Arts: Rummaging in life's underbelly

Domestic diva Bobby Baker takes her audience back into a real classroom.
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The Independent Culture
Bobby Baker actively seeks odd places for her performances, out of the ordinary spaces where artists don't normally go. She has opened her own house to audiences; performed in Chelsea's Physic Garden; in community halls for Women's Institutes - in the grey nether lands where art is seen as a cultural extravagance.

Her latest performance, Grown-Up School, is being performed at a fully functioning London primary school, where 37 languages make up the rich colourful mix of an inner-city school. Inhibiting? Definitely. But Baker has no fear that they won't get the message. Having toured Cooking Dems, Drawing on A Woman's Experience, The Kitchen Show and How to Shop, previous audiences got the message loud and clear.

To consign Baker to the ditsy parameters of performance art is to miss the point. The simplicity of her work is not to be confused with it being simple. It's powerful, with hard realities being sweetened by humour. As Baker herself observes: "It allows people, particularly women, to examine their own experiences". Thus she has explored the creative and meditative aspects of housework, and relived early motherhood when she splattered foodstuffs Jackson Pollock-style onto a sheet. Using treacle for the whirling pits of post-natal depression, with flour settling like the healing power of love over "the canvas'", she wrapped the smothered sheet around her, imprinting all those experiences onto herself - and walked off stage.

The response is laughter and sometimes tears with quiet recognition and identification. The battyness sugars the political aspect as she rummages in the vast underbelly of life; by concentrating on the specific she blows the particular into the universal experience. "I decided very early on, when I was in my early twenties, that I wanted to base my work on my experiences. It was the only way I would have any integrity in what I was saying. Then I just had to hope for the best that it was accessible."

Grown-Up School is Bobby Baker's fourth in a The Daily Life quintet commissioned by LIFT - the London International Festival of Theatre. It investigates areas of daily life that are normally taken for granted and "how larger more important aspects of life are reflected in the minute and mundane details of our every day existence."

In the midst of the chatter and clatter of the school day, 27 members of the audience will gather in the playground, be taken on a tour of the school, see the pupils' view of Grown-Up School and then revisit childhood sitting on tiny chairs facing each other at square blocks of desks. Dressed in white overalls, pink, knee-high, lace-up boots, Baker will give the lesson with the help of three school pupil monitors.

It has been the most harrowing and risky project that Baker has undertaken. Examining her childhood and youth from the perspective of middle-aged motherhood has been painful. However, having embarked on the course she is not someone to balk at it. Baker does not hide behind an alter ego when performing. "It is me - but different versions of me". Rooted in her Fifties experience, it is as much about how she related to her parents and how she was treated, as about her own childhood. "It is terribly important how we relate to children because that is where it all starts. It strikes me as bizarre that we take for granted how we treat people. If we dealt with people with more care and attention so many things would not go wrong."

Onto this stage come "the berries", strawberry stick people. The berries, like ventriloquists with their dummies, give Baker the latitude to act vicariously through the squashy, vulnerable beings. The performance is an adventure about what happens to the berries. Within that is a layered, complex examination of life and how children are treated and how we view our childhood which in turn feeds into thoughts about society, life in general, good and evil. It is also funny.

Grown-Up School is a two-pronged project. The school has bent over backwards to accommodate this production. Baker is emphatic that the play is her and her ideas, not the children's'. But everyone is very aware of what is happening and what the subject matter is. Baker, her director Polona Baloh Brown and and LIFT's education officer, Tony Fegan, have run workshops with the children to explore the same topic. The results (some themes reflect Baker's Grown-Up School) are documented in a book revealing their thoughts on uniforms, buildings, self-esteem, problems and punishment. "Grown-Up School is for children to teach adults what it is to be a child." A common comment is "parents need to learn to understand their children more", or "learn to understand each other." Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings...