this city
which cradles and betrays me

i cannot sing you
though your contradictions make me

instead speak
love filtered through horror

not pride, nor resilience
not blame, nor honour

horror past, horror here
horror to come, horror elsewhere

may your economy dissolve
into a politics of care

not bravery
though many here be brave

not fearlessness
let not fear be cause of shame

forget not slavery
forget not the slave

what other cities might we build
in your name

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I support Bahar Mustafa.

[…notallkillnotallwhitemen…] (pdf)

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[... my provocation from This Thing Called Artist Development at Ovalhouse...]

So this talk is called:

Samuel Beckett’s First Play Was Shit And It Took A World War For Him To Write A Good One (and he was 40 before he did) or Artist Development Programmes are a Form of Disciplining Reified Ideology Reflecting the Underlying Structures, Practices and Brutalities of the Late-Capitalist, Neo-Liberal Economic Base, And, You Know, That Can Fuck Off.

Basically I got dared to do a talk with this title by my friends on facebook. But I do stand by it, even if it makes me a dick, and here’s why.

Nobel Prize winner Samuel Beckett’s first play was not as is often assumed Waiting for Godot – it was called Eleutheria which is Greek for derivative and not particularly exciting first play and it was shit. It has never been performed (Roger Blin, the director of Waiting for Godot in it’s original french production had to choose between Godot and Eleutheria, and chose Godot cos it was easier to stage). Subsequently the playwright suppressed the work, which is fair enough. But, the erasure of the work before Godot from our understanding of what Beckett is and how he became that is a harmful act, propagating an (essentialist) idea of genius emerging fully formed and hiding the singular set of circumstances and experiences in which a singular artist is shaped. Before Beckett could write a play that actually worked, that could find traction with audiences and give form to a kind of meaningful public speech, here are some of the things that had to happen:

  • exiling himself from the country of his birth
  • exiling his writing from the language of his homeland and writing instead in french
  • the second world war
  • he had to spend a really long time staring at some paintings (seriously – he could apparently happily spend 3 or 4 hours just looking at one painting – so no wonder there’s so many pauses in his work)
  • living under occupation
  • writing a shit play that he’d subsequently suppress.
  • delivering messages for the French resistance

Would the idea of artist development around today have helped a Beckett to emerge or would it have smothered him? It’s hard to imagine any of these things (not even the world war one) being part of anything we might conceive of as an artist development scheme, though it’s actually not so hard to trace the influence and importance each of them holds in the development of his work. Indeed, anything schematic is inherently at odds with the individuality of the artist. And that’s why I want to talk about neo-liberalism and late capitalism(ok – so I actually always want to talk about neo-liberalism and late capitalism, but that’s the excuese i’ve given myself for it today).

Neo-Liberalism views the individual as a subject to be formed and made more efficient and in tune with the economic circumstances of their existence. Necessarily, this involves boilerplate solutions to the problem of humanity’s diversity because the relentless expansion of late Capital’s domain over ever more aspects of our lives rests on an idea of infinite exchangeability. As soon as value is attached to something it can be bought, sold, and bartered. What is your work worth? What is your time worth? What is your life worth? What is your development worth?

The instruments and instrumentalisations of neo-liberalism insert themselves into the practices of even (perhaps in particular) those areas which appear to be most resistant to economicisation – even art, which is normally totally above these kinds of things. Thus the education system becomes increasingly concerned with the measurability of particular (ideologically determined) forms of success, the media continuously report on the complaints of the Confederation of Business Interests that schools and universities do not churn out graduates with the right kinds of skills (as though it were the function of the state and of society to furnish Capital with the workers it desires, and not the function of business to provide staff with the training they might need to do their jobs, or – more radically – to provide people with the kind of work they relish and desire).

