Blog

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, opening at the Battersea Arts Centre on 20thMarch 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.

Advertisements

Cheryl Cole, Mark Duggan, Andrea Dunbar, hip-hop, social realism and yearning: What’s inside my book on council estate performance.

Social Housing in Performance: The English Council Estate on and off Stage is published next week. It explores the representation of English council estates on stage, screen, in the news media and in visual arts practices. It is the only book-length study to focus solely on analysing the representation of estates. Below is an overview of the book, which details in succinct summaries what you can find in each chapter. I’ve written these brief summaries to provide a quick gloss for those wondering whether the book, or parts of it, will be useful to them. I hope this post might both whet your appetite for the volume and help you find the bits of it most relevant to your own interests.

Introduction: The council estate, definitions and parameters

Here, I give a working definition of the term ‘council estate’ and offer a brief history of the evolution of the estate and its place in the British public imagination. I think through how ideas about estates intersect with discourses of class, race, crime, poverty and survival.

I develop a taxonomy of council estate performance, mapping out the different ways twenty-first century performance and performative practices have engaged with estate space.

I also map the theoretical territory in which the book intervenes, using Edward Soja’s ‘trialectics’ to explain my rationale for the use of three case study examples in each of the following chapters.

Key theorists include: Henri Lefebvre, Lisa McKenzie, Edward Soja

Key words: Crisis, council estate, complexity

Chapter 1: Quotidian performance of the council estate

In this chapter I explore what I call ‘quotidian performance’, looking at how the estate has been performed in the ‘everyday’. I examine poverty porn television, newspaper coverage and discuss the culture of what I call the ‘authentic real’, where the term authenticity is often used to infuse council estate representations with ‘truth’.

Developing Imogen Tyler’s method of ‘figuring’ I explore representations of three ‘real’ council estate residents across different media: Karen Matthews, Cheryl Cole and Mark Duggan. I look at the ways these figures authenticate ideas about estates and working class people.

I also argue that the council estate can be understood as a local articulation of the ‘global hood’, emerging from popular understandings of urban marginality in inner-city US neighbourhoods. I trace how influential hood forms such as hip-hop are adopted and appropriated on the English estate.

Key theorists include: Chris Richardson and Hans Skott-Myhre, Bev Skeggs , Imogen Tyler 

Key words: Class, race, ‘the real’

Chapter 2: Class and the council estate in mainstream theatre

In Chapter 2, I look at three productions performed in building-based, subsidised theatres: Out of Joint’s 2000 revival of Andrea Dunbar’s Rita, Sue and Bob Too (performed in tandem with Robin Soans’s A State Affair), Simon Stephen’s Port, revived at the National Theatre in 2013 and Conrad Murray’s DenMarked (Battersea Arts Centre 2017).

The focus in this chapter is on class and its relationship with what I call ‘mainstream’ theatre forms. I argue that although class has, until recently, rarely been named in arts policy and theatre scholarship, class relations and their attendant power dynamics have played out through representations of estates and significantly influence the ways estates are produced and received in the public imagination. I critique social realism, arguing that the form often works to further ‘authenticate’ troubling representations.

Key theorists: Elaine Aston and Janine Reinalt, Paul Murphy, Raymond Williams

Key words: Realism, authenticity, rage

Chapter 3: Located on the estate

In this chapter I examine three site-specific works that took place on estates: SLICK, by the National Youth Theatre (2011) at Park Hill in Sheffield, Roger Hiorns’s installation Seizure at Harper Road in Southwark, London, later moved to the Yorkshire Sculpture Park (2008/2014-) and Fourthland’s ‘The Wedding to the Bread’ (2017) ceremony at the Wenlock Barn estate in Shoreditch, London.

I explore how these works are implicated in so-called artwashing, often becoming complicit in gentrification processes: but also their capacity to resist such processes. I examine ideas of utopia, beauty and mythmaking in light of these works.

