Some reflections on actor training, inequality, casting and industry

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Recent debates about the acting industry and its (in)ability to deal with inequality resonate deeply with me. Not only as a theatre and performance scholar concerned with issues of class, race and gender representation, but as a former performer, and, perhaps more importantly, trainee performer. Reading the #DearWhiteCentral posts, the Labour party’s Acting Up report, the tweets, blogs and comments from students, actors, teachers, agents and directors — as well as conducting my own research into actor training and inequality — prompts me to reflect on my experiences of training as a performer, and particularly of the understanding of industry and my place within it that I absorbed during training.

My performer training started young. I danced from the age of four or five: tap, jazz and modern, once a week on Friday evening. Later, once I realised dance was not my calling, I moved into acting. Throughout my childhood and teens I ‘trained’ in various ways: I took classes, I was a member of several youth theatres, I performed in numerous school plays, and I eventually attended both a university, where I undertook some specialist actor training modules, and a conservatoire, where I focussed on screen acting.

Being part of a theatre community, performing in shows, developing and devising work with my friends and peers, and thinking and writing about theatre, have been life-long and identity forming experiences for me. At the places where I connected most with my creative self, where I felt most ‘at home’, we didn’t really think about ‘industry’ in any real sense. We were too busy making the work we wanted to make and feeling elevated, supported and finally seen by one another. But during my burgeoning love affair with the theatre there were also many experiences with teachers and institutions that felt altogether less nurturing, supportive and community-building. Invariably, looking back, these were experiences where ‘industry’ (by which I mean the mainstream film, television and theatre industry) was evoked in one way or another.

It’s difficult, if you haven’t been exposed to that kind of institution, to that way of thinking about art, to describe exactly how the concept of ‘industry’ filters into performer training. It is a more or less ‘invisible’ part of the curriculum. It might involve a passing reference to ‘professionalism’ (usually to silence dissent), or a discussion about your ‘casting’. It often involves workshops or seminars with ‘industry professionals’.  It certainly involves understanding work in commercial mainstream theatre, television and film (and leading subsidised theatres) as the apex of a respectable acting career.

The first experience I remember having of this kind of ‘invisible training’  was aged five, when my dance teacher took me to one side and said, ‘You need to pull your socks up. This behaviour is unprofessional.’ I remember this so clearly because it was a line I had overheard her using on other little girls. Other five-year-olds. So unable to grasp, aged five, the concept of professionalism, that many of them actually bent down and tried to pull up their literal socks.

It set a pattern that would become familiar. For my first ‘professional’ audition (God knows what for), a youth theatre I was part of took a group of us to a central London stage school where we took workshops before we went to read for the casting director. These workshops were held by adults who, we were warned, were ‘professionals’. One hauled me out in front of the entire group of fifty or so other young people to point out how miserable I looked. He used me as an example — reminding us all that looking anything other than perky and relaxed would make us ‘un-castable’. I was thirteen, and this ‘professional’ was a man in his thirties. I was so embarrassed I seriously considered never performing again.

Later, at university and especially in drama school, tutors would offer thoughts about my ‘casting type’. ‘Council estate,’ said one during a private critique. ‘That’s all you’ll be able to play.’ While another told me, in front of my peers, that I’d likely find myself cast as ‘abused women’ (the fact I was in an abusive relationship at the time was a secret that only added to my shame in the moment). At the wedding of an actor friend I attended a few years after graduating, the director of a well-known training institution approached me after the ceremony. ‘You’ll work.’ He said. ‘You have a very commercial face, for something like Casualty.’ I had not even introduced myself to this man, and had, in fact, left the acting profession by this point.

Voice classes, camera technique, dance and movement, acting interpretation: we were constantly reminded (although never explicitly) that, eventually, we would be in service to an industry that expected certain things and would position us in particular ways.

At an audition workshop I took at drama school, a casting director who worked for the BBC had us perform a scene in which a young woman had just been raped (there was no warning that we’d be dealing with this material, and no acknowledgement that some of us might find it triggering or otherwise difficult). He wanted us to emote hysterically at the camera. ‘No,’ I said. ‘She isn’t hysterical. She is in shock, she’s being calm and rational here.’

‘You’ll never work with that attitude,’ was the response. ‘You give the casting director what they are asking for.’

The pervasive spectre of industry was a seriously limiting feature of my creative development. Rather than flourish into the kind of performer I had hoped to be, rather than take risks, innovate or experiment, I found myself, time and time again, powerless in the glare of other people’s versions of me; other people’s versions of ‘industry’s’ version of me. There was rarely a sense that I had any agency to resist this image of myself. The fact that the industry I was preparing for peddled, very often, in racist, classist, misogynistic stereotypes did not once feature as part of any actor training I undertook.

My decision not to have a career as a performer stems, in large part, from the cumulative effects of my exposure to the mainstream acting industry, which was only worse once I graduated and started attending auditions. The end game of all of them, of course, was to act like the version of the part the casting director, producer or director wanted. In that sense, my training had prepared me well. But I was increasingly unable to do it, and eventually I suffered from such severe performance-anxiety that I would throw up before I had to go on stage.

What does it mean when we ask students to unquestioningly maintain industry norms? What happens when industry standards require actors from minority and disenfranchised groups to recreate representations that might work to sustain their disadvantage? What role does training play in maintaining the status quo?

