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

 

 

 

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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

 

 

On making a feminist show

High summer! Perfect time to think about, oh, you know: lemonade and sangria, lazing at the beach… and creating complex feminist theatre for a major Shakespeare festival in southwestern Ontario.

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Members of the Bakkhai chorus Sarah Afful, Quelemia Sparrow, and Bahia Watson. Photography by Cylla von Tiedemann.

Today in Intermission Magazine – a fabulous, Toronto-based, online performing arts industry publication co-edited by May Antaki and Maija Kappler – I’ve got a piece about the creation of Bakkhai, directed by Jillian Keiley and currently on at the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario.

The article tells the story of how this iteration of Bakkhai (translated from the Euripides by poet Anne Carson) evolved into a complicated work of feminism – that is, into a show that doesn’t celebrate women so much as it reveals the challenges of living as a human being under patriarchy, for men as well as for women, but especially for women (and especially for women of colour).

You can – and I hope you will! – read the whole thing here. (Below, as a teaser, is a brief excerpt.)

Enjoy that beach day!
Kim

***

When I met the group one Wednesday morning in March, we began with a cheery warm-up game that included every single one of us. I instantly felt part of the team. Then we sang “Happy Birthday” to cast member Graham Abbey, which caused me to experience a minor fangirl moment (I think I hid it well). After this light-hearted start, we sat in a circle, the normal configuration for the “debate and discussion” portion of the cast and crew’s time together. I felt strongly the sense of bondedness, the ethos of community, that animated the space (and that, I later learned from Dunsmore, animates all of Jill’s rehearsal rooms as a matter of course).

When I had agreed to come to the rehearsal, I thought I was stealing an hour of the cast’s practice time in order to “explain” feminism to them. I didn’t realize that I had, in fact, been invited to enter a space of rigorous discussion that the creative team inhabited together all the time.

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Members of the Bakkhai company.

Bakkhai rehearsals always began with debates over big ideas related to the play-world—is there a god? do we have free will?—in which cast and crew were assigned sides. These provided nuance into the many ethical issues tabled by the play: Do I have a responsibility toward my community to temper my pursuit of pleasure? Should women be supportive of one another regardless of whether or not they like, or agree with, each other? Is violence a just response to personal or community oppression?

But the debates also offered key embodied insight into the experience of fundamentalism—and into just how easily one can become prone to it. As cast member Diana Tso told me, always being assigned sides meant cast members were asked repeatedly to live inside multiple, divergent perspectives, exploring where individual perspectives and orthodoxies originate, when “someone is so pro-this, or pro-that.”

The debates gave the cast a chance to peg their characters’ developments to the social, cultural, and historical contexts shaping the play. Even more importantly, though, they provided an opportunity for team members to get to know and understand one another personally but also intellectually, on a level playing field, and in a room designed to be utterly open, absolutely equal, and completely safe. (This included paying special attention to gendered language. As Dunsmore and Gowdy explained to me, team members of all genders were encouraged to check their use of diminutives like “girls” and “boys”.)

I got a sense of the eclecticism and openness of the cast and crew’s discussion space during that first meeting with them. The cast were warm and respectful, but their questions were hard. If the Bakkhic women are brutal, violent, full of fundamentalist rage, how can they enable a feminist politic? Where do the men fit into a vision that inherently excludes them? (Does it?) With the women being “foreigners,” what role might intersectionality play in a feminist approach to this play? How can we reconcile to feminism the most pressing contradictions in the play—for example, when the Bakkhic women celebrate Agave, but then use her to feed their violent revenge?

I talked about feminism as a critique of patriarchy, and patriarchy as an ideology that deploys both men and women to uphold the damaging binary (men vs. women; men above women) on which its power rests. I explained that women often make the best patriarchs: if you sense you can make the system work for you, you sure as hell are going to try. Together, we discussed feminism as a critical practice that tries to unpack the violence patriarchy causes and also to imagine more equitable alternatives to it. That mandate includes both women and men as participants: as victims, as villains, as supporters, and as resistors.

Feminism, in other words, is not straightforward, and it’s rarely “nice” in any traditional way. Maybe a feminist show shouldn’t be, either.

 

On teaching and the mental load, part 2 (some notes toward solutions)

Last week I wrote about teaching in relation to the gendered mental load – the experience, all too common among women, of both doing the work and managing the work, at home but also in the classroom. Of carrying more than their fair share of the burden, often invisibly, because of the subtle cognitive and emotional responsibilities that accrue to both domestic and pedagogical labour – and which for a variety of reasons are still assumed, even if largely unconsciously, by most people in our culture to be “women’s work.”

After reading that post, I bet a few of you were thinking: gosh, yes. I see some of that in my experience. But, Kim: what’s the solution?

