For most of her life, dancer, choreographer, and theatre-maker Pauline Mayers has had to battle prejudiced notions of her artistic abilities based on her race, gender, and status. Her innate and fierce determination has seen off these assumptions at every turn even when wider society lagged far behind in its attitude to such issues. Now, in her new show, What If I Told You, she combines her love of both dance and theatre. Mayers sets out her life story, while drawing parallels with that of controversial nineteenth-century gynaecologist James Sims. In this new production she continues to defy expectations in the way she challenges the audience to walk in her shoes for the duration of this immersive theatre production. We here at culturised managed to steal some time of her very busy schedule to ask her some searching questions about her history and her artistic practice.

You have said that you are used to people making assumptions about you based on your gender, background and skin colour. What specific assumptions have people made on all three aspects of your person?

The assumptions on what I’m able to achieve, the kinds of job I can gain, what I should expect for myself go back to my teenage years. Being a young girl from Hackney in East London, I wanted to be a dancer and actor since the age of at least eight years old. I grew up during the 80s, a time when nationally the black community were having to challenge the SUS laws the police used to stop, search and hold black people in custody for no other reason than they looked “suspect”, where black people were being routinely criminalised as a matter of course; where in Hackney gangs of white men from the National Front with Doc Martens and skinheads were actively looking for black people in order to kick their heads in; where at my school ideas of black people being anything other than being bus conductors, cleaners, and nurses was discouraged.

Despite this background, the profession I envisioned for myself was to be a performer and I was going to do it one way or another. My thinking was initially challenged by my teachers at secondary school when I was picking my options of the classes wanted to do at the age of thirteen. I made it clear to my teachers I wanted to be a dancer and actor, but was told the profession was not for me and that I should consider being a secretary instead and accordingly was not allowed to pick dance as one of my classes – although I was allowed to take drama. It was clearly inferred that I wasn’t capable of the training that would be involved to be a performer. And being a secretary was deemed a more “appropriate” profession for me to take up. My question to this day is “appropriate for whom?” I suppose at the time, the thought was that as I was an intelligent teenage black woman, being a secretary was the best I could do. Ken Robinson, the creativity expert says in his book The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything:

“I believe passionately that we are all born with tremendous natural capacities, and that we lose touch with many of them as we spend more time in the world. Ironically, one of the main reasons this happens is education. The result is that too many people never connect with their true talents and therefore don’t know what they are capable of achieving”

I think it’s now generally accepted that at the time I was attending secondary school, from an educational standpoint creativity in children and young adults was discouraged, and more so if you were a person of colour. The thinking of, and lack of support from my teachers left me feeling extremely upset and needless to say I ignored their advice. It seemed to me that if I couldn’t do dance at school, I’ll do classes outside of the school system instead.

I began by attending dance classes at a youth centre (as they were known then) in London and then went on to study further at the Weekend Arts College. When I was fifteen I won a small role in a film called Knights and Emeralds. In the film, which was a sort of British version of Romeo and Juliet with marching brass bands. I was one of a team of black dancers, some ballet trained, most contemporary dance trained. Being around highly trained and professional dancers was inspirational and encouraging. It was obvious to that people who looked like me could be a dancer. So why not me? This thought spurred me on to follow my dream.

My dance activities continued throughout my schooling and exams. At the age of eighteen I successfully auditioned for the Rambert School, which is a memory I share in my show, What If I Told You. Overall, my memories of the intensive training at the Rambert School are generally positive, however, there were a couple of teachers at the school who clearly felt that I should not be there and expressed their concerns to me. And indeed, in making reference to my skin colour, it was made clear that as a young black woman, there was no way I would have a career in dance. Which was odd, especially because at the time they were telling me this, there was in the US a company called Dance Theatre of Harlem, an all black ballet dance company which had been in existence for thirty years at the time I was in training.

I believe to this day the two teachers were so opposed to me being a dancer because of colour of my skin. I guess it didn’t help matters when I taught contemporary dance at the Royal Ballet School’s White Lodge, which is their school for six to sixteen year old dancers. Needless to say they were not happy and after a year of teaching there, they got me fired from the job. Ultimately, I didn’t want to be a ballet dancer, contemporary dance was where my heart lay.

