Finding Precious Time! (Pt 2)

In the last post on the blog you will find some off-the-cuff, raw and honest reflections from Lena Simic and Gary Anderson based on the writing exercise I suggested in my 2016 post, “Write. Just Write. And Be Amazed”. Gary and Lena are writing about time: the way it overtakes us, in a job where the line between “work” and “life” is blurry (welcome to academia, friends); the way it is sized and measured, in an economy hell-bent on increasing productivity (sometimes for better, in the form of flex time and work-from-home; often for worse, in the form of job creep and assessment exercises); and the several ways we might do time differently, on our own terms, clawing back hours or days for less productive, potentially more radical and open and community-oriented uses. (Gary and Lena’s Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home aims to do just that, all the time.)

When I asked Gary and Lena if they would write me a guest post, they in return invited me to contribute to a book they are building, called “10”. Together, they suggested, we could reflect on the conundrum of time, from our different perspectives within academia: them as working parents (and Institute co-founders) in Liverpool, me as a single, mid-career scholar at a big research school in Canada. I said immediately I would accept that compelling collaborative challenge.

Here, then, is my first stab at a contribution to Lena and Gary’s offering. And it is, fittingly, about finding time through collaboration. I hope you enjoy it.

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***

Whenever anyone asks me to sum up the ethos of my teaching, I talk about collaboration: the students and me, working together to make new ideas. I do this, too, when I’m asked to talk about my research: I usually say I am a collaborative scholar, most at home co-writing or editing. I don’t identify as a typical academic: I’m not itching to write another scholarly monograph, and I don’t really like being in the archive or the library all by myself. I even get lonely in my office after everyone else goes home.

Time is a perennial problem for me, the way it is for so many of us: there are not enough hours in the day to do all the things that we need to do in order to fulfil the expectations of our academic jobs. But when I’m alone, time sometimes seems to creep, not rush: that creeping feeling reminds me of how lonely, isolating, and insular the labour of academia can be. I don’t, at those times, feel like I’m in a bobsled tunnel whooshing toward a hard, bumpy finish; I feel like I’m hanging in outer space, frightened about what’s below me. (Not even sure which way is up or down, truth be told.)

There’s a paradox here, I think: I’m at once incredibly harried, rushed all the time, exhausted. And yet at other times I feel suspended in air, rudderless, unsure that anything I do makes any difference. Both of these feelings are, for me, connected to outcome expectations: we must work more/harder/faster to do the job well; we must produce, just produce, more STUFF ANY STUFF to do the job well. Which means both of these things – rushing through time, suspended in time – are connected to feelings of dissatisfaction with my job. Both are connected to the pain of over-worked isolation.

When I feel that suspended-and-drifting feeling, to ward off the terror, I usually jump back into the work, always more work, surrounding me: at those times, I work to insulate myself from breakdown. That means time is also an emotional problem for me: afraid of the stillness, the silence, its loneliness, I seek the race and rush. At least it is familiar. And I have coping mechanisms.

I have just started commuting between my new home in Hamilton, Ontario and my job in London, Ontario. This is the first time in my life my commute to work has been longer than an hour, and dependent on a vehicle. Now, I race to get into the car to race the 85 minutes to my campus office and then I race through the day’s tasks in order to jump back in the car to race home again. Or anyway, sometimes it feels like that.

But what do I feel when I finally get home? I experience a rush of calm, to start. I unpack and undress. I walk the dog, who is thrilled to see me. I shower, I eat dinner. Later, I head up to my home office, which I’ve designed carefully to be as supportive and sustaining an environment as possible. It includes my desk and office cabinet, arranged against a long wall papered in a gorgeous graphic rendition of Charlotte Brontë’s garden. It includes plenty of books, neatly filed on shelves. It includes a chaise and coffee table for reading. It includes my dressing area, too – a place I can unwind as I undress, or as I dress up to reinvent myself. It’s a space of imagination.

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(My office wall/Charlotte’s garden)

As I’ve been writing this I’ve realized that, in my new space, I am at ease more often than not. It is a place I have carved out in order to shape the time I spend there into calmness, and into the kind of productivity that I want to direct my energies toward: public writing, writing for students, collaborative activities with friends and colleagues, and lots of rejuvenating activities for me (cycling and walking my dog and spending time with my good friends nearby).

I have realized, while writing this, that my new home, and especially my new office, could (should) be characterized as a collaborator in the life I am working towards living – the (new) life that prioritizes my needs and well-being first, the new life that makes space and time. (Those are its productivities.)

My commute, come to think of it, may also be a collaborator in this strategy. It’s easy to conceptualize the time that I now spend driving to and from work in another city as wasted or lost or barren time. But from the start I knew I would value that time, somehow – I sensed it would be good time. I knew that, alone on the road, just me and the drive, I would have space to breathe. Time to think. Room to decompress a bit. I asked around for awesome podcasts and loaded a bunch up onto my phone. These are windows on other worlds, lives, and experiences – worlds I otherwise might not have the time to visit or even recognize as a part of my own.

(Sidebar here: Ear Hustle, from Radiotopia, is simply outstanding.)

