So what’s next, then?

Hello again! Long time no see.

Actually… this may be the longest I’ve gone between posts in the five years since I began this blog. Holy crap.

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What happened? Well, I started teaching again after a sabbatical, which followed a house move, and which accompanied the writing of a book (which I’m happy to report I finished on 1 March, right on schedule). When the book wrapped, everything that had been on the back burner slid forward – and gosh, what a lot there was to slide. Exhaustion crept up on me quietly from behind… and before I knew it I was the one who was cooked. I spent most the second half of March forgetting to turn off the burners on my gas stove.

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(No, really. It’s not part of the metaphor!)

But something else also happened in March. After I completed the book, I found myself taking stock of the process I’d undergone. Of what I’d learned about my writing practice; of how I’d changed my writing practice.

Of what I was liking about my job and what I was hating about my job.

Of what I wanted to write next; of where I wanted my writing to take me next.

As I noted in my unschedule follow-up post in January, the writing experiment I undertook in order to start and finish my book project in five flat months was a huge success: I learned that I am exactly the kind of person who responds really well to the write-two-hours-each-day rule. I am deadline driven and I like a nice routine; I take pleasure in writing and I find that writing really is thinking for me. (For more on thinking-as-writing-as-thinking, click here.) I also tend to free-write in a way that comes out generally comprehensible and useable in a finished product, making free-write time productive for me in more than one way.

My revised unschedule for winter term provided a lot of slack, with large blocks of time only lightly scheduled, and only three writing hours marked off per week; I reasoned I would not be able to fit in much more. And was I ever right: in fact, since finishing the book, I have not written a single word in any of those scheduled writing hours. In a hilarious hairpin turn from my unschedule experience in the autumn, everything else about the unschedule has held – just not the writing.

When I realized this I found myself wondering why; of course the answer is obvious. My 40:40:20 workload* suggests I should spend two days per week on research and writing, all year round – but that’s utterly unreasonable in term, with its huge teaching and administrative commitments that typically spill far over their allocated three days per week. After dealing with students’ (increasingly harried) affect, the performance anxiety and adrenaline and exhaustion that comes with teaching a group of (young, increasingly harried, themselves exhausted) people for a sustained period of time, and the administrative palaver that managing courses with minimal secretarial support brings, one is not just tired; one is UTTERLY DRAINED. Add into that my personal commitment to sports (so that I can really enjoy my summer, I need to keep up my training in winter), and my new commute to and from campus by car (75 minutes; about 120km – each way), and, well, the truth is I had literally NO energy, physical or spiritual or intellectual, left in my body to write.

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My goodness, yes!

This taking-stock has provoked deeper questions for me. Like: am I doing what I actually want to be doing?

I loved writing – and writing a book for students! – so much that it literally changed me last autumn; I became a person with a regular writing practice and a smile plastered on her face. But working at a university – and at a university with at best a very ambivalent relationship to the arts – is also killing my writing spirit.

(I noted to a friend that my commute is new and I’ll get used to it; she noted in turn that the commute, in its newness, is also clarifying, foregrounding for me things I had not realized before. I now have the impetus to ask myself: is what I do on campus worth the 75-minute drive to get there?)

Further, the pleasure I took in writing the book was in large part pleasure taken as I dialogued in my head with the audience I was writing for. Not only does this contradict the things I’m feeling about teaching right now (aka tired; super over it), but it also calls into question what I want to write in future, as I recover the wonderful writing practice currently lying dormant while spring straggles into view.

I wrote a monograph but not a “monograph”; I wrote an academic book for students, which (as anyone who has undergone a REF cycle knows very well) is often perceived to be not a “real” academic book at all. Do I want to write another “academic monograph”? I’m not sure.

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Pretty much a monograph. Yup.

Who do I want to write for? – this is a question I’ve been asking myself a lot lately. As I noted in my post for Gary and Lena in February, I love collaboration; how do I want to write, and with whom? If the answer is – as I suspect it will be – not academic audiences, and not alone – how do I do that in a way compatible with my job?

