Thursday, 16 January 2014

and in with the new (plus Vanity 11, Carrie Cracknell)

On the days I was writing this piece about Carrie Cracknell, a jury found the shooting of Mark Duggan to be lawful.

This got stuck in my head walking to school:


(assault assault assault assault assault assault assault assault THE LAW!)

Several fire stations were closed in London.

Amiri Baraka died. I love the opening lines from his Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note, written when he was still LeRoi Jones:

Lately, I've become accustomed to the way
The ground opens up and envelopes me
Each time I go out to walk the dog.
Or the broad edged silly music the wind
Makes when I run for the bus...

Things have come to that.

I went to the launch party of my friend Sam's book, her first, a feminist-literary-criticism-memoir (not only has she written a book, she's invented a genre!), and watched in what was probably forlorn envy as she signed books for her friends, and wondered why I felt to ask her myself would be tacky. I had a long conversation with someone who knows cast members of Nirbhaya, who fumed at the lack of emotional or psychological support given to those women telling their stories of being raped; and I was generally doleful about how, for an industry dedicated to expressions of empathy, theatre is astonishingly uncaring (the show's the thing). I also learned that an Actionette friend was fired by Marie Claire just before Christmas, then phoned by them just after New Year because they had a hole on their pages and would she be OK to fill it?

Andrew Haydon's Postcards from the Gods blog shot up from essential to why would you bother reading anything else?

I spent 45 minutes in a branch of Nationwide opening little savings accounts for my kids, and contemplating how doing stuff online lets me, everyone, forget how a lot of people live. Exacerbates my impatience. Makes literature oddly vital as a site of encounter with other cultures, people without privilege. A thought mostly connected to reading Sam Selvon's The Lonely Londoners between Christmas and New Year: what an exquisite novel, so direct in its realisation that nothing is right, so radiant with hope. The pages about the natural affinity between London's immigrant black and working-class white communities are fiercely political yet tender; the final pages, addressing the impossibility of leaving London, the way this city claims you as its own, burrowed to the heart of my own family's immigrant experience.

Fergus Evans told the Guardian via twitter that I should be included on an alternative Stage 100 theatre list, for continuing to challenge what a critic should be.

I wrote an email to Mark Ball, artistic director of LIFT, who employed me in November to create editorial copy for their 2014 programme brochure being published in February, to say thank you: “The ongoing shifts in theatre practice are absolutely crying out for shifts in media coverage: I'm completely astounded that I'm getting to do this with you. This isn't flattery: the Guardian called me two days ago to say they're terminating my contract... There is so much really stupid thinking around arts organisations commissioning their own magazines: I feel like with this brochure you're giving me the space to create something that has journalistic integrity, yet the bouncy excitedness that will get people buying tickets. Fucking brilliant.” (This was before people started making me rewrite my copy: even in paradise, there is compromise.)

And, yes, the Guardian phoned me to tell me they're not going to renew my contract in March.

*

Sometimes my work feels like the most important thing in the world. And sometimes it feels like a colossal waste of time.

Sometimes I feel like the only thing that's important to me is to write about theatre, because to do so is to write about society, politics, feminism, anti-capitalism, inequality, privilege, poverty, psychology, parenting, climate change, art, cinema, books, long walks in the countryside, immigrant experience, second-generation immigrant experience, belonging, not belonging, crowded urban living, utopian longing, the poleaxing confusion of “how you live with other people [and] how you live with yourself”. It doesn't matter that a piece on here attracts maybe 300 hits (of that, how many people actually read to the end? Or past the first paragraph?). If I can bolster, challenge, inspire, entertain, incite into some kind of positive action one or two people each time, that's enough.

Sometimes I think, unless I'm trying to communicate with a massive audience, trying to effect real change in understanding and appreciation of theatre at a micro level, the world at macro, what the fuck am I doing with my life?

A jury found the shooting of Mark Duggan to be lawful and several London fire stations were closed last week. Who knows, maybe I could be doing something about that.

*

I've been expecting the call from the Guardian for almost as many years as I've been freelancing. By the standards of writers' pay, I've been being overpaid. I worked out that I got paid roughly £44 an hour for the Carrie Cracknell piece. That's patently ludicrous. Under the new pay terms, I'd get closer to £28 an hour. As an isolated figure, that's still ludicrous.

There are no isolated figures.

This month I'm writing two features for the Guardian; from September to December I wrote none. It's not that I didn't pitch features: three out of four ideas I send are rejected, and even those accepted don't always work out. That's natural, but time-consuming. I spent the weeks doing a combination of unpaid work, freelance work, and applications for grants, both of which were rejected. I love my work. But it's still work. And I'm constantly working. Sometimes I wonder what there is to show for it.

