Saturday, 18 June 2016

songs for the women with rage in their hearts

Every work I've seen by Melanie Wilson – Autobiographer, Landscape II and now Opera for the Unknown Woman – has been a fight against falling asleep. Each one is also high up in the list of the most galvanising things I've ever encountered. That sounds like a ludicrous contradiction I know, but in my head both are direct responses to the meticulous quality of her work. Slow, deliberate, patient, it acts on me like a mesmeric charm, and what it inculcates within that mood of hypnosis is an increasingly radical feminist politic. Any frustration I feel as my brain begins to lull and drift is with my own difficulty calibrating to her work in the room, my own failure to meet its demand. Within the general culture this failure would be framed as Melanie's alone, because demanding work is seen as anathema to the accessibility, entertainment and instant gratification deemed necessary to attract and placate audiences. But I resist that, and so does she, committing herself instead to sculpting new forms for performance, and creating space for different stories about women.

Watching Opera for the Unknown Woman at the Wales Millennium Centre (and I guess someone will want me to disclose that I was there on the invitation of Fuel, Melanie's producers), I felt the usual somnolence, but also more than usual excitement. There is a sense of urgency to it, if not in pace then in theme, that I haven't felt from Melanie before: I'd name it a call to arms except the libretto itself argues against the militarism implied by that phrase. It's certainly a song for action, though, for global feminism to unify against the patriarchal structures that are relentlessly destroying life on earth. That destruction registers individually and socially, in poverty, military aggression, and xenophobia in all its fear-of-the-other guises; and it registers ecologically, in the depletion of resources and degradation of land and atmosphere. You know this, I know this, there's nothing new being argued here, but to quote Audre Lorde – which Melanie does in her libretto, too – “There are no new ideas, just new ways of giving those ideas we cherish breath and power in our own living.”

*

Lorde is one of those writers I might have read years ago, if only I'd been less white-centric in my approach to the feminist library. I feel I'd be a better person if I had. There's quite a lot of repetition in Sister Outsider – a collection of essays first published in small-press periodicals and speeches first delivered at academic and feminist conferences across the US, events so distant in geography that in each instance her message was probably received fresh – but it's a repetition I find useful, because everything she argues for is fundamental and yet as rare to encounter as it was when she was active, in the 1970s and 80s. On 24 February 2016 I was reading “Learning from the 60s”, a talk delivered at Harvard University in February 1982, and feeling nauseous at how similar the world she described is to our own:

We are Black people living in a time when the consciousness of our intended slaughter is all around us. People of Color are increasingly expendable, our government's policy both here and abroad. We are functioning under a government ready to repeat in El Salvador and Nicaragua the tragedy of Vietnam, a government which stands on the wrong side of every single battle for liberation taking place upon this globe; a government which has invaded and conquered (as I edit this piece) the fifty-three square mile sovereign state of Grenada, under the pretext that her 110,000 people pose a threat to the US. … Decisions to cut aid for the terminally ill, for the elderly, for dependent children, for food stamps, even school lunches, are being made by men with full stomachs who live in comfortable houses with two cars and umpteen tax shelters. None of them go hungry to bed at night.”

I can date the reading because I was on my way to the Royal Court to see Caryl Churchill's Escaped Alone, and Lorde's words shifted my entire sense of the show. Escaped Alone is another meticulous and hypnotic work that had me struggling against lethargy yet sent me out electrified, and I scoured reviews to find someone who had the same reaction to it as me but no one did. To recap: Churchill sets the play in an elderly woman's “backyard”; in this production she is white and English and her garden a microcosm of a green and pleasant land, lawn neat and borders maturing beneath a bright blue sky. Three women gather within its high wooden fences and a fourth, eavesdropping as she passes by with her shopping, is invited in to join them. Their conversations are elliptical, words flitting through them like butterflies, most sentences starting in the middle and halting before the end, but accumulatively they make a rough kind of sense: one day they talk about their children and grandchildren, another about a TV series they're all watching; they get exercised about the disappearance of local shops and the relative merits of visiting the doctor or the hairdresser, and gradually, surreptitiously, they plumb their deepest secrets: the depression that keeps one slumped indoors, the phobia of cats that has another scurrying about the house enacting obsessive-compulsive rituals to make sure none has snuck in, the six-year prison sentence served by a third for manslaughter. Their afternoons didn't make much sense to me at the time of watching; it was like looking at the back of a piece of needlework and seeing only loose threads and random knots. It was only on turning the text over since it ended that I've been able to see the intricacy of the stitches, not one of them out of place.

Interspersed with these seemingly placid scenes are speeches delivered off-set by the interloper of the group, Mrs Jarrett, the only one of the four to bear a husband's name and speak about him regularly, too. I say that still not knowing what its import might be. Those off-set speeches – delivered in James MacDonald's staging just outside a framed rectangle of sizzling copper light, the size of a cinema screen – have a flavour of Hollywood apocalypse about them, disease and destruction and death coursing through them like poison. They seem far-fetched and yet each contains a sentence so blandly familiar that Mrs J could be describing our immediate tomorrow:
Water was deliberately wasted in a campaign to punish the thirsty.
Gas masks were available on the NHS with a three-month waiting time and privately in a range of colours.
Commuters watched breakfast on iPlayer on their way to work.
Buildings migrated from London to Lahore, Kyoto to Kansas City, and survivors were interned for having no travel documents.
Watching Escaped Alone through the lens of “Learning from the 60s”, it felt clear to me that the sense of global political and ecological catastrophe that Churchill anticipates in these speeches from Mrs Jarrett isn't new, that this anxiety reaches back decades, and always it has been a legitimate response to the same thing: the abusive power of men, whether presidents of countries or companies, leaders of armies or representatives of religion, to twist shared resources (human or natural) to personal advantage. The three women Mrs J encounters in that back garden – I'd argue – are in their own way damaged by the attempt to live within even a supposedly “developed” society because it remains conservatively patriarchal.

