(Bear with me, I’m going through a thing)

We went for our favourite walk this morning, the dog and me, across campus and through the woods past the nature reserve. There were students everywhere, about to start university, carrying boxes of things, odds and ends of furniture, lamps, laptops, to their new homes. They were young and happy and beautiful; wide open and ready for the future. 

I realised that it is exactly 17 years since my parents dropped me off here (the pic of the street with the red houses, at the top of this page, is where my halls of residence was). I was eighteen. Angry, and strange and brilliant. I was not a happy person. I did not like much about myself, other than that I knew I could scare people away, if they wanted to hurt me.

My parents dropped me off, and almost immediately my world cleaved open, and there were two chunks of it, broken in half – home and the future. 

For probably the first time, I met people who I liked, who genuinely liked me in return, and who accepted me in all my strangeness and rage. People who just wanted to be in my company because they thought I was great. Good things started to happen, but I couldn’t hold onto them. I was scared to let go of the home chunk of my life. I clung desperately to it, even though it was painful and humiliating and made me insane. 

For all these years, everything good that happened to me felt temporary and frightening, and I believed it would be taken away, because the message I had absorbed as truth was that I was strange and terrible; that bad things would happen to me because I was a bad person. 

For so many years, I could not hold onto a vision of myself as anything not bad. And all the time, I tried so hard to put the two halves of my life back together, even though they didn’t fit properly anymore, and could not work, and maybe there were more than two halves now, and I couldn’t find the splintered off bits. I kept looking back, even though the future was waiting for me and sometimes there were glimpses of how amazing it might be. 

Anyway, this morning I’m about to start my fifth year as a lecturer back where I enrolled as an undergraduate all those years ago. The past year or so has been a process of letting go, of listening to my strangeness. Of trying to hold onto the people who like me, rather than ones who make me feel bad. 

Last year, when I got hit by a car on a street in New York, and smashed the windscreen with my face, and walked away with a limp and few scratches, it felt as if everything blew away and the good things flooded in. I felt strong and whole and unbreakable, which I am. 

I stood there in the woods this morning, looking at the blue sky, thinking about the passing of time and who I am now; the grown up version of that strange angry brilliant girl.

 

 It’s been a long a summer of travelling and working and drinking and writing and meeting all these inspiring, beautiful people and allowing myself to be moved by them; letting people in instead of scaring them away. And over the past year I’ve been so touched by the artists who’ve allowed me to write about their work, who’ve asked me to collaborate with them, who’ve given me feedback and supported me with my own work and life. And all these people who love me.  All this creativity and beauty everywhere. 

Sometimes the goodness still seems so fragile and temporary and not like the thing I have made of my life.

But as we walked this morning there were white feathers all around, everywhere, I kept seeing them, like a message from the universe telling me: you are in the right place, keep going. And the sky was so blue, and the leaves were falling off the trees and in the wind I could hear the last line of the Kim Addonizio poem that my friend David sent me on Valentine’s Day: ‘listen I love you joy is coming.’ 

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9/11

Embed from Getty Images

 

Sitting in Baltimore remembering 9/11 and the all the years since, reading a book about about the long arm of the tragedy and trying to connect it to the long arm of my own life since 2001. Anyway, I drafted a poem. I rarely share my poems but felt compelled to share this one for everyone feeling things today. ❤️❤️
— —