In the conventional sense, my Guardian salary was the thing to show for it. It's also been a security blanket. Last summer, Andrew Haydon asked why I don't have the courage of my convictions: if the structures within which I live are so abhorrent to me, why not walk away from them? I'm full of admiration for the way he's successfully achieved that – becoming in the process theatre's key critical voice to boot. But he doesn't have a family; I have. [Note added 22/1/14: Andrew pointed out, very gently, on twitter today that he does have a family, he just doesn't have dependents. I know from reading Stella Duffy's blog how hurtful this kind of unconscious expression of heteronormative superiority can be, and wish I'd been more thoughtful with my phrasing.] Families lock you into structures, responsibilities. I feel I ought to embrace being shoved out of a traditional financial structure. Instead I just feel scared.

*

When I was 21 and 22 and lost in the wilderness, not really knowing what I wanted to do with my life except that I didn't want to sit on the reception desk at my parents' factory, or in any other way join their business, I truly believed the most precious commodity in newspapers was space. Column inches. I sent in ideas, which were ignored. I wrote reviews, which were rejected. You had to be really fucking good to be given space in newspapers, and for a long time I wasn't good enough. Money was no object in this industry; when I got my first job, I was shocked by how much I earned (£26,000pa – enough to save up a deposit to buy my own flat, admittedly at now distant prices). Newspapers were happy to pay you – but give you column inches? Dream on.

Now I wonder if I was kidding myself: after all, my newly affluent parents were always at the edge of the wilderness, supporting me. But I also wonder whether the situation has reversed. The internet has given newspapers limitless space, but advertising revenue has disappeared in that black hole and now money is their most precious commodity. You can write for them, but be paid? That's the tricky part.

*

I've been walking around like a sack of broken china.

(Things have come to that.)

I've been thinking that, finally, I've been found out for the talentless fraud I really am.

(Things have come to that.)

I've been feeling sorry for myself, because theatre is my life, but now I'm not earning my own money, how can I afford to buy tickets? And who will give me press tickets for a blog review that maybe 300 people will read?

(Where do I even start on the self-centredness on this? How do I expect theatre practitioners to pay their rent if people aren't buying tickets? Isn't part of the problem with newspapers that no one wants to pay for them any more? When was the last time I actually bought a newspaper? I get my news from twitter, read the few articles that catch my attention online, expect everything for free. Of course the economics are fucked: but I can't ignore my role in making them so.)

And then:

I've tried to remember that people whose intellect and craft as writers dazzle me, make me feel unutterably puny, not only enjoy my writing but respect it, praise it, encourage it.

And that this is the push I need to work properly on Dialogue, and on reinventing what it is to write about theatre; to challenge myself as a writer; to discover a new audience, maybe not a massive or a mainstream audience, but possibly an audience that doesn't yet know that it wants to read about theatre, and all the things that writing about theatre entail. Society, politics, feminism, anti-capitalism, inequality...

It's the push I need to stop sitting tentatively on the outside of Chris Goode & Company, and properly embrace the extraordinary opportunity he gives me.

It's the push I need to build on the work I've been doing with Fuel/New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood, to stop running scared from the Shunt book idea, to help Exeunt/theatremagazine become vital.

It might have been the push I needed to get the novels written, except that over Christmas I read a novel that was fine, serviceable, essentially not very good, and was forced to admit to myself that if I wrote a novel in time for turning 40, this is how it would read. A depressing truth, tempered by the fact that Penelope Fitzgerald was 58 before she published a book. I still have two decades to become good enough for myself.

The hardest thing, and I feel pretty stupid saying this, will be learning to say “it's Maddy Costa” when I call people, rather than “it's Maddy from the Guardian”. My identity has been tied up in that newspaper for 14 years. I've no idea if I'm ready to stand up on my own. But I'm going to have to.

That, and get used to not getting paid.

*

The days between sending the piece in and waiting for it to be published were spent working with LIFT. I'm late posting this because every spare hour lately has been devoted to that. It's blissful. I'm working on paper again, making pages, making a magazine. It's brought home to me how much I miss the tangible, miss commissioning other writers, miss working with designers, framing stories, seeing things from a reader's perspective. I miss the sense of achievement in seeing a project through to completion. Sometimes I think I'm still heartbroken by my failure to become Guardian arts editor.

On two of those days, working in the design office, this song played:



Both times I stopped freefalling and started floating. And now every time I listen I feel it rushing through my blood and it's like somersaults.

(Dug this one out again too. Also magic.)



