What it says on the tin

On Reclaiming Labels

Frida Kahlo's diary
Frida Kahlo’s diary


Tracey Enim's hellter fucking skelter
Tracey Enim’s hellter fucking skelter

Maddy Costa invited Selma Dimitrijevic, Samantha Ellis and me to Dialogue about labels some time ago. While it’s a subject we all have to deal with, there was also something about the topic that made the conversation feel a little more like work than play. – Perhaps because we would prefer to talk about the work itself rather than its label. We are labelled, or required to label ourselves and our work for marketing purposes, funders, theatres, audiences, our peers… Is it possible to talk about work without assigning it a category? Are labels used to exclude and dismiss? Can a label be anything more than an attempt to describe what’s in the tin? Does a label come with a value judgement?

For now, I’m not thinking about whether the substance in the tin is good or bad or tasty or deserving of its label; I’m interested in how the label itself can affect us and the way our work is seen, treated and discussed.

‘It’s not really a poem is it?’ – A statement often heard in poetry workshops.

Mimi Khalvati has structured a workshop around this question. She hands out several short paragraphs telling us that some are poems, and some are prose. She allows us to debate which is which. She puts columns up on a big piece of paper – prose versus poetry….and asks us to explain what makes a particular piece one or the other. At the end of the session she demonstrates that the titles at the top of the two columns could just as well be swapped over. The only thing differentiating poetry from prose is line breaks. Or the fact that the writer has said it’s a poem. If we look at a poem that doesn’t look like a poem through the lens of poetry, poetry might change, ways of writing it might change, ways of talking about it, thinking about it, teaching it, analysing it, performing it…

If the response of the tutor to the statement ‘it’s not really a poem’ were to be ‘yes that’s true.’ The next step would be to move on and look at a poem that is really a poem. This is a poetry workshop, we’re looking at poems, if it’s not a poem then we don’t have to look at it, we don’t have to engage with it, we don’t have to challenge our preconceptions, we don’t have to expand our ideas of what poetry is, we can keep everything as it has been and as we think it should be. We own poetry and we decide what is or isn’t a poem.

Frida Kahlo and Tracey Enim were/are visual artists. One painted her own portrait (using a brush), the other painted her own portrait (using a bed) – however the similarities between them are greater than their differences. The fact that Enim is described with the same label used to describe Kahlo expands the form. If Enim (as just one example) had been somehow prevented from showing her work within the context of visual art then the term ‘artist’ and its related field would not have been challenged as it has, she wouldn’t have been shortlisted for the Turner Prize and everything would have been much more comfortable for the visual arts establishment (Brief daydream to imagine what the world would be like if Enim called herself a writer.)

If we decide that something isn’t what it says it is then we put it in someone else’s box, it won’t be disruptive and it won’t force us to re-examine anything, it becomes someone else’s problem.

If we invent a new category every time a piece of work doesn’t look like work that has been made under the same banner in the past, then we lose a dialogue with history, we lose the opportunity for expansion, boundary pushing, reinvention….and we avoid having to engage with it on the terms it invites us to…it becomes someone else’s problem.

There are processes at work in the arts. For instance the process of getting a play from page to stage (as it is often put) – if the work in question doesn’t fit that process, it’s easier to suggest the work finds other friends to play with, other contexts to exist within (devised theatre, perhaps) than to examine and change the process itself. Changing the process could mean a job either needs to change or it becomes redundant –it’s no wonder the establishment resists.

An audience member going to theatre who hasn’t been to the theatre before, arrives without a label and without past experiences of what that label refers to. Rather than bringing their experience of watching theatre into the theatre, a non-theatre going audience comes to the theatre (or other place where performance is going to happen) with their lives as the experience they watch the work in relation to. David Lane suggests we need more of how we walk into an art gallery with how we walk into a theatre. I agree, and would extend this to needing more of how we walk through our lives with how we walk into a theatre. The odd thing is, the more I perform work, the more I find that an uninitiated audience, a non-theatre going/spoken word/poetry audience is far more responsive, far less self censored in their response to the work than the initiated. They bring their life experience to it rather than their theatre/poetry making and watching experience.

I was chatting with Jo Bell about this after Wordsmiths & Co the other night. She was talking about the problem that labelling something ‘poetry’ puts off an audience who might love the work. Likewise, the label ‘spoken word’ can do the same. She’s enthusiastic about trying to bring an audience that doesn’t consider themselves a poetry audience to poetry events… people who go to music events, and art galleries… How do we stop the word ‘poetry’ from putting off audiences? I think it’s about changing the associations/preconceptions around the word itself, rather than finding a different one.

We also agreed that the ideal situation is not to need a label but to have a name, as Lyn Gardner wrote:

Punchdrunk’s co-production of The Duchess of Malfi with ENO may have been called an “opera”, but I bet that most of the audience didn’t much care. As far as they were concerned it was Punchdrunk….It is the artists that increasingly engender loyalty, not the institution that produces them.

But it does take some time to get to the stage when people will come to your work because it’s your work…that involves drawing a new label, your own name…

I remember a conversation with Holly Pester about labels. ‘What do you call yourself?’ Someone asked her. ‘A poet’ she replied. And the poetry establishment must accept this; it’s the only way for the form’s boundaries to be pushed (or in the case of poetry in this country, to be kept open…they were pushed years ago but forced to constrict again). ‘A poet’, she replied, and it was a small challenge, a small ‘why, do you think I’m not a poet?’

An hour earlier, when Holly and I were on stage, I’d been introduced with a slightly cautious string of labels, one of them ‘performance artist’. I’d so much have preferred just to be called a poet. For me it’s very simple, I write and perform poetry, and I also write plays. I wish to do the first within the field/establishment of poetry (which encompasses spoken word etc. etc.) and I wish to do the second within the context of playwriting.

The funny thing is, those of us who sit outside of traditional labels fight to reclaim them. While at the same time those more firmly placed under a label reject them – see ‘I don’t call myself a poet’.

On the subject of Holly Pester, I recently read an interview with her in 3am magazine in which she embraced labels and their changing, transforming, linking, accumulative meanings. When Steven Fowler asked how she would define her poetry she responded:

People can get either defensive or carried away around labels. I dig ‘em. I like thinking up new ones that mix-match media; Speech Poetry, Voice-driven Poetics, Intermedial Sound and Performance Poetry. But I’m not scared of just ‘poetry’. That’s mine too. ‘Avant-garde’ seems to be used quite territorially, in antagonism to the ‘mainstream’, like laying down the battle ground. And I’m guilty of using it in that way. But it is originally a military term so I suppose that’s fine. I’m wondering if you mean that there’s a discrepancy between the doing of avant-garde/experimental cross-genre practices and the reception or categorisation of them? I think the blurrings, the cross-overs, the intermedias and the hyphenated labels are important to both, as long as they don’t get stuck. They’re something that need to stay transient – and naturally seem to – for the sake of the work and its connectivity.

Perhaps it’s easy to get defensive or carried-away around labels because they are not easy, not easy going. Labels are political. We use labels to shape our world and our engagement with it. A label is used to evict, to dismiss, to ignore. When work doesn’t sit easily within the field it situates itself within, it is simpler to suggest it finds someone else to play with than to allow that work to change the rules of the game.

When we choose how we are described we have the opportunity to set the agenda, to ask the world we’re working in to look at our work through a particular lens and in relation to other work within the field. When we name ourselves we claim an identity that we can run with, when others name us we are often condemned to a box that prevents movement. The reclaiming of labels is empowering….queer, cunt, marriage, artist, playwright….

Labels often appear to refer to product rather than process. I am comfortable describing elements of my process as compositional and choreographic….but uncomfortable with being described as a musician or choreographer. Because I studied music for many years I know what being a musician or composer entails, I know that is not what I do and it’s not the context I wish my work to be viewed within, even though I use techniques and processes coming from that background. I’m more interested in simply describing the process as ‘writing’. I do a lot of writing on my own, but another part of my writing process happens collaboratively, in rehearsal, or through building a soundscape, or through games and ‘devising’. I’m interested in carrying over what we mean by ‘writing’ from the individual to the collaborative, from page to feet.

Maddy was surprised that both Samantha and I embrace the label ‘playwright’ – and choose it over ‘theatre maker’:

I’m really intrigued that Hannah and Samantha have both moved away from “theatre-maker” as a label for themselves, because in my head that has the openness one might want while “playwright” with its buried connotations of alone-in-the-garret feels more closed. No, actually, different from that: theatre-maker, to my mind, blurs, and has a possibility of all in this together.

For Maddy ‘theatre maker’ is wonderful because it is so open. I have nothing against being called a ‘theatre maker’ – I do use the term to describe myself quite often. I have nothing against it…partly because it is innocuous, I find it a little meaningless. It is unspecific. These are both its negative and positive properties. (I tried it out on a taxi driver and he thought it meant I build theatres.) I would choose to be called a playwright and director rather than theatre maker because I write and direct plays. I want to be commissioned to write plays and I want to be invited to direct them. I am also happy to be commissioned simply to make theatre….but that’s never happened….

If I call myself a ‘theatre maker’ the writing is invisible. Ruth Mitchell (on twitter) suggests that this is what she likes about the term, and that  it appeals to many artists because it ‘covers and ticks many boxes’:

I certainly don’t call myself one, [a writer] wouldn’t dream of it. Theatre maker covers up for the disciplines I am not so hot at.

