Whether it’s as an artist, writer or performer, Scottee is always finding ways to change the way you think. Using his work as a space to challenge ageism, fatphobia and classism, among many other issues, he is also outspoken about the financial and mental health stress placed upon artists in the creative industries.
In addition, he’s the Artistic Director of Scottee & Friends where, alongside Executive Producer Molly Nicholson, he works to create award-winning cabaret, drag, circus, live art, dance and theatre shows. A collective of creatives and theatre-makers, the company self-describes as “a bunch of fat, queer, common femmes and fags who make stuff that makes you think and feel” and have been entertaining both audiences and critics alike.
To celebrate the 60th anniversary of Dr. Martens 1461, we called Scottee up over Zoom to discuss his Dr. Martens story, alternative forms of learning and why the best art has a political message.
When did you discover your creativity?
When I was 14, I was expelled from school. The education system failed me and never placed me back into education. My mum saw that the art space across the road from our estate had weekend workshops so she signed me up. Essentially, it was from that moment that I was like, “this is fun.” Through volunteering on a project for that, I met people who wanted to invest time into me. So it was all a massive accident, I didn’t train, I’ve got no qualifications, I’ve made it up as I’ve gone along. I guess [my practice] comes from a sense of justice and service and things that have affected my life really inform a lot of the work I make.
What are your thoughts on mainstream arts education as someone that’s created a career without it?
I’m often invited to go into institutions and talk about my practice and how I’ve done it, often on the assumption that [formal education is] the way that I did it. There is a sense of traditional trajectory within the arts, you have to go through certain steps. I always say to those students that you’ve got to carve out of a way that works for you and the one that’s available to you. Education is a privilege in this country, further education particularly. I got through the back door and it takes a lot of kicking. Where it stands, where kids leave university with 40 grand debt and they’re trying to go into an industry which will economically compromise them, it’s a really difficult ask. Particularly if those kids are working class kids and they’re having to work all the hours God sends as well as study and then as soon as they come out of university, often there’s an expectation that they can help support the family and themselves. It makes it really tricky, so I’m really into alternative forms of learning and giving people experience on the job whilst they’re getting paid.
Tell us about your company Scottee & Friends: how did it form and what does it do?
I met my producer Molly [Nicholson] about five years ago and essentially we were looking to set up the company because funders and organisations wanted to work with us but they wanted us to have the same things that they do — like they want a marketing team to talk to. There’s an expectation on artists to have the same resources as major organisations so the impetus was to set that up to better support the work. The more that we started to do the work that we believe in, which is community-led and participant-based, the more our collective started to grow alongside a natural family of artists and makers, who essentially became the company. We’ve decided to take a more communal, collective approach, where we use the “brand” of Scottee to allow us to keep opening doors for people like me, who will try and kick the back door in. None of the community works or tours are solely me or solely Molly’s idea, they’re a collective-made idea. That’s what makes our work good because there’s lots of different people coming from lots of different perspectives to try and give you the most rounded, politically direct and effective experience.
Would you say that your company relates to ideas of paying it forward?
Within the company, we have development roles which are about giving people on-the-job learning and skills-based learning. But I always find it difficult to talk about that, I don’t want it to be Princess Diana syndrome. It’s not like we’re coming along and they knew nothing before we ever integrated with them. Actually, they bring with them a wealth of skills and value that’s so important to the company. It’s a mutual relationship. Instead of paying it forward, it’s about paying it together. We also started the Working Class Artist Group as well, which is a collective focussed on creating opportunities and visibility for working class artists and audiences within the arts sector and, again, that is a collective run model. It’s very much a mutual exchange and it isn’t me or other artists in position of “Let me show you how”. We’re aware that me and other artists who circulate around this group, Scottee and Friends and the Working Class Artist Group, have the ear of the sector. We try to use that for good.
What’s a conversation that more people should be having?
There are so many conversations which the UK should be have having on a much grander scale, this country thinks it’s doing the work but it really isn’t. I wouldn’t know where to start, apart from radical empathy. It sounds ludicrous but if we were just nice to each other, a lot of stuff would iron itself out, wouldn’t it?
You work a lot across performance, why does that medium appeal to you?
With lots of other art forms, you can look at it or read it and then step away from it. It doesn’t really affect your life, because you can distance yourself from it. But there’s something so confronting about performance, particularly the sort of performance that I’m making, where I have a direct conversation with an audience and I don’t pretend to be somebody else. It’s kind of ignorable and it puts people on the spot.
Why is it important that art has a political purpose?
Art is one of the last moments in our lives, in our culture, in our society, in which it has almost complete anonymity from government control, where we are able to utilise our freedom of speech, our personal opinion, and reflect it to the world. Art does a really beautiful thing, where it shows you the rubbish that’s going on in the world, and reflects it back at you and says, “Now you clean the puppy.” I think it’s really important that we encourage it and fund it. What we learn about ourselves through art is important, not just as individuals but as a collective. If work isn’t political, I’m not interested, we’re living in political times!
What is your Dr. Martens story?
Dr. Martens is evidently a brand who want to align themselves with the left side of politics. It seems like they are genuinely interested in making sure the brand is aligned with their ethics and the ethics that they think is right for the world.
The 1461s you’re wearing right now have just turned 60 — are they looking good for their age?
They’re well made, they’re a good shoe. My mum always said to me, “Don’t buy cheap shoes, because they’ll ruin your feet.” Sometimes, good shoes that are good for your feet can be boring but there is something about what Dr. Martens do in terms of their collaborations and always trying to think what the next youth look might be. You don’t ever feel old-fashioned wearing them.
Stay tuned for more Activism At Home stories throughout the month of April. Shop the 1461 at drmartens.com.