A quick response to a group talk entitled “How do we find hope?” convened and facilitated by Chris Haydon

Written quickly, not properly edited, not neatly argued.

My initial response, on receiving the invitation to a group discussion about “How do we find hope?” my initial impulse, is to laugh. Like it’s ridiculous in its earnestness and melodrama. It makes me want to sing “where is the hope?” to the tune of Where is the Love by The Black Eyed Peas. It has something of the Flight of the Conchords “what is wrong with the world today?” about it. Of course, I have concerns about the election of Donald Trump and the Brexit vote too (this is what brought up the “hope question” by the way: the “events” of this year). But talking about “hope” seemed so inadequate, so mealy. Of course, you need to believe you can have a positive effect on the world so as not to fall into depression and paralysis. But this seems to me to be a truism rather than an argument about the need for hope. Hope, especially in this context – theatre directors waxing lyrical about hope in a discussion at Young Vic – seems so thin and flimsy and wishful. Like a magical rainbow which will bring us all together and make everything better – a disneyfied magic, when what we need is a different kind of magic, a real magic, an igneous and old and ritual magic. It seems like talking about hope in this way is indulging in fantasy rather than taking action.

What should action be, then? In other words, what is the Good Society, and how do we get there? Well, if we’re talking what is the economy of the Good Society, and I think that’s a useful place to start, I don’t think it’s a million miles away from the economy of the Young Vic directors network. That is to say, offering each other our time and energy and skills for free (in talks and workshops just like the one in question, this talk about hope), and becoming indebted to one another in the process. Within the Young Vic network, it’s fair to assume that we have a shared idea of a societal project where creativity and play and stories are allowed to play an important part in everyone’s lives, irrespective of their class, or income or race or religion. Big picture: the world needs to move towards a no-growth or very low growth economy, and we need to be able to do that while maintaining good standards of living, because the environment is going to hell in a handcart. We need to build a society which, when it measures the health of its economy, looks at the value of care and creativity and play. This is what I hope the network can become. Making art needn’t be expensive. We need somewhere to call home, enough to clothe ourselves, to eat, to travel to keep warm. We need that security. And it is possible to provide that security, those basics for everyone – there’s plenty of wealth to go around. And once you have those basics, the question is what to live for, and the answer is for play, for love, to find ourselves and our place in the world.

In our group discussion about “hope” a recurring theme was that the Other is alienated, disempowered, frustrated and angry. A question arises: do we reach out to them and try to empathise or do we tell them that they are wrong? Both of these responses are an impulse to “fix” the Other. But we cannot fix everything, and we certainly cannot “fix” the other. Can we even fix anything? We can fix ourselves. It is not just the Other (the 52%, the Trump voter) who is disempowered: I (me, Ben) am disempowered. I do not feel like I am represented politically. I live in a system which is cruel and absurd. My frustration and alienation is the same as the frustration and alienation of the Other (the 52%, the Trump voter). So we can fix ourselves. First, on a personal level. Then on the level of the network. We can organise. We can use the network, the networks to give ourselves a voice, to find a way of achieving a better democracy and a better society, and then to reach out to the ones who are cast as the Other to say that we feel like we don’t have a voice either, and we want change too, and we want to feel like we live in a society too, like there is such a thing as society, not just a whole lot of communities existing independently of one another and never interacting (this is not how things are, but it is often how they are cast). To start among ourselves is not to preach to the choir or live in a bubble or an echo chamber or whatever we’re calling it these days. It is to recognise that we need to change, to take back control ourselves and for ourselves. We cannot fix the Other. We can only fix ourselves. That is why we must become the Other and the Other must become one of us.

The Destroyed Room @ BAC

I saw The Destroyed Room at Battersea Arts Centre last Saturday. I’ve been thinking about it a lot since then, about what it felt like to watch it. My stomach became knotted as I watched. The moment which keeps coming back is the moment I noticed the water beginning to seep across the stage. It came from under the fridge, beneath the worktop where the bottle of wines were stood. I don’t know if that’s where it always starts, but for a minute perhaps, I was thinking maybe a bottle of wine had been knocked over, or that the fridge is leaking. The couple in the row in front of me were squirming as well. Writing about it now, I can feel my stomach becoming knotted again. It was frightening.

A few months ago, I made a series of podcasts, documenting research I was doing into a show about the housing crisis. We recorded interviews with people who were being displaced by regeneration projects on housing estates in London (of which there are lots). We invited spoken word artists and poets to record each episode with us, and asked them to respond to the material we had gathered. Images of water kept appearing in our conversations with them: of people not being able to keep their head above the water, of being flushed out, of floods, of drowning. It was just after the image of the drowned boy on the beach had appeared in the media.

Around that time, a friend of mine living in California wrote to me. He wrote about the ocean and surfing, about seeking out powerful currents and waves and riding them, and the sense of wonder and fulfillment of being carried in that way, how he understood his own life in these terms (I’m simplifying). I was struck by how different our metaphors had become. How, in Europe, the sea was a place where people drowned; in California it was something with which to be “at one”.

For a while, around this period, I began spending more and more time reading comments below the line on Guardian opinion pieces about the refugee / migrant crisis in Europe. They made me feel sick, but I couldn’t stop reading them. The ones which had been recommended the most times by other readers seemed to be the ones which displayed the least empathy or imagination. It wasn’t doing me any good – they were making me angry and upset, and they were taking up a lot of time and mental energy, but I felt compelled to keep scrolling through them. I work a lot at my computer – they were only ever a click away. Eventually, I managed to come to terms with the BTL comments after reading an essay by Stuart Hall where he develops Gramsci’s ideas about “common sense” in relation to neo-liberalism:

“[common sense] is a form of ‘everyday thinking’ which offers us frameworks of meaning with which to make sense of the world. It is a form of popular, easily-available knowledge which contains no complicated ideas, requires no sophisticated argument and does not depend on deep thought or wide reading. It works intuitively, without forethought or reflection. It is pragmatic and empirical, giving the illusion of arising directly from experience, reflecting only the realities of daily life and answering the needs of ‘the common people’ for practical guidance and advice.”

After reading Hall’s essay, it occurred to me that what was bothering most about the comments was their “common sense” quality.

That idea of “common sense thinking” kept coming back to me as I was watching The Destroyed Room – the banality / triteness of things said in the face of complexity, the necessity (or not?) of reducing complexity to this level of discourse, how the content of what is being said is often irrelevant (what is actually going on is a negotiation of power / status rather than a logical argument), the impotence of this form of thinking, its inability to effect change, even in the face of disaster…

iou1 conversation – Anne

her “so if people give you a gift what do they get back, in return?” – “that’s not what a gift is” me – too glib for my own liking even at the time even though facetious even though playful I change tack – serious “everything I do will be a gift I want to make a gift of everything I do”. Anne gives out money for a living – she gets paid to give – the heritage lottery fund has funds they pay her to give out funds she gives them out it’s a living – maybe it’s different but there’s an overlap a definite connection I’d like to investigate. “What if we’re all taking out and nobody’s putting back in? What if everyone decides to do nothing? What if I’m gifting and other people are taking? Isn’t it our nature to be out for ourselves, to be individualistic?” And I talk about how I believe this is an ideology made up forty years ago – the ideas themselves are not new but the idea of building an entire economy an entire society on the bedrock of these assumptions – the assumptions contained in these questions we now take to be common sense – this is a recent phenomenon.

As an aside:

[How terrible it would be to not be useful. This we all feel. Yet we cannot shake the belief that other people would choose to be useless would choose not to work not to make themselves useful to others not to make things or apply themselves or seek to shape the world or be active within it or do. Do things. How unhappy they would be. How unhappy they must be. How unhappy they are (they are unhappy). How low our opinion of others. How low our opinion of ourselves. I had a beer with Tom last weekend – that’s another post – noted that money was no incentive for him or me that he would write software anyway that I would make theatre anyway. He says “but we’re different”. But we’re not different. I do not believe we’re different – this is the gamble I am prepared to take. There is an assumption an assumption abroad a shared assumption that money only money is the incentive but when I ask others when I ask people when I ask other people if that’s the case for them when I push them prod them prompt them they answer “no, the incentive the want the desire is located elsewhere”.]

Back with Anne we talk automation and debt (and is it real) and unemployed truck drivers and driverless cities and what are holidays “if money was taken out of the equation I would behave like I was on holiday” “yeah sure for a bit, but after a while you would get bored of that you’d want to work” “yes” “you like to work” “yes”

We’ve been talking a long time. Anne logical methodical implacable un-ostentatious. I hope she’s enjoying working through this she seems to be someone who enjoys working through things thinking things through unpicking things and this – this is useful. The gradual unpicking of an idea. The gentle tugging at threads. As things come apart they come together too.

“With this project it takes a long time to explain what the project actually is” she says. “Yes” I say “but that’s the project”.

Thanks Anne, I owe you one.

Postcapitalism and theatre meeting 24 March

Around an ageing laptop (mine)
with tiny tinny speakers
Paul’s nine minute and forty five second summary
of his four hundred page book
from a parked car parked in a car park in rainy Haverford West
we gather.
Across a big wooden table
we set forth
to ask where we are
and why

It’s just us

is full of potential
potential pitfalls too
with no set task at hand
or set person tasked to say
this is what we’re going to do today

Do we even trust each other?
Do we even know each other?

We’ll get to know each other
We’ll gain a sense of who we are
We’ll take a census of who’s here
We’ll come to a consensus about process
We’ll process a dissensus in content
We’ll sense
When it’s there
We’ll sense what’s in the works
A project a production a thing that we produce
A book
A zine
A blog website facebook page online platform database
(do we know anyone who’s good at online stuff?)
A festival
A network
A movement
A manifesto
A skills-sharing cooperative
A collective

There is a swell
Of energy and conversation
It swells and dissipates
Today we gather round
Circle and take steps
But we will not bridge the distance
of the big wooden table
between us

That’s OK

We speak
of short and long-term goals
of stairwells

There’s paper
I’ve brought forty sheets
Of A1 paper
The roll of paper
That I’ve brought
For the paper exercise
(‘cos you need paper for a paper exercise, right?)
Has not been unrolled
The roll of paper
Stays stuck in my hands
Remains rolled
There’s paper
And there are pens
But we do not put one to the other

Pens and paper will be for next time

iou1 conversation – press night at the Young Vic

Will is just the right side of manic – he’s had a beer.
Poppy is just the right side of lary – she’s had some beers, and some wine.
Hannah glances at her watch.
Rachel… it’s funny, it sounds like she’s playing the hostess, which she is I guess, because she’s introducing people. But she’s also not overplaying the hostess. It’s a subtle performance.
Alex is bright and deadpan, I tell him he looks like Ben Whishaw.
Lily is sober and upbeat.
I’m sober too, and in the mood to explain the iou1 project. In fact, I don’t introduce it, Will does. We’re doing introductions (we’re always doing introductions at these things), so I introduce a game where we introduce one another. Will is being waffly and modest about what it is he “does”, so I big him up a bit and say he’s worked at the ROH, and then Hannah, who’s a publicist introduces Poppy, who’s a director, and then Will introduces me and sets in motion The Conversation. I start off talking about the relationship of exchange and the relationship of gifting. How the project, the iou1 project, is a bid to push back against the all-pervasive logic of financial exchange, and introduce a relationship of gifting into areas of my life where it does not, as of yet, exist, to ask people to think about money and value, to have a conversation about what work is and why it is necessary (it is necessary, I hasten to add, but not as a chore, not as labour for the sake of labour, labour for the sake of subsistence; as a society, we are productive enough for that to not be necessary; but work is necessary, work produces meaning). Poppy says “this sounds serious”, laughs, delighted. She is genuinely delighted, I believe, but I don’t know if she will remember any of it the following morning. Hannah glances at her watch. Rachel and Alex need to leave “be in touch”, “call me”, “bye”, wave. Will has heard it before. He’s going to give me podcast when he does his radio course. But with Lily, Lily to whom I spoke before, it seems to land (or maybe she’s just being polite and a good listener). When I tell her about it (and it’s actually been a while since I’ve had The Conversation, so maybe I’m out of practice) I stumble a little. I do the porridge bit, which works well, but get lost in how the relationship of exchange, the logic of exchange needs to find new areas of activity to expand into, that this is capitalism, that with the emergence of new technologies which reduce the need for labour and therefore profit, capital must find other activities where a profit can be made. I forget to tell her about why it is important to me, why I believe it is dangerous for the logic of exchange to trump other logics. In retrospect, I tell myself this is something I must not forget to include But she is a good listener and it seems to have landed.


Work in progress

A week at the Albany, Deptford, working on Britain’s Got Tenants. We made a lot of stuff and put it all out there, in front of an audience, to see how it felt. And, well, it felt a little jittery, some of it. And a few bits felt like they hit the spot. Often, I got the feeling the audience wasn’t sure how they were being asked to react. An interesting comment afterwards – “I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be panto or stand-up comedy”. Overall, a lack of clarity in the performance, but much greater clarity in my own mind now about what I want it to be. An exhilarating Thursday and Friday working with Alex. Particularly fun / challenging working on Boris – half toad, half ape. I didn’t manage to nail him in front of an audience on Friday night, but last night, he was there in our kitchen, with MC and Esteban (neither of whom had seen the show).

After the show at the Albany we had to run away to get to another performance – part of a sponsored “walk through the night” organized by the Big Issue Foundation. We were providing entertainment at a rest stop in Vauxhall – the walkers got a hot drink and five minute extract of BGT. It was a shame to have to leave the Albany without getting a chance to speak to friends who had come along properly, but I’m glad we did it – it seemed to go down well.

big issue