In an academic paper I wrote recently I explored these questions in relation to a National Youth Theatre outreach project that I spent some time observing in 2010. But the criticisms I raise in that paper have wider implications. Reflecting on my own experience as a reasonably confident, slim, able-bodied white woman, I am surprised at how deeply my negative experiences of training affected me. This isn’t to suggest that I was not entitled to my emotional response, but rather to point out that if it was difficult for someone like me, who is normalised in the culture, to process the way my training projected stereotypes onto me, it is likely to be far more difficult for those whose bodies are already ‘other’. Before today I hadn’t put these memories together to form a coherent narrative. Of course, there are many paths in life, and I am grateful that I held on to the parts of the theatre and performance world that I loved, and that I have managed to have a career where I feel seen and creatively inspired. But I do wonder what kind of performer I might be now if we had been encouraged to resist the idea of industry. I wonder what kind of industry we’d have if actor training gave actors the critical tools to resist.

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REF: We need to push back against a system that has lost its way

 

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I am not against the assessment of academic research, in principle. Universities are institutions that receive public funding and there are good arguments for robust quality-checks of the business that goes on in them. However, the Research Excellence Framework — the current system by which university research is assessed, known by most of us ‘REF’ — has lost its mind.

As anyone who works in a university will know, rather than the twice-decade external audit of HE business that I imagine (hope) the framework was conceived as, REF has now become HE business. At most universities, whole layers of bureaucracy have been created — at a financial and human cost vastly outstripping the return of even the most stellar REF results — to game the system: annual, internal practice REFs where we are required to assess one another’s work in a project designed, surely, to create internal tensions; case-studies written to articulate the impact of projects that haven’t happened yet; research-plan monitoring to ensure we are all ‘REF compliant’; the implementation of complex IT systems where research can be stored, graded and recorded for easy REF access.

Meanwhile, academics are encouraged (read forced by the threat of career suicide if they resist) to produce outputs — not on the basis of the value of their research to the public, or their desire and readiness to express ideas to the world, but on the government-mandated requirement that every five or so years, academics have two, or four, or six (or whatever the Higher Education Funding Council for England, HEFCE — the quango currently in charge of this mess until UK Research and Innovation takes over in a few days time — decides they want us to produce) ‘world leading’ publications ready for scrutiny. Yes, you are expected to produce ‘world leading’ publications, regardless of whether you are a scholar no one has head of a few years out of your PhD, or a professor with 40 years experience and an international reputation.

The result is that research is no longer assessed by the REF, but rather produced for the REF in a worrying Orwellian model that utterly compromises academic integrity and against which we should fight back. The recent news that, as of REF2027 (or 26, who knows when it will happen considering we haven’t even had REF2021 yet) all books and book-length works are required to be available Open Access (i.e. free of charge to the public, as academic articles published in journals already have to be) is yet another nail in the coffin for UK research quality, announced by a body that is ostensibly in place to maintain the country’s research rigour.

The Royal History Society have written a comprehensive list of the ways that this requirement poses a threat to research in that discipline (it is worth reading in full as it is applicable across all humanities and possibly beyond). Quite why HEFCE would want to cause widespread anxiety by announcing this now, almost a decade before the audit happens — but, ironically, too late for those of us with book contracts with international presses due for delivery after 2020 — is beyond me. It feels like yet another attack on Higher Education by those gunning for its demise.

Whatever form the Open Access requirement takes, and however much HEFCE protests requirements will be made in ‘consultation’ with universities (I am preparing another post on the tyranny of ‘consultation’), this is a change that will — as HEFCE admit — require ‘a lot of work’ to implement. No. An audit process should not take resources away from the thing being audited. Our ‘hard work’ should be in writing the books, reading the books, and teaching our students — not in ensuring that we ‘comply’ with a complex top-down mandate or else risk our careers.

It is outrageous bordering on a national disgrace that we are now in a situation where the government is effectively interfering with the material substance of the research that goes on in our institutions. That we are increasingly unable to publish with the presses most suitable for our work, and must, instead, find ‘REF compliant’ publishers compromises academic objectivity — not to mention its rigour, reach and international credibility. I also wonder how it is even legal for the government to interfere in the market this way, forcing publishers who work with academics to either give their product away for free or else lose all business (I realise there are also questions to be asked about the ethics of some of the commercial academic publishers in relation to academic writing, but that’s a conversation for another time).

What can we do? I am asking seriously. How do we push back against this creeping threat to our work, its substance and our lives? The process of a peer-review quality check on research should not dictate the sector to this degree. REF in its current form is simply not sustainable, nor conducive to the health of research institutions or the people in them. This is violence by bureaucracy and it cannot be allowed to continue.

Ten things about working in academia that no one told me and I wish someone had

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Academia. What a weird job. At least in the humanities. There you are, reading dense, impenetrable books and thinking very very hard about a subject so specific others will wrinkle their brow, raise their eyebrows and go ‘Plays about council estates? You can get a PhD in that?’, when all of a sudden you realise you are building a career and you have absolutely no idea what you’re doing. Weirdest of all, there’s almost no training, yet, nonetheless, the moment you start your first job everyone presumes you are already familiar with basic aspects of the academic system that nobody bothered to tell you about.

