• Resting Place Folkestone (2014). Niamh Lynam-Cotter. Image: Jonathan Pigram

  • Through The Grapevine (2014)

  • Resting Place (2014) Image: Jonathan Pigram

  • Imagining O, Peak Performances (2014). Image: Marina Levitskaya

Roanna Mitchell

— Movement — Performance — Research — Teaching — Body Politics  —



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Why Weinstein can Change the Conversation about Actors’ Bodies

For the last six years I have been writing, thinking, working on what it is that makes bodies such an area of tension for many actors, and how shame and negative body image operate in the performance industry.

It is an issue of complexity, tightly knit up with how bodies are seen and treated more broadly in society, with health and wellness cultures, with economics of the beauty industry, with morals about what constitutes good bodies and good artists, with the personal histories and genetic predispositions of individuals.

Because of this complexity it is a slippery issue, easy to pass responsibility on. It is hard to find solutions for something without being able to pin down its cause.

But there are some things that are non-negotiable, that are clearly damaging.
The actor who is told she has to lose weight. The actor who is told he has to gain weight. The actor who is told they will never work if they don’t get a nose job. The actor about whom the teaching staff say they are ‘too much of a vicar’s daughter’, meaning they need to have sex to gain the necessary maturity to cut it in the industry.

These demands play out power in ways that are nothing to do with the actor’s craft,
but everything to do with the desire and greed of the powerful being played out through the bodies of those they silence. And they silence them through the seemingly non-debatable economic argument: do this, and you will see success. Fail to do this, and you will have failed at the game that we all have to play to pay the bills. Survival of the most-willing-to-sacrifice-themselves. The fetishization of availability, which provides a mask to disguise profound inequality and to shore up the power of those who already have too much of it.

Many of us have seen these demands on actors for the damage they do, and we have raised our concerns — and then all too often been brushed off, dismissed as unrealistic, as having no sense of the reality of the business, as being unnecessarily maternal. As a result even we have, up until this point, generally accepted that this is the way the world is. And our strategies became about how to deal with that world, how to deal with the inevitable.

The past weeks have changed that.
Suddenly it has become acceptable to say that it isn’t ok for us to call this state of affairs inevitable. Acceptable to question the crap that we ask actors to put up with, to question the demands on their bodies which apparently need to be said yes to — even when we know that they are little to do with ability, skill, talent or dedication.

It is a huge piece of work to dismantle what was thought inevitable: it means a profound re-thinking of everything. Even those of us who very consciously experience the oppressions that come with the markets of physical capital struggle to imagine what a different version of the world might look like. But maybe by airing all the things that have outraged us for years we can finally, gradually, find a different way of doing things.

So here is one thing I want to put on the list for us to think about
in this effort towards a better future. It comes from years of research and activism, and from years working closely with actors’ bodies as a teacher, movement director, director:

There is never a necessary or appropriate time to comment on the actor’s body for its own sake.

No comments about weight
No comments about shape
No comments about bone structure
No comments about sexual characteristics (sex organs)
or secondary sexual characteristics (breasts, body hair)
No comments about skin (colour, smoothness, wrinkles)

This is radical, but not as radical as it seems. I see no context in which this rule would diminish the art we make, or hamper communication about what is essential in our work. It is a rule that should be thought of not as a limitation that silences, but a limitation that productively opens up other ways of working.

I have long argued that to recognize the real craft of the actor we should all be much better versed in seeing and being able to articulate the qualities that an actor is good at doing, rather than unimaginatively sticking to the appearance with which they walk down the street. To be able to see when an actor can do an exquisite quality of lightness regardless of their size, to appreciate when they can find steel, or gentleness, or naivety or weight regardless of their body’s shape, age or gender. This is true even in the design of a costume, which of course does involve considerations of all of the above (and with my colleagues in the Wardrobe department at The Royal Central School of Speech and Drama we have compiled information for how this can be approached, to be made publicly available shortly).

We have the opportunity here to insist on a shift of focus that can change both the nature of the work we do and the quality of our interactions in the rehearsal studio, wardrobe, audition room, for the better.

As I sit in a café writing this, I am interrupted by a stranger who asks me if I have a partner, and tells me I need to change my mind about not having kids. What I am writing about here applies not only to actors, and not only to the theatre. But we furnish our audiences’ imagination, and so what better place to start.

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The Revolution is in Time

In this piece I am thinking about the fact that the unequal distribution of TIME seems to be a crucial factor in our often distorted relationships with our BODIES.

