Race and Trauma // Demi Nandhra

This piece is available as an audio recording below:

why do white people like watching trauma so much?

this is how im going to start. why do white people like watching trauma so much? that question, because thats what plagued me at fringe. plagued me? maybe not plagued but intrigued, kind of confused me. i kind of wanted an answer but also i think i knew the answer.

context first -

this was my first ever fringe. taking a show. i performed everyday at 1pm at summerhall in the tech cube 0 space. i had aaron, my partner and my dog on stage. I spent my time with theatre people and then aaron and the dog. most of the shows i watched were at summerhall because of ease and them being free. I started off watching as much as a could but then went down to maybe on a good day watching 2-3 shows. It went down to one a day and then many days…nothing at all. just netflix or romesh ranganathan’s many fucking shows (google him, he’s funny)… all afternoon at the nice flat that cost nearly £5,000. a flat that didn’t have a sharp knife or a cheese grater.


i was choosing to watch shows from artists i respect/admire and artists who were also friends that i wanted to support. a lot of the work centred trauma - personal trauma, family trauma, generational trauma, collective trauma. alllls the traumas. The works were rich, nuanced and vulnerable and had the potential to be dangerous…for me the audience and maybe the artists. I’m going to make an assumption and say yes dangerous for the artists. As an artist who was also presenting trauma based work, i did my due diligence, i considered what support i needed and made those arrangements. (begged aaron to be there). I was safe and i can imagine others tried to do the same but like me the work still had the potential to be dangerous for them. I/we just had to monitor and stay vigilant.

so all that to say i was around of a lot of dangerous works.

i became more and more concerned for audiences, my audiences and others. I spent a lot of time trying to maintain safety for audiences in my shows and then trying to control my triggers as an audience member in other shows. one thing that would help was to come out of the work a little, now and then look at others in the space not just the ‘stage’.

i noticed things.

I noticed white audiences didn't seem to have an intolerance to trauma. Not all white audiences before you start.

i noticed white audiences actively seeking trauma based work and filling their day with it

like the whole day, back to back of despair, violence and danger.


is that not a wtf?

i think thats a wtf, i would be so exhausted by just one work that i would try and honour that exhaustion and leave. get the fuck out the venue i was in and go breath and watch romesh do his best judge judy impression.

i would get angry in some instances.

this one made me angry -

i was watching Rachael Young’s NIGHTCLUBBING for the second time. I love Young and i love this work. someone i was with wanted to see it and i was very happy to see it again. i knew what to expect so i had a healthy distance, my danger meter was low.


Young, the performer is standing on black block platforms, hula hooping, hands up in the air and into the mic is listing apologies, for her blackness and looking good in neon pink. the hula hooping never seems to end.

her self and voice keep going and going she is exerting so much physical energy/spirit/heart. it’s an exchange, she is giving and giving, we must give back. give her our energy. honour this moment, in this work. honour it.

it has been a long time now and she is still hula hooping and still listing her apologies.

i hear a rustle and my gaze moves through the audience to a white man in the audience a few rows down. he is eating some nuts or crisps and is gulping his beer.

i am confused. what is he looking at?

because it can’t be what I'm looking at, Young performing at this moment.

this man looks like he’s watching a football game that just flicked on.

i’m confused. and then it settles, i know, you know.

i then to want to punch him in his head.


I wanted to lunge my leg into the side of his head and then, when he turns around i would pretend nothing happened and he would be well confused because of the unprovoked violence towards him.

because that is exactly what he was doing in that moment. His attitude, demeanour, his energy was violent, violence upon this performer and their work.

“deMi He wAs juSt eAtiNg nUts AnD drInKiNg beEr, nO BIg dEaL”

fuck off, you know what i mean and if you don’t you are probably that guy or like him. ready to consume trauma like its skittles.

another - a white women talking to me about the violence/pain of a show while she looked at a food menu.

and thats what Fringe is folx, white people looking at a giant fucking menu and picking what to have.

“ooo i fancy something exotic tonight? maybe Indigenous people’s trauma and a side of non-binary person with OCD and depression”

“naaa sally i fancy the mixed grill… refugee stories, HIV positive experience and the peppercorn sauce, i mean political depression.”

i felt sad and pain and anger and all the things at the context i was in and so many PoC/marginalised artists were in.

“bUt yoU deCidEd tO Go, yOu pUt YoUrsELF iN thAt eNviRonMeNT”

suck your mom.