I had a freakout on facebook about this a while back. In a particular fit of pique I wrote:

“what does it say about me that I have literally no desire to write another academic monograph?”

The reaction was significant, and surprising. Lots of people were on board with my urge to ditch the monograph form and write something else, or maybe just make some art for a change. But a number of people I care about and respect also took offence, suggesting that I was disrespecting an incredibly important form of knowledge transfer in our field.

Talking to one another as academics is hugely valuable, of course, and we need specialist forms and languages to do that. But somehow, I thought, I don’t want to do that myself, anymore.

Or do I? I suspect, looking back, that what I was reacting to on facebook wasn’t a particular writing mode or output, but actually the structures that shape our writing lives as academics.

Academic monographs come with a mental image: they imply a certain amount of solitary reading, research, writing. (See above…) We sequester ourselves or steal time from our teaching or seek leaves to carve out space for this work. We emerge with a product that, if we are lucky, a handful of people read; it lives out its life on library shelves, perhaps inspiring dedicated senior students as time goes on. As for us, we head back into the classroom, back onto the treadmill; we teach and graft and struggle until we can steal some more time, apply for more leave, disappear from campus into our studies, and do it again.

BUT.

Despite my anti-monograph facebook screed, this is apparently exactly what I’m craving right now: to disappear again into a space with my writing and find the joy my work brought me in autumn, a joy I have not felt in my work in a good while. But why, why, must I disappear? Why can’t teaching and writing co-exist for me in a way that allows one to feed the other simultaneously, that leaves me with more and not less energy?

How can I claw away some of the stress that attends my teaching practice and thereby make more breathing room for in-term writing, year-round writing, happy and maybe – but not necessarily – productive writing?

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The truth is that I don’t know what I want to write next. I’d like time to find out, and to find out, I’m going to need to write for a while and just see what happens. In order to permit myself that freedom to write, I’m going to have to reinvent the entire work structure (that is, 40:40:20, research:teaching:admin) that bolsters my new writing practice.

This doesn’t mean making another un-schedule, I’ve realized; as I proved this past month, it’s entirely possible for me to keep to the unschedule perfectly – except for the writing part.

Rather, it means refocusing the emotional attention I pay to teaching prep and teaching stress, admin graft and stress; perhaps it means compartmentalizing carefully some of that stress so that I can really leave it behind when I leave my campus office.

I don’t know how to do this yet, but I’m hoping to spend some time this summer figuring out a plan. Part of my summer will be spent reinventing (in fact: decolonizing) two of my regular courses (more on that in an upcoming post), and also in planning a brand new one. I hope that, as part of that teaching-side labour, I can find ways to weave my writing practice into my teaching practice, bringing these work things often thought to be disparate into a healthier alignment.

I imagine already that this might involve me experimenting with free-writing as prep; it might involve me building more free-writing into class time proper (and including myself in that free-writing, in class!). It may also involve me purchasing a folding bicycle, and writing on the train.

Like I said: not yet sure. But I’ll be sure to keep you posted.

Happy end of semester!

Kim

*40:40:20 = 40% research, 40% teaching, 20% service. Ya, right. ;-/

 

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On scheduling

In my last post I mentioned I’m on sabbatical. When I did that, I bet some of you went: “ARGH! Why can’t I be on sabbatical too!

Don’t feel too bad, at least not on my account. Because the truth is I suck at sabbaticals: nobody is worse than me at sorting out life during unscheduled, unplanned time. I’m pretty much useless without frameworks and extant demands to concentrate my focus. I joke that I only took on my last book project, Theatre & Feminism, because I was moving across the ocean, changing jobs, and taking on some caring responsibilities for my mom – I needed a work project to help de-stress my busy life.

Alas, I now have ANOTHER book project – the kind with a contract, a deadline, and a hard-at-work-already marketing team – and it needs to get written on this here research leave, which ends in late December. I spent July trying to recover from my winter and spring teaching obligations, August moving house, and September, so far, has been eaten up with a combination of works taking place at my new place, and self-imposed, utterly unproductive angst about all the other kinds of works NOT getting done around my new home office.

