The Duty of Care
in Hip Hop Theatre

Isaac Ouro-Gnao

In my previous piece for Ink Cypher The Commodification of Trauma in Hip Hop Theatre, I looked at a window in the history of Hip Hop theatre in London and reflected on how trauma is staged and sold. I recognised there was a commonality between most pieces I had experienced – themes of personal struggle, identity, racism, belonging, displacement, the list goes on. To be Hip Hop theatre is to be dark, physically draining and impactful. This is the commodity being bought and sold.

Of course, these are the stories Hip Hop theatre artists wish to tell, and rightly so. These themes are prevalent primarily because the community is largely made up of people of colour facing many varying forms of discrimination and oppression. This led me to make this statement: "There has been a lack of care towards the audience and accountability from artists and venues when presenting themes of traumatic lived experiences…wanting to impact the audience should not come at their detriment."

To combat this, I concluded that we need to take charge and better care of our stories in how we present them – from on stage to the messaging used to promote and advertise. However, upon reflection, this was a premature conclusion. After making the case that there is a systemic issue in our community and that it’s up to each of us to gain agency through messaging and marketing trivialises and intellectualises the issue, and falls into the trap of neo-liberal thinking: individualistic exceptionalism. Very loosely put, it means we do not need society or community since we are all solely responsible for our personal well-being and success. That goes against every fibre of what Hip Hop stands for.

The thread on the ‘lack of care’, specifically the duty of care, was underdeveloped. I was focused on showing and proving, through my small sample size, that London's Hip Hop theatre scene does have a history of commissioning and performing trauma. For now, there is a better argument to be made. There is more to unravel in terms of care, who is responsible, where accountability lies, and how a less individualised approach could better combat the commodification of trauma in Hip Hop theatre.

As I had these thoughts, I came across an essay Shock and Care by writer and theatre practitioner Josephine Giles. In her writing, she makes a proposition: “Learning how to care for your audience is actually far more aesthetically interesting and politically disruptive than working out how to shock them.”

 

As a response to and in conversation with my previous essay, I’d like to add to this proposition and tailor it to my argument: “Learning how to care for your artists and audience is actually far more aesthetically interesting and politically disruptive than working out how to exploit them.”

The Lack of Care of Organisations

How do organisations exploit artists, and how can they learn to care better?

In my previous essay, I referenced the Startin’ Point Legacy Commission 2019 - founded and curated by Hakeem “Mr Impact” Onibudo - at The Place as a platform which saw all of its commissioned finalists exhibit works related to trauma.

 

Saskia Horton, a multidisciplinary artist and violinist, staged Life According To Motown; a piece exploring racism, sexism and power dynamics during the male dominated Motown era. Choreographer Kloe Dean showcased Man Up, a deeply personal work touching on the suicide of Dean’s father, and the emotional hardship faced by those left behind. Ffion Campbell-Davies performed Womb Paves Way, speaking on sexism, abuse and the intergenerational trauma of African and Caribbean women in her ancestry.

Since then, each artist has either not performed the work or developed it since, or has moved on to focus on other things. Kloe Dean has continued her work in the commercial dance sector, recently choreographing for rapper Little Simz at the 2022 Brit Awards.

“When I think about going back into [Man Up], I just don't want to,” she says. “I don't want to kill myself off for a little piece of money. Not that I'm doing it for the money, but when you deep it, you basically give your whole life and the returns that you get from it doesn't really weigh up.”

 

Here lies the exploitation.

Yes, Kloe received a £1000 commission. Yes, she was supported in delivering her work. Yet, it was all short-term. Beyond the emotional fulfilment of sharing and performing our lived experiences, there is an added emotional weight due to the themes present. To mine her experience for so little speaks of the systemic issue of treating trauma as a unvalued commodity. There is also a power dynamic at play. She was also asked to mine her lived experience and rewarded for it through the Startin’ Point Legacy Commission process.

I pointed out in the last essay that most names on the commissioning and programming team were on the judging panel. This is a further co-sign that proclaims that to be successful in Hip Hop theatre is to lay all bare. With little long-term support, financial or emotional, there is a cycle of complicity and dependency in play. I recall my own eagerness to mine my trauma as that’s what was asked of me. In Body Politic’s Father Figurine, in Spoken Movement’s Obibini. The ask is for trauma and the reward is short-term support and a stage to perform on.

