Has Old Vic lost her way?

On Tuesday this week, as part of International Women’s Day celebrations, I was street-canvassing for the Women’s Equality Party in Waterloo.

We had decided to wait outside the Old Vic for the audience from their Gender Debate to exit – hoping that our words and leaflets would find a welcome audience (and they did).  I was also struck, as we talked in the bar afterwards about our Women of South London event, how much female influence had created the success of the Old Vic.

In the 19th Century the theatre was nothing special, simply competing with music halls, variety ‘palaces’ and other theatres.  It came into it’s own under the ownership of Emma Cons, a women’s rights pioneer and a passionate advocate of education for all, she introduced a temperance regime to the theatre and her penny lectures led to the setting up, by her, of Morley College.  Under the management of her niece, Lillian Baylis the theatre began a repertoire of Shakespeare, opera and more serious plays and the Old Vic Company that came into being at that time eventually became the National Theatre in 1963.

When the National Theatre moved to it’s new home on the South Bank the theatre entered a period of financial (although not artistic) decline and was put up for sale.  Some of the potential purchasers would have put it to use as a bingo hall, or a lap dancing club! Instead, responding to public outrange, it was rescued by another woman, Sally Greene, who set up the Old Vic Theatre Trust and acquired the building and from there on success has followed.

So it seemed a shame to me, looking at the posters for the forthcoming season, that the current production and the two to follow are all written by white men, directed by white men and starring white men.  Women (and others) seem to have been squeezed out of the Old Vic which given it’s long history of finding success under women’s patronage seemed a shame.

Perhaps we will find this remedied in the next season?  I do hope so, because hosting a debate on gender imbalance in the theatre, isn’t the same as actually doing something about it by employing those women in leading roles in the repertoire.


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The shadow street

families and houses no.1to5 Courtenay street 1911

sketch 4/3/2016

As part of the work I am doing for my Artist in Residence project, I have been inspired by conversations with my neighbours – and the loan of some old maps by one of them, to look into the past history of the street.  I’ve decided to focus on the census of 1911 – more of the fabric of the current street would have been in place then, so it makes it easier to picture the people of the past living amongst us now.  For example my flat was home to a Police Constable, his wife and 7 year old child, and I’m strugging to fit all of me into it!  In fact Constable Albert Smith was one of six policemen living in the street.  There was a further man on police pension, a naval pensioner, a recruiting seargeant for the army and two female Salvation Army officers, I imagine crime and anti-social behaviour was not an issue for Courtenay Street with this level of ‘Neighbourhood Watch’!

The Smith’s lived in relative comfort, just three of them in what is now a 1 bedroom flat (although as the bath was in the kitchen they would have had a slightly bigger rooms at the back), at the start of the street – no.s 1 to 17 on the odd side – which is where I have begun to try and visualise (see sketch) – there was some serious overcrowding.  No.s1, 3 and 5 no longer exist but looking at the street plan from 1914 they appear to be 3 narrow little houses/cottages, the census says ‘4 rooms’ so I imagine these are two up, two down cottages.

At no.1 live Phineas and Louisa Swodbury and their children.  Phineas is a Labourer, his grown up sons Thomas and Frederick are both in work as an Electrician’s Assistant and a Tailor’s Trimming Porter (??) respectively.  Their 15 year old sister Louisa is a paperbag maker (someone’s got to do it!) and there four younger siblings Rose, Lillian and Grace and Christopher are at school.  That’s nine people in four rooms – not four bedrooms but four rooms including the kitchen.  The census only excludes halls, bathrooms and sculleries (“as if!” I hear Lousia Swodbury cry longingly).

At no.3 live William and Elizabeth Davies and their chlidren.  He is an ‘Electrical Accumulator’ – sounds like he is some kind of human battery but I imagine this is some kind of worker in the relatively new electrical industries – several other people in the street have jobs in this field and some are working in the light bulb packing factory.  They have seven children, none of them old enough to work.  Marian, Alice, William and Frederick are all at school, Rosina, Agnes and baby Albert are at home with mum.  Another family of nine.

And finally at no. 5 we have Henry and Clara Deadman, he is a ‘Carman’ for a ‘meat contractor’.  A Carman was effectively a lorry driver where the vehicle was a horsedrawn one rather than a motor vehicle.  There are 15 carmen in Courtenay Street at this time. There daughters Clara, 8, Ada, 6, Edith, 5, are at school, whilst Ivy, 3 and George, 1 are at home.  When I read the long list of girls and then a son, I thought I wonder if Henry was pleased to have a son at last, and also that he was lucky that George would not be old enough to fight in the war that was looming and would take so many lives in this decade.

Looking at my sketch this morning I reflected that whilst in Courtenay Street this kind of overcrowding is a thing of the past, it is happening again in other parts of London, with rogue landlords packing people into houses, sheds and garages because ‘they can’.  And whether we will get to a point where four working adults can’t aford a dwelling that allows them more than four rooms in total in which to house themsevles and four children!

I will be contiuing on with this work on the Shadow Street and also seeing if I can find out who went to war in 14-18 and who came back.