Here are ten things I had to work out for myself, which I pass on in the hope that they might help you (please note this is a UK arts/humanities context and the below points may not apply to STEM, or to all international contexts, so take them with a pinch of salt):

  • You have to pay to attend conferences, even when you are giving a paper

This is the first thing that really surprised me about academia. I seriously struggled to accept the premise that I would give my labour to realise someone else’s event and pay for the privilege. No thank you, I thought. My paper can stay in my head and I will save £250 and the price of a train ticket to Lincoln. But then I attended and organised some conferences and understood that they are expensive to run, funding is scarce and the price of a conference fee usually just about covers running costs. (Having said that, conference organisers: please, I paid to be here. Give me lunch, and a pen).

The exception is if you are an invited speaker, or the keynote. Then you can usually expect some form of remuneration – at least a fee waiver and the cost of travel. If they invite you and can’t be arsed to pay for you to be there, they don’t really want you. As I learned recently when I paid to attend a conference at which I was an invited panel speaker (I agreed, against my better judgement, because otherwise every invited speaker would have been a (white) man), and the organisers left it to me to buy drinks for everyone in the pub afterwards. If the organisers of that conference are reading this, I will not be contributing to your special issue, please stop sending me emails.

  • You call the shots

You do not have to wait for someone (a supervisor, your line manager) to give you permission to write a journal article or present at a conference (if you are part of a large project or research team or discipline where your supervisor is default co-author ignore this advice and ask whoever is in charge before you use shared data). You can just do it as soon as you think you are ready. Do it before you’re ready, no one will mind.

  • People don’t remember bad conference papers (unless they are given by the keynote)

Honestly, I promise, if your paper is boring or poorly written, riddled with errors or unconvincingly argued, 90% of the audience, at the very minimum, will switch off and doodle on their conference programme, or check to see how long it is until the free wine is served. The exception to this is if you are offensive towards a minority group, or if you are a famous scholar. People remember and engage with good papers. It will not ruin your career if you give a presentation that is forgettable. What I am saying is, speak at the conference. Now is the time (once you have some findings and some ideas about them, or one of the two).

  • There are ways to earn money from academic writing

Not a lot of money, but a bit. Despite what people will tell you, some unknown scholars get advances for their first academic book, so you should at least ask if an advance is a possibility. I would advise not agreeing to publish with any publishing house that expects you to pay for the privilege.

ALSO: As soon as you publish anything sign up with the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS, click here), who will collect money for secondary rights due for your work and pay you any funds collected twice annually (you’ll likely receive more than you expect). Do this for everything you publish, however niche, in a book, journal or magazine. If and when you publish a book register with the British Library’s Public Lending Rights service (click here), who will pay you when your book is borrowed from public libraries.

But…

  • Protect your copyright

I am so cross that I have happily signed copyright over to academic publishers when I didn’t need to. I find it unbelievable that I had to work out for myself that I didn’t always need to, and that none of my colleagues have ever thought to mention to me that this is often optional. If you are presented with an agreement where you are asked to assign copyright to the publisher, you should write to whoever sent you the agreement and ask instead to publish with a licence to publish agreement. You are not being difficult. This is an option that many academic publishers offer, but most of them won’t tell you about (although some will charge for). Check the publisher website before you submit and choose only to publish, where you can, with those who let you keep the rights to your work for free.

Join the Society of Authors and actively campaign for better conditions for academic writers.

  • No one cares if you aren’t an amazing teacher

Except you and your students, obviously.

It takes lots of us a while to find our teaching stride. Don’t be disheartened if it doesn’t come naturally, if you get mediocre (or even bad) evaluations or if students seem hostile or indifferent to your charms. Teaching is hard, we all know this. Students can be unreasonable and teaching evaluations are heavily biased. You aren’t going to lose your job because you gave a boring lecture. I swear.

  • Feedback is a gift

It won’t always feel that way. Often, even the most benign of criticisms about our scholarship will feel deeply wounding. Even praise will sometimes feel deeply wounding (this evening I have had to text four friends to cope with an email I received from a colleague calling my latest chapter ‘very interesting’). Peer reviewers can be snarky and pompous and deliberately cruel. But feedback is a gift. Those offering thoughts on your work are doing so because they want you to make it the best it can be. Feedback is a gift. Feedback is a gift. Receive it with grace.

  • No one cares if you skip a meeting

It took me a long time, having worked in ‘industry’ (scare quotes because I hate that word, but it is nearly midnight and I can’t think of another), to wrap my head around the fact that you can just give apologies, not attend a meeting and no one will care. I think this is an unspoken secret, because I’ve never heard anyone actually say it out loud. But almost always, at any academic meeting, half to one-third of the invited participants won’t be there, because they have other things to do. And that’s fine.

  • Everything takes, on average, three times as long as you think it will

This applies both to things you do yourself (organising events, writing articles and books, preparing teaching, marking etc.) and to things you are waiting for others to do (such as peer review, reply to an email, send you the article they promised for your edited collection, answer the phone). The latter is infintely more maddening.

  • You can ask what the acronym means

Universities are riddled with acronyms. Some of these (REF, TEF, HEFCE) etc. are national, some (SCUDD, ACLA, RGS) discipline specific, some are institution or even department specific. You will spend a lot of your working life sitting in the meetings you do attend, struggling to understand what everyone is on about and surreptitiously googling acronyms under the table. Save yourself the bother, ask.

 

New Project, Please Sign Up

Hello. Happy New Year.

I mentioned online, and on my Reasons to be Single blog, way back in late summer, that I had this idea for a sixteen-part weekly mail-out. In fact, the idea was to publish the book that I started back in 2014, a spin off of my Reasons to be Single Blog, which sadly never got commissioned — despite some early interest from publishers — but the idea has kind of spiralled into something else since then. I don’t want to write that book at the moment. I especially don’t want to write it for free.

So this mail-out is a new project, where I’ll be doing some experimental writing that is a mash up of fact and absolute fiction. At the moment I am utterly obsessed with the space between the real and the not real in theatre and literary fiction and non-fiction, the authentic and the fake, the cultural obsession with reality despite our receding — culturally, politically — from trust in experts and reliance on anything like fact (for more on this, I am working on an academic book, which I’ll point you to in the near future). I am not sure where this new project going, exactly — but I know I find it much easier to motivate myself when there are people reading as I write. I know that it is called ‘Sixteen Parts: A Love Story’, and that each entry will be about 5,000 words long. I like the idea of writing a novel length project really, really quickly, like a draft.

I want to capture the experience of being inside yourself and the world at the same time, and that sensation where your mind feels like a computer where all the tabs are open on your browser and you just keep opening more.

I want to say things that are unpalatable and true, but, at once, not true.

I think women’s writing is always most interesting when we’re experimenting with form, and I have always been obsessed with the internet and the different formal structures it has created for writing. These are under-exploited and undervalued because the book, the novel, the ‘industry’, is still and is set to remain the dominant literary form.

I don’t think Sixteen Parts is going to be funny, at least not in the way Reasons to be Single was funny. And it will definitely be more difficult to read than anything I ever wrote there, if only because of the length.

It would be massively motivating for me to start this new project with even a very tiny readership.

Please do subscribe here, the first post will go out this Monday, 8th January 2018.

Thanks for reading,

Katie.x

How is the housing crisis connected to poor service? And other questions I tried to answer on Twitter today

Another day, another Twitter row.

Today I found myself embroiled in an argument about towels that, as often happens online, got way out of hand very, very quickly. It began (prepare for the least dramatic story of all time) when a woman named Holly tweeted a company called Handy, complaining that her cleaner (a contractor employed by Handy), had ruined her towels by using raw bleach on them. According to Holly the cleaner had then hidden the towels, so that she found them bleach stained and ruined in her bathroom. She did not name the cleaner, and posted a picture of the damaged towels to evidence her complaint. It was an unremarkable exchange of the type I have seen many times (and indeed engaged in myself) online. Increasingly, customers, who are often disempowered in exchanges with commercial companies, make their complaints in public to ensure they will be taken seriously.

It’s understandable — when one can spend hours, over months, (as I have) on the phone to internet providers trying to sort out the broadband connection at one’s elderly grandmothers’ house, to no avail — that people increasingly use public means to resolve consumer disputes. It was only when I threatened to publish an article about how paying for non-existent broadband for eight months had caused my isolated grandmother distress leading to health problems that the issue was finally and swiftly resolved (with an apology call from the P.A to the CEO of a multinational corporation).

Very quickly, Holly’s tweet attracted vitriolic replies from swathes of Twitter users whose profile description read ‘Marxist-Leninist’ or otherwise marked their hard-line leftist positionality. They objected to her tweet on several grounds: that tweeting the company would lead the to cleaner’s dismissal; that Handy is a terrible company that no ethical person would consider using; that hiring a cleaner is immoral in its own right; that we can’t expect high standards from people earning low wages; that a towel can still be used once it has been stained with bleach, so what the fuck is this bitches’ problem anyway?

I was really disturbed by the level of anger towards Holly. It was another example of what Jon Ronson calls ‘public shaming’, in his excellent book So You’ve Been Publically Shamed. Public shaming, as Ronson points out, is a phenomena that has intensified with the advent of the internet and through which individuals are hounded, harassed and humiliated on the basis of single acts, often taken out of context or wilfully misunderstood. As Jonson forensically details, the repercussions of this shaming can have life-ruining consequences — leading to the breakdown of relationships, loss of employment and prolonged low self-esteem. The culture of public shaming, which often serves to bolster the self-esteem of the shamers, who signal their own virtue by condemning someone else, is extremely disturbing to me. It serves to shut down sensible, nuanced debate, acts as a smokescreen that bullies use to justify their behaviour, and stops us from listening with respect to those whose views or behaviours might jar with our own sense of right and wrong. Also disturbing is the extent to which males from both sides of the political spectrum take delight in shaming women.

So that was the first reason I disliked the tone of responses to Holly.

However, I also felt they were entirely unjustified and critically naive. There is no evidence that I have seen that the cleaner Holly used was fired, or received any disciplinary action. We do not know his name, or anything about him other than he is employed by Handy and that he is male — so there is no justification to the claim that Holly making a complaint publically made things worse for the cleaner. To say that you object to a tweet on the basis of a hypothetical firing is bizarre, pedantic and needlessly argumentative in the extreme. Until any firing can be conclusively evidenced, it is simply a straw man. And even if the cleaner were fired, this, surely, would be the decision and responsibility of the company — and if this were the only infraction, dismissal would be an overreaction bordering on illegal, assuming the employee is contracted with Handy on a permanent basis and not self-employed; assuming that the bleach got on the towels by accident and he panicked and hid them.

