Tag Archives: Edinburgh

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…


Plugging Project: Kabarett

This post will involve a little less introspection than usual and a hell of a lot more plugging. I have an event coming up that I’m quite excited about…

On Saturday 27th July I’ll be taking part in Project: Kabarett, a fundraiser for an amazing immersive Weimar experience. It’s the brainchild of Susanna Mulvihill, who plays Madeleine Smith in Tightlaced’s production of I Promise I Shall Not Play Billiards, and it’ll be opening at Summerhall in January 2014 – but first we need to find the money.

The show itself, properly titled 1933: Eine Nacht im Kabarett, will bring together Edinburgh-based artists from all sorts of disciplines and many of the people who are currently working on the project will be taking part in the fundraiser on the 27th. I don’t know the whole line-up at the moment, but I know about a handful of the performers and can assure you that it’ll be an eclectic mix and a great night for £10!

We’ve got three short plays from me, Susanna and Tightlaced Resident Writer Fiona McDonald (who was recently longlisted for the James Tait Black Award, so we’re all even prouder of her talent than usual). We’ve got Miss Fi and the Lost Head Band, Eleanor Morton, Colin Hoult, Tom Watton, Hazel DuBourdieu and a sneak preview of song of the music for 1933! We’ll also be giving you a chance to win a variety of interesting prizes, ranging from Fringe tickets to a custom-written short play.

Susanna and I also have our first outing as Chanson et le Chat, taking on a few operatic favourites and hopefully winning. It’ll be the first opportunity anyone has had to hear me sing in public since 2005 (I think), so it’s a combination of nerve-wracking and exhilarating for me… and possibly for the audience! Our programme consists of Mozart, Offenbach, Rossini and the inevitable Delibes, and we’ve been having a great time getting them into shape.

So if you fancy an evening of appreciating and supporting Edinburgh’s local talent before the world arrives on our doorstep for the Festivals, the trick is to contact sporadicmusic@gmail.com to book tickets! Please come. You’ll love it.

 

And of course, there’ll be an over-long introspective post about the return to singing at some point between now and the 27th… I wouldn’t dream of doing this or anything else without a little bit of angst.


A belated write-up of Creative Scotland’s Open Session in Edinburgh

It has been over a week since the Creative Scotland Open Session in Edinburgh. I’ve been meaning to write about it since then, but every time I start a draft I get exasperated and abandon it in favour of the work I actually get paid to do.

The official write-up of the day is here, just so you know: http://www.csopensessions.com/pat-kanes-blog/edinburgh/

The session was 4 hours long, 12 – 4, but nothing actually happened until 1pm. That was far too long to leave people sitting around. I understand the value of chat and know that there’s always a certain amount of time set aside for meet and greet, but 25% of the overall event time was too much. It might have been more useful to have this unstructured time at the end of the session rather than the beginning. That said, the catering was very nice…

The structure of the event was as follows: an hour of dithering, three speakers, a Q&A with the speakers, then 45 minutes of discussion at our tables and a short presentation of what we found. Apart from the first hour, it was all structured and guided in a way that served to kill off any spontaneity or organic discussion.

I’m not convinced by the idea of having three speakers at each event. This is partly because I get bored very easily if I’m watching people who lack public speaking skills. Only Hannah McGill was a particularly engaging speaker. I’m also sceptical about the selection of speakers. I can see that CS is trying hard to bring in voices from all areas of the arts (no, I’m not adding “and creative industries” because I don’t see them as separate entities, that’s an argument for another post) and has invited some outspoken critics of the organisation. However, the very fact that only selected speakers have a voice rankles with me. There are so many people within the arts who will speak not because they have something to say, but because a platform has been offered and god forbid they should ever pass up such an opportunity to be in the spotlight. (Actually, I’m not convinced that’s limited to the arts. I suspect that’s just a human thing.) Add in a fee and few people will turn it down.