In other words: I need to fake up a framework for myself, and fast.

Cue the un-schedule.

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What’s an unschedule? Basically, it’s a schedule you create for yourself that prioritizes all the life/fun/”in the way” stuff that normally gets left OUT of a schedule, and which then of course takes over anyway, and guarantees that your schedule is not actually going to function as intended.

I learned about the un-schedule when I first began my job at Western, during a Teaching Support Centre workshop on work-life balance, from my (now) friend Tracy Isaacs, one of the professors behind the terrific blog Fit is a Feminist Issue. I still recall Tracy opening her talk with these words: “I’m on sabbatical right now, so of course I have balance.” What strikes me as incredibly ironic – yet also entirely useful – looking back on that presentation now, is that Tracy located her work-life balance in her un-schedule. Without scheduling of some kind, in fact, sabbaticals do not generate balance; they are not magical work-life re-jiggers. A sabbatical can easily become a stressful black hole for people like me, who are normally workaholics and operate effectively under pressure.

So, how does one make an unschedule? Mileage varies, I’ve found, after some informal googling. The one rule is that you start with the immoveable stuff (food! sleep! school run!), followed by the “for you” stuff (exercise, haircuts, reading, coffee with friends). Then you either schedule, or leave blank, the spaces around them, which can in theory be filled with work tasks, life tasks, or whatever else needs doing. The principal is simply that, by starting with a realistic look at your habits, your commitments, your pleasures, and the actual time each takes, you can more logically set out a day or a week that genuinely represents your needs.

I spent today working at the British Library; in “un-schedule” fashion, I started with immoveable commitments (one fun: lunch with friend Bridget; one less so: adjusting a piece of writing I need to present on camera tomorrow). Then, once they were completed, I turned to my spreadsheet app, created a blank schedule document, and got to work.

Before I take you through my process, here’s what the finished product looks like:

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My first order of business was to delete Saturday and Sunday from the picture altogether. I do not work on those days, period. (That’s a hard and fast rule, UNLESS it’s term time, I’m teaching, and something comes up that simply cannot be readjusted into the week. I also don’t check my work email on weekends, which is a decision I made last fall and it’s been a life-saver.)

Next, I tried to work out what blocks of time I needed: an hour? Less? More? I quickly realized that each day, for the purposes of creating a one-page, at-a-glance weekly schedule, needed to include the same time blocks, but that each day would never really look the same, task wise. I decided that this will simply mean that some days “10-12” will be more like “9:45-11:30” or “10:30-12:30”, depending on the day and the tasks at hand. Not a big deal; the schedule, after all, is a guide, not Big Brother. I can adjust on the fly.

My next job was to identify stuff that simply has to happen each day. Right now, given sabbatical, there’s honestly not a lot of that: few meetings, fewer demands on my time from colleagues or students. Cue momentary panic: my life is empty!! How can I be so unproductive?? Then, I closed my eyes and pictured Emma the dog giving me the side-eye she uses for all purposes of emotional blackmail. Problem solved.

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(Emma says: you HAVE to take me walkies. RIGHT NOW.)

I began to un-schedule in earnest by filling in my morning routine. I am not an early riser (8:30 is optimistic, people!), and I like to walk Emma first thing (actually, I permit myself to be herded to the door first thing). I like to check email over coffee. This takes time. Empty the dishwasher, make a smoothie and some eggs, tidy up, water plants in the garden… I’m not going to pretend these things don’t happen, and don’t take up to 2 hours, depending, in the morning. That’s the way I like it. So into the schedule it went.

The next thing I noted – and this is slightly un-un-schedule-y, but whatevs – was that I wanted to block off at least 2 hours a day for sitting in front of my computer, email program closed, writing (or trying to write – staring blankly at text I reject as sub-par but have as yet no idea how to fix also counts for something). That damn book deadline means I need to generate about 4000 words a week until Christmas; that’s a lot of writing, but it’s not unmanageable for me. I reason that I’ll need 12-16 hours per week to generate that amount of content, unedited; so two hours each morning, every morning of the week, takes care of the bulk of that.

And so we come to lunch. I always eat lunch, but lunch for me rarely consists of just eating. I am extremely active: an avid cyclist, swimmer, rower, and I practice Iyengar yoga (among other kinds). Which basically means I’m an endorphin junkie. Without the endorphins, work goes less well, period. So, to be realistic, I blocked off 2.5 hours for lunch-hour activities each day; for two of those days I scheduled a bike ride (which, until the snow flies, will likely take the full 2.5 hours), while for one I scheduled a swim, and the other a yoga class.

This part of the scheduling task was actually hard – not because I don’t know how much time I need for lunch-hour activities, nor because I didn’t know what those activities might be, but because I’ve just moved to my new city, and so don’t actually have my new workout routine in place yet. (Will I like the yoga classes I’ve identified as “good timing”? Will I want to swim every Friday?) This realization prompted another brief moment of panic: how can you make a schedule when you don’t even know WTF about your new life yet AAGGHH?? Which I solved by reminding myself of another really important detail: the schedule is not fixed. It’s flexible!

If in three weeks it turns out my exercise routine *actually* looks very different to what I’ve scheduled, that’s fine: I can just change the schedule, moving the work stuff around as needed. That’s the power of the un-schedule.

Which brings us to the afternoon. I am not an early riser/morning person = I like to work late into the afternoons; that’s why that block begins each day at 2:30pm and continues until 5:30, with an option to extend to 6:30pm as needed. I know myself; I’ll get going in the afternoon and might not want to stop. I won’t want to cook, let alone eat, before 7pm, guaranteed. So this is a very logical, practical organization of my time.

And what about the tasks that slot into that 3-4 hour window? I’ve recorded these as “primary or secondary” tasks, to reflect that some days I’ll want to return to the morning’s writing, and some days I know I won’t. I also have other stuff on tap – blog posts to write, new work by colleagues to read, as well as other research projects bubbling to the surface. I edit a journal, Theatre Research in Canada / Recherches théâtrales au Canada, which requires some concentrated time; I’ve scheduled an afternoon a week for that work, and hope (for a change!) to restrict it to that window of time.

In four of these afternoon slots, you’ll notice that I’ve also added a note: “may include travel to Toronto.” I now live within Toronto’s public transit corridor, which means I can visit friends, see theatre or films, or head into the city for meetings very easily. The bus and the train are both options for me; both take an hour, and both are ideal work zones. I know I’ll want to visit the city at least once a week, and I know I can combine that travel with work on public transit very easily. It made sense to remind myself of this in the schedule, so that if someone invites me to a meeting in Toronto I can honestly say: I have M/T/Th/F from 2:30pm; what works for you?

Which brings us to 7pm. “Stop working!” I’ve told myself in each evening slot. Why? Because I might not stop otherwise. I might have not been as productive as I want to be in the day, or I might be stuck on a tricky paragraph; I know myself well enough to know that, if that happens, I’ll keep pushing until I fall down from hunger or exhaustion. (Again, the principal that drives the un-schedule is self-reflexive honesty.) But if I’ve followed the schedule, and it’s 7pm, then, dammit, it’s time to stop. Tomorrow’s another day. And look! Wednesday might include an optional evening activity (there’s nothing scheduled at lunch yet… we’ll see), plus there’s restorative yoga on Thursday nights at the studio near my house. A great excuse to shut the computer down.

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(Looks odd, feels great. BKS Iyengar always knew when to stop working.)

How’s this going to go? Your guess is as good as mine. I’m going to stick as closely as possible to the schedule for the next couple of weeks and note what needs adjusting; then I’ll rejig it to reflect aspects of my weekly reality I could only glean from living through the schedule. (I might repost it at that point, if I learn useful things in the process; stay tuned.)

