Class, the Elephant in the Room – Gabrielle Ivinson’s Reflection

The first Creative Margins event took place on June 26th 2018 in Theatre in the Mill hosted by Common Wealth.

The morning started with a provocative performance by Common Wealth called Class, the Elephant in the Room. And indeed as we strolled into the theatre space there was an Elephant, standing upright and singing – of all the songs – Oasis’s ‘Don’t Look Back in Anger.’ As we sat down we were intoned, cajoled and eventually persuaded by the sheer enthusiasm of the singing Elephant to join in and sing along. The temperature was reaching the late 20 degrees c outside and we were impressed by the wilful determination of the ‘Elephant’ to get us – the crowd – going. When he eventually took off his heavy, padded costume, we could see the perspiration had soaked the actor’s clothes and hair.

The Elephant disguise worked as a metaphor for the extraordinary efforts working class actors have to exert to get roles in theatre in contemporary times. The skit that followed drew on the reflections of the two working class actors (one woman and one man) illustrating what they had to say and how they were judged in interviews when applying for acting roles. Some of the many points they made were:

That working class actor’s accents, presentation of self and even sometimes their looks are features that middle class casting teams assume are legitimate to comment on – usually negatively – or to type caste. We were asked to signal what kinds of events had made us aware of being or knowing working class people. The micro signals given by dress, looks, accent, fashion style and powerful parental of class groups’ expectations emerged as experiences that mark working class and middle class subjectivities.

The actors emphasised that acting has become highly professionalised and hierarchically anchored according to which institutions actors have attended, and how many and what kinds of qualifications they have amassed. As the day went on, we discussed just how this works to privilege middle class actors who use institutions to strengthen their networks in exclusionary ways, and how many arts institutions are dominated and run by middle class people who have become gatekeepers for others. Most importantly, the actors and we discussed how the narrow stereotypes of working identity are imagined and how these mediate interviews and casting sessions.

At the core of this narrow imaginary of a working class person is a‘white, male, low-paid working on a housing estate.’This stereotype is very powerful almost hegemonic and fails to deal with the complexities of working class identities, criss-crossed by gender, ethnicity and sexual orientation.

Throughout the day participants revealed a vast array of ways of being working class. The actors asked us, the participants, if we identified as working class (hands up), middle class (hands up). This exercise revealed just how many people did not identify according to this class binary. We took from this that class distinctions have become blurred in contemporary UK, at least here in Bradford, in this north of England event.   Discussions revealed the complexities of working class upbringing which create a wide variation of experiences while growing up. Complicated class identities were narrated, such as:

  • growing up on a working class estate with non traditional working class parents, such as immigrant parents who came to the UK with rich arts cultures and how this was passed on to their children.
  • growing up in a working class estate to working class parents and discovering other practices, reading materials, media, habits and rituals through a middle girl or boy friend.
  • growing up on working class estate that held onto the traditions of working class arts cultures.

Rhiannon White (Common Wealth) reminded us of the steel workers who, as matter of tradition, meet after work to create theatre pieces. We recalled the traditions of working class music making, radical working class theatre, and visual art and artists that came out of specific working class communities.

We discussed how the explosion of Grime music has ignited a genre that mixes music genres with video visuals and how this has receives little state financial support as an art form.

We spoke of knowledge- whose knowledge counts? We spoke of what is legitimated as knowledge by public institutions. We speculated that while middle class knowledge is written and is highly valued in arts institutions – where the script, text or score is paramount – media that is not coded in written form is often given lower status. Many working class arts practices are communicated using a wide range of media beyond written text, and is often passed down through practice – as such as oral traditions of remembering dance moves, theatre scripts, stories and visual media.

Indeed our actors illustrated that in order to get an audition, working class actors often have to reveal a specific kind of class knowledge. They have to tell stories of heroic working class survival and demonstrate experiences that are ‘edgy’ or extraordinary before being taken seriously. They screamed ‘Why can’t I be hired because I’m good? Because I make good art?’ ‘Why’, they asked, ‘do working class actors have to reveal a story about themselves in order to get a place at the table, rather than just demonstrated their skill?’

This led to a wider recognition that working class people are often mined for their ‘story’ in interviews, in research in media. These stories are then often pathologies in media or exaggerated to create theatre art. Sometime, they admitted, we play up these stories to get a part thus perpetuating the very system that is marginalising us’. Middle class people do not have to reveal themselves through stories or some extraordinary past – before being accepted at the table.   In effect, middle class people are given access to art institutions or spoken to in interviews as already one of the acceptable gang, while working class people have to earn a place according to the ignorance and narrow stereotypes held by middle class groups. This imbalance perpetuates an inequality in arts participation which, as we mentioned earlier, has become even stronger as the arts have become increasingly professionalised.

We then refracted these discussing through two provocations one by Javaad Alipoor and Nicola Sim.

Javaad pointed out that many working class groups simply choose not to spend their money on theatre trips and visual art exhibitions. If the art culture in those places reflects the taste and values of middle class groups, then it is not surprising that working class people do not choose to pay to see it. There are other things they choose to spend those large sums of money on. Why do we assume that arts and theatre events are good for working class groups? Indeed, why set up a policy to widen participation, to encourage participation in what many people consider elitist culture? Working class people (of gender, colour, age etc) do not want to become middle class, middle aged people. There is a degree of patronising that lies behind widening participation policies. Other arts are happening in other places and maybe art in the forms that middle class people recognise is irrelevant to working class groups? This provocation sparked and on-going debate about that asked, ‘What is art? What is good art? And whose art is recognised as good art?’

We also discussed other forms of art that relate to craft, how craft has working class roots and that some working class families have long histories of craft practices.

Nicky gave an overview of the Tate and Paul Hamlyn Foundation supported initiative called Circuit that aimed to provide opportunities for marginalised groups of young people to participate in the arts and to find routes into art careers. She critiqued why it was, in some ways, a flawed enterprise partly because of what it assumed on behalf of marginalised groups. She raised the issues of cultural capital and exposed the underlying, maybe unconscious, assumptions that middle classes feel they have something to give or teach the working classes. From this, we questioned why working class art is not considered as having something to teach middle class groups. We asked why art initiatives don’t start with the young people themselves and seek their views before imposing a programme of participation on them? We asked, can we start to recognise that art happens in many places and some of these are hidden to middle classed because they do not venture into the places where working class young people do their creative work? If theatre educationalists want to do outreach work, maybe they have to leave the shelter of the institution where they work and wonder further. Nicky pointed out that while most Art Institution’s educational officers are middle class, many youth workers identified as working class. In the Circuit events, this sometimes set up tensions.

A major problem for Art Institutions outreach work is that they often rely on youth workers to manage the access to marginalised groups. Youth workers recognise that marginalised young people require considerable support to participate in the initiatives that have been set up for them. They need to be given reasons to take part, they need to be supported to travel to venues, helped to work on arriving on time and in place, given the complexity and lack of resources that beset their daily living. Some spoke of successful synergies where youth workers and arts organisations worked together sensitively to support young people in more co-produced events.

A major debate took place about the different between cultural capital and social capital. While many Institutions assume they have cultural capital to bestow on working class groups, working class groups often have huge amounts of social capital through the ways they have supported each other in the past, in times of industrialisation and though labour movement and unions. We thought about how these forms of solidarity both exist and are challenged in contemporary life and how urban and rural locations and the history of places, colours this is in many hues depending on where we are focusing. A robust Marxist position came in conflict with new forms of mobilisation that might privilege the virtual presence of people on social media, rather than the physical presence in place, theatre and in what remains of public meeting places. We speculated about what class mobilisation might mean today? We even asked what would be lost if we got rid of the term class?

Among the groups in the Theatre in the Mill, we had a wide range of participants from long standing Marxists activist who and dedicated much of their lives to making theatre more open to non-BME groups to people who had been brought up to aspire to middle class aspirations which they went on to reject. We were reminded of traditional forms of mobilisation when people stuck together to fight for a cause in solidarity and some of the new policy initiative that might be trying to orchestrate or design greater equality such as the ‘pay what you can’ theatre and arts event tickets. There were about 30 participants in this energetic debate which helped to recognise how complex class is – how varied are working class experiences and how permeable the boundaries between working and middle class identities have become.

In summary we, recognised:

  • how participation in arts and getting roles in theatre an other activities have become more not less class discriminatory due to the professionalisation of the arts in general, making trajectories into art jobs very difficult for working class people.
  • how class is recognised by those who read off markers of taste, fashion and accents from those who do not look and sound like us and how the in-group in the `arts is the middle class.
  • how notions of cultural capital abound and how this is fed by stereotypes of working class who are imagined in need of betterment by the middle class. This attitude is perpetuated by many arts institutions and is evident in many of their approaches to ‘out reach work’ and their feelings of needing to widen participation – instead of recognising where good art already happens.

We asked should the middle classes simple step aside and let others run Arts Institutions – while recognised that institutional practices are imbricated with power. While recognising that this maybe rather an extreme suggestion, we imagined what it would be like to have Arts Institutions that reflected the make-up of the population in which 60 percentage are working class. We imagined at least broadening what was accepted as art while recognising that good art or quality is something that everyone holds dear, even if we will never agree on what exactly ‘good’ means.

Gabrielle Ivinson

Attendance list

Maria Thelwell Leeds Play House
Jaasna Aslan  
Nicky Sim Freelance
Julie Langden BCB Radio
Mary Dowson BCB Radio
Molly Reinford Buds Theatre
Katie Malon Buds Theatre
Anamaria Wiels Cultural Transitions
Nameen Akhtar  
Kannaw Hussain  
Paul Wilshaw  
Lisa Mallaghan Mind The Gap
Charlotte Nicol  
Shahada Khan  
Hannah Bentley Arts Council
Guy Christensen 20 Stories High
Rosannah Jones  
Tanya Vital  
Hassan            Mahamdalli  
Arooj Amjad Middlesborough Council
David Tuffnel Middlesborough Council
Hafsah Nibe  
James Duggan MMU
Janet Batsleer MMU
Gabrielle Ivinson MMU
Harriet Rowley MMU
Evie Manning Common Wealth Theatre
Chris Charles Chair of Federation of Detached Youth Workers
Rhiannon White Common Wealth Theatre


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