I sat down with Scottee a few weeks before the opening of his show Putting Words in Your Mouth. An edited version of that conversation later became an episode of The Soloist podcast.
‘I call myself a loud mouth and trouble-maker and that’s because I am’, explains Scottee, ‘where I come from, you call out something because in calling it out, it no longer becomes a thing or it becomes the start of a discussion’. Whether it’s because he’s scrupulously honest or just plain blunt, Scottee says that he’s never learnt the trick of keeping his mouth shut, regardless of whether the topic is the problems with crowd-funding or the praise lavished on non-committal bleeding in live art (‘oh, just a little bit..’). As the creator and director of Putting Words in Your Mouth – performed by Travis Alabanza, Jamal Gerald and Lasana Shabazz – Scottee is off-stage, but his impulse to voice what polite conversation leaves unspoken seems clearly present. It’s a show, as Lyn Gardner suggests, which ‘presents words and views seldom heard in the theatre, in a way that demands a complex response. It cunningly sets about making us listen, really listen’.
While the arrival of Putting Words seems uncannily well-timed – following the uptick in reports of racially-motivated assault in the UK following the Brexit vote and in the US following the election of Trump – the show was in development for nearly two years, during which time Scottee sought out his interview subjects, met with lawyers and worked out how best to protect himself in the process, while also convincing those around him to trust in the idea. He tells me that friends message him whenever another academic mentions his work at a conference as an example of ‘risk’ in performance; if journalists have referred to Scottee as the ‘enfant terrible’ of cabaret, this praise seems to have rubbed off on some venues and arts managers as a warning, even though he always delivers what he promises.
Whatever else, Scottee’s process of making work – increasingly, over longer periods of time – is grounded in an understanding of his audiences, and a respect for their intelligence and time. Touring work outside of London (in December, to St Helens in the northwest) means investing time and effort in building a relationship with communities, and establishing a reputation which means that 300 people will turn up for a good night out. He’s also conscious that making work in a conventional, end-on theatre space in London means making work for a predominantly white, middle-class audience. Here, the deliberately low information approach to marketing Putting Words was intended to ‘make sure that people who are the offenders aren’t put off’, while also avoiding the possibility that the work would end up only preaching to the choir.
In form, Putting Words is a show that draws together two distinct performance traditions: on one hand, the queer and drag tradition of lip-syncing and, on the other, a documentary, verbatim theatre tradition that makes use of the ‘authentic’ voices of ordinary people. This tactic of taking a popular form and smashing it together with something more difficult or more subtle recurs across Scottee’s projects in the knowledge that ‘familiarity is enough of a pull to get people in’, and after which you can then actually do something. Scottee’s long-running Hamburger Queen, co-presented with Amy Lamé and Felicity Hayward, occupied the format of a beauty pageant to create an alternative, counter-cultural queer space in which, as activist and author Charlotte Cooper describes, fat people were ‘as much a part of things as anyone else’ in an event that stuck up ‘two fingers at political purity as an ideal’. Challenging preconceptions is about creating new possibilities, rather than just a short, sharp, shock.
Though intended to catch audiences off guard, Scottee’s mix of form and content in Putting Words involves something more than a bait and switch. When the work moves suddenly from the familiar territory of coming out stories to broach issues of tolerance and racism, it might only be unnerving because we are so used to verbatim theatre being deployed as a progressive device for giving ‘voice to the voiceless’ – and possibly, because we also assume lip-syncing is somehow apolitical rather than (always already) involved in forms of unpredictable parody. Though Scottee describes much of his work as reactionary – ‘never about solving the issue but about shovelling the shit’ – it’s clear that Putting Words addresses a particular, recurring frustration with theatre itself: that despite best liberal intentions, we’re not having the conversations that we so urgently need
Putting Words in Your Mouth runs at the Roundhouse from November 22 to December 3. More information here.