Appropriation of other people’s trauma and the lack of authenticity.
I am interested in who and what work gets developed.
I want to talk about something which I’m going to call the appropriation of trauma, and the lack of authenticity. This is something which I think blocks authentic voices being heard within the theatre.
I am all for the theatre highlighting issues such as – housing issues, domestic violence, the care system, substance abuse, racism, sexism etc.
But I think that there is a problem going on within the arts, and with artists. I think that too many are talking about issues which they have not experienced or have any personal knowledge.
I believe that there might need to initially be a first step where established artists use their fame to cast a bit of their light on into whatever issue is hiding in the dark- Things people aren’t thinking or talking about.
But there needs to be second step where we get an authentic perspective, where artists who have actually experienced these things get a chances to talk about it, people who have lived these stories and create work from that authentic paradigm. This work may look different. It may sound different. But this will bring a new artistic perspective.
What often happens is that people say that this work is rough, it isn’t right and that the artist needs ‘professionals’ to come in- designers , directors and outside eyes, all of that stuff. This process of professionalising work and an artist not only helps to knock their self confidence, but it helps to sanitise the work and make it more like the status quo.
I say that they don’t need this, of course the work is going to look different. People just need to learn HOW to LOOK. This kind of artist has actually experienced these things, lived and breathed them. It is coming from a different place so it should look different.
I believe that this process of interference and creating work that you don’t have any legitimate agency to be speaking about or from stops progress to creating new exciting and diverse forms from different kinds of artists, and to the highlighting whatever issue or story they may be speaking about.
You hear artists saying we are giving them a voice, we are helping. No they have a voice and you are taking it away!
SO I think that there is a lack of authenticity. I want to give an example, and that is some verbatim theatre. It is lauded as ‘So real, oh SO real’. But I I would say that it can be predatory, and that the authors of these stories get little credit sometimes. These are their stories that they own. And they sometimes get little credit if any. I have known people not to have been offered free tickets or invited to the shows in which they were contributors.
I am going to tell you a story , My Nan grew up in care her whole childhood, right up until she was an adult. She never really had a family. She wasn’t taught to read and write, she can’t read and write. SO her life is remember through a bunch of stories. Her use of language is quite small. So these are the tools which she uses to live her life and describe the world. She can’t read. So she doesn’t understand consensus views, or traditional narratives. She explains the world through honest stories, not through metaphors and euphemisms-although sometimes she makes her own that no one understands.
A lot of my family have been in care. I don’t have a trust fund, all I have are these stories, memories which have been passed down. These are our family stories.
So I go down to the national theatre – aka benefits office for middle class artists- and I see a show about care homes, people who live in care homes a piece of verbatim theatre. And we have actors coming onto the stage ‘What gwan my blood wha gwarn?’. In posh accents. This is wrong.
The authors of these stories are not credited. I don’t get no names. I just get ‘we spent some time with these people, observing them in their care homes’. I think, that it is offensive. It is offensive to me.
As theatre makers, and as performers, producers and audience members we should ask these questions.
1. Who’s story is this?
2. Why am I telling it? (Why is he/she telling it)
3. What agency do I have to tell this story? (What agency does he/she have to tell this story)
4.Am I the best person to tell this story? (IS he /She the best person to tell this story?)
I think that there is a problem with band wagons. ‘Last year I was so passionate about domestic abuse, this year I’m so passionate about refugees. I’m so passionate. SO so passionate. But when the media moves on to a next thing, you’ve moved on to a next thing. And you have turned a big issue which is important to many people a fad. Leaving all these people who you promised to care about in the dust. You have now turned their issue into a fad. But you were SO Passionate. Really?!
What is YOUR story? Why can’t artists look inside themselves? We all have stories, I think that this is predatory. Don’t appropriate other peoples narratives and stories.
An alternative, would be for artists to empower somebody who has real agency- Give them a real role not just something nominal. Don’t be a predator, stand for something.
Tell your story, don’t take mine.
As artists and as people, all we own are our experiences, and our perceptions of them within the short time that we have. We should let people take away this important cultural and important human resource.
Who gets ‘developed’? The diversity question: who is and isn’t able to become a professional artist, and how can we change that?
I was born in a South Wales ‘sink’ estate in 1984 the year of the miners strike.
My mother a single mum with three children, worked hard. Life was fun but also tough for me and the community I grew up with.
In 1994 John Redwood the Welsh Secretary of state launched a pointed attack on St.Mellons brandishing it one of the biggest single mothers estates in Europe and vilifying the community
This had a profound effect.
It created a culture around me that felt designed to hold me back.
I was fortunate to go to University and was the very first in my family. I had a loan, access to an overdraft and I felt safe that I’d never earn over the threshold so I’d never have to pay it back.
In 2008 I set up my own theatre company, Common Wealth as a response to the arts, in this case theatre, becoming less accessible and relevant to working class people.
I was working in a theatre at the time and I was sick and tired of how it felt like we were providing for only a privileged elite.
Theatre managers often come from public school backgrounds and anything seen as for local communities was considered to be of low value, was underfunded and little more than a tick box exercises for funders.
We set up Common Wealth with persistence.
Nobody taught us how to do it, we learnt as we went, took risks and acted like we knew what we were on about.
Taking risks was essential, working less and committing more of myself to finding time to make new shows.
Setting up a theatre company was exciting but it was also a massive risk – I had to give up my job and go onto job seekers and I swear without jobseekers I would have never been able to do it.
What’s terrifying is that that would never happen today.
As a young working-class woman I’ve always been aware and unsure of where I belong in the arts world.
This is a source of tension to me as an artist, as a director.
I’ve been thinking that if someone in my position feels like an outsider then how can it be a source of inspiration for the next generation of working class artists working in, and shaping, the arts?
Recently I’ve been working in Merthyr Tydfil in the South Wales valleys.
I’m working with an incredibly dedicated and motivated group of men who are unemployed, receiving benefits.
It’s been difficult for them to volunteer for fear of the job centre finding out and stopping their claims.
These guys are hungry for art, they get it and what’s more they value it.
A structure designed to hold them back.
Recently I also asked a 19-year-old from Merthyr if he thought he had what it took to be a leader.
His reply was ‘ I have what it takes but I can’t because of where I come from’.
This has become a mantra I have heard to often.
A structure designed to hold us back.
However if he was an artist imagine what he could teach us about the world.
So how can we push for change in an industry that undervalues and distances itself from working class people, culturally, social and economically.
How can opportunities for inclusion be opened up and how can theatre development support those who are unable to take risk.
Why has it become increasingly difficult for arts organisations to reach people?
And why are we not seeing more work created by and for people who are working class.
So what is our response as people, as artists, as theatre makers, as organisations?
How do we change a system that is frankly inaccessible.
We talk about community, diversity and inclusion all the time and what I’d like to see is some clarity around what these words mean and in what context are we using them.
If theatre is truly meant to belong to everyone what is it that we need to change and how do we begin as artists, as makers, as organisations to include everyone in this conversation.
How can we challenge those structures that are designed to hold us back?
Hi I’m Jess, I’m an artist, theatre maker, and part-time superhero – “I’ve got sparkly pants and a very cool lawn mower.” I also have Tourettes Syndrome, which means I make movements and noises I can’t control called tics. That means this provocation will come with extra biscuits.
I’m going to give a brief description of myself for anyone who might find this useful: I’m a thirty-something white woman of average build with curly brown hair and I’m wearing a red top.
When Battersea asked me to put this video together I knew I wanted to talk from my perspective as a disabled artist.
When I looked at the questions you’ll be thinking about today I wanted to cover all six.
But I quickly realised there was way more to say than could be squeezed into four minutes – particularly with added interjections – “@@@@@@@@” so I chose just two.
Venue development – what could venues be doing better?
It’s impossible for me to talk about this without mentioning the accessibility of venues: the physical accessibility of their spaces and the equality of access in the systems that underpin how they operate.
Many venues focus on improving their public facing access, but are not investing in making their backstage areas accessible to disabled performers.
I’ve just finished an eight-week tour of Backstage In Biscuit Land, and over half the theatres we visited weren’t accessible to me in the same way as my non-disabled company.
As a result I’ve performed in front of a stage I couldn’t get on, created an emergency safe space inside a goods lift, and gone in past more bins than I care to remember.
My message to venues is that while creative thinking and a willingness to adapt are useful qualities, they’re not a replacement for long-term investment in spaces that are fully accessible to all.
Who gets ‘developed’?
If you went into any mixed London secondary school and asked the students who was interested in a career in art, performance or music, most hands would probably go up.
But that diversity isn’t represented in our cultural spaces. While who get’s ‘developed’ is an important question, I also want to know who’s self-selecting out of the arts – not even putting themselves in the running.
My own difficult experiences accessing live performances made me think that theatre wasn’t for me.
I stayed away from spaces I perceived as quiet because I didn’t want to be damaged by experiences of discrimination and exclusion.
This only changed because I have a strong network of bloody minded friends who showed me there was another way. Not everyone has that resource.
When we’re identifying barriers within the sector it’s essential we consider social and emotional factors as well as those that are physical, economic or structural. My top three questions are:
• Who self-selects away from our cultural spaces?
• Who’s advocating for the artists who might face multiple barriers within shortlisting processes?
• How can people with learning disabilities or communication impairments progress in a sector where access to language the need for speedy responses are often critical to having your voice heard?
My journey as an artist has taken some very unusual turns.
In May 2011 I was sobbing in a sound booth during a show about segregation. Five years later I’m addressing an event called ‘All Tomorrows Theatre’. The support of venues like BAC, and initiatives like Unlimited, has made this possible.
I’ve learnt that creating change doesn’t have to be a battle; it can be joyful, persuasive, discursive and silly.
Changing the cultural landscape isn’t too mighty a task, and it’s definitely not something we should just leave to big institutions or funding bodies. It’s something we can all do.
Together we can create opportunities for talent to be shared, for difference to be visible, and for creative communities to lead the way in shaping sustainable social change.