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.

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.

Education and ‘Value’

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Since, approximately, the beginning of time, politicians, journalists and, if Guardian comments threads are anything to go by, members of the public, have been debating the ‘value’ of Higher Education, and, indeed, education more generally. This debate has grown ever more intense as university fees have increased to £9,000 per year for the average undergraduate, and as more and more students enrol on both undergraduate and postgraduate degrees.

Much of the discourse on education and its ‘value’ revolves around ‘employability’– universities are increasingly measured, in both league tables and the public eye – by how well they prepare students to enter the labour market, and how much more money graduates earn than those without degrees.

As graduate wages fail to vastly outstrip those of non-graduates and growing numbers of students graduate with ‘good’ (2:1 or above) degrees, politicians, journalists and social commentators speculate – in various ways – that the education system is failing its students. Implicit (and often explicit) in their arguments is the assumption that the rigour and worth of formal learning and academic qualifications declines as the numbers of people achieving qualifications rises. There are too many of us getting degrees and – just like the A grade at A’level – that means they’ve become worthless.

But, although it’s nice to get a cash return on your investment, as anybody who has studied for the love rather than for the money knows, education is not like a diamond or a precious metal. Its value doesn’t lie in its scarcity. Education is more like a child or a lover – it’s ‘value’, should you wish to discuss it in such crass terms (and you surely wouldn’t, if you knew anything about its value at all) is in the way it enriches your life, and the lives of those around you.

Undoubtedly, I agree that ‘education’ is about more than formal, institutionalised learning. Such formal learning, however, importantly offers the time, space, expertise and resources where a particular kind of intellectual creativity can occur, and where students can engage with (and with any hope come to challenge) the thinkers, thoughts and traditions that have created the foundations of the subject they love. The opportunity to engage in formal education is ‘valuable’ for all sorts of people, in all sorts of ways, and we should be thinking about how we can open, rather than reduce, access to it.

In my discipline – drama, theatre and performance studies – there are on-going discussions about how we might demonstrate the value of what we do. The urgency with which we feel we must justify our existence has no doubt been compounded by the Coalition’s denigration of arts subjects in compulsory education. In a desperate scramble to prove our worth in ‘their’ language we supplement our well-worn arguments about the intrinsic value of beauty, the social benefits of arts practices, the positive impact of theatre on the self-esteem of participants and audiences. We point out that arts graduates fair particularly well in terms of graduate ’employability’ due to the ‘transferable skills’ offered by arts degrees, and we remind ‘them’ that in economic-speak arts make up 0.4 percent of GDP, with just 0.1 percent of investment.

I feel profoundly uncomfortable about this.

We shouldn’t fall into the trap of talking numbers when it comes to education – whether in the arts, humanities or STEM subjects. Yes, how much we spend on education has to be considered in terms of wider concerns around public funding. But those of us working in the sector need to resist defining its worth in numerical or monetary terms. Education is too important. It is more than dollar signs. It needn’t be a scare resource to offer something valuable.

Race, Racism and ‘Theatre of the Ghetto’

Press image from OFF THE ENDZ  Credit: Johan Persson/ArenaPAL
Press image from OFF THE ENDZ
Credit: Johan Persson/ArenaPAL

One of my research interests is in the genre of drama that journalist Lindsay Johns has pejoratively termed ‘Theatre of the Ghetto‘. This genre, according to Johns, is primarily ‘about guns, drugs and council estates’ and regularly depicts black people (particularly men) as inhabitants of unsavoury or troubled home environments and as the perpetrators or victims of crime.

‘Theatre of the Ghetto’, I would add, usually adheres to the conventions of social realism – where working class spaces are depicted with a close attention to detail in the set design, costume and staging. Plays that might fit into this category include Random* (debbie tucker green 2008 Royal Court), Off the Endz (Bola Agbaje 2010 Royal Court), The Westbridge (Rachel De-lahay 2011 Royal Court) and Estate Walls (Arinze Kene 2011 Ovalhouse).

It is easy to see why Johns is dissatisfied with the state of contemporary black British theatre, which again and again presents stereotypes of young black men, which reinforce racist conceptions of black masculinity that already circulate in the dominant culture. In many of the post-show talks and Q&As that I have attended after theatre (and indeed film) of the ‘ghetto’ events the question asked by audience members is: ‘what can we do about our young black men?’ Audiences (both black and white) appear to receive these works as truthful reflections of the total state of the young black British community, and respond by seeking methods to ‘fix’ the youth.

I think audiences are asking the wrong question – what we should be asking, especially in this period where the rise of the far right throughout Europe threatens to create and entrench divisions between racial and religious groups, is: ‘what can we do about racism?’ What can we do about racism, which operates to demonise groups of the population and which is so pervasive that it works through cultural intuitions such as theatre to reinforce its dangerous message?

Accusing mainstream theatres of racism is ethically complex, not least because most of the plays that fit the ‘Theatre of the Ghetto’ mould are written by black writers, often claiming to reflect the ‘reality’ of the life of the black British community. And, after all, what right does a white woman such as me have to tell these writers what kind of theatre they should and shouldn’t be making? (Another good question.)

But of course – as is hardly ever publically acknowledged, particularly at the Royal Court, which emphasises the primacy of the playwright – plays have more than one author. The producers, directors, set designers and centrally, the funders of theatre also contribute to the overall meaning created by productions, and importantly, decide what gets made, and how.

What can we do about a system where, as playwright Arinze Kene has argued, black British playwrights are coerced into writing ‘the same old shit’, in the knowledge that these are the stories theatres want to stage?

Happily, there does seem to be a fledgling move towards mainstream theatres asking questions about the stories they produce. Over the past couple of years I have come across two especially powerful productions that place racism at the centre of the story, questioning ‘norms’ of the theatre industry in different ways.

The first is Nathaniel Martello-White’s play Blackta (Young Vic 2012), which explores the place of the black actor in the contemporary theatre industry. Blackta calls attention to the pressures young black men feel to live up to stereotypes of extreme masculinity – ‘homophobic, misogynistic, tough’ – and examines how the acting industry exploits and reinforces conventional depictions of black men.

The second is Arinze Kene’s God’s Property (Soho 2013), which subverts conventional ‘Theatre of the Ghetto’ narratives, which often position black men as recidivist criminals. At the end of the play, the mixed-race Chima who has served a long prison sentence for the murder of his white girlfriend, Poppy, is revealed not to have killed her at all – he has covered for Poppy’s father, who killed her accidently, trying to attack Chima after becoming enraged that his daughter was carrying a black man’s baby.

Both of these examples mark an important, I think, way in which the theatre industry is starting to interrogate its own practices. Although, depressingly, after a showing of God’s Property at the Albany in Deptford, audiences were still asking, ‘what should we do about our young black men?’ A question which conveniently shifts the gaze away from those in power, who might be able to actually do something about the social problems caused by racial and economic inequality.

*although the unconventional staging of this play (on a sparse stage, a single black actress plays all the characters) means it isn’t really ‘social realism’.

With thanks to Charlotte Bell at Queen Mary University, whose question on my paper at the Seeing Like a City symposium prompted this blog.

If you’re interested in reading more of my thoughts on realism and the ethics of representation you might like to read articles I have written (and co-written) on the subject: here and here.