We are bees and fringe is honey. The big fucking honey pot. NO we are loads of winnie the poohs and the fringe is the biggest pot of honey we have seen.

(I’ve changed it to winnie because bee’s are not wanting honey right? they go to pollen and make honey? and this, my friends is from a 29yr old who has a masters degree).

winnie the pooh is the better example because it is fictional. winnie the pooh doesn’t exist so their/our love for honey/fringe isn’t real so i could be all clever and say that the fringe is a false honey pot.

but we know it isn't.

i had a meeting with an agent last week. you see how i write and where my comma’s land, i have no business in writing but that opportunity came from fringe (i had a successful fringe).

fringe feels like an evil that must be done. a sticky, tasty, sickly evil honey.

i had a great time but this piece is not about the fun i had with aaron and the team, and the park and the beach and the scooter i bought from home bargins and toni giving me a massage, and katie this womxn i fucking loved meeting. and all the conversations i had with audiences who told me so many of their truths. that validation, that experience. me honing my craft. ETC.

this is about white audiences consuming trauma.

now i don’t necessarily blame these white people. it’s all plated up for you nicely. you can stay in the nice area of town. pop down to the venue at any point and land yourself in a trauma pie.

i blame capitalism and white people and colonialism.

because fringe is capitalism at its finest. saturation of the market, no regulations, unethical practices, consumerism and all the rest of those big words when it comes to capitalism.

what do i expect from white people in that context?


you see white people you’re getting this menu of amazement. be respectful, don’t over-order, don’t moan that things are too spicy, don’t moan if you don’t think its not authentic enough, don’t bring you manky caucasian food to this exquisite meal. put the fucking man beer down. that is not needed right now (i would like to talk about the lack of dry spaces at fringe but i wont.) just eat slowly, take your time, don’t overindulge, respect the fucking menu.

if you have a problem with my menu analogy and me acquainting PoC work to being on a menu and being consumed, i’m sorry that is exactly what i think fringe is.


i will finish with this

I asked aaron, my partner what he wanted to see, i told him all about the menu ,the honey on offer. i showed him a programme. he looked at it and put it down.

“whats up?”

“its too much”

“what do you mean, there’s so much good work you need to see”

“yeah i get that but its giving me a headache, its too much information. i’m overwhelmed. you pick something for me and i might go”

I picked Pizza Shop Heroes. ive been with aaron for 11years i know the art he likes and Pizza Shop Heroes was him.

it was sold out.

“see aaron you didn’t get chance to see it”

“thats fine, its good that they sold out, i might see it again so time”

“so we have been here nearly a whole month and you're not going to see anything?”

“yeh, probably not. can we put jurassic park on?”


i ate around 12 shows at fringe.

i had pencilled 54 on the app and programmes etc.

aaron ate one and loved it.

how many shows did you eat? and did you fucking tip?

- this was written by neurodiverse artist Demi Nandhra.

Visibility in August // Sage Nokomis Wright

A person from Alaska, raised in Edinburgh, finds a CanadaHub program in a coffee shop and flips it open to a page about a group of indigenous artists from Canada who are presenting work at the Fringe. She takes a chance, shows up in the CanadaHub beer gardens and we all think she’s someone’s family, or someone’s friend, until she opens her mouth and we are all awestruck by an Inuk with a Scottish accent. She took us to Sandy Bells, and as a folk band played in the back, we taught her all the ways in which we are a family, that there isn’t a “her” and “us”, that now there is only a “we”. She taught us local swears and about her version of home. Tucked away behind the ancient fiddles and posters of local legends on the walls, hangs a bodhrán. Looking like a moon, like our drums where we are from.  

Patti is leaving Summerhall one day and sees someone she thinks she must know. But this person is a Cree girl who was raised in Scotland by parents who were hoping to avoid a life of residential schools, of systematic interference. She was raised as an Italian. I imagine them sighing, like i do when i think of all the things that could have happened the other way, preventing them from a moment like this. A halfway point moment, a reminder of some kind.

Me, a mixed race Anishinaabekwe, who can’t figure out what my Ojibwe Father considered homelands because he lived through a tragic blur of displacement. I touch down in Edinburgh for the first time, and right from the airport drive through Christorphine, the neighbourhood my Grandmother grew up in before fleeing to Canada during World War Two. A new kind of homeland to explore that I had been ignoring until now. 