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An experiment at home

Throughout 2015 I looked at adverts for Artist in Residence schemes. I even applied for a few. Most of them were in schools and the briefs seemed to make the artist themselves the focus of the project. They would work with the pupils/people involved in the project and in some cases make work as well but it definitely felt like the project was about the artist not the residence. I thought about where it would be fun to be an artist in residence, but then I thought about what it would be like to be an artist in residence in just an ordinary suburban road, something like the one I grew up on in Maidenhead. Originally a new build Wimpey homes estate, all the houses roughly the same, with similar families with young children living in them with the occasional retired couple. People going off each day to commute to work. And I figured out in my head how much funding I’d need to do something like that, to be actually resident, whilst I worked as an artist. And I wondered if anyone would fund me for what might seem a rather ‘boring’ project – I mean it’s not like being imbedded in a fighting unit in a war zone, or in a refugee camp. And of course then I realised that I actually live in a street, admittedly not suburban, but still not artistically special or extraordinary. But I am more interested in that ordinary that turns out to be extraordinary. I know some of my neighbours, but none of them well, some I probably have never spoken to. Who knows what stories and lives are in the streets on which we live?

How often as artists do we either look to our immediate experience, or to a far distant exotic or strange world for inspiration and ignore that liminal edge between us and the wider world, our home neighbourhood, our own doorstep?

So that is what I decided to explore in this project. At the beginning of January I put this flyer through every door on Courtenay Street. Although the numbering of the street goes up to 88 it turns out there are only 77 dwellings. Two of those are officially in Courtenay Square but have their doors on Courtenay Street – so I included them. The flyer invited my neighbours to join me in my experiment and asked only that they give a little time to talk to me about their experiences of living in Courtenay Street/Kennington/South East London and if they wanted to, we could also discuss what other things an artist in residence might do. I was quite nervous for some reason when I delivered my envelopes into the various letterboxes, I wondered about the response, I wondered if I’d get a response at all!

Reassuringly quickly I started to receive emails form people in the street saying they would like to take part and so far I have met with three of them. In talking to them and discussing the project with them I realised that I had some other aims in what I was doing and these were:

Not to objectify
A lot of art that is about people – portraits for example – has a tendency to objectify the person being portrayed – they become an object for the artist to work off, and although in a portrait one would look to capture personality as well as physical features, these also become objectified in some way. What I sought was subjectivity – that any work produced would be the collaboration of myself and the person I was talking to, it would be an exploration and an experience rather than ‘capturing’ them in some way – a word we often use when talking about someone’s likeness whether in photography or by other means ‘you’ve really captured them’, ‘you’ve caught the eyes really well’ and so on. I use this language myself instinctively and I am now consciously trying to change it.

Some of this thinking has come out of my discussions with the residents of Courtenay Street and my thoughts about how I will make those discussions and experiences into art works and some has come from my London Debates series of drawings. These drawings which are made whilst people are actively engaged in debate or protest or purposeful conversation are an attempt to put down on paper the experience of seeing and hearing that energy that people have when they are engaged in activity to which they are passionately committed. They are multiple viewpoints and timepoints layered up to create a picture that pulls together a series of moments during a discussion or presentation or demonstration. They aren’t always great likenesses and they don’t always work to my satisfaction, but I feel if I keep on attempting it I will learn something. They are the opposite of a photographic ‘snap’ and it feels like a useful thing to do to find a different way of recording such moments when instant-photography is so ubiquitous and seems to create a homogenous experience of such moments; caught in a fraction of a second we all look the same to some extent when we are in mid-sentence.

Engaging people in art who might not otherwise be interested
I’ve spent a lot of the last four years thinking about how people engage with arts and culture and whether all the cultural lobbying I have done with What Next? is just preaching to the converted. A lot of participatory projects seem to have a slightly patronising us/them slant, where ‘us’ is some kind of professional arts practitioner or organisation and ‘them’ is the people, the masses, the assumed to be ‘not like us’. Arts organisations talk about engagement but only in the sense of audiences. My own experiments in this area have been tiny and this current project will probably reach more people than those that have gone before.

Three people is not much of a sample but so far two of them have some kind of interest or do some kind of artistic activity and only one had no particular interest in the arts but was more interested in the social connection aspect of the work. Assuming that not too many of my flyers ended up in un-opened envelopes in the recycling bin, then 77 different households will be ‘engaged with’, but it will be the people who step up to participate that I am interested in. I want it to be feel like genuine collaboration and hope that it might also spark creativity in others or that I will find other artists in Courtenay Street who are also working away at things.

Exploring the autonomy of the artist
When I initially had this idea I talked to some people about it and many of the responses were along the lines of ‘ooh, you could definitely get funding for that’ as if this was my prime motivator in starting an arts project. I’d had previous discussions around the dividing line between amateur and professional and the sliding scale of amateur/ voluntary/ grassroots/ un-paid ‘professional’/ profit-share-professional/ paid professional that seems to operate as a value measure and also of course in the visual arts world the divide between ‘commercial’ and non-commercial the latter requiring funding by arts organisations in order for the artist to survive. My experience was there was some kind of peer validation going on around the ways in which people were paid or who they were commissioned by or got funding from. To be paid was one thing, but to be paid via a fund that was competitively difficult to get and which implied a pre-judgement of quality by the funder, seemed to be the highest validation.

I decided to reject this. I felt that a validation that was intrinsically tied up with money/getting money wasn’t one I would subscribe to. I also didn’t want to have to pre-evaluate my ‘project’, work out in advance what the ‘outcomes’ might be, or guess at how it might go, in order to fill out a funding application. I wanted to be free to fail, to experiment, to change my mind about the parameters of the experiment, to make whatever work I felt would be interesting, to invite collaborators, to set my own deadlines and expectations and basically to just do as I pleased, free from external constraint. I appointed myself artist in residence, without asking anyone. Because I am an artist and I am a resident here. I didn’t need extra money to make the project happen, my expenses are those I already bear in living in my flat, and I had already set aside a minimum of 1 day a week and a potential of 3 days a week in which to make art (of any kind, visual, written, theatre projects etc). Most of the art I make at the moment is either collage, made from recycled magazines and cardboard, or black and white drawings in small notebooks – the costs are low and easily found from my other streams of income. They might even be recovered if I sell some work!

Other things
I think that I will find as I go along that other things occur, other thoughts to explore, other avenues to go down. I am already thinking about looking into the history of Courtenay Street, its past to complement the work I am doing on its present, and also perhaps (maybe when it stops raining) the physical fabric of the street, what it is made of, what it looks like.

Watch this space for updates on this and for work as it is made.

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Taking a stand

Last week I received an email from both the leader of the Women’s Equality Party and my local branch (Lambeth), asking people to consider standing as candidates in the London, Welsh and Scottish Assembly elections in 2016.

It is a unique opportunity to make history and be the first elected representative of this new party.  It is also a unique opportunity to take forward women’s equality by influencing policy at a local level.  I live in London and am a Londoner by birth.  I’ve lived here for 30 years and I know it is the best city on earth.  But it isn’t always an easy one in which to be a woman (or a human being for that matter).  Could I be the person to make the difference?

I half-made my mind up that I would at least apply to be considered to be a candidate.  There is a short-listing and selection process to be followed so it’s a bit like applying for that dream job, because you never know!

Having gone to a meeting of WEP Lambeth to discuss it, my resolve was firmed up.  Others at the meeting were also planning to apply and many of us had the same thinking on this: if there is a good range of applications, a wide selection pool, it will be easier to identify the best candidates and to get the best people on the ballot paper.  That doesn’t necessarily mean me (my ego isn’t a bad size, but it isn’t that big!) but I might be a useful comparator, a middle ground (I hope) that then makes it clear when someone even better applies.  We are very aware in the WEP Lambeth branch that we aren’t very representative in terms of diversity of the local area, so we also resolved to reach out and encourage others to apply to stand.  There was no hint of competitiveness, each of us felt that the others who had decided to apply would be good candidates and we were all sure that there would be other people out there (WEP encourages candidates of all sexes) who would be equally good.

I am a little daunted in filling out the application form and wish I could be in London for the drop-in help sessions that the Lambeth branch are running.  The timing is tricky but even over the Christmas season I’m hoping to find the time to get my application written up, and maybe I can ask one of my fellow branch members to give it a once over.  If I get chosen, I’ll be thrilled, but if I don’t I’ll be glad to know that my efforts, and those of the branch, have brought in better candidates to take those places.

If you are interested in finding out about the Women’s Equality Party or how to apply to be a candidate you can find all the information you need here: http://www.womensequality.org.uk/

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Post Capitalist Creation

This is a slightly extended version of a talk I gave last night at the first Gobo networking night.  Gobo is a new digital ‘match-making’ service for venues and theatre-makers – it’s launching soon and you can find out more here

The title of the talk and this piece was one of those that I just threw up in the air, hoped to catch, but had as much likelihood as falling down and smashing, or bouncing away in another direction…

“Who am I and why am I talking to you about Post Capitalist Creation?  As you may already have deduced my name is Deborah Mason and I’m a multi-disciplinary artist and cultural activist.  I do some of my work in theatre and performance and trained (some time ago) as an actor as well as an artist.  I’m part of the What Next? movement and a little while ago I met Camilla, after a meeting at the Young Vic and we got to talking.  I seem to remember rambling on about new methods of running rehearsals and creating work and that’s mostly what I’m going to talk about – so why call it Post Capitalist Creation?

In 2011 I had both a deep depression and an epiphanic moment of revelation.  I need creativity in my life – to be happy – but I also need to do things to make the world a better place – I was at the time working for a charity and the sense of achievement through little things that went towards a greater central good – also contributed to my sense of self-worth.  So – no more hedonistic acting career but one that encompassed a range of creative activity that all had somewhere in it a step – however small – towards changing the world – you can read about some of my thoughts on this  blog which is where I published my manifesto for a reimagined world.

I have continued to work on a range of projects and many are linked by a desire to question old hierarchies and their ways of doing things and new ways of working with people.  I found in reading Paul Mason’s (no relation) book Postcapitalism a phrase that summed up, perhaps, what I had been attempting and also a description, perhaps, of the person I now am.

I quote: “Today the main contradiction in modern capitalism is between the possibilities of free, abundant socially produced goods, and a system of monopolies, banks and governments struggling to maintain control over power and information.  That is everything pervaded by a fight between network and hierarchy”

Network and hierarchy

I quote again: “The rapid change in technology is altering the nature of work, blurring the distinction between work and leisure and requiring us to participate in the creation of value across our whole lives, not just in the workplace.  This gives us multiple economic personalities which is the economic base on which a new kind of person, with multiple selves, has emerged.  It is this new kind of person, the networked individual, who is the bearer of the post capitalist society that could now emerge.”

Well I think we all know someone who’s life involves a blurring of work and leisure, who has multiple economic personalities and multiple selves and that that might not be as new  as Paul thinks but perfectly normal for many many people, like us, trying to survive in the creative world.  How hard is it, when asked in a non-professional context – say a pub at Christmas – ‘what do you do?’ – to just say ‘director’, ‘actor’ ‘dramaturg’ or do you find yourself giving a life-history: ‘well I do a bit of acting and I’m currently a temp at x and I also write a bit and occasionally work behind the bar in my local pub and do a bit of dog-walking’.  Sound familiar?

