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Trigger warnings – a matter of access

I wouldn’t normally feel the need to justify the use of trigger warnings in theatre, if it weren’t for the fact that recently I’ve had some short online conversations where people didn’t understand or agree with me that a Fringe show I saw this month containing references to suicide, self harm, representations of child abuse, sexual abuse of those who can’t meaningfully consent and so on, needed trigger warnings (of which it had zero).

Now, because they were short conversations – I engaged with replies, but didn’t really get anything in response (either agreeing or continuing to disagree) – I don’t know the full range of reasons people might disagree with the above, but I feel compelled to at least spell out what I think are undeniable reasons for being conscious of trigger warnings.

*Trigger warnings are essential to making theatre accessible*

Now, the above might seem anti-intuitive, if you interpret trigger warnings as things that tell people to ‘stay away’ if they don’t want to see x/y/z. I’d argue trigger warnings are tools given to audience members ahead of seeing a show that enable them to do one of the following:

  • Avoid seeing the show if they don’t think the content will be suitable for them to watch
  • Ensure they attend the show with someone who can act as support if necessary (this might be a hand to hold during the show, someone to speak to afterwards, someone to let them know when it’s okay to look back at the stage, someone to help them leave if necessary – to generally accompany, support and aid if needed)
  • Potentially buy tickets in areas that make it easier to leave and re-enter the space (prices and venue flexibility allowing)
  • Choose on the night whether they’re in a suitable position to watch the show, or whether to wait for a different day (ticket availability allowing)
  • Prepare coping mechanisms for when they see the show and the immediate period after it
  • And, I’m sure, many other routes of action (I’m listing any I can think of and some instances I’ve seen in action)

So it’s not about telling people to stay away from shows. It’s about enabling people to enjoy shows without fear of being triggered and undergoing serious emotional and mental distress; in my mind, nothing’s more likely to prevent someone from going to the theatre than being unexpectedly triggered by a show and left in a position where they don’t know if another show is going to put them through the same experience.

Access isn’t just about being able to get people in the room to see your show, it’s about them being able to enjoy/understand/appreciate the show – and if you put them through significant emotional and mental distress during it, there’s no way the remainder of the show is genuinely accessible to them.

Now, I know trigger warnings are difficult for certain styles of performance – a lot of what I’m working in right now is improv-based, and we don’t always know precisely what’s coming up. But there are at least other measures in this case that can be implemented – recently I’ve been researching a lot of guidelines on how to talk appropriately about a variety of potentially triggering subjects (suicide, self-harm, domestic abuse, and suchlike) to at least make sure that if improv ever drifts into mentioning such subjects, suitable, respectful and non-sensational language is used, only a non-damaging level of detail is given, responsibility is shown to be firmly with aggressors and not their targets, and suchlike. It’s been incredibly revealing and already come in great use.

There are other arguments used against trigger warnings I’ve heard – that it risks spoiler-ing the show (to which I’d respond: in any good show with moving performances, creative direction, interesting design and skilful writing, knowing a general detail about its content shouldn’t render seeing it pointless; also, trigger warnings do not tell you exactly what happens to whom, and when, under what circumstances – they do not give away the full plot), that part of theatre’s role is to expose the audience to trauma (to which I’d respond: theatre can present trauma but shouldn’t risk traumatising its audience and trigger warnings don’t prohibit the presentation of trauma onstage but simply allow audiences to make informed judgements about what to watch) and that they’re the start of a slippery slope (to which I respond: slippery slope is a fallacy. All it takes is, fundamentally, common sense, empathy and the will to look outwards to others’ needs and experiences, to judge trigger warnings appropriately).

A note: the Fringe show I saw that started these conversations was a piece of horror theatre. I do not consider this to excuse companies from posting trigger warnings. Yes, I expect to be shocked during a horror – I expect jump scares, I expect special effects, I expect gore, I expect someone to die in some fashion – but the fact is a show can still be an effective piece of horror theatre without any of the subject matter mentioned above. So it’s not a given that that will be included and audiences deserve the basic respect of being forewarned. (And: knowing these things beforehand wouldn’t have impacted the show’s ability to scare. The atmosphere created by the design, performance, direction etc would still have held.)