Four girls, emerging artists, from the plains, the ocean, the city, strangers to one another except for the skype meetings and countless emails in preparation for August, are put together into an apartment on Marchmont. They don’t have a living room, so they meet in the hallway to laugh, to snack, to cry, to fix each others beadwork, talk about what to wear. That hallway is sacred, I imagine them making a pilgrimage to that hallway every August, to combine their powers once again so they can continue to take over the world. A dusting of the flyers of yesteryear embedded in the carpet. 

Those same girls go to a party, it’s late, it’s raining. Quick! Make friends with the angels in all black, Patron Saints of Hunger Induced Exhaustion, “too busy, forgot to eat-got lost, didn’t have time-late for a show, I’ll find something after”. Trays of free venison sliders and fish sticks like beacons for our dwindling post-exchange rate per diems (“bring tupperware to all the parties, fill it up”, I can hear my Mom’s voice in my head). It’s hot. The bottomless chardonnay begins to make one face in a suit look just like all the others, but in a fun way that we laugh about. It’s not a big deal, we may not remember them, but how could they forget us?

Searching for a moment, some cool air, sitting on a stoop outside, a voice yells across a group of people to compliment Tai’s earrings. Behind a cloud of smoke and a crown of curls we see two women, we’ve never met them but we fall into each other’s arms. We all talk over each other but the sentiment is the same, “so glad to have found you here”. They drag us inside and introduce us to meet their castmates, their family, and just like that we’ve found our kin from down under, from the other side of the world, and here we all are.

We tuck into a tiny theatre that feels like a lecture hall, we are aware we are in for a party because we’ve already been here once before, just had to come back. We heckle the quartet onstage, but out of love. They sing in their language, they promise to the audience only one colonialism joke tonight, but we scream for more. We toast the Aboriginal comedian on stage who is their guest when she lovingly jokes about her Father: “cheers to one white parent!”. The audience mostly glares at us, but for all we know this show is just for us

We all ended up here, writers, actors, dancers, producers, directors, designers, hailing from all across Turtle Island*, the earth. We find each other on stage, on posters, the radio, walking the streets, finding each other at parties. We all ended up here to find one another. Edinburgh in August, a month long possibility.

When my brain begins to deteriorate from a diet of spon con Pop Chips, two pound Sainsbury’s sandwiches and late nights due to a fear of missing ‘the big connection’, these people had me.

A hand reaching out to grab mine behind a chair after a long day. A little gossip, the kind that could keep you from making a terrible decision. Disrupting the peace with full belly auntie laughs backstage. Someone your senior picking up your tab. An “I see you”. Seeing all of this and banking it for when it’s my turn to do the same. The one perfect review that makes me weep. The first bad review, and it being victoriously perfect.  

Extending my family, one chance encounter at a time. It’s all my relations. 

- Sage Nokomis Wright

*Turtle Island is the name used by Indigenous people in Canada to refer to the continent. In various Indigenous origin stories, the turtle is said to support the world, and is an icon of life itself.

About Indigenous Contemporary Scene

Indigenous Contemporary Scene (ICS) is a nomadic platform for the presentation of live arts, fostering dialogue and creative exchange between artists and communities. Founded by Onishka in 2016, ICS amplifies the voices of Indigenous artists internationally.

In 2019, ICS brought a group of Indigenous artists from across Kanata* to Edinburgh to present a program of live arts across the city's famous arts festivals. Onishka and O’Kaadenigan Wiingashk Collective joined forces to co-present stellar performances and creative conversations as ICS Scotland, amplifying the voices of Indigenous artists internationally and creating spaces for generative dialogue between artists and communities.


Instagram: @indigenouscontemporaryscene

*Kanata-Before Canada, there was Kanata.  The Haudenosaunee word for village, Kanata became Canada through the colonial process of dispossession of Indigenous lands, identity and language.

Prognosis 4: After Edinburgh - Lewis Church

At the time of writing, it’s been a month since the end of the Edinburgh festival season, that strange set of three and a bit weeks in August that feel like both the centre and the edge of the world. 2017 was the first time in some time that I had attended for more than a week, and as a British Council Showcase year (happening alternately), it was perhaps even more heightened in its intensity than usual. Arriving on the first day of the fringe and staying beyond its last as lead writer for The Sick of the Fringe and editor of the diagnoses, I enjoyed the brilliance of the largest arts festival in the world as well as witnessing its problems, blind spots and several of the issues that participation invariably raises.

With many of the other writers I spoke to at the festival, whether mainstream newspaper reviewers, those writing around a particular form or focus, or independent bloggers, the timetable contest was a perennial conversation and obsession. With 3,398 shows in the programme (not including parallel events) the quantity of shows seen in a single day was continually used in conversation as a proxy for the intensity of your festival experience, even though we’re aware it says nothing about the quality of your reflection. I often found myself wondering whose experience at Edinburgh is the most ‘authentic’, someone who might see two or three shows in a day and then go for dinner, or professionals running from one performance to another, forgetting them as they go? And of course, the demands asked of artists are often even more extreme. A relentless duplication of their show over a month, with previews bleeding seamlessly into the run and audience sizes fluctuating mercilessly throughout.

The focus of reflection is often on those at either ends of a spectrum of festival success – those who do very well, breaking through and selling out, and those who don’t, the crushingly reviewed and the empty-seated. But it is perhaps also worth remembering that most companies and artists have an experience pitched somewhere in the middle: selling some tickets with three stars on a poster. Money is lost, energy depleted and with probably no clear answer to whether it’s all been worth it. For artists, I’m not sure if it makes more sense to view Edinburgh as a festival or a trade show - like an investment that might come good, or an experience to enjoy. Both characterisations make sense, and whilst I would always prefer to imagine it as an expansive carnival of art and performance, the fringe can sometimes feel more like a cynical Darwinian ecology of advertising, reviews and sponsorship. 

These issues are perhaps internal ones that apply largely to those making at and participating in the fringe. And it’s easy to lose sight, during the weeks there, that the rest of the world is happening outside. For me this year the bubble of Edinburgh, that fugue state of seeing work, waiting for shows, snatching food on the run and almost hysterical drinking, was made even more incongruous by the horrors unfolding outside it. On Twitter feeds and Facebook walls threats and prejudice jostled uncomfortably alongside a parade of reviews and recommendations. Charlottesville, Trump, North Korea and Brexit all intruded, pressing in on conversations in queues and the Summerhall courtyard. In 2017, the politics of the fringe itself were thrown into stark relief amid these horrors, and what might have otherwise been internal debates within the artistic communities represented there were accompanied by new urgencies and anxieties of significance and relevance.

Debates around race and gender were key in both the coverage coming out of the festival and in conversations happening amongst its participants, for example. Incredible work by artists of colour, and women of colour in particular, attracted significant and warranted attention, including Selina Thompson’s salt. (one of the most highly regarded shows of the festival), Rachael Young’s Out, Pauline Mayers' What If I Told You and Julene Robinson’s The Black That I Am. But despite their successes, many of these artists reflected on their success in relation to the whiteness of the fringe and its audiences, and the strange dissonances that occur as a result of this. Thompson writes persuasively about her experience of these issues here, with many also emerging in TSOTF’s Live Conversation broadcast with Robinson and Mayers.

Perhaps similarly, the ‘high’ number of shows engaging with experiences of trans identity was highlighted in much of the media coverage. It is of course a positive step to see powerful and necessary shows like Eve, You’ve Changed and Testosterone attract attention. But the small number of these shows, and any suggestion that there are ‘enough’ or even ‘lots’ of diverse stories at the fringe should be undone by the literally hundreds of shows that are nowhere near as progressive, open or questioning. Realistically, like every other year, this fringe was not the year of the black female performer or of trans testimony, but the year of the white male comedian, as always. There is much more work to be done by organisations, venues and critical organs (newspapers, blogs, etc) to include and engage with people and audiences who might be left outside the Edinburgh bubble, particularly people of colour, those with different gender identities or class backgrounds, those with access requirement and local artists and audiences. When the rest of the world is so terrifying, we as artists, writers, audiences and fans should still continue to question and shape the development of institutions and traditions.

I hope that The Sick of the Fringe and its various activities contributed this year to the consideration of these issues. Our diagnoses brought new and interesting perspectives to bear on artwork that engaged with questions of medicine, mental health, personal experience and identity. Our team ranged from artists to research scientists, science journalists to arts writers, applying their unique skills and knowledge to produce reflection that engaged with the ideas behind a piece as much as its execution. Public events brought artists together, offered producers a space to share expertise, and showcased the conversations happening over the city throughout the month. Building on two previous successful years of activity, and for the first time an expansion of the diagnosis model to other festivals (Normal? and Manchester International Festival), TSOTF has developed and continued to engage with the nuances, contradictions and most urgent aspects of the fringe and those who attend it. Whilst the thoughts and questions I raise here are ones that have stayed with me since getting back home, they also make me want to return. Here’s to next year.