And the fight between network and hierarchy – well here with Gobo is a prime example … I don’t know about you but I have struggled and been frustrated by the hierarchies surrounding theatrical space – the perception by the venues themselves, their artistic directors and chief executives, the critical community, the peer group that a certain type of venue is ‘better’ than another type and therefore it cannot be made available to people who don’t match against the right level in their parallel hierarchy as director/producer/theatre company, . – not even – to quote Oscar Wilde ‘for ready money’.   A hierarchy, as we all know, built in a vicious circle on our ability to present work in the right place to the right people, in order to progress to the point in our the hierarchy where we are allowed to do so!

Gobo has created a network of alternatives, providing advice and information that allows us to save time and effort by understanding where the rules apply and where they don’t.  Network v hierarchy.

I’m interested in these things, but I am more interested in the way in which we work in rehearsal rooms and in the creation of work, hierarchies also operate there – quite simple ones – the director is in charge, but answerable to the artistic director or producer – if there is one.  If working with a very high value star then the Director may not, in fact, be at the top of the hierarchy.  The other actors are simply the droids of the theatreworld doing the bidding of others, expected to obey and perform without question – including inputting creatively but in such a way that does not challenge the boundaries set for them and which is almost always – in the mainstream at least – mediated by the director, producer or writer.

So – some examples of working differently – these are not always radical differences sometimes simple shifts of emphasis or responsibility – the work itself is not always radical as the experiment may be in the process not the product.

The project I first spoke to Camilla about was my production of Julius Caesar, this was inspired by the Arab Spring and the London Riots, set in modern London, with a live twitter feed into which characters, cast, techcrew and audience could all input. I sought to fully engage the audience in this most political of Shakespeare’s plays in the hope that in so doing they might then become more politically engaged.  Using the play as an exploration of democracy I felt I needed to make an effort to direct it democratically – not necessarily voting on key decisions but attempting to give as much autonomy and freedom to the actors and backstage teams as was practical.  The two main actions towards actor autonomy were these:

In choosing a modern London setting for the play I felt confident in asking the actors and creative back stage team to create the context for themselves.  At our first rehearsal we sat down, I laid out some basic parameters made some suggestions and then put actors into relationship groups and told them to figure out who they were in this context, what their relationships were.  They then fed back to me and the group when they were done. From this basis we created the play.  I also worked to direct action in a different way – for the crowd scenes we had about 20 people on the stage, I’m not a fan of clunky Shakespearean crowd scenes that are clearly choreographed and managed with stagey ‘shouts’ and ‘angry sounds’.  I also didn’t have the time to tell 20 people individually what to do and how to act.  So I used an amalgam of techniques borrowed from RSC movement workshops, Viewpoints, swarm choreography and CGI programming to algorithmically programme the crowd.  This gives each character a series of ‘self-rules’ relating to the action that enables them to move, speak, react autonomously but also as a result of being part of the group and in concert with the group – this results in what appears to be spontaneous and unchoreographed – realistic – crowd action – but never results in anarchy or the players moving so far outside the context that it distracts from the action.

I had a very short rehearsal period, a large number of actors and a complex play.  The successful delivery of it was in a large part down to handing creative power to the people involved rather than holding it all for myself – there is a responsibility in being director that means that you are the one who will take the heat if the play fails (although not necessarily the praise if it succeeds) and it is therefore scary to hand over power for that result to others.  Taking that leap though was the ONLY way that this play was going to work – and it did work –  – to quote from one review: “The production as a whole redeemed alternative approaches to Shakespeare by enhancing the text not distracting from it: Think Ian McKellen’s seminal Richard III set in 1930s England with Nazi overtones or RSC’s Merchant of Venice appropriately transported to a 1980s City trading floor.”  – I’ll take that and in the words of the Chambourd advert ‘the trumpet won’t toot itself’.

For my next two challenges I looked at ways in which I could get the audience to get involved and take on some of the responsibility for the success of the play – the first – The Tiny Play Festival was more about getting them to understand what the considerations might be for making a successful play – in a night of 21 one minute plays by thirteen authors the audience was challenged in the interval to create phrases, sentences, quotes to put into their own play at the end of the night, once the moment came, those lines were drawn at random and read back to the audience by the team of six actors.  Whilst the actors went and ‘rehearsed’ the audience, facilitated by me, decided on a context, and a back drop scene – which I live painted to their specification – for their show.  The actors came back, performed, received notes from the audience-directors, performed again and show over – much of the audience feedback reflected on the fact that the evening had helped them understand what goes into making a play.

In Bears my collaborator, Hilary Jennings, and I handed over control of the plot to the audience.  As part of a new writing night we created a ten minute play with three points in it where the audience could change the course of the play.  Again using computer programming techniques each point allowed a flip switch to take it onto another course.  The script was printed on two different colour papers.  At the end of each section the Bears – who were trapped on an island with diminishing resources – would ask the ‘gods’ – the audience for help with a dilemma – the audience then voted white or blue and the result prompted the bears to turn to the next section of that colour.  In one scenario the bears lived, in another they died.  The audience’s choices at each stage determined the final outcome.

I also worked with Hilary on ‘Play in a Weekend’ an exercise that was originally designed as a way to encourage and give some training to people looking to move into directing, within an amateur group in South London.  The play chosen was Two – and as some of you will know this is traditionally acted by two people with one director.  It is a series of two-handed scenes with a range of characters in a pub in the north of England.  Instead we had a company of 20 people comprising 8 directors and fifteen actors (some people did both) and about 12 hours of time in which to run some workshops and put on the play.  Most of the Saturday was taken up with the workshops, discussing things like to warm-up or not warm-up, working with the text, miming (which is part of this particular play), and only a small part in rehearsing.  Despite this short time scale, there was little panic, no diva-tantrums and a successful performance.  Shared responsibility – every single person in the production having the same responsibility for success – meant a much calmer and more efficient process and a greater chance of success.