Presuming Handy does use self-employed staff instead of contracted employees, as is common in the gig economy (it enables companies to operate poor employment practices, acts as a loophole to escape employment rights, and should, in my view, be illegal), is it reasonable to berate Holly for using their services? Only if you believe that structural inequality will be overcome through boycotting, and only if you can also evidence that every single commercial exchange you personally are engaged with does not exploit or oppress workers (good luck with that if you own any products mass produced in the developing world, shop in high street stores, buy your food produce from supermarkets or have ever eaten in a fast food restaurant). By all means, point out the company’s poor practices (if they have them), so that she can make an informed decision. But how does abuse help here? What productive change does directing anger about employment practices at an individual who does not work for the company make?

I also take issue with the idea that employing paid domestic staff is somehow equivalent to slave labour, immoral in its own right. Almost everybody with any disposable income, to one degree or another, employs people to do things they could do themselves — whether that be taxis to drive us, someone to cut our hair, paint our house, proof read our work, make us our burger or rub the callouses off our feet. The idea that employing someone in the domestic realm is somehow shameful seems to me deeply sexist. Cleaners, nannies and home chefs (jobs which are often subject to the ‘do it yourself’ clarion call) are most likely carrying out work traditionally undertaken by women (how many of those shouting ‘do your own cleaning’, would be as quick to cry that everybody should ‘clean their own gutter’, ‘mend their own shoes’, or ‘fix their own roof’?). So long as the person undertaking the domestic work is being paid a fair wage and is not otherwise exploited, there is no inherent immorality to employing them. Unless you see employing anybody as morally suspect — or unless you think that domestic work is so menial it does not deserve a wage. Indeed, in many developing countries where unemployment is rife it is seen as a duty to employ staff once one has the means to do so, and an act of deep selfishness to carry out jobs for yourself when you might give someone a livelihood by paying them to work for you.

As I pointed out in my tweets, it is patronising bordering on offensive to suggest that low-paid workers should be expected to deliver a poor service. It is one thing if poor service or no service is delivered in protest of low wages (there is no evidence Holly’s cleaner was doing this), it is quite another to suggest that low-wages per se result in poor work. I don’t know what Holly’s cleaner earned, but I worked on minimum wage for more than ten years, and in salaried jobs have been employed on lower than minimum wage (if you work out salary on a per-hour basis) several times. I regularly give my labour for free in writing projects and volunteer work. The quality of my output has nothing to do with how much I am getting paid and everything to do with how fulfilling I find the work, how far I feel supported by my managers, how much other stressors compete for my time. I fully believe in decent wages for everybody (in fact, if it were up to me we would all be given the same base salary regardless of occupation), however, I don’t think that the only reason to do a job well is for money. I don’t think because someone is earning less than me it entitles them to do their job poorly. And I fully stand by my belief that if someone wilfully or accidently damages someone else’s property in the course of his or her work, it is not the responsibility of the person whose property has been damaged to withhold a complaint in case the employing company overreacts. This is why we have employment laws!

Nor do I believe any of the outraged tweeters would have resisted complaining had it been their property ruined during a paid-for service. Are these people telling me they don’t complain when half their meal is missing from a delivery, when a waiter spills wine on their shirt and doesn’t apologise, when a shop worker gives them the wrong change, when they bring home a new pair of jeans to find the zip is broken, or discover a scuff on their box fresh white trainers? No, a towel is not rendered useless by bleach, but nor is a t-shirt rendered useless by a permanent coffee-stain: that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t mind if a barista spilled an ice-latte over my clothes and then lied about it.

We are all disempowered (though not of course to the same degree) by the neoliberal system. Those of us employed by corporations and institutions that erode our rights, and those of us who use the services of companies focussed mercilessly on profit. As I pointed out (to much outrage) in my tweet, the appalling tragedy at Grenfell Tower, a result of the wider housing crisis, deregulation, managed decline and systemic devaluing of the poor, is a smoking monument to a system that puts profit over quality, safety and lives. The erosion of ‘consumer rights’, which include the right to expect decent services and respect from companies you have paid to carry out work for you (as well as the right to not be poisoned by cosmetics, not to be lied to about the ingredients in your food products etc.), is related to the erosion of the rights of tenants to live in safe housing. It is also related to the erosion of workers’ rights. Concern with profit is the driving motive behind the erosion of rights at all levels. Like other rights, consumer rights were hard won — our current consumer rights are a testament to the progressive turn that happened in the UK in the mid-to-late 20th Century (a turn that saw the provision of social housing, the NHS, and the introduction of many workers’ rights). When companies of any size know they can get away with poor, shoddy, unsafe work, with treating their customers badly, with employing people on exploitative contracts to shore up the bottom line, with using hazardous materials, they will usually do it. The neoliberal model that places economic value as the only value is deeply troubling and contributes to insecurity, anxiety and powerless in small as well as large ways.

Does this mean I think, as some of the outraged tweeters have suggested, that having your towel damaged is in any way equivalent to losing your life or your home in a fire? No. Categorically and absolutely not. And anyone suggesting that I don’t know or care about the housing crisis on the basis of one tweet is woefully misinformed. This is not about equivalency. My whole academic career has involved thinking about how the micro and the macro are related. I am interested in how the seemingly mundane and the spectacular intertwine. For years I have been writing about the ways in which quotidian newspaper, television and stage depictions of council estate residents creates a culture that justifies violence towards the poor. (And how many people listened before the systematic devaluing of council estate residents became painfully clear?) I care about how small instances of disrespect and feelings of disempowerment in our lives are connected to larger structures of power through which systemic violence is enacted.

