I was recently talking with a friend about how some artists don’t discuss their shitty part-time jobs, keeping them hidden away, as though they own a brand that would become tarnished. Our nagging minds are always full of suspicion: “how do they pay the bills?!”
Hypocritically, yet on the other side of the coin, I behave this way within my own part-time job—keeping my art career hidden. I’ve grown to think of it like a double life. My colleagues are all aware that I’m “arty” but I conceal the true extent of it. For the sake of saving myself intrigue, scrutiny or ridicule, I keep up a charade, or perhaps just an avoidance. In my first job straight out of art school I was more open, and showed people my website, but it became a rumour-mill amongst less favourable staff. Now, I’m stupidly embarrassed to say or attempt to justify what I get up to “on stage”—like giving audiences parcels of my pubes or rubbing myself with ice that’s made from my own piss. It’s that typical laziness of not being arsed to explain performance art instead of dance (puzzlingly the most common assumption). It’s a pretty impatient and unsympathetic approach on my end.
So, I blend in. Camouflage myself a little. I forgo self-promotion and become a listener and an observer. Not quite an alien, but I people-watch and interact in ways I deem will fit in. I embrace the small-chat about the weather and what to have for dinner. I lie and say “not much planned” when I have a performance that weekend. I say “yeahh” and “aww I know” with agreeable tuts and sighs. I see characters and pull out the disguise within me to match the uniform.
This mundane normality engages you in a theatre of life, or it inspires a kind of thinking through personalities. It makes you aware of characters, of being around people you just normally wouldn’t associate with. Like any job. It can be fun, and for lack of a better word, quirky. However, it’s not so pleasant when you encounter hostile moments of casual sexism or racism—all those prejudices you strongly oppose suddenly appearing, forcing you either to confront them or to run away. Stay quiet or speak up? I’m often left feeling guilty and complicit that I didn’t intervene, that the cat caught my tongue. Especially when intimidated by this unwritten hierarchy of older, grumpy folk that have been there a long time and thus feeling entitled to a higher ground. This context manifests your weak reactions to people’s rants and offences, without all the usual mutual left-wing discourse, as each political position here is protected by a shared working environment where you just get on with it. I stay at close distance. Default hate-follow IRL. If a copy of their Daily Record is lying around, I flick through it to feed my shock-appetite.
When I studied theatre at Glasgow Uni I took a playwriting module, and my lecturer was one of the most successful playwrights in Scotland. Nice guy. The best thing I took away from what he said is that when creating characters, you really have to base them on people you already know. Anything you write. It’s the only way to be genuine, authentic and therefore entertaining, and believably dramatic—as even in fantasy fiction audiences will smell phoney character development a mile off, like sharks to blood. Audiences want escapism, but plausibly and empathetically achieved. It’s a technique used to figure out precise dialogue: picturing in your head exactly what your Aunt Linda would say in a sci-fi dystopian future, or how your old friend from school would react if trapped in a fire. You take those personality fragments to form new imaginary people. A familiar Frankenstein. The lecturer said the moment he realised this and put it into his work, he became widely noticed and commissioned. Not to say I am now a playwright, in fact I am averse to fiction, but I take this technique into my writing—being able to represent those “real-life” experiences even more authentically. You need to make use of that double life somehow, otherwise you end up undermining your entire existence, basing it on an unfulfilling job.
There are two colleagues here that I character obsess over most. They are run-of-the-mill people, who have been working in ordinary jobs for a long, long time. They are inanely normal, but a little different to the way I move in the world. Fascinating even, odd with idiosyncrasies that you face on every shift. Both are middle aged women. Here I’ll call them S and E.
S is a janitor and an outrageously resentful woman, bemoaning almost everything and everyone around her in the most unashamed manner. She is the pinnacle incarnation of “She’s a bit much.” I’m lucky if I get a hello, it's most often a cold stare. One time she grassed me in for being on my phone. I was told if you pull your weight—i.e. help her clean—you’re in her good books. I think it’s deeper than that: if you agree with her moans and act alongside her, you might earn a little respect. She works up to 40 hours a week, and then has another job cleaning offices down the road where she’ll work through the night, totalling a 60 hour working week. People joke that she is a zombie, an ogre, a vampire feeding on the frustrations and joys of those around her, resistant to sleep and basic needs. The bags under her eyes are monstrous. A villain that rules the roost for sure. Maybe just insomniac. She is a complete workaholic, working herself to the bone, almost to the detriment of others. In one incident she had a mini stroke at work, and was back in a day later having had “one rest day,” rejecting the advice and the offer to take some fully paid time off. Even with the most accommodating of HR teams and the best staff benefits in Scotland, workaholics like this will push themselves to collapse.
I made a semi-improvisational performance about S in 2019 called Strew, where I retold an experience of witnessing her embark on an ugly transphobic rant about another worker. My autopilot response went into flight rather than fight, foolishly thinking that my storming out of the room would make more of an impact than a verbal challenge could.
E is my manager and has worked there for around 40 years, recently receiving an award for her extended service. She is a relatively nice, compassionate person, if you don’t undermine her position. I have learned the appropriate levels of fake grovelling and sooking-up-to, to keep her on my side. She too has prejudiced tendencies in common with other staff. She will whisper the word ‘Asian’ when saying “Asian wedding” if one has been booked in—a real strange moment of dialogue that passes by so quickly you never sense a moment’s pause to query it. Also a stickler for labour—working two jobs and running around the venues against medical advice before a scheduled heart operation—she once collapsed at the office desk. The receptionist was so shaken up after calling the ambulance that she was sent home too.
These characters fall over and get back up. They are resilient and committed. Ignorant and over the top. Bitter and a bit much. They’re all a bit much, and so am I. They are drained and tied to the set they work in. The set they were created in. They are defined by their work. Stuck to the work and stuck to me. I cannot peel them off. Falling over in my head. Again and again.
Falling Over was performed live at the She’s a bit much publication launch in September 2021 (Market Gallery, Glasgow). The text was written with the support of the Creative Scotland Visual Art & Craft Maker Award. For a recording of Falling Over please visit our She’s a bit much Launch events page.
Conor Baird is an artist, born, raised and based in Glasgow. Recently his use of text has slid from voice, improvisation and script into more formalised approaches to writing and publishing thanks to inaction from lockdown. This writing is in line with much of his overarching practice which seeks to unpack and make mess of personal narratives around intimacy, shame, belonging and violence - in order to clarify, accept and settle. His time-based work makes use of subversive dramaturgies across performance, actionism, theatre, expanded cinema and film. Conor’s training stems from the former Sculpture undergraduate at Gray’s School of Art (2013), the recent Theatre & Performance Practices Master’s at University of Glasgow (2019) and continuous performance workshopping. Conor also participated in the alternative postgraduate education programme Syllabus III (2018), and was a Committee Member at Market Gallery, Glasgow (2015-17). He has shown work in galleries, festivals, theatres, cinemas, bars, apartments, factories, windows, and sewers.