasonable answer seemed to be “the world”.
Sure, everyone present had in some way worked on stage, but even there it was a stretch to claim ourselves as purely theatre folk; people’s performance heritages included live art and/or death metal or poetry and/or trans activism or Top Of The Pops and/or arthouse cinema, there were people with Serbian or South African or US family histories. It was a room in which the establishing of personal pronouns was not just about the individuals making the show, it was crucial to the play’s very identity.
I obviously can’t speak for everyone and to be clear, going back, saying again: it wasn’t always easy, far from it. I have no doubt some of the cast and crew might think back to that experience and wince, feel pain of some kind – although I think that’s true of even the very happiest shows. What struck me more than anything was the ambition to fashion a working process that listened as much as it spoke.
Even as someone who likes to think of themselves as happy to hop from one set of influences to another, I found Jubilee deeply challenging in places, for those very reasons. But the learning was instant and profound, shaping my future practice in ways I’d never have predicted. And I like to think of myself as a pretty good listener but on this project what became clear was how much I heard out of habit, how much of my thinking had become if not lazy then at least a bit slow out of bed.
There was one crucial moment when I had been working with the choreographer, dancer and spoken word artist Yandass Ndovlu, a young Mancunian with South African heritage. This was a couple of weeks into rehearsals and we were composing some music and lyrics for them to perform in various parts of the play; we’d shared some tunes we liked, and now I was playing them some beats I’d put together. The stuff I’d constructed was heavily influenced by modern South African DJs, in some ways it was a direct impersonation.
After a while Yandass said: “You know what, I really don’t want any of this to sound too African, you know what I mean?”
And I thought, shit, of course you don’t.
Yandass continued, “Cos I’m always being asked to play African.” I got a horrible sinking guilty feeling, then Yandass laughed and said: “I know loads of what I sent you in my playlists was, you know, African. I just didn’t realise how much I really don’t want that right now, in this show.”
And that’s where Chris’ initial invitation was doing its best work. Both Yandass and I had the permission there and then to ditch what Yandass felt constrained by, to move on instantly. We re-arranged the music.
Express permissions like this are the baseline, I reckon. The permissions to speak up about the tricky or the urgent or the suppressed stuff, the instinctive things – because after all art is the place we’re allowed to feel anything.
Why are these permissions so often denied, usually by omission?
On the part of those of us with entrenched power it might be a middle-class thing I guess, a repressed thing. We don’t offer permission because we have a deep fear of fucking up the very act, of seeming patronising or presumptuous.
In some ways that’s a righteous fear; after all, once things are working properly permission is to be shared, not granted. But funnily enough, sometimes the institutions most likely to fuck up are the ones that talk about openness and inclusivity a lot, but where speaking forth your wokeness becomes a charm against any actual change and things just run the way they always have. A horribly familiar pattern in these situations emerges where people from different backgrounds are invited into the work, but they’re invited to participate in an existing hierarchy, the accepted way of doing things – which means, with no real agency for change, they might as well just be the same people as usual.
You feel it and see it all over the shop, this assumption that people will just assimilate. When critics chastise a feminist text for the very innovations and alterations and rejections that make it feminist; when it’s assumed writers of colour will always write about cultures of colour and nothing else, twiddling their thumbs until the next diversity opportunity arises; in the disparaging way that creatives from one discipline talk about the supposed lack of rigour or value in another – when you just know they would be so out of depth working in that form it would break their brains, probably for the better; the assumption is even applied to people who run things, as happened to Emma Rice at the Globe Theatre.
And here’s where for me, we come back to shame again.
If you’re inviting different kids to play, if you’re doing it honestly and healthily and openly, if you’re doing it right, sharing the permission to speak up, it’s highly likely that one of the first things you’ll feel is the shame of how you excluded them before – the sting of your past mistakes, the sting that comes from truly listening. “Oh shit, of course you’re sick of playing African.” And we jump through some serious hoops to avoid that sting.
When I talk about my next working experience I really really want to stress how the people involved were all intelligent, liberal, engaged individuals with truly professional attitudes. There’s some self-interest here, I count many of those involved as friends and I don’t want to deny I undoubtedly became part of the problem – we’ll get to that. But I think it’s a remarkable example of good people doing harmful stuff.