I have no idea what Holly-with-the-ruined-towel’s salary is, but I can tell you that the basic costs of living leave me with less than £20 in the last week of almost every month (and I am employed in a relatively high-paying profession). People using the services of companies who exploit workers are not uniformly rich, right wing or uncaring. Often they are stuck within a system that leaves them with no other option but the least expensive. Sometimes, the affordable option is the exploitative option. On her timeline, Holly explains that she hired a cleaner as a one-off treat to make her home nice for a visit from her mother. Just as we don’t know whether the cleaner was fired, we don’t know whether Holly or her mother are ill, whether this was a birthday celebration, whether Holly has been working long hours to afford basic expenses and has had to sacrifice a meal to afford a cleaner. We don’t know important contextual information and so we are not in a position to act as judge and jury. It is not the world’s biggest crime that her towel was ruined. It should (this should go without saying) not result in a cleaner losing their livelihood.

But it is not ‘entitled’ to complain about poor service. Indeed, it is one of the only avenues we have to power, one of the only ways we can still enact our hard-won rights — threatening the bottom line is often the only way profit-driven corporations will listen. When you publically shame someone for complaining about poor service, you are not the hero in the story. You are a bully, diverting attention away from the issues you purport to care deeply about, signalling your own virtue instead of actually making a difference; you are showing your own lack of knowledge about the history of struggle for basic rights. If your issue is that someone might get fired for a minor infraction, make a fuss about employment rights. Structural change will not be brought about by attacking individuals every time their actions do not appear to match your politics; listening to others, considering their points of view with respect and care and without abuse (as I hope I have done here), does not mean agreeing with them. You can contest objectionable behaviour without resorting to insults. If what you want is a better, fairer society; less pain and more kindness, then you don’t get it by piling vitriol on someone you don’t know for a single action, taken out of context.

Ok. Goodnight.

But, Andrew Adonis, I don’t want to work hard

Over on Twitter, if you move in academic circles, you’ll almost certainly have seen a whole load of controversy over some tweets that Andrew Adonis (the former Labour politician) sent out about the state of Higher Education. To summarise: He is upset that academics have ‘three months off’ over the summer. He thinks there should be two-year degrees. The University of Oxford rocks.

Most of the replies to Adonis’ tweets pointed out that the ‘three months off’ thing is a fallacy — that during the summer months academics are writing books, applying for grants, undertaking research, assessing, reading, preparing modules, attending and organising conferences, catching up on admin that used to be undertaken by support staff, dealing with admissions and so on. Many pointed out that parliament too breaks for a long summer vacation and that moaning about academics’ June-September workload fell into either the pot-kettle-black or the people-in-glass-houses arena of hypocrisy. The two-year-degree argument was rehashed again.

Yes, it was all quite predictable and dull in many ways, but I found myself riled up by it nonetheless. I take issue with Adonis’ tweets not so much because of their inaccuracy (yes, they are inaccurate, but also, yes, things do slow down in the summer for many of those academics fortunate enough to be employed on decent permanent contracts), but because of the ideology that underpins them: the ideology of ‘hard work’ as a virtue, of ‘productivity’ as necessarily positive.

Here is the tweet that got right on my wick:

 

I don’t want to live and work in a world where the only important thing is how much you ‘do’; where you are measured by how much you ‘produce’. Nothing is improved in either material or spiritual or creative (or even economic) terms by blind ‘productivity’. You cannot advance knowledge (the cornerstone, surely, of an academic career) by just churning out more and more and more stuff because Andrew Adonis thinks that the point of any job is to do as much as possible, regardless of what actually needs to be done. You do not create a fulfilling, balanced and enjoyable life — let alone society — by working obsessively to the detriment of your family life, social life, and mental and physical health. It is so obvious that I am surprised in even needs saying.

We are in the grip of many social crises, including, most acutely for those of us who work in HE, a mental health crisis in young people that shows absolutely no signs of abating. The wider social and political climate increasingly places pressure on the population to dance to the tune of neoliberalism, where the only possible measure of a country’s (or indeed a person’s) success is economic. This economic imperative is expressed in moral terms, so that whizzing through a degree in two years, writing four books in decade, or teaching back-to-back classes from September to September with no break appears as if it is an elevated moral choice, rather than a deeply unhealthy drive to appease the masters of the infrastructure under which we all operate. It is no wonder our students are crumbling emotionally when they can only see their own value in the numbers assigned to them — another result of a social and political culture where success is defined in limited and ideological terms and used as a tool by which to understand our self-worth. If we are deducting marks from primary school students SATs because they drew a comma the wrong shape, then we can hardly be surprised when, aged 18, they are preoccupied with achievement and riddled with anxiety and feelings of self-loathing.

I don’t want to work hard in the summer. I want to write slowly and read interesting books. I want to walk my dog and visit my elderly grandmother and volunteer in my community. I want to spend whole afternoons sitting in a chair and thinking about the colour of the sky. I want to have long lunches with my colleagues and hear about their research, and their cats and their children. I want to have time to conceptualise new projects, work on creative pursuits and give real head space to the thesis I have to examine. I want to go to Portugal for my cousin’s wedding and not have to take my laptop. I want to visit friends in London and laugh until my stomach muscles hurt. I want to gather interesting examples of creative and cultural practices to use in my module on street performance next semester.