Maybe my car is now also a space of imagination, then: as I drive, it makes time. Time for me to be by myself, but also time for me to be other to myself. The commute offers me time to do nothing but go home. It offers me an hour and a half to leave the rush that is not sustainable, and to approach the space I am building to be, to become, sustainable.

(Another sidebar: the dog is totally a collaborator, too. You cannot rush a dog with a nose like Emma’s. The sniff takes the time it takes, yo.)

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I began this reflection about time, improbably, by talking about collaboration. What does collaborating with others have to do with time?

First, it transforms work time into social time, community time. Time to share. Time to be alive to otherness, to be outside of ourselves – rather than to be deeply, cruelly sunk into ourselves, the way we are when we are in the race and the rush, preoccupied with the crush on our shoulders.

Second, it makes time to spare: shared work is a load lightened. Yes, collaborative work creates other labours; when you work with someone else, the negotiation process can add to the overall time-to-product (time measured as productivity, maybe). But collaboration also creates a bond, a shared investment – time spent together with another thinking and feeling person, talking and thinking and building ideas. There is a gift in that bond: it is worth far more than the work that emerges.

Finally, I don’t know about you, but I am most proud of the work I have done in my career with others – both colleagues and students. So when I look at that work I think: that was time well spent, in every way – ways that can be measured, but lots of ways that cannot.

I’m still adjusting to my new commute, and to my new home. But I am going to keep thinking about my time in the car as a collaboration, my time in my comfy home office as a collaboration – moves toward sustainability, towards a new conception of how my work life is organized, both spatially and temporally. And I am going to continue prioritizing working with others over working solo – because I’d rather be in this together, with you, than in this spinning space, alone.

Stay warm!

Kim

 

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Finding precious time!

Back in December I did some traveling. First, I visited Konstanz, the beautiful university town on the Bodensee in southern Germany, to host a workshop on arts pedagogy in the neoliberal public sphere. Then, it was off to the University of Sussex, and later to the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama, to hold two related events about the way forward for theatre and performance teachers, students, scholars, and artists inside the neoliberal academy (aka, the university that wants to train you for a job, probably in the sciences or business, and kill everything else that might be alive inside you. More or less).

These events were all related to the new research project I’ve just begun, in which I ask questions about how we are already, and better can in future, recognize and re-situate the transdisciplinary value of performance as a “mobile critical paradigm” in universities around the world that are currently hell-bent on destroying as much arts programming as possible. (Note: “mobile critical paradigm” is a term that comes from the brilliant book In Defence of Theatre, edited by my friends and colleagues Barry Freeman and Kathleen Gallagher. Thanks for this amazing inspiration, both of you!)

I had a wonderful time hosting these discussions, but they shared a quality that was not wonderful at all: bone-weary fatigue. My lovely, inspiring, resilient friends and colleagues and their students and junior colleagues are struggling so, so very hard to keep their heads above water even as everything they believe in is painfully devalued and possibly destroyed. Yet we remain hopeful, and we remain convinced (as we should be – we are resilient!) that we can turn this ship around and make space for broad and nuanced and critical and compelling arts and humanities discourse once again, soon.

If only we had more time. Time to think. Time to breathe.

(Thanks to the extraordinary Rebecca Hayes Laughton for her extraordinary work on the Central event. That’s her on the right. Above left, Kat Low and Rachel Hann express the pleasures of going off-brand.)

Fast forward to the end of 2017. I was late sending out my thank-you email to all of the wonderful allies who attended the two-day event at Central. In my message, among other things, I invited attendees to contribute guest posts to the blog in order to reflect on the many difficult and painful and critical and hopeful ideas we had circulated and argued over and cherished and fretted about.

Without much prompting, Gary Anderson and Lena Simic of the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home said they’d gladly take up this thrown-down gauntlet. I’m proud to publish their reflections here.

These reflections are about the most precarious of our institutional precarities: the struggle to find the time. To think, to reflect, to plot, to collaborate fulsomely, to dissent, to take action. Not that we are not doing these things; Gary and Lena most certainly are, along with their amazing four boys. But, as you’ll read below, it’s far harder than it should be – than it should be for any and all of us, if we are to retain the energy, the drive, the nourishment and the scope to generate from this moment of crisis real and lasting change.

What to do? Gary and Lena have ideas but no firm answers. They have also asked me to contribute some words to the project of thinking about this conundrum of time for an upcoming book of theirs, and I’ll share my reflections in response to that kind invitation in my next post.

But first, let’s hear from them. To create the pieces below, Lena and Gary followed my suggestions in a post on the blog in 2016 about low-stakes writing and what it can teach us; they each wrote for 30 minutes, observing on paper what came.

***

Lena 

It was September 2014 and I was on my maternity leave with baby James. I was in Dubrovnik visiting my parents for a couple of weeks. We fell into a routine. After lunch, James would splash about in his little green boat and I would go, on my own, to the beach. I was lucky enough to have James looked after by my parents. I was alone. I’d go to Banje, Dubrovnik’s central beach, somewhat too crowded for my liking, but it was September, the light was gorgeous, really sharp, and I was alone. I had my book with me, Tender is the Night by Scott Fitzgerald. It was one of those books that I was reading very slowly in order to live in it and with it for longer. Deleuze spoke about the water-ski episode in the book as ‘ten pages of total beauty of not knowing how to age’. I was keen to learn about the disgrace and the shame of ageing, of trying to stay young, appearing fit. I was 39. My 40th birthday was in November that year. On the beach, I swam (3 times to the red buoy and back) and I read the book. Suddenly, I realized. I am not alone. I am with Dick and Nicole Diver. All my time is managed. I am swimming furiously, making the best out of my time. What if I just lay on the beach? I couldn’t do it. It was too crowded and too hot, a total waste of time.