 

And to those artists who are fatigued by the exploiting and complicit cycle, the choice is to either focus on something else or continue in the cycle. To stop is a career suicide of sorts, because the artform is treated as a commodity. If you won’t someone else will.

 

I remember being introduced to the programming team at Siobhan Davies in 2019. They had reached out to Lee Griffiths, producing for Far From The Norm, as they were ‘keen to work with a Hip Hop based artist for the upcoming Open Choreography Opportunity.’ I was keen and eager, having just performed The Oreo Complex at Serendipitiy’s BHM Live. The audience were predominantly white with contemporary dance interest. And although receptive, still gave unsurprising feedback; describing the work as ‘exotic’, visceral’, and ‘physical’. It’s only after conversations with Saskia Horton, who is a good friend, did I realise I was the stand-in. Saskia was ill at the time, but featured late in the March 2020 version of the same platform. The team at Siobhan Davies were nice, welcoming, until I was out of the doors. A few follow-up emails led to tentative interest and all communication died after a change in programming staff and the artistic director.

Look at the recent double bill roster at The Place from Artists 4 Artists and this point also stands. O'Driscoll Collective’s ‘Crabs in a Barrel’ is centred on toxic masculinity and stereotypes. Yami Löfvenberg’s Happyendingfication uncovers the impacts of being an adult adoptee.

In an industry that commodifies our trauma, this makes it easier for programmers to focus on works rather than artists; and simply look to the next artist willing to perform their lived experiences of trauma. It may not be explicitly said, and it does not reflect the necessity and importance of these stories. But it’s hard to ignore the cycle of power, complicity, and exploitation.

Duty of Care of Organisations

If we are to tell these stories then, how can organisations stop this cycle, short-term thinking and a revolving-door attitude? Care can be defined as ‘the provision of what is necessary for the health, welfare, maintenance, and protection of someone or something’.

Rather than the something (‘the artwork’), there should be a focus on the ‘someone’. Invest in the artist. To do otherwise is to think all Hip Hop artists are the same because of an overlap of themes or dance techniques. Looking back at my experience with Siobhan Davies, I laugh to myself when I think my performance was nothing like they had thought or hoped. It was just a contentment of platforming something with Hip Hop in its description. What would happen if there was long-term provision with maintenance, welfare, and health in mind?

What of Kloe’s reluctance to return to her work? Care would ensure she can tell her story over and over again because there is an infrastructure focused on her as an artist and not on staging Hip Hop no matter the well-being costs. Care is vital for longevity.

“Even though I might be dyslexic, or that I might have this mental health issue, or I'm going through really bad anxiety, I always felt like I had to hide those things,” Kloe adds. “Like, kind of get on with it, as opposed to like sharing those things with the right people in order to implement the right support."

“These are certain aspects that I don't think really get shared often in order to make processes easier,” Kloe says. “I think there's a responsibility on producers to do that. There needs to be people sharing what is possible for [artists] to ask for because it's about career development.”

 

And organisations aren’t unable to do so. There is a plethora of associate artists tagged to the big names - Sadlers Wells, The Place, Barbican etc. What happens when resources - financial, time, support - are accounted for in the long-term. Rather than repeat the mistakes of other theatre art forms such as 10-20 year long associate roles, why not apply the community mentality Hip Hop stands for and cycle those roles without exclusion.

Maybe we’ll pause as artists when we know the space doesn’t require our lived experience in the short-term. This might mean we’re given more time to be careful and considered in our approach of exactly what parts of our traumatic experiences we’re willing to stage and which areas we’re keeping to ourselves.

