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.

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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.