Alumni

Alumni profile - Beth Watton

I am deeply passionate and committed to debunking both the myth and the reality, that the arts are an exclusive, elitist realm, accessible to and for a very white, privileged audience. My work gives me the perfect opportunity, space and platform to do this and that is what I enjoy most about it.

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Why did you choose to study an MA in Theatre and Performance at Queen Mary?

There were several factors that motivated my desire to study at Queen Mary, however, primarily it was the research culture within the Theatre Department, the teaching staff and the alumni. The research coming out of the department was so forward looking, progressive and socially relevant with its consideration of the lived experiences of artists, the conditions in which performance is made and the very idea of performance as ‘work’, which seemed quite radical and separated Queen Mary from other organisations I might have considered. Naturally, this is all a testament to the staff working within the department, both on the practice and theory-based side. I was already very familiar with the work of staff members such as Dominic Johnson, Jen HarvieNick Ridout and, to be honest, was a complete fan-girl of Lois WeaverMartin O’Brien and Mojisola Adebayo, so applying was a very easy decision! Similarly, having enjoyed the work of artists such as Sh!t TheatreFinn Love and Figs in Wigs, I knew the department would be the best fit for where my own research interests lay at the time and, again, it really felt like it was at the cutting edge of contemporary performance studies.

What did you enjoy most about the course and were there any academics that had a strong influence on shaping your time and studies here?

The most enjoyable part of the course was being introduced to new ideas and ways of thinking about performance and performance histories I had never experienced before, which has had a lasting impact on my own research and even my work as an Artistic Director of an arts centre. There was also such generous scope of what research you wanted to pursue and how you pursued it with the flexibility to move between practice and theoretical based studies.

The opportunity to audit in other departments was great too, for example to complement my independent written project, I audited an eco-cinema course outside of the School of English and Drama, which was invaluable. I also really enjoyed how non-hierarchical it felt; there was no top-down approach from staff, to PhD, to MA and UG students - the department all mingle and share knowledge and research which is so healthy, and I’m sure is why the work the department produces is so current and rich. Quorum is the perfect example of this academic culture where staff and students alike had the chance to share and discuss their work, followed, crucially, by a trip to the pub to continue debates. It would be so hard to select individual staff members, as each academic I worked with influenced me in different ways, though I would say Jen Harvie, Michael McKinnie and Dominic Johnson collectively reshaped my thinking and motivated me to push my research into new territory that I would never have found without their support and encouragement.

What are some of your fondest memories from your time at Queen Mary?

It’s so clichéd but there really are too many to count! Provoked by Michael McKinnie, I remember exclaiming/yelling, ‘theatre is just people watching people do people-y things!', which bizarrely (you had to be there…) had quite a profound and long-lasting impact on my work and how I think about our industry, and is now a very fond memory of the MA!

In collaboration with various brilliant individuals, I can actively make change in our local community and, hopefully, contribute to a much-needed national shift in our understanding of who the arts and for and to not only make the arts an inclusive and shared space, but to empower those who have previously felt excluded from this industry or culture to come into it and stake their claim either as artists or audiences.

It was also great meeting new friends on the course. We were a really small cohort of about six students so we worked quite closely together. Despite there only being six of us, we all came from quite different academic backgrounds with really diverse research interests so debate was often heated (!), but only because we were so comfortable and familiar with one another. Jen Harvie also brings the best snacks to classes…

Can you describe your career path since you graduated and touch on your current role as Artistic Director at Poplar Union?

I was already working as Poplar Union’s Head of Programming throughout the MA so it was quite a big juggling act as PU had only been open for about 9 months when the MA began and was a huge responsibility alongside my academic work. My MA graduation was in December 2018 which was the same month I took on the role of Artistic Director at Poplar Union so there was quite a substantial gear change in my career path since doing the MA.

So much of what I learnt, particularly through Jen’s research, has been channeled into how I run Poplar Union. The wellbeing and working conditions of the artists with whom we work is at the centre of everything we do and we approach participatory, community arts with the same people-centered focus. Since graduating, I have also published some of the research I carried out during the MA, and am working hard at the moment to establish a bit more time outside of my AD role to continue researching and publishing work.

You’re currently working on a new digital arts festival, ‘Poplarism!’, which celebrates the centenary of the Poplar rates rebellion of 1921. Can you tell us more about this and how people can get involved?

During the lockdown, Poplar Union (as with many other venues), launched an online programme and this is the third digital commission we have run and our first in partnership with another organisation, West London’s Finborough Theatre.

Without going into too much detail, in 1921 there was a radical shift in efforts to equalize tax across London’s wealthiest and most impoverished boroughs following a Poplar based revolt lead by Labour leader, Mayor of Tower Hamlets, and grandfather of Dame Angela Lansbury, George Lansbury. 100 years on, Tower Hamlets remains one of London’s poorest boroughs and the divide between rich and poor within London, and the UK, continues to grow. In acknowledgement of the history of the Poplar Rates Revolt and the East-West London divide, we have partnered with the Finborough Theatre who are based in London’s wealthiest borough (Royal Borough of Kensington & Chelsea) to launch a £300 micro-commission to anyone living in Tower Hamlets or Kensington and Chelsea to creatively respond to the events of 1921. This can take any form - theatre, dance, spoken word, a short-film, a zine - as long as it can be presented digitally. We will then select 10 artists to receive the commission and their work will form the Poplarism! Digital festival on the 1st-4th May. To get involved, just visit poplarunion.com/poplarism and there you’ll find more information about the revolt itself and details of how to apply.

How have you had to adapt your working practices as a result of the pandemic?

The two most substantial changes have been the transfer of our live programme into a digital/virtual space whilst the building has been closed and having all of our team working remotely. This has been a huge learning curve not only for us as an organisation, but for the artists and facilitators with whom we work. Our focus on artist and community wellbeing has been reinforced and prioritized more than ever before and this in turn has impacted not only on the kind of work we’re programming (i.e. with greater emphasis on mental health, physical wellbeing and creating a sense of community togetherness, even when we’re apart), but also how we’re programming with a turn to commissioning models to ensure the freelance creative community are receiving as much financial support as is possible, given the immense pressure they’re under and the severe lack of support from other sources.

We are also very aware of the disproportionate effect the pandemic and Covid-19 is having on ethnic-minority communities, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds. This is a community that makes up a huge part of our audience at Poplar Union, thus we have also renewed efforts to support these individuals through mental health provision, free non-digital activity packs for families and we are currently looking at how our space could be used as a vaccination hub. It really isn’t all doom and gloom though, and I’m so pleased to see some of the changes the pandemic has provoked have been quite positive and we hope to continue working with these new elements such as digital programming long into the future.

How does your job allow you to explore your passions, and what do you enjoy most about your work?

Inevitably, my passion is rooted in theatre and performance, however, beyond that I am deeply passionate and committed to debunking both the myth and the reality, that the arts are an exclusive, elitist realm, accessible to and for a very white, privileged audience. My work gives me the perfect opportunity, space and platform to do this and that is what I enjoy most about it. In collaboration with various brilliant individuals, I can actively make change in our local community and, hopefully, contribute to a much-needed national shift in our understanding of who the arts and for and to not only make the arts an inclusive and shared space, but to empower those who have previously felt excluded from this industry or culture to come into it and stake their claim either as artists or audiences.

Beyond this more macro passion, or perhaps mission is a better word, there are also day to day things I really enjoy, for example, just being in the studio with artists whilst they’re developing new work, or perhaps on a residency at Poplar Union. Seeing those initial ideas develop into whole shows or performances and then seeing them go on tour or do really well at festivals - that’s always a wonderful thing to be involved with. I also get to work with an incredible team of people, many of whom are artists in their own right, who share my passion for the arts and for making them as relevant and accessible as possible to the communities in which PU is embedded. As with most jobs in the arts, my work is also completely unpredictable, dynamic and varied which, although incredibly stressful at times, secretly is probably one of the things I enjoy most about it!

How did your time and study at Queen Mary help prepare you for your career and what are some of the skills you learned at university that you still use today?

I think more than anything it was the political stance of the department I was in at Queen Mary that really prepared me for the job I do now. I am conscious of how my own approach to working with artists and within specific communities is very much informed by the principles expressed by various academics, particularly around the importance of care, radical-kindness, the arts as a complex economic system and not purely frivolous, entertainment as I think a lot of people perceive them to be. Understanding the material realities of performance and performance making and how these need to be valued both in financial and moral terms was something I really came to understand whilst studying and is certainly something I try to channel into my career, both for myself as a ‘worker’ within the arts industry, but also with the individuals I support at Poplar Union.

Besides this, there are of course a whole host of other more practical skills I developed in terms of how to research and develop ideas and how to communicate those ideas clearly and accessibly, how to be self-critical in a way that is productive and developmental and also how to give constructive feedback to peers. These and so many other skills I have to thank my time at Queen Mary for and they continue to benefit me now.

What would your advice be to students interested in working in the arts and how can they maximise their experience at university to set themselves up for success?

My advice would be, and has always been, say yes! It’s so easy to find all the reasons you might not be qualified, or ready or experienced enough for opportunities that arise, but in fact you’re probably far more prepared and have all the resources you need, you just haven’t had the chance to draw on them.

Imposter syndrome is real (!), but try to overcome it and remind yourself that this industry is incredibly hard, competitive and precarious, especially in London, but you have every right to be working within it and being properly paid for your time, effort and talent.

University is also one of the biggest resources you will ever have at your disposal when beginning a career in the arts and I think a lot of students, especially on arts degrees, can fall into the trap of seeing their lecturers as only that, a teacher, but not as artists and industry professionals in their own right. In an industry famous for being all about ‘who you know’, I always stress to students to take full advantage of the list of contacts they have when finishing their degree, be they artists, academics, researchers, technicians, careers advisors. There’s a whole pool of people who not only have the knowledge and experience, but also the desire and enthusiasm to help and support you, so don’t be afraid to ask for that help, keep their email addresses, pick their brains!

This profile was conducted by Alumni Engagement Coordinator, Nathalie Grey. If you would like to get in touch with Beth or engage her in your work, please contact Nathalie at n.grey@qmul.ac.uk.