So, naturally, I don’t think any anti-trigger-warning-arguments bear up. I think it should be shouted more loudly that trigger warnings are a matter of access – a lack of them makes it impossible for some people to safely and easily watch theatre. So I deeply hope I never see another example of them being so desperately needed and so painfully absent from performance.

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Why accessible performance matters

Originally written 26th July 2018.

Adventurers Wanted starts a week today. We’re doing another marathon-style show at Edinburgh Fringe (albeit only 100hrs this year, rather than last year’s sanity-stretching 250hrs…) – a show that’s simultaneously unwieldy, stressful, difficult to describe, and joyful, heartening and inspiring. There are so many things I could say about the show, but right now I want to talk about one specific thing: access.

Adventurers Wanted was born of a very idealistic vision – of people telling stories together in some supportive, creative, warm and collaborative utopia, that would be devoid of stress and simply happen with the force of positive thinking. It did manage to be some of those things – an overwhelming number of last year’s hours felt like a tribe forming around a shared interest and goal, bonding and having somewhere welcoming to play with each other.

It’s important to me that Adventurers Wanted is as accessible as possible – from keeping ticket prices low (£5 max), to livestreaming the show (for people who simply can’t be in Edinburgh), to providing a BSL-interpreted hour each day, to making the show naturally accessible for audio description users, to having relaxed performances, to having braille dice and screenreader-compatible character sheets if a blind or visually impaired person wants to play – and so on.

I could list the different things access means to me, its definitions, or how we make it work for our Fringe shows – but right now I want to say why it matters to me. Because I’ve spoken to people over the past year and some of the conversations – from people who said of last year’s all-relaxed-performances-show* ‘do you really need that many?’, to others who’ve said of our spend on BSL interpreters ‘I would never have thought to budget for that’ – have shown how far standard practice is from putting access front and centre. And I think that’s exactly where it should be.

I’m aware of privileges upon privileges upon privileges when I say that theatre has never felt inaccessible to me. My parents were able/willing to pay for Saturday drama classes, I went to schools where drama – from classes to school plays to theatre trips – was a significant part of the curriculum, I was regularly taken to the local Theatre Royal when I was younger, even if I haven’t always been watching women onstage, people in shows have more often than not looked like me, I’ve never had any access needs that a typical show doesn’t meet – and so on.

[The closest theatre’s come to feeling inaccessible to me, or excluding me, is West End-level ticket prices (I simply see more Fringe theatre, and can afford an annual spend on a pricey ticket if I really want) and the sense of bisexuality being invisible onstage. But I count those as pretty damn minor in the overall scheme of things.]

Theatre has always been, for me, somewhere to go and have fun, see stories, explore feelings and ideas, to watch or participate in, to relax and enjoy yourself, to watch characters and imagine yourself in their place, to empathise with people. And my life has been better for having that. It seems saccharine and sentimental as I type it (and I’m massively averse to the saccharine and the sentimental), but it’s true.

That is, largely, why I hate the thought that theatre is not that for so many people. It excludes them – whether that’s by making work that they can’t enjoy because there isn’t BSL or subtitling or audio description, or because the ticket price is so high that there’s no way (especially on top of transport and other related costs) they can afford it, or because theatre spaces themselves have not been buildings in which they’ve been made to feel welcome and comfortable and at ease. Fundamentally, it excludes them because it’s not been made (the production, the building, the choices on programming, etc) with them in mind.

I am not pretending or claiming Adventurers Wanted is perfect in this regard – our Edinburgh shows are currently far more accessible than our London shows; we don’t currently offer subtitles because costs meant we made a decision on what to offer for hearing-impaired or deaf audiences (subtitles or BSL); in terms of people not feeling excluded by seeing themselves onstage, our team and extended player network is not as diverse as we want to be. But we are constantly thinking about these things. We provide what we can and we look for where we’re currently falling short and where we can ensure as many people as possible can have access to, and enjoy, the show. And it gives me joy to learn of new ways to do this and meet more people who want to do this and welcome ever-more people into the game.

