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BWW Interview: Conrad Murray Talks NO MILK FOR THE FOXES and Working-class Representation

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BWW Interview: Conrad Murray Talks NO MILK FOR THE FOXES and Working-class Representation
Paul Cree and Conrad Murray
in No Milk For The Foxes

Rapper, beatboxer, theatre-maker, and BAC Beatboxing Academy's artistic director Conrad Murray has released No Milk For The Foxes on YouTube, his 2015 co-production with Camden People's Theatre, starring himself and Paul Cree.

We caught up with him to talk about the perception of working-class entertainment in mainstream media, where the gatekeepers are failing, and why the themes of No Milk For The Foxes are still a hot topic.

Tell us a bit about yourself - what do you? How did you get into theatre?

I'm a beatboxer, a rapper and a theatre-maker, and I make shows on my own and with people like Paul Cree, I have a company called Beats & Elements. I am also the artistic director of the Beatbox Academy, which is a hip-hop and beatbox company.

I grew up on a council estate in south London and I didn't really have any access to theatre or any cultural things. I started using beatbox and hip-hop and doing working workshops with people to try to tell their stories, and that's how I tell my stories too. I like making shows where I feel represented. I'm from Mitcham - that's where I've lived basically my whole life. Most people haven't even heard of it.

Theatre can be quite elitist - did you find it hard to break in the industry?

Yes, it's very hard. It's all about money, isn't it? You need to have money to pay for private lessons, you need to have connections, people like to have instrument lessons, acting lessons. People know people. Those classes and those schools are where you meet people, so it's hard when you don't have that. I grew up in a house where there were no books. That's a massive thing: people have knowledge of all these plays, books, a certain level of general knowledge that helps them connect with other people in a different way.

If your references are Tupac and Jay-Z while someone else is talking about Voltaire and Shakespeare, that makes it a lot easier for them. They hear the sound of your voice and they might not even necessarily look at what's in front of them. Having been in this industry for a long time now, I look at that and I laugh at the way some people treat others. Some of the things I'm doing now, people are all "Wow!". Stuff like Frankenstein: How To Make a Monster, a show I just directed - we even went to Adelaide and won an Adelaide Fringe Award, which is a big thing! We won an OffWestEnd Award too for the show and we made a film of it for the BBC's Culture in Quarantine.

People get really excited about this, but if I were to say these things 15 years ago, it wouldn't have worked. People didn't want to listen. So many people who were so young at the time had to quit the industry and they had to move on. It's hard. That's one of the reasons why I make my own work. We started doing these shows from nothing. We didn't have a venue, we didn't have any support. The reason we make them is that we want to create our own platforms and we want to be our own bosses. We want to go "Here's our work - who wants to support it?".

It's hard because sometimes people don't understand the vernacular, they don't understand what we're trying to get at. I've been doing theatre my whole working life, but people only want to listen to certain things. If you're up for the challenge, then you're up for it. But I also know a lot of people who've been traumatised; it's too much. It's sad. But that's also the reason to keep going, to represent your own stories. We're also trying to make platforms for other people to feel represented and to perform. All my shows, we always have post-shows performances for other artists to perform their own work.

The second we get in, we bring other people in. They might do spoken word or whatever; with No Milk we had a whole set, but unfortunately they're not on the film that's online. But we always create that platform - once you've got it, you have to share it and use it as much as you can. It can't end with you, that fire needs to keep going. But people are scared. Even now with all the talk about when the industry will come back, people are afraid to be left out. What's going to happen to the smaller venues? To the festivals? Some of them aren't going to be on anyone's radar of massive funding. It's a big worry, but you have to do this kind of work.

One of the reasons why we've put our show on as a stream is because so many of the streamed shows that are online are big money. Everyone was going crazy that The National Theatre had put James Corden, a multimillionaire, on the internet. I was sick of it. A lot of people enjoyed it but, watching a performance with millionaires in it, what are we even celebrating here? Me, I couldn't enjoy a moment of it - there wasn't going to be any support for other shows, for other artists. How much are the lighting and sound designers making while we're clapping for James Corden? Nah.

