Blog Post: Capital funding, buildings and Leeds

Leeds City Council is leading a process to come up with a cultural policy for the city. It is an admirably open, patient and democratic process. As part of that Cluny MacPherson- head of culture at the city council- has written a piece on capital funding and buildings.  I don’t agree with the acceptance of the logic of capital funding. It’s not necessarily a disagreement with what Cluny said per se, more I don’t think we have to start our thinking where he started his. He asked me to expand on my initial response which was “If we must accept logic of capital investment then let it be investment in people/skills/communities not just bricks” and that thinking is below. I haven’t posted it under his original blog for lots of reason but the main one is that I think the openness of the process of the council creating a cultural policy is brilliant. And nothing stops openness with the public like a long industry insider comment in the comments section. 
There are two unstoppable forces; entropy and government’s demand for expansion in the public sector.

Things will break apart eventually this we can be sure. And, with a gibbering national economy, year on year real-term reductions in funding and a public hit in the pocket, arts organisations that receive public funding need to demonstrate annual growth.

I’ve nothing against growth per se: Slung Low is a particularly spunky expansionist outfit never standing still for long. But sometimes the size of an outfit is just fine. And sometimes the easiest sort of growth is the wrong sort of growth for that organisation.

And capital can often be the easiest sort of growth. A few years ago a shrinking regional theatre audience, a tired leadership who had generally been in post for a while and huge pressures on funding combined to create a real sense of despair in the future direction of the theatre scene especially outside of London. There were numerous despairing conferences and meetings.

One of the options that was available to these organisations was capital funding. Build something new. Some theatres chose to rebuild their entire buildings, some chose to add auditoriums, some just their bar and restaurant. 

But most did at least one of those things. Of all the options available it’s the easiest option for boards. Capital are prestige projects: You can name an auditorium after a rich lad, it is a solid focus for your fundraising activity, it’s a set task around which you can galvanise your staff and supporters. It is substantially easier than the general philanthropic expansion also demanded.

And the capital funding can support some of your core activity; pay for time of fundraisers, project managers, execs, all sorts of other costs that take the pressure off the core costs that are such a big weight for big theatre buildings.

So it’s a winner, right. Capital for everyone.

The cost of capital is expansion. You want to build a new restaurant the argument that has to be made is that you can sell more meals in that restaurant because more chairs, or it is so much nicer that more people will come to it. You’ll raise more money over time because you’ll sell more meals to more people so the government is helping, so the argument goes, for organisations to stand on their own two feet, to be resilient. (resilient against a removal of government funding but that’s a different argument for a different day).

There are some theatres who have made a glorious success of this model. It is a major plank of the neo-liberal funding logic that sees subsidy as pump-priming rather than a natural state of being. I don’t agree with that definition of arts funding: some things are best owned and operated solely within the public realm and beyond the full pressures of market forces. Regional theatre is one of those things.