I’m aware, whilst writing this – I’m a white, middle class person who doesn’t identify as disabled. I am not trying to be a mouthpiece or spokesperson for people who benefit from accessible work – I don’t want to stand in front of them or try to replace them in conversation. I just wanted to get down in writing why I think this matters and I want to see more happen to make shows accessible – in the many different ways that that can happen.

[What’ll help more accessible work happen is if the accessible work that exists is supported – you can use the Fringe site to search for them, but to kick it off…]

Click here for shows with relaxed performances.

Click here for shows with audio description.

Click here for shows with captioning.

Click here for shows with BSL interpretation.

Click here for shows with hearing loops.

Click here for shows in wheelchair accessible venues with wheelchair accessible toilets.

Click here for shows that are accessible to non-English speakers.

The UK Games Expo: a game

Originally written 4th June 2018.

I’m trying to process everything I’ve taken in over the last few days at UKGE – it was my first time visiting the Expo and also the first time I’ve engaged with such a wide variety of games and different people who play them, learning more about peoples’ experiences beyond the network of people I play with in London.

This is all going to be quite disorganised – there’s no overall message I want to push. But the whole weekend has made me want to be more creative, whether it’s regular writing challenges or thinking about the kind of scenarios I include in my own games, or simply playing a wider variety of games. So what better way to start than trying to write this blog-post in game format?

Expo: Reflections*

You will need:

1 player

A coin

The internet (well, this specific page of it)

Optional: a drink. The drinking version of the game is very similar to the non-drinking version of the game, except you drink whenever ‘…’ is written in the game rules or flavour text or more than one set of ‘()’ or ‘[]’ are used in the same paragraph. Or you can just drink when there’s way too much punctuation. It’s not like this is a serious game anyway.

You are: an attendee of the UKGE. It’s your first time and you have absolutely no clue what to expect.

Pick a character trait or feature:

Bisexual

You’ll feel frustrated at one point during the weekend when you can find stickers to add to your Expo pass that say ‘gay’ or ‘ally’ but none acknowledging bi people (or any others, for that matter). You will take one of each as a compromise… -1 from your visibility stat.

During a playtest for a game, the GM will respond to questions about inclusivity in the new edition with a noncommittal answer that also ends with not wanting to go too far and prompt questions from players of ‘why does everyone have to be [gay/bi/trans/etc]’. -3 from your perception stat – you’ll be too distracted thinking about this for a lot of the weekend.

Female

You will note two games that, upon close inspection, feature either artwork that highly sexualised female characters (with impractical and nonsensical clothing) or seem to base entire character classes around female sexuality. +2 to your speed, as you’ll be able to pass by certain stands pretty quickly.

Whilst the gender split of attendees and exhibitors will be far from 50/50, you’ll be heartened by a) the ‘how to start GMing’ panel which will be comprised of two white women and one black man, thus helping to represent the increased presence of non-cis-white-men in the gaming community and b) the female exhibitors and game-makers you meet over the weekend. +2 to confidence.

RPG player

You’ll feel a little bit lost amongst all of the board games and card games – RPGs (at least as you know them) are in the minority. +3 to knowledge – you still won’t know *everything*, but wow are you going to learn a lot about a lot of different new games.

Whilst being led through a demo of an RPG, you will realise that that game mechanics are being demonstrated, but not how to role-play/the role-play element of the game. -1 from linguistics – you’re going to struggle articulating how this makes you feel, at least succinctly so.

Theatre-maker

You’ll realise – particularly during the ‘How to start GMing’ panel – how much performance, role-play and theatricality are features of your games and how much that defines your entire approach to gaming. +2 to self-consciousness.

You will grasp onto what improvisation, role-play and storytelling elements of games are available, even if the game is a card game but the rules briefly mention that the winner of a round is ‘spoken of highly by the princess at breakfast’. +3 to nonsense for all the breakfast chat you drunkenly come up with.

Round one: Spend approximately £60 on new games and dice.

Round two: Flip the coin.

Heads: you had an amazing time – plenty to thinks about, elements of the industry you want to be a part of changing, a sense of where to look for cool new things or collaborators, a faint dissatisfaction with theatre and its seemingly lack of a parallel to an event such as this and a desire to make lots more work that is centred around social interaction, having fun and encouraging people’s creativity.

Tails: as above.

The coin lands on its edge and stands upright: you fail to win a raffle for a gaming table that costs thousands of pounds. A dark cloud hangs over you for the rest of your days.

*to be read – whether aloud or in your head – in as dramatic a way as possible, as though ‘Reflections’ had the same moody weight as ‘Revelations’/‘Origins’/any single word that follows a colon in a game’s title

Why, and how, D&D makes better theatre-makers

Originally written 4th July 2017.

[Oh, you thought I would write one D&D-related blog post and leave it at that? Oh no…]

Beyond the fact I think D&D counts as theatre (and amazing theatre at that), I’ve noticed more and more when playing the different ways in which I think it can make people better at making theatre – the good habits and skills that it encourages to make people better performers, collaborators, editors, and creators in general. So here’s a rundown of why I think, if you make theatre, you should give D&D a go:

Killing babies and letting go

When playing D&D, you regularly think of things you’d like to try and do – things that would be cool, or funny, or hopefully emotionally cathartic. (For instance: stealing an unconscious character’s flying shoes so you can pour boiling oil over your enemies from a height and deal out some medieval-style justice. Some of my characters get a bit brutal.) However, as much as you might get focused on that idea, it’s not guaranteed you’ll get to even try it – the character might wake before you can steal the shoes, the shoes might not fit you, they may not work on you for some reason. You soon adjust to the fact that ideas have to be cast aside almost as soon as they’re thought up, and being okay with letting things go and not clinging to them is a very good thing to learn.

Putting the character first

Why some ideas have to be abandoned is almost as important as getting used to doing so. D&D trains you to put the character first – maybe you’ve thought of a hilarious comeback to someone’s comment, but your character doesn’t have that sense of humour. A D&D game is only as strong as its characters, since the story is generated out of characters’ choices and the group’s dynamics. You’re forced to be as honest as possible about what the character would do – it’s not about you showing off some skill or talent (as can sometimes happen in performances), it’s about what’s truthful to the character. You might want to keep a magic talisman so you can keep casting cool spells in the game, but if the character is in a situation where they’re compelled to break it: it’s got to be broken.

Sharing the space

D&D is about collaboratively telling a story – typically with friends, and the aim is everyone having a good time. It’s not just about one person having a good time. You have to genuinely tell the story with and alongside everyone else, allow space for other people’s ideas and build upon them. You have to be alert to others – if you don’t then the story suffers, as does everyone’s enjoyment of the game. I can think of few other activities that train you to be so aware of how much people are engaging with what’s going on, and the position you’re taking in amongst it all. Part of this is also making sure you’re not trying to control what’s happening, that you’re allowing space for surprises and new things to happen as well – not stifling creativity by dictating everything. Another part of it is trusting those you’re telling the story with.

Everyone an artist

D&D literature is written how I wish theatre literature was. It perfectly fits into the ‘everyone an artist, everyone a scientist’ model of thinking. It’s untimidating, clear, friendly, and written in plain English, taking something that’s a highly creative, sometimes mathematically-minded endeavour, and gives straightforward advice and aids. It constantly emphasises the importance of using and focusing on what entertains and interests you. Despite DMing being a mix of writing, performing, directing and showrunning, the handbooks for D&D make it seem accessible and easy. The attitude is one of: you’re totally able to do this, you simply haven’t done it yet. And if we were able to talk about theatre in this way more, I think that would be a brilliant thing.

Playing the moment, not the end

One of my favourite theatre quotes is from a very old review about an actress playing Joan of Arc, who ‘came on half-burnt’. in other words, from her first entrance, she was playing the ending. It’s one of the things that frustrates me most in performances, where an actors’ knowledge of what’s coming up influences what the character does (however consciously or subconsciously this might happen). D&D takes away that foreknowledge – you’re forced to play precisely what’s happening in the moment. The flamboyance and confidence with which a character might produce an array of glowing stones and balletically spiral them down an underground cavern isn’t tempered or diminished by any awareness that doing exactly this is going to draw hordes of giant spiders to the group – because it was impossible to pre-empt. With random dice rolls dictating so much of what happens, any potential safety net – anything players might do to try and control events, any chance of predicting what’ll come up – disappears.

Empathy to the extreme

It might sound like an obvious point to make, that D&D is one big exercise in flexing your empathy muscles (something useful for all manner of theatremakers), but it regularly pushes you into scenarios that are far beyond anything you might normally imagine. Someone whose life has been dedicated to helping others and avoiding violence is kidnapped and taken to an underground world inhabited by a ruthless, cruel, sadistic society; someone else is held by another person for the first time in their thirty-three-year-long life. D&D constantly pushes your empathy to strange and unusual places, which is what elevates it beyond other roleplaying or performance contexts.

Ultimately, Dungeons & Dragons – with its mixture of improv, dice-dictated randomness, character-led storytelling and collaboration (bolstered by its straightforward, welcoming and supportive guides) makes you better at telling stories – whether you’re an actor, director, writer or something else entirely. What I think is at the core of the many good things about D&D is how playing it encourages you not to think about yourself, your wants, desires or focus in the storytelling process – but instead about the character, and about the other players. When something only exists in a collective imagination in the way that D&D does, you have no other option than to be outward-looking.

Dungeons & Dragons: the best kind of theatre

Originally written 6th June 2017.

Early last year, I was curious about Dungeons & Dragons. It’s not taken long for it to get under my skin, and taken me from causal fan, to regular viewer of podcasts and livestreams, to player, to Dungeon Master, to co-producer of a show consisting 250 hour-long tabletop roleplaying game inspired by it. That show, Adventurers Wanted, is listed in the ‘theatre’ section of the Edinburgh Fringe programme, which might raise a few eyebrows and questions. However, my experience of D&D absolutely justifies treating the game as theatre – and amazing theatre at that. Here’s why:

  • Come for the story, stay for the characters

I do personally adore epic narratives. I’ve played in games where characters have died battling gods only to be resurrected in mechanical bodies; where entire planes of existence have collapsed in on themselves; where someone breaking a cursed item has resulted in them transforming into a giant and raining down meteors. And all of these have been described with such vividness by the Dungeon Masters at the time that it’s been effortless to imagine it all.

Yet – whilst the outlandish, exhilarating, bizarre and brilliant storylines that only D&D’s fantasy world can offer are what first caught my eye – it’s the characters and their relationships that keep me coming back. As players get better at roleplaying their distinctive characters, and the relationships between characters become deeper and more defined. People’s backstories are gradually exposed, their complexity revealed, moments of contact between characters catch you unawares, or rifts between them become unexpectedly complicated. It’s always struck me how other entertainment media will often sell a project on the basis of compelling characters – but how often have you seen a theatre marketing campaign focus on that over narrative, spectacle, themes or the team involved?

  • Making whatever you can imagine with whatever you can find

Remember the character I mentioned that died battling gods and was then resurrected in a mechanical body? Well, that happens to be a character I play – and, ever since her resurrection, whenever I speak ‘as’ that character whilst playing a game, I speak into a mug to alter my voice (yeah, like how some people do Bane). It was an easy option that I knew would always be to hand during a game. I play it sincerely, and everyone playing in that game with me treats it sincerely, and it’s a clear and vivid trigger that helps us imagine the seven-foot-tall ‘robot’ I’m essentially pretending to be.

This isn’t the only example of a resourceful attitude to props or costume when the game calls for it. When a player in one of the the games I’m in picks anything up, throws, flips and catches it, everyone around the table knows that his character’s just showing off with a sword. Blanket throws wrapped around people have become blood-soaked altar coverings that allow characters to impersonate evils gods. My soft spot for medieval theatre practice is nicely indulged by D&D.

  • No one person knows what will happen, because everyone tells the story together

Yes, dice rolls and their inherent randomness are a big mechanic of D&D, and you could say that they alone make for the utterly unpredictable and regularly surprising events that pepper the stories told in D&D games. But there’s another and more brilliant reason for this: whilst the Dungeon Master might write the game, creating a world for a story to happen in (often worlds of stunning detail and depth), they have to respond to what the players do.