 

But what of the duty of care of artists towards organisations? They aren’t automated monoliths. They’re run by people with pressures themselves; to fundraise, to commission, to strategise, etc. Should we as artists be better understanding of time restricted commissions? Not to have high expectations of support and care? I question this thinking. Of course, there’s a level of empathy to be had, but when power, decision-making, and resources are heavily skewed in one party’s favour, there is never a balanced two-way reciprocal relationship. To ask these questions is to assume we have as much of these capabilities and responsibilities as organisations. If we understand care as ‘the provision of what is necessary for the health, welfare, maintenance, and protection of someone or something’, then the duty of care of the individual artists or company towards an organisation is hardly going to amount anything. The duty of care is instead more of an interpersonal one. And one side represents an entire institution, interpersonal care will never match structural and resource-based care.

Lack of Care of Artists

What happens with artists when there’s a lack of care in receiving inadequate resources?

The story is usually that the commission in time-limited or must occur in a short amount of time to meet the necessary delivery requirements of the commissioning organisation. From experience, a 4-week creation period is the average when there’s a large commission with the expectation of a ready-to-be-staged hour-long outcome. It can be 1 or 2 weeks for shorter 20-30minute pieces. This is usually paired with support in-kind, mentoring, and if you’re lucky, access support for well-being needs (we’ll come to access needs later). As a choreographer, you’ve likely already spent a significant amount of time thinking and planning the idea and themes so you can hit the ground running. There’s choreography to learn and things need to take shape by week 3 for the rest of the creative team to rig, light, test sound, and for there to be a dress run (technicians are strapped for time, so there’s always a level of anxiety). So, essentially, you have 3 weeks.

 

Because of this, the skewed organisation-artist dynamic is replicated with choreographer-performer. When you’re only afforded time to make the work, it’s easy to forgo something as basic as providing care to ensure the health and well-being of dancers, both physical and mental. This priority is to just make the work. Like the organisations, the choreographer prioritises the work over the artists who are needed to execute the work. This is not a plea to drop all focus from creating the work and make sure the performers are okay, the question is responsibility and duty of care.

 

In my opening lines, I mentioned that I was so was focused on showing and proving that London’s Hip Hop theatre scene has a commodification of trauma issue that I overlooked what was necessary in my conclusion. I think this is a Hip Hop mentality issue. Its foundations are based in the idea of making the most out of the little we’re afforded by society. Kloe agrees, suggesting “we're so used to a certain way of doing things. Like rehearsing in a car park because there’s no money to get a studio.”

Make the work at all costs. And as Kloe points out, there’s an issue of resources through the lack of knowing in the part of the artist, and through the lack of transparency from the part of organisations. This adds to the skewed organisation-artist dynamic which is then replicated in the creative space. We expect little resources for ourselves, so we’re given the little resources we expected to make the work. And with these resources - mainly time and space - we in turn expect collaborating artists to get by. The artist is mined for their trauma and is complicit in providing it providing deeply personal traumatic lived experiences for the sake of the work.

 

Joshua Nash, who performed in the 2015 piece Behind Every Man I examined in my previous essay mentions this mindset and approach during that creative process. “At the time, there was limited space and resources. We're doing this all on our free time. So, it's like, you got three hours on a Saturday, and you just got to go. And then that's it.”

In my experience, this has meant care and well-being were an afterthought at best and not even considered at worst. I’ve been in many rehearsal spaces where I’ve been told my mental well-being didn’t matter. The choreographer voiced many times that their focus was the work, and to care about my needs during the rehearsal process would mean to stop the work from being made. I wasn’t that valuable. I had just one job and that was to execute the vision and take care of myself during the process. Check in conversations were had outside of the creative space, but what makes it difficult is the intensity of the words returning and echoing once you’re back in the space of making.
 

I don’t hide it that I have bad anxiety and depression. I have built up tools over the years to cope with rehearsals. I was even offered the capability to take 5 minutes out if things got too much. But I learnt quite quickly, these were gestures that were said because that was the right thing to do. When it came to actually needing that time, it became an issue of being disruptive, breaking the flow of rehearsals, or making it about me. To an already anxious mind, that’s an easy gateway to a panic attack. Which would further disrupt the rehearsal process. And to make up for it, in my Hip Hop mentality mindset, I would prioritise the work and use my free time to rehearse in car parks, bedrooms, and staircases. It’s the least I could do for my mental health getting in the way. In Joshua’s words, you just got to go. Until you can’t. It's no surprise I had a mental breakdown in 2018. The cycle repeated itself. The institutional pressures on the choreographer, the pressures on the artists, and so on. And the result: if you can’t someone else will. I moved on and someone else filled my role.