Samantha talked about the ‘wright’ part of the word playwright, the craft within the word:

We’ve got this suffix “wright”, and we’re the only profession that’s kept that suffix apart from wheelwrights, and “wright” isn’t just writing; it contains the idea of making….So then I started thinking “playwright” is great because it also fights the idea that all we do is write in our garrets and then emerge for opening nights. The word “playwright” contains the idea that even when we’re dreaming up a story, from the very seed of an idea, we’re thinking about how many actors might do it, their entrances and exits, costume changes, set changes, where the interval might go. And all this stagecraft and collaborative thinking comes into its own when a director starts to take the play from page to stage.

I’d add that the stagecraft and collaborative thinking also might occur during the rehearsal process itself, the playwright might be involved in this, or the playwright might write a score for performance that is crafted in such a way it invites a director to wright with or in response to the text… Each playwright finds their own ways to wright.

I’ve only had to think about labels because so many different ones have been stuck on me, and occasionally I’ve experienced being labeled as a way of being rejected from the context with which I wish to engage.  (The literary manager calls me a performance artist, the poet calls me a theatre maker etc.)

I doubt that we’ll ever get to a place where the funding, reviewing, making and marketing of work is boundary crossing and label free. – We also have labels for career stage. My friend was quite surprised to see her Arts Council report littered with labels such as ‘mature artist’ – she’s in her thirties and thought she was ‘emerging’.

Those new overused labels are meaningless and only required for tick box funding purposes, but labels like ‘playwright’ and ‘dramaturg’ have power because they have history. To bring a label with a past into the present is to continue a journey. To abandon labels or use all embracing ones, is to avoid having to confront and question a lineage of work that in its time, was also fighting to be seen…fighting for validation, for its right to be viewed in the context it chose….It’s not really art, it’s not really a play, it’s not really poetry, it’s not really theatre….The fact that the work in question stood its ground and said ‘yes it is’ enabled artistic fields to develop, to widen, extend, challenge, question, morph.

4 thoughts on “What it says on the tin

  1. Terrific piece, yet again.

    Is the term/label dramatist useful?

    Continuing good wishes with the work.

    All the best, Dave Duggan 028 71271126 075 1719 4861 https://www.facebook.com/DaveDugganWriter breathingwithalimp.blogspot.co.uk DENIZEN by Dave Duggan Writer’s Lab Dave Duggan, writer of Plays in a Peace Process (Guildhall Press, 2008), shares the process of writing his new work, DENIZEN, and invites you to a writer’s lab. The Nerve Centre; Magazine Street, Derry Londonderry BT48 6HJ; Tuesday, 28th May 2013 11 00am. Admission free.To reserve a place contact Eamon Phillips at The Nerve Centre on 028 7120562

  2. I will have to read this again, my head is spinning! I’ve had so many labels in my life: Male,drummer (who wrote 4-on- the-floor rock/pop songs), parent, husband, partner, tour and event manager, transgender (I now tick the female box).
    In 2002 I crept out from behind the drum kit and tentatively started performing words. I didn’t feel I had yet earned the right to introduce myself as a poet and, having spent nearly 40 years dealing with gender dysphoria, labels were hardly my bag.
    For seven years I have been part of Acoustic Night Bristol crew where we host Open Mic nights featuring both Poets, Spoken Word, Storytelling, Music and occasionally magic and comedy.. I guess I put the crew together: all performers of some discipline but although I do most of the PR, sound and ‘stuff”, the only label I would accept is ‘part of the crew.’
    It’s a Pandora’s Box event where writers sometimes perform music, musicians read words. We try to avoid labels unless it describes someone for example, “UK Canal Laureate Jo Bell” or “Canada’s finest The Fugitives” or “All the way from Cairo -The Bedouin Jerry Can Band!” etc.
    Created some 17 years ago Acoustic Night Bristol has brought such a diverse mix of talent together feeding creative energy into what I see as a valid label, our community.
    I’m still learning how to write,
    and I

    For the cumulative guidance, love and support that has taken me from wretched being to one-ness.


    For it came, not from one God, one source, but from each and every person I walked, talked and broke bread with.


    For those with whom I have shared the raw edges of pain, tears and heart-ache.


    For those who dedicate their lives to saving and improving the mortal lives of others. We all know who you are. Respect


    For those with whom I have worked and travelled, from all over the world. The diversity affirming our similarities and at the same time our individualities. Taken beyond traditional religions, the bond of humanity working together, catalysed by poetry,music and dance, transcends boundaries and bureaucracies extending knowledge and awareness.

    We may march to different drummers
    But we all need to feel the beat


    Andi Langford-Woods

    1. Hi Andi,
      Thanks for reading and sharing your story and experience of labels.
      – Actually I think I may have performed at your night in Bristol once, about eight years ago,
      All the very best with it,

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