I was working on a high-profile show with a great script, one where the story’s social engagement formed a big part of my enjoying an otherwise quite traditional setup. The show itself was technically difficult, put together alongside a season of other, highly demanding productions. Ambitions towards a diverse team hadn’t quite been given the time and consideration they needed, which meant I didn’t exactly do the best work of my career – in fact it was probably some of my worst, in terms of my inability to respond to the production’s needs. But that paled into insignificance once the show went out on stage and the theatre asked for some changes to the text and action.
The changes requested concerned depictions of non-binary gender roles; the ‘softening’ or removal of representations or language that may or may not have been queer or trans (the script deliberately left space for interpretation.) The rationale for these changes was one of accessibility, an implication that non-heterosexual or sexually undefined stories were not universally approachable.
Please bear in mind my earlier description of my own work as racist when I say these changes were homophobic and transphobic. I spent a lot of the latter stages of the production angry as hell, pretty much desperate to leave the room at the end of each evening, as sick with myself as with the institution involved.
What shame exists here, and how can that be good for the world?
The interconnected responsibilities when you create to a deadline are profound. Even novelists and poets have people who depend upon their work and their ability to make choices, to have a care for the team around them. The situation I’ve just described was impossible to emerge from without some harm occurring to someone – that was the killer. There was no space to respond, the time pressure was too great. Almost any decision to speak up or protest would have horribly compromised someone.
But if I did nothing then the harm was more long term, it would live and grow in the culture I was contributing to. In the end the machine took over, the show was made as requested. I spent much of the following year hating myself for not protesting.
For a while afterwards I behaved in a way that can only be described as really really fucking English. I seethed. I repeatedly wrote out my thoughts for clarity, examining over and over whether I was being unfair on anyone, trying to build up some courage to raise my feelings with the people involved. Then in a social situation one of those people said something about the show that basically made me give up all hope. It was a pretty brutal confirmation of the prejudice the decision had represented.
It’s obvious that these situations are far more common than any of us would like to think – at least, for those of us lucky enough not to experience some variation upon them every single day. So I hope this might contribute to a conversation in the spirit of learning. Part of making these oppressions rarer is analysing how they happen in the first place, and over the last few months I’ve been trying to rationalise how this one example might have been better handled. I reckon –
– The changes requested should have been recognised as emotionally and morally profound, ones that potentially affected the health and happiness of everyone involved in the production.
– Time should have been made to talk through it either as a full team, or if that wasn’t possible in smaller groups with someone collating the responses.
– The results of those conversations needed to be respected. It we knew the theatre had our backs, that would make it a properly amazing place to work.
– Which would mean the institution itself needed not to operate in a climate of fear around difficult social questions, effectively sweeping them under the carpet. If there was no time to talk it through before press night, we should have been able to talk about it afterwards at the very least. That permission needed to be shared from the start, not just relying on the chance that someone might speak up alone.
Some might ask why I’m saying this in public, out loud, now? What good it will do? I’m not doing it for the dramatic release. It’s not whistle-blowing. I hope I’m choosing my words as carefully as I’ve ever done, because I feel keenly for everyone involved in these mistakes.
This is for me more than anyone. Sorry about that. I’m speaking out so that I learn. If I say it out loud I have to remember it, stand by it, there’s no going back. If I put it on paper for all to see I have to return to it, check myself, move forward, stay true.
I’m lucky in that there’s a place I often work in Bristol that keeps me regularly rooted to these ambitions. To be clear: when I mentioned earlier that Clare Reddington, creative director at Watershed, suggested I name the successes but not the failures in practice, she had no idea I was going to name Watershed.
I work there in a place called Pervasive Media Studio which has a whole bunch of permanent and peripatetic residents investigating the places where creativity and technology intersect. It’s a broad remit, sure – and recently the studio has started going further, also describing itself as somewhere for different people to meet and work, to share and mix ideas.
I love it. As I write this the person at the desk next to me is a producer from Lagos, and behind me someone is immersed in a VR artwork about hope in the face of severe trauma. Across the room I can see an artist who specialises in creating music boxes to recover memories in people experiencing dementia. It wasn’t so long ago that the desk opposite was home to people building a robot that enables you to pour a pint of ale using only the power of your mind.
The studio is a beautiful expression of the culture that devotes me to this city – the terms of my residency are simply that I engage, that I’m interruptible within reason, that I help others where I can and that within the limits of my schedule, I make the most of the opportunities available to me here. There’s a joke about an asteroid striking New York and cruelly wiping out over 1 million creative hubs. Watershed feels like it steps beyond the cosy norm for this kind of place because its curators and programmers are always asking questions, making connections beyond its walls as well as making space for different people within. Some folks here are working through public funding, chipping away at projects with social or communal benefits, others are industry-led with an eye on commerce, many are academic. All this stuff feels neighbourly.