 

This speaks of a wider issue of ableism, enabled by a cycle made for the non-disabled body and neurotypical mind, and focused on the idea of individualism. “Even though this is a bit too much, we ain't got time, I'd suck it up and just get on with it,” Joshua says of his creative processes since. Where is the duty of care when the artists you rely on to deliver the work ‘can’t suck it up’ and need infrastructure that prioritises the provision of care?

I believe there’s a case to be made for agency as an immediate answer for the duty of care of artists towards other artists and performers.

Duty of Care of Artists

It seems to me that we’re at times forgetful that we’re all adults with agency. The lack of care and power dynamic removes that agency. In the eyes of organisations, you are not the artist but your artistic work. In the eyes of the choreographer, you are no longer an artist but the tool to execute the artistic work. Agency and autonomy are removed. Of course, contracts are signed and the work must be done in the name of professionalism. But must that come at the cost of care? What benefit is there to ignore the provision of safety and well-being?

Josephine Giles asks whether providing care is a valuable avenue of artistic exploration in her essay, and I think of a positive experience where care confirms this to be the case which led to a fruitful and enjoyable outcome despite challenging themes.

 

Sharlene Carter’s 2018 production 13:60 was my saving grace in understanding what agency looked like and how I had none up to that point. The autobiographical piece, directed by Liza Vallance, focused on Sharlene as a carer to her mum who struggled with Cerebellar Ataxia after a car accident. The two were clear that their priority was to create a safe, creative space to honour Patricia Carter’s experience. Liza has a chronic illness that affects her mental health, she was upfront about it at the start of the process. Sharlene is a full-time carer to her mother and a mentor to many young people across the Barking & Dagenham borough.

 

With their own lived experiences, they guided the near 4-week process with care, trust, and autonomy. Daily morning check-ins and afternoon debriefs, we had frequent breaks scheduled into the day that worked with bursts and blocks of intense rehearsing. Days were structured so breaks didn’t come at the cost of rehearsing. Trust was placed in our decision making as independent performers and artists in the exploration of choreographic material. Taking time out if needed was encouraged, and this was a daily reminder.

Both made themselves available in case anyone needed to talk, and instigated conversations to break the conditioning I had of that being an empty gesture. Journaling was scheduled as part of each day to encourage letting emotions out in whatever medium. I shared my mental health condition and that was normalised. We were treated not as commodities or tools for the outcome of the work, but as individuals entrusted with Patricia’s story.

 

The more I feel valued in a creative process and am aware of a support framework, the more I am willing to push to deliver to my best ability. The right infrastructure of care creates professional boundaries that don’t require artists to mine themselves for trauma, but instead give what they are able without the silently implied expectation that artists should do whatever the work needs. It breaks the idea that we are individually responsible for our personal wellbeing.

“I always want to make sure that everyone in the space that I work with feels seen, included, heard, and thought about,” Kloe says. Adding to this, Joshua suggests having a psychologist involved in the structure of making can go a long way. “We were all able to just talk to her and say things that we probably wouldn't feel 100% comfortable saying to Botis [choreographer].”

I think we as artists and choreographers need to ask ourselves certain questions before kickstarting a making process. Do I have the tools to create this work without causing harm? Is there merit in causing harm if that is to be my artistic approach? Are the performers equipped to engage with and execute the ideas? What is my responsibility? It’s senseless to expect a removal of human emotion and a dogmatic focus on getting the work done when dealing with traumatic themes; even more so when disabilities and neurodivergent minds are involved.

Lack of Care for Audiences

Josephine Giles talks about an experience where she felt performers looked after her so that the performance (Verity Standen‘s Hug) could cut into her heart. She was shocked by how held and looked after she felt. Performers interacted with the audience, guided them, lightly touched to gauge the level of care needed, and ensured they felt safe during the singing and moving performance. This made me wonder if I ever felt held and looked after in the audience of a Hip Hop theatre production.
 