To me, D&D consists of friends gathering in each others’ houses, telling each other stories and making each other laugh. Everything about D&D is social – you can’t play it on your own, and everyone has to work together in some way to bring it to life. Because of the flexibility of the game, different players end up bringing different things to the story and the game can play up to what individuals offer. Everyone makes the story together and everyone’s contribution to it (provided they at least follow the rules!) is valid; everyone gets a say in the story that’s told.

  • Everything that happens is exactly what’s necessary to tell the story

D&D games can be so much more than people simply sat around a table, rolling dice and describing what imagined characters do. The moment that maps and minis can’t quite capture exactly how a group of characters have fallen over the lip of a volcano and are holding onto each other to survive, an alternative has to be found (in this case, three of us lying on the floor, grabbing onto each other until our characters get out of it somehow). When ‘I try to convince this enemy to become our ally’ doesn’t really capture enough detail, players can give the most astonishing improvised speeches that leave everyone present stunned. Yet, at times, all that you need is a certain look – a raised eyebrow, a feigned smile, a hint of hesitation – from across the table, to know what’s happening with one character in a story.

People instinctively act out what feels right to act out, creating a mix of described, imagined and performed action that feels entirely natural, giving everyone enough to understand and engage with what’s happening but making sure everyone’s imagination gets a workout. If theatre’s a collective act of suspending disbelief, I can’t think of a better example than this.

  • Chasing what feels good

And do you know what’s the best thing about Dungeons & Dragons? Every time I’ve played it, everyone present has known that what they’re doing could be seen as silly, childish, nerdy, something that grown adults aren’t really meant to do. But we don’t give a damn and throw ourselves into it regardless, because it’s genuinely a joyful way to spend time with friends, and results in stories that are exhilarating to tell and to be told. And it would be amazing if more theatre felt like that.

Why ‘casting the best actor for the role’ is a terrible argument

Originally written 24th December 2016.

This is not a blog post about The Print Room’s production of In The Depths of Dead Love. It’s a blog post about a specific argument that I’ve seen/heard countless times in discussions about integrated/diverse casting (that I have only ever heard used in defence of non-diverse productions, or in opposition to casting quotas or more generally the arguments of those advocating for diversity) that needs to be dropped.

I am genuinely sick of the notion that we should just ‘cast the best actor for a role’. Let me explain why.

I understand what this argument is meant to encapsulate: merit has no ethnicity. Merit has no sexuality. Merit has no gender. Merit is blind to whether someone is from a minority or underrepresented group or not. It makes perfect sense to cast on merit alone (and surely give audience members a better experience in the process, getting to watch the best performances possible) – who on earth would oppose a meritocracy?

It’s not a meritocratic stance. It’s bias masquerading as meritocracy.

[I’m likely to get a little ex-analytical/linguistic-philosophy-student during the following. Apologies.]

Let’s break the notion of ‘casting the best actor for a role’ down. Either ‘best’ means simply ‘most skilled’ (a fuzzy notion at best, but for the sake of argument we’ll pretend it’s quantifiable – you can at least tell the different between very good acting and very poor acting) or it means ‘most suited to the role’, which at least contains some echoes of the meritocracy angle, since the actor has to be capable of fulfilling the demands that the role makes on them.

So, ‘best’ as ‘most skilled’: you’ll never see *all actors in existence* for a role. So, by necessity, directors* are limited to casting the ‘most skilled actor seen in audition’. This is where the argument I’ve previously heard against the notion of ‘casting the best actor for a role’ comes in: the audition process itself can be hugely biased. How diverse was the group seen for a role or production? What efforts were made to make sure it was clear to actors and agents that submissions from a wide range of performers were sought? (I’ve spoken to actors in the past who now take a lack of ethnicity listed on a casting breakdown to mean ‘white’. Immediately after hearing this, I added a sentence to the top of all my casting callouts specifying that a lack of given ethnicity/gender/disability/etc meant everyone was welcome to apply for audition, and noticed an impact instantly.) What – if any – steps were taken to genuinely find a diverse group of actors, from which the ‘best’ could be identified? Because if steps were not taken, and if those auditioned are already an imbalanced or entirely homogenous group – then the idea that the system being used is a meritocratic one falls apart.