Elsewhere in this city: I’m obviously pretty much married to one of Theatre Bristol’s core team, but I need to mention that same team as long-time proponents of creative and practical sharing. I really think Bristol’s performance sector would not be as vibrant and artistically healthy as it is, would not have drawn so many amazing makers into the city, without the connections and collaborations that TB has quietly and efficiently encouraged over a decade or more, and what’s more without fanfare or self-promotion – something that a lot of commercially-minded bodies would find baffling, perhaps wilfully obtuse. It isn’t: it’s a core part of their ethics, and a fundamental reason for their success.
In theory Bristol is a big enough city to be properly diverse, but small enough for anyone to take part in any given conversation, if they so wish. Watershed and Theatre Bristol are trying to turn that theory into practice, and are getting better every day at inviting new people to bring their ideas into the community, to identify and engage with the progressions that come alongside.
It’s sort of a standardised practice for organisations to address diversity – that tricky word – as an adjunct to their activities. So it’s on the agenda for conversation, but midway down if you’re lucky, towards the end being more typical. You very often don’t get to it by the time the meeting’s done.
I once heard it asked what would happen if diversity was item 1 for every meeting, front and centre? What if its ambitions infused every point thereafter? It makes so much sense for anyone working in the arts, you’re asking about diversity all the time – of approach, of participation, of reach, of imagination.
Diversity means basic health, it’s not simply a nice by-product to have, it’s essential. Without diversity you basically end up fucking yourself. Which makes it properly unfortunate that it’s become a compromised and compromising concept, where ‘diversity drives’ are effectively just another bedrock of white supremacy.
Some other words I use here are going to be problematic, so bear with me – but I use them as a shortcut. My provocation is that for inclusivity to truly work in our institutions, there’s going to be a pain barrier, the kind you get when running long distance. If it doesn’t hurt, you’re probably not doing it right.
I don’t think centuries of ingrained prejudice, of sexism and colonialism or endemic racism are going to be addressed quickly and easily. You’re asking everyone to go through that endurance test, including the people who are marginalised and oppressed in the first place, and all sorts of people will feel the pain barrier when you’ve hit it – and whether it stops you dead or not, the biggest part of the learning will happen at that point. But if you’re all aware of the pain, if you accept it’s going to come, that might just help you push through.
It’s an especially keen thing to be emotionally honest and intelligent about what you’re feeling, complexity and difficulty and all, in the arts – to be properly human in a field that, after all, relies on us being human.
This is what came to mind for me when working on something complex and mercurial like Jubilee, but it also came to mind when working on the ethical dead-ends I mentioned. I guess if you think you’re about to fail somehow, if you sense it looming large before you, then you have a choice as to whether to fail in an interesting way, or a really really boring way, the way that everyone before you has failed, claiming that the existing rules of play effectively took away your choices.
On that troubled production I mentioned, with its removal of cultural ideas that weren’t typically put in front of audiences in that context, the decision was made to fail in a really really boring way. And the biggest problem there is that failing in an interesting way is often the very definition of innovation.
So again, for those of us with power:
What happens when we put difference, thinking differently, at the top of our lists?
Do we all recognise the pain we might encounter, and do we all respect it?
If we suspect we’re about to fail together, how can we fail in a useful way?
What shame exists here, and how can that be good for the world?
Before I launch into what this means for my own resolutions and ethics, I’d like to do a quick detour into our wonderful capitalist system that works brilliantly and should never be questioned by anyone.
I’m not an anti-capitalist per se. I think money is currently a repressive force for the most part, but has the potential to be one of the greatest and most profound human collaborations ever devised – just not the way it’s working right now, obvs, duh. And I’m with the writer David Simon when he says that whatever else it represents, the free market is not a social model. But in order not to have my head in the clouds I’ve got to talk about money money money for a bit.
Part of accepting different people is accepting their different access to resources. I wouldn’t be writing this today, or indeed writing anything much, without the help and patience of my families; I’ve been lucky.
There’s no such thing as an artist who got to where they are through merit. And I don’t mean through merit alone: I mean that the uselessly fudged idea of merit as expressed by moral conservatives plays no part whatsoever in success.
I don’t understand how anyone who actually works in the arts can ever subscribe to the concept – when you make stuff, the web of cause and effect is so blatantly tangled, its threads stretching so far away into the dark, involving so many people in any given act, you’re conning yourself if you think successful people get to where they get to thanks to some indefinable quality personified only by the people who got there in the first place. Merit is a dog chasing its own tail. It’s the kind of bullshit that made President Trump possible before the fucker was even born.
For years after it was first coined, the word ‘meritocracy’ was a dismissive one, a satire, a demonstration of a moribund system. A meritocracy sets a random definition of success and actively discourages anyone who’d like to push and prod at it, favouring those who already have the means and resources – so in a meritocracy everything gets stagnant pretty quickly.
I think of the writer Neil Gaiman travelling to China’s first ever sci-fi convention, asking why one had never occurred before, and being told of a keen problem in Chinese industry: people were constructing and manufacturing with extreme efficiency, but not innovating. A research trip to the US had revealed that many inventors within organisations like Apple and Google had one major thing in common – they read science fiction. But the Chinese education system is hugely merit-based and sees little if any value in the act of imagination. Those of us in the west can raise an eyebrow at this; we’re not far off ourselves, of course. This is the model the UK education system has been slinking towards for at least the last 30 years.
As such the kind of people who are coming up through our schools now, the artists of tomorrow, are doing so with a highly eroded power-base as far as the arts are concerned, with even less of a sense of agency than the previous generation.
There are insidious issues of worth that creep into people’s relationships with power structures – the young artist is imagined as permanently grateful and malleable, as opposed to properly bold and ambitious. You might argue it was ever thus – and I’d agree – but there’s an additional pressure that comes when your surrounding social culture is one that considers any open and self-fulfilling artistic practice a luxury or a frivolity, that denigrates anything not commercially driven.
We can make the argument as much as we like that the arts bring plenty money to our economy. It will probably help a little, somewhere, but it’s not going to change the minds of people who have already shoved us into a meritocratic cage and locked the door.
Because in the market fundamentalist model ideas are things that flourish no matter what, universally accessible, free at point of generation, decoupled from ecology, physical resources, shared spaces. But anyone who’s actually had a successful idea – and been honest with themselves about where it came from – sees the complexities of context, the repercussions of whatever privileges or suppressions or joys and fears they were experiencing at the time.
Instead the argument we have to make is that first and foremost the arts equip people for the parts of life where financial wealth or science or religion don’t help. The arts make us feel alive, they make us happy.
And in this respect the most fundamental power we can share is that of imaginative freedom. It’s not just around the kind of stories we tell or the songs we sing, it means extending the freedom to the question of why we do it.
I think this is the bit we can let slide most easily if things aren’t thought through, the bit that you risk not getting if you’re in a position of power in the arts. If we’re just saying, yeah, come and work within this system of merit we’ve already got going: that’s not an invitation at all.
I don’t know if you’ve heard of an amazing theory of the natural world called the Niche Hypothesis – it posits that the kind of noises made by different species have adapted over time so that in any given biome, any natural environment, every kind of life occupies its own niche frequency that has evolved so that it doesn’t clash with any other sound, and can be heard distinctly. Crickets occupy one sonic bandwidth, orangutans whoop in another, different birds modulate their songs so that eventually what you get is a kind of orchestra, every instrument within its own specialist range.
The competitive marketplace is well enamoured of natural-world metaphors because it likes being able to tag the eaters and the eaten. You adapt to the environment, you push others out of certain niches and you fill them yourselves.
But the problem is that the arts aren’t about what we need to survive in basic corporeal terms. They’re about what we need mentally, and they actually thrive when clashing frequencies occur, when the environment itself is called into question. Culturally, when contradictory voices speak out from the same places, our creativity and our imagination kick into gear. Sure, a certain amount of systemic competition can be healthy for artists but the free expression of dissonance and confusion and uncertainty are far more vital.
These freedoms are not things that a meritocracy values, or is even able to measure – so it does all it can to stop these beautiful clashing experiments. Trying to push different voices back into their niche is a culturally and politically regressive tactic, market-driven, boring as hell.
Do those of us that make theatre speak in as liberal and free-thinking a manner as we like to believe? I get really squeamish sometimes at the language we use, I get proper worried when words like ‘important’ get bandied around as reasons for lifting writers or directors up onto pedestals. Nicely enough, as I’m writing this I’m listening to a Janelle Monae song. Janelle Monae sings: “we don’t need another ruler, all of my friends are kings.” It’s a fun song, too. Calling that song ‘important’ might be correct on some level eventually… but right now it would be a properly fucking grey thing to say.
I know when you’re fighting for attention you’ve got to talk things up a bit. But look at most mainstream theatre crit and a worrying amount is obsessed with established importance, with artist reputation. Drill down into the subtext of most reviews and you’ll find a downright creepy strain of meritocracy.
With some of the older critics – or the younger ones who bafflingly write as if they’ve been around since the middle ages – it’s not even a subtext, it’s almost the entire assessment. ‘Was the theatre done well, in the accepted fashion?’ You know the kind of criticism I mean, the star system has made it 500% worse, where basically
- 5 stars = established theatre / recognised director / name actor doing name actor things, ‘landmark’ production
- 4 stars = clear content, professionally delivered, well done everyone
- 3 stars = most new stuff, dunno, hedging my bets here
- 2 stars = somehow unacceptable on a craft level
- 1 star = same as above plus I forgot to have dinner beforehand
It says: ‘Come get aboard this merry-go-round, you too could be looked upon as important.’
I mean for artists with a sense of community, that’s not really a siren call.
At the moment one of the truly exhausting factors for anyone who likes to share things and listen to people is the amount of time spent arguing for the simplest acts of sharing things and listening to people.
Part of this, obviously, is underrepresented folks having to constantly justify progressive attitudes towards equality. Toni Morrison said the very serious function of racism is distraction – it keeps you from doing your work. Detractors of equal opportunities often describe systemic prejudice as a conspiracy theory, which is massively fucking stupid because a conspiracy has be hidden from the people it’s conspiring against. If we want to think of ourselves as progressive and caring artists the first and best thing we can do is accept that a thoroughly unequal playing field exists, driven by many different kinds of ingrained prejudices against all kinds of underrepresented groups. People need to be able to do their work.
And besides, that kind of sums up the way the best artists operate: you start something and then, on one level or another, you get out of the way.
Picasso said he was constantly astonished by how little the will of the creator mattered, that it was always just a question of precisely when the art itself took over. It’s especially true of collaborative arts – the key decision’s normally about when you ought to do the equivalent of letting the garden grow. Of course this gets difficult if you’re concerned about reputation, merit, models of genius, not being recognised. In theatre those distractions are not helped by the fact we talk about things like Shakespeare’s plays as an ongoing decodification of one man’s work. But Shakespeare the man has been so long in the ground, so little is known about how those plays were put together, we’d be better off treating Shakespeare as an idea, not a bloke.
So… given that at time of writing I’m in a very privileged position that allows me to investigate these kind of lovely fluffy conceptual ideas, I’ve been thinking about what some action points might look like for my own practice.
Back to the problematic US-based script I mentioned earlier, and what happens to it next. Because it strikes me that the worst thing I could do is jump ship and let it sink.
I’m not 100% convinced it will get produced, even after I address the big mistakes I made in that first draft. One of the things that seems obvious is that making any production of this play honest and open will require quite a bit of practical and financial investment – so I’m reconciled to what I thought would be my ‘next’ non-self-produced stage play becoming a much longer-term project.
And I’m thinking about the opportunities that gives for sharing some agency in the work. It’s likely I’ll make a stipulation, written into the opening page of the text, that any production has to be directed by a person of colour. I’ve been meeting directors of colour I haven’t spoken to before, to start the ball rolling; I’m trying to find new people to talk to all the time, it’s a running task around pretty much everything I do now.
Given that this looks to be a mainstream kind of play in its format and staging, conventionally scripted, I want to address the problems and assumptions of authoritative voice that come alongside author-led theatre; I’m wondering if any crucial distinctions exist between the lyrics I’ll create as part of the playtext and the songs that are sung in the actual show, whether in fact they’ll bear much resemblance to each other – what methods or subversions might we use?
I’ve never been the greatest planner as far as dramatic structure is concerned, but my notebooks are now spider’s webs of diagrams examining the play’s ethics as well as its story and emotional drivers; questions and provocations for myself as well as any future collaborators. I’ve been sharing experiences, mistakes and forward thinking with other white, middle-class writers as we navigate if and how we should tell stories about other cultures.
Finally, I’ve always thought that extensive research can harm as much as elevate a drama – in this case, I’m beginning to suspect anything less than comprehensive and painstaking would be ethically wrong. I thought I’d stopped buying books about the people and the era I’m portraying. Ha. I most definitely haven’t.