Where Churchill tightens the radical-feminist screw is in the closing moments of the play. Everyone except Mrs Jarrett has had a moment in the spotlight in the back garden (a bit of staging I didn't especially like) in which the air seemed to chill momentarily as their thoughts unspooled, and when she has hers this happens: she sits on her chair and repeats the words “terrible rage”, just that, 25 times in the printed text, the voice of the actor (Linda Bassett, exceptional in her anorak of mundanity) thickening like a storm cloud with each repetition, growing in force and crackling energy as though it were attached to a dimmer switch and the voltage were being inexorably increased. My god it was fucking extraordinary; by approximately repetition 19 I was simultaneously nauseous, in tears and ready to stand on my chair shouting along in solidarity. This, this is what simmers beneath the surface of women, what courses through Audre Lorde's writing, what historically has been dismissed as hysteria; this terrible rage, poured down the sink with the dirty dishwater and wiped away with the shit from a baby's bum. There's so little time or space for that rage once you're a mother or a grandmother; motherliness is synonymous with fondness, nurture, shelter, protection. At any age rage is deemed unfeminine, an unacceptable form of expression for a woman, because expressed that rage inevitably challenges the status quo.

Every woman has a well-stocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change. And when I speak of change, I do not mean a simple switch of positions or a temporary lessening of tensions, nor the ability to smile or feel good. I am speaking of a basic and radical alteration in those assumptions underlining our lives.”

Lorde knew a thing or two about anger; that quote is from a keynote speech delivered at the National Women's Studies Association conference in 1981 called “The Uses of Anger: Women Responding to Racism.” Among her uses of anger is a challenge to each woman to “see her heelprint upon another woman's face”, to comprehend the complexities of intersectionality and that anyone who benefits from the status quo in a “developed” western society does so at the expense and exploitation of invisibly poorer women in the same society and elsewhere. There is nothing of that in the idle chitter-chatter of the women in Churchill's backyard, hardly anything you'd recognise as an overt feminist articulation: their rallying cry is a (glorious) close-harmony rendition of a 1960s girl-group popsong. And yet there is this rage – and there is a recollection of its use. The woman imprisoned for manslaughter killed her husband, in their kitchen: it was accidental, she says, “kitchen knife happened to be in my hand”, but the owner of the backyard has her suspicions, that the retaliation (“when I hit back”) wasn't instinctive self-defence but revenge unleashed against sustained domestic abuse. Watching Escaped Alone through Lorde's exquisite anger, I saw that accidental stabbing as a microcosm of feminism's relationship to patriarchal structures: is Churchill putting forward – mildly, affably – the possibility that feminism as a movement might one day find itself, knife in hand, finally snapping at so many centuries of injustice, slicing into the arteries of how-things-are, severing the tendons of history?

*

On the train to Cardiff to see Opera for the Unknown Woman I passed the Daily Mail building and, not for the first time, wanted to throw a bomb at it. The idea of insurgency terrifies me, I know I wouldn't want to live it in reality, but the romance of it is strangely alluring. With her habitual clear-eyed composure, Melanie Wilson offers protest, collaborative reasoning and the occupation of space as better courses of action. Her Opera itself enacts an occupation, of a codified and elitist art form historically the province of male composers; in a brilliant column for the Guardian she wrote: “Opera can challenge its sexist evolution, once diverted from being used as the mouthpiece of a male narrative, which has driven so many of its best-known examples in the past. The goal now is to repurpose the tool for our needs, making the journey from a female voice that suffers to a female voice that speaks up and out.”

There are 11 female voices speaking up and out in Melanie's Opera, with very little instrumentation – a pulse and patter of percussion, a satin ribbon of cello – to distract from them. The music instead is made from their voices: gorgeous ululations in Arabic, multi-vocal refrains, and the aural texture found in the variety of accent and intonation of the performers, each from a different culture and country, drawn from every continent. The set-up for this global gathering is simple: it's 2316 and humanity is exhaling its final gasp, as carbon dioxide begins to overwhelm the atmosphere, surging seas drown coastlines and forest fires rage inland. An outer-galaxy committee convenes a taskforce of women in 2016 and entrusts them with averting this destruction. The sci-fi landscape is established in the first three minutes of the libretto and understood from then on (Alistair McDowell, with your clunky exposition in X, please take note). What's less clear is the action the women should take, or even what they should seek to save. Their discussion, sometimes tense and argumentative, doesn't just campaign for collaborative reasoning: it embodies it.

As if having 11 women on stage weren't panoply enough, Melanie includes other female voices too: some of them silent but expressive, in photographs of women finding solidarity with each other during the Arab Spring uprisings; some of them in the form of quotes, from Kathleen Hanna, Christine de Pizan, and of course Audre Lorde (other inspirational women are credited in the programme, including VandanaShiva, Wei Tingting, Shelley Jackson, Doris Lessing, Minna Salami, Nina Simone, Valentina Tereshkova and Malala Yousafzai, and I want to see the Opera again for a multitude of reasons, but mostly to listen more closely to the libretto in case I can hear their words woven into it). Lorde's line is repeated twice; taken from a paper delivered as part of a “lesbian and literature” panel in 1977 called The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action”, it states: “Your silence will not protect you.”

It's so, so easy to be like the women in Churchill's play, wittering away in one's own backyard. Lorde demands more than that, and so does Melanie's libretto. There was a bit of me astonished by its blatant, unapologetic articulation of feminist and left-wing politics: where was the BBC-mandated counterbalance of climate-change scepticism? Where was the toning down for people who don't want to feel preached at? She is invigoratingly forthright in this piece: environmental catastrophe is real and it's here and we don't have time to wait for someone else to deal with it. That sense of urgency can be a source of fear on the one hand, depression on the other, but there's a wonderful line in the libretto that says (quoting roughly): saving humanity is the work of a generation. The hope in that line is heartening.

Lorde's essay speaks directly of opposing silence in the face of racism, and there's a bit of me anxious at the expedience of a white feminist appropriation of her words: Melanie's in the libretto, mine in writing about it. Similarly, I felt ruffled watching the Opera by the decision to have one of the black women raise the possibility of violent action against government/military/capitalist cartels: the other women reject this as perpetuating masculine aggression, and I felt uncomfortable watching them disagree so vehemently with the black woman, would have felt better if the suggestion had come from one of the white characters. 

But the discussion across difference in Melanie's libretto feels both vital and true to Lorde's spirit. In another speech, from 1979, “The Master's Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master's House”, specifically taking women in academia to task for their lack of “consideration of lesbian consciousness or the consciousness of Third World women”, Lorde speaks about difference as essential to creative political thinking: “As women we have been taught either to ignore our differences, or to view them as causes for separation and suspicion rather than as forces for change. Without community there is no liberation, only the most vulnerable and temporary armistice between an individual and her oppression. But community must not mean a shedding of our differences, nor the pathetic pretence that these differences do not exist.” Melanie's opera forges community, both within the group on stage and with the real-life women who inspired the work. The voices of those women resound across centuries – Christine de Pizan was writing 600 years ago – and remind us that our history as feminists is long and nourishing. What is being called for here – the slogan on the badges handed out at the end – is “affinity and resistance”: and that's what Lorde was looking for, too. I love the openness with which she says, in “The Transformation of Silence...”, that “I am myself – a Black woman warrior poet doing my work – come to ask you, are you doing yours?”, because she doesn't specify what she thinks your work should be: are you working against racism, capitalism, ecological disaster? It's all good.

And it's all connected. This, for me, is the correlative of intersectionality: a recognition that all the different oppressions have systemic exploitation as their root cause. Earlier this year, a man in Stockholm told me that we don't have time to fight against capitalism: the urgent crisis is eco-catastrophe, and we have to focus all energy on that. I found I wasn't able to answer him, and it was the silence of non-comprehension: I couldn't understand how he doesn't see that eco-catastrophe is the result of capitalist exploitation, just as racism is, just as poverty is, and so on and so on, and that battling one requires battling the other. Opera for the Unknown Woman attempts exactly that cohesion of battle, idealistically but so valiantly, and is all the more inspiring for it.

*

Shortly after I wrote that bit about my dream-theory of feminism stabbing the patriarchy built into Escaped Alone and wanting to bomb the Daily Mail building, the news emerged of the murder of MP Jo Cox, by a white man who, it's been emerging, had consorted with neo-Nazis. My own words have gnawed at me since. I say the romance of insurgency is strangely alluring, but – like any romance – that's so naive, and ignores the truth of violence. I've been reflecting since on how my entire existence, as a white middle-class woman, is one of allowing myself to ignore the truth of violence, whether at the extremes of experience (refugees struggling to leave a war zone) or on my doorstep (endemic racism in British society). This week, with the shooting in Orlando closely followed by Cox's murder, that truth has been impossible to ignore, and amid the tumult of things I'm feeling is a volcanic sense of rage. Terrible rage that our “democratic” choice has been distilled to different flavours of conservatism. Terrible rage that people voting to leave the EU are also in the majority climate-change sceptics. Terrible rage at the powerlessness of the left. Terrible rage at my ineffectuality and unforgivable privileges. Terrible rage terrible rage terrible rage.

What to do with it? Lorde's counsel, in "The Transformation of Silence", is clear: “For those of us who write, it is necessary to scrutinize not only the truth of what we speak, but the truth of that language by which we speak it. For others, it is to share and spread also those words that are meaningful to us. But primarily for all of us, it is necessary to teach by living and speaking those truths which we believe and know beyond understanding. Because in this way alone we can survive, by taking part in a process of life that is creative and continuing, that is growth.” I look at my writing and want to erase from it the language of violence. I listen assiduously to voices both known (Harry Giles and Selina Thompson, people of such wisdom and empathy that knowing them makes me want to work much much harder) and unknown (among them Ash Sarkar, Chimene Suleyman, Robert Somynne and Sam Ambreen), and begin to share them. I work to transform silence, knowing that Lorde was, remains, right: silence will not protect us. I acknowledge that the work is also not to sink into the hopelessness of thinking nothing will.

Wednesday, 8 June 2016

Showing you the money: a commission from/conversation with Paula Varjack

There was a plan that Paula and I would publish this writing simultaneously: her on the terrific blog Show Me the Money connected to her performance of the same name, all of which I explain further down, and me here (which isn't as obvious as it might seem), but on the day she posted I was on a very delayed train home from Norwich and time has been running away with itself ever since. I'm as grateful to Paula for the lengthy email conversation we had about the ethics of me doing this writing (some of which extracted below) as I was for the commission. Writing this made me aware of just how much of a stranglehold certain capitalist beliefs have over my brain: I have so much work to do to sort myself out.
 

The quandary

18/12/2015: From Paula
I have been thinking it would be really great to have some critical writing on this preview I have in March: a genuine critical reflection from someone well-versed in the forms and content I am exploring. I haven't budgeted for this but could afford 100-200 pounds. Would that be fair?

30/12/2015: From Maddy
I've been involved in quite a few conversations over the past year to do with the ethics of artists asking/paying for writers to write about their work. Most people I encounter have a much bigger problem with it than I do - !!! - and yet, my initial reaction to your email was: for you to pay me to review your work would be inethical. So that was weird. I think I might feel most comfortable doing [something interview-based], rather than a review. And, at the risk of sounding greedy, is £200 OK?

31/12/2015: From Paula
To be honest, before I first contacted you I would not have considered approaching anyone in this way. But I was advised that it was important for the future of the show to have some critical writing on it, and as a one-off preview of a work by an emerging artist this was very unlikely to happen. Finding a mid-point that seems ethical for both of us is a good idea. Maybe an interview-based work is that. As the money would be coming out of my own pocket, it would help me a lot for it to be 150.

3/1/2016: From Maddy
Your email was super useful: that thing about how bloody hard it is for emerging artists to get their work written about – or even seen – is so true, and usually I'm the first to advocate the culture shift that makes critical dialogue possible within the making (as I type this, I realise how far removed I am from my own idealism). In terms of actual cash, I'm really fine with £150. I don't know if you've had a thought about where it should be published. Will talk to Exeunt about publishing there.

4/1/2016: From Paula
The Exeunt thing was a bit of a trigger, as much as I would love to be featured in Exeunt, paying for it really didn't feel right. I need the writing, there is not a market for reviewing a one-off preview by an emerging artist, I am making a piece against unpaid work, I don't want you to work for free. My idea is to pay you to write something to be published on both of our blogs that explores this quandary.

The 'review'

My first encounter with Paula Varjack is in spring 2015, at an industry gathering at Ovalhouse in London dedicated to questions of artist development. Paula's presentation is one of the high points: it gets across everything dubious about scratch culture (the expectation that artists show work in an early stage, for little or no pay), juxtaposing criticism and provocation with a witty powerpoint display that brings laughs with its lightness of touch. In that 15 minutes, I decide Paula is **interesting**. Translation: next time she's performing, I want to be there.

That impulse is confirmed when I start reading the companion blog to her new work, Show Me the Money. Part-diary, part-resources log, part-political commentary, it uses newspaper articles, photographs and links to other people's writing (there's some spitfire material from Scottee) to contextualise and open up Paula's argument: that art is work, graft and craft, and the people who make it should be paid accordingly. In doing so, the blog transforms the show from a single event to an ongoing, far-reaching discussion. This, I like.

So I arrive at Rich Mix for the preview performance of the show itself with heightened anticipation. But whatever I'm expecting, I'm soon surprised, and charmed, by two things: firstly, Paula's framing confession that most of the choices she has made in life have been guided by money and a desire for security, because I've done that too (and loathe myself for it). Secondly, it turns out she's not 24 or 28, as I'd thought, but 37. 37! If you don't appreciate how delightful this is, then clearly you're not yet the wrong side of 35. I'm so far the wrong side I'm almost 41.

Age is a subtle strand in Show Me the Money, as it might be coming from an “emerging”, “early career” artist who confutes the simplistic assumptions attached to that labels. When making it, Paula travelled the UK interviewing other artists about their relationships to money, security, ambition and place; people at various stages of a career, working across multiple disciplines, some of whom are comfortable, some surviving, some barely scraping by. Their voices are useful: what could feel self-absorbed, as Paula describes her shift from behind-the-scenes producer to on-the-stage performance artist, becomes instead a portrait of an industry. And she uses the film footage conscientiously, not to confirm everything she thinks but to interrogate it, complicate it and expand it. There's a piquant section in which she intercuts Scottee, fulminating on the lack of transparency in theatre-venue finances, with some candid quotes from Annabel Turpin, chief executive at ARC in Stockton-on-Tees, explaining why that lack of transparency might be necessary.

This conversation with the film footage gives the show a documentary feel, but Paula's deftness with multimedia disrupts that easy classification, and introduces a whole lot of fun. The dread inspired by Arts Council England is cheerfully conveyed through a youtube montage of office scenes and an electro-pop funding application. She adopts Iggy Pop as her alternative god, paying worship by paying royalties. But while all this activity gives the show brightness, sadness prickles beneath its surface, that to work from a place of love should also be so difficult and limiting. Among Paula's pantheon of inspirations is an uncle who carves wooden birds: she always admired him for following his passion, but eventually noticed the sacrifices he made for the sake of art. What will that sacrifice mean for her? Not having children? Having to leave London, her home?

Following the argument, I'm intermittently torn. Part of me is sympathetic; part of me wonders whether these questions about sacrifice are indulgent. One of the people Paula interviews is Dennis, who works as a cleaner at Rich Mix, and in another building: between the two, he has a 70-hour week with one day off. He does this because he hates the insecurity of not having a regular paycheck and not having savings in the bank for every eventuality. On the blog, Paula points out that the dichotomy between “cleaner” and “artist” is a false one: many people she knows finance their art work through cleaning jobs. But is making art arduous in the same way that cleaning is arduous? Why worry about artists' survival when so many people are barely getting by? (And that's just thinking about the working classes of the UK, who are thriving compared with refugees attempting to live here.) Might the access to making art and the platform it brings be privilege enough?

The 'interview'

The word privilege crops up a lot in Show Me the Money, and Paula is upfront about her own. Background, education and a modicum of financial security made her decision to become an artist possible: she owns her flat in London, having bought it back when she was a salaried employee and prices weren't astronomical; her parents enabled her to study at university; even now, her family could help her if she were ever desperate. She shares this information willingly, and would gladly give more: during a Q&A section, we're invited to ask for any further detail we want. This leads straight into what is, for me, the highpoint of the show: a ferociously delivered, meticulous breakdown of the costs of making it. Every penny is accounted for, including what she's paying for this piece. I love it, because no one publicises their finances in this way, and that secrecy creates the conditions for pay disparity and prevents the general public knowing what it actually takes to get a performance work on the stage.

And yet, at the end of the budget breakdown, Paula glares at the audience confrontationally, as though affronted that we've had the temerity to want to know this stuff. It confirms a nagging sensation I've had throughout the show, of being in some way chastised. If artists have a problematic relationship with money, she says, it's down to three things: precarity, anxiety, and in particular, a lack of transparency. It's easy to get the impression that everyone working as an artist in the UK is supporting themselves fine – but dig deeper and all the hidden support systems emerge. This person is financed by their partner, that person has savings backed up, this person owns their own home, that person supplements their art career with other jobs. But I'm confused: not all of these are privileges, and even if they are, how blameful are they?

It's the main thing I want to talk to her about when we meet a few days after the performance. The note of confrontation at the end of the budget breakdown was, she admits, a mistake: “While I was in it, I was thinking that energy doesn't make sense. It came out of the fact that when I did a scratch at Battersea Arts Centre, one guy was really angry and gave me a feedback form that was all black spiky capital letters; on the back he had a whole list of questions, like how much was your grant, how much did you pay for dah dah dah. To be honest, I was kind of traumatised by it, because his main attack was that the show hadn't been developed enough – but it was a scratch!”

As for the things I'm hearing her classify as privileges, there's something I'm misunderstanding. “I know a lot of people that seem to just be surviving on this, and I was really upset about that: what am I doing wrong? But then when people admit, oh, of course I'm not surviving on it either, that's not really about privilege: that's about people not being honest about having other income streams. The fact that we as a community are not being honest enough makes me feel really angry, and that's something I think is bigger than the artistic community.

If I'm really crude and reductive about it, there's a thing that's ironic looking at the American ideal, the Dream, and English cynicism. One side basically says: everything is a meritocracy, it doesn't matter where you come from, you just have to work hard enough and you can fulfil the dream. And the other says: it doesn't matter what you do, everything is decided, and anyone who has ever achieved anything is only there because they've got it all laid out. Both are really unhelpful. It's good to be aware that people do have privilege and access that other people don't have – but so many people have said to me that they won't apply, for instance, for public funding because they don't have any ways in. But if you don't even apply! Both are not useful attitudes to have.”

Paula has this dual outlook because her early years were split between London and Washington (her father is British, her mother Ghanaian); she's also pretty clued up about economics because, as it emerges during the show, her father worked for the International Monetary Fund. What this background hasn't given her, however, is much direct contact with the British class system, its entrenchments and resentments. “I thought I had an understanding of it: I don't have an understanding at all. At all. Having that realisation when making a show on this topic was terrifying, but maybe it's also a gift. For me, literally everyone is on exactly the same level, and because I genuinely don't judge anyone, I think I was able to have conversations with very different people, people who would offend each other if I allowed them to be in the same space.”

And yet, what was that nagging feeling I had of being chastised during the show if not a feeling of being in some way judged? After we speak in person, I email Paula a frank breakdown of my own privileges – the university education, the house I own, the husband with the full-time job and salary and pension, the nest-egg savings, all of which make it possible for me to take on commissions like this one – and the equivocal feelings I have about them, especially set against my upbringing, with working-class, poor, immigrant parents. I want the conversation about privilege to be open to such equivocations and confusions, I tell her. But the more we talk, the more I realise that what I'm actually doing is performing the outrage of the privileged at having their privilege called out. Paula isn't judging me. I'm judging myself.

To ask whether art is as arduous as cleaning, or whether we should care about artists' survival when there are refugees to worry about, is typical of a class-based, capitalist mindset that classifies and judges, too. Paula is attempting to dismantle this by asking her audiences to think about “the human cost” of making art: the “time and energy and effort” involved. Hence the emphasis on transparency – or, as she phrases it within the show, “full disclosure”. And she's doing that in a context specifically resistant to such disclosure. “Obviously England is not the only culture where people are not fully open about money, but there is a very particular awkwardness and anxiety about money here. I asked everyone [I interviewed] what their salary was, and what their outgoing payments were, and most of the time that question was incredibly awkward. You could tell they didn't really want to answer – or when they answered, they seemed OK, but afterwards they'd contact me and ask please can you not put in how much my house is worth, or the fact that I own a flat. Especially in London: no one wants to admit they own a flat in London any more.”

Is there even a relationship between these financial figures and an understanding of the “human cost” of making art? Arguably, yes – because of the connection between precarity and anxiety. Anxiety is one of the key human costs of working in the arts: I know this because I live it. Since making the switch from a relationship with writing about theatre/performance that was fundamentally journalistic to a relationship that attempts to exist within art's own frameworks, my salary has steadily dropped; I don't yet know what I earned in the financial year that just ended, but in 2014-15 it was less than £10,000. What Paula anticipated to be a half- to full-day job has taken me at least 22 hours, if not more, stretched over six weeks. I juggle commissions with being a mum, and worry constantly that I'm neither working hard enough nor present enough for my kids. It's a privilege to do this work. It's also self-exploitation.

The point of unity

We could, of course, give up. I could stop writing, Paula could stop performing, we could all get regular jobs. Except maybe it's not that simple. In another striking sequence in the show, one of Paula's interviewees, writer/performer Femi Martin, talks about trying to get a job outside of the arts and meeting only rejection. “That's the ironic thing,” says Paula, “even if you get to a certain point where you think, this was a nice idea but enough now – which I'm very much feeling – it's not so easy, because suddenly you're in a situation where no one wants to fucking hire you any more.”

Instead of giving up, Paula argues, our impulse should be to fight. “Artists are actually in service: even if we're making something that is escapist or experimental, we are in service to society and we can do things that the media can't. I really strongly believe that austerity [as a solution] is a lie, and there's a lot of economists who agree with me on this, and having a conversation that says it's the NHS or the Arts Council is the wrong fucking conversation. First of all, the amount of money that the arts get in the overall budget of local councils is so tiny. And every business sector gets support: the arms industry gets support, the automobile industry gets support, most businesses get some form of support – and they get much more support.

I wanted to make a show about a national question, which is: how do we value art and what is the human cost of art and what does paying for the arts and funding for the arts say about how our society values art and artists? I think art is really valuable for society.” It is that fundamental belief which drives her to call for better pay, and me to join my voice with hers. Is it inethical for her to pay me to write about her work, when there is so little space within the media where this can happen, and so few paid opportunities? Is that the right question to ask?

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Three things that I made when not writing about theatre

This first one isn't really something I've made, at least not in the most literal interpretation of the words. It's a poem by Harry Giles, and he wrote it for me in return for me starting to give him money viaPatreon. I'd been meaning to do so since he emailed me about this “scary money experiment thing” in February 2015: I love him, despite having very little contact with him, and think he's all good things in the world, so of course I want to support him. And yet, it wasn't until January 2016 that I actually made that support financial. I still feel weird that there is now this financial element to our relationship.

At the time, Harry wrote an excellent post laying out his own arguments for and against asking for patronage, which I found really helpful. Like him, I worry that “it’s so clearly all a part of the neoliberalisation of arts funding: the expectation that artists have to become solo entrepreneurs” – and, the correlative of that, the expectation that art is something to be funded by its consumers, and not in common, as a basic provision of healthy civil society. More positively, like him, “I like making it clear that art is not something that just happens, is not something that other people decide to make happen, but rather something that we all have a stake in making happen, and in making happen in more radical ways.”

In an email, I admitted to him that the relationship between giving on Patreon and giving to registered charities confuses me. In a nutshell: “if I give £5 a month to Shelter and that's to help ALL the homeless people in the UK then to give £2 or even £1 a month to a single person so they can make art kind of doesn't add up; but then, I can spend twice as much on a single ticket to go to the theatre as I do on a monthly donation to Unicef which is supposed to be helping ALL the children living in poverty and plight around the world, and I could just as effectively give that ticket money to you in £2 per month donations”. In the event, that's pretty much what I decided to do.

The thing that makes me most uncomfortable with Patreon is exclusivity: the idea that, because I have some funds at my disposal, I can get stuff that other people don't get. That's how capitalism divides people and I want to resist it. But Harry's gift to all new patrons is to write them a poem, on a subject of their choosing. I decided that I was only happy for this to happen if it could be a poem that we made publicly accessible, and he agreed, in an email that also contained a gentle reminder that maybe the key problem of capitalism isn't commerce but exploitation. The word that was stuck in my head at the time was “longing” (it quite often is, to be honest), and this is what it inspired Harry to write. I like to think that his poem reflects the many conversations we've had together about class, and capitalism, and togetherness, and making; that, although it isn't something I've made, it has a specificity rooted in our relationship that means I have, in some way, made it happen – and not just by giving money.

THE LONGING FOR ONE THING INSIDE OF ANOTHER

by Harry Giles

There was a world where tokens were exchanged
for food, and when a token met your hand
a spur extended blandly into your palm
to take a sip of blood. This payment kept
the tokens bright enough to check your hair in,
cool enough to glide from purse to purse.

And in this world there were two friends who made
assemblages of wood and steel: stairways,
sunshades, simple things to see through, things
to pause on, things to touch. They worked apart,
and then from time to time they met to look
and say, "This works", and say, "This doesn't work."

One day one friend came with a gift, a question.
They bought some time discussing techniques, and then
they said, "I heard your purse was light. I saw
your building shed was empty and your tools
were sore for oil." And they held out their hand
with sixteen hungry tokens free to take.

Now, both these friends were just the kind of folk
to argue far too hard about the way
things are on other worlds, or could be, or were,
and how to cross between them without snapping
painful laws of space and time. At times,
they held that wood and steel could build a bridge

to where a body could eat without blood.
And so they laughed as they watched the sixteen tokens
pass from palm to palm and felt the prick
and wiped the reddish smears on the handkerchiefs
that all folk carry tucked in their back pocket,
the depth of the dye declaring the force of the flag.

*

This second one started as a whim but became an act of love. At Devoted and Disgruntled in January, a tall man with sandy hair wearing a checked shirt voiced a request for “someone with sewing skills to help a 6'5” drag queen”. I tweeted in response that I might be about to find my calling, and a couple of hours later I was fixing a date with Robert Beck, aka the Marvellous Miss Mimi Martini, to talk frock-making. Our first meeting was spent sharing images: Rob emailed me a few pictures that had given him some tentative notions (floatiness, a big split up the front for showing off shapely legs); we scanned google for drag queens and Adrian of Hollywood dresses, and flicked through my Schiaparelli paper-dolls book (pause to sigh with pleasure that such a thing exists in the world). By the end we had a few sketches, a vague idea to make a dress with a ribbon of chiffon around it like the pink line twisting through a stick of rock, and a plan to go fabric shopping.

Fabric shopping changed everything. To be honest, it was so exciting that after an hour I had a violent adrenaline crash. Luckily we'd already found Rob's dream fabrics: a hot-pink satin and a chiffon dyed fuchsia at one end and electric blue at the other. To show off that colour shift, we switched patterns to something more like a Greek gown (showing my roots, dears) with chiffon floating around the skirt and rippling over the bust before swooping off the shoulders. It took two fittings to get the pattern right, and a third for tweaks with the actual fabric; there are all sorts of things about it that I wish I'd done better, or differently, or more professionally, but at the same time I recognise that it's one of the most ambitious things I've ever made, and not too bad for it. Here it is on my dressmaker's doll: her figure isn't quite as buxom as Mimi's, but you get the general idea. 

 

I rarely sew for anyone other than myself, and doing so was just delightful. As in, I genuinely got teary when Mimi's frock started to come together: the magic of sewing never ceases to amaze me. I already have heaps of ideas for other things I'd like to make for her: things I'd never dream of wearing myself, but would love to construct, to bring into being. And I would so love to do this for more people. So if there are any other drag queens out there looking for someone with sewing skills...

*

This third one I made in the way I make most cakes or puddingy things: somewhat haphazardly, from scratch and imagination and vaguely retained memories of endless reading of recipes. It was for my lovely friends Andrew and Marta, who were coming to my house for dinner before flying off to Poland. I had bought tickets for the double bill at the Yard that night, and so prepared a meal then left my husband to serve it, thinking they were only going away for a couple of weeks on holiday. I found out on my return, at 11.30pm, with everyone heading for bed, that they were leaving at 8am and planned to stay in Poland for several months. Indefinitely even.

I've been feeling a lot lately that I have my priorities all skewed. Going to the theatre as much as I do means I'm almost never home to give my kids a bath, read to them at bedtime, tuck them in with a goodnight kiss. It means that I rarely have proper conversations with my friends, rarely even see them, because I put seeing theatre first. Sometimes that theatre is nourishing, joyful, inspiring; it makes me feel like I'm levitating, like my brain has expanded, that I want to write and write like it's the only thing that matters. Sometimes that theatre is Ophelias Zimmer: technically impressive but gruelling, draining, an act of intellectual violence. Either way, the strongest relationship I have at the moment isn't with a human being, it's with the collective human act of theatre. And I don't know if that's right.

The shows I was seeing at the Yard that night were by people I know and admire and enjoy chatting with; people I would love to call friends, were our encounters less transient, or insecure. It felt important to see their work, to support them in some way, knowing that for each of them it was a leap and a challenge to make this performance. But I feel sad that I sacrificed this other night of friendship for it. I feel sad that so many of the choices I make in life feel like the wrong choice. I'm writing this tonight, having been meaning to write it for three weeks now – I finished Mimi's dress on 7 May, and Harry sent me the poem on 10 May – because at 9.01pm this evening I made the decision not to watch Hannah Nicklin's Equations for aMoving Body at CPT but to come home and work. I've felt a twist of nausea ever since: guilt at not being there for Hannah, not supporting her. She is another person I admire and enjoy chatting with and would love to call a friend; this was my only chance to see the show; the audience was small; it would have been a kindness to stay. I've made the wrong call again, but in the other direction. Sometimes it feels as though the thing I make most productively in my life is worry.

Anyway: Andrew and Marta emailed me from Poland to ask for the recipe for that dessert, and as it came out quite well I thought I'd post it. Apologies to Nigel Slater if it turns out to be one of your recipes that I've unconsciously memorised and am now claiming as my own.

Pistachio and chocolate tart

Stupidly I didn't write down what I did at the time, but I'm pretty sure this was it: first I ground 150g shelled pistachios with 50g caster sugar in a blender, adding some dried orange peel towards the end (in season, I'd use peel grated from a fresh unwaxed orange I think). Pretty sure I picked up the blending nuts with sugar trick from Nigella: it helps to soak up the oil that comes out as they're ground. I then melted 40g butter in a saucepan, and stirred that together with the nut and sugar mixture, a sprinkle of cinnamon and another 50g caster sugar in a bowl until it was all nicely emulsified. I lined a 20cm flan or sandwich tin with greaseproof paper, smoothed over the nut mixture and pressed it down so the surface was flat and the mixture as tight as possible, then baked it for what I think was the equivalent of 15 minutes at about 150C or gas 2 (my oven use is never as simple as that, hence the uncertainty here. Basically: nuts burn easily, and that makes them bitter, so keep things quite gentle). The base has to cool after that for a bit.

Next step is the chocolate ganache topping, which is pretty simple: pour 300ml double cream into a heavy-bottomed saucepan and warm over a low heat until nearly boiling point, then stir in at least 150g dark chocolate (that's how much I used, but I wanted more – I reckon 250g would be good). I used 72% cocoa solids: you need that darkness to counter the cream. Once that's melted, take the pan off the heat and beat the mixture with a whisk for as long as you can be bothered – the more time you give it, the smoother the mixture will be. Pour that over the nut base, smooth the surface, then leave in the fridge until ready to serve – the chocolate mixture firms up in the cool temperature. We didn't have it with raspberries, but I bet a few on the side would be bloody delicious.

Tuesday, 26 January 2016

Rooms of my own

As part of their Whose London Is It Anyway? season, Camden People's Theatre have turned their window spaces into rooms – a toilet, a kitchen, a bedroom, a sitting room – and invited people to occupy them during the day. Each window has an A4 poster highlighting some appalling fact about the entirely fucked London property market: for instance, that a garage in Camberwell recently sold for £550K. Don't get me started. It's a nine-hour shift (initially advertised as 12 hours), which for me translates as the longest amount of uninterrupted time I've been able to sit at a computer since before the kids were born, so naturally I signed up and here is me earlier today:



Yes of course I hid behind a curtain of paper: what do you think I am, some kind of exhibitionist? I can't remember the last time I felt so painfully self-conscious. But as people, especially children, began to peek around the paper to wave hello, the exposure grew less excruciating. And it certainly gave me focus: I got more writing done today than I did in the whole past fortnight.

Back in the days when commuter trains were barely bearable (as opposed to wholly impossible), I used to see people with copies of the Evening Standard, and then the Guardian, encounter something I'd written, occasionally reading a few sentences but mostly turning the page. So I'm used to people ignoring my writing: it's a useful reminder to check my ego. Having readers is far weirder. Especially when those readers are standing on the other side of a sheet of glass, barely six inches away.

Their proximity made me glad that I believe, very deeply, every word they read today. It made me recognise something else about indifference, too. If no one cares about what you write, then you have the freedom to write as you choose. I know this, always have, but often forget. Thank you, CPT, for opening up a space today in which I could (re-)remember.

Below is the text (plus the images) behind which I hid. And seriously, if you haven't read A Room of One's Own yet, or even recently, treat yourself.

*

I was 13 when I first got a room of my own.

Before that I shared with my younger brother. Our room was a prison far from the playground; a forest and we its falling timber; the hideaway den of the Dukes and cousin Daisy. I knew I needed a room of my own the day I – oh, wait, I'm not allowed to tell that story here.

I couldn't decide what colour to paint my first room of my own, so we settled on pink-for-a-girl. My best friend at university thought it was hilarious, and bought me this postcard so I'd never forget.


*

My second room of my own was at university. Inspired by the painter Pauline Boty, I turned one wall into a scrapbook collage of my life. It's one of the best things I've ever made.


At university I read Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own for the first time. That was half a lifetime ago, so I don't really remember what I thought, but I was already feminist, so I'd guess it confirmed everything.

*

My third room of my own was in a rented flat south of the river. My parents had nowhere to live because they had bought a derelict house, so they became my lodgers. I laid down the ground rules. Amazingly, they agreed.

At 25 I bought a flat of my own. The older I get, the stranger this seems. I painted the walls sunflower yellow, crimson and teal, and saved the violent pink for the toilet. There was a room for sewing, a garden out of the kitchen, and my flatmate introduced me to swing. I still live there in my dreams.


*

When I got married I had a succession of rooms of my own. The first became the nursery. The second became a toddler's bedroom. The third was always cluttered with scooters and spare chairs and bags of recycling; then, in 2014, it disappeared to become part of the kitchen.

And that, my friends, is how motherhood affects personal space.

*

I re-read A Room of One's Own last week and might do so again every year now. It's astonishing. And painful. Woolf published it in 1928, but the world she describes and rails against is still recognisably ours. Patriarchal. Unequal. Shaped by and seen through “masculine values”.

Men, she noticed, didn't like feminists saying such things. They tended to respond with a “ cry of wounded vanity … a protest against some infringement of his power to believe in himself”. Social media and comment boxes are full of such protests, not only when women speak, but people of colour and queer gender or sexuality, too.

*

I remembered Woolf's call for a room of one's own, but not the accompanying cry for money – £500 a year. She makes quite the argument for Basic Income.

Woolf believed that, with a room of her own and money to support her, women would be able to write truly, of themselves: finding “some new vehicle, not necessarily in verse, for the poetry in her”.

I've always earned money through writing, and that money has always given me rooms to write in. The bit I'm struggling with is the poetry. The art.

*
Here's something else Woolf recognised: “Life for both sexes … is arduous, difficult. A perpetual struggle. It calls for gigantic courage and strength. More than anything, perhaps, creatures of illusion as we are, it calls for confidence in oneself.”

You could call confidence another kind of room: not physical, but mental.

That mental room is one money can't buy.

*

In her book Depression: A Public Feeling, Ann Cvetkovich argues that depression is “how capitalism feels”. How having money and a room of one's own feels.

I look at the entrenched inequality in this country, and of human existence generally, and feel not the strength of someone who has, but horror at how many have not.

I look at London, the room I was born in, and how much money it demands that people living here make, just to get by, and feel not the confidence of someone who got lucky here, but anxiety at what it means to embody a social system, and bring children up within it.

I keep writing through that horror and anxiety, but it feels selfish, immoral and wrong.

*

On the final page of A Room of One's Own, Woolf looks forward to the day when women have not only “five hundred a year each of us and rooms of our own” but “the courage to write exactly what we think”.

I think we have a responsibility to use our money and our rooms to write our way out of this inequality.

That's what I'm trying to do in this little room, this minuscule room of my own, today. Wish me luck. And thank you for reading. x

Friday, 15 January 2016

To fathom the falling: A third take on Ponyboy Curtis

This is the latest in a series of writings on Ponyboy Curtis: the first, titled The first coming of Ponyboy Curtis, was published on this blog in May 2015. The second, titled Other Hospitalities: Reflections onChris Goode’s Ensemble Ponyboy Curtis and their First Performance,At the Yard, 12-16 May 2015, was published by Contemporary Theatre Review in October 2015.
This was written in January 2016, after attending an invite-only sharing of a Ponyboy Curtis 'field' exercise, at Camden People's Theatre, 14 December 2015.
This is supposed to have a quotation from Neil Bartlett's Ready To Catch Him Should He Fall at the end of section ii, but I lost the copy of the book in which I'd marked the relevant passage, and despite buying another and raking through it twice, I haven't been able to remember which it was. I've used a different quote as the opening sentence.
This is dedicated to CG and CR, with love.

---

Small gestures can be great pleasures, they can mean a great deal, when you get to know somebody else's body and its reactions as well as your own.

i. [you]

Even now, I can't pretend to understand what you're doing.
You ask what I see and honestly? For twenty or so minutes it's
nothing. Nothing! Just bodies
in space,
naked,
pallid in the half-light,
crouching, or standing, or walking with inscrutable purpose.
An abstract of porn, stripped of the fucking.
It's nothing
until it becomes everything.
And it doesn't seem to matter how much I watch, or think, or give my attention,
how much I absorb, am absorbed, it's still mysterious, unfathomable.
Maybe it would help to read more, but the words to explain are as hieroglyphs,
runes. I'm a believer in alchemy, transmutational process,
and that's what I see:
transformation.
Bodies become pellucid,
irradiated by gesture
a touch so soft
so tender
as to be almost unbearable.
The light, the lightness,
are almost unbearable.
And I don't understand it.
But as I look around this room (not without sentiment),
the tightness of its walls,
it strikes me again that while I see the crescent,
you see the whole of the moon.



ii. [them]

Of course I wonder how it feels, suddenly to have this intrusion of people in what is usually your private space. Some of you
I know; we hug before it starts, while you're still wearing your clothes; we talk about books,
or how we are, not really asking the question this time, although there is a shrewdness behind the eyes,
a reading beneath and between.
The lights dim and immediately you strip. I watch you, and I watch the room,
for awkwardness. There is a wariness, perceptible as a tension flickering in the skin, or perhaps just a question:
what will happen and how?
Familiar motions at first: crossing, striding; it's like a game of basketball, minus the ball,
the focus instead on infinitesimal gesture.
And then
And then
I can't remember how it happens.
Maybe it's Paul and Gareth – does it matter? – close enough almost to touch:
body hairs, electrified, reaching towards the other,
that close, nothing more.
Maybe it's two hands clasped, just briefly; or the first of the falls:
a murmur – falling! – and then there he is, holding you, supporting you, not keeping you up, but helping you down to the floor.
Maybe it's one of you wearing another's shoes: the intimacy of that sharing,
the hushed, calm statement that however different, we are the same.
The same in heart and blood and bone, the same in hurt and longing.
For a moment I wonder about jealousy, and notice how irrelevant that is.
Another – falling! – or maybe bodies leaning together, the curve of the spine, the tautness of chest.
Of course it's funny sometimes, how you'll be watching two people intently, and then a third will cross that path of vision, and suddenly all you see is cock and balls.
But this isn't nakedness so much as openness: a generous reaching, not just to each other, but to all of us watching,
just as long as we're ready.



iii. [him]

His loneliness slashes through me like a whip through the skin of a useless old nag.
The honest answer to how are you is somewhat more withdrawn.
I watch these bodies and wonder what he misses:
the touch of teeth (in any sweet kiss)
or stomachs that squash like pillows.
The burn from spine to thighs.
I see fingertips brush skin, limbs begin to meld,
smell their heat, hear its crackle.
Loneliness chokes.

  

iv. [us]

I know from the way you pull up from the floor
as though hauling your body through tar.
I know from the way you lean on the wall
how strong the storm in your heart.
I know
I feel it too
here in the pit of my stomach
here in the weight of my lungs.
I know when I leave
I won't want to speak
to anyone, only to you.
We've seen nothing but warmth, solicitude, love, but its impact has unbalanced us.
All we can do is cling to each other,
buffeted still, but protected.
Mine says I know, I felt it, and thank you
for not asking anything more.