Related Diagnoses: Eve, OutPreScribed, Yvette, Not I, Sometimes I Adult

Be sure to read the other prognoses from Edinburgh 2017 here.

Prognosis 3: Slippery Now Because - Alexandrina Hemsley

Standing Alongside Performers and Audiences of Colour

Summer 2017’s political backdrop (Charlottesville, UK detention centre guard arrests, drug seizures in the run-up to the Notting Hill Carnival and L’Oreal hiring and then firing their first transgender model because she spoke about systematic white supremacy) is what liberal white media might call ‘heightened racial tensions’ and what I and others might call a painful and tragic reveal of shit that’s been there forever, always tense, always heightened but horrifying when it explodes. In some ways, Edinburgh was somewhere I hung out for a bit experiencing the same painful, tragic shit in a different place.

‘Racial tensions’ are slippery now in this moment of ‘wokeness’, and something seductive occurs in how often and comfortably white privilege gets spoken about. Venues and arts programmes actively profile work by people of colour and more and more artists are speaking out about industry shortcomings when it comes to engaging with diverse audiences. Within this landscape I am fooled into thinking I/we are on a level of understanding about what needs to be (un)done to have meaningful change. 

But white privilege hits and disorientates. The majority white spaces of Edinburgh are purported as spaces that welcome work by people of colour, but morph into hostile ones when I hear of and experience how alienated people of colour can feel within them, both as audiences and performers. I may walk in like I can be there unhindered, supported by the illusion of a shorthand between me and white ‘woke’ people, but then…

I don’t get flyered. I sit alone. My tongue spills out times when a white person has ignored me. A white friend’s shoulders tense and I realise I’ve said too much about race at friendly drinks. I wish I could wrap the words back up into me. I disrupt without intending to disrupt. I’m too tired. I think white audiences will only hear the incredible voice of a performer and not recognise the violence of the golliwog she’s purposely dressed up as. I think white audiences will assume the golliwog or minstrel are now archaic rather than see that our times are in close dialogue with these terrible exaggerations - particularly as I/we/they spectate work by people of colour. I feel terrible for judging them. I must remember to watch Bamboozled. I feel terrible for judging them. I sit alone. I don’t get flyered. I nearly text my white friend to apologise for bringing up racism over drinks. I feel terrible for judging them. I see two black figures of ‘the mammy’ and the house servant’ in a charity shop window on my way to leaving Edinburgh. For sale. For charity. It’s obscene. I can’t buy them because I do not want to stand next to these objects and have the sales assistant look from me to them and back again. Even though I am impotent, the figures need to be gone. I tweet Brian Lobel. He buys them. They are gone. I resent his freedom in this instance. I am thankful for his actions. 

Moments of watching work by people of colour are slippery now because majority white spaces are on my mind, in my mind and on my tongue as brown is on my skin for others to see and engage with. Whether I like it or not. Whether others like it or not. Whether they are aware of white and brown mediating all our interactions and projections, or not. Like Selina Thompson’s diaries that expose her own experiences of Edinburgh, my time there and afterwards was accompanied by the layered image of racism and its many impacts as an infinitely adaptive creature, insurmountable from any edge. With the obstacle so high and roots entrenched deep into this colonising UK soil, what are the implications of making work in front of majority white audiences? How do you acknowledge and undo a white gaze that is both outside and within, that carries with it problematic spectatorship of work made by people of colour?

The sounds of white folk gasping in salt. fall on my ears. 

They gasp at what I would consider to be lived experiences that many people of colour could identify with. Often they were stories I perceive as totally expected through their frequent repetitions both in the life of one person of colour and the multiplied, overlapping collective experiences of people of colour in the UK. This is not to minimise the violence and impact of these experiences, but something in the shocked gasping of white folk is hard not to rage at because of how it carries with it a sense of white disbelief that illustrates unequal experiences of racism with such potency. 

As people of colour, I/we need to move through racist experiences in order to live within an environment where our bodies are under threat. For us, the first moment of shock is over, but re-tell the story we have learnt to live alongside and the white person gasps. They have not had to do the same navigating. Bodies of colour have navigated around them invisibly. In the gasp are the sounds of someone waking up and I am jealous because racism made me/us awake except we did not get to gasp loudly - a racist insult got hurled at us as children and we had to bury it silently until a white person would believe us. 