Rodin: The Burghers of Calais

Rodin: The Burghers of Calais

Most of the advice about how we can understand ourselves better and live from our bodies involves having time: to think, dream, reflect, have ideas, notice things, experience pleasure, sit with pain, etc. Kate McCombs for example, in this excellent blog, offers some solid strategies for self-care that touch on most of these. Much of this makes total sense to me, but also I never get around to taking it because I don’t ‘have time’.

So time seems to me to be a fundamental aspect of the whole body thing, and a systemic issue which needs to be tackled urgently if we want to get past blaming ourselves for all of our so-called failings.

In activism there is much talk about where we put our money (e.g. boycotting certain companies because we disagree with their ethics, politics and/or working practices). But might it not be just as, if not even more, revolutionary to talk about where we put our time? After all, at least in capitalist structures, the two are intimately linked.

To varying degrees across countries, cultures and economic status, we all spend time on either paid work, unpaid work, leisure/consumption, or sleep (at least according to Jonathan Gershuny’s analysis of time-use, 2000)[1]. Our time-budget is finite: we all have 24 hours in a day. Within this, do we choose to spend time, for example

    • with our children
    • with our friends
    • with our parents, grandparents, family
    • on a protest march
    • walking rather than driving
    • taking a train rather than flying
    • volunteering
    • repairing something
    • going to a local council meeting
    • attending a neighbourhood festival
    • helping someone with a task
    • listening to someone we don’t know (yet)
    • learning a new skill
    • making something without wanting to gain profit from the results
    • listening to our body and what it needs
    • giving our body what it needs (sleep, movement, sex, food, solitude)
    • having a little think without the goal of solving a problem
    • dreaming, planning, reflecting on the world


‘Choice’ is of course a loaded word here: The choices to be made about time are tied up with money, and they can involve significant, sometimes impossible, risk to our livelihood, social status, and sense of self.

There will be those of us who have no choice but to repair something because they cannot afford to buy a replacement, which in turn might mean that they spend less time with their children. There will be those of us who cannot even contemplate most of what is on the list because their financial and family situation do not allow it. There will be those of us whose employment operates so much on the urgency of competing that every pocket of time must immediately be allocated to an activity that will give them an edge over their competitors, or risk dropping out. There will also be those of us who are drowning in time — who, for example, cannot work or participate in social activities for various reasons, and who can become paralyzed by feelings of ‘purposelessness’ if the only way to define purpose is according to how much an individual contributes to the machienery of labour and consumption.

Those things that drop off the list are frequently those associated with self-care and communal being (human beings rather than human doings, as Omid Safi writes).

The individuals who drive our organizational structures from the top are well informed of the benefits of self-care practices, and in principle they want their workers and citizens to stay healthy, operate at optimum productivity, be personable, and perhaps even have the ability to think creatively. The solution to the increasing sense of time-poverty that many of us experience is thus generally the advice to become better at time-management: figure out where time is being wasted, what your most productive hours are, how you can delegate — how you can, ultimately, perform the magic trick of making your 24 hours seem like MORE TIME.[2]

photo 3

Not-so-secretly, we all know that this is not possible. We are increasingly aware that the way time is organized in our current system is not sustainable for most of us. But we have little time to think of an alternative solution, and are generally made to feel that, if we can’t manage, this is down to our individual failing and the ‘choices’ we have individually made. This of course is a wonderful way of sustaining the status quo.

Taking time or making time are phrases that present an illusion of choice — they are a matter of choice to the same degree that shaving or not shaving your legs is a ‘choice’ for someone socialised as female. What we choose to do with our time has profound and potentially dangerous consequences, perhaps more so than anything else we can do. Perhaps a number of us — perhaps a large number of us — can risk to make more radical choices about how we spend our time. But in addition to this, for a real, profound change of direction to happen in how we can live sustainably as human beings in time, we need a radical reorganization of the systems within which we live.

So let’s put ‘time’ at the top of our manifestos. Time to make plans, form ideas, rest, play, listen, take in, digest. Let’s aim for a utopia of time that is nothing less than what we deserve, that is just as crucial as the utopia of world peace and equality, and see what we can get. Let’s give considered attention to time when we make any plans to improve our collective economic and social situation. Maybe the messy uncertainty of leaving the EU is the perfect space in which to push for such changes. It is in re-distributing time that the revolution happens.




More about Time?

A huge amount of literature deals with the subject of time, in various ways. Here are just some tiny titbits:

      • Eva Hoffman’s Time and Simon Garfield’s Timekeepers offer two very different but equally thoughtful and funny overviews of our dealings with time.
      • Jonathan Gershun’s Changing Times: Work and Leisure in Postindustrial Society gives a economic-sociological insight into time-use from the 1960s to 1990s across 22 countries.
      • Vu Le on Time Inequity gives some useful practical suggestions how institutions might use marginalized communities’ time more equitably.
      • Omid Safi writes on The disease of being busy and invites us to ask each other: how is your heart doing?.








