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.

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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.

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

Top Girls at the Shaw Festival, part 1: 1982 and all that

This year’s Shaw Festival, the big summer theatre event that takes place each year in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, features a new production of Caryl Churchill’s landmark feminist play from the Thatcher era, Top Girls, and I’m proud to say that I have written the program note for it. The play is a personal favourite of mine – I teach it most years, and I have seen several productions of it in the UK and in Canada. It’s also weirdly still topical: though it was written in 1982, near the beginning of what we might call late-modern neoliberal capitalism in Britain, it resonates even more loudly today because, well, neoliberalism is alive and kicking more of us in the ass than ever before. That’s what my program note is about, in fact: how Churchill’s “ball-busting” post/feminist icon, Marlene, seems as familiar as ever in 2015, and what we can and should learn from her today.

With kind permission of the Festival (and with big thanks to its dramaturg, Joanna Falck, who commissioned my essay) I’m reproducing the program note here; I’ll also do a review of the production (and the opening night dinner and party!) shortly after I see it later this month. Stay tuned.

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Top Girl Power

By Kim Solga

When I began teaching contemporary theatre to university students just over ten years ago, I put Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls on my syllabus even though I was certain that choice would prove to be a disaster. Churchill is one of the most important British playwrights living today, one of the most influential political playwrights in British history, and she is arguably the most significant British woman playwright of any generation; for students of the genre, her work is not to be missed. Top Girls, however, is a tricky play. Written in 1982, during the first wave of Margaret Thatcher’s power and influence, Top Girls is a child of its moment, steeped in Churchill’s strong brand of socialism and littered (like so many of Churchill’s major works of socialist realism, including Serious Money, first performed in 1987 and produced at the Shaw Festival in 2010) with topical references that can easily prove confusing for contemporary audiences. These things make the play a major historical drama, of course – no different from all of the other historical dramas we ask our students to read all the time – but that is not all this play is. It is also a work of ardent, forceful feminism, and in its unflinching representation of women’s lives on both ends of the socioeconomic spectrum it explores the unsavory possibility that feminism could not then, in 1982, and should not now, in 2015, be declared “over”, because too many women are still being left behind.

Top Girls snapshots a few days in the life of Marlene, a high-flying corporate executive who has just been promoted to Managing Director of the employment agency that shares the play’s name. In the famous first act, Marlene presides over a lavish dinner party celebrating her good fortune – a party to which she has invited a variety of notable female figures from history, mythology, art and literature. This set-up makes for one of the funniest, most memorable openings in modern theatre (pay attention to what each woman orders for dinner or dessert!), but as the evening progresses and everyone becomes more and more drunk, fault lines open up. Here, audiences may catch a first glimpse of Churchill’s larger dramaturgical strategy: sharp, dialectical irony. Marlene’s famous guests have been remembered by history for their female exceptionalism – Gret is a warrior; Joan outsmarts the smartest men in Europe; Isabella is an unstoppable adventurer – but it is precisely this specialness that makes them hilariously unsuitable for everything from small talk to political debate with other women. Each guest brings to Marlene’s table a unique and valuable perspective on what it means to live a woman’s life in different places and times, but things finally fall apart because not one of them is able to imagine what it’s really like to be anyone else in the room (least of all their waitress). These remarkable women, it turns out, are all remarkably self-important, and with the possible exception of Gret, the least articulate member of the group, they seem to have absolutely no idea what it means to be part of a female community.

Many of Caryl Churchill’s most celebrated plays were written over the course of the 1970s and 1980s, when she was playwright in residence at the Royal Court Theatre (1974-5) and when she collaborated regularly with the Joint Stock and Monstrous Regiment collectives, the latter an expressly feminist theatre group. Churchill has always openly declared her feminist affinities, but her plays combine feminist concerns for social and political equality with other forms of political commitment, making her work rich, multi-faceted, and broadly resonant for a range of viewers. Recent Churchill plays have explored issues as varied as ecological crisis (The Skriker, 1994; Far Away, 2000), the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (Seven Jewish Children, 2009), and human connectivity (or the lack thereof) in a fully digitized world (Love and Information, 2012). The work she was producing in the hot-house Thatcher years, however, focused primarily on the complicated relationship between gender and economic rights – on how, for example, women’s limited (but much celebrated) social, political, and economic gains through the 1980s were marching in lock-step with the radical shifts remaking postwar Britain in the image of neoliberalism. This is the model of government in which corporate rights and business interests are protected by the state above all, in the belief that private, for-profit firms will “trickle down” their wealth to employees and help achieve social equality more quickly and efficiently than any form of government could do.

