In Favour of Bad Taste
Most of this blog is hugely inspired by Nathalie Olah's book "Steal As Much As You Can" so you should go buy that: https://repeaterbooks.com/product/steal-as-much-as-you-can-how-to-win-the-culture-wars-in-an-age-of-austerity/
If you want the easy-read version of this blog, it's at this link: https://www.boyandpen.com/post/easy-read-in-favour-of-bad-taste
Like most people I got into theatre by accident. I decided to do GCSE drama because I thought I fancied a girl in the class. As part of that class I (1) realised I was gay after my teacher gave me Angels in America to read and (2) got taken to see an adaptation of The Tartuffe.
It’s a really old, pretty stuffy French play and I honestly couldn’t tell you the plot of it without looking at Wikipedia. But, we were taken to see a version by a company called Belt-up who don’t exist anymore but the show suddenly opened with a version of the rap from Fresh-Prince of Bel-Air, as soon as the woman sitting behind me started to tut I started to clap. It felt great to be sat in this middle-class institution and know the references of this show better than the woman behind me who had probably seen hundreds of things there. I’m not saying Belt-Up were at the forefront of working-class liberation, they were probably just fun, but the thing about that show is that it didn’t conform to middle-class ideas of good taste. This was how I came into theatre, I hadn’t grown up going to see plays so my taste level was different to what a lot of theatre people liked, and it ended up ostracising me.
The thing is, I had an education. I went to school throughout the 00s in Blair’s “Education, Education, Education” boom. I was sold the myth that if I became a specific kind of smart that’s valued by the middle-classes then I too could improve my situation. So I did, I set unrealistically high expectations and overworked myself at school, it turned out in the end I was pretty bright and I got good grades but then when I left school the promise I had been made wasn’t true. The financial crash meant there was no job market, Tory austerity had set in and I was part of the first year of people having to pay £9K/year to go to university.
I had become book-smart, I had learnt how to be polite, I had learnt how to dress to furiously assimilate with my middle-class peers at my Russell Group university. But, no amount of education could level the playing-field of wealth. I can’t even remember the amount of times I mis-pronounced things because I had only ever read the word and never talked to anyone about it, whereas other people in the classes grew up in literary circles and had been taught correct pronunciation by their private tutors.
Other students would disappear in the holidays to see top theatre in London or do inexplicable internships that were never publicly advertised because their dad knew someone and had a second flat down the road from the theatre. I knew the rules of good taste, I could follow them, but it didn’t make a bit of difference in reality.
New Labour’s movement in the 00s maybe intended to be some kind of liberation but actually what it created was an educated and angry working (and lower-middle class) who had debt and online platforms instead of stability.
At the same time as this anger was building, the theatre sector was trying to weather the 2008 financial crash and Tory arts cuts, it was becoming the most risk-averse it had been in generations. It was doubling down on ideas of good taste and churning Shakespeare productions with ex-etonians on an annual basis. Theatres stopped sourcing talent from their local area and instead looked to import creatives and actors from London who had worked on these tasteful capital shows.
Theatre already had a history of nepotism and this went into overdrive as it became financially impossible for working-class people wanting to get into the sector to survive the unpaid or underpaid internships and entry-level positions that were needed to get a foot in the door.
I thought I was going to be a writer, and I do still want that, but I also had to recognise that when my peers could take the risk of working freelance because their parents could bail them out, I got a full-time job and all of my creative work happened on the side.
In her book “Steal As Much As You Can: How To Win The Culture Wars in an Age Of Austerity” Nathalie Olah writes
“For most, hailing from affluent parts of London and having graduated from expensive schools, the call of journalism and centre-left politics seems to have been a radical decision within their immediate social circles, lending to a tendency among liberal-leaning journalists, who I’ve met, to reward themselves for not having pursued the more lucrative avenues of finance or law, for example - as if this alone rectified their privilege and bias.”
She’s writing about journalists but the same thing happened in theatre, those people that had the wealth and family connections to forge a career in law or finance but CHOSE theatre and its lower salaries see this as something that cancels out their privilege and bias.
It created this atmosphere that middle-class arts leaders, in upholding the ideas of good taste, were somehow serving their commmunity. We see it play out now with the amount of people that claim to be working-class because of a low-salary but yet they have experienced none of the structural inequality and mysteriously own a flat in Brixton at the age of 25. It’s really difficult to argue my next point because of how successfully the liberal middle-classes have asserted the idea that their concept of theatre is inherently valuable to everyone, no matter their background.
What the reinforcement of good taste does is reiterate this idea that assimilation into those codes, that being able to perform those codes, will be beneficial to you. It says that if you can go to a free workshop and learn how to understand Shakespeare then you too could be a playwright. But here’s the thing, I’m the generation that knows this is a lie. No amount of learning, education or assimilation is going to induct us into the establishment.
Good taste isn’t even real, again it's Nathalie Olah that points out:
“The problem with tastefulness is that it is often posited as definitive and absolute, when in reality it is little more than a proxy for wider socio-economic dynamics. Those in the business of deciding what constitutes taste - again, the gatekeepers of our collective culture including publishers, broadcasters, editors and music industry bosses - are acting in the service of those dynamics, and constitute the cultural outposts of a much bigger campaign to uphold the ideals of the middle-class”
It’s this made-up standard made up by the ruling elite of theatre, by the middle-class reviewers, Artistic Directors, CEOs. These are the people I’ve pointed out, are often financially privileged individuals blind to their distance from communities they lead.
The taste project of the last 10 years has been hugely successful because where has the extreme work gone? Where are the radicals on our stages that aren’t polite or comforting to the audiences? Occasionally theatres allow something rowdy, or othered or challenging on to their stages but only in such a way that it diverts attention away from theatre as an establishment, it’s an act of self-preservation rather than self-critique.
This is why I’m coming out in favour of bad taste, of tacky and othered and angry and failed and cheap shows. I want to find work that challenges the notion of middle-class assimilation in order to break free of this cultural dominance.
Good taste is a fiction which says that you should continue to participate and the establishment will let you in eventually, but that’s not true. Sure, there might be exceptions but while middle-class values (which are also very white, heteronormative, very able-bodied) dominate theatre, the system won’t change.