What would be better, in the world or the country or even in my department, if I went into work every day and taught students so they could finish their degrees slightly quicker (and enter a volatile and uncertain job market at 20 instead of 21)? Why does Andrew Adonis want me to work 60 or 70 or 80 hour weeks all year-long, just for the sake of ‘hard work’? What is the point of my writing another four articles that a maximum of 200 people will read and fewer still will remember, unless they add something of real value to my discipline?

In her book All About Love: New Visions bell hooks reminds us that all social justice movements have had a love ethic at their core. More and more I see the refusal to work hard as a way to choose love: love for ourselves and time to give love to others; a turning away from competition that opens us up to love for our colleagues and our disciplinary communities. Refusing to work hard does not mean we stop working, but it means we cultivate a love for our work that allows us to treat it gently and cautiously, with respect.

Housing, Activism and Performance: Call for Papers

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I invite proposals for a special issue of Studies in Theatre and Performance exploring the relationship between performance, activism and housing in conditions of crisis. Please do pass this CfP on to anyone you feel might be interested in contributing.

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This Housing, Activism and Performance special issue will investigate how and under what conditions performance and performative practices have historically and might currently, productively (or otherwise), respond to conditions of housing inequality.

The right to safe, decent housing is commonly understood as a fundamental human right; enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Despite this, the right to adequate shelter and housing is, globally, under threat. As population growth and the emptying of rural communities leads to congested megacities, housing conditions become increasingly disorganised and shambolic (Brown 2003). In 2009, a report published by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights indicated that millions of global citizens face insecure housing conditions — with over two million forced evictions annually, and hundreds of millions of slum-dwellers living in overcrowded and unsanitary conditions (OHCHR 2009). According to the 2005 United Nations Commission on Human Rights report, there were over 100 million ‘homeless’ people worldwide half-way through the first decade of the twenty-first century (UNCHR 2005).

As David Harvey (2008) points out, the neoliberal trend towards owner occupation has exacerbated existing housing crises and resulted in a global crisis of affordable housing. Over the past decade or so, a global ideological shift has transformed houses from ‘homes’ into individual units of financial investment — a development of wider shifts towards privatization that have been ongoing since at least the end of the twentieth century. The collapse of the sub-prime mortgage market (as aspirational homeowners defaulted on unaffordable loans) was widely reported to have played a significant role in the 2007/8 financial crisis and subsequent global recession. Across the world, many people who had been unable to keep up with mortgage payments found themselves under threat of eviction or repossession. This has deepened local and global inequality, intensifying the displacement and disenfranchisement of those unable to buy their own homes.

Artists, activists, academics and policy makers have responded to local and global housing crises in myriad ways. In Detroit, the Heidelberg project, launched in 1986, drew attention to the neglect of the city’s suburban houses, and facilitated ongoing protests against the City of Detroit’s plans for urban development. In 2011, in cities across the world — including Amsterdam, Hong Kong, London and New York —people disenchanted by capitalism chose to respond to the state of the financial system with ‘Occupy’ protests. Protesters took over public (and public/private) spaces using makeshift tented dwellings — symbolically referencing the fact that the recession had threatened the individual right to basic shelter. In 2016 Camden People’s theatre hosted a festival ‘Whose London is it Anyway?’, which explored the ways in which unaffordable private housing and the decimation of existing social housing provision is leading to a so-called ‘social cleansing’, where the city becomes unaffordable to all but the richest residents.

This special issue aims to bring together insights from across disciplinary fields to expand our understanding of performance in conditions of local, national and global housing crises.

Papers might take the following topics as provocation (although we welcome expanded interpretations of the theme):

Housing and activism

· What are the intersections between performance, artistic practices and housing activism?

· How does performance practice offer productive strategies for resistance?

Art, Housing and Neoliberalism

· What is the complicity of creative practices in creating and sustaining housing inequality?

· What is the impact of gentrification on the cultural practices of urban and suburban spaces?

Housing and the Domestic

· How do conceptions of home impact on our understanding of the housing crisis?

· How might performance address the absence of ‘home’ from wider debates about the housing crisis?

Social Housing

· How have policy interventions in social housing intersected with creative and performative practices?

· In what ways have representations of social housing spoken to the housing crisis?

UK Austerity

· How have government austerity policies been understood and represented through creative engagements with housing conditions?

· What is the impact of austerity on the creative practices of the city – including the ability of artists to live in ‘adequate’ homes?

Housing in History

· How do responses to the current crisis speak to responses to historical housing crises and vice versa?

· How far might we understand the housing crisis as a product of our time – and how might we conceptualise it as timeless?

Homelessness

· What does homelessness mean and how has it been conceptualised in light of the housing crisis?

· How might creative and resistant responses to homelessness help us to address housing inequality?

Beyond the Crisis

· What are the intersections between performance practice and housing beyond the crisis?

· How might the staging of ‘house’ and ‘home’ operate outside of a ‘resistance’ model?

Housing Solutions

· How have imagined solutions to the housing crisis been articulated through performance?

· How might performers stage creative solutions to the crisis so that they directly impact housing policy?

Proposals for traditional articles of 5,000-8,000 words, and creative responses to the call (which might include photo-essays, shorter articles, ‘blog’ style posts or artists’ statements) should be sent as abstracts of 250-300 words to k.beswick@exeter.ac.uk

Deadline for proposals: 7th May 2017

Acceptance (subject to peer review): No later than July 2017

Deadline for first-drafts: January 2018

Publication date: Spring/summer 2019

Estate: A Reverie, Screening and Discussion

The University of Exeter Drama Department is hosting a free screening of Fugitive Images’ film Estate: A Reverie, please see below for details — and please share with friends and colleagues, especially those in the Devon area, who might be interested.

 

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Estate: A Reverie

A film directed by Andrea Luka Zimmerman, produced by Fugitive Images

Screening and discussion with filmmaker

22nd July 2016

University of Exeter, Drama Department, Alexander Building, TS1

18.00 – 20.00

Samuel House, the final block in Hackney’s Haggerston estate was demolished in autumn 2014, exemplar of a nationwide, even international, shift in the character and fabric of the inner cities. Filmed over seven years, Estate, a Reverie reveals and celebrates the resilience of residents who are profoundly overlooked and stereotyped by media representations and wider social responses. The film asks how we might resist being framed exclusively through class, gender, ability or disability, and even through geography.

Please join us for a screening of the film, followed by a discussion between Fugitive Images’ David Roberts and the University of Exeter’s Katie Beswick, who is currently researching estate arts practices. Refreshments will be provided.

The event is free of charge, but please email k.beswick@exeter.ac.uk if you intend to attend.

Some Thoughts on Brexit

13512110_10157327058795001_3069001105224106860_nI am still working through my reaction to the results of the UK’s Brexit referendum. The overwhelming polemic in the aftermath, coupled with the near-hysteria during the build-up, make calm, rational, nuanced thought difficult. This is not a straightforward problem and there won’t be a straightforward solution. Those of us who voted remain are struggling to imagine a future in an economically insecure, deeply conservative, divided country cut off from our neighbours. Things don’t have to go this way, of course, but it is hard to conceive how we might turn this around and make Britain (if Britain even stays a thing once the Irish and Scottish have had their say) a fair, prosperous, open society.

If there is anything positive to emerge from the results of this is election it is that those of us on opposing sides have had to seriously listen to each other. As emotions cool, I am seeing careful, reasoned debate on social media (even as the mainstream media continues on along predictable lines: reactionary polemic and obsessively shoring-up social divisions: pitting classes and races and generations against one another as though this will help us. It won’t). Many of us on both sides feel that politics has been broken for a long time, that there are too many angry, left out, unheard people in this country and the world beyond it. The status quo wasn’t good enough, and we’d be foolish to return to it, even if a lot of us felt safe in our bubbles. So what do we do?

Several things strike me in the wake of the result and the debates I’ve had on social media:

  • Backing out of a Brexit has two likely outcomes: a (possibly violent) revolt by those who have voted for leave and who will rightly feel their democratic rights have been trampled; further apathy and mistrust in political processes, leading to a further polarised, divided nation, vulnerable to extremist rhetoric. Neither of these is desirable. The fair thing to do is to honour the referendum result. Although at this stage it seems impossible that leaving the EU will be a good thing, I can’t see how staying under these circumstances is viable either.
  • We have to understand what the leave vote meant, and address the issues it highlights. This was not only, or even primarily, a vote about the European Union. It was a vote about the UK. I firmly believe that we mostly want the same things: secure housing, communities we can feel proud of, an income that allows us to get by, opportunities for fulfilling jobs, stimulating social lives, to feel safe walking down the street, a sense that our lives matter in some greater context. Whatever people’s individual reasons for voting to leave the EU, many of the regions with the strongest ‘leave’ vote are those where austerity cuts and deindustrialisation have hit hardest. Unless politicians start to prioritise people and their needs over rhetoric and ideological game-playing we will continue to foster a deeply divided, angry society.
  • Political debate in this country is a disgrace. Politicians and the press can and do wilfully misrepresent facts, openly mislead and outright lie to the populace with no recourse, no real sanctions, no personal consequences. This means mainstream political discourse is now simply a race to the bottom. We are all worse off when we’re being lied to. We have to lobby our politicians to implement rules and regulations that prohibit outright lies; our politicians and our press should be held to higher standards of proof than academics, because their words have tangible consequences.
  • The shock of leave’s victory for politicians on both sides illustrates what is increasingly clear: our government are not experts in governance, and have little understanding of the realities at play in the world they oversee. The recent resistance doctors and teachers have expressed towards health and education policy only highlights this. In my view, we need a political overhaul that places expertise at the centre of political decision-making. We cannot have career politicians acting as ministers for areas they have no front-line experience of and no qualifications in. How can a man with a BA in Modern History be expected to conduct a complex economic project like planning the budget of a country with one of the world’s largest economies? How can a journalist be expected to sensibly oversee the education system? I have long felt a 7-10 year minimum front-line experience should be a prerequisite for any senior ministerial or cabinet position. I have no idea how we could lobby for or implement such reform but it would, in my view, make a significant and positive difference to the governance of this country.

Whatever our personal feelings about the outcome of this referendum, we do have now have an opportunity to properly start again and remake things, better, stronger, fairer. But it won’t be easy.

 

Home in the Housing Crisis: Interdisciplinary Symposium

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I have been working with some fantastic colleagues from Queen Mary, Birkbeck and Royal Holloway to organise an interdisciplinary symposium on home in the housing crisis. Although there is a lot of academic research into the nature of the housing crisis, and its impact on lives across the globe, these debates remain separate from considerations of home. We will bring home and the housing crisis into conversation through a series of talks, provocations and an interactive performance event. You can register here.