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: Marginal Energy

 

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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Because I write a lot about people, places and artworks often presented in negative terms in the newspaper press, I often find myself reaching for the term ‘marginalised’. It’s a word I feel uneasy about, because of how it can congeal on the page, clumsy and inaccurate. The things I’m interested in aren’t marginal to me: they do not appear on the edge of the frame of my consciousness, or in some unfocused periphery of the world I inhabit — most everyone I knew growing up lived or had at some point lived in council housing; most everyone  was working class. The area of London where I lived for my formative years was racially mixed, so that you didn’t think of people of colour as ‘other’, they just were, like everybody else (which isn’t to deny the reality of racism in South East London, rather it highlights how, in the place I live now, people of colour most definitely are not, an absence that is acute and dangerous, casting anybody who is not white as excessively visible, and especially vulnerable).

Describing the worlds that I write about as marginal also belies the commercial reality of the contemporary culture, where the so-called ‘marginalised’ are big money. The fact is that the fetishisation of estates and their residents is ubiquitous on television and elsewhere. The fact is that urban performance forms like hip hop and grime, emerging from predominately black working class communities, are some of our most popular, widely played and well-known genres. And still…

When I hesitate to type the word ‘marginalised’ I return again and again to bell hooks’ argument for the power of the margin as a radical space of resistance (1989). hooks reminds us of the dangers of pessimism about marginality, ‘if we only view the margin as a sign, marking the condition of our pain and deprivation’ she writes, ‘then a certain hopelessness and despair, a deep nihilism penetrates in a destructive way’ (hooks 1989, 21). For hooks, to stay located at the margins when there is a possibility of moving towards the centre is a radical choice; she makes a ‘definite distinction between that marginality which is imposed by oppressive structures and that marginality one chooses as site of resistance – as location of radical openness and possibility’ (23). I choose to think about the margins and the marginalised conditions that I write about in the spirit of this distinction.

Here I am in the Battersea Arts Centre, and in the studio in front of me the performers (who, I point out again, have developed this work over two and half years, mostly unpaid) break out of the carefully crafted fictional world in which High Rise Estate of Mind takes place, turning off the intoxicating  score that envelops us in the stage reality to address the (at the moment — because this is a rehearsal — imaginary) audience with only the sound of the lights vibrating behind them, and the truth of their stories, told in their own words. This is where it gets real.

‘I didn’t know if the world outside knew that people on the estate existed’, Conrad Murray says, dropping his character to give us a frank housing autobiography, returning to the margins to speak from his experience there.

The performance is punctuated like this throughout, the satirical, fictional ‘City Heights’ apartment complex, where residents must compete in a social contest comprising of hard work and ruthless ambition to ascend to the top, is continually fractured by the real life stories of the actors. At points it isn’t clear where the satire of the UK’s housing crisis ends and the injustices of our social world starts.

Is the dystopia of Mark 1 really so unbelievable, in a world where, as Lakeisha Lynch Stevens narrates in a story of her own childhood, children play in parks covered with needles and used condoms, shaping their own self-worth in the debris left behind by a city that doesn’t see them?

This is marginality, surely? Not just the stories on stage, but the form they take, the spirit that produces them — joyful and heartbreaking in a dynamic, dialectical swirl. Urgent, and yet, not produced for reams of cash in the West End, or for broadcast, but at an experimental arts centre on the edge of the city where Clapham turns into Battersea, for a festival celebrating ‘underrepresented’ voices. You can’t have it, the form is saying, this is ours. If the word marginality does anything, it is provide a frame that describes the ways in which your own existence, and its denial by the material or structural powers that be, creates conditions that produce the energy to resist, to make, to bask in pleasure even in the midst of hardship and pain. The margin is a catalyst, as well as a circumstance.

The music starts again, a frantic vocal whine underscored by a beat laid down live on stage as the performers begin to rap over the instrumentals, dancing, laughing, weaving complex lyrical imagery, enjoying the work they’ve made as much as they hope its audiences eventually will.

A work like High Rise, complex and frenetic; fragmented and challenging, could not have been created — at least not in its current form — without the pressure exerted by the margin pushing itself against the centre. It’s testament to the human instincts for expression, solidarity and justice denied by our collapsing political and economic system. That’s not to fetishise poverty and hardship, having no money and struggling to find a place to live is only ever shit. But the margin continues to create in spite of, because of.

You can’t escape the margin, it’s what encircles the centre.

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.