[There’s also the fact that actors improve with practice – new roles, new challenges, working with new people, all informs and develops an actor’s craft. There is more depth to this angle of argument, as I’ve heard from others who I believe can articulate it better than myself. Plus, I want to make a different, additional, argument…]

So, best as ‘most suited to the role’: ‘the role’ is not a fixed, unchangable, objective thing. It’s a combination of information given in the script, and what a director does with that script. (Yes, there are performances other than scripted ones, sake of ease…) A script may offer details about a character’s gender, age, ethnicity – but, of course, just because a character has a trait or identity does not mean the actor playing that character must have it in order to be ‘most suited’ to the role. Cases where unavoidable restrictions on performers who are allowed to play a given role are, to my mind, rare (I’m thinking the Becketts and the Harwoods).

Benedict Andrews’ Stella Dubois is not the same role as Sean Holmes’ or Ellen McDougall’s or Sarah Frankcom’s or…Those Stellas all occupy different theatrical worlds, different performance styles, different contexts. If you took one of those actresses and transplanted her and her performance into another production of Streetcar then it would suddenly feel out of place, inappropriate, misjudged, entirely possibly miscast.

This might only seem applicable to a certain type of production – something stylised, director-led, a production where a director’s determined to ‘put their mark’ on it. However you choose to describe it. But deciding to stage Streetcar’s card games *as card games*, rather than, say, the aggressive consumption of watermelons, is no less a choice. It is still a choice that a director has made about the kind of production, the style of performance, the exact theatrical world for this play – all of which affect any given ‘role’ in the play, as they have to cohere with those elements. Choosing to cast Stella in one way is no less a choice than choosing to cast her in any other way.

So, ‘best suited to the role’, becomes ‘best suited to the role in this production’. The actor who best fulfils the production’s requirements in terms of matching/reflecting its artistic aims, the skill required to tackle the individual part, and the director’s creative ideals. For a cast devoid of diversity to all individually be the ‘best actors for the roles’, it’s necessary that the director has decided that such a cast best serves what they want to say, what they want to achieve with the production, and what kind of experience they want to give audiences. I doubt whether a director who cares about this industry, who cares about fair and equal representation of a population, who cares about questioning their assumptions, who cares about challenging bias, would make that decision.

So: if ‘we should just cast the best actors for the role’ is used as a retort to those who criticise productions for a lack of diversity, what it implies is a cast with minimal/zero diversity is the best to fulfil all aims of said production, aims which are intrinsically tied to an artistic vision, an artistic vision which must consequently be accepting of a lack of diversity.

The above doesn’t mean I’m opposed to every single production with a cast devoid of diversity, before clever counter-examples are offered (hell, the most recent thing I staged myself was a one-on-one piece that I performed, making the entire cast white, middle-class, cisgender, etc) – every argument that’s ever made has to be tempered by some sound judgement on individual cases. Also, I don’t believe or think that any of what I’ve said above means a lowering of standards regarding the quality of performances/skilfulness of actors. There is no dearth of incredible talent out there, possessed by a diverse group of people – it simply needs to be recognised (where the arguments re auditions come back in).

‘Casting the best actors for the role’ is used to try and claim meritocracy. All it does is hide assumptions about what kind of theatre truly is best.

*At times in this post, for the sake of brevity, I’ll say ‘directors’ where it could equally be ‘casting director’ or some other member of the creative/production team making the decision. Also, you know, I’m a director, so this is the angle I come at things from.

**Some might say a director need only be concerned with the story a play tells, rather than the story a production tells – a) I disagree and b) one of the reasons I disagree is because I don’t think the two are separable.

The wooden o

Originally written 25th October 2016.