*

There's a longer version of the Carrie Cracknell, by the way. (There always is.) Bizarrely, someone called Hobo O'Riley seems to have decided to post up his comment on the Guardian feature not there but on two unconnected posts here. He must really want to talk to me about it. At the point when I spoke to Carrie, I hadn't seen the explicit video for Blurred Lines, and the “prudishness” question was mostly directed at myself. I've since seen the explicit, and my problem with it can be boiled down to four words: naked women, dressed men. When that gets reversed, the conversation will start feeling very different.

Talking to Carrie has inspired me finally to read Susan Faludi's Backlash, a book I've owned for two decades but only ever dipped into, cover-to-cover. It ought to be out of date by now. So far, depressingly, infuriatingly, not quite astonishingly, it isn't. Dialogue is lining up a Theatre Club on Blurred Lines: I'm really looking forward to it.



Summer 2013 and controversy is raging. Robin Thicke's supremely catchy song Blurred Lines – in which a man in a nightclub tries to persuade a beautiful woman to stop being a “good girl” and do what he knows she really wants – is being banned from student unions up and down the country, condemned in blogs and newspapers for promoting rape culture, and topping pop charts across the globe. All this is fuelled by the song's video, in which – in the explicit version – women wearing nothing but silken G-strings and clompy shoes cavort around three men in suits who clearly can't believe their luck.

For theatre director Carrie Cracknell, who is directing a new show for the National Theatre Shed deliberately named after the song, Blurred Lines is a red rag. When I wonder whether it's prudishness that makes people recoil from it, she argues: “It's really easy for women to get accused of being prudish, but there is an absolute line about sexual consent which cannot be blurred. The rage I feel in relation to that song is about the idea of strong men, fully dressed, animalising and brutalising a group of scantily clad women who apparently are empowered and completely in control of their bodies.

“Of course sex is part of our life and not something we should repress or censor, but rape is not sex, and non-consensual sex for young women is a massive problem. A whole generation of young boys and girls are growing up and their first sexual experiences are pornography which is deeply hateful and misogynistic and full of violence, and this song is the tip of that iceberg. It has to take responsibility for the normalisation of that. Anyway, rant over.” And she stops, suddenly sheepish.

A willowy, elegant 33-year-old, Cracknell is all thoughtful restraint on the surface, but seething beneath. It seems odd that she should feel the need to apologise for expressing herself strongly, but it turns out this has been a running theme in the Blurred Lines rehearsal room. “That anxiety about being strident or pushy comes back to the socially constructed idea of gender,” she suggests, “and how women feel they have to find a feminine version of power to get what they want, while anything that feels outwardly aggressive or masculine is held back in some way.”

For Blurred Lines, which opens this week, she's working with eight female actors – including Sinead Matthews, Ruth Sheen, Claire Skinner and Michaela Coel – and a male writer, Nick Payne, to devise the show in the rehearsal room. Together they've been improvising a series of scenes that tackle the representation of women across film, television, theatre and pop. They're also contemplating casual misogyny, the normalisation of the sex industry, rape culture, and ongoing problems to do with work and parenting.

It's useful, Cracknell says, to have a male writer taking part: Payne describes himself as a feminist, and argues that the issues with which they're grappling are not women's only. “Nick said in rehearsal one day: a lot of this is a male problem. Rape is a male problem. Men are not trained as boys that they might become rapists, they're not taught in sex education that they have to take responsibility for whether a girl says yes or no. Of course we could argue that it should be a female playwright, but his perspective and searching and questioning have been as relevant as mine.”

Apart from Thicke's song, Blurred Lines has its roots in the work that pulled Cracknell into the mainstream: her 2012 production of A Doll's House, the Ibsen play championed by feminists because it depicts a woman walking out on her husband and children in an attempt to discover her real self. The production, starring Hattie Morahan as a fluttering, manipulative Nora, had two successful runs at the Young Vic in London before transferring to the West End; it moves to New York in February.

“The first question we asked when we started making A Doll's House,” says Cracknell, “was: what does the play look like now? What's the relationship between the gender politics of the 1890s and the world we live in? The thing that Hattie drew out was this idea that Nora's power is completely seated in her sexuality. That really struck me, because of this idea that women are more sexualised now than they've ever been, or trying to move towards an ever-narrowing ideal of what it means to be beautiful and therefore powerful.”

Are things really worse now, or is the problem that we expect decades of feminism to have made things better? “Women have always been judged on how they look more than men, women have always been objectified more than men,” Cracknell agrees. “What happens now is a pernicious, deep-rooted connection between global capitalism and an unobtainable physical ideal. The desire for profit of those big beauty firms and of our television culture, and the way that those things are hooking into each other, feels really overwhelming.”

