Tag Archives: Art

Some thoughts on Artists Open Space

It’s taken me a while to get round to writing up my thoughts on the Open Space at Waverley Gate. What with directing and producing two shows concurrently, this is the first spare moment I’ve had to write things down! With any luck, I’ll get round to answering some of the emails I’ve received in the wake of it too…

It was a very intense day. On the one hand it was very exciting and inspiring to be around so many artists who all felt strongly about the need for change. On the other, there were a few frustrations – the focus was mostly on how we make it easier for artists to access the money available through Creative Scotland. I’m not denying that that’s important, but I don’t think that rethinking the application forms is sufficient. These problems with Creative Scotland are the result of ideological problems. For Creative Scotland to function well and be useful to artists rather than an obstacle to them, it must sort its collective head out.

When I look at the information currently available on the CS website and at their funding forms, I see language which reflects some troubling ideology. It’s very ‘businessy’. The Creative Scotland staff who attended the Open Space were at pains to point out that part of CS’ function is to act as an interlocutor between artists and government, making the case for our continued funding and role in society. Fair enough, but the issue is that if you don’t speak both languages you’re not much use as an interpreter. If artists are expected to learn the ‘businessy’ language (assuming it can be learned, because some of it looks like it really doesn’t mean anything), what’s the point of an intermediary? If that’s the role CS wants to fulfil, they need to speak OUR language. If they only speak the language of government, they can hardly be surprised if we regard them as an agent of government.

The thing is, solving this problem involves a lot of talk. I got a strong sense that several people at the meeting regard ‘talk’ and ‘action’ as mutually exclusive terms. They’re not. Sometimes talk is exactly the action that’s needed. And how do you carry out any kind of collective movement if you don’t plan it first? There’s no point in ‘taking action’ if all you’re doing is charging around blindly. First you have to figure out what to do, and that’s a lot easier if you have some idea why you’re doing it. Creative Scotland needs to figure that out. WE need to figure that out. I can see why it’s an unpopular view – it’s hard work, long-term work and it’s much less dramatic/fun than charging around blindly or yelling about how “someone should do something” and demanding resignations. Yet until we actually knuckle down and do that work, we will run into the same problems again and again and again.

Having said all of that, one of the principles of Open Space is that whatever happens is the only thing that could have happened. This meeting was the start of the process, and it was a bloody good start. I remember the organisers of Devoted & Disgruntled saying that they usually find that on the first day of their events everyone is more disgruntled, rediscovering their devotion on the second day. Considering how angry and frustrated the artistic community has been, it’s hardly surprising that there was a lot of attention going to surface issues. (I had originally hoped to make it a two day event for this very reason, but I could only get the Waverley Gate space for one day. I took what I could get.)

The other major frustration was numbers. 90 people signed up via Eventbrite. 35 of them turned up, plus another 10 – 12 who hadn’t registered. There are always no-shows, especially when you’re dealing with a lot of freelancers with busy schedules, but that was a ridiculous number. When the event showed up as sold out I had to turn people away.

On a personal level, it’s also a wee bit infuriating to see how much better attended the Glasgow meeting was today. I love Edinburgh, I really, really do, but when it comes to actually speaking up for ourselves and not being apathetic, Glasgow beats us hands-down every time. I hear so many people complaining that it’s hard to make a living as an artist in Edinburgh, it’s easier if you go to Glasgow – but do something to change things in Edinburgh and where are the people who complain? You want things to change, TURN UP and make it happen – or don’t be surprised when it doesn’t.

On the positive side, I think that between Artists’ Open Space and the Tramway World Cafe we have succeeded in making it clear to Creative Scotland and their board that this is not a problem that’s going to go away in a few months’ time. (Perhaps some of their board members will actually come along to future meetings. They really need to, just as members of the senior management team need to make sure they continue to be present. We need them to be a regularly-appearing feature of the arts world, otherwise we’re naturally going to perceive them as shut away in their ivory tower upstairs from Amazon.)

It was also really useful to bring artists together. There were plenty of cards being exchanged and I’ve had some lovely emails saying how much people got out of the day. There are now a few more artists who want to make change and know where to find each other. It’s small, but it’s important. We need to keep networking, keep talking, keep making little changes in attitude and action.

In terms of Creative Scotland making changes, probably the biggest point to come out of the day was a promise to rewrite the website with the help of various organisations such as the Literature Trust and Federation of Scottish Theatres. They’re planning to rewrite by next April and I doubt this gives them time to learn our language, but perhaps we can harness our collective power to work through our representative organisations and make our voices heard. If there is an organisation that represents your art form, contact them and check that they’re being consulted and that they’re looking after your discipline’s interests. We have a chance to make change here if we keep applying the pressure.

There was also talk about the need for artists in the decision-making process, on the Creative Scotland board and in consultation roles where they can share their expertise from an external perspective. It seemed that the need was acknowledged, so now we need to hear how that’s going to be achieved. I’m still gathering reports/notes from the meeting and posting them on the Artists’ Open Space site, but once they’re all in I’ll send the link and action points to Andrew Dixon and his team. There will definitely be a request for hi to outline their plans for increasing artist involvement.

