University of Leeds
Driven by an urgency to initiate dialogues around women and incarceration, Jenny Hicks and Jackie Holborough founded theatre company Clean Break in 1979. Now led by co-artistic directors Anna Herrmann and Róisín McBrinn, the company continues to work with women across the United Kingdom. My article ‘Gendering Welfare: Acts of Reproductive Labour in Applied Performance Practice’ (published in issue 29.3 of Contemporary Theatre Review) illuminates poverty and economic dependency as recurrent themes in Clean Break’s work, specifically drawing on their 2016 production Spent. Set in the UK, in the midst of a period of economic austerity and retraction of social support provisions, the play follows the intersecting lives of three women attempting to navigate precarious housing, domestic violence and spiralling bills.
In the intervening period between submitting my article to Contemporary Theatre Review and its publication Philip Alston, United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty, released a damning report evidencing that the British government’s austerity programme (introduced in 2010) had directly increased poverty, homelessness, and misery in the UK.1 Resonant with my discussion of the particular challenges facing women when navigating work and welfare, Alston found that over the past decade government policies have regularly perpetuated gendered aspects of poverty, proposing, ‘[i]t may well appear that women, particularly poor women, have been intentionally targeted. It should shock the conscience that since 2011, life expectancy has stalled for women in the most deprived half of English communities, and actually fallen for women in the poorest 20% of the population.’ Indeed, in the past decade women have been disproportionately affected by the implementation of Universal Credit, reductions in tax credits, changes to housing benefit and an increase in the age they can access a state pension.2
In this Interventions piece, I return to Spent in light of the publication of the Alston report and the international attention it brought to both the abject cruelty of recent welfare reforms and distinctly gendered experiences of the welfare system. Below are vignettes from two interviews I undertook on themes relating to the report, the first with Spent playwright Katherine Chandler and the second with Anna Herrmann, co-artistic director of Clean Break. In the context of renewed interest in the material conditions of the most vulnerable in the UK, our discussions reflect on the stakes of representing women in poverty on stage and the shifting practical considerations of engaging economically precarious women in performance projects.
This is an abridged version of a conversation with Katherine Chandler that took place on 23 May 2019.
SB: Can you talk a little about the writing process involved in Spent?
KC: Myself and Imogen Ashby (director of Spent), did some workshops with some of the women in Clean Break. Then women auditioned, we picked three of them and then spent some time together talking about just their experiences of austerity and how it is affecting them. When I work with Clean Break I try to go in with no real thoughts and just kind of sit in on the workshops and chat with the women, and usually when I come away I’ve got an idea of the sort of thing that the play will be about. So, it was just a case of me coming up with the first draft. Then I met with the three cast members and Imogen and we workshopped it again, and it was rewrites and into rehearsals.
It’s great because they can see themselves in it. I think that’s what’s so lovely about working with Clean Break, it is different. You kind of worry about giving them your first draft because you think: ‘are they going to hate it? Will it not feel like theirs?’ Because you want them to feel like they’re represented properly. So it’s quite a stressful thing writing for them, because of that responsibility, but it’s really satisfying as well.
SB: I was really struck by the references to food throughout Spent: the need to get food, the cost of food, being hungry. Was that a response to the women you were working with or to the broader environment?
KC: That was absolutely the women. A lot of the time it was you eat or you don’t eat, there was no food in the cupboards, you know, no weekly order. And lots of pawning things to be able to eat, there was lots of talk about that. Also, lots about control, using food as a control by partners. I guess that if you’re in those levels of poverty, it’s a different thing, isn’t it. It’s a currency as well.
SB: Spent feels like a feminist play. Is that how you situate your work?
KC: Absolutely. All of my work is feminist and nobody ever picks up on that. I’d love people to be like ‘ahh she’s such a feminist!’ but I don’t think they do. I always make sure that my work is really accessible, so I think that it’s accessible feminism. It’s working-class feminism and I think it’s really different from other feminisms. But also, I am one of very few playwrights that are genuinely working-class and so I think it’s just a bit different when that voice is onstage. So, I’m aware of that. But generally, what I do is write about the people that I know and what I’ve been brought up in. Because there’s not that many people who are working-class, my age, female playwrights, I think that it is a different opinion. It really concerns me that the arts and media are so middle-class, because eventually we’re just going to end up with one point of view coming through. So yes, feminism is really important to me and I think all of my plays are feminist, but because they’re accessible and because it’s in this working-class voice that people don’t really hear, they’re not really sure that it is. So, all that’s never been something that people pick up on or acknowledge. But that said, I think things are changing.
SB: What do you think audiences do pick up on in your work?
