Over the pandemic year, Emma Jayne Park has joined a number of groups rethinking relationships within and around theatre, and the culture of making performance. Across the Freelance Task Force, Freelancers Make Theatre Work and others, she soon noticed a surprising common theme: “In almost every meeting, someone would say: ‘I’m part of this socialist reading group’ – that exact line. And I would be like, what is this? I want to be in on this.”
They were talking about the A Good Night Out Reading Group (AGNO for short): a monthly gathering of people working within or adjacent to theatre, in whatever capacity, to discuss socialist ideas. London-based before the Covid-19 pandemic, AGNO now meets online, around topics ranging from working hours, community and the practice of blocking in theatre, to bigger political questions such as anti-racism, power, and organisational structures, not least of the group itself. (Inevitable declaration of interest: I’ve been regularly attending since summer 2020, and have since joined a number of its organising teams too.)
It’s called a reading group and sure enough most months reading materials are provided to prompt discussion, whether extracts from classic texts – John McGrath’s A Good Night Out of course; Augusto Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed; Jo Freeman’s essay The Tyranny of Structurelessness – or more recent texts published online: a magazine article on the Federal Theatre Project, Nathan Lucky Wood’s Exeunt feature The Trouble with Outreach, or a twitter thread by Marcus Bernard, another AGNO regular and organiser. Occasionally the meeting will take a different form, inviting people to talk about a specific topic: organising against redundancies, for instance, or setting up a community space. Even then, the focus will be on informal and non-hierarchical conversation; along with the brevity of the reading extracts, the intent is for AGNO to be as accessible as possible.
Even so, before she first attended in autumn 2020, Emma Jayne worried that AGNO might feel “exclusive”. After all: “That’s the world that we’re living in. It’s like press nights: you’re meant to feel lucky if you’ve got a ticket.” Enyi Okoronkwo, who heard about the group via one of its co-founders, Sam Swann, admits he felt immediately suspicious: “I was like, it’s going to be all white guys shouting Marx at each other, and when anything racist happens they’re going to turn to the one black person who was stupid enough to rock up and say, please talk about this racist thing. I’ve been there before and I didn’t want to do that again.”
Enyi has been a participant and organiser with AGNO since 2019, and the fact that it’s an explicitly socialist space is central to his involvement. On the AGNO website this socialism is explained as: “A pro-working class, anti-racist, anti-imperialist, feminist and trans-inclusive approach to making the world a better, more egalitarian, more just and more joyful place.” All of those words, Enyi points out, are easy to bandy about: “Part of the make-up of being a liberal is to have the rhetoric of a progressive. It’s systemically deliberate to conflate rhetoric with action.” The obvious example is the difference between theatres declaring Black Lives Matter and implementing genuine change.
Socialist theory is often dismissed as idealistic or radical, but 10 years of austerity, exaggerated by pandemic, combined with the impact of Brexit and the Hostile Environment, have convinced me that a politics of anti-racist, anti-imperialist, feminist and trans-inclusive justice might in fact be common sense. Others in the group have experienced a similar shift in thought. Ben Norris first came to AGNO when canvassing for Labour in the 2019 general election, and describes his attendance as a “journey of awakening” to the difference between “ambient, soft, passive” politics, and a value system characterised by “regularity and organisation and collectivism. Everyone assumes that theatre, and the arts in general, is broadly left-wing, or at least broadly liberal,” he says. “Before AGNO, I didn’t even know the difference between those two things: I thought they were synonymous.”
This clarity goes back to the roots of AGNO, and a conversation Sam had in 2018 with Deborah Hermanns, a coordinator at The World Transformed, itself a movement for left-wing political education. “I was saying that I didn’t really know any socialists in the theatre, and she said: isn’t that your job, to change that?” Challenge accepted, Sam spoke to a couple of friends about setting up a reading group, choosing a section of A Good Night Out as its first text. That initial meeting was inauspicious: “Everyone cancelled on us. So it was me, Kevin Williams and Andy Whyment, very conscious straight away that we were three white guys doing this thing.”