To coincide with the stage production, Cracknell made a short film for the Young Vic and the Guardian, in which Nora – again played by Morahan – is updated to a modern working mother, falling to pieces as she struggles with her impossible juggling act. Payne co-wrote it with her, and had a strong influence on her thinking about both Noras when he handed her a copy of Kat Banyard's wake-up call to a generation of post-feminists, The Equality Illusion. Reading it, Cracknell says, “I had a feminist awakening. I'm of a generation that to some extent have been told that we're equal, that women have every opportunity men have. But I believe Kat's thesis: the equality we'd been sold was an illusion. Women are still disproportionately disempowered in public life and being paid less than men, while sexual harassment and violence are endemic in our culture.”

None of this occurred to Cracknell as a teenager. “I was raised with the idea that it was irrelevant that I was a woman: you just had to get on with being funny, being kind and working hard.” Back then, theatre was a hobby; her real ambition was to be a politician. She had a “strong left-wing upbringing”: her mother was a primary school teacher and latterly head; her father a businessman who taught at Oxford Brookes University and became a local councillor. “The first time I voted was for my dad. This idea of the right to vote was such a profound thing in our house,” Cracknell recalls. She studied history at Nottingham with full intentions of becoming an MP, but theatre snared her in her first year. Now she pins her socialist hopes on her nephew, who is also studying history and politics at Nottingham and wants to run the Labour party. “I've asked if I can be in his cabinet on gender and culture,” she laughs.

She spent a few years assisting directors including Dominic Dromgoole and Katie Mitchell, then at 26 became the youngest artistic director in the country, co-running the Gate in London with Natalie Abrahami. “We had a brilliant five years where we got to find our own identity make loads of public fuck-ups in a quite joyful teenage way,” she says. “Natalie and I were interested in experimenting with form, in what theatre and dance look like when they're together, so it always felt like this punk little venue.”

She managed to combine that with having two children, now aged two and four (they have a starring role in the Nora film, where they get abandoned on a trampoline). Cracknell won't talk about how she balances work and motherhood, but does admit that she finds balancing her own ambitions complex. “My desire to parent is as strong now as my desire to move forward. But I feel calm about making a bit less work, and enjoy that work more as a consequence, focusing on it more, having more time to develop it. A Doll's House was born out of a year of preparation because I was on maternity leave; I probably couldn't have made that work without that space to cook it in my mind.”

Rather than her own struggle with childcare arrangements, she prefers to comment on the bigger picture: “In Blurred Lines we've been doing quite a lot of research into the economics of how parenting affects the female work force. There's an elite 15% of hyper-educated women who are in many respects echoing the working patterns of men, very long hours, completely committed to their careers. A proportion of them have children and tend to go back to work quite quickly, and can therefore afford childcare and just about make that work. The financial gap is growing between that group and women who work in part-time, less well-paid or less skilled jobs who can't always afford formalised or flexible childcare and therefore can't affect change over their salaries or over the kinds of roles they can take on.”

Theatre tends to be low-paid with long hours, so where Cracknell fits into that picture isn't clear. Again, it's not something she's comfortable going into. So far, she says, being a woman hasn't diminished her own opportunities: mostly she's been able to do the work she wants to do, and she's been given some fantastic opportunities. Alongside her West End debut with A Doll's House, last year she directed her first opera, a well-received Wozzeck for ENO. But she feels a more general frustration with theatre culture: “It's still a male-dominated world because the stories we tell are inherited from a culture in which women weren't allowed to do those things. And we still predominately think the stories of men are more important and more interesting than the stories of women.

“We're only in the second generation in which women have really been able to take full control in public life and therefore we don't have all of those stories yet. We have to understand who those characters are, we have to take the female narrative out of the domestic and into the public.” Recently she was invited to direct a play for the National's biggest space, the Olivier, and was startled by how difficult it was to find a female character with the “scale or scope of emotional depth” to fill the room. Somewhat predictably, the play she's going to direct is a Greek tragedy, Medea.

That's in June; before that she'll be at the Royal Court, directing a new play dissecting rock'n'roll celebrity by Simon Stephens, and contributing to the life of the building as associate director. One of her key tasks is dealing with gender imbalance. “An American actress brilliantly suggested that you could take every screenplay and change half the male character names to female ones. Why can't the doctor or the policeman or lawyer or the judge just be women? Sometimes I think at the Court we can do that, we can encourage writers to think of their protagonist as a woman without actually changing very many of the characteristics.”

Despite that early ambition to become an MP, Cracknell is constantly surprised by the extent to which politics, gender or otherwise, now govern her theatre-making. “I used to call my work 'political with a small p': it was about the human experience. As I get older, I understand that the human experience is at the heart of a bigger experience, and I've found that really liberating and intellectually stimulating. Rather than my work always being about the story, it's about the context for the story as well.”

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