In preparation for my 40th birthday performance 40 Minutes I used to go to the Institute every day for 40 days before my birthday, for 40 minutes and fill out a page of a 40-page notebook. I was creating 40 notebooks for my 40 invited friends. The time of 40 minutes was my methodology of creating/stealing time, being alone in the Institute and thinking/writing/performance making. I only worked on this performance in that given time – 40 minutes for 40 days, my 40th being the actual performance.

The Institute combines life and art, as well as life and work. Everything’s a project. This is exhausting. Last year, I wanted to quit the Institute. I wondered what it would be like not to frame our family life through it. It is true that the children are less involved these days, but they have grown up with the Institute, with a very particular activist family life. At our 2017 AGM Sid (10) said: ‘I don’t want it to end-end, I just don’t want to participate in everything.’ His other wish was to do a presentation again – he enjoyed being a part of Playing Up symposium with our presentation ‘Being and Things’ at Tate Modern in 2015.

The other day I got an email from a colleague who said that she can only, at the moment, perform her ‘basic contractual work obligations’. I found such liberation in that phrasing. It’s ‘work to rule’ – Gary said, reminding me about union disputes. Everyone knows we academics work so much more than our contracts stipulate. I am multitasking and channelling my energies into different work spheres: research, performance making, producing, teaching, mothering. Am I doing any of the activities well enough? And yet, all is so over-combined in my life.

One of my best friends from Zagreb works as a civil servant, with the Ministry of Finance. I am not actually sure what her job is. She studied law. She never talks about her work. It’s a waste of our time together. For her, work is elsewhere, compartmentalized into a different world. I envy her. In my world, all is too combined, too much fusion. Yes, I’m so good at not checking work emails after 5pm and never ever at weekends, but I have three more email addresses, WhatsApp, Viber, Instagram and a Facebook account. I think about my children and their future jobs. I am not sure my career is the one I’d advise anyone to follow.

I was inspired by Kim’s post ‘Write. Just write. And be amazed.’ I was reminded of my own methodologies of working with students on their essays and research papers, and myself in performance making. I remembered that my favourite writing is always in relation, when I write with/to my research collaborator Emily Underwood-Lee about maternal matters, when I write letters to my friend and colleague Zoë Svendsen. I was reminded of Virginia Woolf’s quote in A Room of One’s Own: ‘the habit of freedom and the courage to write exactly what we think’. I am yet to achieve either. The habit of freedom might be an ability to let go and be truly alone and unproductive. The courage to write exactly what I think is going to take a while, at least a little longer than 30 minutes.

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(Here’s Gary, talking us through, among other things, how to appreciate the otherness of the accidental cockroach, during the event I hosted at CSSD in December 2017. Most fun in a hotel room ever. Really.)

Gary 

Lena’s already started. Half an hour of writing in response to Kim Solga’s blogging. Lena’s furiously tapping away on her keys and I’m stuck writing about her getting ahead of me.

10 per cent. I have a problem with the way we are always compartmentalising stuff – like time, and schedules and how to divide up a day – because in the end I naively believe in a Spinozist universe of infinite substance. I want integration. I don’t want separation. Lena, correctly, tells me that this world view suits somebody who is actually quite lazy. It means I don’t really have to prepare for anything, structure stuff or plan. I can bump into things and try to transform them. Lena suggests this is my modus operandi. I don’t know if that’s fair but I do like the sound that bumping into stuff makes.

However, we’ve decided to divide our time into two portions: a 90 per cent and a 10 per cent. The 90 per cent is where our contractual obligations are fulfilled (our jobs at university) and the 10 per cent is where all the Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home work for 2018 gets done. We made this arrangement under some duress whilst we argued and argued about who is the lazy one and who is the one who maintains everything – at our 2017 AGM in Dubrovnik – at the Biker’s Café.

There’s a history of decimation in world religions; the churches of the late middle ages thought it wise to decimate all parishioners to the tune of 10 per cent of their wealth. The churches grew astonishingly rich from this levy whilst the consequences for dissenting parishioners were severe. Penalties were dished out exemplar-fashion. Retrospectively, we’ve applied the word decimate to mean the killing of every tenth Roman solider who dissented.  Whether in Rome or elsewhere everyone soon got to know what being decimated meant. From the perspective of hegemony – you were ‘saved’. We have a similar methodology at home. All monies that come through us, from lecturer salaries to child benefits for our four children to any invited commissions, are decimated and put into the Institute. It’s a way of saving ourselves from the full onslaught of the current equivalent of the Roman Empire or the oligarchy of the late Middle age Christian church. We need saving from our late capitalist living all more or less 100 per cent covered by legal contracts and insipid insurance structures.

We’ve decided to extend the metaphor into our time. We are contracted to operate as full time employees of higher education establishments in/around Liverpool. That’s 35 hours per week. On Tuesday mornings we spend 3.5 hours on the work of the Institute. This short writing exercise, in response to Kim Solga’s blogging, is part of that 3.5 hours. We said we’d get everything done by then, between 9am and 12:30pm. The kids are all in school. We are at the kitchen table trying out a writing exercise ‘Write. Just write. And be amazed’, from The Activist Classroom blog. I’ve about 10 minutes left…

This is part of a book project we have decided to work on called ‘10’. A book of 10 ‘chapters’ each talking and writing through a key problem. We might call the book ‘10 Problems’. We don’t know yet. We need to decide everything within the 10 per cent of our 35 hours on a Tuesday morning: get the concepts of the book clear, do all the writing and thinking together and make sure everything is in place until publication and dissemination. It’s fun to work in this way sometimes. Feels like a joke at our employers’ expense, one they wouldn’t even be interested in, would just ignore or brush off as incomprehensible or ‘it’s what drama teachers do…’ That gives me a little bit of energy and focus.

This will go through a re-reading now, after the half hour is up, then will be shared with Lena, then we’ll try to pick out the best bits, then we’ll write a proposal for Kim’s blog based on what we’ve learnt or produced from this writing exercise. We started off with the idea that all of us, and all of our strategies and tactics for working, are simply over-productive; that we are struggling with a paradox: we need time in order to slow down, but that time would have to be scheduled into what is already no time left, again.

Time up.

***

Want to know more?

The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home, based in a family home in Liverpool, UK, founded in 2007 is an intervention into family life and the normative upbringing of children. The Institute identify as anarchist, anti-capitalist and feminist. Our interventions happen across various levels: through activities in our own home by way of performances, artists’ residencies, meetings, reading groups and through our participation as a family of performers at different art events, protests, festivals and academic conferences. The Institute’s activities involve taking the children to political demonstrations and learning together how to be critical citizens rather than passive consumers. The Institute is funded by 10% of the family’s net income (two university lecturer salaries, child benefit and any other artist commissions), and currently stands at around £530 per month. The Institute are Gary Anderson (45), Lena Simic (43), Neal (17), Gabriel (15), Sid (10) and James (4).

The Institute publications include art activist books 4 Boys [for Beuys] (2016), The Mums and Babies Ensemble (2015), and Five (2008-2012) (2014). The Institute have presented their work in various arts centre (Tate Modern, Arnolfini, Artsadmin, Live Art Development Agency, the Bluecoat, FACT, Tobacco Factory, New Art Gallery Walsall, Chelsea Theatre, Stanley Picker Gallery, East Street Arts, Wysing Arts Centre, 25 SG), academic and arts journals (Contemporary Theatre Review, Performance Research, RiDE, Feminist Review, Meta Mute, The Concept Store Journal, Liverpool Art Journal) as well as numerous national and international conferences.

The Institute for the Art and Practice of Dissent at Home are currently collaborating with Live Art Development Agency on Study Room in Exile, co-organizing Family Activist Network and co-editing (with Adele Senior) a special issue ‘On Children’ for Performance Research.

How do you solve a problem like Kevin Spacey?

I’ve been watching the Weinstein shit-show from the sidelines with the same mix of excitement and horror as the next woman. I’ve not really known what to say; the constant stream of revelations represent, for me, not the watershed of the moment (although it is – knock wood – very much a watershed), but the depth and breadth of the problem we all knew was about but couldn’t constellate fully until now.

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I am very, very lucky: I have no instances of sexual abuse in my past. But let me tell you, I’ve been both gobsmacked and completely unsurprised at the morning’s (every morning’s) headlines.

Because, like every human female, I have a lot of first-hand experience of how patriarchy grants men the impression that they are entitled to take whatever they want, while it grants women – as well as non-normative, queer, and non-cis-gendered others – the keen sense that they should watch their backs.

Let me stress here that this is no one person’s fault – although being a fecking bastard is ABSOLUTELY the fault of the arseholic guys being written up every day in the dailies.

Nope, this is not a post about ass-hatted individual actions.

This is a post about a system. And it’s a post about the theatre.

Aside from a complicated (and contradictory) mix of horror and relief, the number one thing I feel about this particular moment in history is this:

Thank god I am not teaching right now, and don’t have to talk about this with my students.

Don’t get me wrong: I secretly love nothing more than throwing the syllabus away on a news-damp morning and chatting the real stuff out with the gang in the room. But this occasion feels really heavy, really loaded. I can imagine some very tense conversations, some really challenging mediating. I can imagine the emotional toll.

But as I’ve been wading through all of this, I’ve been thinking a lot about what I might say (maybe, next term, will have every opportunity to say) in the classroom about the issues raised by this extraordinary moment. And, thankfully, I’ve been granted a gift by two remarkable pieces of theatre I’ve seen in the past few weeks in Toronto – both of which take up, at depth, the issues behind the issues we’ve been reading about in the headlines.

This is a post about them – and about the power of live theatre to communicate aspects of Weinstein-gate that the print and online media can barely touch.

Asking For It (created by millennial Ellie Moon and produced by Nightwood Theatre at Streetcar Crowsnest in October) is “documentary” theatre that begins with the Jian Ghomeshi revelations and goes on to explore Moon’s and her peers’ experiences with the challenges of consent. Moon interviewed scores of people (mostly known, some family, lots of friends) for the show, and their stories make up the content, voiced by four actors. In the first two thirds of the piece, performers Christine Horne, Steven McCarthy, Moon, and Jaa Smith-Johnson sit at a square table speaking the interview transcripts from binders into microphones, capturing the vocal intonation and gestures of the words’ owners. In the second half, they act out a handful of telling encounters Moon had during the interview process.

The show begins with Ellie (the “character” – the limits of autobiography aren’t totally transparent here) saying she wanted to know more, in the wake of Ghomeshi, about how consent works in practice: how we navigate it and how we all fall down around it. The show ends with her revealing that what she really wanted to figure out is why she seems to have a lot of rough sexual encounters, perhaps even want them, and what that says about her as a sexual agent, a feminist, and a human being.

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Daughter is a bouffant show (in other words: expert clowning) that masquerades as stand-up comedy; the theme is, “wow, it’s so hard, man, to raise a little girl today!” Performer Adam Lazarus (who is the show’s co-creator, along with Jiv Parasram and Melissa D’Agostino, as well as director Ann-Marie Kerr) comes out as “Adam” (the character), all proud dad, wearing his 6-year-old’s butterfly wings and dancing to her playlist.

We love him more or less instantly, and we’re with him – until we can’t be with him anymore. By the end he has revealed himself to be a total jackass who wishes women would just go back to being simpler, the “tits” of his porn collection instead of the “cunts” of the real world. And though he admits to loving his daughter insanely, he also admits to thinking life would be simpler without her.

Toxic masculinity has by this point eaten the show, eaten him – and fucked his audience up completely.

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These two pieces share as much in common as they don’t. Both, however, take issue with a culture that has created a pair of poisoned structures around sex and gender, and is now having to wrestle with their awkward, systemic dismantling.

For Moon, the problem of consent is BOTH that no means no, and that’s that, AND that consent is way, way pricklier and more confusing in practice than one endgame phrase conveys, for most well-intentioned humans, most of the time. For Lazarus, the problem is that love for his wife and daughter drives his character, but the tools he uses to shape his actions toward them were forged in a perilous melange of patriarchy-as-normal and extraordinary access to violent online pornography. He is also – as my colleague Karen Fricker pointed out to me over drinks the other day – apparently without family, beyond the women he perceives himself as responsible towards, and therefore without any (at least somewhat) objective mentorship and support as he flails into chaos.

One of the things that struck me right away about both of these shows was the way they were set up, spatially. (I’m thinking a tonne about space right now, because I’m deep into writing a book for students about theories of space, place, and meaning at the theatre in the twentieth century.)

When I entered the stage area of Asking For It, immediately I felt like a citizen, less like an observer. The space at Streetcar was configured as though for a debate, with banks of audience members facing each other, and more around the sides of the playing space. When the actors entered, they did so from our world: they came into the auditorium as the doors shut, and entered from the side of one of the rakes.

The message? We are all together in what is going to be a discussion, a series of provocations for us all to reckon with in a shared way.

Daughter was configured differently – though with equal critical aplomb. I entered a normal auditorium rake of seating, facing the stage. Shortly Adam appeared on that stage, dancing and flitting in the decorative wings. He was disarming, but also very clearly the (only) performer we were meant to watch. The configuration screamed: “stand-up comic! Also good dad!”

I admit I found Adam quite funny at first, but something about the character bothered me almost from the start. I felt like he had a gift for making everything – his daughter’s musical tastes; his wife’s pregnancy and difficult labour – completely about him. I remember thinking to myself, as he acted out (to hilarious and also astonished effect) his wife’s incredibly painful labour with their little girl: “does this guy really think it’s ok to make his loved one’s physical trauma about him?”

Turns out that question was, actually, the whole point.

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With Asking For It, my experience was different – more cozy, and more personal. (I attribute this to Ellie’s femininity, as well as to some other experiences we shared, though we do not know each other. Similarity breeds patriotism – it really does.) Still, I found remarkable the show’s ability simultaneously to disarm me, and to put pressure on questions of extraordinary significance for me.

A case in point arrives in the second part of the show, when Moon and Horne re-create a conversation on a bus between Ellie and a friend with whom she’s had a boozy dinner, as part of the interview project. The friend notes that Ellie needs to step outside her comfort zone and interview strangers if her project is to have any significance. Push comes to shove, and Ellie approaches a man at the other end of the bus, brandishing her iPhone. She says something like: hey, hi, sorry to bother you. I’m doing interviews about peoples’ experiences of consent. Could I ask you some questions about how you experience consent, and navigate its challenges?

The guy is not interested. Nor is he sympathetic. He takes a totally understandable, very frustrated, position. He says something like: if I had approached YOU on this bus, what would you have thought? You admit you’re a bit tipsy, and you’re asking me about consent, asking me to talk into your phone, for some “project”; how would you feel in my position?

God, do we feel for this guy.

Until Ellie says, bluntly but quietly:

But: I ASKED you.

Adam means the very best – but his experience of love, care, and sex was forged in the crucible of brutal online rape culture. He’s been taught male entitlement in the womb, and the internet has reinforced his genital privilege.

He thinks EVERYTHING is about him. When it’s not, he freaks out – he actually does not know what to do.

So he hits people – including his friends, and his daughter.

Ellie wants answers: why is this CBC douchebag’s inappropriate and possibly criminal behaviour getting to me so much? What’s consent, and what’s crossing the line? Why do I sometimes want to cross the line myself?

Can I be a feminist and cross the line?

In the process, she meets a not insignificant number of people who think she’s being kind of a feminazi, or who think they are feminist allies, except they actually really aren’t.

They want stuff, and they’ve been taught to take stuff, and even though they want to be the most stand-up men imaginable, that training of wanting and taking stuff is deep, and it’s engrained.

I’ve thought about both of these two remarkable productions an awful lot in the last four weeks. It’s not lost on me that Moon’s piece is comprised of interview material – other peoples’ voices, however mediated by her expert dramaturgy – while Lazarus and his co-creators have deliberately built a show that demonstrates how powerful, seductive, and ultimately toxic a single, virtuosic, male voice can be, when offered as funny and chummy and bro-ey.

Until it makes you kind of literally feel sick. (I literally felt sick, by the end of Daughter.)

Toxic masculinity is a formation driven by parallel but totally contradictory assumptions: that men should be upstanding, good guys with a fair amount of feminist sensibility, but that they continue to deserve to be number one in the equation in all circumstances – because that’s what patriarchy teaches straight cis-men, full stop, OR ELSE. The end result of this messed up formula is easy to guess.

Moon’s character isn’t without selfishness, without problems. But the show constructed around her is polyvocal, and works actively to find others’ voices, to honour them, and to discover her own problems and challenges through the revelations they provide.

Daughter avoids polyvocality – deliberately – because Adam isn’t capable of admitting others into his worldview in a real and meaningful way.

Dismantling this logic – the logic of toxic masculinity – is the work ahead, or else. The point of both of these productions is that patriarchs aren’t always easily visible, but that they are always conditioned by the poisoned binaries of gender vs gender. Because the system under which we labour – in which men come first, have always come first, and anything else is an “accommodation”, even now – is entrenched, and dismantling that system is not just about deciding to be a good guy, or an easy-going girl.

It’s much harder than that. And it requires all of our labour. Together.

Kim

 

 

 

Who decides?

I know it’s autumn, because lots of great theatre has been happening around me. I was recently in Big London and saw the hands-up-incredible (student!) production The Fall, as well as the incredibly moving The Unknown Island (which my colleague Dan Rebellato and I discuss in an upcoming episode of his podcast, Stage Directions – stay tuned for that one). Back home in Ontario I caught The Komagata Maru Incident at the Stratford Festival, thought-provokingly directed by Keira Loughran, and, last Sunday, Other Side of the Game by Amanda Parris, directed by Nigel Shawn Williams in an Obsidian Theatre/Cahoots Theatre co-production.

These last two shows were remarkable for me in the way they normalized the practice of diversity on stage – something I’ve been thinking a lot about since the “Post-Marginal” symposium I attended back in April (read my thoughts on that event here).

Canadians are used to “diversity” as a brand – part of the hip and multicultural, Justin-fronted salad-bowl nation. Yay Canada! Except maybe less yay Canada if you are, you know, a visible, ethnic, or other minority (including those who identify as disabled) and are constantly on the receiving end of subtle or not-so-subtle discrimination, well-meaning but superficial curiosity that borders on harassment, or, in more cases than we care to acknowledge, gruesome racial profiling.

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Justin hearts diversity. But it’s really not that easy, people.

All the more reason to get over talking about diversity as “a good thing” (says the brilliant Donna-Michelle St Bernard, someone I never tire of quoting), and to start thinking about it as a practice – an artistic practice, an intellectual practice, a pedagogical practice, and a practice of ordinary citizenship.

But how do we do that, really do that?

How can artists, scholars, and teachers model diversity-as-practice for others, as a necessary public good?

These two shows struck me as just such models. But then they also, inevitably, got me fretting about how to talk about them effectively as such. To communicate this modelling of diversity-in-practice as central to what they do, accomplish, offer to the public sphere.

That’s separate, a very separate, issue from whether or not they are any “good” as pieces of theatre.

[And btw, I think they both really are.]

This is all a slightly roundabout way of saying that these two productions got me fretting about theatre reviews – and in particular about the kinds of power reviewers wield, for better and sometimes for worse, as they more or less just do their jobs.

Reviewing is hard; I know this from personal experience. It’s a huge responsibility, and the reviewers I know (including for the major Toronto dailies) take that responsibility very seriously indeed.

But reviews as a genre embed some big problems. For me, the largest one is this: they are required to level judgement every time, but they are not typically flexible enough to unpack the question that ghosts that very quotidian act of judgement:

Who has the authority to decide what is “good” theatre?

What are our criteria, and why?

