Common People

Camden People’s Theatre’s artistic director Brian Logan explains why he thinks class has been left behind in the diversity debate, and what his theatre is doing about it

A few years ago, we presented a show at Camden People’s Theatre (CPT) called No Milk for the Foxes. It was made by two terrific artists called Paul Cree and Conrad Murray: beatbox/hiphop theatre-makers from working-class backgrounds, performing a funny and revealing show about two security guards on zero hours contracts. At several points in the show, Paul and Conrad critiqued how working-class people are often (mis)represented in mainstream culture. Think Benefits Street and Burberry; or – thanks to Conservative party chairman Grant Shapps for this one – beer and bingo.

So we were surprised to read one (positive) review of the show that described it as “a chav Waiting for Godot”. We contacted the editor of the website, requesting that the word “chav” – a term of abuse, not a neutral descriptor – be removed from the review. He refused; he disagreed that it was inappropriate. That kind of terminology isn’t permissible, and rightly so, when directed against ethnic or gender groups. But when it comes to class, apparently it’s fine.

And so began our journey towards ‘Common People’, the festival we’re staging this month exploring working-class experience, identity and representation. It’s two weeks of workshops, discussions and electrifying performances, zeroing in on how the mainstream excludes and maligns working-class voices, and asking (as a Labour party report on class in the arts did last year) “is there a class-shaped hole in the diversity debate?”

There definitely has been. We at Camden People’s Theatre – a small but big-hitting venue near Euston, dedicated to adventurous leftfield performance – strive to ensure that our audiences and artists are reflective of the Camden and London populations as a whole. We’re not there yet, but we can quote you a raft of stats showing the people we work with to be more diverse – in terms of ethnicity and gender identity in particular – than most mainstream theatres.

And yet, the more we’ve thought about diversity and inclusion, the more conspicuous that class-shaped hole has started to feel. Yes, it benefits all of us when space is created for trans artists, for artists of colour, for disabled artists. But when they arrive here with the same accents, the same education, the same economic advantage as the white, cis, able-bodied artists that usually hog the stage, it’s hard not to feel that a trick is being missed; that a swathe of the population isn’t being welcomed to tell their stories and share in the stories of others.

There’s an obvious reason why – beyond the even more obvious reason that privilege likes to shore up its own advantages, when it can get away with it. Class – we tend to think – is hard to measure, and difficult to talk about. How can you audit your audiences or artists by class when no one really knows what class means? Is it to do with your education, your income, your accent or your, ahem, “cultural capital”? Is it your background – or your current occupation? Are you (as many would have us believe) middle-class if you send your kids to fee-paying schools – even though only 7% of the population does so?

Then there’s the danger that (even assuming a consensus around what class means) everyone lies about it anyway. Sometimes (the olden days; the 1980s), people pretended to be better off than they were. More recently, it’s cool again to be down-at-heel.

Describing that phenomenon, the working-class comedian Sophie Willan told me recently that, “we’re coming out of a long period of really classist culture, and now people want that unheard voice again. But what I find is that they want your identity and your story, but not the personality that goes with it. They want you to represent something, but they’ve got their own agenda of what that should look like and how it should be.”

I’m sure theatre is guilty of that; we’re trying not to be with our Common People event. We’re helped in this by a pretty incredible roster of artists working closely with us on the festival. Scottee is the acclaimed “artist, activist and troublemaker” who’s spearheaded the revitalised conversation around working-class participation in theatre – and he presents his performance-discussion Working Class Dinner Party as part of the season.

Scottee © Tom Medwell
Scottee © Tom Medwell

Jackie Hagan is an award-winning “working-class queer amputee” whose show This is Not a Safe Space headlines our opening week. Paul and Conrad return with their new show High Rise [E]state of Mind; Catherine Hoffmann stages her scorching Free Lunch with the StenchWench. We’ve a Rebel Choir – anyone can join – singing radical songs, and a workshop on “career progression as a working-class artist”.

We’re also hosting the sociologist Sam Friedman – our go-to adviser on the overlap between class and culture – who will be discussing his new book The Class Ceiling: Why it Pays to be Privileged. In his work, Sam has helped develop new metrics to help organisations audit their staff and stakeholders by socio-economic class. And you know what? It turns out it’s not un-measurable, nor particularly difficult. In fact, it can be quite simple, so we can all raise our game.

And so, at CPT, we don’t see Common People as a flash-in-the-pan, but a staging post on a journey – from hearing our artists called “chav” to ensuring that working-class theatre-makers and audiences are a permanent, prominent part of the life of our theatre.

Common People runs from 24-28 April at CPT. The full programme can be found online.