The constant collection of metrics results in an inevitable drive towards an (at least pseudo) marketisation – which can be seen most clearly in the transformation of university education into an enormously debt driven provision of a service/product to a group of client/consumers (which in turn is meant to increase their value and worth). Thus not only does the service offered become viewed as a commodity in itself, but the consumer of it also becomes commoditised, a carrier of the value that’s been generated through the act of purchase – holding within them the reified sets of social relations, ideologies and expressions of labour which have been involved in their creation. Now, obviously artists and the institutions which generate them are way to clever and good to be caught out by a simple expression of the underlying economic system defining every aspect of our social and material lives. But still, it bears questioning the extent to which the act of our “development” actually defines and creates us as subjects – embeds an ideology that acts through us rather innocently giving us tools with which to operate in whatever way we see fit. After all, if you’ve got a hammer every problem looks like a nail and if you’ve got a workshop on narrative, character and writing dialogue every play looks like a pseudo-naturalistic 3-hander exploring the problems of the bourgeois family unit.

Strangely in this hyper-capitalised, hyper-liberalised worldview the individual is herself a kind of luxury – the relentless drive towards efficiency as represented in economies of scale actually demands an erasure of difference and leaves no place for the particular vagaries of a particular person, unless she happens to be able to afford that kind of attention. In fact the individual as component in the machine of cultural reproduction needs to be actively formed to fit into the systems which are ostensibly there to serve and protect them – systems of law, of commerce, of work as well as systems of meaning, of language, of culture and of thought.

When I started out as a director I often felt I had to pretend to be shitter than I was in order to insert myself into the structures the theatre world expected me to fit in. I have no doubt this did me harm, and while I guess no individual was actively trying to damage me in my early interactions with this liberated art world, the collective effect of them was sufficiently uniform and sufficiently dispiriting that as an insititutional whole it looked to me like the theatre world was arrogant and a dick, and that it wanted to force me to not be myself before I was going to be allowed to work in it. Now, I will admit that it’s just about possible that I may have just been a bit arrogant and a bit of a dick myself, but i’ve met loads of people who are arrogant and a dick working in theatre and it doesn’t seem to have done them any harm, so I don’t see why I shouldn’t have been allowed to be that too.

More specifically – the kind of practices and ideas that the odd kind of non-apprenticeship I was failing to have was seeking to instil in me, were ideas and practices that would have utterly shaped the kind of work I would have made. I kept hearing the same kind of ideas repeated to me over and over again – the director’s job is to get out of the actor’s way, it is dangerous for an artist and her work to be too clever, theatre is obviously inherently political because mumble mumble empathy mumble, artists should be asking questions not giving answers (should they? Should they? Should they?), just tell the story (whatever the fuck that means) and so on. All of these ideas were delivered, in training and in conversations, in meetings and in advice as though they were simply common sense – the obvious, correct (even the efficient) way of doing things.

Which is to say that they are shot through with ideology.

So as I hinted at when I talked about things being reified before, this is all about the process of reification. For those who have for some reason had better things to do with their lives than try to decipher Marxist theory, Reification is the process of abstract social relationships and ideologies taking concrete form. That is to say, my trainers are the reification of a particular set social relations and a particular arrangement of labour and power relations that involve some poor fucker somewhere getting totally shafted, and it is through this process that they become, not merely shoes with the use value of being wearable, but commodities with the exchange value of being sold off cheap in bulk to TKMAXX because no other fucker wanted them and so people like me can afford to buy them.

But ideology, social relations and power dynamics can also be reified in the operations and practices of institutions, which are after all, the means by which our social and cultural lives reproduce themselves. And so, if cultural institutions become agents of this in their relationships with artists, if artists start to become the product of their developmental practices, then not only the art we produce but also the artists themselves become commoditised even before we’ve started to speak – avatars for the forces that operate through us and define us even if we consider ourselves to be really totally dangerously radical and individual.

