Category Archives: Being a Working Artist

Writing Vox

Two months since my last blog post? Really? Busy times – busy and really exciting!

In April I was over in Milan for the opening of #SonsOfGod: Vox, the adaptation of Coriolanus that I wrote for Charioteer Theatre. I’ve been acquainted with Charioteer since I assisted on a show of theirs about eight years ago, and I was thrilled to be approached about the possibility of writing for them this time last year – even more so considering that Coriolanus is one of my favourite Shakespeare plays.

The process of creating Vox was longer and more complex than any show I’ve worked on before. The brief was quite specific, requiring me to include elements like rap music and social media and to find a treatment that would appeal to both young and fully-fledged adults, mostly non-native English speakers. I knew we would be working with the School of Cinema in Milan, so video would be integral to the piece. There was a lot to consider.

Fortunately I was allowed to be present at the auditions, so I had met the actors and got a sense of their qualities. I much prefer writing for specific actors to writing first and casting later – it means I can write for the actors’ less obvious qualities and hopefully offer them roles that will challenge and intrigue them. Sometimes I’ll see something in an actor that unlocks the character or completely changes my intention. Once I knew who would be in the production everything began to take shape – and you can see the results below.

What followed was a very generous development period, a ton of hard work from everyone involved, and a nerve-wracking flight to Italy – I’m a slightly nervous flyer at the best of times, and it turns out that flight nerves coupled with show nerves aren’t fun. But once I got there, remembered how beautiful Milan is, saw the incredible space that is the Studio Melato and watched the first performance… I won’t say I relaxed, because that’s definitely not the right word. I had a wonderful feeling of certainty that it was a good, strong show. The audience’s reaction was fantastic, so was the response from the Piccolo, and I felt truly happy with what we had made and my part in it.

I’m planning to write more about the process of writing for specific actors, about the comedown from Vox after my return to Scotland and about Unfinished Demon Play, the piece I’ve written during mentoring through  Playwrights’ Studio Scotland. I’ll get to those things, but in the meantime have some pictures from Vox (by kind permission of Trish Hamilton Photography):

Aufidius - Michael Cooke

Coriolanus - Daniel Hird

Apology


A Provocation for the Declaration Festival

Tonight (technically last night, since it’s about 1am) I gave a provocation at the Declaration Festival. It was for the closing event, responding to Article 24 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (the right to rest and leisure). I was delighted to be part of it, particularly to be in the company of Jenny Lindsay and Harry Giles and their excellent, deeply personal responses to the topic. 

My own response was likewise personal. Unsurprisingly, I came at it from the mental health angle. This is the text…

 

Hi. I’m Jen. You might already know that. I’m never sure how much you know.

 

Thanks for coming. Not that you had a choice, but still… thank you.

 

I hope you like the weather. I chose it specially. I thought it would be a good introduction to my mood, you know? A bit grey. Frosty. Kind of a foreshadowing thing.

 

It’s really nice to see everyone here today. What’s even nicer is that I’m pretty sure that most of you are real. You look real.

 

Except you. You, not so much. I’m not sure whether I’m hallucinating you or not, and it’s not really polite for me to ask complete strangers whether they’re real or not. Normally I wouldn’t call attention to you, just in case you are a hallucination and everyone thinks I’m crazy for interacting with someone who isn’t there. I’d wait until someone else has demonstrated that you’re real to them before I said or did anything involving you. It’s a bit convoluted, I know – the easiest way to establish your reality would be to touch you, but there are two problems with that. First, if you’re not real then this entire room full of people would see me waving my hand through empty air. Second, if you are real then – wait, actually, it’s three problems. Because the second problem would be that I’d just started pawing at a stranger for no apparent reason, and the third would be that while we were in physical contact you might be able to read my thoughts.

 

That’s why I’ll avoid shaking anybody’s hand if I can. You seem like very nice people, and I’ve no doubt your hands are clean and everything, but I’m sure you’ll understand that I don’t really like letting people read my mind until I get to know them a bit better. It makes job interviews and networking sessions a bit of a bitch. Especially when people don’t employ me or don’t reply to me, because then I wonder whether it’s because they saw something in my mind that they didn’t like. I wouldn’t blame them. There’s a lot in there that I don’t like. And here’s an interesting thing – I’ve never succeeded in getting work from someone whose initial greeting involved a kiss on the cheek. I hate cheek-kissing. If touching my hand gives you access to my thoughts, kissing my cheek is like plunging head-first into them. So I’ll keep my distance and run the risk that you’ll think I’m stand-offish. I get that a lot. Stand-offish, reserved, arrogant, bitchy… I just don’t want to let you into my head, that’s all. I’m sorry. It’s not meant as a slight.

 

And now I’m noticing that all of these people are staring at me and that means I’ve been concentrating on you for far too long, trying to figure out whether you’re real. That suggests that you’re not and that I’ve been looking at an empty chair for all this time. So they think I’m weird already. And it’s not that they’re wrong – I’m well aware that normal people don’t have these kind of hallucinations – but I would rather they got to know the professional side of me first. The functioning side. And now they haven’t. Again.

 

The worst thing is that it didn’t have to be this way. I’m in control of this situation, after all. This entire room is part of my story, it’s a construct made in my own mind, so in theory I could turn it into anything I like. Surely, if everything here is the product of my will, I could have manifested a scenario in which I walk into the room and you all automatically think I’m amazing? I could have dreamt up people who have been waiting their whole lives to hear public speaking skills like mine. Why would I imagine a situation where people look at me with long faces, or sneakily check their phones while I’m talking, or think I’m crazy just because I sometimes see things that aren’t there?

 

Oh. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry, you look like you’re having a terrible time. Is it just to do with this? Or is it something bigger? If I’ve imagined you, if I’ve made you exist, have I given you an existence that’s that bad? I’ve done that before, and I feel pretty guilty about it. So if I have… If I have then I’m really sorry, but I don’t know what to do about it. The easiest thing, the usual thing, is for me to steer clear of other people. If I can manage my environment, it’s easier to tell when things are real. It limits the possibilities, but not in a bad way. Just in a way that makes life more manageable. Less exhausting.

 

Because that’s what this is. Exhausting. Every time I’ve been in treatment, when I’ve explained the experience of this lovely combination of schizotypal ideas of reference, magical thinking and good old ADD, that’s what my various therapists and head-shrinkers have said. “That must be exhausting.” Every time. And they’re right.

 

They’re right.

 

This is my punishment, my penance, the price I pay for bringing you into existence and making you miserable. The price of inhibited dopamine uptake, deficient serotonin production, of a genetic quirk that triggered an intermittent madness in me. A mind that never stops tormenting me for the real and imagined things I’ve done. A brain I can’t trust, can’t ever turn my back on. A reality in which I can never, ever… rest.

 

And that’s why I’ll always struggle with Article 24, the Right to Rest and Leisure. For someone like me, with a mind like mine, the management never stops. No amount of recognition or legislation will ever be able to force me to let up on myself. The coping mechanisms have to be constant, otherwise they won’t exist at all.

 

But because of that, I appreciate everything that leaves me with only this battle to fight. The wider the recognition of the right to rest and leisure, the more I feel like I have breathing space. Time to myself, time to hide from the world and focus on quieting the noise in my head. Knowing this to be my right makes me feel better when I see the judgemental faces that my brain conjures up looking at me as if I’m lazy or workshy or seeking attention.

 

Are they judgmental, these faces? Your faces? Are the expressions I see on them real? Are the faces themselves real?

 

I don’t know, and I don’t think I’ll ever have enough energy to reach a conclusive answer.

 

All I know is this.

 

I’m tired.

 

And I need to rest.


Somewhere in the #GlasgowEffect stooshie, there’s a non-subjective question…

If you’re involved in the arts in Scotland and you don’t live under a rock, you’ve probably heard of The Glasgow Effect by now. No, I don’t mean the phenomenon whereby people from Glasgow have an unusually short life expectancy, but the art project of the same name by Ellie Harrison.

Over the past day and a half Scottish Twitter (which Buzzfeed informs me is A Thing) has gone nuts over this project. Bloggers and journalists have jumped in to have their say about the nature of the project, the nature of funding, the nature of art and the horrors of the online world.

I’m not here to write about my opinion on any of these things. It doesn’t matter what I think of her project or her decision to title it The Glasgow Effect or to use a picture of chips to represent it. It doesn’t matter whether she’s English, Scottish, Martian or Prefer Not To Say. The point is that as far as I can tell, her application for Creative Scotland’s Open Project Funding should never have been assessed, let alone granted.

Creative Scotland’s guidelines can be found here. On Page 13 they say “Academics or other education professionals seeking funding related to their educational role cannot apply.” Seems pretty clear, doesn’t it?

Ellie Harrison is a lecturer at Duncan of Jordanstone College. But of course lecturers take sabbaticals, and a lecturer who is also an artist might very well take time away from her post to concentrate on her practice, right? Right. And that would seem quite legitimate… but it doesn’t seem to be what’s happening here.

The day after this teacup tempest began, Harrison made a pinned post on the Glasgow Effect Facebook event. Here it is, quoted in full (emphasis mine):

 

Hi everyone, thanks so much for your interest and engagement in the project: both positive and negative. Glasgow has been my home for seven-and-a-half years and to suddenly have a response like this to one of my projects has been quite overwhelming. You have given me so much material to digest, it will take the whole year to do so. I hope to follow-up by meeting many of you face-to-face, when all the fuss has died down.

Before I sign off Facebook for a while, I would like to address the important questions raised about the money. Anyone who’s done any research about me will know that I am interested in the undesirable consequences of certain funding systems, and, I am working to set-up a radical alternative: the Radical Renewable Art + Activism Fund. This will form the bulk of my workload in 2016 whilst in the city…

Like any provocative artwork, The Glasgow Effect has been devised to operate on many levels at once, and the questions about ‘community’ being raised on/off social media these last few days is certainly one of them. As much as I do care sincerely about the environmental issues raised by the project as my previous work should testify, I also want to highlight the absurd mechanisms at play within Higher Education which were its initial impetus.

In the interests of transparency and to provide a more detailed context for the project, I will shortly publish the full text from my Application to Creative Scotland on the Tumblr. The Application was written over the course of one month in June 2015, in order to fulfil one of the criteria of my 3.5 year ‘probation’ for my Lecturing post at the University. I was required to “write and submit a significant research grant application”. After one unsuccessful attempt, on 20 October 2015 I was awarded the grant. Since then, I have been negotiating an Agreement with the University to ‘donate’ the £15,000 to them in exchange for paid ‘Research Leave’ in order to undertake the project.

