"The Craftsman" and the skills of theatre

This is the text of a provocation for TAPRA (Theatre and Performance Research Association) at Central School, 27th May 2011.

As a former stage manager, and having run a SM programme, I’ve had a strong relationship with the ‘material’, or what the French call materielle, of the performance, so I got very excited when I heard Richard Sennett was looking into material culture. I understand volume 2 looks at ritual, which I’m sure we’ll all be ordering advance copies. I’d like to share with you a few concerns, which I believe are related to Richard Sennett’s analysis. The issue concerns our understanding of craft as a part of drama training, and how that touches on working class identity.

My day job is in widening participation for Rose Bruford College, trying to persuade working class young people that drama school is a valid career choice. The issues this raises are many, but there are two that are immediate. One is about skills development and careers. There is a need to demonstrate that theatre and performance careers offer a measure of security, both in terms of skills relevance and finance. The ambitions of ethnic minority communities in particular are instructive, pointing towards careers in secure and lucrative professional fields – medicine; law, computing, finance and commerce. . The second is about popular culture – discussion among colleagues is about working class culture: the influence of X-factor and Britain’s Got Talent. Talent, of course, is not enough – I’ve found that the 10,000 hours idea, as quoted in “The Craftsman ” is a useful way of demonstrating the need for skill.

Although “The Craftsman“ touches on these issues, even more relevant is some of Prof. Sennett’s other work, such as “Corrosion of Character” and “The Culture of the New Capitalism”. It is in the context of these works too that the analysis of the personal element of craft skill becomes particularly important.

Sennett talks about the localisation of knowledge, which I’m going to take rather literally. In my other life I am a political activist in Dartford, Kent. Let me tell you about it, as an example of what seems to be happening in many such places. For those of you who may not know the town, it used to be a little like a Northern mill town transposed to the edge of the Thames. The skill base there was in engineering, cement and papermaking, and more recently pharmaceuticals. The town lived by making things, physical objects. My next-door neighbour was a toolmaker by trade, and still talks with pride about the skill. Being close to London also meant there has always been an element of commuting: for example, there are many retired printers from Fleet St, another very proud craft. One of its most notable residents was Richard Trevithick, inventor of the Steam locomotive, carried to a pauper’s grave by apprentices from Hall’s engineering works.

To the north of the town there’s a large post-war council estate overlooking the Thames, which looks also across an industrial area of the town. The demographic, like much of north Kent, is mostly white, SEC 4-7. Streets are named for the most part after Labour worthies – Attlee Drive, Bondfield Terrace; or after poets – Wordsworth Drive, Eliot Walk; though I don’t think there’s much poetry about. For the last few elections I’ve been talking to people on the doorstep there, listening to their concerns and why many were unhappy about, as they saw it, being deserted by the Labour Party. Underneath the familiar Daily Mail xenophobia and general alienation (“I don’t understand it all”) one can hear the message that post industrialisation has lead to a growing crisis in working class identity.

Looking out from Temple Hill, the factories are either gone or about to go. In the centre of the town, the Co-op department store has shut as the retail arm concentrates on local convenience stores, leaving a big hole in the townscape. (This is the town that regularly returned a Labour Co-op MP.) Other working class institutions are also in decline – the social club for the factory, although bought by the council through a government grant, is crumbling. The Trades Council no longer functions, and trade unions in short supply. People now make a living either by commuting to the City or Canary Wharf working in finance; with the main local trade in retail (Bluewater employs 6000 people) or distribution – service jobs..

In terms of cultural life, the town has a well-established 900 seat touring house, and an arts centre built in one of the schools. The diet is middle of the road – Q-DOS panto at Christmas; the odd bit of art theatre and the occasional touring show, but mostly tribute bands and concerts. A few local dance schools, including that run by the great Len Goodman. The town festival every July in Central Park also has tribute bands and X-factor runners-up.

During the General Election I started to feel the dissonance between these two areas of my life. I know as well as anyone the need for the knowledge and skills of performance. There is a need to develop new craft skills, new expertise in the skills of presentation and story-telling. But to sell this idea feels at times like the betrayal that the New Labour project was being implicitly accused of. Don’t follow your dad into the factory, go and work in the theatre. I’m reminded of a comment from John Fox of Welfare State International – “People have had their dreams stolen from them and had them sold back dear”.

The Runnymede Trust report on the Problem of the White Working Class identified that “…the plight of the white working class is constructed – by the media, politicians and anti-immigrant groups – as either the fault of immigrants and minority ethnic groups, or the cultural deficit of the underclass itself, or both, while leaving the hierarchical and highly stratified nature of Britain out of the equation”. Research from Lambeth observed “They (white working class) have been shaved by politicians of all parties as part of a broader strategy to woo middle class voters and occupy the political centre. As a result there are few national strategies or little targeted support to tackle generations of low aspirations and to break the cycle of poverty and disadvantage”

Sennett says that “Good craftsmanship implies socialism”. I suspect the reverse may also be true. And to suggest the craft of theatre as a replacement for engineering is a big ask.

The craft skills we teach can so easily become part of the problem. We’ve seen it in the past, that on the pretext of speaking well, regional variation of voice is marginalised. The drama stage and its texts – particularly classics that have become attached to the Stanislavski method – become the dominant mode in stage management and technical training. In contrast, popular theatre – variety and panto, aspects of dance and musical, talent shows and concerts , the staple of civic theatres across the land – are constructed as inferior knowledge. Too often, it seems to me, we are slipping back into easy assumptions about the value of a dominant heritage, without contextualising that choice. In doing so we inadvertently invalidate a broad range of lived experience, nowhere more so than in the cultural arena.

As this is the applied theatre group of TAPRA, I guess Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed is pretty much Drama 101. The notion of cultural exchange that he advocates needs to be brought into the centre of the Academy, not just as a methodology but as a pedagogical approach to skills too. I have a video of Robert Lepage talking about his approach to storytelling, and the fact that “today we have so many ways of telling stories, through theatre, through music, through video”. I’d suggest therefore we need to look at our own storytelling, and the narratives we construct to attract students.

My provocation therefore is this:
1 How do we construct a narrative of craft skills that acknowledges the diversity of identity in contemporary society – the notion of superdiversity.
2 How do we maintain vigilance against assumptions of implicit value that are in fact expressions of a dominant culture, without losing the notion of excellence and value in a sea of postmodern blah.?
3 How do we create a narrative of arts and entertainment that properly describes the breadth of experience that young people are likely to get?

Richard Sennett, The Craftsman, Penguin Books 2009

Boal, A: Theatre of the Oppressed Theatre Communications Group 1985

Demie F, Lewis K: Raising The Achievement of White Working Class Pupils, Lambeth Council, 2010
Ericsson, K. A., 1996, ‘The acquisition of expert performance: An introduction to some of the issues.’ In *The Road to Excellence: The Acquisition of Expert Performance in the Arts and Sciences, Sports, and Games*, K. A. Ericsson, ed. Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum, pp. 1-50.

Fanshawe S, Sriskandarajah, D: You Can’t Put Me In A Box: Super-diversity and the end of identity politics in Britain. IPPR 2010
Gladwell, M: Outliers Allen Lane 2008
Runnymede Trust Who Cares about the White Working Class? www.runnymedetrust.org 2009
John Fox. Talking in Tomas Suski Longline : Welfare State International www.vimeo.com/2848464

Robert Lepage’s Andersen Project: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qW0qW39Ozzs

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