Key theorists include: Jen Harvie, Grant Kester, James Thompson

Key words: Artwashing, site-specific, ambivalence

Chapter 4: Resident artists

Here, I explore how artists who are also estate residents have used the space of the estate to ‘speak back’ to dominant, negative representations of estates in one way or another. I discuss grime music, the Focus E15 campaign and look at three estate performances by resident artists based in East London. These performances (Jordan McKenzie’s Monsieur Poo-Pourri series, Fugitive Images’ film Estate: A Reverie and Jane English’s show 20b) take us through the process of estate regeneration: an artist still living on an estate in a rapidly changing neighbourhood, residents in the process of being removed from their homes and a resident trying to recreate her estate after its demolition.

I analyse these works by framing them as examples of broader ‘strategies’ – of subversion, yearning and nostalgia — that estate residents use to resist reductive ideas about their homes from the bounded estate location.

Key theorists include: David Harvey, bell hooks, Laura Oldfield Ford

Keywords: subversion, nostalgia, yearning

Conclusion: Three thoughts

I conclude  by offering three thoughts that draw out the main findings of the book, exploring the themes of authenticity, ambivalence and hope that recur throughout earlier chapters.

Key theorists include:  Paul Crowther, Mark Fisher, Chantal Mouffe

Key words: Capitalist realism, spatial ecology, hope

You can hear more about the book and my thoughts on estates, class at culture on this podcast, produced by the New Books Network, click here.

You can pre-order the book here, although before you click be warned it is very expensive. I explain why here. Perhaps you can order a copy for your local or institutional library. If you can’t afford a copy and don’t have access to a library but would like to read the book please email me.

Why is your book so expensive?

Embed from Getty Images

 

My book, Social Housing in Performance, is available for pre-order. It is, as you will have noticed if you clicked on the hyperlink in the last sentence, prohibitively expensive at £67.50 (and that’s with a discount). Almost immediately that I tweeted news of my forthcoming publication, I received replies going, ‘Gah! But the price!’ The high price is especially an issue because of the subject matter of the book — the fact it deals with class injustice and its cultural dimensions — and because many people who will (hopefully) want to read it won’t have loads of money, or access to a university library. So I’ve written this to a) explain why it’s so expensive, because I feel that needs justifying. And b) to tell you how you can read it at a much cheaper price, or for free.

Why is it so expensive?

Academic books are expensive. The reason for this is because they are very niche, and publishers don’t expect to sell more than a few hundred copies, if that. Because they have to make their money back, and because these books will mostly be purchased by university libraries, who are much better off than the average human household, they are priced very high. That way, the publisher makes their money back on their investment in the book.

The academic who wrote the book typically makes very minimal returns on any sales — totalling in the tens, or if we’re lucky, hundreds of pounds. Considering academic books take years if not decades to complete, we do not win financially in this model (see here for a rant about that).

So why publish with an academic publisher?

There are two reasons. The first is that I genuinely didn’t believe there was anything like a market for the trade publication of an arts criticism book about estates, class, arts and culture. My experience of unsuccessfully trying to sell a non-fiction book to trade publishers in the past had taught me that I would need to convince commissioning editors that the book is likely to sell (tens of) thousands of copies. In order to publish a trade book, you either have to be writing about an extremely hot topic, or else you have to be famous. The public interest in class and the arts is extremely current, and five years ago when I was working on the proposal for this publication I didn’t know how to articulate the market for it, indeed I didn’t think there was a market for it. No one was really talking about this stuff. I know there are some academic books, particularly sociology ones and arts criticism by well-known writers, that sell very well. But as I am a) unknown to the wider public, and b) writing about a very specific subject, it seemed unlikely that a trade publisher would bite.