In this Agreement I have been careful to stipulate that the money be used solely to cover my teaching responsibilities and that a post be advertised externally, in order to:
a) create a job opportunity for a talented artist in Scotland
b) provide the best possible experience for my students in my absence

The fact that this University, like most others in the UK, now requires its Lecturing staff to be fundraisers and is willing to pay them to be absent from teaching as a result, should be the focus of this debate.

At least now, thanks to you all, I have ticked the Creative Scotland’s ‘Public Engagement’ box, I can get on with the real work.

 

So the £15,000 will be (or already has been) given to Duncan of Jordanstone College to allow them to hire someone to replace Harrison for a year. The application itself was written to satisfy her employer’s requirements. Obtaining this funding and carrying out this project allows Harrison to continue in her lecturing role. Fair enough… but how is this not “seeking funding related to [her] educational role”? And if the funding she sought *is* related to her educational role, then by Creative Scotland’s own rules her application shouldn’t even have been assessed.

Creative Scotland put out a statement in support of Ellie Harrison yesterday. Here it is (again, emphasis mine):

 

Regarding the current debate around Ellie Harrison’s project…

Ellie is a recognised artist with an MA with Distinction from the Glasgow School of Art. Her idea, articulated in a strong proposal with the working title “Think Global, Act Local”, met all the criteria for Open Project Funding. It focused on exploring whether it’s possible for an artist to generate an existence for themselves by living, working and contributing to a single community, as opposed to being constantly on the road because of the need to earn money from commissions from different places that incur costly travel and accommodation costs and high carbon footprint usage.

Ellie’s project is based on the premise that if society wishes to achieve global change, then individuals have to be more active within their communities at a local level. In restricting herself to staying within the city boundaries she is keen to explore what impact this will have her on her life and on her work as an artist with national and international commitments.

Our funding will support Ellie’s creative practice in Glasgow and we will be interested to see how the project progresses. As part of our funding conditions we will require an evaluation of the project once it is completed.

 

So according to Creative Scotland, The Glasgow Effect fits the Open Project Funding criteria. Which either means that CS isn’t au fait with its own criteria, or that artists *can* apply for funding that relates to their academic roles, in which case they need to rewrite their guidelines more accurately.

 

 

 

That said, Creative Scotland makes no mention of the money going to Harrison’s college and their way of putting things seems contrary to hers. I wonder if they’re actually aware of how it’s being used? They should be, since artists have to present a projected budget when they apply for funding (while the text of the application can be seen here, the budget was not included along with the other supporting documents). But again, if they are aware that the funds are going straight to Duncan of Jordanstone, how do they reconcile that with stating that Open Project Funding can’t be used for anything relating to an artist’s academic role?

 

 

 

I’ve put this question to Creative Scotland on Facebook and Twitter. I’ve yet to receive a reply, but then they seem to be keeping a bit of a low profile today. If I haven’t heard back by this evening I’ll email them directly, and whatever they tell me I’ll be happy to share. It’s quite possible that there’s something I’ve missed, something that allows them to bend their criteria this far, or some explanation that has passed between Harrison and Creative Scotland but hasn’t made it into the public sphere.

 

 

 

For the sake of the others who straddle art and academia, I think it’s worth pursuing an explanation. I want to find out if this funding stream, which currently looks like it’s closed to any academia-related projects, is actually more open than it appears. And I want to be reassured that Creative Scotland is being as scrupulous as it needs to be about observing its own policies…

 

 

EDIT: Creative Scotland has responded. Quoted in full:

 

Just to confirm that the £15,000 funding that was awarded to Ellie Harrison for the project, originally titled “Think Global, Act Local!”, through our Open Project Fund was to support the artist in her work on this project and the development of her creative practice. The funds will not be paid to Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design to cover the costs of her teaching post. This complies with our criteria for funding through the Open Project Funding route which states that it can be used to support “the time to research, develop or create work or content including artist’s bursaries to support practice development.”

 

Well, now I’m *really* confused. I think Creative Scotland and Ellie Harrison need to have a wee chat and figure out whose version of events they want to use in future. At best, one or other of them is incorrect about this…

 


Due giorni a Roma – Comfort & Joy at TREND

24 hours ago I was in Rome, sitting on the floor at Ciampino airport and trying to ignore the ache in my feet. Now I’m back in Edinburgh, my feet hurt slightly less, and I can hardly believe that the past three days have happened.

 

The reason for the mad dash to Rome was that one of my plays was being performed there – my first play outside the UK! Comfort & Joy, my Christmas tragedy, was on the bill at the Trend Festival, part of a programme of British new writing.

 

I was delighted to see my play featured alongside work by established writers like Simon Stephens and David Greig, and very excited to see what would be done with it. The two actors, Elisabetta Scarano and Bianca Vanoni, proposed to translate it. That was daunting – it’s nerve-wracking enough handing a script over to a director, but giving my words to someone along with permission to turn them into other words was something else. I speak Italian and can translate from it into English, but I’m not nearly fluent enough to translate into it, so I knew I couldn’t tackle the task myself. I concluded that I could either breathe down Elisabetta and Bianca’s necks and demand approval of the text, or I could just put my trust in them and see what happened. I chose to do the latter and gave them carte blanche to cut and rearrange as they saw fit.

 

So, having handed the script over to a group of perfect strangers, I was quite nervous when I arrived at the beautiful Teatro Belli, tucked away in Trastevere, on Saturday night…

 

The first thing I saw was a blank stage, bare apart from two chairs and two microphones. I was intrigued. I wondered how handheld mics were going to fit into a play that draws heavily on Dickens and the dark side of festive Victoriana. When the house lights went down and Santa Claus is Coming to Town began blaring over the speakers, I wondered even more. Of one thing I was certain – this was not going to be a straightforward naturalistic production!