So it seems clear that addressing those complexities demands time and, yeah, money, and patience. I’m going to need open-minded partners who are willing to go on that journey, and the process of finding those people is something I hope I can report back on in the next few years – which to be clear includes the possibility those partners might just tell me to stop.
A few months ago I hit on a summing-up, a kind of maxim I could use to keep myself true: this play might have been my idea, parts of it might even be about me, but it stopped being ‘my’ play the moment I thought about what an honest version of it would be.
Thinking this way about one project opened some doors for me elsewhere, too. Focusing on the overall ethical ambitions of my work has meant I’m asking bigger, freer questions about how and why some of my stories are told.
I was faced with a choice a while back about a TV series idea I was developing: I felt I should either switch the backgrounds of the principle characters or basically stop writing a tale that wasn’t mine to tell. I opted for something different; I’m going to get out of the way quicker.
The overall outline to the series might just remain my own, but when selling this idea to production companies I’m also proposing it’ll be developed and written by a majority PoC, majority female writers room. I wouldn’t run that writers room – even if I had the relevant experience, someone else would be better placed to do that job. I do feel that writers of all kinds need to be allowed to tell stories about all kinds of people, but I also accept the world is not as simple as that, history has not been fair enough for that to be clear cut, and these subjects come with profound responsibilities. With this proposed series I’m really excited by the prospect of what it might become, long distance though it may be. My first job would be to learn. It feels like being part of something as well as responsible for something, listening as much as I speak – in all likelihood, listening much much more than I speak.
Janelle Monae says: We don’t need another ruler, all of my friends are kings.
Another lyric. On the tension between the honest and the useful artist, I think of Björk, that wonderful documenter of what it is to be a living thinking problematic person. Björk says: “Carry my joy on the left, carry my pain on the right.”
On the responsibilities around the ownership of stories, Haleema Mirza in gal-dem magazine says: “How can we claim to want diversity when we tell stories of people who have debilitating health conditions, but can’t or won’t accommodate these people in our workforce, or cultivate an environment where they’re heard, instead of spoken for? … Diversity simply means its time to stop being offended at the prospect that some things just aren’t about you.”
On the non-negotiable reasons for why we need to play with different people, listen to different voices, I think of the behavioural experiments where a group of subjects were shown colours and asked to describe them, and they would answer blue when they saw blue, and red when they saw red. And then the experiment was run again and a cat was put among the pigeons: a planted volunteer who when they saw blue answered royal blue and when they saw pink answered lightish red, and without any further prompting the responses among the group suddenly became more complex and maybe even poetic, sky blue, people would say, or deep lava red, or green but not green like the grass more green like the sea, and the simple act of difference changed the way the colours were shared and spoken of, but not their truth.
On feeling daunted, almost to the point of inaction, by the scale of the tasks in hand, I think of Rebecca Solnit’s Hope In The Dark, where she writes: “Much has changed; much needs to change; being able to celebrate or at least recognise milestones and victories and keep working is what the times require of us. Instead, a lot of people seem to be looking for trouble, the trouble that reinforces their dismal worldview. Everything’s that not perfect is failed, disappointing, a betrayal. There’s idealism in there, but also unrealistic expectations, ones that cannot meet with anything but disappointment. Perfectionists often position themselves on the sidelines, from which they point out that nothing is good enough.” I think of this when I fail in what I hope is an interesting way.
And on the fact I’ve just been banging on for 8479 relentless words – and thank you from the bottom of my heart if you’re still here – I think of Rash Dash and their production of Three Sisters (After Chekhov) and the lyric “Men make speeches / Men make speeches / Men make speeches / Men make speeches / Fuck you and your excellent words.”
So before I shut up, I ask that if anything here strikes you as wrong or misguided or morally unsound, then get in touch, I’m responsible for it.
But if anything in my own words has struck a chord with you or you agree or sympathise or empathise or want to disseminate what I’ve been droning on about, to improve it or progress it… don’t quote me, don’t attribute it to another middle-class white guy, that’s the boring option. Just have it, own it, use it for yourself and your friends and any new friends, share it, it’s yours.
With profound thanks to all the people who helped me write and edit this, and to Selina Thompson’s Race Cards for making me write it in the first place. The question I took from Selina’s installation was: “What do white people have to gain from an end to white supremacy?”