So at the end of all this I’m still feeling optimistic, and I can’t wait to hear what has come out of the Glasgow meeting. I’m also feeling somewhat drained by the whole thing, but that could have something to do with the impending dress and tech rehearsals for the double bill… Plans are afoot for more Open Spaces to continue the work, but I won’t be doing anything about organising them until my shows are up and running next week.


A Right Stooshie and the Question of Excellence

So here’s what’s been happening:

  • An open letter signed by 100 artists was sent to Creative Scotland, expressing dismay at the way the organisation has been run so far and requesting a fresh start. Click here to read it.
  • Sir Sandy Crombie, Chairman of the Board of Directors at Creative Scotland, replied to the open letter. Some of it is reasonable, some of it is a bit disappointing, none of it is the end of the matter. Click here to read it.
  • In his State of the Arts blog for the Herald, Phil Miller shares his thoughts on Sir Sandy’s response. He suggests that some at Creative Scotland see current events as “the game-changer” and that the attitude of Holyrood towards Creative Scotland has altered drastically. Click here to read it.

If you’ve read my previous posts you’ll already know that I think Creative Scotland is troubled and in need of reform, particularly where their communication with artists is concerned. That’s why I set up Artists’ Open Space – it’s not just the fact that we talk that’s important, it’s how we do it. I’m pleased that most of Creative Scotland’s senior management team has agreed to attend, but it’s what they say and do at the meeting and afterwards that’s important, not just their attendance.

In all this back and forth between artists and CS, I see both sides laying claim to “success stories” and talking about “artistic excellence”. The thing is, I don’t see anyone defining these terms and it strikes me that this is where our communication difficulties lie.

What is “success”? Is it profit? Is it impact on people’s lives? Is it fulfilment of the artist’s goals? Is it meeting the brief set by the supplier of the funding (and if it is, is that not rife with the potential to be patronage at its most sinister?) A piece of art can be successful in many different ways, but I believe the most important function of art is to affect individuals.

It may seem very dramatic to say that a book, poem, sculpture, play, song or anything else has changed your life, but it’s not inaccurate. Mine’s been changed by very minor things, like having a song or a poem help me to make sense of events in my life, and in major ways, like seeing paintings or reading books that made me feel less alone after the double-whammy bereavement. (The latter might sound minor. It’s not. When you’re newly orphaned, anything that makes you feel less alone is a whopping great triumph.)

Numerous artforms contributed to my development not only as an artist myself, but as a person. From my first nursery rhyme onwards, the arts have helped to develop my literacy, numeracy, awareness of history, geography, science, society, empathy, identity and ethics. They played a major role in shaping me as a person and they continue to do so.

I’m not amazingly well-educated, but I’m fortunate enough to have been encouraged to think critically throughout my life. That’s why I can get this far with expressing the influence the arts have had on me. However, despite my postgraduate education and the unusually large amount of time I devote to thinking about these things, I don’t feel I’ll ever be able to tell the full story. How could I possibly disentangle my own mind to the point where I can tell you which of the many books, paintings, plays etc. gave rise to particular aspects of my thoughts, beliefs and personality? I feel ridiculously ill-equipped to figure it out. Yet due to the life and influences I’ve had, that doesn’t mean I won’t try.

When I see something for the first time, I don’t know what its long-term effect on me will be. Years ago I saw Donatello’s carving of Mary Magdalene and her face and body language have haunted me ever since – she’s a perfect picture of grief and loss, and seeing her made me feel that someone understood the magnitude of my own bereavement. Even though Donatello has been dead for centuries and I haven’t seen that carving again in almost a decade, the memory of it gives me comfort and perspective. I doubt that he knew as he created it that his work would be having such powerful effects on a young Scottish woman with dead parents so many centuries later. I certainly didn’t realise as I looked at it that it would stay with me for years to come.

Taking all of this into consideration, I would say that it’s the long-term impact of art that makes it successful. But how to measure that? If your audience is made up of people with decent critical thinking skills and an inclination towards blogging, they might continue to volunteer feedback in years to come. But what about the non-bloggers? Or, more crucially, the people who haven’t had the education or opportunity to become decent critical thinkers? It seems to me that a true measure of artistic success would require a massive change in education to enable people to  understand how the arts affect our lives, to analyse the effects and express them clearly.

Yes, it’s idealistic. There’s little point in trying to fix a problem by thinking small. Better to think of the ideal and then see how close you can get to it. That’s the bit I’ll think about in another post, since it’s going to take more energy than I currently have to start figuring it out.

Going back to the Creative Scotland stooshie, I think that if we’re going to improve communications between organisation and artists, a good first step would be to work on commonly-accepted definitions of our terms. There’s little point in talking if you’re always at cross-purposes and little point in funding criteria written in words that no-one really understands. Language reflects our ways of thinking, and before we do anything else we need to understand our own thoughts. Who would have thought that understanding your own thoughts and finding the most accurate words to express them would require such a lot of consideration and discipline? But it does, and if we haven’t done that then whatever we do next is built on shaky foundations.