For now, I’m going to try to operate by the following three principals:

  • all the activities in the schedule are valuable. I will make time for all of them – even the damn dog walking – as close to the slotted time as is reasonable.
  • the schedule is a guide; adjustments on the fly do not equal failures.
  • the schedule is flexible; it should flex with me. If I bend too hard to meet the schedule’s “demands”, it won’t be sustainable.

Meanwhile, if you work to a similar (or similarly-spirited) schedule, please let me know what you use and how it works for you! I’m very keen to understand how others cope with the sabbatical conundrum.

Kim

 

On diversity, on Canadian stages, right now (part one)

It’s end of term and I’m swamped. I have LITERALLY no time to write ANYTHING… but then I went and promised a review of Anusree Roy’s brave new piece at Factory Theatre in Toronto to Stratfordfestivalreviews.com.

Bugger.

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Happily, I’d spent several days previous at an industry symposium at Modern Times Theatre in Toronto, where we talked at depth about what practicing cultural, gender, and ability diversity in our artistic and academic labour means right now – in the rehearsal hall, on stage, in the the audience, on the page.

Equally happily, my new friend Dhurin agreed to come to the theatre with me, and give me his perspective on the show (a full-on diasporic, new-to-Canada-living-in-Mississauga perspective, yo).

Click here to find out what happened next.

And, once I surface from the marking, look forward to a post on the meatier, more challenging, aspects of our discussions at the symposium.

Almost there!!!!

Kim

 

Write. Just write. And be amazed.

You might be familiar with this advice often given to graduate students and research faculty alike: if you need to get something written, set aside a bit of time every day – we’re talking, like, 20 minutes, maybe 30 – and just sit down and do it already. Be prepared for a lot of what you write ultimately to go in the bin. Be prepared to find it cringe-inducing to begin writing, not like what you appear to be writing, and yet still have to keep going until the egg timer makes its pinging sound. And be prepared for the thing you need written, amazingly, actually to get written.

I freely confess I’ve not followed this advice myself in recent years – and I have to say I regret it. I’ve realised lately that I’m not getting the writing done that needs (or wants!) doing, and while I often blame my teaching and service workload for clawing time away from my writing, especially in the school term, the sad truth is that I could easily find 20 minutes a day to write. I just choose not to find it – and my mood suffers as a result.

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This truth was driven home to me in late January when Melanie Mills, the instructional librarian attached to the Department of English and Writing Studies at Western, visited my modern theatre class to take us through a time management exercise. (You can read a bit more about that here.) This exercise is attached to the students’ current research essay task: in addition to writing their research essays, the students all made time management plans, and I asked them each to keep a time management journal. (Handing in their plans and journals with their essays guarantees them a free 5% on top of their research essay grades.) I also asked them to select their own, custom due dates for their essays; the idea was to give them the freedom to work their essays into their term’s labour in a way that made sense for their own, individual schedules. Of course, the time management tasks, plus the customising of due dates, had another purpose too: to force students to confront their procrastinating tendencies head-on, and to reckon with them.

What happened when I did the time management exercise with Melanie and the class back in January? Surprise, surprise: I ran smack into my own procrastinating tendencies. I learned that, on the scale she gave us, I score a bare 6/10 for TM skills. In particular, the exercise revealed that I am bad at setting priorities for myself. I tend to do the work that will create an easy sense of satisfaction at the end of a day (teaching/marking tasks, addressing emails and shrinking the inbox, writing blog posts […ahem]), and I put off for another, “protected” day the things that I deem most challenging and often most important to my sense of self (like writing). Of course, those “protected” days are a ruse. They usually don’t come. Or they come rarely. And when they do, the build-up is so severe that sitting in front of the screen to write becomes a stomach knot-inducing burden, an all-or-nothing high-stakes game.

Scoring a C in time management lit a bit of a fire under me. No, I’ve not been writing every day – not yet. (See my last post for the panic under which I’ve been working this term; I’m barely hanging on, but looking much forward to the change that end of term brings in three weeks’ time). But I have been thinking more and more about the ways in which we all (including me!) tend to equate writing with the highest of stakes, about how to lower those stakes a bit, and about different ways to help students, in particular, to recognise the value of setting aside just a small portion of time in a day, sitting down with the anxiety, pushing it to one side, and writing something, anything, just to see what happens.

