(photo by Jemima Yong)
“Stop crying about representation it means nothing does nothing it is only a gesture we are only tokens,” reads a 2018 tweet by The White Pube. Just over a year ago I reviewed a show called The Great Wave at the National Theatre. It was first time I’d ever seen an entirely East Asian cast onstage, and on one of the most influential stages in the country, at that, and I was overwhelmed. I’m not going to link to it because part of me is vaguely embarrassed by it – by its outright sincerity, mayhaps, by its almost-unquestioning delight in just…well, seeing people that looked like me onstage. As if that is enough. My reaction wasn’t about the show – a show which had massive, gaping flaws in it – the show, I think, could literally have had East Asian actors reading from the phonebook and I’d probably still have had a weird gut reaction. I now feel almost duped by it, by the National, for…what, tricking me into being grateful and satiated? A show about North Korea. Marketable to a majority white audience. Sigh. That representation stuff is not enough. It is not enough anymore to see a body onstage that looks a bit like mine. I am not going to be slavishly grateful to these institutions because it is almost irrelevant if they are not making structural changes to distribute power and influence more equally. Why, for example, doesn’t the National have the kind of consistent working relationship with, say, debbie tucker green that they do with David Hare, when she is just as much (cough, more) of a cultural force than he is? There is a reason the appointments of Kwame Kwei-Armah, Lynette Linton, Matthew Xia, Suba Das and Nadia Fall feel so seismic. That is a sea-change, that is a structural shift, an active handing over of the reins of power rather than just letting a writer like Francis Turnly sit shotgun for a few weeks.
Dismantle This Room, an escape room style theatrical experience, conceived and executed by Milli Bhatia, Ingrid Banerjee Marvin, and Nina Segal, is an attempt to grab frustrated anger, wrangle it into something productive. “[We wanted] the audience as active collaborators, as participants in a dialogue rather than receivers of a finished product. An escape room is inherently audience-centric – the show literally cannot progress without the audience’s involvement,” they tell me. Audience members have the choice to dismantle the system from the outside, or from the inside – solving clues and puzzles and all the while having discussions about how best to dismantle ingrained power structures. There’s been a concerted effort by the makers to create as safe and stable a space as possible for these discussions to take place. It’s safe, but also dangerous. A difficult balancing act – a definite experiment. It is an active challenge, a reckoning of sorts. So you’re angry? it seems to ask. Well, then what are you going to do about it?
What is perhaps most thrilling about Dismantle This Room is its palpable anger, which feels particularly forceful at the Royal Court, a place created as a roar of fury against the establishment, but which has slowly become a red brick cornerstone of said establishment, based in one of the most expensive areas of the UK. All this enormous, towering, monumental history and expectation tied up in this one building. Perhaps you can never totally shake off the dust of the space you occupy. Part of me wants to big up the Court for programming Dismantle, for taking that risk, for setting a precedent, but another, smaller, goblin-like part of me is like, “Why should you thank them for doing this?” I don’t really know where the line is.
Segal, Bhatia, and Marvin have pushed against any sense of paralysing, depressive apathy that anyone paying attention to the industry might have. If you do Dismantle, then you are forced to be active from the moment you buy your ticket – either £1, £5, £12, or £18, according to your personal understanding of your privilege. I chose £12. I think that was right. I certainly wouldn’t have gone any lower. Doing this show is a constant process of re-evaluation, of reassessing and checking yourself. When you enter the Court Downstairs, Nina and Ingrid give you your briefing, and you meet your fellow participants. You are asked to not reveal whether or not you are in the industry, and you are asked to consider your privilege and to uplift the voices of those who are not usually heard in mainstream discourse.
There were a few times in there where I felt entirely shattered. Completely unable to keep discussing or arguing. I felt, quite often, like all of this was pointless. I think this cynicism can be helpful. It can help pull back a group determined to win the game as quickly as possible, help them slow down and consider what’s being decided and why. I think it also hindered our progress a little, though. That was my fault. I could feel myself resenting the group I was in, which was unhelpful, because I couldn’t change it. I had been given my lot and I had to stick with it and make the best of it, even if it was difficult, but I felt stubborn, unable to pull myself together and make the change I wanted to see. If I could do it again, I think I’d be more active, I’d try to dissociate from the emotions, try to push myself to be more precise in my rebellions and my concessions.
One of the most fascinating things about Dismantle is the way you slowly realise how language is weighted. We know this, in theory, but to see it in action, when we’re all acutely aware of what we’re saying and how we’re saying it was bizarre and unsettling. You see, with absolute clarity, how deliberate, persuasive and insidious everyday language can be. How it can be weaponised, even when you’re all ostensibly on the same side. Questions like – “are we all agreed?”, in the voice of a confident white woman are less questions, more just statements. We discussed the limitations of going from the inside out – surely then you just become part of the system? Assimilated in? Watered down? Too comfortable? I had reservations about going from the outside in, but which I don’t think I expressed loudly or confidently enough – even if you aren’t working within the system, the system is still working within you. It becomes so apparent when you are in a time-pressurised environment which voices are most comfortable taking the lead – in our case, young white, middle-class, cis women. A hierarchy shifted slightly – the white cis men in the room were (at first) conscious of not taking up space, but it didn’t shift enough. It shifted so that white women could take centre stage. But that’s how the macrocosm works too, isn’t it? Middle class, white cis men move aside so middle class, white cis women can replace them and we call it equality and wipe our hands of it all. At one point, after we listened to one of the white women explain what needed to be done, another woman of colour whispered to me “I said that idea earlier, but no-one listened to me. Probably because I’m brown.” We laughed conspiratorially but didn’t speak up. At one point, after one of the white women said, “So we’re all agreed?” and took a breath to move on, one of the only white men heard my muttered “No” and said loudly, “I don’t think we’ve heard everyone’s voices yet.” I was grateful for that. I should’ve done more of that for others who weren’t being heard. You realise these things afterwards.