Our show might not be filmed particularly well, it might not have the best sound, it's possibly not the best night we did, but it's all about putting out that alternative culture. It's only people who have quite a bit of money who can have their shows well filmed, from multiple angles, with dual sound, stereo, mixed, all that. But what happens to all that other culture? To all those other people? You don't watch James Corden and think "Wow, this is me, this is my life!". It does make you forget, it does make you switch off, but I don't want people to switch off. I don't want people to passively sit there munching on fries watching, I want people to be engaged.

Yes, I want them to be entertained, but by an idea. You're not entertaining anything by just sitting there watching him - and it's not just him, obviously, it's the whole thing. This is such an amazing moment. All the shows that have come after, even just from the National, people have gone nuts about them. What's going to happen to all that other stuff?

The show is so relevant even after five years since you first performed it. What made you choose No Milk For The Foxes specifically?

There's a lot of negativity in this moment, and that show was made out of frustration - about zero hours contracts, about the way people are treated. There's a lot of division between these characters; we mention class and race amongst them. There's also a lot of humour in the show as well - they have friends, and it would be okay if they listened to each other a bit more instead of fighting against each other. That's also how the world tends to be, especially right now. Even at the time, someone said that these guys don't look like actors - and yes, we don't look like actors. We may be acting but we're normal people - that's what it is.

The story of the show is also right for now: the two characters are locked in that job every day in monotony like we are right now, every day, actually locked in. We're also locked in by the economic ecology that we're living in every day. I felt like it was a good moment. We had a different Prime Minister then and things were about to get a lot worse. We knew that, we follow politics quite closely and we could see the divisions among people and the way the Government is operating in this country. We wanted to do it through analogy and metaphor as opposed to straight on the nose. If you watch the story, it gets under your skin.

What would you say the show's about?

The show is about zero hours contracts and it's about class, but it's also about people coming together, workers and normal people. Us working-class people, we're all the products of our environment - we need to come together and support each other. Ultimately, at the end of the day, the characters all want something: one sells the other out just to get more shifts. In their lives, it's a major thing. The show is about working together and solidarity too.

I feel like lot of "working-class theatre" ends up being polished by the upper class of the theatre industry. What are your thoughts on that?

Definitely! To me, it's frustrating. We actually had a couple of people coming in and we didn't want to see them again; I didn't want them changing our work and our art form just to make something more palatable for them. Our audience, we get a lot of people who don't usually come to the theatre and they're like "This is sick, man! Theatre is cool!" - and yes, it is, it's amazing, but you don't get to see it like this very often. It's quite annoying, because maybe this is what I want to be doing. With those sorts of ideas, hip-hop wouldn't exist, grime wouldn't exist if people had been "You know, what I think you want to be doing is this other thing".

BWW Interview: Conrad Murray Talks NO MILK FOR THE FOXES and Working-class Representation
Paul Cree and Conrad Murray
in No Milk For The Foxes

It's horrible that class, whitewashing, all those elements - they take our forms so far away from what they originally were until it's unrecognisable. Maybe you'll get more "success" out of it, but it's not a success if it doesn't reach the audience it was meant for, or put an uncomfortable realisation on a stage.

When we were doing the show, a producer friend of mine said she didn't understand the characters, and other things. This isn't done to please you. They're nuanced characters - we're not making them out to be extreme heroes or extreme villains. People are very complex: they can be brash and rude, and still be a great person. You're a product of your environment.

Someone couldn't get over the fact that one of the characters reads The Sun - they said it was disgusting. There's a lot more to it - a lot of working-class people unfortunately read The Sun at work, and it's a Tory newspaper and it's actually ruining their lives. They would read The Sun and they'd look at page three - what's the problem with that? That's what we're trying to show, and you're criticising the work because you don't personally do that.

We turned down quite a large producer who's done a lot of big things because she just didn't understand the show. Who knows what could have happened! It was well received anyway, and even to this day when I do workshops and masterclasses at drama schools and I've got bigger productions than that, people still say to me that that show changed their lives. That's why this show will always stay with me.

People who saw it were really hit by it. Some shows are so devoid of any class and authenticity. Everything is very shallow when you watch it on the surface - if they don't understand the vernacular because they're not listening to it well enough. Watch it again, listen closely - no one goes to a Shakespeare casually and understands it on day one. It doesn't happen. But when it's "working class", people expect it to be an easy time. We make you laugh, but there are other levels in the material; it's made that way. Sometimes we're using a slang word - look it up, you may learn something.

