Tag Archives: Language

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.


If I were a cat I would be in profound meditation

The fact that I’m married surprises no-one more than me. I was never the kind of woman who has had her wedding day planned out since primary school. Who wasted time thinking about getting married when there were imaginary monsters to be battled? I was never interested in playing house or being the princess waiting to bestow her favour on whoever showed up to rescue her. These were things that would interfere with my valuable adventuring time.

 

I should have realised that there are narrative rules governing the fates of girls like me. In strict accordance with the rules set down by Rogers & Hammerstein (amongst others), I fell hard and fast. I’d known my husband for a few years before I fell/realised I was in love with him, but things moved swiftly once we’d figured it out and within a few months of getting together we were planning our wedding.

 

So why get married? A couple of reasons. First and most important was the prospect of celebrating our relationship in the company of the people we care about. There is something really beautiful about looking at my husband and knowing that we feel strongly enough about each other to have said our vows in front of friends and family. I am surprised by how important that was to me, since it was something I had never felt the need of before Mark. I would always have thought that living together, having a cat together, building a life together was enough, but it turned out that I wanted to make that commitment in public.

 

There were also the practical, unromantic reasons. I still think marriage in its current form is a bit of an outdated institution, but society as a whole doesn’t really care about my views and continues to work on the assumption that marriage is the way to validate a relationship and make it official. I’ve always felt uneasy about not having a legal next of kin, or at least not one that I trust. My closest blood relative is someone I steer clear of for a number of compelling reasons, and I would hate to think of her tracking me down if I were in some way incapacitated and being permitted to make decisions about my wellbeing just because we share some genes. If those decisions ever need to be made, I want Mark to be the one making them and there’s only one way to make absolutely certain of that. Likewise, in the event of my death (because when you have a couple of near misses in early adulthood you think about these things) I want him to inherit whatever I have without paying any bullshit inheritance tax, assuming there was enough to incur any.

 

And there was a reason that’s technically practical but in many ways quite whimsical… I never have to wonder how to refer to him. I hate the term “boyfriend”. Lord knows I’m not a schoolgirl in the frenzy of her first affair, to quote a clever man – but “boyfriend” sounds so teenaged. “Partner” makes it sound like a business relationship. (I know some people also object to this one on the grounds that it connotes a same-sex partner. Not really something that bothers me – if people want to waste time speculating about my sexuality they can. You know I’m married to a man. The rest is supposition.) Being able to call him my husband removes the implication that he’s someone with whom I do business or someone whose name I scribble obsessively in the back of my maths jotter. That matters to me, probably because I’m quite nitpicky.

 

Which leads me on to the question of what I now call myself. I’m still surprised by the number of people I meet who can’t quite get their heads round the idea that I haven’t changed my name. Am I making some kind of feminist statement? Refusing to be my husband’s property? Well… not really. I think we are both quite clear about the fact that we’re not each other’s property. I just like my name. It’s mine. I’ve had it all my life. It’s a connection to my dead parents. It’s also on my business cards, my Equity card, my website, my Gmail and all my programme credits.

 

We considered various options. Mark could have taken my name, but with the exception of the dead parents, my reasons for keeping my name apply equally to him keeping his. We could have hyphenated, but both McGregor and Bolsover are long enough already, thanks. I don’t have the attention span for telling people my name is Jennifer McGregor-Bolsover (I can hardly even be doing with signing myself J McGregor). Some of my friends have taken to referring to us as the McGrovers, which I find very sweet but have no desire to adopt as an official moniker. So the simplest thing to do was for me to keep my name and Mark to keep his, since we are, after all, still the same people we were before we got married.

 

However, I still had to decide what to do about my title. I’ve always worn my Miss with pride, happy to display my status as an unmarried woman. Now, having married but kept my name, I find being Mrs an uncomfortable prospect. Mrs McGregor – specifically Mrs J McGregor – was my mum. Mrs Bolsover is Mark’s mum. So where does that leave me? Both of those options feel like a second-hand identity.

 

So on all those annoying forms that consider it their business, I am Ms McGregor. It’s not ideal. For a start, I don’t like the sound of the word. Mzzzz. But perhaps I’ll get used to it in time. I also find it a bit annoying that using Ms still marks you out as a lefty feminist type. Yes, I am a lefty feminist type but no more so than I was this time last year when I was still styling myself Miss. I think this is me kicking against people’s assumptions that they know everything about me based on the fact that I use Ms, kept my name and am happily childfree. Well, there’s an incentive to do a PhD someday… Mark can be Dr Bolsover and I’ll be Dr McGregor and we’ll both have identities that didn’t belong to anyone else in our families first. (Of course this would mean a return to academia for me, which is full of its own terrors. Oh, the agonies of being a first world woman with food, shelter, birth control and the time to worry about which version of my name I use and whether I’m already qualified to the point of being unemployable.) In the meantime I’ll continue to be Ms McGregor, still looking for the right configuration of my name and regularly mocking myself for being concerned about something so trivial when the important thing is that I’ve married a good man with whom I am very, very happy. And when people choose to make assumptions based on that name, perhaps I’ll simply hand them print-outs of this post.


A plea to Creative Scotland and its board

It’s been a while since I posted about the Creative Scotland stooshie. In December the board requested a bit of time to consider what to do next. I know it’s only the end of January (probably the beginning of February by the time I finish writing this), but considering how swiftly events moved towards the end of last year, this feels like a very long pause. With the next board meeting looming on February 7th, no doubt there’ll be news soon – but in the meantime, I would urge Creative Scotland and its board to think carefully not just about what they do, but about how it reads to us on the outside. As Henry Fielding puts it:

It is not enough that your designs, nay, that your actions, are intrinsically good; you must take care they shall appear so.

Optimist that I am, I truly believe that the remaining staff at Creative Scotland have good intentions. I hope the same is true of the board. I believe there are plenty of people involved who see the need for change and genuinely want relations between artists and Creative Scotland to improve, who are hoping that whatever comes out of the next board meeting will bode well for the future. This belief engenders hope, not just in me but in many artists. But it’s a fragile, newborn hope, still at the stage where it could easily be crushed by clumsy handling, whether by the organisation itself or by the board.

Creative Scotland’s challenge is to be careful how they present themselves. I was a little alarmed to see them advertising for a Research Officer on Ideastap using phrases such as “key stakeholders” and “deliver the ambitions of our corporate plan”. Seeing this kind of market language in an arts context always makes my blood run cold, but even if I set my personal qualms aside, there’s this: “a commitment to our values will be essential.”

The whole point of CSstooshie was to establish that there was a problem with Creative Scotland’s “values” as they stood. This was acknowledged by senior management and by the board. Creative Scotland needs to figure out what its values are before demanding that people commit to them. I know this is a standard phrase to see on job advertisements, but that’s exactly the problem. It reads like a standard phrase in a standard ad for a standard office job, with no implication that working for Creative Scotland should require a wee bit more. Commitment to the arts in Scotland, perhaps? Perhaps Creative Scotland thinks that’s implicit in asking for a commitment to “their values”, but they haven’t yet earned sufficient trust for us to take that as read. Now more than ever, we need to see meticulous attention to detail in the way they write their job descriptions, because the job descriptions that they write for a new Chief Exec and new Creative Director will have far-reaching repercussions. If they want us to believe that they’re capable of taking such pains over the descriptions for the top jobs, they need to demonstrate it all the way down to descriptions written for Research Officers (who, judging by the fact that they only earn three or four times what most of the artists I know earn in a year, must be pretty low down the CS totem pole).

As for the board, they made a massive step in the right direction when they released the Pitlochry statement and it’s vital that they don’t do anything to undo that good work. As they formulate new plans and begin the search for a new Chief Executive, it’s absolutely necessary that they not only consult and listen to artists, but that they are seen to do so. The easiest way to do this, it seems to me, would be to add some artists to their largely non-artistic make-up. I don’t mean that they should adopt a token artist – I think I’ve made my feelings on box-ticking abundantly clear in previous posts – but that they should consider reshaping the board so they have more representation from the nebulous thing that is the artistic community. They would also do well to make sure the process is as open and transparent as possible, since any hint of cloak-and-dagger dealings, nepotism or taking the path of least resistance will serve to destroy that fragile hope and trust.

So this is my plea to Creative Scotland and its board: if artists are willing to trust that your designs and actions are good, will you take care that they also appear so? Don’t leave us to guess at what’s going on and how decisions are being made. Be clear and open with us. Nurture that hope and trust, because the stronger those things are the easier your jobs and our lives will be.

And if in doubt, ask the artists – we’re pretty good at knowing how things will read…


A bit of a rant about “Skivers and Strivers”

On my way to the studio this afternoon I was listening to the radio and heard something that really annoyed me. I’m not sure what it was, since it was a short journey and I didn’t hear the beginning or end of the programme, but it was someone on Radio 4 talking about “skivers and strivers”. I can’t help feeling that these terms are noxious Cameronite propaganda designed to make people who have recently been shafted by a double dip recession and subsequent high unemployment rates feel bad about themselves. Anyway, some middle-aged man was putting his perfect elocution to questionable use by attempting to describe the frustration experienced by commendable, hardworking “strivers” when they get up for work early in the morning and see curtains closed in houses across the road, where idle benefit-scrounging “skivers” are lolling around in bed. Much was made of an anecdote about a jobseeker who dared express a preference for jobs that started later in the morning, maybe after 9.30am.

I know you should never get too riled up by anything taken out of context, but I was angry. By the time I’d taught today’s session, got home and done some domestic bit and pieces, I was still annoyed. My computer doesn’t get along well enough with BBC iplayer to let me listen to the programme now – which is probably quite a good thing, since throwing things at people talking in my computer is not the greatest idea – so I am writing this blog post from a position of partial ignorance. Perhaps all the points I intend to make in this post were made later in the programme. I hope they were, although I doubt it. Either way, I’ll make them here.