 

Although director Marcela Serli had never met me, she seemed to have had a good look into my gothy little mind. Her production was tight, sparse and monochrome. The two sisters, identically clad in black, were lit only by stark white spotlights, two pale ghost-faces trapped in darkness. Where the script called for them to sing or dance, the sisters would try and fail. Stage directions projected onto the wall would spell out their intentions while the characters found themselves unable to participate in their own story. I loved it.

 

I really appreciated seeing a director doing something so abstract with the script. Comfort & Joy lends itself to that more than my other plays, and I was keen to see the script treated as a starting point rather than a blueprint. What I saw drew on Brecht and Artaud. Where I had envisaged pain so suppressed that it can barely be expressed even in soliloquy, Marcela had seen pain that she could bring out with operatic intensity. The world she created was even smaller and more claustrophobic than the one I had imagined, which made the antagonism between the sisters feel sharper and more vicious. I felt more acutely aware of the presence of their domineering late mother than I did when I wrote the piece.

 

It’s hard to write this post without it simply turning into a love-in. Before I get any more caught up, suffice it to say that I was delighted with what I saw. This was the first time I’d seen a play of mine directed and performed by people who didn’t know me at all. Usually I’m directly involved – I write for specific actors, I come into rehearsals, or I give the piece to a director whose work I’m familiar with. They tend to know me fairly well. On those occasions when my work has been directed and performed by people I didn’t know, I haven’t been able to attend. So this was a new experience, and I’m very glad to have had it.

 

It was also amazing to hear the play in Italian. Bianca and Elisabetta, in addition to giving very fine performances, did a great job with the translation. Their cuts and amendments made sense, and the language added a new dimension. The rhythms and cadences of Italian suit the heightened feel of the play. The sisters are theatrical by instinct and upbringing. Their words, particularly their soliloquies, are lyrical even in English, so they work well in a language which, as someone once said to me, non si parla, si canta.

 

The company is keen to take the show further, and I sincerely hope that they will. I’d be very happy to see them doing more with it, and to extend it and tailor it to them now that I have some idea of their qualities. Brave, Elisabetta, Bianca e Marcela!

 

Now I’ve just about got time to let my blisters heal before I’m back into rehearsal for #SonsOfGod: Vox with Charioteer Theatre, which will open in Milan in April…

 

I was going to close this post with an embedded video, but since WordPress has changed everything and I don’t know how to do that any more, CLICK HERE TO SEE A LITTLE OF COMFORT & JOY!

(It’s not a rickroll, I promise.)


Thoughts on yesterday’s Edinburgh Performing Arts Development meeting

Yesterday I went along to the Edinburgh Performing Arts Development meeting at the City Art Centre. EPAD is a project run by Lucy Mason and Nicholas Bone to bring those involved in Edinburgh’s performing arts together, get them talking to each other and finding practical ways to share resources and match up means and needs.

It feels necessary and very useful. It’s open to anyone within the performing arts in Edinburgh, and so far the attendees have ranged from emerging artists just setting out to established practitioners and people who work for organisations like the Festival Theatre and the Traverse (which is a supporter of the EPAD scheme). It’s a good mix, and a great way to get into a discussion with people who might otherwise have proved tricky to network.

Network. Who actually likes networking? We’re all told how important it is, but how many artists actually consider themselves any good at it? And how many break into a cold sweat at the thought of it? It feels so calculating, deciding that a person is someone you must know and setting out to form a connection with them because it’s politic to do so. Trying to initiate a conversation for networking purposes can be a strained, tongue-tied affair, along the lines of trying to ask someone out but with the added pressure of knowing that you’ll run into this person again and again because it’s a small industry, so you can’t fuck it up. And if you’re in any way anxiety-prone, as many artists are, your attempts will be underscored by that voice in your head saying “This person doesn’t want to talk to you, why are you pestering them? Look at their face, they just want to have a quiet drink and here you are ruining it. Look at how long it’s taken for them to reply to you, they’re trying to find a polite way of asking you never to talk to them again. Leave them alone. Stop inflicting yourself on them. You suck at networking. And theatre. And life.”

What a luxury, then, to have a forum that allows connections to be formed in a less forced, more natural way. Instead of desperately trying to think of something witty and memorable to say, you can focus on the questions asked within the discussion groups. You’re there to talk shop, so you don’t have to worry that it might be boring or inappropriate to talk shop (always a concern out in the wild). There are clear instructions on how to move from group to group to ensure a good mix, so you don’t have to worry that you look like you’re following a particular person around the room. By the time the group discussions end, you’ve got a good idea of who you’d like to talk to and why, and you can start chatting to them about something they said during the discussions rather than relying on the usual “I love your work” intro (because while it’s probably true that you love the work of a person you’re trying to network, it’s such a cliche that it feels dreadful to say). There’s plenty of time left at the end for chats, and the room is spacious enough for the chats to be spread out. It’s a very good set-up, and I’m immensely grateful to Lucy and Nicholas for making it happen and facilitating so well.

