Today’s afternoon session on the Clore Leadership programme, led by Sandy Nairne and Gus Casely-Hayford, focussed on the issue of diversity in the arts. It’s a subject that I have thought on a lot over the last few years, having worked for companies whose work has stemmed from communities who often find themselves in a minority of one sort or another, but my response to the session was more complicated and more challenging than I had expected. So before my head hits the pillow for the night, I want to work through some of this complexity.
As expected, the discussion was relatively wide-ranging, although, as ever in time-limited conversations, only able to skim the surface of some intricate and deeply personal issues. Topics touched on included identity (both created by and in protest against imposed labels), concepts of the mainstream and the margins, of nationalism and interculturalism, and of reductiveness and homogeneity. Participants in the discussion included people of various nationalities, ethnicities, and sexualities.
Despite believing passionately in the importance and relevance of the conversation, I did not contribute, and felt increasingly uncomfortable about my inability to participate. I realised that, coming as I do from various communities which are all traditionally representative of the UK mainstream – white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class – I felt increasingly unable to enter the conversation, for fear of being seen to be an inappropriate spokesperson on the issue. I found myself very wary of errors of imposition, of assumption, of cultural ventriloquism: colonialism by another name. Whoever’s story it was to tell, or point to make, I certainly didn’t feel that it was mine.
And yet, through hesitancy on joining the discussion, I worried that I was guilty of the equal but opposite crime of appearing not to engage, not to acknowledge or admit the importance of the conversation. Something that couldn’t be further from the truth.
With my path through life having been inadvertently smoothed by belonging to multiple majorities, I now find it deeply difficult to know how to enter and support the conversation around diversity without, by default, reinforcing the voice of those already dominant majorities to the detriment of voices that have for too long gone unheard. I am rarely, if ever, referred to as white, heterosexual or able-bodied: they may be my labels, but they are ones that go largely unmentioned. My white, heterosexual, able-bodied experience is rarely remarked on in those terms. I pass under the radar, without having to live up to or shake off assumptions about or categorisations of my identity (/identities). Consequently, I do not want my voice in a conversation to strengthen a mainstream identity against which those who identify with minority indentities have to struggle to be heard in their own words.
So finally, after months of growing anticipation, my Clore Fellowship journey has officially begun, and I find myself at the fabled Bore Place – an organic farm cum retreat in the depths of Kent, where internet connection is gloriously temperamental and where mobile phone reception is non-existent. As the first chapter in our journey, all this year’s fellows – we are known as the Clore 6′s, being the sixth annual cohort – have gathered for a fortnight’s input, discussion, stimulation, debate, and, apparently, a lot of organic cake. It feels splendidly remote – our main connection with the outside world is the stack of newspapers on the breakfast table, although to be honest these in the main seem to be ignored in favour of unusually vivid and incisive morning conversation over toast and tea.
We are a group of 23 fellows, mostly strangers to each other – with the exception of the initial day conference in June – until 48 hours or so ago, but the combination of this provocative fortnight with the isolation of our temporary home is a heady one, and encourages boundaries to be broken down quicker than perhaps many of us would be used to. Something of a mantra for our experience was articulated by way of introduction on day one: “Be brave. Stay open. Don’t stop learning.” and already the conditions of our visit here certainly encourage, indeed almost necessitate, the first two of those. The sharing of ideas, abstracts, principles and aspirations with each other can feel surprisingly intimate and exposing, but since it is also clear that the rewards the programme has to offer are likely to be afforded in greatest abundance to those who give themselves to the experience entirely, it is also surprisingly easy to open yourself to the challenge of it in the safe space created amongst a group of formidably bright, interesting, sparky, like-minded colleagues.
Shortly before arriving here, all fellows were asked to submit – purely for the eyes of the rest of the cohort – a paragraph on what was most important to us. It dawned on me then that even a simple exercise like this could present a challenge of intimacy, of sharing, of exposure. It seemed to me that there was only really one way of answering this question: to answer it deeply, wholly, perhaps painfully, truthly; to give myself to the articulation of my most precious loves and trust in a group of near strangers to receive my answer openly, supportively, sensitively. It felt like a kind of nakedness.
I suspect this is only a gentle first exercise in a complex learning process that, in order to deliver its richest lessons, depends on my making myself vulnerable. But just now, with the first small hurdles behind me and an incipient trust in the community of my fellow fellows, that vulnerability doesn’t seem quite so challenging as it first did.
The Things That Matter To Me The Most
My husband, marriage, friends, family, and my home. Travelling, opening my eyes, learning, thinking. Memories, capturing and sharing them. Music. Doing my best, earning respect from those I respect. Being stimulated by what I do. Having the health and energy to live life to the full. The necklace my mum gave me on my wedding day. Old photos. Being able to believe that the future has exciting potential. Freedom and independence. Having the courage to be unconventional, but the integrity to be true and honest about it, not gratuitous. Having time to be frivolous. Sharing a bottle with old friends. Having private time and space to be myself. Tolerance, difference, fairness, intelligence. Books. Succeeding at challenges. Improving. Making the most of an opportunity. My violin. Perspective and passion, indulgence and discipline in equal measure.
AVON AND ME is a web project to collect personal memories and stories about Avon cosmetics.
Stories can be shared by filling in the web form on avonandme.co.uk, by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by tagging photos, video, audio or tweets on the web (Twitter, Flickr, Audioboo, Delicious, Technorati). Your story can be short, long, funny, sad, touching, embarrassing – all are welcome.
AVON AND ME is run by The Other Way Works, an experimental theatre company based in Birmingham, UK.
The Other Way Works creates daring and remarkable theatre that draws the audience into the very heart of the experience.
We are currently developing a theatre production entitled ‘Avon Calling‘. Every time we told anyone about the project, they would launch straight into a little anecdote about Avon – their mum used to be the Avon lady, or their auntie, or their first lipstick was from Avon. Often these stories were personal, about family members, about childhood. It seems that Avon is embedded deep in our lives and memories.
We created AVON AND ME so we can share all of these stories with each other. Share your story now – see ‘How‘ above for tips.
The Other Way Works’ latest work Avon Calling explores the eternal triangle of mother, daughter and… Avon cosmetics. Drawing vividly on personal source material Louise Platt reveals to the audience her mother’s world of shiny new products and multicoloured bottles gathering dust on cupboard tops. An intimate and comic portrait of a woman, a mother, an Ex-Avon Lady.
Avon Calling (In development, 30 minutes of material) as part of ‘It Came From Pilot’
Warwick Arts Centre
Thursday 8th October 2009 19:45 £7.50/£5
Book Tickets through Warwick Arts Centre
Buy Online or call the Box Office: 024 7652 4524
Avon Calling has been commissioned by PILOT Nights / Warwick Arts Centre. Funded by Arts Council England