Theatre has never been a safe space

Mike Pence attended a performance of the extraordinary – and deeply political – hip-hop musical Hamilton last night. The cast and crew had been told in advance that he would attend, and chose to use their platform to speak out about their alarm at the way the country has responded to his election.

This statement has caused quite a stir, as I’m sure you’re aware. Firstly, President-elect Trump has argued that theatre should be a “safe space” and that Mike Pence has been denied that, and secondly many people have argued that something about the time and the place was inappropriate – that VP-elect Pence paid(?) to see a show and not to be hectored.

Honestly, though, I don’t think the theatre has ever been a “safe” place in the way Mr. Trump seems to mean. Art is not neutral; however it is dressed up and presented it is part of the cultural conversation.

In the specific case of Hamilton, we are invited into the violent and turbulent political world of the 18th and 19th centuries where dialogue is anything but polite. The sheer diversity of background, culture, education, and politics is reflected in the rhythms and styles that shift and change around each character. From the prose style of George Washington to the superior and dismissive ring to George III’s brief appearances to the boisterous young revolutionaries everyone has a voice and those voices are almost constantly in conflict. The viewer isn’t safe, or contained, but drawn into a political conflict that feels so real it’s impossible not to see in it the echo of the Puerto-Rican American man who has lived in a country suspicious of his language and heritage whilst laying claim to the very country that heritage springs from. This is made all the more stark by the decision to cast professional productions entirely with performers of colour, with the exception of George III.

The musical also challenges the assertion that the USA is in any way a monoculture. As well as the way in which it highlights early differences in state culture, the founding fathers and their allies are shown to be a mix of heritages and backgrounds with influences ranging from the writings of the French revolution through to family culture, tragedy, and upbringings across the British colonies. Hamilton is described as, “A bastard, orphan son of a whore and a Scotsman dropped in a forgotten spot in the Caribbean…” and once gleefully cries to the Marquis de Lafayette, “Immigrants: we get the job done!” This is not neutral to current trends in dialogue; on the Hamilton Mixtape, a whole track with this title is dedicated to how we talk about immigration in the 21st century (lyrics, Spotify).

We could pick almost any piece of musical theatre and find similar controversy. Picture the moral outrage that was poured over Jerry Springer: The Opera, or the horror with with Georges Bizet’s extraordinary opera Carmen was greeted when it opened.

When a writer and composer set out to tell a story, everything about the way they choose to tell it reveals who they are and what they believe. Jerry Springer: The Opera lays the blame for the blame culture squarely at the door of talk shows and ‘reality’ TV. Prosper Merimée’s Carmen (on which the opera is based) places the blame with Romani culture for Carmen’s behaviour, and her murder, whilst the opera can be read as a more nuanced work that seems to view a man and his female victim as equally culpable when jealousy causes José to kill Carmen. You don’t have to agree with these viewpoints to be drawn into the story, or to enjoy the music. You don’t have to realise you’ve been exposed to them to be influenced by them. Whether we like it or not, art is political and artists have a major platform.

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The cast of Cinderella, UCL Bloomsbury Theatre, Feb. 2007

When I had my own opportunity to write for the stage, I chose the pantomime Cinderella, because it is so easy to parody. I was writing for two performances to a maximum of 1,000 people (I think about 600 saw it in the end) but I knew I had one chance to convince some of them that panto is more than a vehicle for last year’s I’m a Celebrity runner-up, and that I had a real chance to show that there is validity to telling our childhood stories through a queer lens. Yes, it was daft, yes, most of the best jokes were classic panto set-pieces, but even that microcosm of the theatre started with the idea that I have a right to see people like me on stage – an inherently political idea. (A side note, we had as our director the marvellously talented Luke Davies, who has continued this sterling work and you should all support him in that.)

Would I have used my platform to ask a man who has the potential to take my rights away to protect us instead? Perhaps. I hope so.

I applaud the cast of Hamilton for acknowledging their role and their platform, and choosing to use it. In the wake of a spike in violence, vandalism, and hate crime in the wake of his election to the office of Vice President I, too, am looking to Mr. Pence and Mr. Trump to say more than, “Stop it,” and to protect the people of the country they have pledged to unite. I am grateful Mr. Dixon’s gentle reminder to the audience that no one comes to the theatre to be booed, and would hope that if I were in his position I would have had the courage of my convictions to do the same.

The theatre is not “safe space” where the world is shut out. The theatre is where the world works out its politics, its philosophy, its meaning. Vive le théâtre! Vivent les artistes! Vive la révolution!

With the last word, Lin-Manuel Miranda himself;

 

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Everything I learned from non-musicians about being a better musician

After trying very hard to focus on the positives of getting through week 3 of Fresh Meat on Tuesday, I had a bit of a rough time at band on Wednesday. I’ve moved from playing the second part to sitting on the front desk, just for the next concert, and I’m finding playing solos stressful since I’m out of practice at playing on my own. We also had a guest conductor, who was excellent, but that’s always a little nerve-wracking. I started hyperventilating during a solo line in West Side Story which took me way out of tune and made me think about all the different kinds of things that go together to make it possible to stick at playing when you’re a slow-learner and an amateur.

