Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Why do I still have to argue that it's wrong to expect people to work without payment?

I was asked to perform this week . As an LGBT performer at a poetry event. By a colleague I like and respect and for a cause that passionately I believe in.

“We promise to promote you thoroughly” the invitation went but as it's free event there will be no payment involved.

Of course Of course there was no payment involved. I didn’t expect any. It was if both the “no payment” and the” of course” were taking for granted somehow.

Generally I accept these invitations without thinking about it too much. 

Especially when they come from an organisation that is supposed to be on my side. And in many ways actually is. i think...

And anyway for a long time I thought so poorly of my performance skills it wouldn’t have occurred to me to ask for payment. 

And besides, having  suffered so much when I was young because there were no trans people visible anywhere, it feels important to me to be out there. 

Important to be visible, important to be proud. Important to show that there is an alternative to hiding away in fear and in shame. Important just to be normal.  Being there matters.It’s part of the job somehow.

So I was about to say yes when I started thinking. And then paused.

I was thinking that the event was going happen in a pub and so would make money for the pub’s management. I was thinking the event was going to happen in a back room of the pub and it wouldn't be hard to charge admission.

And I remembered I'm a member of the actors union. Of Equity. And if ever anyone tries to suggest that we should perform for no money there is the most massive uproar. And rightly so.

And then I remembered I am also a member of the Scottish Society of Playwrights, and how long and how hard we fought to establish the principle the writing is a skill and needs to be properly paid for. 

And that trying to build an industry or develop an art form on the basis of unpaid labour is a disaster for all concerned.

So I paused some more.

Did the fact that I was being asked as a poet and performer, and a LGBT poet and performer… did that make it different? Did that make it right for me to be expected to perform for no money? 

When this is, after all, my livelihood. 

I was thinking it makes it different in that all of us who suffer discrimination and oppression also suffer because we internalise that impression.

And that as a consequence we suffer from rock bottom self-esteem, and as a consequence, we are vulnerable to exploitation because it is often hard for us to imagine that our efforts deserve rewarding.

“I never think to ask for payment”, a gay colleague tells me,  “and often don't realise I don't value myself enough to even think to ask.”

And as a consequence we suffer from the prejudice in the world around us and from the prejudice we inflict upon ourselves.

Often without even realising. And it matters that we realise; and that once we have realised, we resist.

And so I didn't say yes. I said no.

 And then I heard of how someone had seen me perform at some other event, when I also wasn't being paid, at a time when they were still firmly in the closet.

And that there was something about the way I performed that helped them overcome their fears, and come out. And now their lives were so much better.

So was I being selfish?

Years ago, when I was still in the closet, in the context of all the feminist activity that was going on around me, it was easy for me to think that my suffering wasn’t authentic and didn’t matter somehow. That it wasn’t oppression. That if I was suffering it was not because i was suffering oppression. It was because I was sick. And deserved it. And anyway didn't really count for anything.

It took a long time to get past that one. But here I am, trying to reflect on this, and on the irony that ultimately the organisation asking me to work for nothing is supposedly on my side.

And the thought also keeps occurring to me that in the middle of everything else that's going on, isn’t this just so trivial?

But it's not trivial. Trans lives matter.

It matters that we learn to look after ourselves. And that we learn to look after each other.,

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

working in times of darkness

I take refuge in work in these dark times.

And, naive as I may be, I think creating art is a valid protest against the obscenity that is happening...


Saturday, December 31, 2016

On the threshold of 2017

These are such dangerous times.

More than ever I sense that our planet’s life is on a knife edge, somehow; and in these circumstances what we say and what we do really matters.

We have to stand up to be counted. We have to make sure, as best we can, that we are part of the process of creating the new.

That we are not complicit in the process of destruction.

We’re also all a mixture of everything, of course, and in the end that judgement is not ours to make.

We can only try to do what we can.

And part of that process needs to be to reflect on where we are now, and what in the last twelve months we have done.

The last twelves months of what, in spite of everything, I refuse to see as a disastrous year.

I’m thinking of a young trans woman I met in Brazil who was telling me, tears in her eyes, of the difference my “Jesus Queen Of Heaven” has made to her and her sisters.

Of the fact that the Brazilian production of the play has finally given her the chance to work in the theatre. Something which the implacable prejudice of her society had up to then denied her.

I think of the woman I met after performing the show in Belo Horizonte. She had taken a break from occupying the Culture Ministry to see the show, she told me, and I had renewed her inspiration and will to resist.

I think of the homeless choir member I met in Rio who was often trembling uncontrollably because of her chronic alcoholism but who, on the day we performed together, just couldn’t stop smiling.

And the beauty and hope and resistance in those voices I don’t think I’ll ever forget.

I know it’s not not true now, what is often said, that art makes no difference to anything.

It does matter, and I was right all along to know that it did, and that artists bear a heavy weight of responsibility for the consequences, good or evil, of what we create.

And I was right all along to write “War In America” and foresee the disintegration of parliamentary democracy. To understand all those years ago that when the Berlin Wall fell it was not just about the collapse of communism but the collapse of capitalism too.

I was right, too, to insist on dramatising my grief in “Every One” so we could all begin the painful necessary process of looking at Sister Death.

I never knew any of that at the time, of course, I just thought it was me being silly.

But I know now it was more than that; because I saw “Every One” being performed so beautifully in Chris Goode’s production at the Battersea Arts Centre; and because next year the Attic Collective are performing “War In America” in Edinburgh’s old Royal High School and, for the first time on twenty years, I read the play.

And that taught me,too, that my impulse to create a cycle of five plays looking at the world’s profound and revolutionary changing was a good one. 

That having written the first two, “Light In The Village’ and “War In America” I could write the third for Manchester’s Royal Exchange.

And what a joy it is to feel it slowly taking shape in my imagination.

A joy, too, to be beginning rehearsals next week with Graeae and the Exchange for my “House of Bernarda Alba” and to know, too, that my new version of this will help them in their struggle to right the discrimination and injustice suffered by disabled people in the theatre.

I’m aware, too, that all this is happening in the context of other personal struggles. 

The struggle against the heart disease that made me collapse on stage in Belo Horizonte.

The struggle to recover and learn to walk again with my new hip.

The struggle against all the self-doubt and self-hatred, amongst so much else, standing in the way of my “Eve”. That I will perform next August, in the Traverse, for the National Theatre of Scotland.

The struggle to keep hope in the face of so much folly and greed and cruelty.

This year I’ve been called a “demon” and “a source of justified offence” and who knows what else besides.

But what’s far more important are the kind words, and the warm words, and the encouraging and the loving words I’ve received from so many people.  

From family, from my new sisters, from colleagues and from friends and from perfect strangers.

“Remember kindness”, someone says in one of my plays, “It’s kindness that drives away all fear.”

Happy New Year.

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