Deborah Pearson


Originally written for the Guardian.

Deborah Pearson wants to talk about white privilege – a desire the writer and performer recognises is a huge privilege in itself. For people of colour, she suggests, there is an expectation to be conscious of race relations, whereas “if you are white then you can not think about it, and not talk about it, and nobody will necessarily call you out on that”.

In her show at the Yard theatre in London, Made Visible, Pearson makes the choice to discuss these issues. The show is influenced by Peggy McIntosh’s 1988 essay White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack, which lists 50 everyday examples of white privilege (No. 21: “I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group”; No. 32: “My culture gives me little fear about ignoring the perspectives and powers of people of other races”). Made Visible similarly reveals some of the ways in which invisible systems confer privilege on some at the expense of others.

“I don’t know if I really know how to talk about this,” Pearson admits. With the show, she is anxious to join ongoing conversations about racism and privilege in a way that is “productive and useful”, without replicating the same power structures she’s critiquing by taking over the debate. The show stages a conversation between three women – one white, two of Gujarati heritage – sitting on a bench in Victoria Park, east London. The conversation is undercut by interjections that expose the workings of privilege and debate the politics of representation. “The actors swap characters quite a lot and they are constantly complaining about particular forms of appropriation,” Pearson explains. One of the performers, for example, protests against the sari her character is forced to wear, calling out lazy representations of Indian culture. “So it becomes this meta-commentary on the consequences of a white writer approaching this kind of material,” says Pearson.

With its actors frequently disrupting the scene and addressing the audience, the play draws attention to the problematic assumptions we are all too used to seeing on stage, setting up racial and cultural stereotypes in order to undermine and question them. It’s deliberately messy – much like the complex conversations it is responding to. “It needs to be less tidy,” says Pearson, who is still making final tweaks to the script when we speak. “It needs to let the white character off the hook a little bit less.”

The difficult balance for Pearson in the process of writing Made Visible has been between unpacking her own privilege and giving room to other, non-white voices. “There was a draft of the piece where I just gave over the entire ending to different theorists of colour,” she says. “That was really dry and theatrically it didn’t work, but conceptually I know why that’s what I wanted to do, because it’s about using my privilege to amplify other voices.”

While attempts to address racism often focus on political and social institutions, Pearson is clear that “culture is not blameless in this”. If anything, she adds, culture has to answer for the dominant white narratives it reproduces. “I think that as people who work in culture, albeit a very small fringe area of culture, we have to be aware of the fact that we contribute hugely to this discourse,” she says.

These are issues for theatre to confront as a sector. Despite numerous diversity drives, theatre organisations remain overwhelmingly white. Last year the Warwick commission found that black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) workers represent only 6.7% of the workforce in music and performing and visual arts, while Arts Council England reported that 13.7% of those working in its national portfolio organisations in 2014-15 were BAME. “The fact that so few of the people who work professionally in theatre aren’t white is not an issue for people of colour to deal with – that’s an issue for all of us,” says Pearson. “As a white person who’s working in theatre, you have to think about it really carefully and just be aware of the choices that you make in terms of what you see, what you curate, which voices you’re paying attention to.”

In response to racially motivated hate crimes and police violence, novelist Marlon James has argued that being non-racist is not enough. “We need to stop being non and start being anti,” he insists. Pearson agrees that in an unjust, unequal society, staying silent is not an option.

“The easy thing for white people to do is to not talk about it,” says Pearson. “If we don’t talk about it we don’t risk being criticised. But at the same time, if you don’t talk about it then you are complicit in enabling that power structure to continue.”

Photo: Ian Willms.

Deborah Pearson


Originally written for Exeunt.

Deborah Pearson and I are out of time with one another. As our emails ping back and forth, Pearson is in Toronto, Canada, four hours behind me in London. Our attempted interviews are a series of near misses. Eventually, Pearson responds to my questions by email, composing answers in the present for me to read in the future. Time, aptly enough, keeps (or, rather, kept) getting in the way.

Time is a recurring interest in Pearson’s work. Like You Were Before, made in 2010, was built around a video taken on Pearson’s last day in her native Canada five years previously, exploring the gap between her past and present selves. She’s returning to it at Battersea Arts Centre another five years on, with a further gulf of time between all these different versions of herself: the person in the video, the person who made the show, and the person performing it now. After looking backwards in that earlier piece, The Future Show (also returning to BAC this week) directed its attention in the opposite direction. Each fresh incarnation of the performance – rewritten every time – made predictions about the coming minutes, hours and years, looking ahead to the rest of Pearson’s life. And this summer at Forest Fringe in Edinburgh I saw a work-in-progress of Pearson’s latest show, History History History, again concerned with time but this time on a larger – if still personal – scale, exploring all the past events that led to Pearson being here (or rather there, in Toronto, when we speak; or perhaps London or somewhere else entirely by the time you read this) today.