I’ve been an advocate for short bursts of writing in the classroom for a while; I got religion while at Queen Mary, and I learned a huge amount from the team in the Thinking/Writing program there. The ethos behind that program is nicely captured in a very recent article by Neil Haave for the National Teaching and Learning Forum, in which Haave argues that writing is a thinking process, not just its outcome or record. Citing scientific research into the cognitive changes that writing induces, Haave writes,

By placing thoughts in the structure of a sentence, we produce vehicles of thought that then may be manipulated on the page or screen (Menary 2007). The act of manipulating the thought vehicles (sentences) is a way of manipulating our thinking by integrating different ideas—it produces thinking: Writing is thinking. Thus writing is not just about enhancing memory and recording thoughts—it is not simply the recording and transmission of information, though it does play that additional role. Rather, when writing sentences, creating new sentences and moving the contained phrases and container sentences around in new structures, the writer is actively thinking, bringing ideas together in new ways that illuminate each other in a manner unknown until that moment.

What this kind of research teaches us is, I think, ground-breaking: that when we write, stuff moves in the brain. We change. We develop. We learn, and we grow. It might not feel like it at the time, but that’s what’s happening: we’re learning and growing as we struggle to get word onto page.

This is a really liberating way of thinking about writing and the anxiety it brings, if you ask me. It puts in a very different, much more positive light those moments that, let’s face it, we ALL fear, that produce a lot of the fear that stops our writing from starting in the first place. That is: those moments when we hit a wall, don’t know where to go next, don’t see how all the ideas connect up… because our brains are in the process of making fresh, often complex, discoveries about how the ideas on the page will finally come together. We just don’t know what that looks like yet. We’re still working it through –  but we can only work it out by writing about and often around it. Ironically, these moments are the moments that necessarily precede the breakthroughs. They are also, however, the moments when many of us (me included…) often stop, panicked, and close the laptop.

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This photo is by Kalindy. See more here.

Haave says: “I believe that one of the reasons students have a difficult time writing is that they spend so much time thinking about what to write before they write as opposed to simply writing what they think.” The solution, for him, is to create as many opportunities as possible for students to write down what’s going through their heads as they work, and to share that low-stakes (not for grades!) writing with a peer partner as often as possible.

I use these kinds of low-stakes writing exercises in class all the time, and a number of past students have reported to me on their value for their own learning practices. But in honour of the specific challenges posed by our research essay task and time management meta-tasks this spring, last week in modern theatre I went one better. I turned our final class hour into a writing “retreat”, inviting students to come to class and just write for 50 minutes. Melanie was there to offer support, as was I and my TA, Meghan. We volunteered to talk through difficult issues with students, to read bits and pieces, to help with research challenges, and to brainstorm around thesis statements that just weren’t quite there yet. I explicitly styled this hour as a gift – students could choose not to come, though regular absence penalties applied, but I told the students that I hoped they would come, because when were they going to gift themselves a whole hour just to write, and then to put the writing away and get on with the day?

In the end, more than half turned up – and in mid-March. I’m calling that a win, for them and for writing-as-thinking. I just wish I’d given myself that hour to write, too.

Thoughtfully,

Kim

On Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls at the Shaw Festival (Part 2)

A little while ago I posted to this space the program note I wrote for the Shaw Festival production of Top Girls, one of my favourite plays by the prolific and inspiring British feminist Caryl Churchill. At that time I promised I’d write a review of the production after I saw it – which I did last Friday night, at the luminous premiere in Niagara-on-the-Lake.

We had a perfect evening for the festivities – cloudless blue skies dying to black under the twinkling lights of the Court House Theatre. Opening party-goers dined beneath a festive canopy in the gardens at the historic Lakewinds guest house before undertaking the short, picturesque stroll to the show. At the interval, we spilled outside with wine and ice-creams as the stars came out. Inside, the stars of the show lit up the stage. And yes: it was every bit as charming, as dream-like as it sounds.

