How to build a movement – sharing a talk on class & the arts

On Thursday 7th October 2023 academic Jenny Hughes, Common Wealth’s Rhiannon White & Ffion Wyn Morris (collaborator on We No Longer Talk) were invited to give a keynote at the Class Concerns conference led by Liz Tomlinson. Here’s the transcript (:

Ffion: A Hostile and inaccessible sector. Stuck in entry-level positions for years whilst those around you who came from wealthier backgrounds were able to level up due to their ability to afford internships and experiences that gave them a wealth of learning that wasn’t available to you. Moving sideways and circling the roles that you know you could thrive in, how can you gain experience without being given the opportunity to experience? Sidestepping, sidestepping, sidestepping. And what if you yourself want to make? What if you want to create? How do you escape?

Rhiannon: A hostile and inaccessible sector. The systems, how we live, where we live, and what we have access to is so far removed from the cultural sector – we have to hustle, fight, and continuously negotiate –  it all works against us. This sector is not set up for working-class/ benefit class/under-class/ criminal class people. 

Sometimes, our experiences give us a seat at the table, sometimes that seat is for one the rest of the table dominated by those who are wealthy. That’s when the imposter syndrome creeps in – on top of you feeling like your experiences are irrelevant, or your networks are no good and your experiences are trauma after trauma after trauma. You can’t find the words, and don’t know the lingo. Don’t have the right friends in the right places. It’s exhausting. 

When we started Common Wealth we didn’t know the Arts Council existed, and that you could get paid to make art. Even then though it still felt impossible. At every turn hitting brick walls – can’t get a bank account because of a CCJ, didn’t know how to set up a company, didn’t have the money to pay a solicitor to help us. In the end, the credit union accepted us. That changed everything. All we ever wanted was to make theatre and bring people together. Then the moment you secure long-term funding and someone high up in the sector says you’re middle class now. 

Jenny Hughes: A hostile and inaccessible sector. Meetings – they’re not for everyone. Intimidating places that seem to operate by an invisible set of rules. They are the main way of getting a foot in inside professions shaped by middle-class environments including the cultural sector and arts and humanities in universities. ‘I’ve never been to a meeting in my life’ my dad said recently, ‘what do you say at all those meetings’. Working as a freelance artist (in the last century) – I used to avoid meetings like the plague. It didn’t work out too well. Mustering courage to open your mouth. Not sounding right. A feeling of having missed a chance – of not having said the right thing – not having made your case in the right way. A sense that the big decisions have already been made. Over the years, I’ve learned I need to over-prepare for meetings …

 How to speak to people. Learning a kind of register – polished, long-form (some people can speak for a long time; it’s important to not speak for too long). ‘Come by and have a chat’ is a big opportunity but who knew that this was the case.

 Tables that we sit round – procedures – not interrupting, not arguing, it’s not allowed. A certain tone, volume. Polite, civil. Feeling just a little bit too grubby.

 Issues of voice, of language. A new language to learn – mission, vision, story of change, 5 year plan, business case, trustee, chair, minutes, actions, evaluation, consultant, investment principles. These words act as barriers – points of entry and exit – initiation rites. Not bad in themselves, always, but a whole new world – strange, estranging, just hold your breath and get through it.

I got into this because I think arts and imagination are transformative. I think I still do think that.

Ffion: Our lived experience is an asset. Always written poetry always thought you had a book in you and wanted to tell the stories you saw around you and lived through – but seeing the published authors who were telling those stories came from the teulu crachach and maybe they were the only ones allowed to speak for you. Uni much the same you know, a seminar of 20 wannabe writers and you can clearly tell that you’re the only one from a ‘struggling’ background – oh wow you’re the first in your family? ‘Yeah, I am actually and the weight of that in itself is immense’ and you start thinking you’re less than, you’re the only one reading out filth and turning the air blue in your sharing sessions – ‘my dad’s a heroin addict and my mum is mental and I spent my youth getting high on a mountain to escape the pressure’. Oversharing to play up to an image or maybe you’re just speaking your truth who knows. They think you’re a novelty because you’re from the sticks too like, what do you know about life really. You stop writing. You stop thinking. You lose a big part of yourself.

Working in the arts? Can’t be an artist you’ve already decided you’re not good enough, so at least being in proximity is something. That’ll be fulfilling. You can only get admin jobs, years pass, and people think you’re a wonderful addition to the office with your slang and your anecdotes. 

Feel immense privilege to do what you do today but community arts is underappreciated – and Wales is an island on an island. Not much opportunity. Go to England they say, but you don’t know the language they speak over there – you can code switch in to dosbarth canol Cymraeg but you’re well out of your depth with middle class England. You’re still not making, you’re still not creating. What’s a council estate sheepshagger to do like.