Open Space Invitation

The details of the Artists’ Open Space on the 26th are now finalised and you can click here to register for it. It’s free to attend, but there’s a limit the number of people who’ll fit in the room so best to register.

Please spread the word. And please come if you can. The Open Space, like everything else in life, belongs to the people who turn up…


Plugs and theatre politics

Next week one of my short plays is being produced by Black Dingo as part of the company’s launch event. Information can be found by clicking here.

I’ve got a lot of time for Black Dingo. This is a production company that aims to provide a really valuable resource for grassroots theatremakers – a one stop shop where you can be matched up with the collaborators you need to make your project happen, and where basic production elements like modular sets and multi-purpose lights are available at prices that are realistic on fringe budgets.

It’s an ambitious project and a real labour of love on the part of the company’s director, David McFarlane. I’m not only excited about it because one of my plays is being put on, but because this kind of enterprise is what gives me hope for grassroots theatre.

Black Dingo is part of the growing number of fringe theatre companies who not only want to create excellent theatre, but who feel strongly about treating the professionals involved in a fair and ethical manner, who look for ways to make production costs more manageable so that more of a show’s budget can go towards payment of artists. It’s a company that understands the value of exchange, of shared resources and of thinking beyond the next production or individual ambitions.

It’s a starting point, and quite a good one. There are plenty of us who see that the old fringe theatre model is not sustainable, but that’s not to say that we’ve figured out the perfect new model to replace it. There is no Fair, Ethical and Financially Viable Fringe Theatre for Dummies. It’s a process, not a fait accompli. But it’s a fascinating and exciting process to be part of, and it’s a hell of a lot more rewarding than just sitting around lamenting the failure of the current model to thrive.

Theatre politics aside, Black Dingo has an interesting and mixed programme in store. My contribution is Lost Love, a play about a SatNav that falls in love with its owner with deadly consequences. It’s part of the Shots triple bill, along with Eros and Psyche by Hope Whitmore and David’s own play Sanctuary. You can see these on 8 and 11 October at The Granary in Leith.

There’s also a double bill of Texan comedy from James McLure – Laundry & Bourbon and Lone Star. I’ve seen both of these pieces in rehearsal and can’t wait to see the finished shows. The writing is really snappy and both casts are handling the balance between pathos and humour adeptly. And if you fancy something more serious, there’s Grace Under Pressure. I don’t know much about that one, but I do know that the title role is played by my lovely friend and frequent collaborator Danielle Farrow, which is usually a good sign that it’ll be worth watching!

Once we’ve got the opening night out of the way I’ll tell you the story behind Lost Love and save future undergraduates a bit of hassle by supplying the biographical reading myself…


Story time!

A couple of weeks ago I went to my first Outside Thoughts event. It’s a simple format. Short stories are selected and given performed readings which are then made available as podcasts. Very straightforward, very well done.

One of my stories, Old Woman with Masks, was selected for the September event. I was delighted by the reading (of which more below) and by seeing my story in such excellent company. The standard of the writing was very high (read: I frequently felt outclassed). Podcasts from the evening are being released one by one, and I’d really recommend following Outside Thoughts on Facebook so you get notified when they’re available. Especially because the next one that’s due to be released is a real cracker – one that you’ll identify with if you’ve ever been chatted to by some random weirdo on a bus…

Anyway, enough about other people. My story was written when I was 22 – I was still walking with a stick after the massive car crash, just past the first anniversary of my Dad’s death, coming up on the second of my Mum’s , still feeling like I was living on borrowed time because I was on cancer watch myself. It was a hell of a time. I wasn’t writing much, because, as I’ve discussed here before, I was too deeply submerged in the trauma to make much sense of it yet. I could write, by which I mean I could construct things competently,  but I couldn’t yet get anywhere near the things I needed to write, which meant that things didn’t quite ring true to me. When writing doesn’t ring true I quickly lose interest, whether as writer or as audience.

Old Woman with Masks was a breakthrough piece for me. It was the result of a writing exercise in a short story class – I was given a prompt to work from, a postcard showing James Ensor’s Old Woman with Masks. The figure in the painting began speaking to me straight away, and I’ve loved Ensor’s work ever since. He loved skeletons, I love skeletons, it’s a match made in… somewhere.

When I got to Outside Thoughts and saw the lady who had been cast to read my story, I was a bit concerned. Pam Tibbetts, I thought, looked too young, too stylish, too sophisticated for the humdrum, stifled character I had written.

And then she began to read, and I was instantly won over. By the time she got a few paragraphs in, I was utterly convinced that this was the way the character in the story looks and sounds in her own head. Pam did a fantastic job, and our chat afterwards was lovely. I love it when performers can take my view of a character and turn it on its head, especially when it’s a character originally of my creation.

You’ll find the story here if you’d like to have a listen: http://outsidethoughts.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/Episode-Six.mp3

Old Woman with Masks – Ensor


Talking to Creative Scotland: Making Plans

This afternoon I had a meeting with Kenneth Fowler at Creative Scotland. It was a pleasant chat, refreshingly free of corporate-speak, and I should probably mention in the interests of clarity that he was the one who got in touch with me.