We still live, today more than ever, with a bad neoliberal hangover, and the dangers neoliberal ideology holds for women in particular emerge subtly but skillfully in the middle act of Top Girls. The morning after the night before, Marlene arrives at work to a steady stream of women who would like to change their lives by changing their jobs. One by one she cuts them down; her appetite to raise other women up with her newfound power and influence proves much less ravenous than the one that devoured her steak at supper. Churchill skewers Marlene’s shortsightedness in her careful juxtaposition of scenes, a technique she adapts from the mid-century Marxist theatre director Bertolt Brecht, but Marlene is not ultimately an unlikeable character. As a political writer Churchill is far more interested in supporting debate than in scoring points, and by the play’s final act Marlene emerges as a profoundly flawed human being with a strong survival instinct and a reasoned, if not especially inclusive, political perspective. Those of us who sat through first her drunken dinner and then her bad day at work might be surprised to find we’re supporting Marlene as she fights back against her sister Joyce’s bitter clinging to old ways and an ugly martyrdom. And in many ways our support for Marlene, despite not really liking her very much, is Churchill’s point: political action requires us to hang together so that someday we can all reap the benefit, however different our ambitions may be.

I expected a lot of resistance to Top Girls’ feminism from my first students, both men and women, but they proved me wrong. Instead of complaining that Churchill’s politics are dated and polemical, they showed me how, like all good political drama, Top Girls is carefully rooted in a single place and time but is ultimately about so much more than that one place and time. After reading the play they wanted to talk about the word “feminism” and what it meant to them, and for them, in Canada in 2005. They wanted to talk about the claims made by “post-feminism”, and about the several other ways in which the death of feminist politics was being marketed daily to a generation of skeptical young people. They wanted to talk about the ongoing disparity in pay between men and women, especially in the professions, and they wanted to talk about how neither Marlene nor Joyce seems to have won any feminist battle, though neither seems able to offer the other any real empathy over their shared loss.

When my students and I read Top Girls today, ten years on, we talk about Laura Bates’ Everyday Sexism project (http://everydaysexism.com), about the play’s politics in light of increased discussion online and in the media around violence against women, and about feminism’s newfound popularity (cynical? sincere?) among certain Hollywood and pop music celebrities. We talk about Angie, Marlene’s young niece; she is left behind, written off, as many of my students, in this economy, fear they may be, too. We talk about the Occupy movement, about Idle No More, and about the various ways in which resistance to social and economic status quos is being spearheaded today by energized, organized young people who refuse to take systemic sexual abuse, racial profiling, or poor economic prospects lying down. These young men and women insist that a better world will be built through strength in numbers and a faith in common bonds; for them, Top Girls is far from historically dated and ideologically irrelevant. It is our contemporary, and its politics are smart, funny, and urgent.

Enjoy the show!

Kim

A Tale of Two Systems

Herewith, the text of my contribution to the Western “Alternative” 100 Days of Listening Tour. With thanks to all my colleagues who maintain the “Noah Confidenze” Tumblr site, here.

Dear fellow faculty members, staff and students,

I’ve been at Western since 2005, but from 2012 to 2014 I worked as a Senior Lecturer in Drama at Queen Mary, University of London. Queen Mary Drama is, according to the last two REF (“Research Excellence Framework”) exercises mandated by the British government, the top academic theatre department in the UK, and as of last December the top academic performing arts department, including but not limited to theatre. Its researchers are nationally celebrated and internationally respected writers and artists. They are also an amazing group of human beings who truly love each other and spend time outside of work together.