The second is a career progression reason, and therefore selfish — but I don’t apologise for that. Every six years or so, UK academics have to submit our work to the Research Excellence Framework (REF, formerly RAE), where its ‘quality, significance and rigour’ is graded anywhere between 1 and 4 stars. In my current job, I have to evidence that I am capable of producing 4* outputs (yes, even though I am an ‘early career’ scholar), in order to pass probation and be promoted. Although the REF panel are not supposed to take where an output is published into a consideration when assessing, there are still good reasons to choose an academic publisher if you are hoping to submit a book to REF. Most obviously because with an academic publisher your book will be subject to a rigorous peer review by someone in your discipline, which means there is quality control and you can have some confidence the academic world thinks your work is worthwhile. Additionally, despite the rules around not using publishers as proxies for quality, I don’t doubt that many of the REF assessors do factor some element of publication prestige into their assessment (they have to read thousands of submissions in a few months, they must make shortcuts somehow).

But I still want to read your book!

Thank you! I have been working on this material for nearly ten years, and I really want it to reach as wide an audience as possible. My contract says that it will be available in paperback at some point, which will reduce the price to somewhere in the region of £20, which is still a lot, but will be affordable for some. I’m not sure when that will be. In the meantime, you might like to request that your institutional or local library orders a copy, you can ask the librarian how to do this. The more hardback copies that sell, the more likely it is that the book will receive a timely paperback release.

There are a couple of ways to get a free copy: For those of you who teach and hope to use the book on a course, you can request an inspection copy from the publisher once it’s out (click here for details of how to do that). You might also like to write a review of the book for an academic journal, or for a newspaper or blog — in which case you can email publicity@bloomsbury.com or academicreviews@bloomsbury.com after publication and ask for a review copy.

Once the book’s out I’m going to arrange a launch where I’ll hopefully have discounted copies. I’m also happy to share any discount codes I’m given, and to send out digital versions of chapters once I have them, especially to those who need to read the book for research or study purposes. You can find my email in the contacts section of this website.

 

 

Rights, copyright and exploitation: Five things academics can do to improve the experience of publishing

Embed from Getty Images

 

This is written from a UK arts and humanities perspective, and may not be entirely applicable outside of that context

*

This week, I was presented with yet another shitty contract by an academic publisher, and it was the final straw. The breaking point as I snapped under the weight of resentments that I’ve been harbouring towards academic publishing culture for the past eight years. I am 34. I have been writing and publishing academic papers since I was 26. I have, to date, published well over a dozen articles, chapters and book reviews, have edited journal special issues and have just submitted my first book. Some of my stuff is very good. I say all this not to brag, but to point to the fact that even with this relatively wide experience and despite my dedication to my work and eagerness to please (maybe that’s part of the problem), my publishing experiences are still unsatisfactory. Indeed, once it comes down to the contract, publishing has almost always left me feeling exploited, cynical and played.

Having been handed yet another contract where I’m expected to sign my worldwide copyright and all other rights, save the ability to actually share my work, over to a very profitable company, for no remuneration whatsoever, at massive personal cost in terms of effort and energy, I’m feeling extremely cross. Not only, and not even primarily, at the publishing houses — who after all are only following the ‘profit no matter what’ business model that has now become the prevailing morality in our culture — but at myself (for not challenging the culture sooner) and at my colleagues and mentors. Literally none of whom have ever discussed copyright, subsidiary rights, contract terminology and negotiation, meaning I have willingly signed rights to my work over to publishers on almost every academic paper I’ve ever written.

Perhaps my feeling annoyed at colleagues is unfair. So far as I can tell the conspiracy of silence (try asking someone about the terms of their publishing contract) is not so much because people don’t want early career researchers to know their rights, but because even many senior academics are unclear about those rights, how to protect them, how to enforce them, or what a standard academic publishing contract actually means in practical terms. After all, very few of us will ever directly make money from our academic writing. (For those of us signed up to ALCS, we should be aware that signing over copyright (and other subsidary rights) means we are not entitled to collect to royalties from secondary uses). Added to which the fact that we feel so relieved after years and years of painstaking research, more months or years of working through drafts, responses to reviews, edits and so on, to have finally completed the article, chapter or book, that we just want our work out there as soon as possible. We don’t want to delay the process, risk our relationship with editors, have someone else publish similar work, have our work pulled at the last minute, or (and I think this is especially the case for women) be perceived as difficult. So we shut up. (Perhaps we are also embarrassed that, as people whose job is ‘being clever’, we have absolutely no idea what we’re doing in this regard). (Perhaps there are also those of us who cling jealously to our ability to negotiate fairer contracts, figuring that it’s a skill that’s basically a finite resource we’d like to keep for ourselves).

