The Show Must Not Go On

           Today I am at home looking after my son who has a horrible cough. I am meant to be at a conference teaching a women’s improvisation workshop. Either Lee Simpson, one of Improbable’s Artistic Directors, will teach it for me or it will not happen. The workshop is part of ‘Permission Improbable’ a project that, amongst other things, asks the question, ‘What would an improvisation culture grown by women look like?’ One of the founding fathers of impro today was not a father at all – she was a mother: Viola Spolin. A considerable body of her work involved developing improvisation with young children, including those from troubled backgrounds. I am going to risk making a gross generalisation and leap of thought here, but one possible answer to the question of what an impro culture grown by women would look like is that it would be a culture that brings care, caring relationships and values, into our rehearsal rooms and onto our stages.

           Recently I was asked to join a Study Group on Caring and Making, subsequently named Artful Care. The group was initiated by mother-artists Chloe Dechery and Mary Paterson. Here is a quote from the invitation they sent out:

“We want to talk about the impact of relationships of care on Live Art practices – both structurally (how we progress our careers) and artistically (how we develop our creative work).

The art world is still beholden to the myth of independence – itinerant, flexible, “no-strings-attached" artists who can travel to residencies and festivals, taking their ideas with them. Meanwhile, the wider culture continues to pursue individualism as if it is the only value worth fighting for. Both systems of thought ignore the important role of care in everyone’s lives: as mothers, fathers, friends, relatives and members of our community; as both givers and recipients of care…. 

What kinds of structures would support people to have meaningful relationships of care within and outside their working lives?

What kinds of practices and discourses would acknowledge and welcome the manifestation of these relationships within creative practice?

How can we ‘take care’ of ourselves and others, within the art world and in wider culture?” 

           These are crucial questions that I have been asking within the context of Mothers who Make meetings for over a year but I was grateful for this invitation to widen the conversation beyond motherhood. I have been thinking about this ever since the launch of the Parents in Performing Arts campaign (PIPA) a week ago and my previous blog in response to it on ‘Valuing the Art of Parenting.’ It feels important to me to place the discussion within a larger landscape so that it becomes clear that the issues at stake are not simply to do with being a parent but go much further and impact on us all.

           As the Artful Care Study Group named, parenting is only one and arguably the most culturally visible form of interdependence. There are many others. There is the turnaround at the other end of life – children caring for their parents. There are partners, friends, siblings, children with short or long-term health issues, with mental health challenges, with disabilities. In writing this I feel uncomfortable in that it is not, or should not sound, like a list of those with ‘special needs.’ Care is everywhere, needed by everyone. In any close relationship it is a defining feature – we care for each other, or try to, we care for ourselves, or try to. And yet. And yet this vital work upon which the world quietly rests is marginalised, even at times invisiblised. We are supposed to leave it at the door of our work places, of the rehearsal room if we are theatre makers. It is unprofessional to bring such a sloppy, tender, feminine, difficult, wonderful, exhausting thing as care and our caring relationships into the room.

           One of the things that made me want to join Improbable was the way in which, during my first rehearsal process with the company, Lee Simpson and Phelim McDermott turned on its head the standard, widely held assumption that the professional thing to do is to leave your problems, your personal stories at the door– anything from the health issue that has been troubling you for years, to the fact that the bus broke down on the way to the rehearsal. It was an intense relief to me to find these things not only welcomed but placed in the middle of the room, at the heart of the creative process, where they have always been anyway even if we are supposedly sweeping them behind the door. They have always been there because the work we do is personal – personhood in all its manifestations is what it is our job to unfold and play out.

           This is not about being self-indulgent – a criticism that is often levelled at any work that overtly draws on personal experience, as a result of the same prejudice that validates the professional to the denigration of the personal. To my mind we cannot be more professional, more seriously engaged with the profession of examining who we are and who we might become, than to bring all of ourselves into the room. Work becomes self-indulgent only when it is not engaged in a dynamic conversation with its audience and with the world, when it cannot change in response to the process that is called a show, when it is ‘all show’ and nothing is shown or asked beyond the question, “Will you applaud me?” Work is self-indulgent, in other words, when the caring relationship implicit in any performance is inverted or missing, when the audience are not being looked after but rather the performers expect the audience to look after them, or could not care less. This has little to do with the content of the work – a Shakespeare production could easily be as self-indulgent as a solo, memoir-based performance. 

            As a mother the biggest ‘problem’ or personal issue that I am supposed to leave outside the door is my child. Not only my child but also my role as mother. There may be some women for whom this is a relief: to be in a child-free space and to have the intensity of their mothering role lifted and others parts of their identity given space. There were some at the PIPA launch that expressed this viewpoint. I understand and respect this - it is a question of self-care. At the launch there was discussion of many practical ways in which care, in this case the care of parents for their children, could be integrated into the industry: how it might be possible to end rehearsals early enough for a parent to do the school run; how Saturday rehearsals could be minimized, Sunday performances refused. There was talk of job sharing and role-sharing. These changes are vital but as The Artful Care group named the question of integrating caring relationships into our work is not only structural, but also artistic and aesthetic. There is not one answer to what this looks like but it means looking after the story of the playing, of the players, alongside the story of the play and I believe that it would not only make the industry more pleasant and more inclusive but that the quality of the work would go up - the shows would get better.

           The show must go on: a well known adage and attitude. At its best this is also an expression of caring, of passion for the work, of belief in its importance – it is in our charge, in our creative care. At its worst it has a macho quality, an attitude of soldiering on no matter what, as if life were a war and the show were a part of the war effort. This attitude puts the art above the life that it is meant to be reflecting. This is show as in showy, a strutting professionalism, stubborn dedication – but at what cost? Must the show go on? Really? Always? When there are people for whom we care and who need our care?

           Life must go on, and does, whether we like it or not, whether it involves joy or struggle, faltering, grieving or losing. Shows must go on too but only when they support and honour this process of life, the living of it, the caring for it.

Mothers who Make is a growing national intiative supporting mother-artists across art forms. Our next London meeting is this Thursday 29th Oct 11am at Camden People’s Theatre. All mothers and children welcome.

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For more information on the Artful Care group go to their Facebook page: