“My clicks were just echoing around the room”

We chatted to Helen Murray about becoming a theatre photographer, the importance of community and building a clan, and on her recent photo series Our Empty Theatres— which took her behind the doors of theatres around the country, mid-lockdown.

Leeds Playhouse

The arts, according to Zadie Smith in her recent book Intimations, have always been considered “a sort of charming but basically useless playpen, in which adults get to behave like children – making up stories and drawing pictures and so on – though at least they provide some form of pleasure to serious people, doing actual jobs.” 

Writing in her usual tongue-in-cheek voice, back in the early months of lockdown (long before any of us knew where Barnard Castle was), Smith highlighted what would become a huge topic of public discussion— the changing place of art in our society, as a result of the pandemic. “Now there are essential workers,” she wrote, “whose task is vital and unrelenting – and there are the rest of us, all with a certain amount of time on our hands.” 

Sometimes it feels like that division— between ‘essential’ and ‘non-essential’, necessity and luxury— has become a kind of tourniquet around the creative industries. The need to justify art, the ‘moral anxiety’ (as Smith puts it) around how we now spend our time, has wrought huge damage on theatre in the UK, and the ecosystem of individuals who make it up.

When she set out to shoot the photo series Our Empty Theatres, Helen Murray felt none of that moral anxiety.
“I just really needed, for my soul, to just… start taking photographs again”, she said as we chatted over Zoom. “Basically, all my jobs were cancelled, and I had a couple of weeks where I was just in panic mode […] I wanted to do something that responds to the lockdown, in a way, [and the fact that theatres] were closed, and what a huge momentous time in history that was. And so I was like, ‘Actually, it might be quite cool to document that.’”

The Lyric Hammersmith

What started as an attempt to capture theatres in the state they’d been left in at the end of March, however, turned into a rare example of how “photography, like theatre, has an incredible power to make you feel” (as she says in the introduction to the series). Over the course of two months, Murray photographed 22 theatres around the country, from Battersea to Liverpool. Having started with Soho Theatre, and the Bush Theatre, more and more venues quickly became involved, inviting her to roam their empty halls and explore their backstage areas.

She found meal deal wrappers discarded on disused tech tables, props half-packed into storage boxes, chairs strewn around in rehearsal rooms. “Shooting this series has been sobering”, Helen said on her website. “Being met with total silence. No background noise, no chitter chatter, no infectious laughs bellowing out of a rehearsal room, just complete silence.”

The Young Vic

Alongside these images, she started collecting quotes from theatre professionals, in response to the question “What do our empty theatres mean to you?”. In the end, she amassed over 200 responses— from hair and makeup artists, to fight directors, to marketing managers, writers, actors, and more.

As of this morning, 21 of the images are being released as Limited Edition prints, with only fifty of each image available. 10% of the profits of these prints will go towards The Theatrical Guild, the leading UK charity for backstage and front of house workers.

What I feel most when I see these heart-stopping images isn’t sadness, strangely. I overwhelmingly feel hope. These spaces are waiting for us to return.

– Playwright James Graham, in response to the photo series

“I was really fortunate to be in a lot of freelancer Zooms during lockdown. So you’re getting to have Zoom times with the Lighting Designers, and Set Designers, and Movement Directors, which you don’t really get to do [normally]— so you’re hearing people’s stories that you don’t really get to hear. So what I wanted to do, to amplify them, was to get their voices [in the series]. That was never what I set out to do, originally, but it was the natural progression of what the piece was, and became.”

An empty Wardrobe room, The Young Vic

There’s huge variety amongst the answers Helen received— from optimistically resolved (“the future is a decision. We can decide to go back to how things were or we decide to go back to a more diverse, more sustainable way of working” – Marty Moore, Production Manager) to grimly simple (“An empty theatre means no work” – Aimee Kember, Actor and Front of House). 

When I first saw the series, the response that leapt out at me, and resonated most clearly, was Pasty Ferran’s– “WASTED POTENTIAL”. Now, a few months later, I feel more affinity with Tim Crouch; “An empty theatre is like an empty church.” Neither should have to prove their worth to society, and both only really exist to be a kind of arena for human experience.

Ultimately, what the series proves to me is the obvious need for artists, and art-making, in this historical moment– and it’s a point proven by a wildly talented, freelance, artist. The task of representing these buildings was taken up by someone from outside their doors, and embraced by a huge community of professionals who have been physically and economically displaced by the pandemic. 

Sobering? Absolutely.

Originally from Derry, Northern Ireland, Helen moved to London in 2008. She’s worked full-time as a freelance photographer specialising in theatre since 2012, photographing over 250 shows throughout the UK. (Basically, if you’ve been to a major theatre in the UK within the last 8 years, chances are that Helen has photographed a show there.) In addition to live theatre, Helen also shoots commissioned editorial portraits, publicity images and film stills. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Vanity Fair, Vogue, the Sunday Times and the Guardian. And you’ll know her most recent haunting work, the series Our Empty Theatres, which showed glimpses of 22 theatres around the UK, including Manchester Royal Exchange, the Liverpool Everyman, the Royal Court, the Young Vic, The Lyric Hammersmith, and many more.

Make sure to check out Our Empty Theatres, and the Limited Edition series of prints now available on Helen’s website. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram, to keep up to date with more of her work.

“Diversify your feed”

We chatted to theatre maker Kerry Candeloro about the battle for accessibility off and on Broadway, how she came to work as a voice and dialect coach, and her work at Lincoln Centre Theater, New York Theater Workshop, and Moulin Rouge! The Musical.

Ever heard something complicated explained in a really simple way? It’s memorable, right?

“Education people talk a lot about the difference between equality and equity,” Chana Joffe-Walt says in a new five-part podcast series produced by Serial (yes, that Serial) and the New York Times. “Equality means everyone gets the same thing. Equity means everyone gets what they need.

I was folding laundry when I heard that. Podcasts, I’ve found, are the only reason I get any housework done. It was a rainy Sunday, around a week after I’d caught up with my friend Kerry Candeloro. We’d talked about the differences in our experiences of the pandemic (herself in her hometown, Philadelphia, and myself in London). We re-traced some of the steps she’d taken since we’d first crossed paths (at a theatre in Highgate, North London), and how she eventually found her way to her current job at Moulin Rouge! The Musical. And we’d talked about her perspective on ableism and lack of physical accessibility in New York theatres, as a Disabled artist.

Hearing Chana’s words, I thought back on our conversation. Equity means everyone gets what they need.

Kerry’s lived experience of disability and chronic illness intersects with live performance in a bunch of different ways, but most obviously in the public domain– the domain where artists and audience members navigate physical access to, and mobility within, a huge variety of spaces. In her years working as an off-Broadway House Manager, as well as a freelance voice and dialect coach, she’s witnessed countless instances of theatres failing individuals in very public ways; from an audience member being unable to access a disabled bathroom because the doorway wasn’t wide enough to accommodate a wheelchair, to seeing “a well-known Disabled actor be carried up and down the stairs of a theatre where they were headlining because there was no accessible dressing room” (both stories from Kerry’s Instagram, where she’s collated some of these examples).

Kerry leading a coaching session 

“The real privilege isn’t just being able-bodied”, she says, in response to those experiences, “it is the assumption that you automatically have access to any space you wish to physically enter. It is assuming that you can get into/move around any building independently and without ‘being a burden’.”

Beyond the issue of literal access, Kerry also draws attention to the place of disabled people within cultural discourse– from Tik Tok, to the Tony’s. While high-profile productions such as Deaf West’s Broadway revival of Spring Awakening, and the more recent Public Theatre production of Teenage Dick (which crossed the Atlantic at the end of 2019, with a run at the Donmar Warehouse) go against the grain, big-budget productions continue to overlook disabled actors when portraying their own experiences (consider the casting of disabled characters in shows such as The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, or even last year’s Tony-winner The Ferryman). Pop culture depictions of disability tend to iconise and de-humanise people, isolating them within ‘inspiration porn’ discourse– most recently seen rearing its ugly head in the discussion around the revelation of Chadwick Boseman’s cancer diagnosis (for a great explainer on ‘inspiration porn’, check out Stella Young’s seminal Ted Talk on the topic).

If there’s any reason for hope, for optimism about a more equitable future for disabled and chronically ill people within theatre, it lives in Kerry’s insistence on communication and action. As Kerry mentions, recent movements like the Black Theatre Coalition and We See You White American Theater (who recently published their 31-page list of demands to organisations regarding increased representation and inclusivity) underline this notion— the untapped potential for collective power when individuals all speak with one voice.

That voice is saying ‘this is not good enough’. That voice comes out in hashtags, and scratch nights, and zoom calls; in awards ceremony speeches, in full-company meetings, in Front of House bars. That voice insists that artists are not commodities, and audience members are not buyers. That voice is refusing to accept symbolic gestures, or tokenism, from any so-called ‘gatekeepers’ of the performing arts.

That voice is sounding remarkably like Kerry’s.

Her first year working on the Director’s Lab programme at Lincoln Centre Theater

Kerry is a graduate of NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualised Study, where she studied speech pathology, theatre, and sociolinguistics– developing the concentration “Vocal Transformations: Speech as Identity in Theatre and Society”. Throughout her degree, she produced shows and workshops with Gallatin Theatre Troupe, as well as helping to develop original work at Manhattan Repertory Theatre, at the New York International Fringe Festival, and at Dixon Place. She worked as the Digital Assistant for Academy Award winning costume designer Ann Roth on the film The Post (directed by Steven Spielberg) and on the Broadway production of The Prom, as well as the recent revivals of Carousel, Three Tall Women, and The Iceman Cometh. At Lincoln Centre Theater, she works alongside Dramaturg Anne Cattaneo, helping to run the Directors Lab, a developmental program that nurtures stage directors from around the country and around the world. Alongside this, she continues to work as a freelance voice and dialect coach, across the New York theatre scene. And she’s also worked extremely hard as one of the head House Managers at the Off-Broadway powerhouse that is New York Theatre Workshop, and, before lockdown went into effect, as the House Seat and Guest Services Coordinator for Moulin Rouge! The Musical at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre on Broadway. She is an electric force in every room, and a wonderfully articulate advocate for disability rights– particularly within a performing arts context. She’s arguably the most widely-read person I know when it comes to play texts, and her romcom reviews are the highlight of my Instagram feed.