Who ended up coming to see this show? Lots of those who consider themselves to be fairly progressive, nice, middle-class liberal-lefties. Lots of people who work in theatre, who wanted to see cool, formally experimental stuff, but also maybe those people who tend to book out an entire season at the Court without quite knowing what’s been programmed. A worry of mine was that it might seem too echo-chambery, not discursive enough, not, perhaps, difficult enough. A love-in. It wasn’t that, though the creatives have told me about wonderful groups, mainly made up of people of colour, who have had genuinely excellent, warm, productive discussions about the industry. What Dismantle revealed – for me, at least – was uglier. The buried-deep stuff that rarely goes unchecked, that stuff which is so deeply ingrained that people end up enacting systems of oppression without even realising it. Obliviousness was a key word. Our group suggested that we start a theatre company in the most arts-deprived area of the UK, Blackburn with Darwen. “We can be like Slung Low,” they said. But you can’t just be like Slung Low. That takes work, that takes more than a split-second decision, that takes an actual desire to engage with the community, properly engage with them and talk to them and ask what they want and what they need, not just plonk ourselves down and shove some theatre in their faces. I felt acutely aware of us as the metropolitan elite, having this arch, intellectual conversation about the benefits of the arts in Sloane Square. We can go to this little town and bestow the arts upon them. It’s not that simple. None of this is simple. None of this is nice, I wanted to say. This isn’t just a jolly. None of this is fun. This is all difficult, and sad, and I hate it. I can’t say I enjoyed doing Dismantle, because I didn’t. Everything just seemed very sad.
There was one moment in the process which has stuck with me. Towards the end of the hour, when we were discussing and debriefing the choices we’d made, I spoke up. I said something like:
“These guys [pointing at the framed photographs of various white male artistic directors on the walls of Cindy Lin’s set design] don’t really care about changing anything. Not really.”
This was, I know, a response borne out of unchecked frustration and anger and sadness. And it was, in retrospect, probably quite an unhelpful thing to say. I was throwing grenades out at this discussion point, I think, desperate for someone to pick them up and say, “Yes, maybe let’s talk about this.”
One man – a well-respected British playwright who I’d clocked the minute he’d walked in – turned to look at me.
“I don’t think that’s true. I think they’re doing their best.”
“Yes. I think XYZ is. He’s doing great work.” and he named one of them, the AD of a theatre which rarely showcases people of colour both on and offstage, an AD who has a shifty reputation among young women in the industry.
I stared at him. Surely he knew about these rumours? But then – had I got it completely wrong? Had myself and pretty much all the women in theatre that I know – got it wrong? Was I just engaging in a shitty, insular culture of hearsay? Was I being silly and stupid and sensitive? I couldn’t say anything about the things I’d heard – not in this space, not with everyone watching, not when I couldn’t factually back it up. What I should’ve said was – “He doesn’t seem to have any interest in programming and hiring people who aren’t white and middle class.” But instead, I looked away.
“It’s not nothing. You were going to say something.”
“No. I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do.”
I looked up at him.
“I just disagree, that’s all.”
“Well, that’s fine, isn’t it? If we disagree.”
Conversation moved on and I felt my vision closing in on either side.
So this is why things don’t change, I thought. Either you don’t know what I know (which is unlikely) and you genuinely think this guy is doing a bang-up job (again – really? Clearly we’re having completely different audience experiences), or you do know what I know (those rumours don’t come from nowhere, I know they don’t) and you just don’t care. Maybe you used to care and you don’t anymore?
I think what people don’t quite understand is the level of emotion that runs beneath things like Dismantle. Nina, Milli, and Ingrid are fucking angry. They wouldn’t have made this show if they weren’t. At the end, one of the white women declared an unease with how “binary” the choices we were pushed to make were. Aside from the fact that this is an hour-long show/game which is designed to facilitate conversation, not provide the answers, (no-one is actually going to murder 95% of The Stage 100 List) there was something interesting at play here. Voice thick with residual anxiety, I said inelegantly, “I think what we forget is that all this comes from so much anger and hurt, and that is just as valuable as the more rational, balanced stuff.”
Back to that tweet from The White Pube, as ever (who have done so much to educate me, please subscribe to their Patreon and read everything they write)
“We must seize the means of production, support each other by paying it forward, and infiltrate the institutions that exclude us till we are in positions of power & equity.”
We are infiltrating – not only from the top down, but from the bottom up and the sides in. There are people like Tobi Kyeremateng with Black Ticket Project, Marcus Bernard with The Upsetters, Steven Kavuma with Black Ticket Club, Daniel York Loh, and then of course Ingrid, Nina, and Milli, people who are pushing for change and getting results. Buy tickets for their shows, contribute to their crowdfunders, put your money where your mouth is, and with these new AD appointments we might start to get somewhere with dismantling traditional power structures. For some reason I’m reluctant to end this on a net positive note but maybe I should. I am prone to pessimism, and that is on the whole an unhelpful trait to have, and one which I think is at odds with Dismantle’s inherent ethos. There were moments of genuine connection and progression in Dismantle which I think I brushed over because I felt tired, and mad, and tired again. But there were people talking to each other who might not usually talk to each other, people sitting in the bar together and continuing the discussion that Nina, Milli, and Ingrid set up for them. The first word in the title of the show is a command, an imperative. There is a force to it, a deliberate push to it. We shouldn’t ignore that.