I achieved this by being a contemporary dancer in several well known dance companies across the UK. One was in Cardiff, but even here, as I was the first black woman to dance for the company, it seemed the need to make reference to my skin colour and gender as a “joke” was something I had to put up with. I remember the director of the company making jokes about the fact that coming from Hackney I shouldn’t even be a dancer, I should “have five kids wrapped round her neck and be claiming benefits, and yet I’ve allowed her to be in this company”, a joke that was not made in reference to anyone else. This went on for three out of the five years I was with the company and was something the director was quite happy to say to anyone who would listen all the while claiming he wasn’t racist. For most of the time in the company my costume always involved the shortest of short skirts because I “had good legs”. This hyper-sexualising of my body plus bullying from others was something I railed against throughout my time with the company. There are many more instances I can give, but these give an indication.

There is more going on here than an examination of just one black woman’s encounters with prejudice and stereotyping. What’s going on under the cover? Is this also an investigation into how power and politics play into gender and race?

Absolutely. The show begins with me and my experience but the commodification of the black female form has been going on for well over four hundred years, indeed the appropriation of black peoples and their culture has been happening for thousands of years. My hope for the show is that by aligning my experience of racism and prejudice with the “experiments” of James Marion Sims during the 1800s, I hope the audience gains the understanding that what I’m feeling isn’t simply a disquiet about my own experience, in the here and now. Sims epitomises the idea of the black body’s inability to feel pain, and the black female body in particular, being seen as “abnormal”. This is something that has been going on for such a long time, it’s ingrained in western society.

The societal systems in both the UK and the US have racism as the default. The experience of the aggressor and the oppressed have become synonymous and this collectively feeds into the societal narrative which places peoples of colour and more so, black women in positions of servitude and disempowerment. This goes back to the mental slavery of British colonisation instated on the African continent during the enslavement of African Peoples. British colonisation and its aftermath is a subject UK society still struggles to acknowledge, accept and come to terms with to this day. This commodification of the black female body is clearly seen with the ways British society fetishised Sarah Baartman for instance. My experience of this is but a small part of a long history of disempowerment of the black woman.

I understand that the audience in What If I Told You participates to such an extent that the seats are cordoned off in the auditorium leaving nowhere for the audience to go but on the stage. What is the logic behind this? What advantages do you (the performer/conductor) and the show gain from such an immersive way of involving the audience?

The expectation of the audience is to enter the theatre, be given a seat of their choosing, consume the entertainment and go home. This is the expectation of any audience who go to traditional theatre. However, my daily experience of traversing white dominated spaces is that I can’t afford to have expectations of even being accepted in the room I am attending and seek ways to manage my feelings in such situations in real time. Ultimately I have no choice but to be comfortable with the discomfort of not knowing how people in a room will react to my presence. This way of thinking can become a dichotomy as I have ultimately chosen to be in the room. I wish for audiences to experience this feeling by being in my shoes, even for a moment. In removing the seating, the audience do have a choice of being active participants in a situation that is not exactly of their choosing. The audience are confronted with their own expectations, and how to deal with the new challenge of being in a room full of strangers for an hour without seating. Immediately the audience knows there can be no expectations.

No one really knows what will happen during the time they share with me. It is an uncomfortable situation which enables audiences to come together to figure out how to negotiate the choices they make throughout the hour and who to engage with moment by moment. By the end, we – myself and the audience – understand that together we have created a safe space, one where I hope people understand that it’s OK to be open and connect with others. It’s a way of being that I feel we can all achieve, if we choose to.

I read that you were once told by a dance teacher, “I don’t know what to do with you. I’ve never taught a black body before.” What do you think (s)he meant by this? Is it in the same realm as James Sims’s, the so-called “father of modern gynaecology”, presumption that black bodies didn’t suffer pain in the way white bodies do?

Actually, this is something I shed a little light on in the show. I do not know the teacher’s intentions in making such a statement, you’ll have to ask the teacher directly as to why she made the comment. And certainly in the show I leave the question for the audience to answer. I’m happy to share my thoughts.

I believe the intention was to infer that I was somehow not the same as the other students. That my skin colour was somehow making it difficult for the teacher to teach me. I also believe the comment was a way of isolating and ostracising me. To be honest I felt it was a failure on the teacher’s part to put her personal feelings about me aside and use her skills to teach what she seemed to indicate was an unteachable student. Is it in the same realm as Sims’ presumptions about black bodies? I feel so in a way, yes. Although Sims’ assertions was about the black body being incapable of feeling physical pain, I feel very strongly that the comment to me was on some level a subconscious presumption that I wouldn’t or shouldn’t be offended by what was being said. I remember feeling quite angry at the teacher for mentioning of my skin colour and was unsure what the colour of my skin had to do with teaching me dance.

What ever issue the teacher had an issue with teaching me, was there really a need to involve my skin colour as a basis for her inadequacies? It’s a question only the teacher can answer.

How does James Sims’s story intersect with yours? Why is his story still relevant today?

Quite simply, we are both people whose professions involve a group of observers watching our experiments in a theatre. Obviously there are very different reasons for gathering a group of people together to watch and I’m not in any way saying that Sims and I are of the same mindset. This is not the case. But Sims’ “experiments” did produced the vaginal speculum which all women know as the instrument used in smear tests. It’s a fact that most people are completely unaware of. However, it’s not Sims’ story that is of relevance. This show was not created to shine a light on his “achievements”, rather it is a provocation. What does it mean to be human in the twenty-first Century and why is it so difficult to talk about skin colour prejudice?

Tell us a little about how you got started in your practice. Which came first, dancing or the theatre? Why combine the two disciplines?

To be honest, the dance and theatre began at the same time, and indeed up to the age of eighteen, I very much had the idea of doing both. I began by taking classes drama classes at Hoxton Hall in Hackney whilst taking dance classes at the White Lion Youth Centre in Islington. My dual training continued at the Weekend Arts College which I mentioned earlier.  As well as taking classes in dance, I was a member of the youth performance company known as Fusion. You can see a link to what we did back then here .

It is a nineteen year old me. It’s an interesting watch. From there I attended a dance foundation course at Both East London Technical College as it was known then (now Lewisham College). At the age of eighteen I took a decision to train as a dancer. The idea being that I was aware there was a finite time of being a physical performer and I figured I’d give dancing a go as I could always take the decision to return to theatre later. Which is exactly what has happened.

How does your art aim to make society better? What are you doing that can’t be achieved by the welfare state? How does changing yourself play into changing society?

These are very big questions. It’s not for me to make society better, or to offer something different to the welfare state. Those decisions are for the electorate (through voting in the general elections) making decisions as to which political party comes close to having a strategy that could to fix such issues and for the elected government to sort out. The only action I need to take as an artist is to open the door to another way of looking at things and invite the audience to walk thorough it. That’s all. The show makes a provocation to the audience… what does it meant to be human? And how does this question relate to people in their daily life? As an artist it is my responsibility to ask the question. It’s up to audiences how they answer them

What sits in the intersection between dance and theatre? What have you gained from undergoing the process of making this show?

I have no idea what sits in the intersection and that is the joy: the beauty and the challenge of attempting to find out. I had many conversations with the West Yorkshire Playhouse who are my co-producing partners on the show about this very thing. There is dance, dance theatre, theatre, physical theatre, as well as musical theatre. But is there an intersection of the genres that defies classification? The UK has an amazing ability to place people and things in boxes, boxes that can be used as a shorthand to describe a person or things or considered a way to tick something off a list as dealt with. But doing so stops any form of dialogue. I feel the use of boxes is a way of disconnecting from the world around you.

All you have to do is to look at equality monitoring forms that are attached to most job applications to see the amount of box ticking people have to both endure and to a certain extent self identify with. All in the illusion of society dealing with the concerns and issues that arise – which it patently hasn’t. So, what happens if you can’t place something in a nice neat box? How do people relate to something they can’t name? Can people relate to something that cannot be named? Does it matter if you can’t name it? And to whom?