“It’s the thing you can always come back to with an audience,” suggests Pearson, pinning down theatre’s particular affinity with this subject matter. “You are here, and I am here, and we will soon not be here. ‘Here’ being in the theatre together, but of course that also leads on to that eventuality of the bigger ‘here’ – meaning that a lot of work about time ends up becoming about mortality. That should be depressing but it’s actually what makes theatre thrilling I think. The defiance of that eventuality – the decision to sit in a room together while we’re alive and sit, or be bored, or be entertained, but just to share the fact that we are all here together now. It’s such a beautiful defiance and acknowledgement of the passing of time that it always seems a shame to me not to take a moment, while performing, to point it out or remind ourselves of it.”

Over email (speaking to me from a different time zone in the recent past), Pearson wonders whether her fascination with time is born out of her current doctoral research, which is investigating narrative in contemporary performance. “One definition of narrative that I came across somewhere was that narrative is the way that we make sense of our experiences over time,” she tells me. But the interest also goes back much further. “One of my mom’s favourite memories of me as a child is of me telling her, when I was about five years old, that I wished we could all stay the same age forever,” says Pearson. “That nobody in our lives or family would ever get any older or would ever die.”

“There’s a quote by a poet that I really like,” she continues, “which is something about how ‘I keep writing the same poem over and over, just trying to get it right.’ It’s funny – a lot of my work was about memory and nostalgia when I first started out, and then after making Like You Were Before, I didn’t necessarily feel I had definitively gotten it right, but I did feel that I’d gone as far with memory and nostalgia as I wanted to go. I felt that I had kind of internally resolved it as a theme for myself. Then The Future Show came along and it turned out that there was another aspect of time – which I suppose was to do with our orientation in time, and anxiety, and the unknown, that started to really interest me. Then I thought I was finally done with time. But my newest piece that opens next year, History History History, is about our personal relationship to history. So I guess I’m never done with time. It is the most universal theme, I think. It is the one thing that we’re all subject to, that we’re all at the behest of. Whether or not you fear for your own mortality, we are all on this merry go round made of time together.”

There’s also something particular about time, and our changing relationship to it, in the twenty-first century. We’re living in an age in which everything is speeded up and – thanks to the internet and cheap, fast air travel – time and space have become compressed. The emphasis is on the now. “Fredric Jameson talks about the end of historicity in his recent lectures,” says Pearson. “He claims that we’re living through a time where there is no past and certainly no future. We are obsessed with the momentary.” While Pearson has her doubts about some of Jameson’s claims – “it could also be that Jameson is just getting old and nearing the end of his own life” – she thinks “it would be difficult to argue that using the internet as frequently as most people do is not having a profound impact on our understanding of time and on our attention spans”. By comparison, theatre is a slow form in a fast world, forcing us to experience the slipping away of the minutes without the distraction of multiple devices or browser windows.

Over the years, time has also had its effect on how Pearson understands (and will understand) the shows she’s made about its passing. “When people asked what Like You Were Before was about, I used to say that it was about the maddening fact that time keeps going. But having just started dipping my toe into re-learning the script and the show, I think what it’s really about is mourning the passing of a time and place in one’s life – the end of an era, that is only really recognised as an era at all because it ended.” Meanwhile The Future Show has, like all one-time possible futures, become a thing of the past.

“I had to stop re-writing The Future Show,” Pearson explains, “because, just as I had predicted in an early version of the script, it made my obsessive compulsive disorder worse and would give me anxiety about ridiculous things. At some point it was clear that the task of rewriting The Future Show was as unhealthy for me as it was interesting for an audience, and sometimes more unhealthy for me than it was interesting for an audience.” The version coming to BAC, then, is a mix-tape of different imagined futures from the show’s 27 past performances. Reflecting on the show’s life since it was first created in January 2013, Pearson comments that “it does something very strange to one psychologically to have painstakingly thought through all your future actions on that many occasions”.

Following the compilation shows at BAC, The Future Show’s next (and possibly final) outing will be on the page, a medium that – unlike theatre – allows readers to encounter it in multiple different, idiosyncratic parcels of time. This month, Oberon Books are publishing a volume containing a “score” for the piece and past scripts of The Future Show from three different performances in three different time zones: Brighton, Lisbon and Austin, Texas. It’s the latest experiment with the subject that continues to niggle away at Pearson. “I’m really interested in knowing how the scripts are going to work in this form, and whether or not they can give a casual reader who hasn’t seen the show a sense of it,” she says (or rather said, at her computer in Toronto, from a different time zone in the recent past). “I guess time will tell.”