If I had the solution, of course, I would be rich and famous – and probably hiding out on a remote island trying to stave off the angry, anti-feminist internet trolls.

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So no, answers have I none. I do, however, have some ideas about how we might do better at redistributing the mental load. And these come from my own recent experiences – on holiday, believe it or not.

From 1-11 July I was hiking and cycling in the Calder valley in West Yorkshire. (Calder is the ancestral home of the Brontë sisters, btw; these amazing women were POSTER CHICKS for the mental load, thanks to their arsehole, alcoholic brother Branwell. And Branwell, dammit! You would not be enjoying all this weird posterior fame if it were not for your shockingly talented and enterprising sisters. Jackass.)

invisible-748214

Anne, Emile, and Charlotte (right) vs Branwell (left) – as per the BBC, in the 2016 biopic To Walk InvisibleGreat fun – check it out.

Anyway, back to my holiday. I had put my out-of-office message on my work email and disabled it on my phone (which was along with me for navigation purposes); on my computer, I funnelled work emails into a holiday inbox (my computer was along with me because I’d planned to do some free writing toward a new book, between hikes and rides). I decided to check my personal email once a day, largely to get rid of spam and finalize some plans with friends post-holiday.

Things did not start smoothly. I was full of anxiety those first few days away. It was the come-down after two long weeks of teaching Western’s study-abroad class in London, England, during which time I’d been responsible for 12 Canadian students pretty much 24/7. Some of those students presented challenges for me – let’s just say they were struggling with their own mental loads, and as the prof-in-residence their loads were necessarily mine, too.

As I’d been teaching all day, every day in London I’d been managing other stuff, too – research projects in the air, a journal issue about to be released, two graduate students nearing completion. I’d worked through the day on my final Friday before vacation to tidy up as many loose ends as possible, but as I tried to settle into holiday rhythm I felt convinced I couldn’t just leave it all to be on vacation for 10 days. Too many people were counting on me!

Of course I’d done everything I could to clear my inbox; still, I felt nervous and uneasy.

On my fourth day away, overcome by this unease and against my self-imposed rule, I checked my work email’s holiday inbox. I reasoned with myself that I could delete the spam and would feel better for it not overflowing. (Spam is evil. EVIL EVIL EVIL.)

You can guess what happened next. I found an urgent email from a colleague, writing on behalf of one of my graduate students; that student had not received the work I’d sent back to them before my break, owing to an email glitch. The tone of my colleague’s message was polite, but it read to me like they assumed I’d dropped the ball on my student and left a mess for someone else to clean up.

So what did I do? Did I sigh, roll my eyes, and then say to myself: “damn! How annoying! Let’s shoot the work back again, with a copy to the colleague, and remind everyone of my holiday dates. Then let’s forget about it until the holiday ends”?

Nope. Of course not.

What I did was, I lost my shit.

First, I panicked. Then I emailed my colleague with details (let’s say excessive details) of all the work I’d been doing to support the student in question, while also teaching my study abroad course. I then re-sent all the work to the student, with copies to my colleague and another member of our admin team. I sent separate notes to the admin team member involved. I made a full evening’s work for myself, while on holiday, and produced in the backwash almost 48 hours’ worth of fretting to follow.

What happened in the end? My student replied with thanks, apologized for the email mishap, and my colleague replied supportively, too. Sensing my mood, on about my sixth or seventh email, they also reminded me to forget about all of this not-actually-big-deal, not-really-world-ending stuff and just enjoy my holiday.

Since this minor but telling email meltdown, I’ve been thinking a lot about it.

What does it say about my mental load at work?

What does it say about my own expectations of myself in relation to that load?

What does it say about the systemic issues that shape both that load and my relationship with it?

Climb_HebdenBridge

Things about which to lose one’s shit: maybe this. Maybe not email. (An image of an actual cobbled climb in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire. Really.)

Lesson number one for me was this: I made extra work for myself where I did not need to. I overreacted to a simple situation and created both stress and labour where none was required. I made extra work for myself by checking my email on holiday. I did not need to do that! I SHOULD NOT have done that! The world would not have ended had I not looked at my colleague’s email until my break was over. Armageddon was not even in sight.

So that’s it, right? I created my own mental load problem. The solution? Just say no! Simples, ja?

meerkat

Not so fast. Lesson number two: I did what I did because I live inside a work structure that creates an onerous mental load for me on a regular basis, to which I’ve become slowly and unknowingly accustomed.

I understand my responsibility, as a teacher, to be to tend that load at all times. And more: I have learned to peg my self worth to my tending of that load at all times.

After two weeks of supporting 12 young women in a huge, foreign city, my pastoral care radar was at its max. I was utterly drained.

Maybe I checked my email because my body thought that experience wasn’t yet over. Maybe I checked my email because I’d created some destructive muscle memory that needed satisfying.