Check out Kerry’s Instagram (@kerry_can) for more of her insightful thoughts about theatre and disability, for her knock-out Rom Com reviews— and for her recent take on Midnight Sun (she read it so you don’t have to). 

Kerry’s other recommendations:

“Let’s go back to the drawing board”

We talked to Brooklyn-based 3D Printing leader Christina Perla about the power of community, telling her own story, and enabling the creative process

Ever heard someone talk about diversity through a design lens? Or argue that it’s an organisational asset; a potential source of unlimited possibility?

Chatting with Christina Perlathe woman behind Makelab, a Brooklyn-based 3D Printing company– you realise that the current under-representation of diverse and immigrant communities in 3D Printing– as well as in Engineering, Industrial Design, and their ancillary industries– is actually limiting their potential.

“As an industrial designer, your job is to bridge two things together, and find commonalities– find that common thread. And figure out the way to bridge them together, to make something beautiful. That’s one of the approaches you take, in terms of design thinking.”

She built on this idea, taking the argument from design– the field in which she specialised while studying as an undergrad at New York’s Pratt Institute– to business.

“You don’t want to be in your bubble, as a business leader. The more you’re in your bubble, you’re gonna hit a wall very quickly, and you’re gonna stunt your own growth. So I always find that diverse and different ways of thinking should be welcome into a business leaders’ frame of mind, and their everyday. You should always be exploring. […] That’s why it’s really important to build that into your team, right, into key roles in your organisation.”

As a sector you might not typically think of as creative or artistic, 3D Printing and Additive Manufacturing are renowned for not being hugely diverse in terms of gender and race– and Christina knows this all too well. “I think that this entire industry can grow a lot more if we’re a lot more inclusive. I think it’s better for everyone.” Her involvement with Women in 3D Printing, an international network with over 10,000 members, speaks to her beliefs about a more inclusive future for her industry– and that serious action is needed to get us there.

In an interview with TCT Magazine in June, she reiterated, “If we all adopt a pay-it-forward attitude and really put in the work and effort to reach more and connect more, I don’t see how it wouldn’t result in more diversity and inclusion.” On a rainy day in Brooklyn, we sat down to chat with Christina about the power of the Wi3DP network, her journey to becoming a leader and co-founder of two companies, and the role models that inspired her along the way.

One of Makelab’s 3D Printers in action

Christina Perla studied Industrial Design at the Pratt Institute in New York. After graduating, she worked for several companies in design and product development before deciding to go freelance. Around the same time, she and her partner Manny Mota started their own design and development firm, Tangent Design, of which she is Co-Founder and Creative Director. With Tangent, they combined “an artistic attention to detail” with “an engineering approach, to make every design decision functional and purposeful” (Source). They acquired 3DUniPrint, a 3D printing company with whom they’d been working closely; a natural acquisition, as part of the iterative design process they used at Tangent. Within a few months, they had renamed 3DUniPrint to ‘Makelab’, where Christina is currently CEO. A politically and socially-conscious 3D printing company, Makelab strives to simplify the process of realising creative ideas. At last count, Makelab has completed over 200,000 prints, on over 10,000 projects for 6,000 clients– ranging from engineering firms to event producers, including Silvercup Studios, OMA, AECOM, Yahoo, Oath, AOL, and collaborations with Jaden Smith, NVIDIA, and many more. A Downtown Brooklyn article from last November said that “[Makelab’s] primary source of marketing is simply doing a good job”– and they do it with heart.

If it wasn’t enough to have founded a company and acquired a second one within two and half years, Christina is also an NYC Ambassador and, as of earlier this year, a Board Director for ‘Women in 3D Printing’, an industry network that spans 23 countries, with 65 chapters, and over 10,000 community members.

When Covid-19 hit New York in March, Makelab pivoted and dedicated 75% of their machines and resources to the production of PPE– starting with a trialling process, which tested for effectiveness and safety. They now produce a range of PPE, including custom mask fitters, face shields, and mask extenders, and they’ve also helped to prototype ventilator parts and adaptors for more testing. In April, Makelab received a Hello Alice ‘Business for All’ COVID-19 Emergency Grant, to help them continue producing healthcare equipment (Source), and between April and May they nearly tripled their orders for face shields. Makelab worked with “hospitals in New York and New Jersey”.

For all of this– for her tireless passion for elevating women in 3D Printing and Technology, for her love of creativity and innovative design, and her incredible resourcefulness and ingenuity– she is one of our dream Collaborators, and we’re so glad to be talking to her.  

Check out Makelab and the Women in 3D Printing network, and Christina Perla on Twitter and Instagram, to keep up to date with her amazing work. 

Heroine Chic: Mrs. America and ‘The Cult of the Difficult Woman’

Cate Blanchett in FX’s Mrs. America (Source

It’d be easy to assume– on first glance– that Mrs. America is a show about one particularly driven Conservative housewife, and her dream of escaping the suburbs. 

Weirdly, that’s exactly what Phyllis Schlafly (the historical figure at the centre of the show’s publicity) wouldn’t want you to think. And nor is it entirely true. 