Now the term artist development is riddled with hidden power dynamics – it’s hegemonic as fuck. It presupposes a subject and an object – someone who knows how to enact the development and an artist who should have development enacted upon her. It assumes (like the bland, empty political term progressive) that development will necessarily be a good thing for the artist and not simply those enacting it, and like the term progressive it obscures the fact that the way in which development happens is at once the result of a series of decisions which may take in to account a collection of competing interests (what the institution wants or needs, what the artist wants or needs, what the funders think are important, what the communities in which the artist and institution are embedded consider to be important) and an inevitable playing out of a set of power relations defined by how much the parties involved perceive themselves to need each other. And when you look at it like that it all feels a bit depressing.

So here’s three and a half things that I think:

1.You can’t develop an artist, but you can create the circumstances in which an artist can develop themselves. Pedagogically, this idea is uncontroversial – if the aim is to allow children to develop, it’s entirely consistent to consider themselves the agents of their own development. Unless you’re the government. Obvs. Because if the aim is to force children to develop in certain ways you need to employ far more coercive strategies to turn them into the subjects you need them to be. And coercive and disciplining practices often disguise themselves as disinterestedly operating for the good of those they are operating on. But the fact remains the day centres I take my daughter to for stay and plays are almost always more exciting and beautiful as spaces, more respectful of the needs and desires of their users, more geared towards playing and learning and discovering and becoming, than any of the places in which I might develop my work or I might be asked to develop myself as an artist.

2.Individual artists are different and so they grow and develop differently and need different forms of nurturing in relation to this. Personally, when I was younger and bolder and more fearless I mostly needed the space and the support to just get out and make stuff and not be told how to do it by people I didn’t really respect because their theatre bored me. I didn’t need to be asked to do specific things because I already knew what I wanted to do. Now I’m more fragile and my work and my psyche are more delicate – and what I need is predominantly places of safety – not retreats from the world, but spaces where I feel held enough to enable me to attempt to reconfigure the set of relationships that make it up. And I’m more interested in conversation and invitations so being asked to do things is lovely. Perversely I think I’ve probably been offered these things entirely the wrong way round, because that’s the way you might imagine it would work and because now i’ve had a modicum of success people assume i sort of know what i’m doing even though I work as hard as I can to dispel that idea. Still institutions, practices and processes, however much the individuals within them may resist it, exist in and are shaped by our current climate, and so find it hard to place genuine conversations and listening at the core of their interactions. So of course they find it hard to know what an individual needs – unfortunately I am a beautiful unique snowflake and as such I’m unpredictable and hard to legislate for. I imagine you are all just like me in this.

3. Growing hurts and has consequences. It means confronting your limits and overcoming them. It means embedding in yourself practices, feelings and ways of being that have not sprung naturally from our interactions with our environment. It means abandoning the protections that our habits have created for us. It changes us as people – we become something new, and we explore territory in ourselves which we perhaps did not even know existed, and which may contains monsters of which we were only faintly aware. This is true for anyone, artists aren’t special (not in this way, anyway) but the peculiarly public and social nature of our work tends to amplify these feelings. Part of the way we can help people who are growing is by helping them deal with the hurt and the consequences of their growth. And part of the way we can do that is by abandoning an attachment to the myths of success, of strength, of confidence and of certainty which we are often asked to project (again, artists are not special in this, but the public nature of artisthood amplifies both the demand for and the repercussions of it). Perhaps the most effective artist development scheme we could be provided with is a space where artists at all stages of their careers can be openly broken, openly unsuccessful and openly weak with each other.

Just not all the fucking time, though, huh. That’d be a bit much.

Also -this is the half- sometimes survival is hard. Sometimes survival is enough. Sometimes it’s a kind of winning. Perhaps there are times when we should be encouraged not to develop, not to push forward, but to retreat. If you’re not allowed to fall back you’re not really the avant-garde, you’re cannon fodder.

Here are some things that some artists need some of the time:



to be listened to

an audience

gentle bollockings from people they respect

Here are 2 questions:

What might be a less intrinsically violent and hierarchical configuration of language than “artist development?”

What might be a more useful objective?

And here is my rousing final bit:

Institutions – let’s not talk about how you can develop us. Let’s talk about how you can care for us. Let’s talk about how you can hold us. Let’s talk about how we can hold each other in an expression of our mutual fears and wants. Let’s talk about how you can love us. Let’s talk about how you can comfort us. Let’s talk about how you can protect us. Let’s talk about how you can help us to survive. Can you be our place of safety? Can you be our place of total exposure? Let’s talk about how you can create a space in which we can be raw and terrified and beautiful and broken and powerful and scarred and impossible and badly behaved and wrong and arrogant enough to believe we matter and magnificent enough to be open and vulnerable in public and sacred and full of hope and despair, and lonely and proud, and necessarily stupid and unashamedly intelligent, and questing and questioning, and heart-broken and disappointed, and pointlessly ecstatic, and…

And that way, maybe, if we feel like it and the wind is with us and the stars align the right way, we will develop.

Failing that, please, just give us the fucking money and let us get on with it.

Ps – Free tickets. Personally, I can never afford to go to the theatre cos I work in it. Free tickets.

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[...a fucking love poem...]

The 8.5.15 of it

The hurt of it
The pain of it
The rage of it
The shame of it

The fear of it
The tears of it
The sneer of it
The 5 more fucking years of it

The blame of it
The inane centrists’s game of it
The, Alex, condescending use of your first name of it
The accountancy of pain of it

The well, quite of it
The genteel Oxbridge slight of it
The well heeled spite of it
The grey hearted delight in thinking you’re sensible and right of it

The don’t assume I’m a fucking liberal of it
The don’t assume I don’t understand it of it
The I get where you’re coming from I just think you’re fucking wrong of it
The inevitable unthinking shortsighted left must move right of it

The friends will be lost of it
The oh well, sunk costs of it
The this is just the start of it
The bloodied bleeding heart of it

The here’s a fucking thought of it
The maybe debate is an empty public school sport of it
The what defines the limits of our political deeds is our shifting subjectivities and needs of it
The so it’s not about the well-respected books you read of it

The centre cannot hold of it
The narratives that grip are those that get repeatedly told of it
The truth is not a part of it
The story that story tells you about yourself is at the heart of it

The technocrat’s delight of it
The see no end in sight of it
The grind, it wears you down of it
The their kind wear the crown of it

The yeah, I’m going to stop talking to you about this now of it
The ever shifting sands of it
The story you tell yourself about where you stand of it
The don’t kid yourself you started of it

The we will need each other of it
The I need you now of it
The where’s our place of care of it
The all love poems are political I hear of it

The racist mug of it
The so privatise love of it
The great in Great Britain of it
The have a fucking kitten of it

The take it all of it
The tear down the walls of it
The burn it all down of it
The let us all drown of it

The when you stand where i stand you’re used to feeling alone of it
The let me learn to be your home of it
The remember, remember desire of it
The fire, the fire, the fire of it.

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[...52 Conversations #11 Annie Siddons...]

The 11th conversation is with awesome writer and performer Annie Siddons (with a guest appearance from my daughter). We talk about art wankers, having daughters, anxiety, arses. children’s theatre, the suburbs, grown ups, getting older sustainably without yoga, swearing, being interested in stories and not being interested in stories, responses to Exhibit B, television, being Bromley, authenticity and fruit among many other things…

An explanation  of the project can be found [...here...].

Right click and choose “save link as…” to download the file and listen later, or left click to listen in your browser.

[...Annie Siddons 52 conversations part 1...]

[...Annie Siddons 52 conversations part 2...]

You can find information about Annie’s upcoming shows here:


[...The Nutcracker and the Mouse King...]

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[... 52 Conversation #10 Andrew Haydon...]