I’m about to embark on another experimental project with Hilary and hopefully we’ll push the boundaries a little more again this time!

Does any of this matter and how is this relevant to you?

I think it does matter, I’ve alluded to the hierarchies that exist in the creative world, we are trained to accept them and work within them.  A lot of the ways in which we define ourselves as ‘professional’ in this world have little to do with being paid and much to do with a variety of externally set ‘rules’ that we abide by in order to be accepted – it’s a bit like being part of 19th Century English society – are you a lady, are you a gentleman?  If you are born a Duchess you can break as many rules as you like and nobody can say you’re not, but if you are just Miss Mason with five thousand a year, then you must know all the rules and show you know them in order not to get kicked back into the middle classes and denied access to high society.  In the theatre world (and other creative spheres) we still operate in this sort of society and I challenge it as unproductive and unhelpful. Not networked. Not 21st Century.

I want to work with people, a wide range of people, in a collaborative way that produces work that through process or end product makes people think differently about the way things are or could be and the way things might be done differently.  Both creatively and in society.

Get in touch if you’d like to talk further!

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Aspiration, poverty & art

I haven’t blogged for a while but a couple of things recently made me start thinking about this all over again. One was the article by Dawn Foster on the ‘poverty mindset’ (http://www.theguardian.com/society/2015/jun/30/poverty-negative-spiral-fear-self-loathing ) providing rather harder evidence than my gut reaction posted as ‘Hard Times‘ back in November last year. The other was conversations last week, one at What Next? Southwark’s ‘Election Reflection – Feast or Famine for Arts, Culture and Heritage’ and another at Devoted & Disgruntled’s open space about socially engaged arts. Hanging over all of this, like a dark cloud full of sleet, is the continuing demonization of the poor by the Conservative government and sections of the UK media.

At the end of the Open Space on Tuesday I found myself offering two things in the closing circle:
To set up a crowdmap to map socially engaged practice (projects, practitioners, organisations) – I’ve done this and if you are working in this area please ‘submit a report’ and map yourself on: https://sociallyengagedarts.crowdmap.com/

The other was the rather basic statement ‘it’s OK to be poor‘.

Why would I say such a thing?

In both the Open Space and at the Election Reflection there had been challenges to the idea that artists/arts practitioners should be funded to make a living out of their work. There were suggestions about the need for them to not rely solely upon the Arts Council but to find alternative ways of making it ‘work’ whether through collaboration, fundraising or increased commercialisation. There were also voices (sometimes the same ones) saying that artists needed to be freer to make their work without having to pre-justify it – or justify it at all. There were also artists who were making work that required a transaction with their audiences (in both cases requiring stories or conversations) rather than money – and that to commercialise that would effectively destroy the intention of the work, but for them to carry out the work required funding so that they could ‘get by’ (ie pay for accommodation and food).

In talking about socially engaged practice and trying to find a definition, we quickly ruled out any kind of amateur arts. I queried this and this is a difficult area for me – on the one hand arts that are carried out for no financial gain by the participants are a large and vibrant part of the UK’s cultural life – around 11m people are estimated to be involved. For example there are more than 2,500 amateur theatrical groups putting on around 30,000 plays a year. I don’t know if anyone is counting the other things – like painting clubs, craft groups, choirs and so on? I imagine they also run into thousands. These groups are defined by being open to anyone but they are not exclusive to the purely ‘amateur’ – my experience is that many ‘amateur’ theatre groups contain a good proportion of professionally trained actors, and backstage crew (costume makers, set dressers, etc). Painting clubs also often have a mix of professional and amateur artists and a range of people in between who sell work but might not have had professional training. Looked at from the ‘amateur’ side the difference is fuzzy and moves along a sliding scale. Looked at from the ‘professional’ side it is a sharp distinction. Why? Because the professional feels the need to protect their position – they DO want to make a living from the arts – they don’t want to ‘give it away for free’ and they have been professionally trained and they have worked to develop their practice and put a lot of themselves into that work – probably making significant financial investment either through sacrifice or actually putting in savings, legacies, selling their car and so on. There are also practical considerations – the scope and ambition of professional art can not always be replicated on an amateur scale – whilst an amateur theatrical production of – say – Shakespeare might be every bit as artistically adventurous, well designed and well acted as a professional one – it isn’t impossible and I’ve seen them – the nature of the way they are put together is only possible on a very short term time scale – the average run being 3 or 4 nights – at most a week – beyond that and the local and community audience has been exhausted and ticket sales would diminish to a point where they were unviable. The actors and backstage crew all have day jobs, many take time off during ‘show week’ but could not do that indefinitely – they certainly couldn’t take a show on tour. Many of them do not want a professional career in the arts – many of those professionally trained have given it up because the life style or the way in which the professional world works did not suit them – thus voluntary arts are not a competitor for the cultural space taken up by professional work and that sharp distinction is not necessary.

I find myself constantly having to justify my position as someone who seeks both professional work as an an actress and director and who seeks to sell my work commercially as an artist and writer, and yet also embraces working with amateur groups and non-artists – not as a parachuted in ‘professional guide/leader/collaborator’ but simply as one of them as a person who enquires into what it is to do that ‘thing’ and who is interested in the different ways that that ‘thing’ is done – the hierarchies, the etiquettes, the tribal requirements that differentiate the professional and amateur worlds. I’m interested because I don’t believe in the status quo and doing things the way they have been done forever but finding out new ways of doing things – by ‘doing things’ I mean the processes, the starting points, the working methods, the interactions – rather than the end products or productions. So why do I persist – why not just throw my lot in with the ‘professionals’ and pretend I’ve never had anything to do with anything ‘amateur’? Well apart from being dishonest I think that working in both these ‘places’ sliding up and down that scale, crossing that divide (depending on where you are coming from) enhances me as a creative person, provides me with more inspiration, more drive to get things done and ensures that what I do stays rooted in the real.

Which leads me to the next thing… aspiration. A couple of young people I have met recently who have engaged in these various debates have been challenged, both rudely and more kindly, on their aspiration to make a living in the arts – and the arts alone. I do want to live in a world where that is possible, but this isn’t it right now. That doesn’t mean that artists should give up that aspiration, but they should make it one about changing the society we live in so that it becomes a place where that is possible. I also question what that ‘making a living’ aspiration actually includes? Most of the young people I encounter now have been born and brought up in a society that embraces the capitalist reality; they have been effectively brainwashed into believing that you have to own your own home, that you have to have money to get married and have a baby, that you ought to be able to afford to go somewhere nice on your holidays, and so on and on. That to not have or want these things is to have failed. Even though they accept that these things are not immediately within their grasp as young artists starting out, they still aspire to them as being part of what defines their success – not just as people but as artists. I think this is probably quite alien to many older artists – the 60s and 70s (and a bit of the 80s) of squats and communes and people deliberately rejecting capitalism meant that artists could be successful and poor at the same time. There is a sense now that to do something else as well (yes the dreaded ‘day job’) is to somehow make oneself impure, sullied, only partly an artist. I have come to realise that as long as you get the balance right – as long as the ‘day job’ is something you believe in and can make a difference at, but also leaves you enough time and flexibility to do your artistic work – then it is actually a beneficial thing. Beneficial not just economically, giving you that breathing space financially to have fallow periods artistically – breathing time to let things settle, to reflect and consider and research, but also by providing fresh input into your creative life. It takes you out of your art world bubble, roots you firmly in the real world. It has taken me a long time to get to this point!

To accept these things is not to lack aspiration – it is to have aspiration – to make your life work for you – to ground yourself in reality so that you can do the work that will change society so that everyone can have a creative life – even if they don’t choose a creative career. To undertake socially engaged work whilst being socially engaged in your own community. We should not limit our aspirations to just ourselves, our comfort, our short term futures, but have grander aspirations to make the world a better place and also to save it from the destructive effects of climate change. Artists struggle with making a living, but so do many other people, I have a friend who lost her job in the financial crash, retrained as a translator, couldn’t find a job as a translator and is now back in the financial sector, we aren’t the only people making compromises. There is nothing wrong with ambition, with wanting to do the big and the beautiful and having the budget to match that – but we don’t all have to do that and/or we don’t have to do that all the time.

Poverty – I started this by saying ‘it’s OK to be poor’ – and it is and it isn’t. There are children growing up in poverty who don’t have enough to eat, who are wearing poor quality, inadequate clothing, who are living in defective housing and who’s health and ongoing development will be effected by these things. Added to that the stigma of being poor will hold them back in education and that will hold them back in life. This is not OK. What is OK is having somewhere secure to live, budgeting for your food sensibly, not buying stuff all the time, not going abroad on holiday, not having a car and not always knowing where the money is going to come from. It is OK because you can have a life rich in other things, the things you do, creatively – or not creatively – running marathons, working out, volunteering within your local community, and there are plenty of things you can get for free – art galleries, theatre, film, workshops, lectures, etc, etc. It is a perception of poverty not the real thing – yes it means a low income, but it is one that is set within a different context of what being ‘poor’ is. I talk about my lack of money, and write about it, proudly and with no shame – yes sometimes it’s difficult and I think, ‘oh if only I could win the lottery’, but most of the time I’m pretty OK with it. I want to share that – I’m not a slacker or a shirker and most people who are poor aren’t either. I’m standing up for it. There will be many people – thanks to Government and media – who are ashamed of it. If you are poor and happy – let people know – counteract the capitalist myth that aspiration is only about aspiring to own, with a truth that aspiration can be about aspiring to be and aspiring to change.

Posted in acting, arts, arts funding, directing, Politics, theatre | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

A vote for austerity is a vote for death

Warning – this post is quite upsetting, if you are depressed, or likely to become so, have something handy to cheer you up at the end.  Any other human being – have some tissues handy…

This came into the Artists Assembly Against Austerity inbox from Vince Laws, he is standing as a candidate in the election in Norwich for the DANDY party – which stands not as you might think for ‘better dressing’ but for Disabled and Not Dead Yet.

Vince wrote to an organisation called Black Triangle to try and find out more about UK Welfare Related Deaths:

Hello John

I’m a poet, artist, and campaigner in Norfolk.  I want to list the people who have died within 6 weeks of their benefit ending. I think it was at 10,200 or something when the government stopped counting. And any subsequent deaths that are due to DWP/benefit cuts. Does such a list exist?

Hi Vince

I’m afraid that was based on a number from a DWP statistics release, and there is no list of names available. However, Black Triangle have an ongoing list of cases that have come from media reports of welfare-linked deaths. Last time I looked, they were just short of 100 names.


The Black Triangle List

In Memory of those we have lost In Hope for those who remain

Terry McGarvey, 48.

Dangerously ill from polycytheamia Terry asked for an ambulance to be called during his Work Capability Assessment.  He knew that he wasn’t well enough to attend his WCA but feared his benefits would be stopped if he did not. He died the following day.

Elaine Lowe, 53.

Suffering from COPD and fearful of losing her benefits. In desperation, Elaine chose to commit suicide.

Mark Wood, 44.

Found fit for work by Atos, against his Doctors advice and assertions that he had complex mental health problems. Starved to death after benefits stopped, weighing 5st 8lb when he died.  http://www.theguardian.com/society/2014/feb/28/man-starved-to-death-after-benefits-cut

Paul Reekie, 48

the Leith based Poet and Author. Suffered from severe depression. Committed suicide after DWP stopped his benefits due to an Atos ‘fit for work’ decision.

Leanne Chambers, 30.

Suffered depression for many years which took a turn for the worst when she was called in for a WCA. Leanne committed suicide soon after.

Karen Sherlock, 44.

Multiple health issues. Found fit for work by Atos and denied benefits. Fought a long battle to get placed into the support group of ESA. Karen died the following month of a heart attack.

Carl Payne, 42.

Fears of losing his lifeline benefits due to welfare reform led this Father of two to take his own life.

Tim Salter, 53.

Blind and suffering from Agoraphobia. Tim hanged himself after Atos found him fit for work and stopped his benefits.

Edward Jacques, 47

suffering from HIV and Hepatitis C. Edward had a history of severe depression and self-harm. He took a fatal overdose after Atos found him fit for work and stopped his benefits.

Linda Wootton, 49

A double heart and lung transplant patient. Died nine days after government found her fit for work, their refusal letter arriving as she lay  desperately ill in her hospital bed.

Steven Cawthra, 55.

His benefits stopped by the DWP and with rising debts, he saw suicide as the only way out of a desperate situation.

Elenore Tatton, 39

Died just weeks after the government found her fit for work.

John Walker, 57,

saddled with debt because of the bedroom tax, John took his own life.

Brian McArdle, 57

Suffered a fatal heart attack the day after his disability benefits were stopped.

Stephen Hill, 53.

Died of a heart attack one month after being found fit for work, even though he was waiting for major heart surgery.

Jacqueline Harris, 53.

A former Nurse who could hardly walk was found fit for work by Atos and her benefits withdrawn. in desperation, she took her own life.

David Barr, 28.

Suffering from severe mental difficulties. Threw himself from a bridge after being found fit for work by Atos and failing his appeal.

David Groves, 56.

Died of a heart attack the night before taking his work capability assessment. His widow claimed that it was the stress that killed him.

Nicholas Peter Barker, 51.

Shot himself after being told his benefits were being stopped. He was unable to work after a brain haemorrhage left him paralysed down one side.

Mark and Helen Mullins, 48 and 59 years old.

Forced to live on £57.50 a week and make 12 mile trips each week to get free vegetables to make soup. Mark and Helen both committed suicide.

Richard Sanderson, 44.

Unable to find a job and with his housing benefit cut forcing him to move, but with nowhere to go. Richard committed suicide.

Martin Rust, 36

A schizophrenic man who killed himself two months after the government found him fit to work.

Craig Monk, 43.

A vulnerable gentleman and a partial amputee who slipped so far into poverty that he hanged himself.

Colin Traynor, 29,

suffering from epilepsy was stripped of his benefits. He appealed. Five weeks after his death his family found he had won his appeal.

Elaine Christian, 57

Worried about her work capability assessment, she was subsequently found at Holderness drain, drowned and with ten self inflicted wrist wounds.

Christelle and Kayjah Pardoe, 32 years and 5 month old.

Pregnant, her benefits stopped, Christelle, clutching her baby son jumped from a third floor balcony.

Mark Scott, 46.

His DLA and housing benefit stopped and sinking into deep depression, Mark died six weeks later.

Cecilia Burns, 51.

Found fit for work while undergoing treatment for breast cancer. She died just a few weeks after she won her appeal against the Atos decision.

Chris Cann, 57.

Found dead in his home just months after being told he had to undergo a medical assessment to prove he could not work.

Peter Hodgson, 49.

Called to JCP to see if he was suitable for volunteer work. Peter had suffered a stroke, a brain haemorrhage and had a fused leg. His appointment letter arrived a few days after he took his own life.

Paul Willcoxsin, 33.

Suffered with mental health problems and worried about government cuts. Paul committed suicide by hanging himself.

Stephanie Bottrill, 53.

After paying £80 a month for bedroom tax, Stephanie could not afford heating in the winter, and lived on tinned custard. In desperation, she chose to walk in front of a lorry.

Larry Newman

suffered from a degenerative lung condition, his weight dropping from 10 to 7 stone.

Atos awarded him zero points, he died just three months after submitting his appeal.

Paul Turner, 52.

After suffering a heart attack, he was ordered to find a job in February. In April Paul died from ischaemic heart disease.

Christopher Charles Harkness, 39.

After finding out that the funding for his care home was being withdrawn, this man who suffered with mental health issues, took his own life.

Sandra Louise Moon, 57.

Suffering from a degenerative back condition, depression and increasingly worried about losing her incapacity benefit. Sandra committed suicide by taking an overdose.

Lee Robinson, 39.

Took his own life after his housing benefit and council tax were taken away from him.

David Coupe, 57.

A Cancer sufferer found fit for work by Atos in 2012. David lost his sight, then his hearing, then his mobility, and then his life.

Michael McNicholas, 34.

Severely depressed and a recovering alcoholic. Michael committed suicide after being called in for a Work Capability Assessment by Atos.

Victor Cuff, 59

suffering from severe depression. Victor hanged himself  after the DWP stopped his benefits.

Charles Barden, 74.

Charles committed suicide by hanging due to fears that the Bedroom Tax would leave him destitute and unable to cope.

Ian Caress, 43.

Suffered multiple health issues and deteriorating eyesight. Ian was found fit for work by Atos, he died ten months later having lost so much weight that his family said he resembled a concentration camp victim.

Iain Hodge, 30.

Suffered from the life threatening illness, Hughes Syndrome. Found fit for work by Atos and benefits stopped, Iain took his own life.

Wayne Grew, 37.

Severely depressed due to government cuts and the fear of losing his job, Wayne committed suicide by hanging.

Kevin Bennett, 40.

Kevin a sufferer of schizophrenia and mental illness became so depressed after his JSA was stopped that he became a virtual recluse. Kevin was found dead in his flat several months later.

David Elwyn Hughs Harries, 48.

A disabled man who could no longer cope after his parents died, could find no help from the government via benefits. David took an overdose as a way out of his solitude.

Denis Jones, 58.

A disabled man crushed by the pressures of government cuts, in particular the Bedroom Tax, and unable to survive by himself. Denis was found dead in his flat.

Shaun Pilkington, 58.

Unable to cope any more, Shaun shot himself dead after receiving a letter from the DWP informing him that his ESA was being stopped.

Paul ?, 51.

Died in a freezing cold flat after his ESA was stopped. Paul appealed the decision and won on the day that he lost his battle to live.

Chris MaGuire, 61.

Deeply depressed and incapable of work, Chris was summonsed by Atos for a Work Capability Assessment and deemed fit for work. On appeal, a judge overturned the Atos decision and ordered them to leave him alone for at least a year, which they did not do.  In desperation, Chris took his own life, unable to cope anymore.

Peter Duut,

a Dutch national with terminal cancer living in the UK for many years found that he was not entitled to benefits unless he was active in the labour market. Peter died leaving his wife destitute, and unable to pay for his funeral.

George Scollen, age unknown.

Took his own life after the government closed the Remploy factory he had worked in for 40 years.

Julian Little, 47.

Wheelchair bound and suffering from kidney failure, Julian faced the harsh restrictions of the Bedroom Tax and the loss of his essential dialysis room. He died shortly after being ordered to downgrade.

Miss DE, Early 50’s.

Suffering from mental illness, this lady committed suicide less than a month after an Atos assessor gave her zero points and declared her fit for work.

Robert Barlow, 47.

Suffering from a brain tumour, a heart defect and awaiting a transplant, Robert was deemed fit for work by Atos and his benefits were withdrawn. He died penniless less than two years later.   http://www.liverpoolecho.co.uk/news/liverpool-news/dying-merseyside-man-told-benefits-6924979

Carl Joseph Foster-Brown, 58.

As a direct consequence of the wholly unjustifiable actions of the Job centre and DWP, this man took his own life.

Martin Hadfield, 20 years old.

Disillusioned with the lack of jobs available in this country but too proud to claim benefits. Utterly demoralised, Martin took his own life by hanging himself.

Annette Francis, 30.

A mum-of-one suffering from severe mental illness, found dead after her disability benefits were ceased.

Ian Jordan, 60.

His benefits slashed after Atos and the DWP declared Ian, a sufferer of Barratt’s Oesophagus, fit for work, caused him to run up massive debts in order to survive. Ian was found dead in his flat after taking an overdose.

Janet McCall, 53.

Terminally ill with pulmonary fibrosis and declared ‘Fit for Work’ by Atos and the DWP, this lady died 5 months after her benefits were stopped.

Stuart Holley, 23.

A man driven to suicide by the DWP’s incessant pressure and threat of sanctions for not being able to find a job.

Graham Shawcross, 63.

A sufferer of the debilitating disease, Addison’s. Died of a heart attack due to the stress of an Atos ‘Fit for Work’ decision.

David Clapson, 59 years old.

A diabetic ex-soldier deprived of the means to survive by the DWP and the governments harsh welfare reforms, David died all but penniless, starving and alone, his electricity run out.

Chris Smith, 59.

Declared ‘Fit for Work’ by Atos as he lay dying of Cancer in his hospital bed.

Nathan Hartwell, 36

died of heart failure after an 18-month battle with the ­Department for Works and Pensions.

Michael Connolly, 60.

A Father of One, worried about finances after his benefits were cut. Committed suicide by taking 13 times the fatal dose of prescription medicine on His Birthday.

Jan Mandeville, 52

A lady suffering from Fibromyalgia, driven to the point of mental and physical breakdown by this governments welfare reforms. Jan was found dead in her home after battling the DWP for ESA and DLA.

Trevor Drakard, 50 years old.

A shy and reserved, severe epileptic who suffered regular and terrifying fits almost his entire life, hounded to suicide by the DWP who threatened to stop his life-line benefits.

Death of a severely disabled Dorset resident, unnamed, who took her own life while battling the bedroom tax.


The black triangle was a badge used in Nazi concentration camps to mark prisoners as “asocial”  or “arbeitsscheu” (work-shy). It was later adopted as a lesbian or feminist symbol of pride and solidarity, on the assumption that the Nazis included lesbians in the “asocial” category. More recently it has been adopted by UK disabled people’s organisations responding to increasing press allegations that disabled benefit recipients are workshy.



08457 90 90 90

It doesn’t have to be like this there are better alternatives like the UK Disabled People’s Manifesto http://www.inclusionlondon.co.uk/UK%20Disabled%20peoples%20Reclaiming%20Our%20Futures%20Manifesto

Text found and edited by poet, artist and campaigner Vince Laws in collaboration with film maker, digital artist, and campaigner Andrew Day.

Made for Dandifest! Norwich launch 27/5/15 with Arts Council England funding from the National Lottery, and donations.



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