In a new series, Northern Soul’s Cathy Crabb talks to working class creative people, some already established, some emerging, and some setting their stall out to create more work for others. This week it’s writer Bethan Kitchen whose play Shoefiti opens at Salford Arts Theatre later this month.
Cathy Crabb: Shoefiti is your first project for your company BRASH events. I know your work is rooted in the North East. Can you tell us more about it?
Bethan Kitchen: In September I founded a company which makes multi-disciplinary projects that enable young North Eastern working class women to unite, disrupt, and make change. We are currently working on our first project, a play called Shoefiti, which will show at Salford Arts Theatre on April 28, 2018. Based on the real experiences of young Geordie women.
CC: So what’s the story and why down here?
BK: Shoefiti is a cutting edge account of what it’s like to come of age within the depths of Newcastle’s clubbing culture. We aim, with the first production in Salford, to connect the distinct experiences of the North East with the West, and to celebrate our shared Northern-ness with our neighbours.
CC: I love how this is about shared experiences. You and I share the belief that the UK theatre industry and academics continue to present the same style, structure and stories from the same few writers.
BK: Outreach schemes are perfect if you want to be built up to believe you’re about to ‘make it’ and then get ghosted by the theatre the second the scheme finishes. They are designed to tick boxes and meet agendas. What’s more, the very bones of dramatic structure encouraged on these courses completely erase the working class experience. Apparently, the ideal protagonist is the master of his own downfall. But what about those people who don’t have that freedom of agency in Britain today? How are they going to be represented? There is the occasional celebration of working class life or writers in mainstream theatre, but this is often tokenistic, is usually created by a predominantly middle class creative team anyway and is only accessible to middle class audiences.
CC: Theatre is still behind in terms of equality, female creatives and BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic) creatives, all of whom suffer at the hands of class ghosting. There’s a main stumbling block: the lack of finances making a creative career problematic or breaking through and being a one-time novelty. Both issues stop writers sustaining a career in the most debilitating and frustrating way.
BK: It is pretty much impossible to earn a living as a playwright in Britain today unless you have the financial foundations to begin with to do the free work that gives you exposure to the right people. Recently, the revival of Andrea Dunbar’s work was fantastic in that it gave exposure to a Northern working class woman’s voice. But all the press coverage I encountered about it seemed to either nurture a strange middle class paternalism over her life and work, or even fetishize working class culture as some sort of new trend. As my mum always says, ‘there’s nothing glamorous about poverty’.
CC: There’s is a middle class tessellation within professional theatre that we don’t easily connect with and, when we try, we dilute our own stories.
BK: It takes a while as a working class writer to realise that you’ve been trying to write in a way that doesn’t represent your world in order to fit the mould. When there’s no theatre out there that represents your world, your perception of what’s normal and acceptable becomes very warped and, for me, it took a while to even notice that this is why my theatre wasn’t working. I had absolutely no reference points in theatre to connect to my life experiences, and vice versa.
CC: Now you’ve established BRASH, you’re allowing your work to be a connection point for other audiences and writers.
BK: All the work I create now remains fiercely representative of the world to which I am connected and the communities I want to represent. It’s exciting and important to create work that shows people of all classes that theatre is for them too. Indeed, BRASH is the product of a constructive frustration with the classism everywhere in the UK from the workplace to artistic representation. We can make our own opportunities as much as we can and use what we create to make more opportunities for future working class creatives.
CC: Working class writers may have a certain style and structure. Am I pigeon-holing class writing?
BK: I’ve always found that the right form for a play will grow naturally from the story you’re trying to tell as you let the work move and grow, rather than shoe-horning a form onto an idea, you’ll produce something right.
CC: So, which working class creatives do you admire?
BK: Gary Owen is a brilliant Welsh working class playwright. His play Iphigenia in Splott is one of my all-time favourites. Kit de Waal is not only a great writer but does amazing work for working class writers through activism and publishing projects. Andrea Arnold is a true inspiration for working class women creators. Her films are stunning, authentic, and unapologetic. Workie Ticket theatre, based in Newcastle, do incredible work by marginalised writers and raise money through their work for Newcastle Women’s Aid.
CC: How do you feel we should go forward now to help new voices? And what doe you think about those that haven’t been able to have their stories heard by audiences that relate to them?
BK: We have to build a new centre which refocuses on regional communities as well as London, is structured around accessible models of creativity and production and is disruptive enough to put new working class voices on the British map. This is what BRASH aims to start doing.
(Main image: Bethan Kitchen. Credit: Jack Berry)