[Spoiler warning: there’s a fair amount of plot discussion ahead – spoilers aplenty] 

I remember seeing Cate Blanchett’s sharply tailored, back-lit silhouette in promo photos, before reading up on the show’s plot, and wrongly assuming it went the way of ‘The Cult of the Difficult Woman’, the title to one of Jia Tolentino’s essays in her 2019 book Trick Mirror. To me, it looked like a show that valorised the ruthless pursuit of success by an individual woman, without stopping to examine the ways in which that aggressive pursuit actually undermined the show’s professed feminist precepts.

(One thing I’ve learned from all of this: stop judging shows by their publicity photos. Yes, you– you looking at the photos I’ve included in this article. Stop thinking you already know what kind of show Mrs. America is, or what I’m about to say)

The story of Phyllis Schlafly, a Conservative author best known for organising a suburban grassroots campaign in opposition to the Equal Rights Amendment to the US constitution, is only one in an immense tapestry of stories and experiences woven together in Mrs. America. (A quick explainer: the ERA is a constitutional amendment which legally enshrines equality regardless of sex, ending legal distinctions along gendered lines with regards to employment, divorce, property ownership, and other areas). The pilot episode introduces Schlafly at a Republican fundraising event, modelling an American flag bathing suit and preening under the sound of an announcer’s voice: “Mrs. J. Fred Schlafly!”

Schlafly is the pilot’s main focus, and the show nimbly sets up the context for her first love; nuclear strategy and national defence policy. In a conservative talk-show interview, she explains to the show’s host and Republican congressional candidate Phil Crane (played with smiling paternity by James Marsden), that along with studying political science, she began working as a gunner and ballistics technician when the Second World War broke out. “A regular Rosie the Riveter!” Crane cuts her off, moving the conversation on. 

James Marsden in Mrs. America (Source

The inciting incident in Schlafly’s timeline, in the eyes of the show, occurs later in this first episode. Having been invited to a discussion on Republican defence strategy—on the pretext that “you know more than any of us” about the Strategic Arms Limitation Talks, as Crane says in her dressing room after the show— Schlafly finds herself being ignored, overlooked, and asked to take minutes on the meeting. Having stayed relatively quiet during some initial, pre-meeting chatter about the upcoming vote on the ERA bill, (when asked about it by Barry Goldwater, Crane responds, “It’s not her area of expertise”), Schlafly insisted “I’ve never been discriminated against. I think some women like to blame sexism for their failures, instead of admitting they didn’t try hard enough.”

But when she’s asked to take minutes– in a meeting to which she’d supposedly been invited to give an expert opinion– somewhere inside Schlafly an invisible switch seems to flick. “Well soon we’ll have girls in the foxholes, and then we’ll really be at a disadvantage,” she mutters to herself, before launching into an impassioned argument against the ERA as a hamper on women’s ‘privileges’ within their ‘traditional’ roles. When Goldwater and Crane suggest her argument could become a potential campaign plank for Schlafly’s run for Congress, she demurs again. “I’m not interested in running on women’s issues,” she laughs. “Still, it’s a good spin,” Goldwater smiles, thinking.

                 Cate Blanchett in Mrs. America (Source)

The show’s initial concern is the push-and-pull within these ideas. That Schlafly– finding herself ignored in policy discussions in her field of expertise, and on the issues that first got her interested in politics—decided to hitch her wagon to ‘women’s issues’ in an act of political expediency, shows an incredibly complicated set of motives at work. “When I started to research into her and learned that her passion and her career for twenty years prior to 1972 was in military strategy, defense strategy, and that her real passion was defense, I thought, ‘Well now there’s an interesting mystery,’” creator and showrunner Dahvi Waller said in a public radio interview in April. “She just couldn’t get into this — what was very much a boys club. But when she started talking and speaking out against the ERA, she started getting a lot of traction.”

Contrary to most of my preconceptions about Mrs. America, the show is not simply a biographical study of one woman— albeit one staggeringly complicated woman. Schlafly’s home life, and particularly her deputy-wives, are a subject of considerable attention—the invisible women who worked to ensure her six children were fed and cared for. They include Schlafly’s disarmingly pitiable sister-in-law Eleanor, played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, and their submissive housekeeper Willie Reed, played by Novie Edwards.

In addition to Eleanor and Willie, and the immediate circle of church friends and fellow home-makers who inspire Schlafly to develop a politically activated network of suburban women, Mrs. America continues to zoom out, setting its sights on an even broader cross-section of attitudes towards gender and the ERA.

It’s the last few minutes of that pilot episode which define the show for me. In particular, a broad sweeping shot of congresswomen Bella Abzug (played by Margot Martindale), Shirley Chisolm (the first black woman to serve in Congress, the first black representative to run for major-party presidential candidacy, and the first woman to run for the Democratic nomination—played by Uzo Aduba), and Gloria Steinem (played by Rose Byrne) cradling a bottle of champagne and some mugs, as they hustle into the new offices of the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC) to the sound of Etta James’ ‘Fire’.

They’re greeted by— and the show is subsequently populated with— a dream cast of 1970’s American feminist figures—from the ornery matriarch of the second-wave movement Betty Friedan (played with gusto by Tracey Ullman), Republican feminist and co-founder of the National Organisation of Women Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), co-chair of the National Advisory Committee on Women Carmen Delgado Votaw (Andrea Navedo)— and even a sneaky cameo from a future Supreme Court justice (Tara Nicodemo). In a conversation between Steinem and a Ford-appointee looking to start a women’s taskforce, the talk turns to Schlafly, and the potential for a public face-off. “Maybe you should debate her, Mrs. Ginsburg,” the Attorney General suggests, after a softly-spoken woman in the corner of the room defends the judicial need for the ERA. “Oh no,” she shakes her head, “I don’t like the limelight.”

Bella Abzug (Margot Martindale),  Audrey Rowe Colom (Melissa Joyner), Jill Ruckelshaus (Elizabeth Banks), Gloria Steinem (Rose Byrne), Carmen Delgado Votaw (Andrea Navedo), and other members of the NWPC (Source)

The project of representing this multi-faceted, highly factional movement over the course of nearly a decade, and the conservative backlash against it, is not an easy one—but it’s taken on by Waller, and her team of writers and directors, with incredible deftness. Immediately upon introduction to the NWPC, we see the group pick up where they left off with a heated discussion of their intentions, arguments over credit and credibility, over Nixon’s endorsement of the ERA (“I thought trashing Nixon was bi-partisan!” quips Steinem, when Ruckelshaus suggests the Republican president isn’t all bad), over Friedan’s prickly views on sexuality and LGBT rights. “We’re not each others’ enemies”, Friedan says in that first episode, but the show’s undertow of emotional friction, and its focus on the rivalries amongst the NWPC, continually call that statement into doubt.

In a later episode, when black lesbian editor and activist Margaret Sloan-Hunter (played by Bria Henderson) joins Steinem’s fledgling Ms. Magazine, a facet of this friction reveals itself—like a subterranean sea monster surfacing for air. In an article pitch meeting, surrounded entirely by white editors and writers, Sloan-Hunter suggests an article on “tokenism in the workplace”– instances where

“One minority is propped up to cover the experience of an entire population. Like the white population, we are diverse within ourselves.”

“What does that mean—‘diverse within ourselves?’” Another editor asks.

“There is not a monolithic black experience.”

“Wait, sorry—you’re not saying you feel that way here..?” Someone else asks.

“No.. no. Not at all”, Sloan-Hunter assures them after a moment.

Sloan-Hunter ended up leaving the magazine, going on to co-found the National Black Feminist Organisation. But the echoes of that conversation, and the failures of the second-wave movement to unify beneath a broad intersectional umbrella, reverberate throughout the show. 

                                               Margaret Sloan-Hunter (Bria Henderson) in Mrs. America (Source)

Intermingled with my love of this action-movie style assemblage of famous feminists, and this epic (in the Greek sense of the word) look at their lives throughout the 1970s, is this persistent, itchy feeling that we’re still not getting it quite right. It’s a feeling Tolentino articulates brilliantly in Trick Mirror, an extended rumination on our current culture’s need for, and contingency upon, self-delusion. In an essay examining some of the more obvious examples of this self-delusive culture—‘The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams’ Tolentino writes about the emergence of market-friendly pop feminism and ‘Girlboss’ culture, stating that

The problem is that a feminism that prioritizes the individual will always, at its core, be at odds with a feminism that prioritizes the collective. The problem is that it is so easy today for a woman to seize upon an ideology she believes in and then exploit it, or deploy it in a way that actually runs counter to that ideology.

Tolentino touches on these ideas again, later, in ‘The Cult of the Difficult Woman’, where she unpacks the idea of celebrities as feminist figures, and the need for a less celebrity-focused narrative. I can’t help but think of Tolentino’s words when gushing over Mrs. America with friends, like it’s the latest Marvel movie. ‘I just want to be Gloria Steinem,’ I found myself saying, ‘I mean, long-term, Betty Friedan. But, like, short-term—Gloria.’

This focus on the individual, and our tendency to gauge the success of a collective through individual triumphs, has a powerful grip on what we see as important, and how we decide to take action. It’s evident in the physical structuring of Mrs. America—each of the nine episodes are named after a particular figure; ‘Betty’, ‘Bella’, ‘Phyllis’. Admittedly, it’s a huge part of the reason I’m so preoccupied with American feminists, who are often the most culturally-enshrined as individuals— making them easily distinguishable, digestable, stan-able. It’s even subconsciously shaped our choices behind the current structure of FreeBird.

It’s not necessarily a harmful idea, in those instances. But it is worth noting. It makes me think of something Jeffrey Toobin— one of Tolentino’s fellow New Yorker staff writers— once said of the Mueller Report, “Simplicity rarely loses to complexity in battles in the public square.

Like Tolentino, I’ve developed a gentle kind of scepticism when it comes to cultural works which seek to isolate individuals as singular, stand-alone bastions of hope—or the celebrities through whom ‘pop feminism’ tends to express itself. Ultimately, I think Mrs. America manages to resist this ideological temptation, and instead continues to zoom outwards, bringing in more characters, and take on an even wider lens, as the series progresses. And by the final episode, what really struck me was the extent to which only one character remained isolated so blinkered, so laser-focused on her own success, she’d become unable to help or connect with even her closest friends. Schlafly.

“Valuing a woman for her difficulty can, in ways that are unexpectedly destructive, obscure her actual, particular self”, Tolentino writes. “Sexism rears its head no matter who a woman is, no matter what her desires and ethics might be. And a woman doesn’t have to be a feminist icon to resist it—she can just be self-interested, which is not always the same thing.” I thought of that, watching Schlafly enter an elevator filled entirely with black-suited men, gazing upwards as they begin their ascent. 

Schlafly encountered considerable hurdles— early on in her career, and throughout her time in the public eye, ending with her death in 2016. She penned four books on Republican nuclear policy before turning her attention to ‘women’s issues’. And yet, the show refuses to embrace her simply because of her ‘difficult’-ness, choosing instead to focus on her personal politics— the ways she punished and constrained the women closest to her. When Alice, a composite character representing several different members of STOP ERA, (played with piercing sincerity by Sarah Paulson) comes to the realisation that Schlafly is largely using the anti-ERA movement for her own personal gain, she articulates that constraint in their final scene together. “It’s empowering”, Alice says of securing her first job, signalling the end of her time as a stay-at-home mother and a shift in her slow drift away from Schlafly’s inner circle. “You used to feel empowered by me,” nudges Schlafly, the corners of her mouth twitching up. “I used to feel scared,” Alice replies. 

Sarah Paulson in Mrs. America (Source) 

The beginning of Alice’s defection— her first glimpse beyond Schalfly’s all-American fishbowl of ‘tradition’— takes place in a scene which reiterates the factional nature of the second-wave feminists. In sharp contrast to the lock-step operations of STOP ERA, Alice watches a group of NWPC members discussing an imperilled vote on a resolution at the National Women’s Conference of 1977. “What if each of the caucuses got to write their own addendum?” suggests Delgado Votaw, of the resolution. “I want to make sure everyone here approves this approach,” says Steinem, cross-legged on a hotel room floor, surrounded by her peers. One by one, she goes around the circle of women, checking she has their consent.

Alice watches on from across the room, and the difference between what she now witnesses, and autocracy of STOP ERA, is stark. The divided NWPC leaders sit within a larger whole– a whole ultimately strengthened by their differences.

Alice (Sarah Paulson) finds herself just beyond the circle of discussion (Source

Critical takes on Mrs. America cite how close it cuts to our current reality, how “it’s painful and uncomfortable to see the on-screen history of [the show] repeat itself in our off-screen lives”. In my mind, that makes the show all the more necessary to watch. The work of the second-wave feminist movement was imperfect, often troubled—and while it’s tempting to mentally turn the show’s more famous historical figures into inspirational memes, it’s something we should actively resist. It’s a trick mirror—something that, in Tolentino’s words, shows us “the illusion of flawlessness as well as the self-flagellating option of constantly finding fault”.

And in fact, no attempt to see ourselves, no ‘mirror’ of cultural representation is totally accurate, Tolentino writes in a related essay on the HBO show Girls; “not a friend, not a story, not an auteur, and definitely not a television show.” What matters, when it comes to the trick mirror of feminist historical narratives, and the idea of ‘difficult women’, is what you do when you finally look away.


Mrs. America is currently streaming on iPlayer. Check out Jia Tolentino’s twitter, as well as her other writing for the New Yorker, Jezebel, and other outlets. You can find Trick Mirror in your local independent bookstore

“Burn it down and start again”

In keeping with the name of their Freelancer Task Force sub-group, independent producers Ashleigh Bowmott and Laura Sweeney of The Uncultured talked with us about the need for radical, collectivist change, and the discourse surrounding freelancers in the arts

“A pandemic is the perfect time to launch a new arts producing company, right? … Right?” 

In the early weeks of lockdown– in the absence of any meaningful connection with my past or future employers, any of the organisations for whom I’ve worked myself to the bone over the last five years– I started wondering whether maybe I’d imagined an entire industry in my head. 

My work had disappeared; replaced by a new day job, where I felt like an unrecognisable version of myself. Other freelancers I had worked with regularly were applying for entry-level jobs in other industries, filing for Universal Credit, re-writing their CVs. There was an overwhelming feeling that we were parting ways, that this would all last a lot longer than anyone was brave enough to admit. The ongoing weekly redundancy announcements from theatres around the UK which followed, and the continuing lack of a meaningful response from the government with regards to the financial cliff-edge faced by countless organisations and freelancers in the performing arts, only heightened that feeling of powerlessness. That feeling that we were all just bricks in the side of a collapsing building.

The idea that over 200,000 other theatre freelancers were, and still are, experiencing the same feelings of disconnection and isolation, is hard for me to fathom. Maybe it’s because I struggle to recognise and articulate those things when I feel them myself, maybe it’s because in the months since those early weeks, I have managed to find tiny morsels of solidarity in occasional Whatsapps and Zoom calls with former colleagues. I’ve found encouragement in, and tried to keep up to date with, the work of newly-formed advocacy groups like Freelancers Make Theatre Work, the Freelance Task Force, as well as cross-industry associations like the Alliance of Associations and Professionals for Theatre and Live Events (AAPTLE). But listening to Artistic Directors talking about ‘mothballing’, and reading news stories about potential future contracts which would place the financial burden of Covid-19 on the self-employed, that feeling of utter powerlessness, and the inevitability of any positive change unravelling, manages to weasel its way back into my head. 

