Labels: Joe Sellman-Leava will leave you questioning how you may be judging people
Growing up in a small beach town just a few hours north of Sydney Australia I never felt much prejudice about anything. At least not anything I really felt comfortable admitting to anyone. Most of the kids in my class where white Australians, with Australian parents and white Australian grandparents. The biggest culture shock we were submitted to was hearing the news of a classmate who went of a family holiday to Bali. I never had to deal with racism or discrimination directed at where I was from, the language I spoke or the colour of my skin, and for that I feel lucky. That’s not to say I was never labeled. Some of my labels I wore with pleasure and others I despised but just like every other human being, I was definitely not an innocent in the labelling game. I remembering plastering labels on girls and boys throughout high school too, and when I think about some of the names I flippantly threw around, I can’t help but cringe.
So if labels like the ones I dealt with in my Summer Bay-like town managed to cause discomfort for me, then envisage how those that are labeled with painfully racist, sexist and homophobic words must be affected throughout their lives. Sometimes without knowing, we can use words or ask questions that damage people’s self worth and leave them feeling displaced in society.
Someone who has dealt first hand with negative labelling is Joe Sellman-Leava. A charismatic and courageous twenty-six year old actor who has been traveling for the past two years performing his award winning show Labels. A powerful solo performance that draws on Joe and his family’s experiences being of mixed heritage living in Britain and also delves into deeper issues of racism, immigration and isolation. Labels sends a critical message to all of us about the way we talk to one another. It makes you stop and reflect upon not just the labels you’ve been given, but on the ones you may have stamped upon others.
Hey Joe, I really enjoyed the show. How long have you been performing it for?
Thank you so much! The current version of the show, almost a year now. So we started working on it last spring and we reworked a script that was a few years old. We started with a scratch back from a university workshop and finished it in time for Edinburgh in 2015.
Where have you toured it so far?
So we were in Edinburgh (Fringe Festival) for a month, then did a few dates in London and in January we did a few regional dates. Then we went to Australia for a couple of months, we did a week at the Perth Fringe Festival and five weeks at Adelaide Fringe Festival.
Are the Australian Fringe Festivals and Edinburgh Fringe Festival connected?
Not officially but I think they are quite good at talking to each other. Edinburgh is the biggest arts festival in the world and the biggest Fringe in the world so it’s like great place for people to come and source acts for other festivals. People come from around the country and around the world and it was Adelaide Fringe and Perth Fringe representatives that were both there, we got picked for the Holborn street theatre award which is a prize that is funding basically.
Did you notice any difference’s performing to an Australian audience opposed to the UK audiences?
Umm, it’s been interesting. I think partly it was the theatres we were at (In Australia), perhaps the audiences were a little bit older and maybe more traditional theatre going audiences in the sense that plays would be the thing they would go and watch. The UK audience’s, for example we have had at this theatre in Stratford (Theatre Royal Stratford East) for the last four weeks, the audience here have been so diverse in terms of ethnicity, religion, age, genders and sexualities. So, really truly diverse and that was different to the audiences we had in Australia.
What inspired you to write Labels in the first place?
At my University Emma Thompson came and did a workshop with us because her son Tindy had experienced some racist abuse when he was studying at Exeter and she was pretty angry about that and wanted to do some talks, events and workshops with students on this topic of racism and prejudice. From the drama group around twenty students took part in this workshop and a few weeks before we were asked to prepare something. I wrote what was the beginning of Labels, so it had the sort of narrative thread of growing up and being called names and our families story of how we got to changing our name. It also had the visual concept of using labels and sticking them on myself and others throughout the performance. It was only ten minutes long at the most but Emma was really great, read it and was very encouraging and said I should keep writing it, so I did and I developed it a bit more for a writing event that was happening at The Bike Shed in Exeter, a theatre I have worked with a lot. It wasn’t until the very beginning of 2015 that I really thought I needed to get it developed into a full show.
Was there any particular reason or event that empowered you to finish it off?
Lots of reasons, watching how UKIP had impacted 2014 European elections and that was a pattern across Europe with far right parties doing better than ever in the poles and then how in the UK that traction kind of lead to immigration being at the forefront of most political debates that happened. It was like every week on question time immigration would come up somehow and I feel like that still is the case. You know in the EU referendum without fail immigration will always come up and it almost feels like we have lost sight of the significance of that. It’s like you either have to come out as a sceptic saying “I’m not racist but…” or you have to come out like “It’s really good and brilliant for the country”. I obviously feel like it is good for the country but I get fed up with having to defend it (immigration) because at the end of the day we are human beings. People move. It’s nature and some of us choose to settle in other places and whilst we may not call ourselves immigrants now, who knows what could could happen in the future. We live in a globalised world where it’s more and more volatile and susceptible to change, particularly with the climate, and mass movement of the people is most likely to be caused by climate change and just because right now we are comfortable and safe it may not always be like that.