I was really upset to read the reviews for Komagata Maru Incident. Some of them very correctly pointed out that the play itself – which was written decades ago, and is about a boat full of Sikh migrants turned away from the shores of British Columbia in 1914 – comes from a settler perspective (that of white playwright Sharon Pollock), and lacks the capacity in its dramaturgical structure to represent refugee experience in a thoroughgoing way. Others, however, were unnecessarily rough on Loughran and her team. One was truly mean, and bordered, in my opinion, on an abuse of the reviewer’s power.

Why did these harsh reviews drive me around the bend? Because what Loughran had done in her direction of Pollock’s play was infuse it with an ethos of inclusivity and diversity, in an effort to decolonize the problematic script.

Quelemia Sparrow in The Komagata Maru Incident, Stratford, 2017

The production was far from perfect, in lots of ways the reviews captured. But it was also incredibly important as a piece of public engagement – and this the reviews either downplayed or missed.

Loughran’s cast were, in the vast majority, actors of colour. Her emcee/narrator figure was the stunningly talented Musqueam artist Quelemia Sparrow, whose evocative physicality contributed to a useful distancing of the play’s central voice of authority from its governing settler imagination. Sparrow played the role as a “traditional” (read “imaginary”) Indian figure overtly costumed as a British officer; the only authority she therefore inhabited was performative, the ability to talk herself into authority – as all imperialists do. (There’s a quite good reflection piece on this casting choice in the London Free Press; click here to take a look.)

The “real” officer figure in the play, the Immigration Department’s Hopkinson, was embodied with studied, well judged awkwardness by Omar Alex Khan, who is also not white and not British; as he and Sparrow interacted (she inhabiting the role of his superiors in these meetings) I saw and heard “Britishness” as an effect of settler colonialism, loud and clear.

Meanwhile, the most moving relationship in the play developed between Diana Tso and Jasmine Chen playing ambitious immigrant women in a Vancouver brothel. There were moments when I wondered if Chen, Tso, and Loughran had layered lesbian desire into these portrayals, and I was grateful for the prompt to think differently about what could otherwise seem conventionally sexualized Asian female characters.

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Diana Tso, Jasmine Chen, and Omar Alex Khan in The Komagata Maru Incident, 2017

In other words, I saw a lot that was rich and instructive and worth talking about in this show. Stuff that the reviews were not able, given their generic constraints, to capture.

Fast forward to a couple of weeks ago, when my friend Keith Tomasek, who edits Stratford Festival Reviews, asked me to review Other Side of the Game, which is about Black lives, and in particular Black women’s lives, historical and contemporary, in Toronto. (And yup, that eponymous reference to the Erykah Badu song of the same name is both intentional and quite perfect.) I recently reviewed For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf for Keith, so Other Side seemed a nice match. When time came to book the tickets I asked, unwittingly, for a preview show (it fit my schedule); Keith then told me I should skip the review (previews are previews for a reason, people) and write a “think piece” about the show instead.

This was totally accidental and yet a perfect gift; I realized after seeing the production that I could do more with/for/alongside what Parris, Williams, and their creative team have done by skipping the inevitable judgement part and reviewing, instead, the process by which we judge theatre in salad-bowl Toronto in 2017. I hope along the way I captured a bit of the diversity-in-practice I saw on stage and caught from Parris’s and Williams’s program notes, as well as from my research.

 

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The gorgeous playbill cover for Other Side of the Game

But you tell me; I welcome your thoughts. Please click through to SFR‘s site here to read my article, and feel free to leave comments in that space or this one.

Certainly, I’ll be aiming to lift more work like this, in this way, up to our view in future “review” commissions. I’ve just seen the superb Asking For It by Ellie Moon at Crow’s Theatre, which could not be more timely in its verbatim excavation of how we talk about consent. It’s a teaching tool if ever there was one: rigorous in its exploration of sexual ambivalence and awkwardness, which makes it, frankly, ideal as a model for figuring out how to navigate the challenging waters of talking to and with young people about sexual safety, comfort, and pleasure. Look forward to a post on that very soon.

Kim

Tired already? Let Them Teach Each Other! (Trust me. It will be good for you.)

It’s the first week of October, so no denying it any more: school’s back in session. Shit has gotten real.

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I know I’m in the fortunate chair this term, on sabbatical. (Nope, I don’t plan to stop mentioning it anytime soon. Sorry!)

But that doesn’t stop me feeling the autumn vibe through friends, neighbours’ kids, and through the growing chill in the air. Which is why, when the latest Tomorrow’s Professor post, on encouraging students to teach each other, rolled across my desk Monday afternoon, I couldn’t help but notice how ideal it is for just this moment in the term – when stress levels are rising, the thick of the marking and the prep is looming, and the chaos of midterms is starting to glance over the parapet.

The author of this particular post, “Asking Students to Teach: Gardening in the Jungle,” is Tim Murphey, who teaches in the English Department at Kanda University in Japan. It comes from his chapter in the book Innovative Practices in Language Teacher Education (Springer, 2017).

It’s normal for me to get inspired by TP posts throughout the academic year, but it’s not typical for me to base an entire post of my own around one. In this case I’m making an exception, though, because Murphey’s insights and evidence from his teaching experiments echo my own, very positive, anecdotal experiences with different forms of peer teaching in theatre and performance studies classrooms.