Enter Ashleigh Bowmott and Laura Sweeney– two independent arts producers, whose refusal to accept the idea that freelancers are anything other than a majority force with the potential to affect massive change, feels like an ice bath for my tired, sore brain. Having worked together for around a year, towards the end of 2019 they sought to formalise their working partnership by forming a company. Undeterred by the national lockdown and arrival of Ashleigh’s baby, they forged ahead with The Uncultured, a producing company within which they aimed to continue to play with and interrogate convention, through performance and live art. 

Often our projects reject traditional definitions of taste, culture and art in order to create a space for social change. These marginal and radical practices are joyful, sorrowful, painful and soulful, but always impactful and powerful.”

Having also put themselves forward to be representatives for the Yard Theatre on Fuel’s Freelance Task Force– which brings together reps from over 100 arts organisations to foreground the needs of the self-employed community– Ashleigh and Laura documented their thinking on taking up the position as a job share, and the contradictions they encountered on their decision-making process. 

 Their insistence on the potential for this moment to be a turning-point in the ongoing struggle against discrimination and insularity in UK theatre, is nothing if not hopeful. In their words below, you’ll hear them mention their own cynicism and pessimism about the industry—don’t let that distract you; there is no denying the innate hopefulness of their work, and their beliefs. And their acknowledgment that all of this is an ongoing project makes me think of Audre Lorde. “Revolution is not a onetime event”. 

Laura: “Things weren’t exactly rosy for us as freelancers before Covid, working within a racist, sexist, ableist and financially unjust system, so trying something new was necessary anyway”

Ashleigh and Laura were a natural choice to discuss the complexity of starting something new in a moment of upheaval—on choosing which course of action to take. Their work is not without precedent, and I’m hopeful about the potential it has to inspire meaningful, widespread change, across an industry that could do with a bit of burning.

Ash is an arts producer and facilitator who has made a purposeful choice to integrate the politics and practicalities of work and life. She combines work as an artist, curator, producer and educator as a vehicle for developing methodologies of care and resistance. She has a PhD in collaborative artistic practices, which considers the intersectionality of creating artworks between peoples, species and levels of sentience. ​Ash has delivered talks, workshops and artworks worldwide. She is a mother of 2 and lives on a boat in London. 

Laura is a creative producer working with performance and live artists to develop strategies for creating new work and sustainability, with artist development at the core. She works with artists in a holistic way, ensuring that care is embedded in their shared practice. She is Deputy Chair of the Board for Home Live Art. She is currently part of the British Council GENERATE programme that connects UK and US producers, curators and programmers. She is also a current recipient of a Jerwood bursary to focus on training opportunities.

“Here we are, enjoying the glamorous life of a producer, in front of the bins in the rain”

We love the way you wrote about your thinking behind starting The Uncultured, as well as deciding to apply for and join the Freelance Task Force. How have you found the experience of working on them so far? 

AB: The Uncultured is our way of working together with a little cape of collectivity on. We’ve worked together for a while now, so in our day-to-day nothing much about our working practices has changed, but the idea behind being decidedly open about our collectivism allows us a sort of buffer. I think in reality, just like everything else dying under capitalism there are just hoards of individuals scrapping around, desperately trying to survive. Working together is a bit of a reaction to this I guess. We’re in a small way dependent on one another to achieve anything. We can be empathetic and responsive to each others lives outside of work. We have to have a lot of trust in one another as sort of representatives of one another’s voice or opinion as that’s how any form of collectivism is perceived. To me that makes us better at our work: we bring two skillsets and a whole new skillset that is formed when those are combined; we have capacity above and beyond what we could individually commit to; and our everyday work is a little less lonely and leads to far fewer existential crises. 

LS: Joining the Freelance TaskForce has been an interesting experiment – with over 150 freelancers involved I’m sure you can imagine it’s a bit like herding cats. It proves how wide the sector is and even though we are all freelancers, we’re finding that we often have very little in common in our approaches to work, hopes for the sector and how we think that should happen. It’s a huge plus point, our difference, but it does pose some challenges in how to ensure everyone can feel heard and also for us to feel like we’ve achieved something that doesn’t necessarily have to be agreed by everyone. We’re halfway through now and it feels like we’re getting somewhere – especially in our subgroup called “Burn it down and start again”… we’re invested in thinking about real change, probably impossible change, but finding the time to think about the seemingly impossible is a valuable exercise in optimism.

With the creative ecology of the UK already being as under-funded and insular as it is, prior to the impact of Covid-19, there’s undoubtedly overwhelming need for structural change in the Arts and in how large institutions relate to their freelancers, audiences, and communities. What I’m wondering is, how do you get past the initial uncertainty around starting a new course of action– the question of ‘is this the right thing to be doing
now, and am I doing it for the right reasons’? 