And sadly, I can’t think of any. Hip Hop theatre tends to hold the audience at a safe distance; respecting the 4th wall to an overzealous level. There are works who challenge that barrier (Danni Harris-Walter’s Happy Father’s Day comes to mind), however interaction is usually held to addressing the audience, and there’s not much expected of the audience other than to spectate.

 

I have felt empathy and connection with many performances, the artform excels in this instance. Kloe’s Man Up has left a mark since I saw and reviewed it. I still remember the beautifully shocking rope tangled on her body as she unravels it to find air and respite. I was drawn to her sorrow. I was drawn to her suffering. I was drawn to her yearn to heal. But there was still a distance in the experiencing of her performance. And as soon as the lights went up, we were all on our way. I carried the heaviness of suicide with me, having a loved one at the time deal with suicidal thoughts. But it was a feeling of understanding rather than retraumatising.

 

I’ve observed a triangulation between audience, organisations/theatres, and artists. Theatres need artists to stage works and audiences to buy tickets and maintain the theatre’s livelihood. Artists are dependent on audiences to gain further staging and commissioning of work. And audiences, well, audiences hold the power. There is no work or theatre without the audience.

How then are audiences exploited? How is the responsibility of care for them approached?

Speaking to Hayleigh Sellors, a freelance dance artist and coach, she tells me of performing in a production where she was asked to write a letter to her stepdad who had recently left her mother. This was in turn used in full as narration for a section of the piece. “I remember my sister coming to watch and being like, I'm talking about our dad, and you have to sit there and watch that, and we never really spoke about I,” she says. “There was no like, I'm gonna use this letter or anything.” Because agency was removed from Hayleigh, the idea of consent was deemed unnecessary. In turn, her sister was also caught by surprise in hearing Hayleigh’s personal thoughts of the sensitive situation neither had spoken about with each other.

This paints a picture of the chain and effect of exploitation and commodification. I’ve argued that organisation’s approach can negatively impact artists, which in turn impact artists and performers; and in this case, further affects the audience. From organisation to artist to audience, this is a chain reaction when the duty of care is disregarded.

During the 2019 tour of Body Politic’s Father Figurine, each show was followed by a Q&A with a range of mental health practitioners and experts local to the region of the performance. This was our attempt to care for the audience. In holding space for their experience, perspectives, and thoughts of the piece which dealt with a broken father-son relationship and mental ill health.

 

I remember the performance at Stratford Circus Arts Centre in March. A culmination of a workshop residency with undergraduate dance students of Kingston University. They performed a curtain raiser for the show which we choreographed together then slipped into the auditorium seats to watch the performance. Father Figurine by no means holds things back. The choreography and text occupy spaces between awkward silences and raised fists.

There’s silencing, internal struggle, and physical violence before seeking help. Yet this saving grace of hope lies in the last minute of the performance. As soon as the lights went up, I saw a stream of tears on most of the student’s faces. During the Q&A many spoke of being impacted and relating through relationships with boys and men in their lives. But I distinctly remember one of the students coming up to me afterwards and saying she wished she had been warned so she could at least have had tissues with her. We laughed it off but her words hold a brutal truth. We failed in our duty of care towards her and her fellow students.

 

Josephine Giles asks practitioners to consider whether there is truly any artistic merit in not forewarning the audience. “If you simply give a brief content note beforehand, what do you lose? If the effect of the art largely relies on delivering an unexpected reveal, is the art really any good, or is it rather shallow?” Had we, or I asked these questions, perhaps a simple warning would have gone a long way in preparing these young people for the themes to come. And perhaps, rather than shocking as a means of exploitation in mining the audience for emotional reactions, we could have instead occupied the space Josephine defines as shock as a means of care. And I believe that’s what we intended. These shocking moments were to be a call to action to seek help rather than bottle up hardship. A call to check in with loved ones who might be experiencing mental ill health.

Duty of Care for Audiences

Emma-Jane Greig, artistic director of Body Politic, has taken this into consideration in safeguarding audience. “I definitely think that sitting and reflecting with Father Figurine and certainly your experience of being in it, and then reading the piece that you had written made me feel very sad,” she says. “But also, I guess that [gave me] a real drive to make sure that my work going forwards has an element of safeguarding to it."