The second meeting, focused on Shakespeare, had 16 attendees, and AGNO has continued to grow: its WhatsApp group has 120 members and counting. The expansion has required serious reflection as to the nature, structure and purpose of the group, says Tanya Singh, who joined in autumn 2019. For a lot of its early existence, AGNO “felt bro-y – anyone who was involved in it at the time would admit that. It was a handful of friends, who hadn’t made a conscious effort to think about how the group was structured, and that lent itself to tensions.”
Some of those tensions – particularly around AGNO’s purpose as a group – remain unresolved two years later, in ways that are inevitable for a large group of people with shared ideals but conflicting desires. Sonali Bhattacharyya came to her first meeting just after Labour’s 2019 defeat, specifically looking to connect with “socialist theatre people. I’ve always been an activist, and I’ve always written ‘political theatre’, but I wanted to bring those two spheres together in a more intentional way.” Being seen as a “political writer in what is, let’s face it, quite a narrow and liberal realm almost felt like cop out,” she says. “So much work is so lazy politically. It’s not like everything has to be tub-thumping, but the lens that so much work is looking through doesn’t even realise how much it props up the status quo. I was starting to think about our potential to make a difference to the industry: what impact on our working process and our working environment can we make as socialist theatre-makers?”
An obvious approach might be for AGNO participants to make theatre together. But Sanaa Byfield has accepted that this isn’t – currently, at least – its purpose. “Originally I thought, it’s a group of people who want to make invisible theatre and street theatre and disrupt the system: yes! I want to be a part of that.” Instead she’s found that AGNO: “encourages me to keep going and to realise that there are people out there who also want to do this kind of work. As well as giving me a valuable political education in socialist theory and organising, which I’m less familiar with – and I don’t see the space for having these conversations with people I went to drama school with.”
Political education comes not only through the monthly discussion but the work of organising each meeting. It’s no longer only the founders who choose reading materials and starting points for conversation: any interested participants can do so, working collaboratively and through consensus. Jamie Potter, who lives in Hull, joined as soon as AGNO went online, and has been impressed by this “anti-hierarchical approach. Every month, the organising group is different – and the act of organising skills you up, empowering people to empower themselves.” Aisling Gallagher came to their first meeting in summer 2020 and similarly felt encouraged to join the organising team soon after, because: “It very explicitly changes every month. This is talked about quite a bit to make sure that power doesn’t become concentrated in one person’s hands.”
Emma Jayne recalls feeling, the first time she came to AGNO, that: “I can’t quite track who’s in charge.” This was a sharp contrast to some of the other organising spaces she had joined, where the call was for: “a unified voice for the freelance sector, or people to advocate for the freelance sector – by which they meant individuals, a figurehead. My whole body rejects that: one because it means a figurehead can be thrown under the bus; two because I think it’s useless to imagine that anyone can do anything but represent themselves.” She believes “faceless movements have had the greatest impact”, and admires AGNO for its balance of: “transparency so people can know the process; and everyone rotates so no one’s trying to be the figurehead, or build themselves a platform or social capital”.
It feels important to bring that balance into this writing as well. There’s no mention of a core team because none exists, and I’m not attaching job descriptors to names on first introduction because they’re not used within the discussion space either: people are invited to identify the unions they’re part of, but that’s it. Two people responded to my call-out for interviewees in the AGNO WhatsApp group (Ben, Jamie); everyone else I approached directly, looking for particular perspectives, including insight into AGNO’s beginnings (Sam), the relationship between AGNO and other organising or political work (Aisling, Sonali, Tanya), voices from beyond London (Emma Jayne, Jamie), and the ebb and flow of participation: Sanaa joined her first organising team in January, Ben hasn’t been part of an organising team (yet), Enyi and Tanya haven’t attended in a few months. Their reflections quickly moved beyond these sweeping categories, and even so, I know that the ten of us can’t tell a complete story of the group. I include myself in that ten in a way that obscures my power as the sole narrator (albeit with editorial support from Tanya), to shape this story through a broadly positive lens, and enjoy the social capital I gain as its writer.