[1] For the purpose of this discussion, let us assume that activism is a form of unpaid work

[2] There is plenty of research that shows that leisure/consumption time has in fact increased over the last few decades. His analysis does not however take into account the rise of zero-hours contracts and of a freelance economy, both of which profoundly affect the way in which the stresses of paid labour infiltrate all of our other time, and the degree of unpaid labour involved in gaining and sustaining this type of paid labour.

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Inhospitable Spaces: On Body Activism and Home

Scribing by Jo Harrison @WoW London 2017

Scribing by Jo Harrison @WoW London 2017

Let’s find a way to think about body activism that doesn’t involve talking about the image in the mirror or on the screen.

In December 2016 I gave a presentation at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama’s Performing Care symposium, speaking about guilt and self-care in body activism and actor training. In this paper I outlined my discomfort with the idea of ‘love your body’. This is a discomfort which is becoming increasingly louder in activist circles, and I am certainly not the first to point out its flaws (See this excellent article on ‘Body Positivity in 2017’).

The idea that it is possible to love one’s body, i.e. to not feel discomfort, disgust or inadequacy about an aspect of one’s body regardless of what it looks like or is capable of, is of course in principle still radical. But the idea has become a slogan which has changed its tone (and a slogan which has been appropriated by a number of corporations in their advertising, e.g. compare Special K adverts over the last decade). It has become part of the body positive language which, as Marie Southard Ospina points out, allows people to ‘shy away from confronting the political components of what it means to be in a body that faces oppression.’

It is also now all too often a directive: ‘Love your body!’ we hear. Despite the fact that structures haven’t changed, and that competition rules, if you want to feel better about things then figure out a way to love your body. Ideally by spending money (which you quite possibly don’t have), or time (which you quite possibly don’t have). If you don’t succeed it is likely your own fault.

I’m not interested in being part of that discourse anymore. And I hope that all those of you who do take strength from the messages of body positivity might use that strength to come with us in the search for what comes next.

What, then, is the new message of resistance?

Well, we don’t know. It will emerge. But what we do know is that we need to constantly re-examine what is happening in the world and how that is linked to our relationship with our bodies.

We need to look at the current ‘love your body’ narratives in activism critically. To not be content with inspirational memes. Those things are great to raise awareness, but only if we always also expand beyond the idea that body hatred and shame are merely private matters, and if we insist on radical inclusion of ALL bodies.

So right now, I am interested in thinking about what it means to inhabit a body, about hospitality and the body as home.

For the moment, this is my way to make sense of the way systemic oppressions relate to personal experience and behaviour.
With my antennae tuned in to this particular metaphor, I have been listening for the way it is used and wondering what it might tell us about the link between the way we inhabit our bodies and the way we experience the idea of home more broadly.

We are in a time where the theme of home is in the air all around us (and maybe the fact that I am noticing it now more than ever is my privilege speaking), and as a metaphor it is double-edged: With it come questions around security, defensiveness, and hospitality. The theme of home can be turned into a narrative of fear and exclusion just as it can become a story of generosity and embrace.

If we look further than our bodies even just as far as the UK and Europe to see what shapes our experience of ‘home’ we find that:
  • Our Nation home is changing since the EU referendum, suddenly being re-defined.
  • Housing benefit cuts announced recently are literally leaving people homeless.
  • Disabled people having their benefits taken away means that they can no longer afford the care that their bodies and minds may require.
  • Re-development of urban areas is uprooting people from their homes and displacing them.
  • The precarious situation of people who rent their homes, especially in cities, means that many people live for a decade or so without ever having the opportunity to hang a picture or fully unpack.
  • We are experiencing an ongoing stream of reports of sexual violence and abuse, acts by which the home of the body has been invaded in arguably the most devastating way. Some people only survive the ordeal by leaving their bodies. Fleeing home. Dissociating themselves from trauma.
  • Domestic violence refuges are closing, leaving no home to go to for those in distress in their own houses.
  • And this is in a country of privilege compared to the huge loss of homes of millions of refugees.
  • Then there are also the US ‘travel bans’ preventing people from returning to the place that is supposed to be home.
  • Our constant, unavoidable engagement with media means that we live in a paradox: We are trying to always escape the domestic, to distract ourselves away from the mundane activities of the everyday (washing yourself, feeding yourself, sleeping, dressing yourself) with more shiny things, but while we are trying to escape the domestic we are also longing for a home.
  • And what if you’re body has never felt like home? If you feel you were born in the wrong body? How does one find a home in ones skin?

