Notes from the Rehearsal Room: Identity Politics

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

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

I identify with that plant.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Notes from the Rehearsal Room: In Defence of Rage

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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.

Why is your book so expensive?

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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

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

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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

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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.

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.