Not only are job descriptors avoided, so is the term theatre maker: instead, AGNO’s participants are theatre workers. “That was a conscious decision right from the start,” says Sam. For one thing, it acknowledges the contribution of everyone who makes the theatre experience possible, from the person on stage to the person cleaning the toilets. “It’s so annoying that we never meet front of house staff on different jobs,” he adds. “Even though our conditions are their conditions.” For another, it changes how theatre-makers might relate to their work. In 2020 a group of AGNO participants collaborated on a short film unpacking this. “In a professionalised industry, a person who makes theatre is usually both a theatre enthusiast and a theatre worker, and these two identities make distinct, sometimes contradictory, demands on us,” its text, by Mediocre Dave, reads. “Losing sight of this distinction creates a situation where we think of ourselves not as workers but as the providers of a public good. From here the creation of the show comes to be more important than the well being of the workers.” From there it’s a short step to the “voluntary exploitation” that is a familiar condition to many.
Having worked in other sectors – primarily the charity sector, and now with a role as a Labour councillor, alongside their creative work – Aisling sees theatre as different, and not in a good way: “Unlike almost every other kind of work I’ve ever done, it feels like everyone is competing, willing to work for shit, and willing to ignore labour rights.” Theatre is also riddled with unspoken hierarchies that “add weird dynamics to spaces. Going to union meetings in any of my old jobs, I would never feel intimidated because of the jobs that we did – a union member is just a worker as well. Whereas in theatre, there are all these extra layers and anxieties: you are constantly looking for the next job, as emerging directors we need experience as assistants, the power dynamic of being in a room with someone who could make or break your career can feel incredibly unsettling.” Looking at this directly within AGNO “definitely affects how I work”.
For Enyi, it’s stripped away theatre’s false glamour. “As an actor, I can’t do my job as well as I want to if I keep romanticising what my job actually is,” he says. “Especially when there’s an audition in two days and they give you 11 pages to learn: I can say, the amount of labour that you’re asking me to put in, I can’t do that. Or if you want me to, it is going to be shit, and I’m fine with that.” It’s also made him realise how actors are expected to be “grateful. That is a wider thing of capitalism, obviously. But I feel it very keenly in our job. When you go, actually, I’m giving you something, then you understand that you don’t have to be grateful for just anything. When you’re grateful for nothing, they can treat you like shit.”
Coming to AGNO, says Ben, has not only brought focus to his writing, it’s opened up questions around “the politics of the way that you make work: about the people that are helping you make it and who has ownership over it”. Jamie has already brought the reading material for the March 2021 meeting, an extract from Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, into his day job in theatre marketing and engagement: “I do workshops for early career theatre-makers, and as much as I try not to just ‘share my wisdom’, it’s really making me think, how can I change the way that I do it, and bring my own politics and ethics into the work that I do?”
AGNO, then, is as much as anything a consciousness-raising group. But should it be more active – a campaigning group, a protest group? Enyi is divided on this point. On the one hand: “I’m impatient as a person, so once I have the idea, it should happen tomorrow. If you give me the opportunity to do something, rather than theorise it, I will always pick doing it.” On the other: “This group has allowed me to understand the work that goes into being an activist. I was saying as a joke, I really want the National Theatre to be a co-op. And then we spoke about it and I learned more about how co-ops work, and I had to think, how would that actually happen? I feel like, over time, if I stayed in this industry, and I kept learning, there would be a point where I could make a practical argument as to how that could happen and why.” It’s the difference between performative rhetoric and substantiated practice again, this time from a more “radical” perspective.
Ben sees the consciousness-raising not in terms of education but “mutuality”, and for Sam, this is AGNO’s strength. He was talking with Giovanni Bienne, another AGNO regular, about a worry that: “sometimes we’re preaching to the converted. And Giovanni said: of course, preaching to the converted is how you keep the faith.” Or, as Ben puts it: “People always talk about echo chambers as purely negative spaces. But you need somewhere to go back to where you know you’re in the company of peers who share your values, to challenge each other to grow in a non-combative way.”
The growth that Tanya wants to see is in “building collective practice”: solidarity across groups of precarious cultural workers and exploited peoples. It frustrates her that AGNO might fall into what she fears is a typically British model of “political education divorced from actual engagement”. She has been tracking the progress of protests in India against laws passed in 2020 that open the way for corporate exploitation of agriculture, and admires the “multiple coalitional group formations” visible there. “Each group, each union, each association has built itself and its network not just through reading groups but through fighting off evictions, through having to do a sit-in to demand unpaid wages. That experiential learning has happened over a decade: every problem that people are confronting, the group has to learn how to respond to it, and through the cumulative struggle, people collectively build an understanding of the nature of fascism, the role of the local government, or local landlords, in supporting this.” These actions “are not devoid of theory,” she says, “but that comes through the process of doing all these other things”.