However, I’m not willing to continue participating in a system where virtually nobody openly discusses our writing and its monetary value, or talks about how to protect it. So I am writing this blog for two reasons. The first is to raise the issue in a public forum in the hope it generates conversation and sharing of stories. I am especially interested to hear about how academics have protected their work, and about any initiatives colleagues are involved in around training postgraduates and ECRs to better understand their rights and how to negotiate with academic publishers. The second is to relay a series of simple strategies that I suggest we take up to start pushing back against unfair publishing conditions.

For anyone confused about what publishing rights are please click here for more details (this is a North American perspective, and much of it deals with trade/fiction publishing but it’s a good overview). On UK copyright law specifically, see here and here.

We have to ask for better terms when we are handed a contract that is blatantly exploitative.

The terms we are willing to settle for will obviously differ from person to person, but I’d say at the bare minimum giving up copyright and all subsidiary rights is an immediate no. Instead, ask whether the publisher is willing to publish with a licence to publish agreement. Also check book contracts for unhelpful clauses such as those where the publisher has first right to first refusal on your next monograph. Because ECRs and those with precarious contracts arguably need publications more than established and senior researchers, the onus is on permanent staff to push for better contracts every time we publish. We have to do this so that we start to make it against a publisher’s interests to offer the most exploitative contract as standard. (Advice on how to negotiate here, and here).

It is worth remembering that many of the big publishers, such as Taylor & Francis, will present you with a copyright assignment request as standard, but have a policy of allowing writers to switch to licence to publish when asked. So ask.

If the publisher can’t give you satisfactory terms, go elsewhere.

We have to be willing to do this. Maybe it means you don’t get to place your monograph with a prestigious University Press. Perhaps it means that publication will be delayed while you look for another journal, or submit that book chapter as an article. Remember the quality of your work is in the work and not the publisher (this should also be how REF panels approach it). Going elsewhere simply means you get to publish without feeling compromised and perhaps even see some money if your work is a surprising commercial success.

Lobby from positions of power.

Editorial boards, series editors and others in positions of influence with academic publishing houses should lobby in the strongest possible terms to have contracts presented to their writers meet a minimum standard of fairness. No copyright assignment and access to percentage of subsidiary rights, for example. Where appropriate, editorial boards should take advice on this from e.g. Society of Authors, UCU or similar.

We have to educate ourselves and our communities.

This means we have to start getting a grip on understanding rights, permissions, etc. and we have to share and disseminate strategies we have used to negotiate better contract terms with our colleagues. We should also create opportunities for training in contract negotiation for ECRs and postgraduate researchers (and others who might need it).

Use and share available resources. 

Those of us with agents, membership to the Society of Authors, or with other means of having contracts vetted and scrutinised by experts should routinely do so and should, as above, share insights from the process with colleagues, students and postgraduate students.

On a final note: is it an absolute madness for me to think about setting up my own publishing imprint, with a central aim of establishing an ethical contract model for academia? Would anyone else be interested in thinking about the feasibility of this, or gathering to discuss academic publishing rights issues? If so please email me at k.beswick@exeter.ac.uk and I will try to arrange a meeting or gathering where interested parties can discuss.

Some reflections on actor training, inequality, casting and industry

Embed from Getty Images

 

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.

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

 

Embed from Getty Images

 

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

Embed from Getty Images

 

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.