As I look at this (by no means exhaustive) list, I am reminded of Susie Orbach’s words a couple of weeks ago, referring to what she has encountered in her work since the EU referendum: ‘What happens in politics is never very far from the therapy room’. Because the political is, of course, always personal.

When we refer to the body as home (as when Clover Stroud describes getting back to sex after giving birth as feeling like ‘cleaning out the attic’, or when physical theatre maker Benji Reid advises my students that in improvisation they should ‘keep their windows wide open’) this is not just about the language we use. Metaphors can tell us something about the way we are understanding the world through the body. They exist in our language, but they come from embodied experience (See Lakoff and Johnson for more on this). If I say that I grasp an idea, I literally mean that I am holding on to the idea, and the reason this makes sense to me is because I know, in my body, what it means to grasp something.
The same for metaphorical language like:
‘I’ve got your back’
‘Our relationship has hit a dead end’
‘We touch upon the problem’
‘We rise to the occasion’

Metaphors are an articulation of the way our concepts and our lived experience intersect, and so to understand the way in which we agree to, or are able to, ‘inhabit’ our bodies it seems useful and necessary to look at what our current lived experience of ‘home’ is, individually and politically at the same time. I discussed all of these thoughts with my friend, the dancer Julie Cunningham. Her answer was simple:
Perhaps the world, as it is, is not a place in which we feel it is safe to settle in.

So what does this mean for our relationship with our bodies?

AnyBody’s Louisa Harvey puts it beautifully:

“I have been thinking about my body as a house. I realised that I haven’t ever quite moved in, haven’t unpacked, haven’t made myself at home. In fact, in thinking further about it, I realised that I’m living at the bottom of the garden in a shed. And it has a leak. It’s a precarious structure, potentially unstable, and prevents me from truly experiencing my body, its desires, its wants and needs, its passions. I have shied away from living fully from this fleshy base.

I got out a piece of paper and drew a square on it to represent my body as home, then I filled in the amount of space I thought that I actually inhabit inside and it was minute. It was startling.

So, how do we move in, when our culture tells us it’s wrong to do so? When our culture says “not yet” “when I am x, or y, or when such and such happens” you can make a home for yourself. We are constantly implored to see ourselves as a renovation project, told to overhaul ourselves according to the next bodily fixations we are meant to take part in, to never put down the tools.

It seems that many people can relate — and this to me is an outrage. It is an outrage that so many of us are going about our lives without feeling able to fully inhabit our skin. This isn’t about seeing ourselves as beautiful, but about a fundamental experience of embodiment.”

Louisa’s running with the metaphor really resonated with me, as one way to think about my lived experience that avoids being pinned back down to the very conversations about external image that we are trying to avoid.

Thinking this through for myself, I wonder whether the way we literally live in the bricks and mortar of our homes can reveal something about how we are inhabiting our bodies. I have not moved into my body, have not made myself at home. Sometimes I like being in it, but it is a tentative, temporary feeling, and one which I do not trust enough to fully settle in.

As I realize this, I also realize that I moved into my current flat almost 12 months ago, and yet, after the initial bout of making the place basically habitable, I stopped. I have still not fully unpacked, there are still rooms with bare plaster and wires exposed, still boxes to be emptied.

The two seem to me to be connected. A fellow activist nods: ‘I’ve always got one foot out the door, both literally and in terms of living in my body’.


Thinking all of this through for myself helps me to also think about those moments where I DO feel secure and at home in my body —

and consequently helps me to begin to clarify again what it is that I am fighting for, and where I want to direct my energy, where I want to push for a world that is fair enough, and safe enough that we might think of unpacking, settling in, and opening windows and doors.

I have some ideas about this, but they will have to wait for another time. For now I want to leave you with the clever and funny Rebecca Solnit and her championing of imagination and persistence in the face of the messiness and uncertainty that is the marker of activism:

“Newcomers often think that results are either immediate or they’re nonexistent. That if you don’t succeed straight away, you failed. Such a framework makes many give up and go back home when the momentum is building and victories are within reach […] To sustain [resistance], people have to believe that the myriad small, incremental actions matter. That they matter even when the consequences aren’t immediate or obvious. They must remember that often when you fail at your immediate objective – to block a nominee or a pipeline or to pass a bill – that even then you may have changed the whole framework in ways that make broader change inevitable. You may change the story or the rules, give tools, templates or encouragement to future activists, and make it possible for those around you to persist in their efforts” (Solnit 2017).

(A version of this piece was presented at a discussion group held by AnyBody UK as part of WoW London on 11th March 2017. As such — and as most things I do — it is inspired and fed by the thoughts of a number of wonderful women.)


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