The sky in South London was white-grey,
Dove-wing colours,
Bleeding through my lover’s blue curtains.
And later there was the taste of plum on the tongue of this other boy who loved me
And tried to say it but
Everything changed before he could.
The smashedness of possibility.
You felt the world veer off course,
Even though you were far away
And New York was only an idea from movies.
His voice as you moved deliciously in the single bed where moments before you’d been tangled together like serpents,
like two halves of the same thing.
‘A plane has hit the Pentagon’.
Everything shatters.
A million futures splintering.
On Fox News ‘day of terror’, written in blood as we watch the towers fall.
The television flickers.
All day we watch
With tea and biscuits,
Cigarettes,
My lover cooks me vegetarian sausages and frozen potato waffles with beans.
The fork tastes of steel,
Breath from my mouth.
My eyes can’t avert from
The dust billowing up those streets where I’ll walk and walk – much later
Lean inside the footprints carved deep from the rubble of the towers,
To the belly of the Earth,
Where clear water gushes in a crystal cascade,
Over black granite.
A memorial to the rich and innocent,
Though across the country there are whole towns where alive people don’t have clean water to drink.
And there are dead babies lying on beaches,
Drowning to escape the chaos we unleashed
In vengeance.
But the pain of it clings.
You spend years
Imagining the lobbies of those buildings,
Hours looking out at the footprints of them,
Peering through wire fences before the memorials are finished
The wire that same dove-wing grey
As the South London sky.
You close your eyes
Hear the click click of court shoes against a cold stone floor,
You dream of the escalators,
Elevators.
In your dreams everything is rising upwards
Or the wreckage,
Steel frames and dust all around.
Either way you panic.
And the boys I kissed
Shot in the head,
Dead or ruined in the desert,
Avenging this thing
This
You lay in the arms
Of your lover, trembling at the enormity
Shock visible on your skin like tiny ripples
At the surface of a river
Or how the water stretches as it moves through the estuary
Resisting
Before it becomes the sea.
And still that dove-wing sky
Leaks through the windows
In that place before the terrible future
Becomes now.
The hot skin of your lover peels away from
Your own hot skin.
Two separate things.
‘A plane has flown into the Pentagon.’
The blue curtains move as you brush past them.

The television flickers.

Gender Neutral Toilets: Theatre, Diversity and ‘Inclusion’?

In the last few months, visiting theatres in London for work and pleasure, I’ve noticed the widespread introduction of gender neutral toilets — not (in the ones I have visited) as individual totally private cubicles, nor as necessary additional ‘everyone’ spaces for the comfort and inclusion of trans and non-binary people. But as the only option, for everybody.

It strikes me that this is a reactionary (and lets face it cost-free) move made uncritically, with absolutely no regard for the ways that removing sex segregated toilets by default risks excluding:

– Women and men from religious faiths and ethnic cultures (also protected by legislation relating to equality and diversity) that prohibit intimate contact with the opposite sex (groups already underrepresented in theatre audiences)

–  School groups who will have to consider the risks gender neutral spaces pose in terms of child safeguarding (in London many of these school groups will include students from religious faiths and cultures that practice sex segregation around intimate spaces too)

– Female (including trans female) victims of male violence who feel vulnerable and/or triggered by the presence of men in their intimate spaces (it also strikes me that removing sex segregated spaces is a particularly weird response to the still-recent #metoo scandal that exposed the endemic sexual abuse faced by women in the entertainment industry, including London theatres).

This is before we even get to the implicit exclusion of anyone (including trans men and women) who for reasons of socialisation, health, bodily privacy etc. want to use a sex segregated toilet facility, which have been a permanent, ubiquitous and (mostly) uncontroversial feature of public space since at least the mid-twentieth century (indeed, the introduction of sex segregated toilets played a role in facilitating the active participation of women in public space, and by extension public life). Are people who work in these theatres aware of how difficult it already is for someone who has never been inside a theatre building before to feel welcome? What is the logic in adding the barrier of another cultural/ideological anomaly to navigate?

Even if you want to argue – as I know many people do (and I am listening) that sexual dimorphism does not exist and that by introducing gender specific spaces you erase the socially constructed binaries that produce sexism — you exclude groups of already marginalised people by failing to provide sex segregated intimate spaces. That is the practical result of pretending we have reached a utopian state in which sexism no longer kills two women in the UK a week, and many more elsewhere. The practical result of implementing change based on convincing ideological arguments that overlook social and historical reality is that you by default exclude already marginalised and vulnerable people.

Perhaps those who’ve made the decision to introduce gender neutral loos might also believe that anyone who feels uncomfortable with them is transphobic and unwelcome in their institution. If these were privately funded buildings, that might be an acceptable (if untrue) argument (although even privately funded institutions should operate within equality and diversity legislation), but surely publicly funded institutions need to make decisions that don’t practically exclude huge numbers of their local, already underrepresented communities, either explicitly or by default from attending events they host? I can’t believe that the boards and trustees of these institutions haven’t thought critically about the potential risks of this for widening participation.