An example came to mind when thinking about how to frame white spectatorship: women have been calling Beyonce and Jay-Z's five year old daughter Blue-Ivy ugly. The venom directed towards a black child disgusts and terrifies. Recent studies have shown that young black girls are perceived as less innocent than white girls. The scrutiny that the black female body is placed under within white supremacist patriarchy leads to an environment where not only are we measured against whiteness and fall short, but racial biases systematically leave our bodies unprotected. Within the arts, this might manifest as a limited understanding of the emotional and practical support that artists of colour might need when presenting their work in majority-white spaces.

Perhaps no work can slice through the tendencies for (white) audiences to enjoy the exotic? To treat brown and black bodies as booty shaking, ground stomping, sexy divas…the enjoyment is slippery now because buying a ticket for the show and sitting in your seat aligns yourself with a politic that speaks of liberation, undoing, overthrowing. Yes, yes, yes, we squeal. We want this. We are AWAKE. Applause. More applause.

In Hot Brown Honey I saw the revolution but I could not will my body to cheer for it amongst the hive of white faces. What does it mean if I’m not going to dance with these white spectators because it is a work that you want to sit still with, relieved that someone else sees you? What if the work tells parts of your story but white people are more into it than you are? Like, seriously into it. Shrieking, stamping, laughing, crying, standing ovation INTO IT.

I see the merch. Plastic Afro combs and guitar picks with ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ blazing across them. ‘Don’t Touch My Hair’ is one of many requests for a right to body-privacy that so many people of colour fight to make heard every day. It is also frequently and unfairly personalised, i.e. ‘I know you have a thing about people touching your hair…’ For a request that at one time felt so invisible to have grown into an accessible mainstream slogan is energising, but exposes it to processes of privilege and appropriation. 

Again, this hive of white. White grabbing hands. How did I get into this scrum? I’m standing near the middle of the merch table and getting served last. I stand silently, my own pair of earrings in my hand like a candle at a vigil. My hopes for feeling something (anything) by buying this empowerment, begin to morph from solidarity I can connect with into a fashion accessory white people are clamouring over. Sometimes I hear that they are buying the merch ‘for a friend’ and I think, ‘How is that friend going to feel about you giving them this?!’ I mourn. The slogan becomes vulnerable once more. 

These earring and badges could be ones that a white person feels safer wearing than a brown person. Sometimes, I can walk into a room or join in a discussion and I know I am being read as angry or as a disturbance. Sometimes, I cry in front of a white person and they think I’m angry (no lie). If the the starting point is a body whose attitudes and emotions are being misread, wearing the badge or the earrings adds to this already complicated mix. A dance of questioning and need for justification may begin. The anxiety of well-intentioned but racist behaviour happening is one of many spectres that accompany a brown body as it meets its environment. 

I am increasingly concerned with how people of colour can continue to make and passionately advocate for work that needs to be seen, heard and felt, while also knowing that the work is simultaneously used to entertain, sell and increase white folk’s cultural capital. Poet Vanessa Kisuule articulated the implications of this in a twitter thread with that started with “Watching so many shows at fringe around the issues of race whilst surrounded by overwhelmingly white audiences has been a trip. #edfringe”. Within it was a fear of minstrel-ling herself in her own performances - becoming complicit in the exoticising she fears is there within the gazes of her audiences. The thread captures a sense that fight for space for representation on our own terms is shifting/slipping. 

I hope these words sit alongside the currents of others. Adding one more to the volume of voices carrying on and hoping these moments amplify, to drag us out of this marshy terrain. 

Related Diagnoses: salt., Out, Yvette, Hot Brown Honey

Further Reading: Being Black in the Age of 'Wokeness', Pravesh Kumar: Radical Change Required, Theatre's Diversity Problem, Theatre's Lack of Diversity is Inexcusable

Prognosis 2: Reality Shows - Michael Regnier

It is customary at the end of shows at the Fringe for a performer (or sometimes a producer, if there is one) to step out of character and onto the stage to thank the audience and ask them to tell their friends about the show. As well as trying to increase word-of-mouth publicity, this act inevitably affects the relationship between the performers and their audiences by revealing the ‘real’ person who has been entertaining us.

At the end of Being Hueman Being, for example, Luke Nowell stepped out of the clown character through which he had been engaging us in play throughout the show. He thanked us and reminded us of Schiller’s idea that we are fully human only when we play. Clearly the defining philosophy behind the show, this idea couldn’t be overtly articulated through clowning and had to follow afterwards, retrospectively contextualising what we had seen and done. In particular, it made sense of the inclusion of a judgemental art critic as one of the characters on stage: Nowell had apparently been swiping lightly at the question of whether his show was ‘art’. In the end, the answer was that the question was irrelevant. We had been playing, and playfulness was the be all and end all of the experience, which is to say, it was the be all and end all of being human according to Schiller and Nowell.

At the start of Sh!t Theatre’s DollyWould – a tribute to Dolly Parton, Dolly the Sheep and a forensic body farm in Tennessee – there was a moment when the performers agreed to start again. They walked off, came back on and, indeed, restarted the show. Was this scripted? Or the confidence of two artists who weren’t afraid to reset? I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter – playing with what is real and what is artifice helps make theatre exhilarating, and it’s a fundamental tension in contemporary performance and live art. Actions performed by actors are real, in so far as they exist in time and space, but they are also artifice, part of a constructed story. The audience knows this, and so playing with the balance – perhaps revealing that a supposedly artificial action is, in fact, devoid of artifice – can change their perception of the entire experience in a heartbeat.

(The performers of DollyWould eschewed the end-of-show moment of authenticity. Instead, the audience filed out as the two performers lay onstage, hidden under sheets. They didn’t even take a curtain call, another moment in which the ‘real’ people who have been entertaining you make an appearance. But they had revealed themselves during the show, when explaining its provenance – in response to a falling out, the two decided to make a show about something they both loved: Dolly Parton. It seemed authentic, though in the theatre, who really knows?)

In a post-truth era of “fake news”, the roles of reality and artifice seem particularly important. As the world of politics has become more about celebrity and stagecraft (though let’s not forget that even 50 years ago, some authors were lamenting celebrities known only for their well-knownness), publics have looked to light entertainment for a glimpse of something real, something authentic. But it is not enough to put the real world on TV or onstage. As has been learned in reality television from The Apprentice to Made in Chelsea, reality usually needs plotting, scripting and editing before it becomes satisfying and entertaining. Aristotle knew this. In Poetics, he wrote that 'it is not the function of the poet to relate what has happened, but what may happen'. Biography is not enough to achieve authenticity.

If reality is not quite real enough, can scientific research bring more truth to performance? In The Science of Cringe, Maria Peters elegantly incorporated scientific research and ideas into her comedy show. Some of the science was not what you might call ‘consensus’ – evolutionary psychology theories come with a grain of salt because they are essentially untestable – but Peters was not afraid to comically undercut the ‘cave-girl’ explanation with her own story and by noting that, according to the theory, cave people were driven by “food and sexy times – so unlike today…”. Similarly, in Primates, Tessa Coates drew on her anthropology degree, sometimes for direct factual asides about penis shapes and sperm motility, sometimes for characters, such as her former lecturer. Coates’s moment of authenticity came when, towards the end of her show, she stepped back in to the lecturer’s character to deliver what amounted to her moral lesson; although life is basically meaningless, we are all special. As elsewhere in her show, she had to take on an alternative character to say what the ‘real’ Coates seemingly couldn’t.

But the most 'authentic' show that I saw at this year’s Fringe was Descent, presented by A Moment White Productions. A scripted play, performed by three actors (who left it to their producer to come on at the end and say thank you), it followed a family’s experiences with the onset of dementia. By investing completely in the fictional world they created, and demonstrating extensive research into the real-life effects of dementia, the production made the transformation of the character with dementia (and those around him) real. It’s not that fiction is always able to achieve a greater truth than reality, but it’s worth remembering that it can.

Authenticity in the performing arts is often a question of the extent to which a performance can be reconciled with the original work it re-presents; a question for revivals and productions of the classics. But authenticity lies also in the world that the work creates, which as Sarah Rubidge concludes, “is located anew in each performance”. If audiences today are sceptical of a reality in which a former reality TV host can become President, I wonder if the performing arts can offer authenticity precisely because, by their nature, they put artifice and reality in creative tension with each other. Life might be turning into a movie in which people play themselves, but theatre can be a place where fictional characters achieve a truthful existence.

Related Diagnoses: Being Hueman Being, DollyWould, PreScribed, The Science of Cringe, Descent