Most likely I checked my email because, unconsciously, I believe that’s what “good teachers” do: they make themselves available to their students 24/7. They never let their students down. They bend over backwards. They sacrifice their breaks. They martyr themselves.

To say this is destructive, wrong-headed, and awful is both true and not helpful. Remember what I argued in my last post, when I cited research into student responses on course evaluations: as a rule, women need to work harder to be perceived as caring and supportive teachers at university level. Whether that scenario holds true in every classroom or not doesn’t really matter: women are by and large socialized to over-care. And we do it at our own expense, more often than not. (We are socialized to do that, too.)

How do we begin to fix this?

Let’s start with what we – women in situations similar to the ones I’ve been describing – can do to help ourselves unload some of that mental load. In my own case, step #1 would have been for me to leave my computer behind on my holiday. (Free writing? Who cares! Just take the holiday. THEN write.)

Step #2 would have been for me to delete my work email completely from my phone.

Step #3, upon finally receiving my colleague’s email, would have been to take a deep breath and go for a walk. Then after some reflection to reply as I suggested above: briefly, calmly, unapologetically, and with the missing work attached.

(I might also, at the same time, have noted to my colleague – a kind and sympathetic human who would have heard the message! – some ways that the tone of their email might have been adjusted to help me feel less burdened by the situation.)

How could I have gotten to a mental place where steps 1-3 might have been conceivable for me? That would have involved me, in the first instance, asking for more support during my study abroad labour: being extremely clear to the colleagues around me what I needed, and asking for those things, frankly and kindly and, again, without apology.

But of course, there’s a catch. Academics in general, and women (among other non-white-male) academics in particular, rely for their status and security upon appearing to be shit-together-don’t-need-no-help types; asking for help reveals weakness, which places us, potentially, at risk.

Now, some of you (just like me, as I just wrote that sentence) are likely thinking: but there’s lots of help available at my school. And my male (among other) colleagues are super kind and supportive.

Yup, sure, true. But guess what else? Our mental loads are learnedingrained; they are systemic and they are tenacious, regardless of the objective realities of our work situations, and regardless of the kindness of our male (among other) colleagues. (They sneak in. They aren’t so immediately easy to see as a colleague’s gesture of kindness.)

Which means that it’s not just down to us to get a grip and take a holiday and ask for help.

It’s actually down to our colleagues, our line managers, our chairs and deans and others in positions of power at our institutions to help change the culture of the mental load.

The key thing to remember about the mental load is that it is often invisible. We have to work, sometimes very hard, to bring it into focus.

So: those of us who carry a lot of load need to look straight at it, and question whether or not we should be carrying it. We need to ask ourselves why we are carrying it: who benefits from that carriage? At whose expense does it happen? Then, we need to take some action based on our responses.

This might be as small an action as speaking out about it, candidly, to loved ones and colleagues who can help. It might even involve speaking openly with our students about the mental load. (I’m a big advocate for that: students, once invited to see teachers as human beings, often do so, and do so with real empathy.)

Just as crucially, those who do not carry as much load need to look with nuance at the others around them, and question how much mental load those others are carrying – and on whose behalf. For some of us, in fact the first job might be to look at the load itself, maybe to see it for the first time. To consider carefully the labour behind the stuff that just magically, somehow, gets done. And to ask who the hell is doing it, if we are not.

And again, the imperative to take action pertains: to ask questions, to imagine alternatives. Maybe just to make fewer assumptions.

Finally, at the level of structure – department level, faculty level – we need to do this work, and officially. How about a wellness task force (gender-balanced) to look at mental load specifically, to parse carefully the inequities in certain kinds of labour in our immediate environments, and to recommend action toward redress?

Or, even simpler – and with fewer risks of offloading the work of thinking about mental load onto those already burdened with mental load – how about some informal but curated discussions about how our local loads are distributed? (For this purpose, I’m a huge fan of Lois Weaver’s Long Table format. It is amazing because nobody leads; everyone must invest and hold a stake. Try it.)

When I started my academic job I got two excellent but flawed pieces of advice. The first was: keep your head down and publish, publish, publish. The second was: do not make yourself invaluable, or you will be placed on every committee ever.

The first problem with this advice is not that it’s bad; it’s that it is systemically naive. It assumes I can live with appearing both selfish and not quite good enough. For a woman like me in the academy, both of those prospects are social, and emotional, poison. Unbearable.

The second problem with this advice is that it expects me to adjust myself to a flawed system; it does not expect the system to open its eyes to me.

But here’s the thing: it’s not that hard to see what others are doing, going through – and what each of us is not actually doing about it. You just have to look a bit harder, more carefully, at greater depth. As academics, isn’t that what we are trained to do?

To end, and in the spirit of lightening the mental load, some snaps from Yorkshire – after I finally threw the email out the window. Enjoy and feel free.

Kim