People often use hyperbole when describing their working situation. “It was Hell,” they say, using the oldest metaphor. Or, “It was like pulling teeth,” they moan, despite obviously not working as a dentist. Alternately, they might go for something a bit more elaborate such as: “It was like being made to drink your own piss.” They’ll get the sympathy and the awkward laughs, the “Mate, I KNOW’s, but it remains unlikely many of them have every actually been asked to perform that very task as part of their job.
Not so for Katy Baird, writer and performer of Workshy. Along with almost getting caught sending drugs to the UK from India, being asked to sup pee on a web cam is, it’s fair to say, one of the least great working experiences that Baird recounts in her one-woman show. Better ones include a considerable period working for Burger King, a shorter stint at Butlin’s and kitchen work in Wetherspoons. The show meanders its way through Baird’s working and non-working life. Whilst the basic format is biography, the script is mainly description – this isn’t a misery memoir, and it isn’t hagiography. It’s just there as a statement of facts, leaving the interpretations, judgements and analysis all suspended like bubbles in a thick strawberry milkshake.
This decision to leave a lot unsaid is what makes Workshy a much stronger piece of theatre. Because as the title with its Daily Mail slur reminds, the work we do or don’t do is so completely loaded (almost over-loaded) with links to class, race, gender, geography etc etc etc. It also defines us even if we don’t want it to. “What do you do?” is Small Talk Question Number 1. There’s something almost charming in the juvenile aspect of this. The way that we like to order and understand the world by knowing that Mr Loaf is a Baker and Mrs Suds works in the Launderette. “What do you do?” is implicitly a way of saying: tell me what you do so that I can neatly assign you an estimated income, assumed educational background and status in British society.
People know this, so they often lie. You’d think this would normally involve talking up your profession (I knew a GCSE history teacher who referred to himself as “An Historian” like he was a Eric Hobsbawn when, quite frankly, he wasn’t). However, feeling like a fraud when you finally step into the adult world of work and being uncomfortable with your new label is just as common.
A version of imposter syndrome or unease at a change in profession is also a part of Workshy. When I see the show as part of In Between Time 2017, Baird has actually just left working for the Live Art Development Agency, but the piece is formatted from the perspective of moving from the string of jobs Baird once had to doing admin in the LADA office. It could be suggested that Workshy is therefore an activity in reflection or trying to understand how her life has changed. Only it doesn’t feel like that at all. Watching Workshy, it feels like Baird is the one (maybe the only one) who is completely OK with how her life has gone. She’s not embarrassed by or apologetic for having dealt drugs or been on the dole. This isn’t a piece of autobiographical theatre that doubles as group therapy, as such shows can sometimes come close to feeling like. Workshy is about getting the audience to come to terms with what they think and feel about people who toil away at impossibly low-paid jobs, wading through the double-speak of corporate training schemes or attempting to pay for uni by working for a sex website, whilst for other (richer, luckier) people life really is a piece of piss, in completely different sense.
A show about providing customer service, Workshy imbeds its own topic within its format. It was one of three pieces I saw at IBT17 – Because of Hair by Vivian Chinasa Ezugha and Vesper Time by Stacy Makishi being the other two – that were filled with a real generosity and warmth towards the audience. Like the perfect employees on the Burger King training video clips we’re shown, Baird really does go beyond what we, the paying customers (or, comp-accepting interloper in my case) expect from a piece of theatre. The underlying point is that Baird is a brilliant, clever and funny performer. She makes this show that looks like it’s all about sequins, Dolly Parton and throwing ketchup, when actually it’s about one of the most relevant and important topics there could be. Here’s your state-of-the-nation theatre. And like Sherlock and the disguised Eurus, you even get to have chips.
Workshy was on as part of In Between Time 2017 in Bristol. Click here for more details.