The most important thing first: I got the go-ahead for an Open Space at Waverley Gate. It won’t be organised or structured by Creative Scotland – it’ll be an open, artist-led conversation. The beauty of Open Space is that anyone can propose a discussion; it’s not a chaired meeting with an agenda, it’s a series of self-guided conversations around a central theme. How that theme will be worded I’m not yet sure, but I’ll be seeking guidance from some more experienced people as I figure it out.

Hopefully, this will be a starting point rather than a one-off event. I’d like to see this developing into a series of regular, roving meetings so that there’s a means of ongoing communication between artists/arts organisations in all parts of Scotland, following the Devoted & Disgruntled model. Collectively, we can feed back to Creative Scotland – and why stop there? There are plenty of organisations out there who exist to administer funding and develop artistic talent. There’s cultural policy to be created. It would surely be beneficial to everyone concerned (by which I mean everyone who cares about the arts whether as creator or consumer) for these things to be informed by continuous feedback from the arts industries themselves.

Of course, all we can do is have the conversations. Once we’ve passed the information on, it’s up to Creative Scotland and other arts organisations to decide what they do with it. Maybe they’ll use it wisely, maybe they won’t use it at all. If it’s the former, that’s great! We all win. If it’s the latter… well, we’ll have tried. We’ll have done as Andrew Dixon asked and brought the conversation to Creative Scotland, not just to the newspapers and Twitter – but much more importantly, we’ll have brought it to each other and we’ll all be better informed and have expanded our own networks in the process. We could do worse.

I’ve been accused over the past wee while of being too optimistic, insufficiently cynical, too willing to give Creative Scotland the benefit of the doubt. All of these things are fine with me. I find it far too easy to be cynical. Being optimistic is more of a challenge. But I’d really rather hope and work for the best than expect the worst. The arts funding situation in Scotland is far from perfect, but it’s the situation we’re in. If we don’t like it – and I haven’t met a single person, artist or administrator, who seems to like it – we need to change it. And by we, I mean artists, audiences, administrators, creators, consumers, everyone who cares about the arts for any reason whatsoever. An Open Space is not a panacea, but it’s a way to bring people from all of these areas (and probably others I haven’t thought of) together, and that seems like a decent place to start.

As soon as I’ve arranged a date to use Creative Scotland’s space, I’ll start spreading the word… Keep watching!


On Emerging

I haven’t yet seen Sylvia Dow’s A Beginning, A Middle and an End. My tickets are booked and I’m looking forward to seeing it when it reaches the Traverse.

My reasons are twofold. First, I have fond memories of Sylvia. I’ve no idea whether she would remember me, but back when I was 16 and still suffering from delusions of wanting to be a singer, she gave me my first major role in an amateur production of Viva Mexico. (Seriously. This is my version of a misspent youth.) So when I saw that she’d written a play I was keen to see it and to hope it’s going well for her. 

Second, even if I’d never met Sylvia I would be intrigued by the publicity surrounding her as a playwright having her first play produced at 73. This fact attracts a great deal of comment in the reviews I’ve seen, and it got me thinking about the culture of “emerging artists” and the expectation that “emerging” should be synonymous with “young”. Take this review from Mark Fisher, for example: Click! The final sentence really interests me, describing this play as “an auspicious, if tardy, debut”.

‘Tardy’ is a really interesting choice of word. Dictionary.com offers the definitions late; behind time; not on time; moving or acting slowly; slow; sluggish; delaying through reluctance. All of these have rather negative connotations – possibly not Mr Fisher’s intention, and I chose his review rather than any other because it happened to be the last one I read. What intrigues me is not the attitude of an individual reviewr but  how the word choice might indicate that we’ve internalised the idea that making one’s debut should happen during youth.

I don’t know Sylvia’s circumstances. I’ve no idea why her playwriting career is just beginning now. Maybe she was happily prioritising other things. Maybe she was languishing in a job she hated and working up the nerve to send out her script. Maybe she didn’t feel the need to express herself in this particular medium until recently. I don’t know.

I would only consider this to be a truly tardy debut if for some reason it should have happened earlier. If, for some reason, some administrative error or some failure to recognise her ability or some dastardly plot to keep her work from being programmed were at fault – if the work was there and ready to go but being held back by some outside agency when it should have been out there – then I might use the same phrase. But if someone makes a series of choices which lead to their beginning a playwriting career at 73, I’d rather use language that applauds them.

The question of what constitutes an emerging artist comes up again and again. Many schemes for emerging playwrights have upper age limits. The Traverse Young Writers group is for 18 – 25s, likewise the Royal Court. Old Vic New Voices only recently opened widened its age range so that you can now make it to the grand old age of 30 before you cease to be eligible.

When I look at publicity concerning new playwrights there’s frequently a mention of their age. Look at Ella Hickson, Lucy Prebble, Katori Hall, Mike Bartlett – just a few off the top of my head, all of whom were in their early to mid twenties when they experienced their first major successes. I remember when Enron came out, for example, much was made in the media of Lucy Prebble’s youth and precocity. It’s understandable that people look for human interest and I suppose age is a part of that, but I think there’s a real danger in the idea that producing work young is automatically a good thing. Some of the work produced by young playwrights is amazing. Some is not. There’s a lot more to it than age.