A financial focus on capital, a secured substantial pot, is an artificial pressure on the industry. It is a force of change that isn’t driven by artists, or by audience, or artistic vision, or by community need. It is driven by a number of forces laid out above; some organisational, some fundraising, some conservative, some ego. And I’m not convinced that it creates resilience at all. Whilst there are some good examples of new shiny buildings who are successful and triumphant after their rebuild (Liverpool’s recent announcement of a rep season two years after their rebuild was particularly positive I thought) there are also many examples of theatres who got caught in the ego chase of a capital project and found themselves shiny and lonely in the middle of the town centre, wheezing under new staff costs and completely unable to shift their £9 fish finger sandwich that anyone with any sense could have told them were bad ideas. 
Not all growth is good. Not all directions of growth are good. And if you can’t fill 1200 seats a night you are unlikely to be able to fill 1500 seats a night, no matter how nice your new restaurant and foyer. But it is a central plank of how to maintain a modern arts organisation and so it makes complete sense for Chief Execs and Board Chairs to chase that particular chicken. When they catch it they’ve secured their organisation’s future for the next five or so years, given a bright shiny veneer of success and it will most likely be someone else’s problem to solve how on earth those fish finger sandwiches are going to get flogged. A number of towns, having used substantial amounts of public capital funding to build new theatres, fail to commit to funding and staffing them in the way that was once promised: their decline and reliance on regular bail-out funding is all too likely.
I don’t think for a second that capital funding isn’t necessary. Buildings need fixing. I’m even willing to allow that occasionally you might have to build a brand new theatre. Fix the roof if it leaks. Re-upholster your seats if you insist on having them. That isn’t my issue. It’s the acceptance firstly of capital as some sort of magic money that can never be confused with revenue: if the last year taught us anything it’s that there is nothing solid in politics and economy so I don’t buy Cluny’s assertion that the capital and revenue are different bank accounts that are really unconnected- what impact will central government’s capital decision to build the huge Factory arts centre in Manchester going to have on that city’s revenue funding set-up for example.
But mostly my issue with received wisdom around capital funding is that with all the pressures our large arts organisations are under it would be negligent for executives not to pursue all possible resources but capital expansion is profoundly changing the nature of our theatre scene, the focus of our theatres and the staff that work in them; it has an impact on ticket pricing, on the layout of the front of house, of who feels welcome and the nature of the space and all of that is being driven by non artistic forces. It’s a whole set of targets and pressures that often make it much harder for buildings to be the generous central supporters and leaders of their city’s theatre scene. And it’s a huge part of funding that by its very nature presupposes a theatre building as a default position of best theatre practice, the focus of our funding and our work.

Wales and Scotland have two of the most exciting national theatres in the world- neither of which have buildings. Meanwhile we keep building more and more of them in the north even though we can’t fill the ones we have. I don’t think that it is the state of the buildings themselves that are stopping people coming to the theatre. But I think for some building a new one gave them a break from thinking about how to fill the one they already have. I don’t think it increases resilience. I think it kicks the impossible question of how to make a regional producing theatre scene resilient without government funding further down the road. But each day it changes the theatre scene we’ll be left with if that day ever comes.
Slung Low applied for capital funding a few years ago. WHAT ALAN?! That’s a hell of a 3rd Act reveal- chill your beans friends, we’ll get there. 

We got it, just over 90 grand. We spent ten fixing the roof at the HUB, bought some hot water bottles and blankets for audience and spent most of the rest on two things. 

One was 800 headphones. One of the issues of working for regional theatres is they are strapped for cash. Slung Low shows cost money, proper money. Buying headphones for all the audience to hear the show and paying our creative fees is not easy. Now they don’t have to pay both. Hire Slung Low and we bring our gear with us. It makes it easier for theatres to be bold and programme the different type of work we make. And it means we can get paid. That’s our attempt at a form of resilience.

The other thing we did with the money is buy a van. It was our second van. The capital money meant we could buy and insure a van for anyone to borrow it. We lend it to other theatre companies and makers. It’s out all the time. Except for hairy arsed bands who trash it we’ve never turned anyone down for any other reason than it was already out. Over the years dozens and dozens of theatre projects have used it. For free. Naturally. That’s resilience.

It was a very nuanced argument we made to qualify the above for capital funding. To argue that to give away our resources was about sector resilience. That is a very hard argument for the Arts Council to approve in the face of the pressure they’re under. We were much helped and led in that argument by Cluny MacPherson who used to run Yorkshire arts council before he ran Leeds city council culture. Hate the game not the player.
The arguments that the arts have had to make defending funding over the last 8 years have been torturous. There is a danger that we start to believe the things we do to survive are the reason why we exist. We give up the direction of our art form, the core value of what we do, to board chairs and external pressures at our peril. I’ve heard of two Artistic Directors who have left their organisations because of a conflict with the board over a capital project they had foistered on them. That’s two too many.
We recently created a hostel. Five beds that those in the area on theatre business can come and stay in. The idea was that companies in residence at the HUB or small scale touring or bloggers visiting Leeds might find their tasks more achievable because that large cost of accommodation was removed. One of the main issues in Leeds is that we fail to retain our talent beyond five years. We’ve lots of early graduates which is great. But not that mid range/ aged artist or company- the list of those that tried and moved down south is very long. To make something without substantial funding happen in the city is hard. There’s less spare rooms to crash in than there should be because they all moved to London. The idea of the hostel is to try and make engaging with West Yorkshire’s alternative scene easier, increase the diversity of work being made and shown and written about in the city. It’s an attempt at resilience.

At time of writing it had been live for three days. Two different groups have applied to use the hostel already. Both are performing at the big theatre up the road. The money to open your new show at the most funded theatre in the city won’t cover the cost of digs. This isn’t resilience. It is a system that doesn’t work. We need to fix it before it transforms beyond use. And we need to stop building new theatres and start working out what to do with the ones we’ve got.

There is more pressure on funding and more work to be done than ever. Ring fencing a large portion of cultural public money for Capital projects encourages the wrong headed notion that shiny new buildings are the answer to anything.

Blog Post: the speech I didn’t write for the Arts Council

I have to confess I haven’t written a speech. Those of you who know me will know my wonderful wife is expecting a baby. Today. Tomorrow. Soon.

I had a great ambition to write a speech about how two years ago Slung Low took the decision to be a community theatre company. And how we pushed that change through everything. Community Philanthropy. Community media strategy. Everything. And we discovered that it had an extraordinary impact. We have raised more money. We’ve had more press. Our community board push harder and more clearly. And not just the participation has improved but the actual marrow of our work- the art- has become deeper, more ambitious and more relevant. That in all way we could we tried to be useful to as many people as possible. And how that might be something for us to discuss.

But the weekend was full of NCT classes. And yesterday I had to wash all these little clothes in Non-bio powder. And I put them on the line to dry and I just became mesmerised. And then it was dinner and I hadn’t written a speech.

Which is a disaster. I said to my team. All these important people and I’ll have no speech. And they said, don’t worry Al. You just have to create a connection. Jump cut the relationship with a revelation. Tell them something that will embarrass you if everyone finds out and then there’ll be a relationship and all will be well. Brilliant advice.

So. For a long time now every month I writer a letter to my pen pal. George Osborne. Obviously I have a poilitical rep to protect, this would be disastrous if it got out. On Monday I sat down to write my most recent letter to him and so I thought I would read it out to you and then we could just forget all about this embarrassing affair. Right? Good. Sit back and relax.
Dear George,

Hope you are well pal

Congratulations on the party conference. A triumph. So pleased you took my advice about the power stance. I consulted a number of movement directors and they were unanimous in their advice that the diagram of the stance I sent you was the best for projecting total command and caring national leadership. You see, it does help to have friends in the arts- bet your mates in banking would have had you standing like a right nobber.

I myself am giving a speech later this week to some very important chief execs from theatre and will absolutely be utilising the power stance of caring leadership throughout.

Also, whilst I’m on, wanted to throw a big well done at you for the Theatre Tax Relief. You know me, I’m an imaginative guy but I literally could not blue sky think a more efficient, speedier way of getting more cash to the various misanthropic, highly affluent, often off-shore for tax purposes 1 per centers that financially speculate on the commercial west end. I am pretty excited for you to drop a big bag of trickle down magic on that dosh and watch it flow into the pockets of individual artists and small companies that are locked out of the scheme. I think trickle down magic is what you will win your nobel prize for- it’s a beautiful thing G-man.

