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.
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.