[Really, I should be thinking about other things right now – projects, soon-to-be-projects, sleeping, eating properly, etc – but I won’t clear space in my head unless I write all of this]

I know what anyone else with an internet connection knows about today’s announcement regarding Emma Rice’s position as Artistic Director of the Globe. I don’t have any privileged knowledge or connection to the theatre, so I have to take that information at face value. This isn’t (precisely) about those given reasons, anyway. It’s about something different.

The only show I’ve seen at the Globe since Rice took up her position was her production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I think it’s the fifth show I’ve ever seen at the theatre (two being school trips around a decade ago). A major difference between this production and the others was that I was excitedabout it. The others I was, at the most, curious about. Maybe I hadn’t been to the Globe in years and felt an obligation – more as someone working in theatre than a punter – to touch base with such a significant venue. Maybe a friend had a spare ticket. Maybe my teachers thought I should go*. But A Midsummer Night’s Dream was the only production I was excited about going to, that I booked a ticket for months in advance, that had caught my eye well before its first performance.

And that was, primarily, an excitement to see Emma Rice’s production.

When I think of Dream, I think of Puck’s ‘Clap me! Just you!’. I think of Meow Meow descending from the sky with glorious excess. I think of the perfect way that Bottom checked his watch. I think of (shocker, artificial lighting) the ‘Rock The Ground’ neon sign. I think of looking up at the spheres and whatever-the-word-is-for-them drifting in the wind above me and thinking ‘Christ that’s beautiful, why have I never seen something like that here before?**’ I think of a celebration and an exploitation (in the best sense of the word) of what the Globe can do, how the theatre can feel, what it can offer.

The thing is, I go to the theatre as both and audience member and a theatre-maker. They’re hard to divorce – and it might be part of the reason that I’ve had this very specific, what might seem a-bit-too emotional response to this news. Both as an audience member and a theatre-maker, I really enjoyed Dream (it wasn’t – to my tastes – flawless, but Christ it was a brilliantly entertaining, fun, warm, welcoming and raucous few hours) – even as someone who has a pretty major fondness for ‘shared light’ productions (to be honest, at no point did I feel like the lighting utilised in Dream divorced the actors and audience, that it directly contradicted what ‘shared light’ can do in unifying the spaces that both groups occupy). I thought it was a brilliant Shakespeare, a brilliant theatrical production, a brilliant piece of entertainment.

Hearing that the board apparently find Rice’s methods inauthentic, or not apt for the Globe, or misaligned with the Globe’s aims and intentions – what that says to me is that I am not welcome there. If I think a show like that has a place there, I am wrong. If I think that is a way to treat Shakespeare, I am in error. If I enjoyed that production, I do not belong at the Globe. 

That is the feeling the announcement leaves me with.***

I’d only recently become properly excited about the Globe. As somewhere to see shows. As somewhere to one day make them. As a place that has the potential to offer a unique audience experience. I’ve no doubt that my feelings are tinged with the fact that I’m a young(ish – Railcard’s run out so I’ve no official proof of youth anymore) female director who enjoys Rice’s work, both as a punter and a professional, I feel more of a connection to her than I do to most artistic directors. It also doubles-down the sense of no longer being welcome – it’s a lot harder to imagine myself one day behind the scenes at the theatre, now that someone whom I artistically admire has been treated this way.

Other people will write eloquently about historical accuracy, about the Globe as theatre vs Globe as museum, about Rice’s previous work – both before and during her time at the theatre – and the responses to her first season, so I will leave that to others. What I am trying so hard to articulate is the sense of the board – however consciously or unconsciously – saying, through this action ‘Oh, you thought the Globe could be for you? Well, of course not – the Shakespeare that makes you excited isn’t proper.’

And yes, the natural response is to go: don’t listen to them. And I wouldn’t, if they weren’t the same people with the power to determine the Artistic Director of the Globe.

*That said, I did enjoy those other shows – but I never looked forward to them, they never caught my imagination beforehand in the way Dream did.

**Okay, maybe I would have if I’d been to the Globe more before, I don’t know if they have previously featured similar hanging items over the audience – but the theatre’s previous programme hadn’t brought me in more times. This production did.

***Well, also anger, and sadness, and…you get the idea though.