Even more bafflingly, some ‘gender neutral’ toilets are now separated into ‘urinal’ and ‘cubicle’ facilities, so that, in effect, men now have a sex segregated toilet while women (who already do not have adequate provision of public toilets in theatre buildings in particular and public spaces in general, and who are the group at greatest risk of gender-based violence) now have to share their spaces with men who can’t or don’t want to use a urinal.

There are two straightforward solutions to this that I can see, and that have already been implemented in some venues (including the NT and the Barbican):

– reintroduce sex segregated toilets and, at the same time, increase provision by providing gender neutral ‘everyone’ toilets for those happy to share, and for the comfort and inclusion of trans and non binary people (this additionally takes some of the pressure off of already overcrowded women’s toilets)

or, even better

– make all toilets in your facility gender neutral fully private cubicles, with individual sinks (preferably wheelchair accessible).

Either of these options, obviously, requires investment of actual cash to facilitate inclusion across the board – rather than the practically cost-free lip service to inclusion that is the current gender neutral as exclusive option.

It should go without saying (but this is the internet so it probably won’t) that none of my argument is made with the intention infringing the rights of trans and non binary people to feel comfortable and safe in intimate spaces. Everyone has the right to safe spaces free from the fear of harassment and embarrassment — which the exclusive gender neutral solution does not provide.

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. 

*

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.

 

Notes from the Rehearsal Room: In Defence of Rage

I was fortunate enough to shadow the hip hop theatre company Beats & Elements during part of their rehearsal process for the play High Rise Estate of Mind, which ran at the Battersea Arts Centre from 20th-29th March 2019. It will show 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.

*

I think rage is my favourite emotion, despite its bad reputation. There is something thrilling about the clarity of it — its power. I like how it appears suddenly, like the tarry, turquoise sheen on the surface of crude oil; its liability to catch the light and cast a rainbow.

The scholar Tiffany Watt Smith, in her beautiful compendium, The Book of Human Emotions, writes that rage is increasingly unacceptable in contemporary culture, particularly in Britain and America where expressing rage is often equated with succumbing to explosive and irrational anger. She points to political theorist Hannah Arendt’s work (On Violence) to suggest that rage is, in fact, not irrational at all, but most often a response to conditions of injustice that could be changed, but are not. ‘Only when our sense of justice is offended’, writes Arendt, ‘do we act with rage.’

In many ways, High Rise Estate of Mind is borne of rage — not only because it explores conditions of contemporary injustice in London’s housing market, but because of the qualities it embodies in its presentation. The language of rage runs through the piece, evident in both the carefully crafted metaphors that create the fictional world, and in the performers’ ‘real world’ stories of their own housing experiences. The confrontational nature of the performance, with the cast standing stark, a few feet away from the audience, on a mostly bare stage (transparent plastic chairs, coloured shafts of light and musical equipment the only scenographic interventions), delivering lines that outline the brutality of capitalism, feels angry, but necessarily so.

The performance also draws on a semiotics of urban rage, often denigrated and misunderstood in the popular press and cultural commentary. They wear black hooded tracksuits, with red armbands and baseball caps — a nod to the so-called street culture associated with council estates, gangs and urban poverty, challenging what it means to be on the edges of society by weaving complex poetry, dressed in the uniform of the reviled other. Their musical influences, in hip hop and grime, draw on a tradition of cultural politics that is often mistaken for mindless violence. So too their choreographed movements are sharp and often aggressive: jabs and punches that spar with the audience, transmitting how it feels to be bound in a social and economic strata that often leaves you fighting for your very existence.

In rehearsals there is no sense of aggression, but anger does simmer under the surface of our conversations. We reflect on how injustice can produce rage, reminiscing about our relationships to the riots that broke out across London in 2011. The riots were a response to the killing of Mark Duggan by police — but were also symptomatic of a (then recently implemented) culture of austerity, in which any sense of a social safety net was stripped away by cuts to welfare benefits and local provision of services. We all sympathise with the rioters — portrayed as irrational, feral criminals by politicians and the tabloid press — and discuss how our initial emotional reaction to the riots was a sense of solidarity in rage: we wanted to (but didn’t) join the rioters in demonstrating our violent opposition to the actions of the state.

Conrad Murray and Paul Cree, who make up the company Beats & Elements (and who are half the cast of High Rise), have described the aesthetic of their previous projects as ‘council estate rage’. A statement that suggests the way class, space and the wider inequalities of our social system can produce particular tenors of emotion. In my book, Social Housing in Performance, I trace the ways this particular iteration of working-class anger has been misunderstood, arguing that council estate rage articulates an ‘insider perspective’. A perspective ‘where [the] presentation of what might seem “anti-social” by middle-class moral standards is revealed as a glass-shield that barely conceals the core of discontentment, fear and pain that often characterizes the working-class lived experience’. In High Rise, the company channel this council estate rage aesthetic again, creating a work that is transparent, yet uncomfortable at moments, and difficult to digest.

Being in the rehearsal room reminded me of the complexity of rage and its potency. People who have ready access the so-called negative range of emotions — anger, bitterness, spite, jealousy — are the people I want to be around. Not because I find that relentless wallowing in negativity is enjoyable — but because of what ready access to the full human emotional spectrum can create. There is political potential in those less pleasant emotions, but there’s something else too. We often think that rage is closest to hate in the order of things; that indulging rage breeds intolerance and misery. I don’t find that to be true. Expressing rage — articulating just rage through art, and violence when necessary — is the only way to survive injustice and remain intact. Rage is not only hatred — it is wit and precision and the sharp end of the arrow that might pierce something vital. Rage is necessary for joy.

Notes from the Rehearsal Room: Marginal Energy

 

I was fortunate enough to shadow the hip hop theatre company Beats & Elements during part of their rehearsal process for the play High Rise Estate of Mind, which ran at the Battersea Arts Centre from 20th-29th March 2019. It will show 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.

*

Because I write a lot about people, places and artworks often presented in negative terms in the newspaper press, I often find myself reaching for the term ‘marginalised’. It’s a word I feel uneasy about, because of how it can congeal on the page, clumsy and inaccurate. The things I’m interested in aren’t marginal to me: they do not appear on the edge of the frame of my consciousness, or in some unfocused periphery of the world I inhabit — most everyone I knew growing up lived or had at some point lived in council housing; most everyone  was working class. The area of London where I lived for my formative years was racially mixed, so that you didn’t think of people of colour as ‘other’, they just were, like everybody else (which isn’t to deny the reality of racism in South East London, rather it highlights how, in the place I live now, people of colour most definitely are not, an absence that is acute and dangerous, casting anybody who is not white as excessively visible, and especially vulnerable).

Describing the worlds that I write about as marginal also belies the commercial reality of the contemporary culture, where the so-called ‘marginalised’ are big money. The fact is that the fetishisation of estates and their residents is ubiquitous on television and elsewhere. The fact is that urban performance forms like hip hop and grime, emerging from predominately black working class communities, are some of our most popular, widely played and well-known genres. And still…

When I hesitate to type the word ‘marginalised’ I return again and again to bell hooks’ argument for the power of the margin as a radical space of resistance (1989). hooks reminds us of the dangers of pessimism about marginality, ‘if we only view the margin as a sign, marking the condition of our pain and deprivation’ she writes, ‘then a certain hopelessness and despair, a deep nihilism penetrates in a destructive way’ (hooks 1989, 21). For hooks, to stay located at the margins when there is a possibility of moving towards the centre is a radical choice; she makes a ‘definite distinction between that marginality which is imposed by oppressive structures and that marginality one chooses as site of resistance – as location of radical openness and possibility’ (23). I choose to think about the margins and the marginalised conditions that I write about in the spirit of this distinction.

Here I am in the Battersea Arts Centre, and in the studio in front of me the performers (who, I point out again, have developed this work over two and half years, mostly unpaid) break out of the carefully crafted fictional world in which High Rise Estate of Mind takes place, turning off the intoxicating  score that envelops us in the stage reality to address the (at the moment — because this is a rehearsal — imaginary) audience with only the sound of the lights vibrating behind them, and the truth of their stories, told in their own words. This is where it gets real.