Rhiannon: Our lived experience is an asset. I grew up in a place famous for John Redwood former Welsh secretary of state saying that single mums should have their children taken off them because they were getting pregnant to get council houses. Thirty years and that narrative still strong. Growing up I loved telling stories and creating worlds – putting on shows in my garden, dressing up kids in my mums clothes. In my neighbourhood trauma, violence, ill-health and unemployment was woven into the fabric of our community along with spirit, and friendship and a shared sense of supporting one another through hard times. 

I dont think class is defined by how much money you earn, what you wear, how you talk or what education you managed to have. Its about lived experience – what you’ve grown up with, who you’ve grown up with, what you’ve navigated, how you’ve had to hustle, what impact that’s had on you, the quality of life you’ve had, the people that have shaped you, the things you’ve had access to or not had access too, where you’ve lived, how many places you’ve lived, who you’ve had to care for, the jobs you’ve had to work, ways you’ve had to get money, things you’ve worried about, how you’ve self-taught, history you didn’t learn, stories you don’t see on the news – politics – on stage – or stories that you do that are steeped in stereotypes & bad versions of the world you know. Having to loose your accent because you sound too common. Its being judged, told you’re not good enough – you’d barely scrape a C grade and would end up in the flats. Its your friends getting pregnant and telling you in your science class, neighbours calling the police, young families, social services, violence, youth clubs closed again, sofa surfing, ill-health, stress, sweets on a Tuesday when family credit arrives. Its poverty and having to navigate through unfit, unjust, degrading systems. Living in places which aren’t fit for purpose and having to work with what you’re given. 

Jenny: Our lived experience is an asset. I got into ‘applied theatre’ towards the end of my undergraduate degree (in the last century) – I took a course called ‘Theatre in Prisons’ – prisons and the people in them felt more familiar than universities and the people in them. It’s not that any of my family have been to prison – it was a matter of meeting people who had come from backgrounds that were a bit more like mine. I felt like I could work there. The debate at the time was about the radical potential of theatre in closed institutions – how theatre can transform time and space, creating an energy and a sense of potential that breaks down walls.

Before university I was choosing between drama and social work. I was driven by a sense of trying to help, be useful – the kind of work I’m interested in is awkwardly positioned between a kind of missionary ethos, a Victorian self-help vibe, and the brilliance of DIY arts activism that Ffion and Rhiannon are going to say more about in a moment.

 I’ve tended to always regret saying anything about being from a working class background in the contexts I work in – arts and humanities in universities. There’s been a tendency to meet defensiveness, misunderstanding or – worse – approbation (‘well done – you got out’). So I didn’t do it. Then class came back in fashion and I saw people doing it, was uncomfortable and maybe inspired. Then we started to cash in on it. In the last REF exercise (a kind of Ofsted for university research units), we made a thing about our department in Manchester having high numbers of academics who had been state educated and/or were first generation attenders at university. Don’t scratch the surface of that statement too hard … we could do a whole lot more if my institution really did want to centre access for kids from ordinary backgrounds …

We are part of building a movement. Why do I do what I do? well, the university pays me. I have caught and am hanging on to the tail-ends of an elite university culture where you are paid for teaching and researching what you think is important.

I think arts education in university is important. The welcome talk for new first years I gave as Head of Department, went something like this – ‘congratulations – you’ve worked really hard to be here, we’re delighted to see you and can’t wait to get going. You’ve come to university at a difficult time (fees, marketisation, strikes, Covid – some combination of – depending on the year!) but our core business remains the same – to engage you in a challenging, enjoyable and rewarding learning experience that sets you up to make a contribution to theatre and drama while you’re here and as part of a working life afterwards. To use our imaginations and intellect, and to see how others have used theirs, now and in other times and places, to make and protect public culture and to help it to flourish.’

 Recently, my research has taken a historical turn – when towns were being made and remade, before public funding for the arts, how did ordinary people make use of theatre and performance to serve their communities? Looking again at enlightenment histories of useful arts to trace radical performance experiments, from temperance plays educating children about the dangers of drink to music hall entertainments providing relief in workhouses. But also, how these radical experiments were imbricated in – can’t be separated from – the classist and racist violence of colonialism and empire. How a language of rights, including cultural rights, went hand in hand with decisions about who qualifies as human (human as a qualified category), which peoples and lands are more – or less – amenable to ‘culture’ and ‘cultivation’. How the call – for arts, education, opportunities – for everyone, for all, in common – has been consistently threatening to the people who already have those things.

Ffion: We are part of building a movement. Had a show on the local community radio station, showcasing local MOBO artists – every week one guy after the next came through the doors for an interview and a live session. You rated them and their output. But you kept asking where are the girls, where are the women? Started asking around and folks were saying there weren’t any – bullshit really. You knew in your gut the women were there, they were in their bedrooms, or they didn’t have money for the studio, or they scraped the money together for a single studio session but (true story) their tracks were withheld after recording because they wouldn’t sleep with the producer.

You can’t be what you can’t see – and these women weren’t seeing themselves on stage at The Moon or Clwb Ifor Bach – and the programmers weren’t bringing in rappers because of the racist licensing policies. You argued with the local community hiphop org. They found out about the monthly studio jam sessions – simple set up – open mic, open decks – and 4hrs to just jam and be around other women – 16 to dead in the ground, all abilities welcome. Those men told you that you were segregating the scene, they told you women were welcome to their jams but actually what were they doing to actively make women feel seen and safe – have you thought about how it feels to be one woman surrounded by 8 guys passing the mic over your head, spitting about bitches?

You cracked on. Started asking on social media who the women were who wanted to rap, who the DJ’s were – and after a couple of months of slogging and approaching you’d found the lushest core group to kick things off. It was only ever meant to be 6 months – a studio session every couple of weeks, an event at the end – that event was either gonna be the death knell or the start of something.

It was beautiful. Seeing a 17year old rapper from Ely teaching a woman in her 60s how to write bars – and the nurturing they gave each other not just musically but emotionally. Life lessons were being learnt and taught in those jams. People were purging emotions. The tears, the trauma, the outpouring of all the fucking shit.

And then that first event – one in one out at the Moon – word had spread – it was a revolution at this point. It was about the women on the stage – it was about the 16 year old who’d never performed, to who the crowd chanted ‘YOU’VE GOT THIS, YOU’VE GOT THIS, YOU’VE GOT THIS’ until she dropped her first track and the place erupted.

We had each other now, things were going to change.

Rhiannon: We are part of building a movement. We were bored of theatre being for the middle classes so we set up Common Wealth. Two separate words – our values expressed in our name.  We knew that people like us, from communities like ours would love experimental performance. In Bristol the city felt abundant, we had access to empty buildings we could still squat legally,  we could sign on (which gave us time & financial support to be creative) there were lots of people who were up for coming together to be creative & make things happen. The DIY, free party, activist scene was thriving. We created Common Wealth off the back of it – feeding in all the values & feelings & teachings we had from our communities and activist movements we had been involved in.

Our first funded show Our Glass House – saw us take over a house on a street transforming it into a performance space. We created a show about domestic abuse, interviewing people the first was my mum to be as relevant, honest and true to those experience. Building the show with people from interview stage – was when we experienced the ripples. Those people we interviewed shaped/ edited and came on a journey with us. We honoured their stories and in exchange they stood side by side with us – sharing the story and coming on a journey built on mutual respect. 

In that show a neighbour in her 60s came three times to watch, she didn’t normally go to the theatre. It was then we understood if we create work in neighborhoods, with people, in places they’d normally go or felt familiar that we’d reach the people we wanted to share our work with. We were never interested in performing inside a theatre – we get excited by buildings, and working out how we can stage & design & respond to them and that along with staging them in the heart of neighbourhoods opens up so much possibility. 

The movement is about the people. Our Sounding Board of ten people who we support & network & grow with. Speakers Corner our social space for young women in Bradford who set up campaigns. The artists, and performers we work with – some performing and telling their stories for the first time. The fact we’re based in two countries, in two contexts, in our home towns – contexts we know and understand deeply that we are passionate about. Its acknowledging our contexts are in the 6th wealthiest country in the world – that we have schools, libraries, a health care & benefit system – and those things we have to keep fighting for. 

Imagine if our communities had time, energy, resources and access to opportunities – in abundance. That we didn’t have to worry about money, health, food, violence, feeling used, under-resourced. Universal basic income exists. We have time. That we see ourselves more, in all our intersectional beauty. That we believe that its possible, for us, to make & create & our imaginations are valued & championed & well resourced. That we’re not ridiculed, or used as stories to be viewed as entertainment. Imagine if we were valued and our stories treated with respect. Imagine if we were nourished, in every sense of the word. That education works in our favour – and we taught life. If there were youth centres, community centres, food, places to sleep, houses without damp, caring duties were supported & we felt valued. If our elders weren’t isolated and lonely – and our young people weren’t bored & without purpose but connected & enjoying their time together. If we could gather, if we had spaces to gather. Imagine if our communities had time, energy, resources and access to opportunities – in abundance.