Jackie Hagan is an award-winning poet, playwright and stand-up comedian. Her latest solo show This Is Not A Safe Space - which she will be performing here at Southbank Centre as part of Unlimited - looks at the impact of benefit cuts on people who have it the hardest, and features the real voices of proper skint disabled people she knows.
Ahead of her upcoming performances Jackie joined us for a recording of our regular Think Aloud podcast series, where she spoke to presenter Harriet Fitch Little about her background, discovering she was working class, and how This Is Not a Safe Space came into being.
Harriet Fitch Little: Tell us a little about where you come from.
Jackie Hagan: I’m from a place called Skem, which is onomatopoeic - and that’s my favourite joke that no-one ever laughs at. But it’s a real place. It was one of those places in the 1960s that was built as a new town, created as a utopian dream for the future. Only it didn’t go quite right, and now its studied on the GCSE Geography syllabus as a failed social experiment. So I’m very proud of that. It was a very singular place to grow up and I think it has influenced a lot of what I do.
So when did you begin your career as a performer, was it always in your blood, or something that you came to later on?
I started performing after I went to university. I had a nervous breakdown in third year, and so I was in this sort of halfway house after burning down a kitchen. When you’re there you get taken to all different stuff, you know, not quite basket-weaving, but it might as well be. And one of the things they took me to was a poetry workshop, and the woman who ran it was great. She was just very complimentary (I mean she’s quite complimentary to everyone). And then I just started performing from there really, I mean, I was off my head on diazepam so I wasn’t scared.
Your identity is something you put at the front and centre of your work now, but was that always the case? Or did it come after a certain point in time?
Once upon a time I thought everyone was working class, there was just some people with slightly nicer shoes and that was me, and so I didn’t realise there was a problem. I mean I didn’t realise until the second year of university that I was working class, and that’s why I wasn’t quite getting on with everyone. I was doing philosophy and it was all very pompous and sort of bullshit. Then after, when I was doing my first show, and all of a sudden I was in these networking situations, and suddenly I was like, there are people here who have really lived a different life to me, what’s going on? And I genuinely took that long to realise the extent of how different people are and I was like wow, some people are really rich and that’s not fair.
The show you’re bringing to Unlimited is This Is Not A Safe Space, how did the show come about and what are the safe spaces that the title refers to?
What the title is getting at is, well, I interviewed 80 people for this piece; 80 people who are on disability benefits and I was asking questions about life, not all about benefits, but even though I never mentioned it once, safety kept coming up. So I was like, ok, people don’t feel safe. People are creating safe spaces, but the world really is not safe and that is why people have to create them all the time.
But also the show is about risk-taking in art. I do think that there’s less risk-taking really, because we’re all shitting ourselves about funding. There’s this fear, that people think that funders will only want to fund stuff that doesn’t slag the world off or doesn’t slag the government off, or doesn’t slag them off, and it’s not true. The Arts Council often fund stuff that slags off the Arts Council and the arts and everything, so yeah, I’m up for more risk-taking, and I think people need to know that it’s all right to do that.
Do you think that people are perhaps too calculated in the risks they choose to take? Do people carefully pick the sort of protest art they want to make?
I think that people go a little bit fluffy; fluff things up a bit. And in the first show I did, I made it really fluffy. I was basically going for amputation comedy, which is a hard sell. So, for example, the scene where I have my leg cut off in it, was a dream sequence with bubbles and someone out of the audience being a unicorn and dancing about and all this. And that’s very nice, but by God it’s fluffy isn’t it. I’ve really fluffed that up so that people can stomach amputation. And you know what, audiences can handle more than you think, or more than I thought at the time.
All performers know about how far you’re meeting the audience; are you meeting them half-way or are you meeting them the whole way, or are you just giving them a little bit? And you can pull them towards you and keep them with you, and I do it with comedy, and then you can kind of slap them round the face a little bit and they can cope with that, and then you can put them back.
And that’s why people are saying it’s a safe show; it’s not. It’s just that I know how to keep the audience with me because I was brought up on doing gigs in pubs with hen parties and all that; I was brought up by hecklers. But at the same time some of the messages that are coming through in this show are well harsh; it’s stuff that people aren’t talking about.
On the subject of giving light to things that people aren’t discussing; the 2016 film I, Daniel Blake did just that with the problems faced by people forced to try and navigate the benefits system. Given it’s very positive reception, people might be perhaps surprised by the take you have on that film.
I perform a piece called I Am Not Daniel Blake in the show. Now I’m sure that people can tell, from meeting me for five minutes, that I am happy that the film I, Daniel Blake exists. But what pissed me off about it was that in order to capture the empathy of a wider society Daniel Blake had to be a saint. It’s this deserving poor and undeserving poor distinction, and that annoys me. He didn’t have a big telly, he didn’t do drugs, he didn’t drink. I mean his wife had just died and he hadn’t even started smoking, you know, just have a fag mate, it’s all right. Cadge one if you can’t afford it. So that film annoyed me, because of the way it had to be in order to get praised.
And how do audiences react to that take and that criticism of the film?
You get the thing that you expect which is people saying, people are very sniffy aren’t they about resources now, because the government is saying that there isn’t much of it and we can’t afford to look after people who need help, which is rubbish. So people are like, if they’re not helping themselves, how can we help them and it tends to be people who don’t have visceral experience of being around people who supposedly can’t help themselves. One person’s trying isn’t going to look like yours if you’re a very different person to them and you’ve had a very different life.
That’s part of the point to this show. Rather than going to people here’s statistics or here’s the I, Daniel Blake-style take, this is real people, real rounded characters, and that’s because they’re not even characters, they’re real people. The interviews I did with people were audio interviews and so I put their real voices into it - the actual real audio is piped into the room. And I just think it’s easier to empathise with people when you can hear the stumbling bravado, or the hiccups, you know, you can sort of see eye-to-eye with them.
You’re performing at Unlimited, and one of the things we look at across the festival is how we talk about and frame disability, which is something some people are often overly cautious about doing correctly. I wondered; when you became an amputee five years ago, did you suddenly know how to talk about these things and how to talk to other people about their bodies or did you have this same awkwardnessess?
I mean it wasn’t like all of a sudden my leg came off and then my head was full of this knowledge. No, of course not. And I’m someone who’s really good at understanding the world and going like this needs to be sorted, and this needs to be sorted, but I’m also from a culture and a pub and a family that reads Viz, and so no definitely not. Although my dad had one leg as well, but he was even worse than Viz. So, no I didn’t have a clue.
I sort of came across all of it through disability arts, and I thought this is interesting and this is what I want to do, this is important. And I think words are important, but it’s down to the understanding behind them isn’t it. I think it’s important that people calm down and try to make people feel comfortable enough to gain that understanding, so you’re not tip-toeing about. I mean everyone knows you can’t talk for more than 18 minutes without stumbling into a leg pun, and that number’s cut in half when you’re talking to someone with one leg.
I often I prefer kids reactions to my amputation because I’m quite forthright myself, but often when I’m talking to people, and children in particular, I do have to say ‘remember that I don’t represent all amputees, I’m just one person, and not everyone is going to find it funny when you ask if I kept the bone you know, other people might feel terrible’.