‘I didn’t know if the world outside knew that people on the estate existed’, Conrad Murray says, dropping his character to give us a frank housing autobiography, returning to the margins to speak from his experience there.

The performance is punctuated like this throughout, the satirical, fictional ‘City Heights’ apartment complex, where residents must compete in a social contest comprising of hard work and ruthless ambition to ascend to the top, is continually fractured by the real life stories of the actors. At points it isn’t clear where the satire of the UK’s housing crisis ends and the injustices of our social world starts.

Is the dystopia of Mark 1 really so unbelievable, in a world where, as Lakeisha Lynch Stevens narrates in a story of her own childhood, children play in parks covered with needles and used condoms, shaping their own self-worth in the debris left behind by a city that doesn’t see them?

This is marginality, surely? Not just the stories on stage, but the form they take, the spirit that produces them — joyful and heartbreaking in a dynamic, dialectical swirl. Urgent, and yet, not produced for reams of cash in the West End, or for broadcast, but at an experimental arts centre on the edge of the city where Clapham turns into Battersea, for a festival celebrating ‘underrepresented’ voices. You can’t have it, the form is saying, this is ours. If the word marginality does anything, it is provide a frame that describes the ways in which your own existence, and its denial by the material or structural powers that be, creates conditions that produce the energy to resist, to make, to bask in pleasure even in the midst of hardship and pain. The margin is a catalyst, as well as a circumstance.

The music starts again, a frantic vocal whine underscored by a beat laid down live on stage as the performers begin to rap over the instrumentals, dancing, laughing, weaving complex lyrical imagery, enjoying the work they’ve made as much as they hope its audiences eventually will.

A work like High Rise, complex and frenetic; fragmented and challenging, could not have been created — at least not in its current form — without the pressure exerted by the margin pushing itself against the centre. It’s testament to the human instincts for expression, solidarity and justice denied by our collapsing political and economic system. That’s not to fetishise poverty and hardship, having no money and struggling to find a place to live is only ever shit. But the margin continues to create in spite of, because of.

You can’t escape the margin, it’s what encircles the centre.

Notes from the Rehearsal Room: What’s it Worth?

I was fortunate enough to shadow the hip hop theatre company Beats & Elements during part of their rehearsal process for the play High Rise Estate of Mind, which ran at the Battersea Arts Centre from 20th-29th March 2019. It will show 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.

* 

It’s taken me a while to start this series, because I didn’t see how I could get to it without diverting to a rant about the state of art and culture like some dusty, out-of-touch, caricature of an academic caught in her ivory tower, convinced by the intrinsic rightness of her own tastes and values. There’s so much happening out there that’s terrifying and wrong that I realise it might be a healthier approach, when I’m writing about art at least, to focus on what’s beautiful and revolutionary and true (we’ll get to that soon enough, I promise). Just pissing over stuff that I hate seems pessimistic and mean-spirited and unnecessarily harsh…and yet…

…There’s something in the air. Weightless and form-shifting. It’s an Instagram account with 500k followers, but you can’t work out who’s behind it, or whether anything in the image is real. It’s a middle-aged man pretending to be a woke teenager on Twitter. It’s a million-dollar book advance because the haiku you wrote about cats got retweeted by Judd Apatow. It’s the sense that no one commissioning art has faith in their own aesthetic judgement, or in the expertise they’ve honed by studying craft at its hot centre …they just…pick up anyone with a social media following and give them a platform to make more translucent, vaporous nothing for profit instead of validation. The sense that if a thing can’t be quantified in numbers, then there is nothing about it that’s worthwhile. The sense that everything I love has become, suddenly, about the money. Or, more urgently, at risk because money is all that matters. The spiritual wasteland of the bottom line.

All this was somewhere in the recesses of my mind when I was invited by Conrad Murray, the visionary artist, director, musician and theatre-maker behind Battersea Arts Centre’s Beatbox Academy and one-half of the company Beats & Elements (with collaborator Paul Cree), to sit in on some of the rehearsals for the show High Rise Estate of Mind – a collaboration between Beats & Elements, the rapper Gambit Ace and performer Lakeisha Lynch Stevens. After a decade of pioneering the British hip hop theatre form, Murray’s work is beginning to garner some mainstream success, notably with glowing 5-star reviews (there’s those numbers again), for the Beatbox Academy’s adaptation of Frankenstein. Riding on the crest of this wave, High Rise Estate of Mind, a show about the state of the UK’s housing system, has received Arts Council funding, making possible a BAC run, two performances in Gloucester (dates tbc), and performances at Camden People’s Theatre from 7th-11thMay.

I’ve loved Murray’s work from the moment I first saw it, in the bowels of a falling down abbey in Torbay in 2016. He was on a tour of DenMarked, a solo autobiographical show developed from a short monologue staged as part of BAC’s London Stories. I loved the mash-up of hip hop and storytelling, the language (there was this one line about wearing his cap low to conceal the windows to his soul that I’ve been turning over in my mind ever since), and Murray himself — who possesses a rare kind of talent that manifests as both startling and energising. In other words, rather than intimidating you into despair over your own creative potential, he makes you feel as if you too might be capable of achieving something wonderful, even if he is just nodding his head after a show, saying great, yeah, thanks for coming, glad you enjoyed it, no, I’ll never tell you how old I am Katie, that’s an industry secret.

The rehearsal room for High Rise is stirring with that same kind of energising atmosphere. The four performers, who have written and devised the show over a two-year period, are old friends. They work together the way you’d imagine an ensemble would work in utopia, but which I’ve never experienced so utterly in real life despite being in rehearsal rooms of one kind or another for much of the past twenty-three years. There’s a lot of laughter, there’s chatting about the state of politics, relationships, culture, and there’s the business of rehearsing the show itself. What surprises me is the seamless movement between the social moments and the production moments, there is no ‘we’re going to start a run now’, they just sort of spontaneously gather into the performance, so that I turn suddenly from participant in the action to audience.

This isn’t to imply that I feel outside of the process — although I technically am. The company treat me generously, an equal participant. When a colleague at the university where I work hears I’ve been shadowing a rehearsal he commiserates, his experiences of observing rehearsals for professional productions have been literal: sat at the back of a darkened auditorium with a notebook, everyone pretending he isn’t really there. But this isn’t like that at all. The company seems to actually want my input into the show, they are keen to share their ideas with me, to include me in the spirit of the ensemble, and even just to enjoy my company in the breaks, the way you hope people might.

The word I come up with when I search for a way to describe the quality of the rehearsal room is care. A quality that extends to the show itself, over which the group work in painstaking detail, merging the music and lyricism of hip hop, grime, and the freestyle techniques that I equate with old skool garage MCing, to create a theatrical language that is unlike anything I’ve seen before, but to which I feel totally connected — perhaps because of the cultural references and inner-city upbringing that I share with the performers, perhaps because this work just does connect to an audience. Certainly, High Rise asks a lot from the audience too. The gap between the listening mode necessary for the enjoyment of hip hop and the critical ‘audiencing’ mode needed to appreciate postmodern theatrical form will no doubt be difficult for disciples of each.

There isn’t much talk in the rehearsal room about critical reception, although we do wonder whether the ‘industry’ will get the show. I’m not sure that it matters, although of course it does matter because the success of this production in commercial terms will dictate how and whether the company can continue to make theatre. It is worth highlighting that these are all artists with significant bodies of work and clear creative visions — though fewer than 5k followers on Instagram. They’ve developed High Rise over a two-year period, mostly unpaid, working around part-time jobs. When the first day of rehearsal I attend finishes, at 10pm, one member heads to a night-shift cleaning job, before arriving back at the theatre at 9.30 the next morning for another 12-hour rehearsal stint. In these straitened conditions, and until very recently with only each-other as scaffolding, they’ve managed to produce something strange, innovative and true.

But what’s is it worth? I think, sitting in the cold rehearsal room, with these people, coat wrapped around my shoulders, body moving involuntarily to the beat of the narrative, feeling more alive to the possibility of a creative life than I have in years.

I’m not sure you can measure it in numbers.