The show has a lot of humour in it, but you're not playing it for the laughs. Was it a conscious choice or did it come organically with the material?

It comes organically, but it's also a conscious choice. Sometimes when the audience were laughing, there were moments when I wondered what they were laughing at - they weren't even jokes. To me, it's exposing them. I'm not judging them - maybe later they'd question why they were laughing. It was a conscious choice to make people laugh, but we knew that we were going to say certain things that would question people's laughs. Some of the stuff they laughed at, we didn't realise it was going to be funny. We were just being honest. If anyone thought that class and stuff like that is funny, that shows their mentality and not ours. We're just talking about our lives. When you think we're jokes it's because you've reduced us to caricatures.

Some of the stuff is actually my personal life, and the stuff that isn't is very, very close to me and my family. That's not a joke, but it is to you because of the way you've seen me before. When we allow people to tell working-class stories, it will be disgusting, classist, racist, David Walliams stuff. It would be absolutely racist. People have been growing up with this guy who makes working-class people look like scum, and we had to watch it on the BBC. It's disgusting.

I'm happy that Little Britain's been pulled, but I'm not happy that it's taken them so long, and it's taken them a whole movement to take it off the air. I'm upset because it should have been taken off years ago. It was offensive watching this stuff growing up. When we do it, it's good to do stuff from a point of authority now - you know you're not trying to hurt anyone and you're not taking the mickey, it's completely real. It's empowering.

Do you think there needs to be a shift in the way the public perceives the working classes and how they're portrayed?

Absolutely. We're portrayed as morons and as lazy, but that couldn't be further from the truth. We're up against it: everyone has to work three or four jobs super hard to get by. The way people challenge how we portray women and gender, somehow that doesn't work when people portray class. People think they can get away with quite a lot. It should be 100% challenged. It's hard because the gatekeepers are the people with money, and they own the channels. You get shows like Top Boy - I know a lot of people who don't like it. It only shows one side; that's what we see on films and television.

Different people have asked me for ideas to work on scripts - they want to use you to tell a story that's more valid, but in the end it's just poverty porn. I've got experience from the street, I've been arrested, I've been locked up, but the way they tell these stories is wrong. I know them, I know Ashley Walters - these people are glamourising stuff all the time. It's not their fault. I get it - that's the only thing that people pay for. That's why we need to create our own platforms, be in it theatre, on Instagram, on Twitter. I've been talking to Camden People's Theatre, who put on No Milk For The Foxes back then, about putting on shows on InstaLive, or on Twitter - why not?

People would be surprised by the truth. In our show, Mark knows a lot about unions and how they work, about working-class history too. Lots of working-class people are self-taught. Growing up, I didn't have access to books, but the second I had my own money I wanted to read and I wanted to study. We have knowledge, we are really passionate. But people want to portray us like morons - they put on reality shows that either put a spotlight on the wrong places or they send out the wrong message. It's so irresponsible and mad offensive.

What would you like people to take from the show now as opposed to what you wanted back when you first premiered it?

I want them to bring down the Tories, to vote differently... To join a union. Solidarity. A lot of it is the same - unfortunately, the struggle is the same as five years ago. It continues and we can't forget about it. The aesthetic we have in the show, the beatbox, the rap, I'd like to see more forms both in the West End and in underground theatres. Allowing the performers to do their thing is always relevant. Let's challenge those forms and the way we tell our stories. Let us explore and then give us that platform. What's unfortunate is that to do stuff like No Milk For The Foxes, we had to create it for free, and the same for High Rise eState of Mind.

It's great that we eventually had people who want to put on our shows, so we're doing High Rise eState of Mind with Manchester HOME in VR. But to create those shows takes a lot of struggle and trust from people like Paul Cree and Lakeisha Lynch Stevens. I've been working here much longer, I'm able to do workshops, I'm able to teach and I've had other shows that have had quite a bit of success - other people don't have that. The people who come on these journey with me eventually, at some point, will, but I can't say when. It's hard, it's a massive risk. I'm happy it pays off, but it's hard.

You can watch No Milk For The Foxes for free here and you can support the company directly here.

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