Katy Baird’s Work-Shy mixes personal history, anecdote and playful, humorous meditations on work and labour. It seeks to investigate what we do for money, and the ethics and implications of different forms of labour. In the process, Baird boldly and sharply reflects on questions of class and identity politics, teasing what the autobiographical might be on stage whilst very much engaged with the register of performance. There’s pop culture, YouTube videos and sparkly dresses.
What did you want to be when you were young? A musical theatre superstar? A sociology teacher? Either way, you now find yourself watching live art in the heart of London’s most exclusive postcode. Baird isn’t here to judge – she just wants to get to know her audience better, she tells us. Polls intervene throughout Work-shy; we’re asked about earnings and benefit claims, and in the process, there’s a sharp teasing out of the problematic nature of such modes of data analysis. So the language of legislation is played with throughout the performance; it forms the back-bone for a series of anecdotes that take us into Burger King and drug-dealing, video-cam modelling and of course, the show itself.
For a show that perhaps inadvertently remains topical, embedded in wider and far-reaching questions of work legislation, questions of labour and politics as well as access and ethics, Work-shy manages to maintain a particularly personal focus. Although its fragmented nature and unclear progression mean that it’s very much a thinking in process, Work-shy teases out some essential questions around identity and work, whilst maintaining a sharp specificity. Shifting between the performative and the confessional, the playful and the serious, the performance presents a set of situations rather than any clear-cut examination. In that sense, it overcomes its topicality, whilst on the other hand; its rhythm and structure tend to fragment more as the show goes on. Yet the core of Work-shy is strong; it seeks to displace the ways in which we consider money and transactions as work, and imbue contexts with false hierarchies.
Baird has a particular skill for authenticity in performance; she never tips the balance in favour of any self-mythologisation, instead recounts with a particularly strong resistance to introspection. The only moment in the show when this dynamic changes concerns the shift from personal events to personal circumstance; this is a change in tone and register that sits oddly with the rest of the performance and its contained, playful and slippery anecdotes. There are two questions here that, although underexplored, underpin the series of almost episodic fragments: labour and identification. Baird is particularly skilled at considering the specificity of particular jobs, be it the humorous and ridiculous training on cleaning practices and stations in Burger King versus the rituals of goodbye that staff enact, or the ethics and problematics of web-cam modelling. It’s all inscribed onto Baird’s body too, in her change of clothes, her shifts of visible identities that don’t obstruct her persona.
Yet for the most part, this isn’t about her- it’s about our own thinking and decision-making; about that which makes us uncomfortable, about the false premises of different forms of work, and about the complicated transactions that might render someone with more or less meaning, depending on the job in which they currently do. Baird manages to illuminate this with precise and playful clarity; her satire is always kind, but sharp- and for the most part of the show, she’s constantly challenging our own assumptions.
By no means complete, Work-shy is a sharp, engaging take on the complicated questions that fuel and shape our thinking about work and labor, and what feels like the core of a strong performance. Although the very format of the show- of any show- posits this exchange of money for art a playful problem, particularly in the context of Work-shy, this remains underexplored as a meta-situation. That being said, Work-shy ‘s own ethics and structure posit some intriguing questions around how we can talk about money and labor, and what performance can offer to the debate.