In spite of this exceptional good fortune and warm intradepartmental culture, however, over the last several years my QM colleagues’ working lives have grown harder and harder, the morale in the school of which they are a part dropping further and further. Research money is thin on the ground, but scholars are still expected to produce world-beating materials in time for the regular “dry runs” designed to prepare the college for success in the REF. New research centres are created according to what upper-level administrators think will best support the school’s brand, after only limited consultation with faculty members involved with or impacted by the schemes. Students, rocked by the Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition government’s decision to raise tuition rates across the UK to £9000 per year, are themselves increasingly demoralised, anxious, and rightly worried about job prospects on the other side of their degrees. Meanwhile, the REF itself (www.ref.ac.uk) – which requires every academic department in the UK to submit faculty research “outputs” for “quality assessment” according to their national or international “impact” – dominates every aspect of academic life. Thinking of a new book project? Ask first if it will be “REF-able”. Writing a book for students? Think again – according to REF criteria teaching-focused work will have no measurable research “impact”. Taking on a journal editorship? That means you’ll be helping other scholars publish their REF research, but what about yours? Can you spare that kind of time? Or perhaps you’re planning to write about a Canadian topic, or a South African topic, or an Icelandic topic? Careful: that work may be deemed only to have limited, “national” significance.

During my two years in London I saw first-hand the human “impact” this neoliberal quest for profit-driving, brand-oriented research has had on brilliant, politically engaged, activist teachers and writers. Everybody is tired; everybody is anxious; everybody is worried about their job, the health of their department, the possibility of future funding (all of these things are tied, in different ways, to REF outcomes). Faculty members fretful about their basic job security, hopelessly overworked as they try to shoehorn “world leading” research into the space between measuring impact and trying to teach the citizens of the next generation, have precious little time for political protest about what has rapidly become the status quo. And that, of course, is exactly what neoliberal governance models hope for. If we’re all too tired to think, smart and critically engaged professors become far less of a threat. And we become far more likely to take the soothing words fed us on faith.

I came back to Western last August, knowing that I had seen our future at Queen Mary. I had witnessed, and (barely) survived, the world in which we will all end up if we do not mount a sustained, vigorous protest against the corporatization of higher education in Canada, and against the decimation of critical inquiry as the university’s major contribution to the public good. The scandal that has blown up around Dr Chakma’s salary provision has given us a precious opportunity: a clarifying object around which to mount a clear and public debate about the future of Canadian universities, their increasingly slavish devotion to neloliberal governance models, and the very real dangers – for students, faculty, the public, and citizenship itself – of their appetite for power and profit allergic to thoughtful challenge. I urge us all to hold tight to this fight, even after the flames of Amit Chakma’s scandal burn out.

Yours in solidarity,

Kim

On strike

As I write this post, we are on strike. Today, my UK union, the UCU, is holding one of a series of two-hour work stoppages, part of our current battle for a living wage increase for academic staff across the country. I won’t go into the details of what we are fighting for – read about the issues here if you wish – except to say that I voted to strike back in the autumn, and I’m doing my best to observe each strike in spirit if not always by the book (more on that below). At its core, this fight is about the continued, pernicious pressure levelled upon us by an intensively neoliberal civic culture, in which ordinary working citizens are required to bear the brunt of the government’s ongoing austerity measures in the wake of the 2008 financial crash, while the economy’s most elite workers (those who hold the greatest fiscal, social, cultural, and estates capital) are not only spared but rewarded with tax breaks and other income-protection measures in the name of a new kind of trickle-down economics. As a feminist, as a teacher, as a scholar and as a “lay” activist, I oppose the practice of neoliberalism in contemporary anglophone culture in all its forms, and my position on the issues over which we are striking is part of that opposition.

So I’m on strike, but I’m writing this blog post. More specifically, I’m writing it from the Costa coffee shop (a chain shop, similar to Starbucks or Second Cup, that operates all over the UK) across the road from my campus office. During today’s work stoppage I was not scheduled to teach, but I was scheduled to hold an office hour; instead of cancelling that office hour unequivocally and leaving my desk to attend our local rally near the QMUL library, I decided to put a note on my office door that simply said “I am at Costa if you need me.” I did not specify a date or time; I simply hoped that students who really felt they needed to see me would understand the message and come by the coffee shop if it was urgent.

I made this decision after chatting with several colleagues about the conundrum I was facing: I had missed last week’s office hour due to a meeting off campus, I wanted to ensure any students who had been inconvenienced by that cancellation would not be inconvenienced two weeks in a row, and I did not want to have to reschedule my office hour for another day, as I am making an effort this semester to protect my research time ahead of some upcoming deadlines. In other words, I did not want the act of striking to make my life that much harder by pushing my teaching work into the evening, or into another day scheduled for other, equally important tasks. At the same time, I did not want simply not to take some action; I wanted to make a gesture that could be understood as standing in solidarity with my colleagues actively striking, while also recognized by students as an effort to meet their most significant needs despite the difficult choices presented by the situation in which union members currently find themselves.