“I felt that when I was stepping into kind of creating this new show ‘THEM’ which is centred around women's experiences of sexual violence and sexual assault, there needs to be that level of care, not only for the artists involved, but also for the audience receiving that work.”

 

Attached to the production is a digital resource designed as an educational tool to interact with and generate discussion before, during, and after performances. It contains essays, insights into the making process, podcasts diving into deeper discussions of victim blaming, abuse, and violence; alongside resources from relevant charities for further support. Here, there is an understanding that caring for the audience is a responsibility that exists beyond the immediate viewing of the production.

 

“I don't think that we can ever create a full safeguarding or care package because people respond to work so differently and have different triggers,” Emma-Jane says. “But if we're ensuring that there are signposts in place or resources then we can make sure that this is a really positive experience for everybody.”

A positive experience in this sense doesn't necessarily mean a happy, free-from-trauma experience. A positive experience for me is to ensure that despite possible triggers, the outcome is that of empathy and not of breakdown or reliving trauma. Battersea Arts Centre have embraced a model of relaxed performances which enable audiences to get up, move around, grab a drink, or take time out during performances. Just knowing you have the choice to make decisions goes a long way to stop the feeling of exploitation and restriction. Audience engagement shouldn’t be relegated to empty exercises of inclusion or purely verbal addressing. How can a work better integrate and include the audience? How can it truly hold us as Josephine experienced?

Conclusion

Care enables validation and a knowing of safety. Care for artists and audience alike is creating a structure that emphasises this and shifts the overall experience towards that of a collective conversation and solidarity, in the true spirit of Hip Hop. There is no work without the artists, there is no work without the audience. Although power and resources are skewed towards organisations, I believe the majority of accountability lies here.

The cycle of commodification would break if organisations shift their focus and resources towards prioritising artists and not artworks. We as artists and performers are complicit in our mining and giving of traumatic experiences. This is why my previous essay’s conclusion feels naïve. It placed the burden of challenging this issue on an individual level: ‘to stop commodification, we must each take better charge of our personal traumas on and off-stage’. It’s up to us as a community to challenge this notion of individualistic exceptionalism that suggests we are solely responsible for ourselves and how we place trauma on stage. The duty of care is a collective issue. In addition, there needs to be a shift away from the ‘at all costs’ mentality which maintains a cycle of inadequate resources. If we can make work with little resources, we’ll keep getting little resources. Organisations and artists together must redefine the role of the audience; moving away from a numbers game and being entitled to them, to appreciating their role in sustaining staged work.

 

There is little to no opportunity to be commodified and exploited if all involved in the making and experiencing of work know they are supported. As Josephine puts it, ‘I want to care, and I want to be cared for.’ We all have a part to play.

Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2022

 

A response to The Commodification of Trauma in Hip Hop Theatre by Isaac Ouro-Gnao
 

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Isaac Ouro-Gnao


Isaac Ouro-Gnao is a Togolese-British multidisciplinary artist and freelance journalist. 

 

He creates empathetic and thought-provoking work rooted in traditional African realism, magical realism, and Africanfuturism. 

 

His impact in the dance world has been multifaceted; working as a performer, voice artist, scriptwriter, and marketer for esteemed dance theatre artists and companies. 

 

Credits include award-winning Family Honour (2018) by Spoken Movement; Olivier award-winning BLKDOG (2018) by Far From The Norm; sold-out solo The Oreo Complex (2018); nationally acclaimed Father Figurine (2019) by Body Politic; and Foreign Bodies (2019) by Ella Mesma Company. 

His writing has appeared in the form of features, reviews, and poetry in publications such as Lolwe, The Stage, A Younger Theatre, Poetry Birmingham Literary Journal, and more. 

 

Isaac is a member of Body Politic’s board of directors and is a mental health advocate through Mind charity’s Young Black Men steering group. 


www.isaacourognao.com

IG/TW @isaacourognao

Isaac Credit Luke Lentes.jpg

Isaac Ouro-Gnao, Credit Luke Lentes