It barely needs saying. The past few months in this country have called a lot of things into question, not least matters of personal identity and who or what group we belong to. One returning Fringe First winning show on that subject was already topical, but has suddenly become much more so with recent events. Labels by Joe Sellman-Leava has its origins in a workshop on equality, led by Emma Thompson, and given the situation we find ourselves in, we wanted to know more…
Who are you and what are you doing in Edinburgh?
I’m Joe Sellman-Leava, co-artistic director of Worklight Theatre, and writer and performer of Labels. I’m going to Edinburgh with Michael Woodman, producer and Worklight’s other co-artistic director; and with Katharina Reinthaller – the show’s director and dramaturg.
Fringe first-timer or old hand?
This will be Worklight’s third Fringe! We brought our first show, How to Start a Riot, to Edinburgh in August 2012, and last year, we premiered Labels here. I don’t think we qualify as old hands yet, but it’s nice to have a better idea of what to expect!
Labels. Why do you think we, as humans, need and use them?
Language is arguably the most important tool we have. Labels are linguistic shortcuts and we use them for many reasons – speed, simplicity, common understanding. Labels can of course be very positive. But we can also use them pejoratively – to insult people, to dumb-down arguments. Many in positions of power and influence use labels to manipulate, divide and exploit the electorate, as we’ve seen in recent weeks and months.
How do you think being labelled affects people’s perception of themselves?
Potentially in very negative ways. If you’re regularly treated as an outsider, or an “other”, then of course you may begin to feel like this. And that could manifest itself in many different ways – anger, isolation, even depression.
The show draws on your own experiences as someone of dual heritage. How have your experiences changed over the years?
People’s reactions to my heritage have, over the years, ranged from curiosity, suspicion, indifference and, sometimes, outright racism. So my experiences have varied accordingly. I’m thankful that I’ve had relatively infrequent and usually mild brushes with the latter, compared to some. I know things were – and sometimes still are – worse for my Dad, for instance.
Even the label “dual heritage” is relevantly new, replacing labels which nowadays would be completely unacceptable…
That’s true. Some people find the pace of change for language, specifically the terms (labels) we use for one another, frustrating. I think this frustration is very much part of the phrase “political correctness gone mad”. But it’s important to remember two things. Firstly, language has and will always evolve and change. And, secondly, the reason certain terms we use to describe people come under scrutiny and then change is that not until relatively recently were they discussed by and with people for whom they are used. Many of the terms that were once acceptable and are now not were attributed to minorities, not by them. It makes sense that once you include more people in this conversation, language might shift accordingly.
The big question of the moment. What effect do you think the EU referendum has had?
Since June 24th there has undoubtedly been an increase in the official numbers of hate crimes being reported (and, of course, many more will go unreported). Many people have spoken of an increase in racial abuse; some of it has been filmed on public transport. So statistically, but also anecdotally, there has been a negative effect, and I do think there is a sense of some (I must stress, some!) people feeling vindicated by the result of the referendum in expressing their hates and fears more publicly. I’m worried.
So how has the show evolved since last year in the light of this?
Every time I think the show has reached the peak of its timeliness, we get another piece of bad news: a new wave of drowning; British citizens being told to “go home”; our so-called leaders leading us off a cliff and then running for the hills. There’s an instinct to change some of the text of the show to comment on specific events, and we have and may continue to do this. But only in very small doses. Whilst the show is specific in some of the things it discusses (i.e. racial prejudice and displacement), we always wanted a universality to it with some of the themes – curiosity and fear, the power of language, the notion of the “other” – these things are at the centre of what’s going on, but aren’t confined solely to these events in this time.
And what do you think the prospects are for the future in terms of how we behave towards and talk about each other?
As I say, I’m worried. Years of inequality, injustice and elitism has manifested itself in populist movements where facts are ignored, experts are dismissed and the most vulnerable are blamed for problems they didn’t create. I’d like to think we can change that through discussion, through reaching out to people who don’t share our views, through unity. But of course that’s much easier said than done.
When we hear on one hand that we need to be reaching across divisions and engaging in dialogue, but on the other hand see clear evidence that some of the people we’re supposed to be reaching out to, don’t want to talk, but to shout things like “go home”, how can we move forward? Even now as I’m discussing this it’s impossible not to be talking in an “us” and “them” kind of way.
And to finish on a lighter note, what are you looking forward to most about August?
I can’t think of anywhere better to spend August than Edinburgh! What am I looking forward to?… Beers. Coffee. Climbing Arthur’s Seat. More shows than you can shake a stick at. Interesting conversations with strangers. Drinks with people you haven’t seen in ages. Too much!