During yesterday’s discussions, the two themes that stood out for me were Space and Communication. Edinburgh’s a city with a lot of underused or disused spaces. Many Council properties sit empty, just waiting for someone to come along and suggest a luxury hotel/student flats/superpub development, or to fall into a state of such disrepair that there is no alternative to demolition. Some spaces are used for temporary arts projects – the Market Street arches, for example, have housed a couple of pop-up festivals. Some start out as temporary projects but grow, bit by bit, into permanent (or as permanent as any such project can be) ones like St Margaret’s House. These temporary or not-so-temporary users are given the task of maintaining the building so that it doesn’t become derelict. They might not generate the same level of income for the council as commercial rental would – but if no-one wants or can afford to pay commercial rates for these spaces, surely non-commercial lets are better than disrepair and vandalism?

It’s not only the empty buildings that are worth considering, though. There are plenty of underused spaces within working buildings too. Meeting rooms and function suites that sit empty most of the time – the pub downstairs from me has a meeting room that is seldom used in the evenings, and they let me use it for table reads for no fee. As long as we buy drinks they’re happy, and sometimes they give us free chips. Several of my friends in London have rehearsed in theatre foyers during the day, while the building is staffed but they’re not actually disturbing anyone. Most of the artists I know are not proud about where they prepare their work. All they want is a space, preferably one that isn’t their bedroom or front room, and preferably one that won’t cost them so much that it renders the entire project impossible.

I’ll talk more about why we’re so short of rehearsal spaces in Edinburgh another day, though. The important thing to know is that it was a prevailing concern at yesterday’s meeting. No less important – perhaps even more so – was the issue of communication.

As I’ve said, major Edinburgh venues and companies were present yesterday, and that was fantastic… but there were a couple of notable exceptions. First, the Council. One Arts Officer was present, but looking at the Councillors listed on the minutes from the last Culture & Sport committee meeting, I don’t think any of them were there. They should have been, especially after the Desire Lines process where it was made clear repeatedly that artists need to be able to communicate with the Council directly. Funding EPAD was a good start, but the answer isn’t money. It’s joining the conversation in person.

Second, Creative Scotland. Yes, the organisation exists to serve the whole country, but Edinburgh exists as a part of that country. What happens here affects artists elsewhere in Scotland. Cultural policy and practice in the capital city should be of interest to CS, and they should be seen to engage. The City Art Centre is a few minutes from Waverley Gate. Yes, it was a Saturday, but it was Saturday for everyone. Most of the people in the room, if not all of them, were giving up their time for free, for something they believe in. When asked the question “Who would you most like to have a conversation with?”, most of my group agreed that they would appreciate a chance to speak to Creative Scotland, particularly to Janet Archer. There will be a chance to talk to Creative Scotland at their Open Sessions next month (though whether Janet Archer will be there I don’t know – I will tweet and ask), but wouldn’t it be nice to see someone from the organisation at an EPAD meeting? At something that isn’t organised by Creative Scotland itself? I think it would.

Of course, it’s entirely possible that no-one from either of these organisations had heard about yesterday’s meeting or was free to attend. This is not intended as a slight, but as an expression of hope for the future. They’re people we need in our networks, and I hope they’ll be represented at the next meeting, ready and eager to join the discussions and speak to artists face to face. I’m looking forward to it already.


A theatremaker’s plea: do shut up

I know better than to waste my time arguing with lazy clickbait articles. I do. It’s just… sometimes I can’t resist.

The piece of lazy clickbait in question is this article in The Telegraph, courtesy of Douglas McPherson. He is a theatre critic. In the theatre he toils not, neither does he spin, as someone once said. Yet he has a great deal to say about funding – specifically, that it should not come from the state.

He does not advocate an American-style system where the arts are dependent on philanthropy, you understand. He thinks that letting artists keep more of the money they make through tax breaks is the answer. Which is a lovely idea, except he doesn’t address the question of where the earnings of which they are to keep more should come from. Presumably they are supposed to come from the infallible commercial model, which McPherson believes is the key to producing great work.

In twenty years of reviewing, McPherson cannot recall a single subsidised show that he considered good. Not one. I thought I might have a look through his old reviews and find out whether this assertion was reflected in his critiques of subsidised and commercial productions. Unfortunately, for someone who boasts two decades of regular contributions to The Stage, The Telegraph, The Times and The Guardian, his reviews are remarkably hard to find. I’ve turned up his circus blog, several circus-related articles (mostly arguing in favour of live animals in circus acts), his romance writing alter ego… but in terms of reviews, I can only find references to the ones he wrote for What’s On, which aren’t archived online, and a couple of music reviews for The Telegraph. So I suppose we’ll just have to trust him on this one. Not a single good subsidised show in all that time. How hard that must have been for him, considering how much subsidised work a critic sees.

Commercial theatre, on the other hand, has filled McPherson’s days with joy. Commercial work is “new, vibrant, exciting and creative” – and entirely divorced from state subsidy. What utter nonsense this is. Subsidised and commercial theatre are not two discrete entities. They overlap. What happens in one influences the other.

Let’s have an example. David Pugh & Dafydd Rogers’ production of Calendar Girls was a massive financial success. (Let’s not argue about whether it was an artistic success or simply a way to cash in on the film’s success – let’s just assume for the moment that McPherson is correct and that it was, like other commercial work, new, vibrant, exciting and creative.) It toured from 2009 – 2012, with advance ticket sales of more than £1.7 million. It became the UK’s most successful touring play and grossed over £35 million. Amateur performance rights are now available so the play continues to generate income even when there isn’t a production on tour.

A triumph for commercial theatre, right? But of course, the story of that wildly successful tour doesn’t begin with Pugh and Rogers. The writer, Tim Firth, cut his teeth at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, a subsidised house. His first major success, Neville’s Island, was commissioned by the SJT. More than half of the women featured in the original cast spent their early years honing their craft in subsidised rep, national companies and the RSC. The theatre at which Calendar Girls first opened was Chichester Festival Theatre, also a subsidised house. Can it really be argued that this commercial success existed “without any need for government help”?

McPherson’s argument that subsidised theatre does not concentrate on “producing work the public might actually want to see” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Has The Woman in Black, which originated at the Stephen Joseph Theatre, run for quarter of a century because no-one wanted to see it? Or The Mousetrap, now 63 years old, which came to the West End after opening at the Theatre Royal in Nottingham? Do more recent shows like War Horse (National Theatre) and Black Watch (National Theatre of Scotland) tour the world without any demand for tickets? Or would McPherson suggest that people are somehow being coerced into purchasing tickets, then turning up out of politeness when really they would rather be anywhere else?

It’s all very well to say that if these shows are so successful, they should be self-sustaining. But that misunderstands the nature of theatre. Yes, some shows can become successful enough to meet the immense costs involved in putting them on. But it’s unrealistic to expect that every show will achieve this. There has to be some middle ground between the smash hits and the complete flops, because that’s where development happens.

The artists who created Black Watch and War Horse had full careers behind them. Those shows are the results of years spent developing craft and technique in subsidised theatres. Would they ever have existed, let alone become the massive hits that they were, without John Tiffany and Marianne Elliott being nurtured by venues like the Traverse or the Royal Exchange? Theatremakers don’t approach each show in isolation. Every new project benefits from all your previous experience. All the things you’ve learned on previous shows, every success and failure you’ve ever had – they all inform the work you do. The failures are as important a part of a theatremaker’s development as the successes, and it is subsidised theatre, not commercial, that offers greater freedom to fail. This is not a question of “subsidising the mediocre” – which I would agree we ought not to do – but of allowing artistic risks to be taken. I don’t know which commercial work he’s been seeing, but it’s not generally known for its risk-taking.

Of course McPherson has thought of this, and he has an ingenious solution – “Companies can create new or experimental work in fringe venues on a profit-share basis without funding.” I would have hoped that someone claiming twenty years’ experience of writing about theatre would be more knowledgeable about the many, many problems that plague this model. Alas, it appears he is not.

Profit-share is a euphemism for “unpaid”. We all know this – well, at least those of us who actually make theatre know it. Very, very occasionally you’ll get something out of it, but the most likely outcome is that your fringe show will make no profit. This is because fringe venues cost money, and rehearsal venues cost money, and set, props and costumes cost money, and hiring a tech costs money, and hiring in extra lights to supplement the venue’s extremely basic rig costs money, and PR costs money, and insurance costs money, and PRS licenses cost money.

All of these costs add up. You’re looking at thousands of pounds to stage your show, even without paying people. Even if you rehearse in someone’s living room and have no set and source all your costumes from your own wardrobe, even if you can get a technician to give you a freebie, even if you reduce your costs to nothing but the venue, it’s still expensive. You are still unlikely to recoup your costs from ticket sales alone, because the chances are that your completely unheard-of show won’t play to packed houses from the very start. The chances are that you won’t play to packed houses at all, unless you get well-timed stellar reviews and/or exceptionally good word of mouth.

Getting good reviews on the fringe isn’t simply a matter of doing a good play, of course. Several London publications won’t review fringe shows unless they do a three week run, so if you can only afford, say, a week’s try-out run at the White Bear then tough luck. If you’re in an outlying venue there will be critics who just won’t travel. I’ve seen several excellent shows at the Rosemary Branch, for example, but trying to drag reviewers to a venue that doesn’t have a tube station within 10 minutes’ walk can be blood from a stone. Aim for a more central/better connected venue and you might find it easier to attract critics, but you’ll also pay more, and there’s still no guarantee that you’ll get reviewed early enough in your run for a five star rating to bring in enough punters to cover your costs – let alone make that fabled profit that you were going to share.

So if profit-share means unpaid, who can afford to do it? For a little while, it’s possible to work unpaid while supporting yourself with one or more day jobs and, usually, a growing mountain of debt. It’s a fast route to burn-out, but it can be done for a bit. Or, if you’re fortunate enough to have a supportive spouse or family or trust fund, you can do it indefinitely. Perhaps Douglas McPherson doesn’t consider it a problem that unpaid work turns fringe theatre into the playground of the affluent. I, on the other hand, do. Theatre benefits from a diverse range of influences, and that’s much easier to achieve if it’s possible for people from all walks of life to make it their career rather than leaving it to be a hobby for the wealthy.

Quite apart from practical considerations about whether it’s even possible to pay people making theatre on the fringe, there’s the question of why we ought to. Theatre is beneficial to the UK’s economy, bringing in an estimated £2 for every £1 of subsidy. That’s not all direct income through ticket sales – people having a night at the theatre also buy dinner, buy drinks, take buses and trains and taxis, pay to park their cars nearby, pay for hotel rooms if they’ve travelled for the sake of seeing the show. There’s so much more to it than just tickets. But if we treat early career and experimental work as mere dilettantism, the standard of the work made will plummet and the public’s willingness to pay to see theatre will follow.

