Tag Archives: role of the arts

A theatremaker’s plea: do shut up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

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


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.


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…


Fin Kennedy’s Quest to Educate Ed Vaizey

I’m sure many of you have already seen this blog post by playwright Fin Kennedy. It’s the kind of post that makes me really happy to see another passionate, proactive theatremaker out there, but it’s also the kind of post that makes me want to break things when I see how little some politicians understand about the arts – and not just the arts, but about long-term thinking.

It seems that Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has no idea how theatre works. Isn’t that comforting? He thinks that because there’s plenty of new writing on at the moment, that means the recent Arts Council England cuts haven’t had any ill effect. This is a little bit like going on a diet then declaring the following day that since you are not noticeably thinner, it hasn’t worked. The effects take a while to show.

Yes, this is about Arts Council England and I’m a Scottish theatremaker. The funding situation is a bit different up here. But what happens south of the border will have an effect north of it, and I’d rather see new writing continue to thrive throughout the UK. I’d also like to see the people entrusted with looking after culture at Westminster being a lot more clued up and less terrifyingly short-sighted and commercial in their views. There have been some really worrying comments recently – Vaizey’s attitudes outlined in Fin’s post, Pete Wishart’s sinister post suggesting that artists are geese that lay golden eggs and should be not so much supported as intensively farmed, Maria Miller’s… well, everything Maria Miller has said and done or failed to say and do since she took post. The fact that they’re at Westminter and not Holyrood doesn’t mean that this has nothing to do with us. We must at least be alert and aware.

Fin Kennedy has extracted a promise from Vaizey that if Fin can find evidence that ACE cuts are causing people to scale back their commitments to new writing, Vaizey will read it. If there’s anything you can do to help with this, please do. I have plenty of writers, directors and producers on my social networks, many of whom work in England, and I would be very grateful if you would take a moment to think about where you are seeing the effects of the cuts. Read Fin’s post, and if you see anything on that list that you identify with or can think of any effects that haven’t been mentioned there, contact him. If you can offer practical help with pulling all of this together, contact him. After my recent involvement with the Creative Scotland stooshie I can tell you that what he’s taking on is no small task, and if Fin Kennedy is willing to do that for no other reason than that he thinks it’s important, we should give him all the support and good wishes that we can.

Bravo, Fin. You are doing a noble thing.


A Response to the Creative Scotland Board Meeting Report

The statement from Creative Scotland’s board gives me cause for hope. Like many artists I was expecting a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the scale of the problem, perhaps even denial that there is a problem in the first place. Instead we got a statement that was respectful, refreshingly low on empty corporate-speak and even showed a certain amount of humility.

 

They’ve acknowledged responsibility for the deterioration of Creative Scotland’s relationship with artists, they’ve promised change and given a rough outline of how that will happen, they’ve even actively solicited our judgement on how they get on. It’s extremely promising, and there are points that merit particular praise. For example, the board vows to get rid of “strategic commissioning”, eliminating one of the most contentious issues Creative Scotland has had to deal with recently. They give a special mention to the staff who have been working under difficult circumstances. They confirm what was said at the Artists’ Open Space about simplifying the language used. These are all good things.

 

That said, at the moment it’s all just words and time alone will tell whether the words will become action.The board has asked for time to implement these changes, which I think is wise. Best to take as much time as is required to do a thorough job. If they make good on their promise to deliver a detailed plan with a  timeline in the New Year, and if they continue to communicate openly in much clearer language, it will be possible to have a proper conversation between artists and Creative Scotland. I’m sure there will be more frustration ahead before we reach a harmonious way of working, but if the end result is a funding body that has a strong working relationship with artists then all the drama of recent months will have been worth it. The Year of Creative Scotland has come to an unexpectedly positive close.


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!