Notes from the Rehearsal Room: Identity Politics

I was fortunate enough to shadow the hip hop theatre company Beats & Elements during their rehearsal process for the play High Rise Estate of Mind, which ran at the Battersea Arts Centre from 20th-29th March 2019, and at Camden People’s Theatre from 7-11th May 2019. This series of ‘Notes from the Rehearsal Room’ documents some of the thoughts and ideas stimulated by the rehearsal process, and by our chats and discussions in the breaks. 

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In the garden of the house I moved into last October there’s a flowering plant — I’m not sure what it’s called, nor how to find out. I’ve never seen anything similar before, but then I’m not in the habit of looking very closely at plants. It grows by the gate, right there on the ground as you walk in, tangled up in itself, like a weed. It has long, pale, straw-like stems that lie almost horizontally, collapsing into the grass — and these explosive purple flowers, velvety and perfect. In the sun, the stems of the plant stand up and the flowers are wide open, turning their faces towards the sky. It is startling and beautiful. Most of the time though, in the almost-coastal English city where I live, it is overcast and the plant is unrecognisable from its sun-kissed self. The stems flop limply; the flowers roll tightly up into their own centres, their velvet faces terrified curls. It looks like a dead thing, or like something very frightened, shielding from the harsh realities of life.

I identify with that plant.

I’ve been thinking about the plant in my garden a lot over the last couple of weeks, as I’ve turned over in my mind the ideas that emerged while shadowing rehearsals for the show High Rise Estate of Mind back in February (some of my other thoughts on that are documented here, here and here). I’ve been thinking about what it means to identify with something.

There in that rehearsal room, I felt deeply that I identified with the performers. The company was relaxed and warm, perhaps that was part of it, but there was a sense also of being able to speak freely; that my anecdotes and experiences would be seen, recognised and understood; that I saw, recognised and understood what I was being told, both in the social moments of the process and in the performances themselves — even though in reality my life is worlds away from that depicted by the play: I am no longer someone living in London, experiencing housing precarity or financial struggle.

It was moving to me, this feeling of identifying with, because in many of the spaces where I now live my life — in university meeting rooms and at conferences, socialising with artists and wealthy friends I’ve met through work and study — there are times when I feel a profound sense of alienation. Not that I am utterly separate from the people around me, or immune to what they have to offer. Many of them I love deeply. Still, often, I can’t quite identify with them. The contours of whoever I am now, grown up and far away from the working class spaces and communities I grew up in, don’t always fit. I think it was Jay Z who said that you never really move on from the past. It is there, all the time, underneath everything you do, threatening to break out, like the troubles from Pandora’s box, or maybe the hope. It’s there in my voice which is too loud, and always talking, and still full of glottal stops. Perhaps, sometimes, being unable to identify with colleagues and acquaintances is a defence mechanism too — an antagonistic way of holding onto a sense of self because I am frightened of being not good enough.

I’m interested in the notion of identifying with as an antidote to the culture of ‘identifying as’. The phrase ‘identify as’ has become ubiquitous, especially in working class studies where, rather than address the inequalities that are literally killing working class people in their thousands, we seem perpetually caught up on measurement, policing and judgement. There is a cultural fixation with proving that our ‘identity as’ is authentic. Often this is because we presume that ‘identifying as’ working class gives us the right to speak for on behalf of others. Or because we believe that if we can invalidate an opponent’s ‘identity as’ working class we can invalidate all they have to say, and dismiss them. The toxic nature of this culture is not just that it encourages divisive and personal attacks in public debate, but that it encourages us to centre ourselves and our own experiences, and to turn away from others. ‘Identify as’ promotes a culture of individualism, narcissism and self-regard, whereas identify with has the potential to fuel environments of collaboration, listening and kindness.

Being able to listen is as important as being able to speak, and is essential to creating environments where those present can find ways to identify with one another. In the High Rise rehearsal room, where I am permitted to speak and required to listen, the sense of identifying with is intensified beyond whatever worlds of experience I share with the performers. Conversation, as Hannah Arendt reminds us, is essential to the human condition, because we can make sense of our experiences ‘only to the extent [they] can be spoken about.’ We close down the possibilities for humanity when we close down other people’s ability to speak because of what we, or they, ‘identify as’.

The intersections between art and sociality, work and ‘real life’ in rehearsal rooms in which artists are committed to finding ways to identify with audiences, and with each other, are undertheorised. In a forthcoming article Rebecca Hillman reminds us of the potential of rehearsals to foster feelings of home and belonging. When we’re thinking about the value of theatre, and fostering that value in our teaching, practice and writing, returning to the possibilities and the urgency of seeing and understanding other people is essential. The rehearsal room is foundational to that process of seeing and understanding, it is a political place where the possibilities of identifying with, beyond the axis of ourselves, are alive and potent.

 

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