The 10th conversation is with the irrepressibly germanophile theatre critic and writer of the [...Postcards from the Gods...] blog Andrew Haydon… We talk about theatre criticism,  what we think people think of us and how we think that changes what we get asked to do, the mainstream, being ok with people not liking what you do,  Katie Mitchell, listening or not listening to music when you work, Tony Blair, depression, drinking, the cat, the Young Vic, privilege, how you survive financially, ideology, not knowing much about the Spanish Civil War, funding models, proper jobs, Sarah Kane’s Blasted, technological incompetence and a bunch more stuff…

An explanation  of the project can be found [...here...].

Right click and choose “save link as…” to download the file and listen later, or left click to listen in your browser.

[…andrew haydon 52 conversations part 1…]

[…andrew haydon 52 conversations part 2…]

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[...52 Conversations #9 Chris Goode...]

The 9th conversation is with the Chris Goode, who needs no introduction… We talk about life and work, charm and wanting to work without it, Men in the Cities, Travesty, Criticism, ritual, acting and performing, mask, personas, marriage, family, consent, power, harm and a whole bunch of other stuff…

An explanation  of the project can be found [...here...].

Right click and choose “save link as…” to download the file and listen later, or left click to listen in your browser.

[…chris goode 52 conversations part 1…]

[…chris goode 52 conversations part 2…]

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[...some questions about design in Travesty...]

I got an email from [Alice Cousins], a designer,with some questions about the role design played in the work-in-progress performances of Travesty I just did at Ovalhouse. I thought they were really interesting, so I’m sharing them and my answers in case anyone finds them interesting as well:

One of the most interesting aspects of Travesty, for me, was the fact that the performer, objects onstage and audience all seemed to carry a similar weight in the show. It felt as though the show couldn’t have existed if one of these elements were absent. There seemed to be a rule that objects and costume were very minimally manipulated, and that if they moved or acted in an unexpected way you would adapt the show around them rather than correct them. Was this deliberate? If so, how did it come about and why was this important for you?

 Could I also ask how the objects were selected? It was impossible to tell whether you had been given the objects with which to form the show, or whether the show was formed and then the objects required were provided. or somewhere in between! I really liked the way each item onstage was necessary for the piece; there was no pretence, they were simply there as tools for the show, which I found refreshing. 

In answer to your first question – yes, it’s definitely deliberate. I’m not sure that I’d say that the objects and costume are minimally manipulated – to give an object to someone in the audience, or to allow a costume to half come off actually feel like quite strong interventions to me – stronger than the kind of manipulations you might find in a naturalistic play. But there’s something about those manipulations being clear as manipulations that feels important – the theatrical intent behind those actions is, in my head at least, telegraphed, even if it’s simultaneously subverted. But what i do do is give up an amount of control over costume and objects – I know that the dress will slip but i don’t know at what points, i know that all the objects that make up the play will fall to the floor but i don’t know where they will land or how easily i will be able to find them again – and once i hand something to someone in the audience (especially the guitar) i have no way of knowing how they will interact with that object or how that will affect the performance. And that’s really important to me. I definitely feel the presence of the audience strongly, and the nature of the manipulations that i might enact on them are meant to be similar in both their overtness and the way that i can no longer control the effect of them after they’ve happened (so if i ask for a story in the song, i’m prepared to wait a long time to make sure i get one, but i have no control over what that story will be, or the qualities that might be present in the voice that will deliver it). So the show is definitely designed to contain (and provoke) many different possibilities in the way that audience and objects might behave, and to make those possibilities legible. In Travesty I’m concerned to make a theatre that asks the world into the room – by which i mean that rather than pretend that when the lights go down we retreat from the real world and all the meanings it contains and attempt to create another world/set of meanings in its place, we start by recognizing the world that has been carried in to the room with us, and then proceed to play with it. The audience is really significant here because there are a set of unspoken politics in their relationships to each other, to me, to the work, which are already in the room when we begin and which can’t just be wished or pretended away. Obviously, in Travesty this is particularly significant in terms of gender, sex and sexuality, but there are also other forms of power dynamic at play which i hope that piece at least gestures towards… Anyway – the idea is to talk about the meaning that is already in the room in spite of and because of us – embedded into our bodies and our relationships with each other – the way we sit together, the way we look at each other. Politics is already happening in all of this and if i want to make work politically i need to acknowledge this and then work to shift those relationships rather than simply trying to make work which acts as a kind of statement of a set of political beliefs but structurally might do nothing but reinforce the politics that are already in the room. That’s why it’s important that the audience (and the objects) are given their due weight. They are present and important and they are as much the site of the performance as me or my body…