It’s tempting to think it just comes together by accident, but I found myself remembering all of the supportive people I’ve learned from over the years., I realised that non-musicians may have taught me more about playing well than I realised. It’s not all about lessons, practice, and rehearsals.

1. Mistakes are not the end of the world

This one is obvious, right? I’ve made at least one mistake every time I’ve picked up my instrument, but I am almost always freaked out by them – especially when anyone else can hear, and even more if they comment.

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Shiny trophy: Area Table Topics Contest, 2014

When I started public speaking with Aylesbury Speakers (part of Toastmasters International), I was worried about evaluation. Every speaker is evaluated and given feedback based on specific targets for the role or project and suggestions for improvement.

Hearing feedback from both established and new speakers has undoubtedly improved my presence, posture, and presentation when I speak in meetings, at church, and at work. It’s given me confidence that I can be in front of a room without freaking out, and more than anything it’s taught me that everyone has room for improvement and if I am not the most naturally gifted in the room I can still learn and work and get better. Listening to the feedback from others even won me an award, once.

2. Your true limits are way beyond where you think they are

When I was 11 I had an excellent PE teacher. Mrs. Jarrett was a big believer in knowing your body and its capabilities. I have always suffered from crippling period pain, but there was no pain she couldn’t teach me to stretch our or run off, and to this day I know that if I can bear it, 2 naproxen and an aerobic warmup will do more good than any amount of chocolate when Aunt Flo has her cramping face on. (She also gave me my one and only D on a report card, for dance, but it came with a 1 for effort, so that’s nice!)

Since Mrs. Jarrett’s dance lessons I’ve not been afraid to tell people I have period pain or anxiety and can’t do my best work. I’ve learned to take recovery breaks if I need them, and perhaps most importantly I’ve learned that the limit is always a bit further away than you think it is. When I think my facial muscles are done, and I’m too tired to try again, there’s always a bit more to give.

3. Your strengths matter more than your weaknesses

I used to think that you couldn’t be thought of as good at something unless you were an all-rounder, and that unless you found each skill equally easy you may as well not bother. It was my maths teacher that taught me otherwise. At school level, I generally did pretty well, but I found maths deeply frustrating. Sometimes I mastered a concept instantly (this seemed particularly true with more abstract maths) and sometimes I could practice endlessly but would never be able to memorise or reproduce the mechanic without the text book in front of me.

I was trying to explain this to my teacher one day, when she said, “You’ve got a flair for mathematics, but it would be easier if you didn’t need to be perfect”. After all, you can get an A in an exam without answering every question correctly.

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I am better at rhythm than technique. I take notes well, and remember them, but can’t always apply them without significant personal practice. I’ll never be a virtuoso, but I can always work on improving tone and technique if I at least know I’m in the right place at the right time!

4. It’s not all about you

I am not my whole section, I am not the whole band. In a largeish section like the flute section of a concert band, you can afford to share the load out without feeling like you’re rubbish or lazy.

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Cinderella (Feb 2007)

When I was 20, I wrote and produced pantomime (a queer version of Cinderella) which was an exercise in pressure and absurdity with a mix of complete and utter amateurs from the LGBT Society (including me), and some tremendous amateurs from the Drama Society and Stage Crew. Cinderella was my baby, I put my degree  and several friendships at risk to get it done, and worked on every detail I could manage. It was the get-in at the Bloomsbury Theatre before my friend Jen kindly-but-firmly took me aside and suggested that, just maybe, focusing the lamps was not my job right now and if I didn’t want each and every member of Stage Crew to tear me limb from limb I might like to stay out of the way until the technical rehearsal.

Point taken. I can only work to my own skills. Between us, as a section, we can decide to put some parts down to one player only, or dovetail long runs, and stagger breaths on long notes. There is nothing to be gained by wearing myself out trying to play for everyone and making it sound lousy in the process. (Incidentally, letting people get on with their own jobs is a lifesaving skill in ministry, too!)

5. More than anything else, it’s about banishing The Fear.

This was Wednesday’s insight. The idea that exercise

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I do not believe in The Wall

requires mind-over-matter  is not new to me(especially in my case, getting out for a run at all is the last thing I usually want to do). I learned early on when I was training for the Royal Parks Half Marathon that walking in a long run was my worst enemy, not because of the effect on my body (which could be restorative), but because getting back up to a run was hard to do without feeling the need to drop down again every time it got hard.

When I started going for runs for fun, Emily bought a ‘Blerch’ t-shirt from The Oatmeal that says, “I do not believe in The Wall, I believe in The Blerch” (full comic). I wear the t-shirt and matching socks when I’m especially unkeen to go out or take on something new.

The new insight for me, when I was trying to convince myself to get through the solo line in One Hand, One Heart, was that I found myself thinking, “I got back on skates, I can do anything.” From there, it’s only a short leap to remembering the mantra that Derby is as much about mental toughness as physical fitness, and then it all clicked. If I can’t skate when my emotions are out of whack, why do I keep trying to play when I feel lousy without taking the time I need to calm down? After all, depression and anxiety take a huge physical toll.

So, next week when we get to the concert and I’m feeling anxious, I’m going to try and remember that my mistakes are unimportant, I can push on past my limits, I have strengths as well as weaknesses, it’s not about me, and I can do it if I can just keep calm and carry on.