Month: October 2012

Summary of RSN2

We were pleased to see that for the second RSN seminar we retained a healthy audience, in terms of both numbers and the broader mix of people than seminars tend to attract. The new exhibition in the NALGO room of the WCML, ‘Snap! – my life in the Working Class Movement Library’, also made for a bright and interesting backdrop to discussion, and it attracted praise from attendees. You only have until Halloween to see it! Here are a few pictures:

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Joseph Maslen, ‘Confession to Contentment: Growing Old on the Left in Late-Twentieth Century Britain’.

Joe, of Edge Hill University, kicked us off with a talk on Margot Kettle’s project in the 1980s, interviewing Communists who had been born between 1910 and 1922. This was intended to counteract images of Communists in the 80s media, which she felt distorted the reality of their lives in the 30s. By asking that generation to reflect on and make sense of their youth, Kettle would offer her interviewees the opportunity to come together, and come to a ‘reckoning’ on their past. It was a structured process that was both public and private; personal and interpersonal, but for a public audience.

Kettle’s unspoken motivation, according to Joe, was towards the private and internal, specifically the confessional. As her project developed so too did an ambivalence towards its dual nature as both private and public. Her questions to interviewees encouraged a subjective and emotive response, and she was very choosy regarding publishers for the work. She became uncertain about the truth of project, which was her primary aim. She did not want the work to be ‘academic’: heavily footnoted and remote. This was not to be an ‘official history’ but conversations with people of that time. Was there an element of defensiveness, here?

Questions and answers:

As we might expect from an audience comprised of non-academics and academics, the talk resulted in discussion about the nature of Kettle’s project. Kettle was seen to be passionate about her interests, but was she intimidated by academic convention? Is this actually about a (not unrelated) issue: the status of the emotive within history? Kettle’s method produced personal and emotional testimonies: was this outside the scope of history as a discipline within academic circles at the time, and her work did not have a place in the academy for this reason? Did she have a novelistic bent that the work could have been channeled into, or is it more important to stake a claim for this content within history as it is practiced in Universities? Joe replied that it was a shame that academia in the 80s was not more open to this area, the ‘literariness and historicity of life stories’. Kettle was ahead of her time.

Was there evidence that interviewees wanted redemption? Joe saw contentment and evidence of enthusiasm in interviewees’ responses to Kettle’s questions. She also provided them with the opportunity to check the accuracy of her reportage; she was among her interviewees rather than above them. One question addressed this collaborative aspect, noting that Kettle used ‘we’ in her questions to interviewees, and established a collective identity by doing so. Joe noted that this identity excluded the Cambridge spies; Kettle used the phrase ‘ordinary boys and girls of the 30s’ to characterize that generation. The issue of sexuality was then raised, since the Cambridge spies were associated with homosexuality. Margot’s project didn’t address sexuality explicitly but the implicit focus was on heterosexual, monogamous relationships, since she interviewed married couples. ‘Corruption’ of the left made it vulnerable to homophobic critique, whereas Kettle was keen to stress the domesticity of Communism in Britain at that time.

Andy Merrifield, ‘The Enigma of Revolt: Occupy and Beyond…’

Andy, currently a Leverhulme Visiting Professor at the University of Manchester, opened his talk with noting that, unlike Kettle’s project on ‘dying happy’, his talk would be concerned with ‘living happy’. His old teacher, David Harvey, had published The Enigma of Capital, but the ‘enigma of revolt’ will be to understand the means by which revolt will be possible and the forms it can take. Andy saw a clear divide between the 60s and 70s: the Doors wanted the world and now, but the Sex Pistols thought that there was ‘no future’. The 80s saw the return of harmony in popular music, but also the Miners’ strike. Fredric Jameson’s Postmodernism was published, and on the left critical distance had been abolished. The current stance of the ruling class is to state that we are now in a ‘post-political’ position. It placates and absorbs protest, managing dissensus with the aim of preventing conflict.

For Andy, the problem is not the deconstruction of neoliberalism, as it is easy to do this using Marx’s texts, but how we might identify and challenge the agents of neoliberalism. The administration of power in this system is illusive; it is not clear who we might bring to account. In figuring out the enigma of revolt we should not enter neoliberal strongholds and demand our rights, because this is too rationalist. Neoliberalism as a doctrine is irrational and so we cannot approach it wearing our ‘Cartesian hats’. For Andy, the Occupy movement is different, demanding nothing but occupying symbolic sites. Its actions demonstrate that the supposed division between public and private is blurred; Zuccotti Park in New York is not, in fact, a public space but a private one.

Andy identified and labeled ‘archetypes of dissent’: professional revolutionaries, ‘secret agents’, ‘the 99%’, the ‘great escapees’, the ‘great refusers’ (such as Marcuse, and Bartleby in Bartleby the Scrivener), and ‘double agents’; the latter were foreseen by Marx in the Communist Manifesto. He stressed that rather than inhabiting only one of these identities, it was possible, even desirable, to ‘float in and out of them’. Movements that bring these archetypes together will have to figure out a way of relating them internally. If they are put together, in a process, then they have the capacity to create a cultural counter-flow of revolt. The concept of the ‘99%’ has a class aspect, though this becomes a division between a ‘ruling class’ and the multitude, rather than a ‘working class’ that Marx would recognize.

Questions and answers:

The first questioner suggested that the Zapatista movement saw the coalescence of the ‘archetypes of dissent’ that Andy identified. This was picked up by a later question on the Zapatistas, on its military aspects. Andy talked about their use of symbolic violence, that they are armed but this has a symbolic aspect. Another wondered about the role that anger and rage have to play in revolt. Andy thought it could be a little defeatist; rage is the ability to say no, and critical negativity is important, but we also need something positive and affirming. Rage internalized can become corrosive.

Another question related Andy’s talk to the work of Theodor Adorno, and wondered if Adorno had influenced his thought? Andy thought that Adorno was more of a cultural snob than himself, and that he prefers a more affirmative style. He prefers Herbert Marcuse, who he identified as a ‘great refuser’. In Marcuse’s One Dimensional Man, the ‘great refusers’ were outcasts but Andy thinks that, today, they are part of the mainstream: sub/multi employed, made redundant, with little to gain from the current system.

One question touched on the issue of class that Andy raised, asking if he saw a role in revolt for the working class rather than the ‘middle-class kids now disadvantaged’ who are a key part of the Occupy movement. What about the role of other forms of revolt, for example, urban rioting? Andy thought it’d be interesting to see who took part in both the summer riots of 2011 and occupy. He thought that dissent can go in different directions, it can be reactionary, though there is clearly energy to be tapped, a latent political constituency.

Jen Morgan


Vive le théâtre! A valuable weapon in the armoury of change

Guest post by Sarah Thornton

Theatre for Social Change: a 21st Century view

In 1936 a group of radical theatre makers wrote in their manifesto, “Theatre must face up to the problems of its time; it cannot ignore the poverty and suffering which increases every day.  It cannot, with sincerity, close its eyes to the disasters of its time.”[1]  This is as true now as then.  During its long history, theatre has been central to the workings of democracy; offered a safe way of talking back to power; provided a space to challenge received wisdom; and told stories that represent the breadth and depth of our communities.  Today theatre buildings are either the preserve of the elite or palaces of distraction.  They reinforce not resist the status quo.  While some valiant attempts have been made to create political theatre that “faces up” to contemporary problems it is impossible for the work to be radical when developed and presented within the structures and strictures of the theatre estate.  But while theatres are breathing their last, the art of theatre is alive and kicking.

Across the world theatre is being used as a tactical intervention in the battle against neoliberal economic globalization.  It is a valuable weapon in the armory of change.

Theatre is used in communities of the voiceless to build confidence, capacity and clout.  Theatre workshops can create space for participants to explore and share ideas in a depth beyond the soundbite.  They can create the conditions for dreaming, imagining, planning; and provide a rehearsal for change.  Connected to Freirean education, community development and self-empowerment principles theatre can be a process of conscientization: enabling us to reflect on where we’re at, why we’re here, what we want to change and what action we can take to change our immediate circumstances.  The creative process is collaborative and often embodies the ideals of participatory democracy.  The performances that emerge resonate deep into the communities where they are created and performed.  And they can speak outside those communities, giving voice to stories and experiences ignored by the media, offering valuable new perspectives and an alternative to the regurgitated corporate mythology pedaled through mass production.

Theatre is used by radical artists in non-traditional spaces both as a metaphor for change and to challenge, provoke and engage.  When a theatre company, for instance, transforms a derelict street into a place of magic and beauty not only does that breath new life, but it offers hope, it says ‘look what we can do: if a few artists can do this for a week, what could a whole community do together?’  Artists create smaller interventions, making theatre pop up in places where people will stumble across it: in pubs, community centres, parks, building sites, beaches…  In these unexpected places theatre can jolt people out of routine.  When the extraordinary happens within the frame of the ordinary, new ways of thinking become possible, new ways of seeing emerge.

And the trappings of theatre have been adopted by activists. Whether to draw media attention at an occupation or subvert elections and events, the language of theatre and the tools of its trade are useful: the strong images, visceral metaphors, larger-than-life props and costumes, and the opportunity for both empathy and distancing.

So theatre in all these contexts is a powerful tool of opposition: to challenge hegemony and foster new ways of thinking; to enable those on the margins to reclaim the place of resistance; to cultivate new models of participatory democracy; to offer fun, laughter and entertainment that is not aimed to keep us in our place but to stimulate and provoke.

Collective Encounters: Theatre for Social Change

Collective Encounters is a professional arts organisation specialising in Theatre for Social Change. We make live performance that aims to tell the hidden stories of our time and give voice to those who are seldom heard.  Our Manifesto states: we believe that the arts are vital to a healthy, thriving society; that great art has been at the heart of all great civilizations; and that all people should have the right and the opportunity to engage with high quality art that helps them make sense of their world.  We believe that our world is undergoing huge changes, and that we face unprecedented environmental, economic and socio-political challenges. We believe that in these difficult times, the arts are more important than ever: they can help us to question our ways of life and the systems that govern us; help us to feel better about ourselves and our communities; and help us to recognise ourselves as agents of change.

Our work aims to excite, entertain and stimulate debate. We perform in unusual spaces: transforming a derelict street or an abandoned mill; taking theatre to places it rarely reaches: empty shops, parks, social clubs, community centres, and exclusion units. We seek out places that people can stumble across our work. On average 74% of our audiences either rarely or never go to the theatre. We find alternative platforms, like conferences, stakeholder days, and training initiatives, to ensure that the voices of those who have informed our work are heard by those who can make a difference.

Our work is all developed at grass roots level and much of it takes place in north Liverpool, an area of extreme disadvantage ranking in the top ten in the Indices of Multiple Deprivation. Our office is based in England’s fourth most deprived ward and we deliver outreach work and performances in areas that fall in the most deprived 1% nationally. 73% of children here are living in poverty; educational attainment is only half as good as the national average; ill health and obesity levels are high; life expectancy low.  We work with diverse marginalised groups including the homeless community, excluded and at risk young people, unpaid carers, people with dementia, young refugees and asylum seekers, and people of the third and fourth ages.  Throughout our eight years we have created 45 new performance pieces and performed in more than 60 separate locations.  We provide all our work free of charge.  Current work includes: The Edge of the City, a professional opera tackling the subject of homelessness, which will transform shopping centres in the north of England into opera houses in 2013; Transparent Truths, a physical theatre piece created by our Youth Theatre members exploring the lives of trafficked children; In Our Times, a project that integrates our professional and participatory programmes through live and digital performance to explore the impact of poverty, inequality and the cuts.

An overriding set of concerns underpin our work, and these influence our planning, programming and the ways in which we reflect on our practice.  We want to move from the tactical to the strategic: from personal transformation to political change.  We believe that if theatre is to be at its best and most useful, radical theatre makers must address some pressing questions:  If we work exclusively on the margins how can we impact on the mainstream? How can we avoid complicity and cooption if we receive public funding?  How can we move beyond ‘holding actions’ that may make life more bearable in the short term but don’t contribute to long-term strategic change? And how can we connect our work more directly to the massive wave of global resistance and become a valuable part of the multitude of opposition?  These are not easy questions, but we believe that if we are to make genuinely radical work they must be tackled.

Theatre has an important role to play and a great deal to offer in our revolutionary times.

Sarah Thornton is founding Artistic Director of Collective Encounters and is currently establishing a research lab to explore these questions both practically and intellectually.  As part of this research Sarah is undertaking a Professional Doctorate in Applied Theatre with Manchester University.  To contribute your thoughts and join the debate visit

To find out more about Collective Encounters’ work visit ,

[1] Theatre Union Manifesto (1936) in Goorney and MacColl eds, 1986 Agit Prop to Theatre Workshop, Manchester: Manchester University Press p. ix