A number of individuals within AGNO are deeply involved in political activity, in addition to their involvement in trade unions. Before joining Momentum, where she was recently elected to the National Coordinating Group, Sonali had a long history of activism, with Stop the War, Palestine Solidarity, Free Satpal Ram and more. Aisling has campaigned for decriminalisation of sex work, disability rights and housing reform. Jamie is part of Hull Renters Union, Sam is involved in the Prisoner Solidarity Network – the list goes on. There is so much knowledge and experience among AGNO’s participants, and Sonali wonders “if we’ve quite realised the potential of it yet. Political education, understanding what’s come before us and what’s possible, is really important. But I feel really strongly that we could do more organising through it.”
In summer 2020, as the first wave of redundancies were happening in theatre, AGNO participants did get involved in demonstrations against Tate and the National Theatre, and Tanya notes that the reading group itself became a useful place for people involved in union discussions or protests to “be able to take a tiny step back from campaigning work, and have that reflective space to talk at a theoretical level”. Emma Jayne sees this stepping back as vital: “All of the other spaces I’m in right now are still in firefighting mode. I feel like everyone’s worked themselves into a frenzy. I totally understand why, but it’s really hard to soothe your nervous system and see where things are. The Reading Group creates a place to think – and thinking and talking and finding the words still is action for me.”
The work that’s happened to open up the organisation of AGNO itself arguably makes it a space for learning the practical skills needed in activism too. “Something as little as taking minutes then sharing them can be incredibly useful,” says Jamie. “In the Renters Union there’s been a similar process, where there’s a lot of boring behind-the-scenes work that goes into it. Even rethinking how that happens, and who is able to do that, is important. How we do take time to listen to people and take things on board? There is something about listening that can be really transformative. It’s not the big, ‘sexy’, headline-capturing stuff. But one of the things I’ve learned is that a lot of organising is boring – but necessary.”
It’s because he understands both how boring and how necessary organising work is that Sam wants AGNO to “feel low stakes for as many people as possible”. Over the past year he has steadily stepped back from the organising work himself, not to turn his back on the boring stuff but to clarify that the group belongs to everyone who participates. “If someone says, ‘we need to start doing this and why isn’t this a thing?’, please come and get involved,” he says. “I will be pushing for it to be non-committal, rather than turning AGNO into a campaigning group, because who’s going to do the admin for it, as opposed to having big ideas? Care and sustainability should be more important than implementing quickly thought ideas.” He’s already amazed that AGNO has sustained itself this far, but wants it to survive much longer: “I feel like it being a thing that is there regularly, for a long time, so that people can use it as they see fit, is not only more in keeping with our politics, it’s way more sustainable.”
The opportunity is always there for offshoot groups to grow, however temporary. Tanya, Enyi and Sam were part of one in summer 2020, focused on Cedric J Robinson’s book Black Marxism; another has flourished more recently around the question of creative political resistance. Nor does this mean AGNO should adhere rigidly to its current form: it has to be flexible, to remain a collective of humans rather than a faceless organisation that replicates the problematic power structures that surround it. The most recent reading group, on 14 March 2021, was a beautiful instance of how this might work: one group met in person to mourn the murder of Sarah Everard and to voice opposition to the proposed Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill that would criminalise protest; another group put aside planned reading materials and instead met online to provide space for grief and rage at instances of power abuse within theatre and beyond, and share information about transformative justice.
“I think there’s a lot of potential for us to have a breakout space which is about using our skills as theatre makers to smash it up,” says Sonali. “So that A Good Night Out is a political education and a reflective and a networking space – and then there’s this other space where we get together and do stuff. We’re quite a long way behind in Britain in seeing the potential of theatre as an activist medium.” Whether within the reading group or in its orbit, AGNO feels like a space where that potential might be discovered.