LS: it’s fair to say that things weren’t exactly rosy for us as freelancers before Covid, working within a racist, sexist, ableist and financially unjust system, so trying something new was necessary anyway – Ash and I used this time to think a bit more clearly about what we want to do and I’m sure other people are in the same situation as well. The right thing to be doing now is different for everyone. Some people have capacity to think about how structural change in the sector needs to happen, whilst others are just trying to keep their heads above water. For us, working together, giving us a bit of a buffer, felt like the right move to make sure we can keep going. To be honest, I was on the verge of quitting pre-Covid so this feels like a lifeline in saving our practices and allowing us space to support others in one of the toughest times we’ve collectively experienced in our careers…as well as acknowledge we are in a GLOBAL PANDEMIC. 

AB: There’s something in the ‘is this the right thing’ bit of this question about imposter syndrome…which I guess could also just be called “Being a Womxn syndrome”, where you feel that structures aren’t set up for you (because they’re not) and preclude you (because they do). Having very little to lose, cheers Covid, and having someone you trust with common interests gives you a bit of confidence in your decisions. It’s another perk of collectivism.

What do you think is the best course of unified action for creative freelancers who don’t want things to return to the pre-Covid ‘normal’? 

AB: There have been so many things wrong I don’t really know where to start. The levels of nuance in designing a whole new model are beyond my intelligence. But people centred co-design, feminist models of economics, amplification of marginalised voices and horizontal organisational structures probably add up to a good start. In my wildest dreams a truly unified action would be if all freelancers withdrew their labour completely. Every single one of us, just as the industry were allowed its precious “reopen”. No artists, no actors, barely any designers, barely any arts workers, just loads and loads of gatekeepers with no point to their bloody gate. All labour withdrawn, all participation withdrawn, a very obvious absence which would prove the necessity of our presence. Of course there are loads of problems with this, not only that it financially hits those withdrawing their labour the most, but also that it would just quickly perpetuate the exploitation of younger workers for whom this would present an obvious opportunity but without any support or structure. 

A step down from that might be full accountability for all the unpaid labour that we do, so that we could calculate, even based on minimum wage, how much all this unpaid work might be worth. Naming that, and naming the jobs that don’t get paid, might help us hint at some of the problems. My hunch is that anything that seems like advocacy, care, relationship building, training and finding more work will be the stuff that doesn’t get valued (paid for). This will disproportionately affect marginalised voices making the lack of value attributed to these tasks just another prop to systemic injustice. 

A really small thing that we could all do would just be shifting our discourse. Recognition that freelancers are the workforce majority in this sector at least linguistically gives us power. I keep thinking about that and the potentiality within it gives me a naughty little power surge. 

LS: What she said.

“We collaborate to draw upon our sunny dispositions and optimistic outlook”

We’re also grappling with the necessary evil of having to work for free, while trying to eliminate the need for it. How do you balance working within the system to bring about change, versus wanting to burn the whole thing to the ground? 

LS: I think unless you want to burn the whole thing to the ground you won’t be able to make change within the system, because you’re already starting from a place of compromise. Nearly all of this activism is unpaid, and if you want to commit to doing that, you have to question where you want to put your energy. At the start of Covid, we had a conversation where we said ‘do we want to work for free to support 1 person, or do we want to work for free to support hundreds if not thousands’. We chose the latter, which meant that we shifted our focus to creating resources to help people access the support available in the existing system, but we also advocate for proper, burn-it-down change alongside this. Change takes time and in that awkward in between period we acknowledge that people still need support, so doing both feels necessary for us.

AB: I like how Lola Olufemi writes about this sort of thing in her book Feminism, Interrupted: Disrupting Power. She explains that ‘only work that seeks to shake and unsettle the very foundations of the sexist state is feminist work’ (p. 35). Interestingly for this conversation, she proposes collectivism and working towards common interests as a powerful method of approaching this. I think shaking and unsettling the system is the work. This takes time, but it doesn’t take away from how valuable that incremental work is and allows us to recognise that this is work in progress. We can vision, labour and then manifest, but basically always towards the aim of getting down to those foundations and totally changing it.

And lastly, on a lighter note, what’s something else you’ve started during lockdown that you hope to continue?

LS: I adopted a dog in May so we’ve been enjoying a more PG life. Ash and I have also started to take off Monday’s and Friday’s during this time to try and minimise the amount of unpaid work we do, which feels like a huge achievement and a big wet kiss to our mental health – we have to make sure we keep valuing ourselves going forwards. 

AB: Lockdown has been a strange one for me because I had a baby just as it started. Having a newborn is all about staying indoors and washing your hands a lot, so in many ways I just felt like lots of people joined me in solidarity. When I’ve not been looking after two small kids I’ve been working, almost entirely for free. But lol, this isn’t necessarily on a lighter note so far…The thing I’m grateful for is that because I’ve been working from home so much I’ve been able to keep exclusively breastfeeding my daughter for longer than I probably otherwise would have been able to. Were it not for lockdown, shlepping across London to some pointless and unpaid meeting would probably have stopped me doing this. Now we all know we can just do it on zoom, boob out and pen in hand. I hope that people make it easier for those who cannot attend physically to still be part of conversations at distance. We’ve proved we can do it now so there’s no excuses. 

You can keep up with The Uncultured at their website, and make sure to check out their Twitter for some amazing resources on arts funding, job opportunities, and creative networks. Follow Ashleigh Bowmott and Laura Sweeney to see more of their empowering, world-shaking work.    

Pin It on Pinterest