What If I Told You is my initial experiment into such questions. What my learning will ultimately be as a result of this process, I don’t know. The show is just coming to the end of a preview tour, and I have a run at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in August which I’m really excited about, and I already have a few dates in the autumn. As long as the show is being performed I know that my learning will continue. What I know right now is that nothing is as it seems. It’s no different to life in that way I suppose.

There are no hard and straight answers, to your question and my feeling is, nor should there be. If it’s a question I can answer, the allure and intrigue are no longer present and I lose interest. For me, the exciting thing about looking at what the intersection could look like is what spurs me on in my practice.

I’ve read that you are calling what you do “theatre of the people”. Is making art a form of protest then? If so, how does this manifest itself?

I’m not a protester. I enjoy walking, yes, but personally, I feel going on a walk with others and chanting various slogans whilst holding aloft banners of dissidence, isn’t going to make a blind bit of difference to the politicians.

I consider myself to be an artistic revolutionist. I protest by making art that relates to the people. That enables people to connect to each other. I feel the arts is an integral part of what it means to be human, to being alive, to feel something other than the insane work/life balancing act we’ve created for ourselves. The arts has been able to predict the tide of public opinion by remaining firmly rooted to the public and their lives and by extension to humanity. It’s a means of provocation to the observer.

Robert Thom, J. Marion Sims: Gynecologic Surgeon (c. 1952), from “The History of Medicine”. Mayers features this image in What if I Told You?

For me, What If I Told You is disrupting the understanding that people from different walks of life cannot relate to each other. In fact, placing a group of strangers in a room together to share an experience enables a connection that becomes tangible. Just the other night after a show an audience member came to me and said they had realised through What If I Told You that another audience member literally lived across the street from them and they hadn’t spoken previously besides the usual nod of acknowledgement. It was a new connection for them both. So, if a person being asked to consider what it means to connect to another person is seen as a protest by others, I’m good with that. To be honest if even one person who sees my show still thinks about what they’ve seen weeks or even months later then I’m happy. I know that I have initiated the beginning of a change in that person who could see life a little differently.

Is there a difference between skin colour prejudice and race? What is it?

I’m no expert on this, I am simply a choreographer who makes theatre. That being said, I’m happy to share my thoughts on this. During the research for this show I came across the Five classifications of Man, a theory born out of the 1700s medical science.

It’s where the ideas of the human race being sub-grouped into “White”, “Yellow”, “Red”, “Brown” and “Black” races with according values placed on each skin colour began to be formalised with “White” being placed at the top of the food chain. People with dark skin where seen as lesser than the other “races” and had the values of laziness, anger and hyper-sexuality imposed upon them at the same time as Europeans with white skin were highly active in the transatlantic slave trade, forcibly taking mainly African peoples with dark skin in to chattel slavery.

It seems this “classification” was a large factor in ramping up the Trans-Atlantic slave trade from the 1700s onwards. It’s a classification that has never really been challenged in wider society. Indeed the ideas of the “angry black woman” and “the black man with the big dick” are stereotypes that have come from that time and lives through to today such is the power of the “theory”. It was claimed the initial concept of race was based on scientific evidence. However, as far as I can tell, now, in the twenty-first century, the idea of the human race being sub-grouped into different races has largely been debunked in the scientific community. The human genome project has put paid to that idea. Anthropologists see such terminology as being deeply problematic and use other terms instead including ethnicity. However, this hasn’t been relayed in British society. Nowadays the term “race” is physically, emotionally, psychologically, and politically charged and feels to me to continue to view the diversity in skin colour in human beings as different species. I would rather the conversation on skin colour was brought to it’s simplest form.

I’ve read that you have broken through perceived conventions of what a woman from a poor black background can achieve. What is your proudest achievement so far? What is still to be done? How have you defied expectations and stereotypes?

Interesting use of the phrase poor black background. It’s not how I would describe myself. I come from Hackney in East London, and at one point in time, the borough was seen as the poorest borough in the UK, this much is true. My Dad worked on the railways and mum was a care assistant in a care home. We were by no means rich. I certainly dislike the use of boxes to identify myself, which is one of the reasons I created What If I Told You. And the show is my proudest achievement.

[1] Ken Robinson, “Introduction”, The Element: How Finding Your Passion Changes Everything (Penguin, 2010): xi