Before I share my thoughts on the production proper – which I found smart, sharp, fun, and moving – I want to share the story of how I came to be at the glamorous premiere I’ve just described. Bear with me – there’s good reason for this diversion.

I’ve written program notes for several theatres in Canada and the U.K., and each company compensates essayists differently. I’ve been given honoraria (including by the Shaw), complimentary tickets to several productions (from festivals like Stratford that run a season in repertory), access to directors and key artists, as well as royalties from the subsequent reprinting of notes when shows go on tour. But this was new: Shaw invited me to attend the opening night dinner for Top Girls as well as the cocktail reception beforehand, during which I would meet both the talented artists who created the show as well as a large helping of wealthy donors, those who help keep Shaw going from year to year. Then we would all see, together, the opening performance itself, seated cheek-by-jowl with Shaw’s theatrical glitterati as well as a brace of critics from over the lake in Toronto.

The Shaw puts on a great party, and I and my companion had enormous fun sipping our gin and tonics under the big white tent. I won’t lie, though; I found it rather uncomfortable to be seated at a table with jobbing artists on one side and extremely rich people on the other (however generous, friendly, and philanthropically minded those people are). I could tell from brief looks and a few small moments of awkwardness that the artists around me were used to this routine: of course the dinner offers a good time, but it’s also work for them. They must be consistently convivial and forthcoming with their chat; they help to star-dust the evening for the donors who pay for elite access to the festival’s inner workings when they cut their big cheques. Then it dawned on me: I, too, was at work as I munched my seared tuna. No wonder I had been nervous beforehand! Although I’d not lit the show, designed costumes, acted or directed, I had provided creative labour for the festival. As they flattered me with a gala invite, the Shaw staff also slyly invited me to perform my virtuosity as a researcher and writer for those seated near me.

Again, lest I seem ungrateful for what was a genuinely gorgeous evening, let me say once more that I had a really nice time, and I suspect everyone around me did too. But that should not hide the fact that for some at the cocktails and supper party “pleasure” and “work” had to commingle inextricably. This is the nature of so much “creative class” labour today: you’re never off duty when it’s your job to manage the pleasure of others for profit. (For a smart, very critical look at the way the creative class has been imagined by urban theory over the last decade, check out this article by Jamie Peck.)

Creative (or “immaterial“) labour isn’t a new thing, of course: artists have always been linked to patrons with money. (If you’ve never seen Impromptu, watch it now!) But the emergence of the creative class as a broad spectrum group is a modern phenomenon, and in its current iteration it is tied to the rise of neoliberalism as a socio-political economy for the information age. Creative labourers generate content (they are writers, graphic designers, web developers), manage consumer experience (they are brand managers or ad execs), set a mood (if they are not designers, they work “in design”), shape a zeitgeist (inevitably, they write blogs. Ahem.) They may well be talented artists making real, tangible things – like beautiful pieces of theatre! – but just as importantly they create an aura, a sharp desire that makes others want to be a part of their culturally-aware awesomeness. The building and maintenance of this aura is key to the work accomplished by today’s creative workforce – just as it was key to the work the artists and I did under the tent at the Top Girls opening party.

Top Girls is a play about the cruelties of neoliberal economics: it pits its sixteen female characters against one another in the fight to the top of the “super-business-woman” pyramid. After eating my gala dinner and then watching director Vikki Anderson’s production, however, I realised that Top Girls is also very much a play about the pressures of the creative class, for women artists and brand executives alike. And while my gala experience was helpful in framing the reading I’m about to offer, it was ultimately two particularly innovative choices made by Anderson and her team that threw this production’s focus on the working lives of creative women into stark relief.

Fiona Byrne as Marlene in Top Girls.

(At right: Fiona Byrne as Marlene, Top Girls’ high-flying, smart-dressing main character. Photo by David Cooper.)

First, Anderson chose to show us the backstage labour involved in preparing to go on as one of Churchill’s strong female characters. Before the play began, and while the house lights were still up, we saw the cast enter one by one, sit at makeup desks, prepare their faces and put on their costumes – all while bopping and air-guitaring to ’80s pop and rock tunes selected by sound designer Thomas Ryder Payne. (Top Girls dates to 1982.) Throughout the show this backstage space returned as the women took off the trappings of one role and put on another; the conceit was clever and it spoke elegantly (as did Anderson’s director’s note) to the typically invisible grooming women are expected to undertake in their “off” hours in order to “stage” themselves for success at work each day. (Men, too, suffer increasingly from these expectations, I know; the pressure on women remains much more powerful.)

So Anderson’s frame-story was one about gender, power, and the performance of self – Judith Butler 101. But it was also more, and for me this “more” was the bit tied to the playful dancing. These women didn’t trudge on joylessly; they entered smiling, chatting, grooving, and eager to share some of this time with one another. Yes, we saw their silent work at their mirrors, but we also saw them coalesce as they worked into a community of artist-professionals who were supporting each other through their shared tasks. Several danced together; two exchanged quite intimate words and gestures. Most gave each other shoulder squeezes and short pep talks that I suspect were more for one another than for us – gestures of solidarity and support among a group of women about to go to work for the night, rather than performances of “play” for audience edification.

Laurie Paton as Jeanine in Top Girls.

(Laurie Paton prepares to become Jeanine in Act 2. Photo by David Cooper.)

Top Girls was written in the early years of Margaret Thatcher’s rule; it demonstrates how the cult of the individual she championed wrecks the potential for feminist community and feminist political solidarity across difference. Anderson’s frame-story implies that community is actually an essential component of success for a contemporary “creative” woman. Is it a bit utopic, perhaps unrealistic? Maybe. But, then again, each of these seven performers killed it on Friday night – so if those squeezes, grooves, and supportive words at the top of the show were made of real stuff, they sure did real work, and it got real results.

Julia Course as Angie and Tess Benger as Kit in Top Girls.

(Julia Course as Angie and Tess Benger as Kit. Photo by David Cooper. )

Anderson’s second innovation has to do with Angie, the high-flying main character’s not especially high-achieving niece. In many productions of Top Girls Angie is costumed blandly and played as a bit of a lump – exactly how her bitter mom (Joyce) and her successful aunt (Marlene) describe her to others. But Anderson clearly doesn’t believe Joyce and Marlene: Julia Course’s Angie is vivacious, wacky, smiley, full of life – frankly hilarious, a show-stealer. No wonder Kitty, the smaller girl down the road, wants to play with her all the time!

Course’s Angie is also glued to her exercise book, an item Churchill mentions only very briefly in Act 3 but which Course and Anderson choose to read as evidence of Angie’s burgeoning creativity, a zest for drawing, words, and imaginative play. Here, Angie isn’t a dullard who “isn’t going to make it” because she’s not smart or ambitious (as Marlene declares meanly at one point); nor is she doomed to failure because she doesn’t come from money and hasn’t had opportunities. This Angie’s trouble comes from the fact that her brand of imagination – the kind that takes wing under forts built of blankets, or in notebooks hidden under mattresses – isn’t valued by the culture around her, a culture that lusts after the kinds of creativity Marlene peddles when she tells her employment agency clients how to present themselves in an interview, what parts of themselves to reveal and what parts to conceal. Marlene’s creativity is for-profit, carefully honed and framed, but Angie’s creativity is messy, chaotic, just for fun – for pleasure with no strings attached. If she could tame it, shape it, sell it… well then, surely she could make it. But that’s not Angie’s style – and that’s why Marlene condemns her as someone with no style at all.

Top Girls opens with a lavish dinner party to celebrate Marlene’s promotion to director of her agency; I suspect Marlene would make a pretty attractive guest at any opening night gala. Angie, on the other hand, would be a complete disaster at a glam dinner: all legs, arms flailing; all too-small, too-shiny dresses and mad, frenetic energy. Or, then again, maybe she’d be just what more gala dinners need: less work, more unbridled play.

Party on, ladies!

Kim