KC: Different audiences are split down the middle in lots of my plays. Spent is full of humour as well as sadness. Like Thick as Thieves: when we played it to the women of Clean Break, they laughed their heads off and thought it was really funny. And then we play it to Theatr Clwyd audiences and they don’t find it funny, they find it bleak and hard-hitting. So, kind of seeing working-class plays that I might laugh my head off at – they’re not comedies but there’s a humour within them – are really taken as bleak and serious and hard-hitting. That’s something that’s really interesting to me, I don’t really understand it. Well, I guess I do: if you don’t understand what that is then you find it harder to laugh at, or you’re not sure if you should laugh at it.
SB: And this is made more acute as you’re often exploring quite complex circumstances. Care, for example, is a key part of Spent and a recurrent theme in your work.
KC: I’m really interested in the care system and how we treat our young people, but also how a community more broadly looks after each other. That sort of thing has been really important in my life and I don’t understand why we don’t do that. Actually, I think generally the community of people look out for each other but as far as services, I’m not sure that they’re looking out for us in the same way. I’m saying that, and actually when I think of the individual people, I think they do. But I think that they’re in impossible situations now, they’re fighting a losing battle, and these are good people trying desperately hard.
A lot of my work is about care and a lot of my work is about judgement. Probably because of what my background is, coming into this kind of middle-class arts world, I think it’s really important to me: don’t judge people. So that’s always in my work, how we judge each other.
SB: And there is so much judgement of people using the welfare system now, maybe particularly of women accessing support. Are you interested in depicting the specific female experiences of these social systems?
KC: Yes, I think it’s different for women. I think that for women who are poor or women who are without money then there are different ways that women have to survive. I really just think that there is always a sexual inequality, and until that is equal women will always have an unequal experience of any system. I don’t think it is something that feminism has addressed. In the ‘70s, I feel like feminism addressed workers’ rights. It was a brilliant thing for people at a certain level, but if you were still in the towns and the communities that were still struggling, it was all about who you’re going to marry when you leave school rather than what career you were going to get for yourself. For me and the people I know, that was still the mindset: what prince is going to get you out of your life. So yes, women are in a different place and that’s why it’s interesting to look at that onstage for me, because I don’t think we’re honest about that and I still don’t think we acknowledge that.
But also, I think it does go across the financial spectrum. It’s a women thing. The problem is that the working-class woman wasn’t acknowledged in that liberation. So that inequality is problematic and it’s still there, and have we taught our women and our girls that that isn’t the way out, actually? I’m not sure we have.
This is an abridged version of several conversations with Anna Herrmann that took place between 30 January 2019 and 9 April 2019.
My discussion with Herrmann extends beyond Chandler’s call for more nuanced readings of working-class plays as feminist, and builds on the playwright’s reflection on representations of poverty onstage. Herrmann illuminates some of the practical considerations that have emerged as increasingly vital within applied performance, articulating the potential for such work to offer powerful interventions in social policy and the desperate need for organisations to be supported to navigate the current punitive welfare system.
SB: Could you talk a little about how Clean Break came to the decision to focus on austerity in Spent?
AH: As our Members were facing multiple disadvantages as a consequence of austerity, we felt really strongly that this story needed to be told. And the nature of these changes in benefits and welfare, particularly on women’s lives, was being acutely felt, but maybe wasn’t being told at that time on our stages.
SB: And this performance was toured to service providers and industry professionals. What is it about a particular production that makes you take that decision about audiences?
AH: There’s a duality of reasons, both mission-driven and very practical. From a mission point of view, it gives the women an opportunity to be visible and to have their voices heard in those arenas, which is really vital: taking work to those audiences that is performed by women who absolutely have a share in, not their own personal stories, but their communal stories, is one of the ways that we hope to effect lasting change in the system. The issues of austerity, debt and poverty felt pertinent for those audiences to hear and understand at that time. From a more practical point of view, the model of taking a short piece of work to audiences, frontline practitioners and professionals working within the system was a model that enabled our Members to have a bitesize experience of professional/semi-professional performance work. It feels manageable as it’s not going straight into fully-fledged professional work touring nationally, and the issues that would throw up around childcare, not being at home and managing the pressures of this.
SB: Considering what audiences need to hear and your intervention is pragmatically able to effect seems like a continued consideration in your artistic work.
AH: Now what we’re doing is seeing all of our work as our artistic voice, whereas previously we siloed it into the education strand, engagement strand and the artistic strand. Now we’re opening up those siloes and those distinctions, and just seeing the diversity of all the work speaking to diverse groups of people in different ways through different forms that best reach multiple audiences and start multi-layered conversations. It’s quite freeing: it enables us to see more holistically the work that we’re producing, rather than in this case where one strand was producing Spent and another strand was producing Joanne. Until you reflected back to me that they spoke to the same themes, it wasn’t a conscious decision in our programme for those pieces to be companion pieces – obviously, implicitly those themes of austerity were speaking very loud and clear to us, and they were coming from the women that we were working with, which is the seedbed of all our work. But it hadn’t been a conscious theme in that season of work to put those two plays on with different audiences in the way it might appear. Now we are programming our work under one umbrella, we’re able to really look at the work in that way.
SB: Could you give some more insight into how these three women we follow are working really hard, even if it’s outside of formal employment.
AH: It is a bit more implicit, in that those are the realities of the stories that we’re telling, rather than an explicit choice to illustrate that some work is unpaid and work is being done by those we don’t think of as ‘in work.’ It’s more that our Members who are sharing their stories are living this reality. It is implicit because of that. It surfaces and emerges because they are authentic stories. There is this idea of women living in poverty without work, and yet we could see how harsh the conditions of austerity were/are and how hard they were working.
SB: I know you’ve tried different approaches to honouring the work of your members. A number of companies have developed different ways of understanding the work that goes into a performance, that either isn’t monetary or is monetary but has certain restrictions around it.
AH: This is something we continue to explore because it’s so difficult to find the right solution. The short touring plays are great training opportunities for our Members, and function as a good transition from benefits into paid work, because we are keen to enable the women to empower themselves and financial independence is definitely a part of that. So we offer it as a traineeship and all expenses are covered.
SB: There is no flexibility or space for humanity in the work and welfare system that recognises shifts and changes in peoples lives.
AH: Yeah and that’s actually got worse now, unfortunately with Universal Credit. When we began this work initially, we put in place a voucher system where we paid with gift vouchers and that worked for a period of time, but I think again that it wasn’t the best practice for us to be doing that regularly. Then we moved to this bursary model where we paid for a course, or a computer, and that seemed to work successfully for a while, so people could maintain their benefits. However, we also want the work to enable people to move out of the benefit system. So now we have a paid traineeship for our short tours and a professional contract for our fully produced work, although this has still presented challenges for our Members. With Inside Bitch, which we produced in spring 2019, Members were on a professional contract for a four-week rehearsal period and a four-week London run. We initially wanted everyone to be self-employed but people’s job coaches (a number of the women were on Universal Credit) were advising them against it, as it meant coming off Universal Credit and then having the five- to six-week wait before being able to go back on, and so we were giving conflicting advice. It was really stressful for our Members. So we opted for them being on payroll instead, which seemed to be the best way to enable them to take the contract and then not put at risk their benefits later. Because the stakes are so high, and you just don’t know any more what the future holds in terms of them accessing benefit support.
SB: It’s so complicated and takes up so much of your time as an organisation, which isn’t something that is always considered part of your practice; these kinds of bureaucratic minefields are difficult to make visible.
AH: Yeah. We’d just like some parameters and guidance on the ‘how,’ because this work is happening but it’s not coherently supporting women into work, because we’re having to be a bit obtuse about it. It’s not doing what in effect it should, and there needs to be more consideration by everyone of how we can make it work. The benefit system changes, and each system change requires a new consideration, and so the learning that you have made then is no longer relevant. We have approached Equity and ITC [Independent Theatre Council] to create a working group to focus on this issue, as it certainly isn’t only a concern for our Members, but has resonance across the industry as we commit to opening up access and improving opportunities.
Holding the socio-economic landscape of the UK alongside these brief vignettes illustrates that the representation onstage of women who are in poverty is increasingly important. By attending to these practitioners’ voices, we can start to see ways in which applied performance practices must address the economic realities of their participant collaborators. Scholars and practitioners need to offer a more nuanced engagement with the working practices implicit in participation, in order to interrogate how this might challenge or be complicit with the unequal demarcation of paid labour under capitalism.
Dr Sarah Bartley is a Teaching Fellow in Contemporary Performance at the University of Leeds. Her research explores artistic representations of the welfare state, with a particular focus on applied and socially engaged performance practices engaging unemployed people. She is also a community arts practitioner and co-founded Shifting Point, a drama project for ex-offenders run in collaboration with prison resettlement services. Her monograph Performing Welfare: Applied Theatre, Unemployment, and Economies of Participation is forthcoming with Palgrave Macmillan in 2020.
- Philip Alston, ‘Visit to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland’, United Nations Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights. 23 April 2019. Available at: < https://undocs.org/A/HRC/41/39/Add.1 > [accessed 22 May 2019]. ↩
- See The Women’s Budget Group <www.https://wbg.org.uk> for further research on the effects of UK economic policy on women. ↩