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.

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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.

Estate: A Reverie, Screening and Discussion

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

 

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Estate: A Reverie

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

Screening and discussion with filmmaker

22nd July 2016

University of Exeter, Drama Department, Alexander Building, TS1

18.00 – 20.00

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

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

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

Date for Your Diaries. Seminar Talk on ‘Making Performance in Your Council Estate Home’

I am the speaker at the December seminar for the Institute of Historical Research ‘Studies of Home’ series.

2nd December 2015, 5.30pm, Senate House, London.

‘The Resident Artist: Making Performance in Your Council Estate Home’.

Put it in your diaries!

Check out the exciting seminar line-up for the rest of the year by clicking here.

Look at the E(s)tate We’re In

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For the past five and half years, I have been undertaking research examining the representation of council estates (or social housing estates) across a number of divergent theatre practices (mainstream, applied and site-specific). In September 2013 I attended a fascinating event, run by artist Jordan McKenzie as part of the Live Art Development Agency’s DIY Series. This event, titled ‘Look at the E(s)tate We’re in’, was a gathering of artists, academics and activists whose work engaged with council estate sites. Below I have posted my review of this event, originally published on Interface.

‘Council estates are iconic sites of urban deprivation. In contemporary popular representations – on film, television and in the newspaper press – estates are often called upon to symbolise poverty, crime and struggle. Council estates are also regularly implicated in political rhetoric regarding the welfare state. For example, when the coalition government recently introduced the ‘spare bedroom tax’, a reduction in housing benefit for any claimants who were deemed to have a ‘spare bedroom’, they invoked the concept of the ‘shirker’ or ‘scrounger’ – the lazy, benefit dependant council estate resident that they had used to justify wider benefit cuts.

Because of the national interest in council estate sites, and because they are often presumed to house communities of social renters who are vulnerable and economically marginalised – despite the fact that, in reality, estates are home to a diverse range of residents including professionals, homeowners, artists and private renters – council estates have become fertile sites for socially engaged arts practices.

Look At The E(s)tate We’re In (LATEWI) was a three day mini summit for five artists whose work centres around socially engaged practice, funded by the Live Art Development Agency as part of their DIY series – where artists run unusual training and development workshops for other artists. I attended the summit for research purposes – I am currently undertaking a PhD that interrogates representations of the council estate. The event was hosted by Jordan McKenzie, an artist and estate resident who ran LUPA (Lock-Up Performance Art), a series of live art works staged in a garage on the Approach Estate in Bethnal Green, where he lives, and where the summit took place.

LATEWI sought to address the following questions: Does working locally and employing notions of localism in artistic processes provide an oppositional critique of globalisation or foster insular and conservative attitudes to artistic and social exchange? Is the notion of community important given the attacks on estates by the government or does it fail to represent the particular and autonomous nature of social relations? How do artists create ‘authentic’ relations in terms of social engagement without it seeming that an artist parachutes in to perform it and then leave again effectively reducing it to another artistic practice? What indeed do we mean by authentic in this context?

Over the three days attendees engaged in a series of micro-encounters. These included talks by prominent artists and academics concerned with participatory arts practices – such as Bobby Lloyd whose recent projects include ‘the drawing shed’, an arts organisation that uses mobile studios to create arts projects on two housing estates in E17, and Dr Nic Ridout who offered a provocation on the powers of spectatorship, arguing that participation might, sometimes, work as a substitute for taking part in political action. Artists were also invited to engage with estate residents, in a series of one-to-one meetings, where residents spoke about their own experiences of the estate and the surrounding area, and which might provoke stimulus for future collaborations.

The summit also allowed space for the attending artists to reflect on their own work and a chance to share and discuss practice. This fostered stimulating and memorable conversations, particularly around the notion of rights to representation and the ethics of socially engaged art. We asked whether and how arts practitioners should work with communities they are not part of, and speculated on the role of the social artist in a neoliberal economy – where artists are often employed by institutions on a short term basis, and expected to carry out social and political work that they are not necessarily trained for.

The scope and breadth of work discussed over the three days led us to consider whether council estate practice might be considered a category of socially engaged art in its own right. Although artistic engagements with council estates have happened since at least the mid twentieth century, we speculated that the proliferation of council estate art in the past ten years might mark a definable historical moment in socially engaged work.

LATEWI felt like the start of something, it was a timely and exciting event – a spark that might ignite future practices, collaborations and discourses. It was a useful space for reflection and creativity, and proved the worth of the DIY initiative in providing unique and stimulating spaces for artists to explore ideas in a way that offers potential for innovation.’