What really infuriates me about that man’s attitude is how rigid and unrealistic his view of what constitutes a work ethic is. You have no idea who is behind those closed curtains. Ever heard of a night shift? The person you’re branding lazy and a “skiver” might very well have been up all night putting out fires or caring for the sick and dying. The people who do those jobs are already underpaid and undervalued – let’s at least do them the courtesy of allowing them to sleep when they’re not at work.

There are also plenty of people who might not be doing lifesaving work but whose hours are not 9 – 5 or any approximation thereof, and we don’t deserve Plummy Radio Man’s condemnation either. Personally, I tend to wake up some time between ten and eleven. I’m usually online within half an hour of getting up. I faff about on social media for a bit while the caffeine kicks in, but social media isn’t just a toy for me – in amongst the cat pictures and updates about lunch choices, there are links to all sorts of things that are important to a freelance theatremaker. I hear about companies, submission deadlines, development schemes and industry news this way.

Then as my brain wakes up, I start replying to emails, writing budgets, plans and applications and drafting articles and blog posts that I’ll revisit and shape properly later in the day. Some days I teach, in which case I head in to the studio. Some days I edit and feed back on other people’s scripts, in which case I stay at home and probably remain in my pyjamas and wrapped in blankets for warmth. Some days I have meetings to go to. Sometimes I have rehearsals.

In the evenings I might be teaching, rehearsing, in meetings, at the theatre or some other event where I can network and meet collaborators and keep an eye on what’s happening in my area of the industry. Or I might be in front of my laptop working on a plan, budget, article or script. If I’m out during the evening, I’ll be back on the computer when I get home. I keep working until shortly before I go to bed, usually between 2 and 3am.

Now, I’m not saying I have my nose to the grindstone from 11am until 3am. Of course I have breaks and slack times and sneaky reads of sites that are nothing to do with anything. I play with the cat, I antagonise my husband (who also works from home much of the time). What I am saying is that I don’t have much of a social life or straightforward non-working time. I’m mentally on call all day, every day (which is not a complaint, by the way, it’s one of the things I love about my life and work because it’s how my brain works anyway). I don’t have many friends who aren’t also collaborators, so although I spend a lot of time with my friends it’s rarely just social. We have work meetings and we cram our catch-ups into the gaps.

On Sundays, Jen rests. I don’t check email, I switch my phone off. If I’m online it’s for entertainment purposes. I avoid company other than cat and husband. I cook. I spend ages reading in the bath. I try not to write, although I don’t always succeed in this.

Like I said, I’m not complaining about what my work life involves. It’s busy, but it’s great. I wish it involved a little more actual earning of money – financially I’d be better off on benefits – but we get by. It might be a while before we can afford a holiday, but as you can see from the above, I don’t have a particularly healthy attitude towards time off. I’m quite happy to work long hours because I enjoy what I do and as Noel Coward said, work is so much more fun than fun.

Just don’t dare tell me I don’t have a work ethic simply because I don’t start work by 9am. I’ve lived my life for a long time and know I don’t function well in the mornings. Even when I was living in London and the alarm went off at 5:50am each day so I could be on the tube a little after 7, I was never on form in the mornings. I know when I work best and I make the most of being freelance to allow me to work during my most productive hours. Does this somehow make me a “skiver”? By Plummy Radio Man’s standards, probably, since apparently only jobs that require you to be in work by 9am count as respectable employment.

Well, I suppose theatre was never considered the most respectable of professions. I can live with that. It’s not so much that I feel personally offended by Plummy Radio Man’s views. It’s more that I find this ideology of “skivers and strivers” and the demonising of those on benefits deeply disturbing. If it’s irritating to be a self-employed freelancer facing criticism for not working at the correct times of day, it must be soul-destroying to be a chronically ill person who can’t work and perhaps sleeps more than the average eight hours due to high levels of pain or medication side-effects. Or to be someone who had a job until they lost it due to the lovely double dip recession that they didn’t cause, and who hasn’t been able to find another one. Or to be someone who has never had a job because they stepped straight from education into high youth unemployment, where some bright spark wants to swap jobs that didn’t pay a living wage to begin with for Workfare placements that don’t pay at all and where unpaid internships have become commonplace?

I must stop before I become too irate to be coherent. I hope Radio 4 had someone putting another point of view. This “one size fits all” way of thinking, this ridiculously naive idea that anyone who isn’t employed and wealthy just doesn’t want to work, is dangerous. It chips away at the confidence of everyone who doesn’t currently fit that image. It erodes our freedom to choose a path other than one that leads to a 9 – 5 job and diminishes our respect for those who do take those paths. If you want to be cared for in hospital, have emergency services available round the clock or even simply to have someone pour your pint when you go to the pub or write the play that you go to see after work, you should respect the fact that they might not work the same hours as you. They’re not “skivers”, and the fact that there’s a small number of people out there to whom that label could accurately be applied does not excuse its sloppy, inaccurate and degrading application to anyone who might have good reason to be asleep while others commute.


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.


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.