However, the economic argument for theatre is not the only one, nor is it the most important. We ought to value theatre because, quite simply, culture is important. Culture enhances our lives, gives us the capacity and tools for self-reflection as individuals and as a society, encourages empathy, stretches us intellectually, educates us emotionally, challenges us, baffles us and entertains us. It’s how we make more of ourselves. This isn’t just about the people who practice professionally – subsidising the arts is about recognising the importance of culture. It’s about making it available to those who are able to engage with it directly, and letting its influence spread through commercial work with a wider reach so that it affects those who can’t or won’t engage with it directly. To think only in terms of direct engagement is reductive and simplistic.

It’s true that there are flaws in the way that arts funding is dealt with across the UK. There are plenty. But what Douglas McPherson suggests is not the answer. It’s the prating of an armchair artist, and ought to be treated as such.


A response to Desire Lines from a grassroots theatremaker. Looooong.

It’s taken me a while to gather my thoughts and decide how best to write about Desire Lines.

 

For those of you who, by dint of not being attentive Edinburgh arts folk, have not heard of Desire Lines, it is this: http://www.desirelines.scot. It’s a project started by a handful of people working in the arts in Edinburgh to provide a way for artists to communicate with the Council and with each other. The first meeting took place on Monday 8 December at Summerhall.

 

First things first: It was a remarkably positive event. Like many people, I was concerned that we might spend the evening unproductively bashing the Council, or that it would be a tedious few hours of listening to people from large organisations droning about key stakeholders and service provision and so on. These things did not happen. While there were plenty of people with a great deal to say about licensing issues and the Council’s apparent preference for focusing on the Festivals rather than Edinburgh’s year-round cultural life, the artists expressing their views did it vehemently, not aggressively.

 

I was a bit disappointed that we never directly got to grips with the event’s title question, “What makes Edinburgh a culturally successful city?” or the implied sub-question – is Edinburgh a culturally successful city? How do we define cultural success? Is the city successful because it has lots of Festivals? Because Edinburgh started the trend for Fringe Festivals, or attracts high-profile international companies to the International Festival? Or is Edinburgh successful because the arts form an important part of the lives of ordinary people (by which I mean non-tourists and non-artists) living here?

 

The latter question seemed to be on the minds of the people in the room. Unsurprisingly, artists want to share their work, and not just because it’s financially beneficial. When you make something and you care about it deeply, you want other people to care about it too. You want to touch people’s lives, brighten their day, get them to think or whatever else your work sets out to achieve. And you don’t want to be limited to August or to the specific audience that goes to the Festivals.

 

Or at least, that’s the case for me. Judging by the voices in the room, I’m not alone. The perception that the arts in Edinburgh are only for some rarefied crowd of champagne-sippers (not that all Festival-goers fall into that category, of course, but I’m using the prevailing stereotype) is inaccurate, and there are plenty of the city’s artists who would be happy to break it down.

 

With that in mind, it was great to see grassroots figures being invited to speak. Morvern Cunningham, Caitlin Skinner and Olaf Furniss all work wonders to keep the city alive with music, theatre, visual art and film all year round, and often outwith the city centre. It’s a pity that they didn’t get to speak until the end, by which time the event was overrunning (which was inevitable considering the massive scope of the conversation) and the representatives from Edinburgh Council had long since gone home. I would suggest that at future Desire Lines events, it would be worth letting the artists speak early on. Responding to what the people with the money say is what we do all the time – this could be one of the exceptions.

 

It might also be nice to see Desire Lines challenging the format of their own events. The setup was pretty standard – a raised platform for the chair and speakers, with everyone else in attendance sitting in the audience, waiting for the roving mic if they wanted to speak. Having worked in the Dissection Room I know that it’s a tricky space, especially when you have such a large number of people to accommodate, but I can’t help feeling that there must be a way to set things up less formally. Something like an Open Space format might be interesting, making things feel more laid-back and perhaps more equal. That’s not to say that the current structure didn’t work well – but I’m always keen to see people experiment and find egalitarian ways of doing things.

 

 

Ever since the event I’ve been thinking about the state of grassroots theatre in Edinburgh. I mean, I do that all the time, of course – but I’ve been trying to work out how to explain the particular challenges facing the grassroots scene in Edinburgh just now and how that impacts on less experimental work.

 

The main challenge that we face is a lack of infrastructure. How many small theatres can you think of in Edinburgh? Less than 100 seats? There’s the Netherbow with 99. There’s Discover 21 with 35. There are some spaces in Summerhall. Traverse 2 can be a 99-seater depending on its configuration, but it’s been a long time since the Trav was a little experimental theatre rather than a major player in the British theatre scene.

 

There are other spaces that can be theatres if you’re willing to equip them. If you’re willing to bring in lights, sound equipment, possibly seats and drapes, and get the place licensed, anywhere can be a theatre! We learned that from August, right?

 

But that’s the trouble. If you’re a small company making experimental theatre on tiny budgets, the cost of hiring all your equipment, transporting it and paying for the extra time you need in a venue to set everything up can be prohibitive. Grassroots companies are often self-funding, supported by the artists’ day jobs. Every extra cost incurred takes us a step further away from breaking even, let alone making a profit or actually getting paid for our work.

 

That was one of the main reasons for setting up D21. Edinburgh seemed to need a small space with seats, lights and licenses in place, where all a company has to do is turn up and concentrate on its work, and where the costs are clear and as low as we can make them.