I’ve long felt peer teaching to be an essential means of activating deep student learning, especially when it comes to applying and extending complicated theoretical concepts. Put bluntly, students learn way better when they have to explain stuff clearly to each other; it means they have to internalize, vocalize, share, and collaborate – even if they kind of hate doing it in the moment. (And of course they do. Sitting at the back and sort of listening to the prof while actively cruising Facebook or Snapchatting with friends is way easier, duh.)

Murphey’s research concurs with this assessment of peer teaching’s impact on student outcomes, but his article also notes more, and deeper, benefits.

First, he talks about how valuable peer teaching can be for teachers, both in terms of saving us time AND in terms of making us better at our jobs.

Second (and throughout, actually), he focuses on how important the practice of peer teaching is as an ethical, and a democratic, practice – for students, but also for faculty. Everyone benefits, he argues, when we share the hard work of making sense of our world, together.

Which also feels crazy timely to me, ya know?

Herewith, then, a bit more from Murphey, and me, on each of these terrific ideas.

1. Peer teaching helps teachers teach better. It teaches us to give up a bit of control, and to get comfortable with the idea that maybe we don’t know everything and that’s ok. It also encourages us to reduce over-prep and spend our teaching time more wisely – working ideas through in the classroom, in the moment.

Just in time for early October, Murphey opens his introduction with this slightly painful truth:

Too often first time teachers, and even many experienced teachers, work much too hard preparing too much material for their classes to fill the allotted time. I myself confess to over-preparing and planning too many activities and materials.

I’ve also overprepped for years. (I call it “prep creep“.) Worse, I’ve been actively working NOT to over-prep for years, and yet, still, there’s that voice in my head. That voice that says…

You’re going to get to the end of the prep and have no more to say and there will be 10 minutes to go and everyone will look at you and know you suck and are an imposter.

Friends, that voice is wrong. It is an asshole, that voice. Total douchebag.

First, under no circumstances will you ever run out of stuff to say. I’m pretty sure that you got your degrees because you like to talk about your research and stuff, right?

Second – and this is The Great Paradox of Teaching – the more you write stuff down to say it, the easier it is to *actually* run out of stuff to say. The more activities you program for your active classroom, the more rushed everyone will likely feel. You will be anxious. The students will become cross and confused.

Nobody will be happier, or will have learned more, because of the excess stuff on your pages.

Here’s where peer teaching is a genius short-cut to help us get in the habit of more classroom improv, less over-prep. Yes, of course, helping students learn how to teach each other well takes careful set-up, and regular practice. You need to decide what the students will work on figuring out together, and you’ll have to give some thought to how they will get from point A to point B. You’ll need to offer some guidance along the way.

But a lot of that guidance will happen in the moment, and will be dependent on what the students say, and what they find they need as they unpick the problem you’ve set for them. You can’t prep for that; what you need is to develop confidence in your role as a guide. That takes practice in real time, in front of anxious or bored or anticipatory faces. It’s risky. It means being willing to mess up quite a bit. But it gets better and easier with time – it really, really does.

We might think it’s our job to stand up and spit up the knowledge, but that’s a ruse; in fact, our job is to be the expert learner in the room, not the person who has completed the journey of learning.

Which is, of course, the other reason peer teaching is so worthwhile: because it reminds us that we, too, are always on that journey with our students.

2. Peer teaching is just basic democracy. It’s sharing the knowledge and the challenges knowledge poses. It’s getting to the bottom of complicated things.

I don’t know about you, but as I read the headlines these days, I mostly think to myself: these skills, the ones that teach you about not being afraid to think hard, and to confront things that do not make sense, and to talk to other human beings about those things, and to work toward some kind of provisional answers, and then to toss them out and try again, just as hard and without losing heart…

… these skills are the only skills that matter right now.

Murphey quotes from Lee Shulman’s book Teaching as Community Property: Essays on Higher Education (2004, pp 36-7) in his epigraph, and I’ll rehearse the quotation here because it’s remarkable in its clarity and insight on the public and ethical and democratic value of shared teaching:

Learning is least useful when it is private and hidden; it is most powerful when it becomes public and communal. Learning flourishes when we take what we think we know and offer it as community property among fellow learners so that it can be tested, examined, challenged, and improved before we internalize it.

Shulman’s framing of learning as property is exceptionally timely, as the endgame of neoliberal consumption practices loom, warlike, into view. Knowledge can’t be owned; it must be shared. When we try to own insight we produce tyranny, and tyranny is the enemy of further learning, of the freedom to debate, discuss, and disagree.

The only way we can help our students understand this is to share the process of making knowledge with them, again and again, messy though that process might be. We need to model knowledge-sharing practices in our classrooms, urgently, precisely because they seem so very far away these days, when we open Twitter, or click the news links in our Facebook feeds.

And then, once we’ve fumbled through the peer teach, and hit all the roadblocks, and struggled to find the answers, we need to talk with our students about why the messiness of sharing knowledge is a social good, and not a thing to be loathed and feared.

***

My sincere thanks to Tim Murphey for inspiring this post with a very compelling article. Please follow the links embedded above to purchase the two books referenced here, either for yourself or for your school’s library.

Meanwhile, if you use peer teaching practices in your classrooms I’d love to hear about them! Please share in the comments – models are always very welcome.

Kim