So anyway, I got sick of sitting on the sidelines and being angry about it but not having any real way of engaging in the debate, so I wanted to finish the show more and more and felt like last year was the year to do it.
There are lots of unique elements to the show. The mix of comedy with the power of real personal stories and also the way you engage the audience throughout. Why is this important?
Katarina (the director of Labels) and I really wanted this inclusive interactive element of using the sticker labels and direct address and lots of eye contact. Then of course bits of the show where people from the audience actually get involved, the tinder section for example, that’s all deliberate because we wanted people to feel involved and apart of the conversation but also to feel a sense of complicity. To get people thinking, even if we may not label people all the time we are often bystanders to it. We all pre-judge, which I do think is a part of human nature, but it’s how we deal with it and I think the tinder section of the play is one example of social media communication where the dark side of people’s nature can come out a bit more.
During the show you do a kind of montage of quotes by people in power from over the ages that are very negative and demeaning to certain demographics. There is one particular political slogan from 1964 that had the audience gasping in disbelief. Were you shocked when you did all the research into this?
I was shocked, I mean I found out about that slogan because a comedian who I’m a really big fan of talks about political correctness and he talked about why people have a problem with it and why he doesn’t have a problem with it. He thinks it’s a good thing because before political correctness when he was in school, the only one non-white kid in the class was referred to by the teacher as ‘The little black spot’ when he read out the register. He also said “In a town near mine the campaign slogan (In 1964) was ‘If you want a ___ for a neighbour, vote labour”. I didn’t really believe it at first but yeah it was real and I was shocked.
Who do you draw inspiration from creatively?
Well lots of people, as I mentioned before Emma Thompson was a huge inspiration for this performance, she gave huge amounts of encouragement. In terms of contemporary artists and things Bryony Kimmings has been a huge one. She always does really interesting work drawing from her own life but also the people around her and her last two shows have been made by people who are very close to her. She’s someone I really admire for taking on big “public secrets” as she calls them and using her own experiences.
You talk about your personal experience a lot throughout the show and the experience of your father as well. Was it scary having him watch it?
I was really worried for him to watch it because when I started it last year it wasn’t just Dad that was the dominant voice in the story. There was more from my Mum and siblings and my Gran, who’s no longer in it, but we decided that Dad’s voice was the one that needed to be there the most. That father and son relationship was quite important to the story. So I was quite worried. I think when it’s someone else’s story and you’re putting it out there for the public you have to be really careful, you need to get it right.
The part in the show when you do a poetic monologue from your Father’s point of view is so heart breaking and intense. He must have been incredibly open with you?
Yeah he was. That (information about his father) came from a really long conversation with my Mum and Dad while I was researching the show. Often these stories, like the one about us changing our name (surname), would have come from my Mum which is why I say in the show she’s a wonderful storyteller. But that conversation with Dad was one of the first I had with him about what happened to him in school. He had said stuff in the past that came up now and again, for instance when I was bullied he would then talk about it, but it was always quite few and far between. This conversation was the first time he went into real detail of what he had been through and how it had made him feel. He still gets racism at work now with adults and you would think now in this day and age that wouldn’t happen anymore but it does. So those conversations with my dad were pretty shocking to me but he was happy for me to use it. I was worried that I was somehow being intrusive or exploitative of the information he had given but he is just so proud of the show, it has brought in a new phase of our relationship.
What is your greatest wish for the show personally and professionally?
I hope that it continues on for a while and ultimately I hope people just keep coming to see it with open minds and are willing to be challenged by it. I hope they talk about with their friends, to me, to their families afterwards, about how it made them think and feel. That is fundamentally why I do what I do.
Personally, I mean there are some people I would love to see the show, like I would love to see what Emma (Thompson) thinks of the show. She read a draft of the show and was very encouraging but I would love her to see it finished. I would also love for some of the politicians I talk about to see it. I would love Katie Hopkins to see it, I’d love Farage to see it, and to be honest some of the people making hate comments I’d love them to come to see it. It’s hard to get people into the theatre who perhaps will disagree with you but I think it’s important for them to feel like it’s their space too.
Joe Sellman-Leava is touring his award winning show Label’s around the UK. If you get the chance to see it, do it. You will not regret it.
Written by Emma Grimmond