I’m trying to get a few thoughts down each week on my childcare days, while Arthur naps. They’ll be brief and may end abruptly.
Ten years ago almost to the day I saw a show performed in my own accent, for the first time in my life, and it blew my head off. I wrote this piece about it for the Guardian, back when they used to publish writing about theatre. I look back on it now and think that the experience may have been one factor in a total transformation in my career that took place around then. It’s not long after that that I began work on my first solo show - somehow it was now ok to sound like this.
Ten years before that, I was at university, and well on the way to having lost my (working-class, Teesside) accent. At some level I must have been ashamed to come from where I come from, and I felt that in order to get anywhere in this industry I needed to pretend to be middle-class. That show isn’t the only thing that made me feel like I was legitimate as I was, but it was a big factor. It was more than ten years before my accent made its way home, and even now in this industry I often feel unsure it’s ok to sound like this.
Representation matters, and our stages will always be peopled by the same faces and voices if the same faces and voices are the only ones we represent. But representation is limited by access. Starting a career in theatre relies on often years of unpaid labour, and if you don’t have a laundry list of privileges you’re unlikely to survive this war of attrition.
I say all of this knowing that I’ve scraped through this far no doubt thanks in part to the fact that my lack of class privilege is offset by my possession of every other privilege there is. And I scraped through this far only barely: I’ve written before about the experience of being heavily in debt, which is for many the only way through that initial bottleneck. Perhaps the most startling aspect of that period of my life is something I skirted around in that blogpost: due to the extent of the financial difficulties I was in, and a gap in a precarious work schedule, I ended up homeless for six months. In that blogpost I artfully describe us as living “a semi-nomadic lifestyle”. What that means is we didn’t have anywhere to live. At thirty, with success in the industry behind us, we couldn’t afford it.
At the time I rationalised this as making sense in the situation, and in that blogpost you can see that several years later I still bought this rationalisation. But homelessness is homelessness: we hopped from spare room to spare room, but we didn’t have anywhere to live. We were never on the streets, but I look back on this period ten years on and my sense memory is all about how exhausting and stressful it all was.
The other thing I didn’t piece together at that time, is that it’s just a couple of months after we found somewhere to live (a cheap room in a shared house in Armley, west Leeds) that I saw that show performed in Teesside accents. And I didn’t have to pretend any more.
This industry is disgracefully difficult, and I don’t see it getting easier any time soon. But the least we can do is make sure everyone’s on stage, and that we deny no-one the means of getting there. And this goes way beyond money. The way we structure access to our industry, and the ways this inhibits real access, go way beyond that. But I’ll have to talk about that another time, because the baby’s waking up.
UPDATE: since publishing this, the Barbican have issued a handsome apology to the many artists concerned, and committed to providing individual feedback to all those who would like it. It just goes to show that anger and frustration collectively voiced can lead to change. I'm leaving the post up unedited, because the points all still hold, and this is far from being an isolated incident. Capitalism is reducible to nothing if not shitty behaviour, to the extent that the shitty behavers sometimes need it pointed out to even notice that there are alternatives. (Some of you will say that this is generous. But in this case, given the fulsomeness and immediacy of the apology, I'm ready to be generous.)
Again and again yesterday, I saw screen shots of the same three-line rejection email. It came, said multiple tweets, from a “large well-funded organisation”,* who’d advertised an open opportunity. These artists had worked hard on their applications and in return they got three lines. And I’m not just saying they worked hard: one young artist I follow on twitter said his application had taken three full working days. That sounds implausible, but look at the replies and you see he’s no outlier: applying to this opportunity took work. Replying to these applications, though, that took no work. Three lines. In exchange for three days.
Then today I saw a similar tweet about a totally separate opportunity from a different “large well-funded organisation”. If anything today’s was worse. The artist in question had not only received a curt rejection with no opportunity for feedback, but she’d also been asked for feedback on the application process. You couldn’t make it up. These are not one-off cockups; this is a massive systemic problem.
Now I appreciate that if you get hundreds of applications, then replying with individual feedback takes time. But if you’ve read the application, and decided to reject it, you’ve made that decision for a reason. It might take a few more minutes to commit that reason to your screen, but those few minutes are nothing compared to the days spent by the applicant. It is literally the bare minimum.
Organisations like these want to demonstrate ways in which they’re supporting artists with these opportunities. But their actions reveal that what they’re actually involved in isn’t support, it’s retail. If I go into JD, I don’t have to explain to all the trainers I didn’t buy exactly how they could be a better fit. But artists are not just another pair of shoes you don’t want. Continually putting ourselves up for sale shreds us, and the least you can do is acknowledge our humanity.
Organisations get away with this because the successful artists will be grateful for the opportunity and who knows, it might be brilliant and well-supported. So they’ll shout about it, and big it up, and everyone will forget, again, that supporting that small number of people involved treating a much larger number of people like unwanted footwear.
Organisations advertising these sorts of opportunities should be prepared to offer individual feedback to everyone who wants it, as a condition of offering the opportunity. If that means fewer opportunities and more humanity then so be it, but honestly, it’s reading the applications that takes time and effort, not writing individual responses. That takes more time, of course, but not so much more. I always try to give some sort of individual response to everyone who’s applied for every opportunity I’ve offered; if people ask for more feedback, I give it. (I’m sure I fuck up in this, and if that’s you, er, I welcome your feedback.) I am not a ‘large well-funded organisation’. I am a time-poor freelancer whose every minute spent giving feedback on something is a minute not being paid for something else.
If I can do it, a ‘large well-funded organisation’ can.
Which means they’re choosing not to.
* it's the Barbican
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will