18 – 25 were turbulent years for me. I had my first major depressive episode at 18 and could barely put my socks on, let alone write. Just after I got back on my feet, my mother died. The following year, my father died and I was being watched for signs of pancreatic cancer. Eight months after that I was badly injured in a car accident. I had to spend two years living in my dead parents’ house because I had nowhere else to go while the estate was being wound up. By the time I was in a position to start rebuilding my life and training as a director, I was 24.

I’m now a few months away from my 30th birthday. Going by many people’s definition of ’emerging’, I’m either already past it or I’m about to be. Yet it took me until a couple of years ago to be able to write anything I felt I could submit, so in many ways I still feel like an emerging writer.

On the one hand, I’ve got a ton of valuable life experience. On the other hand, I’ve got all the angst that goes with it. That kind of life experience isn’t necessarily something that you can put to use straight away. For a long time I found that it was just to painful to write anything truthful. Even if the subject matter wasn’t directly related to my own experiences, I couldn’t put my characters through anything really difficult because I couldn’t bear to subject anyone to the same levels of pain that I had been through, even if they were fictional. Writing plays where nothing too bad happens to anyone doesn’t really get you that far, since conflict drives drama.

Or I would go to the other extreme and write deeply tortured work, trying to understand why I had to go through so much, trying to make sense of my grief. I still have the things I wrote then. At this moment I think it’s unlikely that I’ll ever share them, because some things are just too raw and too personal. There’s no way I could handle criticism on that stuff, especially not from anyone who hasn’t had similar experiences.  Perhaps I’ll change my mind someday, but I’m not convinced that that will ever be for public consumption.

The bits and pieces that I wrote during that time added up to nothing complete. My focus was too narrow – I would write scene after scene going over the same ideas, because my focus was on making sense of my experience rather than creating a narrative that could be understood from the outside. Working my way past that stage took time, so I didn’t have a completed play to my name until I was 28.

Sometimes that makes me feel ancient, slow, somehow less worthy than all these people who were produced playwrights before they turned 23. It makes me feel that if I had only worked harder, applied myself more, I could have done that too.

Realistically, I know I couldn’t. Being an only child dealing with the emotional and administrative nightmare of dying parents is… well, time-consuming, amongst other things. My dedication and application weren’t really the issue. At 21, my priority was making sure my dad’s final months were as painless as possible. My head was full of Power of Attorney and Do Not Resuscitate and morphine:sedative ratios. Shaping anything I wrote into something worth reading would have required energy I simply didn’t have. And as for being trapped in their house, surrounded by memories and devoid of other options… it’s creatively stifling, to say the least. If you can’t imagine why, think yourself lucky.

Anyway, all this is to say that for me, getting anywhere with my writing when I was under 25 was simply not on the cards. Even without my slightly melodramatic circumstances, it’s quite possible that for some people it simply takes a while to find their way onto that path. Priorities change. People change. Perhaps it would be healthy to respect and even celebrate that, rather than clinging to this slightly X-Factor-ish idea that people are “born” to do something and work towards it all their lives, never letting anything get in their way. Really, how many of us can honestly lay claim to that? Passion is no less true because you discover or acknowledge it later in life, and only a privileged few don’t encounter any major setbacks along the way.

I realise that in order for support for artists to exist there are always going to be categories and that most of the time these will be pretty arbitrary. It’s imperfect, but it’s part of life and all we can do is look for ways to keep improving things. That said, I think it’s worth keeping an eye on the tiny, subtle judgements and values that sneak their way into our thoughts, revealing themselves every so often in the words we use and the way we respond to things.

That’s a lot of words to say “Why can’t we just judge writers by their writing rather than their life stories?”, but I don’t write these posts just to throw questions out into the void. Nor do I write them thinking that I’ll reach an answer on the first attempt. I write this and leave it here, perhaps to be unpicked further after these current thoughts have percolated for a while. In the meantime, I’ll continue to look forward to seeing Sylvia’s show later this month.


An Invitation

A short post today, because I’m full of the cold and barely know my own name so coherent content is beyond me.

I never got round to writing a post about my experiences at Devoted & Disgruntled. It was at the end of July, which meant that by the time I’d got my thoughts together I had no time to write about them. The moment for going into detail may have passed, but the short version is this: it was fantastic.

My expectations were not high. I was expecting apathy, a small turnout, a fair bit of moaning, little by way of solutions, lots of walking on eggshells. I’d also never been to an Open Space meeting before, and to be honest I was suspicious of the promise of open, self-governing discussion. I expected to get their and find that everything would be unsubtly guided and that there would still be right and wrong answers according to someone’s agenda. This probably tells you quite a bit about the things I fear and some of the experiences that have left their mark on me along the way – future posts, every one…

So imagine my surprise when I got there and found out that the meeting was everything it promised to be. It honestly was facilitated, not led. The meeting set the broad question “What are we going to do about theatre?” and under that banner, we were at liberty to call discussions on whatever we wanted. The range was massive, from the role of Creative Scotland to the role of ushers, from being a mid-career artist to how we were all feeling midway through the second day.

Everything felt very free. We could move from group to group, speak freely, tweet freely. There were no rules, just a few guidelines for how to get the most out of it – and those guidelines were focused on permission, not restriction.

It’s amazing what a difference that makes to someone like me. Tell me what I’m not allowed to do and I’ll immediately get annoyed and start kicking against the rules. Give me freedom to do as I like and I’m much better behaved. I suspect that’s true of many, perhaps even most artists.  We’re not really ‘rules’ people on the whole, are we? (Again, future posts…) Perhaps greater freedom rather than greater regulation is the thing that will help us find creative solutions to the problems facing the theatre industry.

I didn’t want the weekend to end. I was overwhelmed, over-stimulated, exhausted and energised all at once. All I wanted to do was rest for a bit and then start up again. That’s how I found myself speaking up in the closing circle and offering Tightlaced’s rehearsal studio as a space for a follow-up. I’d love to think that we might be able to have regular satellite groups, but one thing at a time.

So this is an open invitation to anyone who wants to come to the follow-up meeting. You don’t have to have been at the weekend in July. You just have to want to come. Here are the details:

Date: Sunday 16 September

Time: 10.00 – 19.00 (You can come and go as you please. I recommend bringing a packed lunch if you’re coming for the full day.)

Place: Studio G21, Art’s Complex, 151 London Road, EH7 6AE. Click here for directions/buses.

Click here for the link to the Facebook event, which you can join and distribute as you please. 


A long response to a short post about spoilers

Apparently I’m in the mood to respond to other people’s thoughts these days. It’s a bit of a post-Fringe thing – I spend August completely wrapped up in the Fringe, unable to conceive of a world outside of Edinburgh, then it ends and  I realise that there’s a month of non-Fringe content out there on the interwebs. September starts with a massive catch-up on what else has been happening out there.

Mark at Only the Sangfroid has written a really interesting post on spoilers. Can’t be bothered clicking links? Here’s my recap: People moan about reading/seeing spoilers for their favourite films and TV shows because apparently the plot twists are the things that keep them interested. Mark suggests that if the plot twists are all that’s keeping you engaged, there’s a problem – it should be possible to be gripped by a well-known story as long as the storytelling is sufficiently skilful. If we’re so caught up in plot twists and the etiquette of not spoiling them, discussion of the themes, issues and execution is curtailed.

The short response: I agree. I’ve never really understood people who believe that spoilers ruin everything. If you are someone who feels that way I’d be very happy to hear from you, because I’m always up for reading someone else’s insights – but be warned, there may be spoilers further on in this post. I don’t know what for, because I haven’t written the rest yet – check the tags if you’re bothered. What I do know is that they won’t be behind a cut.

Personally, I love spoilers. They let me know what I’ve got to look forward to. I’m perfectly happy to know what the plot twists will be, because what I don’t know is how they will be realised.

For example, I love watching Dexter. I watched the first three seasons, then while I was waiting for season 4 to come out on DVD I read a few spoilers so I knew that Rita gets killed by Trinity. (I did say there would be spoilers. If your life is now ruined, my sympathy is limited.) Later on I introduced my husband to the show. When we were halfway through season 4, season 5 came out on DVD… with the announcement of Rita’s death right there in the blurb on the back. So it’s a good thing that neither of us is that concerned about knowing the facts in advance.

However, as much as I love Dexter, it’s one of those programmes that I love for what it could be more than for what it is. When it’s good it’s bloody awesome. And when is it good? For my money, it’s good when it’s exploring the boundaries between right and wrong, testing the limits of the characters’ personal codes, challenging the viewer to think about how far they identify with different characters’ behaviour and what that says about them.

When it’s bad? Well, it’s not so much that it’s horrid. The production values are still high. It’s ok. But it deserves to be so much better than ok, because the potential is there. Dexter being ‘ok’ is like your highly intelligent child getting a C. Yet it frequently happens, because plot twists are prized higher than character development. Seriously, are LaGuerta and Angel married or not this week? Is anything actually going to happen with the trophy-collecting intern girl or are we done with that? Was it actually a storyline that I just don’t remember because I was too busy not giving a damn about peripheral characters that haven’t been developed in any way? Which personality will Deb be wearing today, now that the writers no longer seem to be concerned with her original character?

Venerating all things plot-driven also leads to failure to appreciate character studies. What’s wrong with exploring a character in depth, learning what drives them, letting ourselves be affected and maybe unsettled by our commonalities with and differences from them? Really good writing creates layered, fascinating characters. There’s no reason why this can’t be coupled with excellent production values to create something compelling.

To me, this is one of the major differences between the flash-bang-wallop of entertainment and the complexity of art. I like to be entertained. I like art. I like things that do both. I don’t think I’m unique or even slightly unusual in this. Perhaps I’m just insanely optimistic, but I actually believe that audiences are capable of appreciating intelligent entertainment. Excellent ideas, insight and writing coupled with excellent performances – the ingredients for good art – combined with enough plot to make good entertainment.

It’s an obvious point to make, but it’s true – this is why we’re still doing Shakespeare all these centuries later. Macbeth? Plot-tastic. There’s plenty going on – chance (or maybe not) meetings with witches, more murders than you can shake a stick at, sticks being shaken at Dunsinane, climactic battles. It is the stuff of blockbusters.

It’s also a gorgeous study of the desire for power and its effects, of the destruction of a couple by a terrible secret, of a man who was one of the good guys and ends up a tyrant. It’s packed with subtle, psychologically layered characters, and they make it interesting. Without them, or at least without their depth and development, the story is just a sequence of events, many of which happen off stage.

Perhaps character development was originally necessary because locations shoots and CGI were beyond the budget of the King’s Men, but we shouldn’t consider them any less important now that we’re able to set Macbeth’s final battle against a backdrop of Dunsinane in flames and collapsing into a volcano while the earth gets sucked into a black hole. Isn’t there some room for car chases between soliloquies, or vice versa?

But I digress. The thing about Macbeth is that we all know how it ends (or at least we should). I don’t count it as a spoiler if I tell you that Lady Macbeth goes mad and dies or that Macduff eventually kills Macbeth himself. Does this make it any less compelling? It shouldn’t, if it’s being done well. If we trust the material to stand on its own two feet, trust the actors to do their job and explore the complexity of their character, trust the audience to follow lines that are more than three sentences long, it can still have you on the edge of your seat. You should still find yourself wanting to call out to Macbeth not to trust the witches or listen to his wife, just as much as you should want to yell at Ned Stark not to try the reasonable approach on Cersei Lannister. If the work has been done to get you to invest in the character, there doesn’t have to be a whole lot of action going on to make you care about what happens to them.

The reason I use Macbeth as an example is because he’s the protagonist in a tragedy, which means audiences went in knowing that things weren’t going to end well for him. I’m going to steer clear of calling him a tragic hero because I know it’s debatable whether he actually has a tragic flaw or not, but he’s definitely the protagonist and it’s definitely a tragedy. Original audiences, seeing Macbeth’s hands covered in Duncan’s blood, would not have supposed that the play would end with him and his wife gazing contentedly at their first grandchild. Macbeth is fucked. They knew it, we know it. The only questions are how it happens and what we learn along the way.

Nowadays it’s difficult to use dramatic inevitability without being accused of being formulaic. I think that’s often a mistake. Formulaic plots can provide an excellent structure within which to explore and/or subvert our expectations of characters. They allow developing writers to build up an understanding of how plot twists and moments of epiphany can be earned rather than shoehorned in as Deus ex Machina. Recognisable structures give audiences a familiar base which can be a stepping-off point for exploring the unfamiliar, which is why we continue to tell fairy tales and reinvent them as we get older.

“You have to learn the rules before you can break them” is a cliche that everyone who has ever been a young artist will have hated at some point. It’s all the more annoying for being true. That’s why I’m particularly curious about creative people who hate spoilers and won’t discuss films, books and TV shows for fear of them. I find myself wondering whether that’s reflected in their own work – do they then understand the structures they’re working within or against? Do they want to understand them, or is a refusal to embrace the spoilers indicative of a wider unwillingness to learn the rules? Or at least to identify them – I’ve never been a fan of ‘learning the rules’ but when it comes to narrative structure and storytelling it didn’t feel like that, it just felt like learning the names for things I’ve always understood intuitively.

I honestly don’t know. But I do agree with Mark that there are certain dangers in allowing other people’s wish to remain unspoiled to dominate discussions of arts and entertainment, and I know that I’d like to hear other people’s views on this. Do spoilers ruin things for you? Do you tune out if the plot twists aren’t coming thick and fast? Do character studies leave you cold? And if you’re an artist yourself, how does your attitude towards these things tie in with the work you create?

 


Reviewing a review of reviews, both as reviewer and reviewed

First things first – I strongly recommend reading this post by the excellent Jenni Gould: http://rantingjen.wordpress.com/2012/08/22/arts-journalism-where-did-it-go-wrong/

Don’t want to click the link? Let me give you a precis: The Fringe is full of untrained reviewers churning out masses of reviews, and Ms Gould suggests that we should be holding ourselves to higher standards because “many of the companies involved have worked tirelessly for months and it’s true that maybe their shows are far from worthy of five stars. What they are worthy of is a proficient review whether good or bad”.

I agree. Completely. Whole-heartedly. I loved her article so much that it prompted me to write this long-promised post about my views on reviewing. So here goes…

We’ve already covered the fact that I’m an artist in other posts. Indeed, I never shut up about it. I write, direct, perform and do whatever else ignites my interest. I’ve been on the receiving end of my fair share of reviews, good and bad.

I also write reviews. Unlike Jenni, I’m not trained – we did the same degree but with different specialisms. However, while I’m not a trained journalist, I am a trained director and writer, and it’s that training that informs my reviews and makes me think that peer review should be a much more common part of artistic life.

Too often I hear people saying “oh, reviews are just an opinion”. This is often true, but it shouldn’t be. Reviews aren’t meant to be a simple knee-jerk reaction. If that’s all you’re capable of expressing, you have no business reviewing. Yes, we all have opinions on the things we see, but there’s a world of a difference between a show you dislike and a bad show. I’ve seen plenty of good, sound, well-constructed shows that I personally did not like. Perhaps I didn’t care for the subject matter or the writing wasn’t to my taste, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t well acted, skilfully directed, cleverly lit. I’ve also seen shows that were frankly sloppy in their construction, but where the infectious energy of the cast overcame technical weakness to create an enjoyable experience.

You might wonder “well, if you loved it/hated it, what do the reasons matter? Why are you overthinking everything?” Well, that’s because overthinking things is what I do and I love it. More importantly, simply accepting “I loved it” or “I hated it” is fine if you’re just seeing a show for your own enjoyment, but if you’re supposed to write something about it you’re going to need a bit more material than that, which brings us neatly to the question…

Who are you writing for? Personally, I try to write reviews that you can read as an audience member trying to decide where to spend your money, or as a company member looking for feedback that will help you to develop your practice. For the benefit of potential audience members I try to give a flavour of the show and some indication of what you can expect to see. I consider whether I would have been happy to pay my own money to see it and whether it resembles its advertising blurb and images. I give warnings where I can about poor sightlines or audibility, or whether you should stay out of the front row if you don’t like interaction.

I’ve had people question whether reviews should really be written with the performing companies in mind, but I am adamant that they should. It’s to everyone’s benefit for theatre companies to receive some technical assessment from an outside source. When you’ve created a show you’re far too close to it to have a clear view. The value of opinions from friends and family depends entirely on how truthful they’re willing to be, and there’s a strong chance that they’ll be people who lack the technical training to dissect your show in any detail. So who is left? Reviewers.

I really try hard to make sure my technical criticism is accurate and clear. No doubt there will have been people who read my reviews and feel that I’ve misunderstood their play entirely, at which point the best thing to do is read other reviews and see if you can detect other reviewers having similar misunderstandings or whether it’s just me. Perhaps there was a point you were trying to make with the thing I’ve criticised, but if everyone’s missing the point it needs to be clarified. If only one reviewer is, you probably don’t need to worry too much.

Of course, this level of detail is difficult to provide when you’re reviewing for some of the Fringe publications. I started out writing for ThreeWeeks, where you get 120 words. It’s a great exercise in precision and taught me how to write concisely. It can be very frustrating knowing that you can’t go into detail about your thoughts, but it’s a very useful discipline because you are forced to choose your points carefully.

Now I write for Edinburgh Spotlight, where I have 300 – 500 words to play with. More often than not, I come in closer to 300 because I’m in the habit of choosing what I believe to be the most important points and not overloading the review. It still feels luxuriously long, but I know that’s only because I learned to discipline my thoughts years ago so that I wouldn’t need 500 words to write a review that felt worthwhile to me.

I’ve been reading plenty of reviews this year, and I’m horrified by the lack of content in many of them. 120 words or more to say nothing of any value, just a kneejerk reaction followed by some waffling, usually designed to make the reviewer sound intelligent. (This never works, by the way – especially when you throw in a lot of fancy words that you don’t actually understand.) Yet we place such value on these reviews, even though they’re written in such a throwaway manner. So what can we do (apart from the obvious  Train Your Journos)?

Simple: Artists review each other. We’re supposed to be communicators, so let’s do it. One of the things I love about writing for Edinburgh Spotlight is that many of the reviewers are also artists in their own right. We know how tiny the theatre world is, so we all take pains to make sure our reviews are fair and balanced and constructive. If you want to give something a negative review you know it might (and probably will) come back to haunt you sooner or later, so you express views you can defend and explain rather than simply sticking the boot in. There’s a real temptation when reviewing to succumb to the lure of one’s own wit, to use a deliciously vicious phrase that might actually be a bit harsher than the piece deserves but you’re so taken with your own cleverness that it’s hard to resist. The more you have at stake – by which I mean, ‘the more likely you are to find yourself working with the subject of your barbed humour someday’ – the less likely you are to give in.

This is not to say that people who are not artists but solely critics are incapable of giving balanced views. There’s plenty of room for people reviewing solely from an audience point of view, although I would say that it’s doubly important for these people to have a certain amount of training in how to express their views, whether they’re writing for fringe review websites or the broadsheets.

It’s also an extremely useful discipline for artists to get used to thinking critically about each other’s work. We need to know how to give each other feedback and communicate with one another. I notice an alarming tendency to conflate ‘feedback’ and ‘criticism’ with ‘bashing’ – indeed, I quit a popular online theatre forum because I couldn’t stand to read one more post asserting that anything more critical than outright sycophancy is ‘bashing’ (yes, I appreciate the irony of leaving a discussion forum and then saying we should be able to communicate – let’s communicate elsewhere, all right?). Artists can’t work in a vacuum, and we can’t rely solely on print media where we’re being critiqued by professional critics rather than fellow artists who understand our discipline from the inside. Learning to trust is a good thing. Learning to speak truthfully yet not offensively is a good thing. Putting our art form before our egos is definitely a good thing.

Critical skills aren’t just for journalists – let’s ALL take Jenni Gould’s advice and up our game.