 

Over the past year we’ve found that several groups and individuals have made work in D21 that they might not have made if they had been faced with the expense and inconvenience of creating a working performance space. We’ve launched Collider, a project designed to introduce theatremakers to potential collaborators through mini-productions, and 21@21, a residency offering three weeks of free studio time to experimental theatremakers. Creating our own permanent (or at least semi-permanent, thanks to licensing and short leases) space has been expensive, but considerably less expensive than building a temporary space for every project.

 

So why aren’t more people doing this? First, it is expensive, and exhausting. Dave (my co-founder) and I work bloody hard to cover the theatre’s costs, as well as to run the theatre itself. That’s essentially two full-time jobs each. It doesn’t allow for a lot of free time or spare cash. It means cheap groceries and holidays not taken. It meant that I kept the cost of my entire wedding well below what most brides pay for the dress alone. It means that I try hard not to think about the things I could have and could be doing with that money. It’s not a sacrifice that everyone is prepared to make, and I completely understand why. But to pursue funding just now would mean clarifying and quantifying what we’re doing in a way that would not be beneficial at this point. For now, at least, we need the freedom that comes with self-funding. That will eventually change – but D21 can’t become the thing it needs to be without going through this early, free-flowing experimental stage, so for the present we grit our teeth and accept the lack of time and money.

 

Second, it’s terrifying. I wake up anxious most mornings, worried that there will be costs we won’t be able to meet or that we’ll do something wrong and get into trouble. I dread that we’ll make a mistake with licensing or the lease, that someone will have an accident in the space and my risk assessment will be found wanting and my Public Liability Insurance won’t pay out. Getting things wrong in any of those areas could result in fines or damages totalling tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of pounds. And guess what? I don’t have tens of thousands of pounds. Thanks to my dead parents I do have a flat, but I really don’t want to find myself in a position where I have to sell my flat and destroy what security my husband and I have – just because I wanted to do some experimental theatre and facilitate other people doing it too. Life was certainly a lot easier and less risky when I first started out and just did monthly rehearsed readings requiring nothing but a room with some chairs in it.

 

Dragging this post back to Desire Lines, is there anything Edinburgh City Council could do to make this situation easier? Well, yes. Licensing could be a lot less restrictive and less expensive. There could be another category of theatre license, one that applies to groups that aren’t amateur or charities, but which aren’t commercial or subsidised professional work – specifically for grassroots work.

 

Year-round licenses could be cheaper, or a discount could be offered to small companies making work in Edinburgh year-round if the Council still wants to be able to charge incomes through the nose for the Festivals.

 

Empty spaces (of which there are many in the city centre) could be made available at peppercorn rents for use as rehearsal and workshop spaces, in exchange for a certain amount of maintenance. This has worked in other cities, as Rachel McCrum mentioned at Desire Lines.

 

The Council could also settle once and for all the matter of Public Entertainment Licenses, which they have chosen not to enforce for the present but which could be brought into force at any time. Nobody wants to be the first artists to be caught out by these and hit with a £20k (if I recall correctly) fine.

 

Basically, anything that allows Edinburgh’s local theatremakers a little of the freedom usually granted during August would help. But why should the Council do these things?

 

Well, assuming Edinburgh wants to be a culturally successful city, mainstream arts need to be influenced by a steady stream of new and exciting ideas. The more freedom you give the grassroots, the more potential there is for interesting and avant-garde work. You won’t find the avant-garde at the Lyceum, for instance – nor should you. That’s not what it’s for. What you see at the Lyceum is work that is influenced by the avant-garde of previous generations. New ideas, whether new writing, new ways of staging, new relationships with audiences, what have you, filter gradually through to the mainstream and prevent theatre as a whole from stagnating. You don’t support the grassroots for the benefit of mainstream theatre in five years’ time, but in twenty or fifty years’ time. A hundred years’ time, maybe. It’s long-term thinking.

 

Of course, this doesn’t have to be done on a local basis. Edinburgh’s mainstream theatre could just draw on the influence of Glasgow and London instead. They’ve both got strong grassroots scenes, right? But if Edinburgh is simply an importer of new ideas, if Edinburgh does not generate and export them, then can it really justify claiming to be a culturally successful city?

 

The healthier Edinburgh’s grassroots theatre scene is, the healthier its mainstream theatre will be, the healthier the art forms that share borders with theatre will be, and the healthier the city as a whole will be, economically and artistically. Why wouldn’t we want to be known as a city that produces exciting, innovative theatre in more than just a couple of venues? Why wouldn’t we want visitors to be attracted to Edinburgh by its theatre scene all year round – not in the same numbers that we see during August, but a fraction of that, bringing with them a commensurate fraction of the money Edinburgh makes in August? Why wouldn’t we want interesting experimental artists to stay here rather than move away, or even to choose to move to Edinburgh as a city that will welcome and support them? Why wouldn’t we want to nurture a diverse, vibrant grassroots that attracts theatremakers from different cultures, political beliefs and socio-economic backgrounds, allowing for a cross-fertilisation of ideas?

 

It wouldn’t take much for the Council to make Edinburgh a far more welcoming place for grassroots theatre artists. A little loosening of the licensing, a little more focus on the year-round scene rather than just August.

 

Hopefully it will come. It looks like the charge is being led by the live music scene, fighting for the survival of small and mid-size venues. Events like Desire Lines give those of us in grassroots theatre a chance to add our voices to theirs, since our interests align in many ways. Anything that brings the Council and Edinburgh’s artists together in discussion has the potential to be massively beneficial to the city as a whole.

 

I’m excited to see where future Desire Lines events will take us…