This relates to your second question I think. Objects also have their politics and in Travesty I’ve tried to work with objects in which this meaning is particularly (even archetypally) clear, particularly with relation to gender (so a boxing glove and a rose are both quite umambiguoulsy gendered, even if that gendering is problematic). So all of the objects i give to the audience have archetypal feminine associations – a scarf, a rose, red lipstick etc – and then with the suggestions i give for their use the idea is to subvert these (I’ve been thinking a bit about the situationist concept of detournement in this – a kind of reverse of the appropriation of dissent by power). The song Jolene has a similar archetypal quality, which I also try to play with, so it has a similar kind of status. So the selection of them is to do with how strongly they carry their initial meaning into the room, and how i can then play with them. As you say they’re quite nakedly and unashamedly there to serve their purpose in the show. So the selection of them follows the need for them in the show, but that in turn follows from what happens when i put on a dress and a wig. I should say I’ve been working with a really brilliant designer called Paul Burgess who’s helped me formulate this way of thinking about it all – but that i think there’s another step to this process before the piece is finished and i’m not sure what that is yet… Paul pointed out to me that normally he would help to generate a kind of design world in which a play can take place, but that this is impossible in this show since everything needs to come from Travesty’s world – she literally carries the play with her in a bag and then throws it all over the stage at the start. So i think this creates an interesting problem for a designer, and it’s one i think we’re still in the process of working through… I also think this is what gives it that quality of not being to tell what came first – the play or the objects – they’re quite intimately intertwined…


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52 Conversations #8 Alvin Chiam

The 8th, also very long conversation is with the brilliant performer and teacher Alvin Chiam. We talk about (amongst many other things) Philippe Gaulier (a lot), how discounted discounted spam, fear and bravery, beauty, ways of being on stage, shitty English theatre Alvin has seen, some gossip about some people you probably don’t know, teaching, being in crisis and the flop, sharing playfulness, opening doors for people, comfort, games, the wrong audience, and London.

I had to cut a bunch out because Alvin is indiscreet…

An explanation  of the project can be found [...here...].

Right click and choose “save link as…” to download the file and listen later, or left click to listen in your browser.

[…Alvin Chiam 52 Conversations #8 part1…]

[…Alvin Chiam 52 Conversations #8 part2…]

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52 Conversations #6 Tassos Stevens

The 6th, very long, (and very late because it took me so long to edit) conversation is with the loquacious Tassos Stevens, director of Coney. It’s involves quite a lot of wine and whisky, so if you like conversations that get significantly less eloquent and coherent as they go along, then this one’s for you… We talk about (amongst many other things) participation, the experience of going to the theatre, the practice of everyday life, what stories the theatre tells us, the books on my bookshelf, workplace resistance, gifts, being a wolf, city boys, power, imagining the audience, and i drunkenly and shamefacedly come out as a Marxist without being able to articulate what that means.

Tassos also told a very long and totally amazing story which we had to cut out to protect the innocent. Sorry.

An explanation  of the project can be found [...here...].

Right click and choose “save link as…” to download the file and listen later, or left click to listen in your browser.

[…Tassos Stevens 52 Conversations #6 part1…]

[…Tassos Stevens 52 Conversations #6 part2…]

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