Some will call this fence-sitting, or perhaps even a kind of cowardice; I’ve tried to inconvenience nobody, when in fact a strike is all about inconvenience, at its core. I prefer to think of my choice as a compromise that makes the best, for me, of a situation in which I stand to lose on all fronts: my students stand to be frustrated and potentially blame me and my colleagues for that frustration; I stand to have to work later in order to make up for “stopping” mid-day; I also stand to lose a day’s pay (which I am willing to do when I am asked, by the administrators at QM for the official record book, if I observed the strike). As a group, union members may win our battle of course, may gain in the long run. But the likelihood of that feels, to be honest, quite small. My compromise is imperfect, and so am I: tired and emotionally drained just weeks into the spring semester, I want to stand by my political position but also not be worn down further in the process.

The compromise I’ve chosen is also, of course, in every way a function of the job I do, in both its privileges and its pressures. Academics work when we want to work, aside from set teaching and meeting hours; we also, as a result, tend to work most of the time. In fact, we tend to live our jobs, thinking about or acting on our research and teaching practices in conjunction with other “leisure” or “extracurricular” activities throughout the week and on weekends. For example, I lesson plan partly in my head while walking the dog, putting pen to paper and firming up the day’s tasks once we’re home. I also work a lot of Sundays and evenings, on research or marking. I combine holidays and conferences, so I’m usually working at least half of any given “holiday” trip. I’ve learned to preserve Saturdays, for the sake of my mental health, but that’s the best I can consistently do when it comes to guaranteeing myself genuine free time. (If you’re interested in reading more about this particular battle for free time – from a sunnier and more optimistic perspective! – please check out my holiday blog post on “getting a life” here.)

In any job that is also a kind of calling, boundaries are few and far between (as well as a profound challenge to maintain, when we do erect them). This life-work weave speaks to my privilege as a well-paid, mobile professional in an information economy. At the same time, though, that information economy, with the high premium it places on “knowledge” workers belonging to a “creative” class, demands my excess time, encourages me surreptitiously to work all the time, to take less and less money per hour for that time, and to call it all a job perk to boot. This is one of the ways that neoliberal ideology works strenuously against me, and against us all. I am aware of it, but feel in many ways helpless in front of it. And this helpless awareness is one of the things, whether stated in this round of bargaining or not, that information workers are always striking about these days, when we are lucky enough to have the right to strike (and fewer and fewer of us do).

There’s one more way in which my compromise in today’s strike action feels uncomfortable but essential to me. I mentioned above that I am emotionally drained already, only three weeks into the new semester; this may seem like an extreme experience, but it’s not at all a new feeling. Any college-level teacher (any teacher full stop, I suspect) will tell you that working with others, especially young people, in a mentor-student relationship is emotional labour of the highest order. The students we teach need us like never before: caught in the hamster’s wheel of high tuition fees, part time jobs with zero hours contracts, not enough support staff at uni to help them in their stresses and struggles, not enough time in the day to complete their paid work as well as their scholarly labour, and few great job prospects on completion, these students look to us to help them get through the affective pain of being here with us, in this socioeconomic moment in time, feeling betrayed by the institutions that promised to guide and aid us and yet having to carry on anyway. And it’s my job – indeed, it’s my calling – to help when asked. But taking on their affect hurts; it’s physically and mentally taxing for me, too. That doesn’t mean I won’t do it; it does mean, however, that it makes me so, so tired when I do. So I refuse to blame myself for wanting to sort-of-but-not-quite hold my office hour over the road at Costa; I did it to help alleviate the building anxiety I was feeling about when I might do that crucial affective labour, that emotional support work that is so much a part of my job, if not as scheduled now – because it simply has to get done.

The cultural theorist Lauren Berlant has a term for what I’ve been engaged in this past two hours, and in this blog post. She calls the act of doing what I know will ultimately be bad for me, but which I hope against hope will be OK after all, cruel optimism. Cruel optimism is the condition of possibility of neoliberalism today; it is a bad compromise, one you feel you can’t but take, just to make it to tomorrow. By partly but not quite striking today, the UCU itself took a compromise position against British universities that amounts to a gesture of cruel optimism; by almost but not quite striking with my union, I did, too. Looks like we’re still all in this together.

In solidarity,

Kim