One of the speakers, Ed Stack of indie music download company Ten Tracks, chose to show part of a TED talk by Amanda Palmer. Pat Kane, who was chairing the Open Session, describes her as “US indie rock goddess”. If you consider a goddess as an entity that demands endless amounts of attention and tribute from group of fanatical worshippers, that sounds about accurate. I watched that TED talk in its entirety when it came out, and it puts an extremely disingenuous spin on Ms Palmer’s exploitative behaviour towards her fellow artists (again, future post) and completely disregards the fact that her “art of asking” only works if you start from a position of considerable privilege. We should not be basing our ideas about being a working artist on the assumption that everyone has a typical middle-class support system in place. Showing videos made by people who donated their labour for free is all very nice, but it doesn’t help me as a working artist unless you tell me how they’re paying their bills while they give everything away.

Anyway, by the time the speakers had finished I had nearly worn out the battery on my phone by having Twitter conversations, many of which were with people who were actually in the room with me. Since there wasn’t a way for us to talk to each other as part of the event, we found out own damn way. I do hope CS is keeping a record of the Twitter conversations – they’ll find more in-depth discussions there than those that I was privy to in the room.

The Q&A with the speakers was derailed by the very first question. Apparently someone thought it necessary to ask “how Scottish” Creative Scotland should be, plunging us back into the pointless circular debate of the Alasdair Gray stooshie from last December. Suddenly everyone had to prove their Scottish credentials and how non-anti-English they are. Useful conversation ground to a halt. I had a sore tongue for two days from biting it really, really hard. I’m still not sure what the point of that question was.

Tim Licata from Plutot la Vie brought up an interesting point in his question about whether CS needs a “vision” or might be better off having a “purpose”. This is actually the kind of discussion that helps, because it lets us get closer to the fundamental problems that have to be addressed first in theoretical then in practical terms if we are ever to see genuine change. Alas, this was a Q&A with selected speakers, not a free-flowing discussion amongst equals, and the room was still suffused with the energy from the last question – not the kind of energy that encourages debate or diversity of opinion. Although Tim’s question may well have been the most important one asked that day, the response was little more than “hmm, yeah, suppose so”.

Arguing about language doesn’t feel like it should be difficult, but it is. When you actually start picking apart the things that people say (and the things that you say yourself), you start to make discoveries about the ways of thinking that underpin the language. It’s easy to dismiss it as semantics and claim that it’s not action, it’s not important. It is. You can’t change how people think unless you engage with it and attempt to understand it. You can’t do that without looking at how their behaviour is expressed in language, it’s like wanting to see the whole dinosaur skeleton while claiming that sweeping away the first layer of dirt is pointless. We should be prepared to have our words challenged and to defend out use of them. I’ve argued for this throughout my involvement in this conversation.

However, challenge really wasn’t a part of the Open Session format. After the Q&A we were shuffled into groups sitting round tables, being asked to discuss a central question. By the time the shuffling was done, no-one at my table could remember what the question was. We discussed what we’d like to see from the new, improved Creative Scotland and some points were written down on a large flipchart that had been left with a single pen in the centre of the table. So rather than a record of the diversity of ideas and opinions around the table, we had a sanitised version that said all the things you’d expect it to say. On the surface, it looked like consensus. In reality, it was the result of voices being stifled so that we could get some dinky phrases down on paper by the end of our 45 minutes, to be shared with the other groups as someone from each table got up and explained that they had reached more or less the same conclusion as everyone else.  CS should be nice and supportive and understand us and help us. It should nurture this delicate ecology. Pat Kane asked the question about whether Creative Scotland should resemble a gardener, trying to control said “ecology”. As he notes in his blog, someone piped up to say that trying to control ecology doesn’t make you a gardener, it makes you a god. Perhaps unsurprisingly, that was me. Gardeners don’t control ecology, they understand it. They learn how to work within it to bring about change. That’s not the same as control. By all means, let Creative Scotland be a gardener, but it must not be a god. That’s how we got here in the first place.

Afterwards, on Twitter, there was a bit of a discussion about the word “ecology”. I don’t like it much, mostly because I hear it used in an attempt to sound scientific and intelligent and to conceal a lack of content or substance. It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to quantify the value of art – but I don’t believe we do ourselves any favours by borrowing the language of science (or business, or anything else) without being willing to interrogate it. Also, “ecology” and “ecosystem” are not quite the same thing, and they shouldn’t be used interchangeably just because “ecology” sounds a bit more natural and friendly than “ecosystem”.

Anyway… by the end of the Open Session I felt frustrated and angry. The discussions that we had there were discussions that have already been had, over and over again, online and off. Perhaps the fact that we needed to have them again is indicative of new people joining the conversation, in which case it’s not necessarily a bad thing, just a frustrating thing. But perhaps it’s indicative that while there has been some change at CS, it’s not going deep enough yet.

That same day, the advertisement for the new Chief Executive was posted. The language is more promising – at least it features the word “integrity” – and we know there will be artists involved in the decision-making process, including Vicky Featherstone who seems unlikely to refrain from speaking her mind. However, the salary appears unchanged, and I question the integrity of anyone willing to accept a salary more than ten times in excess of what most artists earn. I question what it means that Creative Scotland still sees that disparity as acceptable. (Someone at the Open Session tried to defend the salary to me on the grounds that being Chief Exec is a difficult job involving long hours. Want to talk about difficult jobs with long hours? My mother was a nurse. She was not on £120K/year. Even without the apples to oranges comparison of arts and medicine, I am a writer and director. I regularly do 16 hour days. I never get paid to sit in meetings. I have coffee with people on my own time and money. My skills have to be extremely sharp and constantly honed if I am to find work in a highly competitive environment. Forgive me if I don’t shed a tear for the terribly hard life of a heftily-salaried arts exec.)

I believe in the need for the Open Sessions, but I think the purpose is currently incorrect. Artists need a forum through which they can talk to CS. It needs to be less structured. We don’t need to be talked at, we need to have conversations. We need to meet the people who make up the organisation, put faces to them, let them put faces to us. We need to see that they are people and let them see that we are people. This is how you build relationships. Give us something truly open, where we can bring our concerns (whether “we” are artists, CS, audience or other), meet each other, respond to issues as they come up. Basically, look at the Devoted & Disgruntled model and do that. Not just because it works, but also because it’s an exercise in humility – by relinquishing control and trusting to those present, you make an admission that you do not know best. If CS knew both what it needs to do and how to do it, change would be happening already. It doesn’t. Perhaps no individual or formal organisation does. That’s not going to change without people being brave enough to admit that they don’t know.

That said, I believe that Kenneth Fowler – CS’ head of communication and external relations – actually gets this. I’ve always felt quite hopeful after talking to him. He seemed aware that the format wasn’t quite working and was asking people directly for their thoughts at the end of the session. He said it would evolve. I believe it will, and that’s why I’ve taken the time to write all this. I have no desire simply to be negative about the whole thing. Everything that I’ve brought up in this post has been mentioned because I think there’s a possibility for change. I hope that the attitude that I see in Kenneth and believe to be present in some of the other CS employees will spread and eventually become normal within the organisation. Believe it or not, I don’t write these blog posts just to get things off my chest. I do it because I still believe that thing can change. More than that, in fact. I still believe they must. Which is why, in spite of everything, I’m glad I went.


Unnamed Road

Well, happy New Year and all that kind of thing – was it a good one? I’m starting 2013 knackered. I can happily stay up until 2 or 3am on a regular basis, but apparently 5am still causes me to suffer through the following day. I might not drink, but you wouldn’t know if you saw me in the grip of a sleep hangover.

Anyway, now that January has started and the festive season is winding up, it’s time to start dragging myself back into some kind of routine. So here I am at 1.43am, avoiding editing by writing blog posts with Back to the Future on in the background.

Last October I had a play on at the Granary as part of Black Dingo’s launch season. Back then I mentioned that I would get round to telling the story behind Lost Love at some point, and since it’s going to be on again in a few weeks this seems like as  good a time as any. (Obligatory plug details: Lost Love is part of the line-up for this month’s Speakeasy, a spoken word event hosted by Jo Caulfield at the Scottish Storytelling Centre on 22 January. Info about Speakeasy here. Booking for this particular event here. Booking is essential, people were getting turned away from the last event.)

Lost Love was the product of one of my mini-frenzies. I was supposed to be writing something else, of course – a deadline was looming large enough to make it necessary that I write, but not yet large enough to ensure that I wrote the thing I was actually supposed to be writing. The voice of the obsessed SatNav started chattering in my head and all of a sudden I had a ten minute play on my desktop.

When you write a play about a sentient electronic device and tell people it’s partly autobiographical they give you funny looks (and rightly so, I suspect) .But it’s true. As far as I know I  have not yet had a SatNav fall in love with me, nor have I been a SatNav. The SatNav-related bit comes from an epic drive through Central London. I was working on a show at the Rosemary Branch in Islington and one of the props required was a barrel. I tracked one down at the National Theatre prop store, which is near the Oval, and set off to collect it.

Driving in Central London for the first time is an experience. I had no idea how the congestion charge worked and didn’t really want to pay it, so I decided to avoid the charge zone. Unfortunately my SatNav was determined that we were going in a straight line, right through the charge zone, and I couldn’t find a way of programming it to go round the outskirts. Instead, whenever I reached a Congestion Charge sign I would just go in whichever direction felt right, causing my SatNav to tell me off in what I felt was an increasingly judgemental tone of voice. I spent about an hour of the journey yelling “you can’t make me” interspersed with various obscenities at the SatNav. I have since learned how to switch off the voice, meaning I can cheerfully ignore it without getting any backchat.

However, the autobiographical bit is actually to do with driving in winter. The SatNav in the play leads its owner into the middle of nowhere on a freezing cold day. When I say that it’s a black comedy, that’s not just a description of the humour but also of the ice. I don’t drive in winter if I can help it because I’m truly terrified of black ice. I’m nervous enough when I’m walking if it’s slippery out, having broken some bones in a fall a few years ago, but driving… No.

My first assistant directing job was in Forres, rehearsing in December. I was staying in a cottage just outside the town. On the second morning of rehearsals I woke up to find that it was snowing. I got in the car and set off for rehearsal. Less than ten minutes later my car was upside down in a ditch and I was lucky to be alive. I managed to get one of the windows open and climbed out, uninjured apart from whiplash. I counted my blessings and got back to driving as soon as the insurance cheque came through.

It wasn’t until the following year that the shock caught up with me. I had moved to London but was back in Edinburgh for Christmas when I got called in for an interview for a job I really wanted. I needed to be back in London by the next day. This happened at about 9pm, right around the time it began to snow… I slithered along the M8 and M77. The gritspitters weren’t out yet (because for some reason the authorities are always taken by surprise when it snows in winter) and the traffic was packing the fallen snow down.

That’s when I realised what a near miss I’d had up in Forres. Claustrophobia set in as I remembered being trapped in my wrecked car, my windscreen pulverised by rock that had narrowly missed my head. My phone had fallen out of my handbag and I couldn’t see it anywhere. As much as I wanted to find it and call for help, my priority was to find a way out. I didn’t let myself consider the possibility that I might not be able to get out. I didn’t consider that at all until that nightmare drive back to London. Then it all came rushing in, all those thoughts about how I could have been trapped on that quiet road, how wrecked cars can catch fire, how cold it was and how long I could have lasted in that cold, how no-one would have known exactly where to look for me when I didn’t show up, how easy it would have been to have got myself killed. Being cold, alone and having no control… I can’t even complete that sentence. When I try all I get is that squirming surge of anxiety, panic takes over and fills my brain with NO and I can’t say anything more coherent. And that’s after therapy.

Put the two together, my experience of using a SatNav and my unfortunately extensive knowledge of car crashes and icy roads, and you get Lost Love. Black humour and lots of Jen anxiety distilled into ten minutes.  At some point I’ll probably write something more serious about the car crashes, but collectively they’re amongst my greatest traumas. Lost Love let me scratch the surface. First I learn to laugh at it, then later I learn to be serious.

And that leads neatly on to the next future post promise. Sooner or later I’ll look at humour as a defence mechanism. But not tonight, because there has to be sleep at some point.


A lengthy round-up of what people are saying about CSstooshie now

Creative Scotland is the arts blogger’s gift that keeps on giving. How appropriate, as we head into the festive season. But there are gifts and gifts, and this one feels like one of those annoying noisy battery-devouring things where once you start playing, you somehow can’t stop.

Perhaps that’s just me. I’m a bit tired and at an annoying stage of the editing process, and I’m being driven slowly (well, not very slowly) mad by the endless DIY noises from our downstairs neighbours. It’s not the greatest of moods to be in as I sit by the phone and internet waiting for news from Pitlochry, where Creative Scotland’s board has been meeting.

In case you’ve been living in a cave, let me make sure you’re up to speed – Andrew Dixon, Creative Scotland’s CEO, has resigned. He’ll be leaving at the end of January. The senior management team will be reporting to Sir Sandy Crombie, Chairman of the Board, until a new CEO is appointed.

I don’t envy anyone the task of appointing Andrew Dixon’s replacement. This decision will speak volumes about whether Creative Scotland plans to do more than pay lip service to the concerns expressed by the artistic community. If Dixon is not replaced by someone who is prepared to address the ideological issues that lie at the heart of this dilemma, there will have been no point in his head rolling in the first place. My great fear is that the resignation of the CEO could be treated as a solution to the problem rather than a symptom of it. Resignations should be about clearing the way for someone better equipped to do the job, not about making a sacrifice to appease angry artists.

Whether Creative Scotland itself is changed from within or dismantled to start again, radical change is required. That takes time and sustained effort, and it’s a lot less dramatic and entertaining than a flurry of resignations and calls for revolution. It also takes a lot of talking and figuring out what our collective priorities are and how to realise the things we want.

I’ve seen several people re-posting Joyce McMillan’s column on the subject.  There are some excellent points about how public spending is perceived as a problem and its recipients as scroungers, not just where the arts are concerned but throughout our society, and about the dangers of treating the arts as a business. However, there’s a point at the end that I strongly disagree with and believe points to an equally troublesome way of thinking:

So far as the arts is concerned, the aim of a well-run funding body should be to identify those who have shown the capacity to create great work, and to give them the support that will set them free.

I don’t deny that this should be a part of what our national funding body does, but it should not be the whole of it or even its primary aim. Focus so heavily on those who are established enough to have demonstrated their “capacity to create great work” and you will drive emerging talent away, forcing new artists to go wherever the opportunities are – and once they’ve built up their contacts and reputations there, we may not get them back. Scotland’s emerging artists shouldn’t have to leave to seek their fortune because their own country is too blinkered to pay attention to anything that hasn’t already had the seal of approval elsewhere.

That need for approval is in itself a bit of a problem. Who decides what counts as “the capacity to create great work” and by what criteria? Joyce acknowledges that there is no conclusive answer, but I worry that the path she suggest leads to taking ‘greatness’ at face value. Shakespeare was a great writer, but is every single thing he wrote therefore great? I would argue that there’s a world of a difference between, say, Othello (which I’ll defend to the death as a great play) and The Winter’s Tale (which I’ll defend to the death as an example of how even Shakespeare has off days). The National Theatre of Scotland produced Black Watch, photos from which get trotted out at the top of every article about excellence in Scottish culture – but is this a somewhat lazy use of stock photos, or should it be raising questions about whether the NTS has been producing ‘great’ work since? If it hasn’t, should that be something that’s addressed in its funding? And if it has… well, surely there must be some photos from The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart or Macbeth kicking around somewhere? If we’re going to use the term “creative brilliance” and suggest that it be the main criterion by which funding is decided, we have to be very careful about how often and when and why we use it and also how we frame it, or we degenerate swiftly into ‘this is excellent because everyone says so and everyone knows it’ and risk excluding anything that doesn’t already fit that criterion.

I’m also concerned that this way of thinking does not allow for freedom to fail. If the pressure is on to make sure that all your work is ‘great’ work, where does that leave experimental work? Again, artists drawn to experiment will have no choice but to go elsewhere, to countries where the value of their work is understood. Countries like, for example, Germany – the very country Joyce cites as an example of getting your approach to the arts right. While making cuts to other parts of their national budget, they have increased arts spending by 8%. This is a testament to the difference between British and German attitudes towards the arts, but it’s important to remember that these differences aren’t just about money – Germany has (in theatre and opera at least) a completely different attitude to artist development, allowing for nurturing of emerging and mid-level artists as well as their more established counterparts. It is reassuring to see Germany taking such a step, but Scotland has a long way to go before it’s in a position to do the same because it would require a huge change in how people relate to the arts in the first place.

Elsewhere on the net, we’ve got thoughts from Pete Wishart, formerly of Runrig, currently Westminster Spokesperson for Home Affairs and Culture, Media and Sport. This is the gist of his argument:

Our creative industries are one of the major drivers of our economy and they have to be looked after, supported and nurtured.

Never mind all that silly self-reflection as a society, profound influence on people’s lives, education and civilising influence, the important thing is CULTURE = £££££!! Let’s get those artists arting, there’s gold in them thar hills!

In order to maintain our “cultural footprint”, whatever one of those may be, we apparently need to “develop our own distinct product”. You know, I find that deeply sinister. We’re supposed to make work that reflects some kind of bureaucratically-decided agenda, work that can be exported in a pretty tartan package with a Visit Scotland sticker slapped across it? That’s not art, that’s marketing material at best and propaganda at worst. If there’s a distinctive flavour to the work produced by a particular country, let that be something that grows organically as a response to shared influences and concerns.

I had to laugh at his suggestion that Creative Scotland has a role to play in getting artists to engage with the internet. We are talking about the same Creative Scotland, right? The one I’m talking about is the one with the horribly-designed website and fairly inept use of social media. Most artists are actually pretty web-savvy these days. We have to be. Most of us don’t have hefty salaries to rely on, and making self-employment viable relies increasingly on being good at using the internet.

On to another voice – Kevin Williamson’s this time, over at Bella Caledonia. (These are in no particular order, by the way, just as I happen to come across the open tabs on my browser.) This is where I started to find things really, really interesting. Kevin, like Kenneth Roy over at The Scottish Review, makes some excellent points about the lack of engagement or understanding from government. Since Creative Scotland serves policies that are decided at government level, surely Fiona Hyslop should be getting involved with all of this? Yet following her instruction to Creative Scotland to sort itself out, she has been conspicuously quiet. I asked whether she was planning to attend either Artists’ Open Space or the Tramway World Cafe and got a response saying she couldn’t as she would be busy promoting Scottish culture in India, which felt a wee bit like the cart being put before the horse and made me wonder whether the seriousness of this issue is clearly understood. (NB: While I’ve been writing this I understand Ms Hyslop has made some comments on the report from the board meeting. They seem to be pretty generic suggestions that artists and Creative Scotland should be nice to each other. If I come across anything else I’ll edit it in.)

And finally, there’s a strange contribution from The Commonty, a creative practice collective in the South West. I’m not entirely sure what this letter is trying to say beyond “we like Creative Scotland”. It’s all a bit vague, with a lot of talk about “initiatives”, “delivery of… Creative Scotland’s remit”, “real impact” and “strategic direction” and nothing more specific (for instance, examples of the projects Creative Scotland has backed and what “impact” they have had, or what the “specific realities of life in rural Scotland” might be). The assertion that “the overall momentum of change is in the right direction” would carry more weight if we had any idea what that actually meant.

There’s some complaint about the way this letter was reported in the national press, but to be honest I don’t see how it could have been otherwise. It’s nice to hear that there are some happy artists in Dumfries & Galloway and it’s good to give credit where it’s due, but this is a discussion about how Creative Scotland treats artists, not regions. Of course it met with a slightly bemused response. It’s not really relevant to this particular discussion. It’s not about whether it fits the national press’ story, it’s about the fact that in this particular conversation, the letter is a non sequitur.

 

And now the statement from the board has been released, so I’m going to go and have a look at that. At first glance I can see that they’re planning to do away with “strategic commissioning”, which seems to me like a step in the right direction – let’s hope that the rest of it turns out to be full of change for the better. No doubt there’ll be more Creative Scotland posts to come, but I’d like to think that they’ll be hopeful ones. I much prefer being optimistic to being weary.

It looks like this is Creative Scotland admitting they got things wrong and promising change. Let’s hope!


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.