Anyway the real reason why I am writing is to let you know about a project that me and the free-market capitalist zealots at Slung Low did earlier in the year. We made a show called Camelot The Shining City with Sheffield Theatres and Sheffield People’s Theatre. I am actually gutted that you missed it. In the comments beneath the glowing Financial Times review someone called it a fascistic defence of neo-liberalism. Yeah, I know, right up your street. But I now you’re busy. Balancing the books.

It was a contemporary reworking of the King Arthur myths. Aside from it’s fascistic defending of neo-liberalism it was the story about how a group of people created an entirely new future direction for a country based on a fictional recounting of a nation’s history until a crowd rose up and beat the leaders to death. A parable that has absolutely no relevance to you George.

It was made with 137 members of the Sheffield People’s Theatre. 137 businessmen, students, doctors, ex-serving soldiers, current traffic wardens, stay at home parents, entrepreneurs, kids and successful asylum seekers. The full gamut of the big society.

They combined with a professional team from Sheffield Theatres and Slung Low to create this show that was watched by 600 people a night for two weeks. The show sold out, the audience only paid £15 a pop for their tickets but this is zone 27 after all and the trickle down hasn’t quite reached Sheffield yet like it has Mayfair so let’s call 15 pounds a good start. The show was reviewed well and all the national critics who managed to actually watch the show and not just stand at the back hiding and reading the script really enjoyed it- a feather in the cap of the southern suburbs of the Northern Powerhouse!

There was a moment in rehearsals when 4 members of the company- citizens of Sheffield- were working on the opening scene. One of them being French was encouraged to try it in French, to unlock things. James Phillips- the writer- was in the stalls- his ears pricked up. He went down to talk to the cast, jump cut a few hours and he has written new words to respond to these changes. New words, new meanings, renewed focus to the drive of the play because of a new understanding of the social, political context for the play. We in theatre have a word for that. Dramaturgy. And I’ve checked. The going rate for that is like £200 a day. And there were 4 of this lot!

That play was published by Methuen and was sold at least 7 times in America. Which means it is International Dramaturgy. And that means a better day rate!
Because there were 137 people in it the television were interested in a way they aren’t always in theatre shows. So a number of the cast were involved in live TV news slots. There are clear and specific payments for such appearances in our well regulated industry so it’s worth is easy to decide. But what’s harder to evaluate is that the good news story about involvement in the arts is better for the health of the nation than stories about the usual cuts to services and establishment paedophiles. And what is good for the health of the nation as you always say G-string is good for the GDP of the nation. Exactly.
The 137 volunteers brought in their own costumes for part 3 of the show- the riot!- it was amazing how perfectly these citizens chose the right clothes to take part in an act of violent disobedience against their government. Anyway, they all worked with David Farley- the show’s designer- collaborating to make sure they looked just right. And provided their own stuff as well. Design assistant credit and ‘with thanks’ mention in the programme normally.

Each of the cast spread the word in person and digitally on the old social media. Working with the brilliant comms team at Sheffield Theatres but generating their own content too. I’ve checked what a digital comms assistant makes in a regional rep house and it’s not as much as you’d think G-I-Joe but still, all starting to add up. Because of their personal connections print appeared in places that no comms department could ever hope to reach which clearly led to this piece of contemporary new writing with no one off the tele in it selling out. Which, as surprising as this will be to you G-bot, isn’t a daily occurrence this far from the Donmar Warehouse.

 So when you work out the market value of all this volunteering, and expertise, it really starts to stack up. And when you start to factor in the various impacts it has on the mental and social health of the community, well I can tell you G-weed it’s a hefty figure.

Now obviously the cast of Camelot, the good citizens of Sheffield People’s Theatre did this not for any financial recognition but because they believe in the various personal and societal benefits of all the actions I’ve described above. I don’t know for sure if they are ALL members of the Conservative Party but I can tell you G-note that they certainly act like it. Cut these guys in two and you would find Big Society stamped right through them.
But I was thinking, this behaviour, it’s as worthy (isn’t it?) as the gift of some cash from a rich businessman to a theatre? It’s as worthy- pound for pound-as the giving of money to a theatre and having the name of that theatre changed to your own? isn’t it? I mean I’ve heard some bleeding heart liberals argue that given that we’re often talking about time (as well as cash) poor volunteers the pitching up week after week after week to support our large public arts organisations is actually MORE valuable pound for pound as the donation of money by someone who has more money than they are EVER GOING TO BE ABLE TO SPEND. But lets not even listen to those lunatics G-string.

But assuming that we agree- as I am sure we will- that pound for pound these things share a value then it seems only fair that they are treated equally by your exchequer. So I’m putting in a Gift Aid claim. By my reckoning 28% of the contribution of Sheffield Peoples Theatre is £28 grand.

When we think about the current payments to producers of all colours and stripes in tax relief this one seems like a no-brainer to me. So G-chord, if you can have your chaps cut a cheque and make it payable to Sheffield Theatres then that would be brilliant. After all there’s got to be some reward to theatres for letting Slung Low run around setting fire to public squares in fascistic defences of neo-liberalism. And you know G-dog, as you always say, if we don’t do it who will? Exactly

Right. Must go now, more Picketty to read. And remember, legs wide apart, knees uncomfortably pointed in, straight-lipped grimace like you are mugging a nation.

Much love

Big dog Al x

Blog Post: Our local MP, James Bond and going to public school.

We had our local MP down the HUB. It was first time we’ve done that so it was pretty exciting. It is to a theatre company what hoovering is to a 6 year old; you are aware that everyone older than you hates it but it all seems so exciting you can’t imagine a time when it will become dull.

He asked “why are you an artist?” straight out of the gate. Which is a smart question to open with. I talked about how stories are how we work out our place in the world, how we make sense of the most painful and joyful parts of life; making stories for crowds of other people is an amazing thing to do with your life. Standard. I believe it too. Every bit. Not just on a personal level (on which I’ve bored before) but because the two times a show of mine has attempted to be changed by the authorities the sheer terrifying weight they bring to bear on you is all the proof I need to be certain that stories are important. Actually important in the real world important, not just five stars in The Stage important, otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered.

I mentioned Chris Bryant. He asked if Bryant’s comments about public school boys dominating cultural life had exercised me. Aware that at least some of my lunch guest school’s had been independent and not wanting to piss in the soup I brushed past the point to say that what had exercised me more was that Bryant had declared there were areas of cultural drought when I think that underestimates the breadth and depth of the cultural scene in UK. Chris Bryant is MP for Rhonnda so maybe he just needs to get out more.

At some point, in the manner of these conversations where you are trying your hardest not to say anything contentious, I surprised myself by saying “imagine how different the global image of the UK would be if James Bond had a northern accent?”
Which I then sat kicking myself for. Sean Connery. I’m an idiot.

We talked about the fact that the ten year anniversary of 7/7 was approaching, that he was the MP for the place the bombers came from; we talked about the difficulties we’d had in the staging of James Phillip’s brilliant new adaptation of Moby Dick with it’s young, angry British Muslim lead character; and the fact that in July we’ll be performing on the streets of Sheffield a new version of the King Arthur myth that deals with Christian violent extremism. We talked about how in many northern cities there are people’s theatres, large performance companies of citizens led by professional creative teams, performing contemporary versions of national stories, and often not on stages but in public spaces; Library Theatre’s take on Peterloo Massacre in a northern quarter warehouse; York Theatre Royal and the Mysteries and Blood & Chocolate; and of course Sheffield People’s Theatre.

Big public stories. Stories about things that matter. Stories that help us think about impossibly large things. Told by people who live in those places.
How the stories are told are as important as the what. These aren’t plays for quartets of professional actors in studios but armies of citizens. And the who is telling them is important too. The ownership, the civic nature of these productions. Hearing about the Paralympic Opening ceremony taught me that. The who is important. I believe that.
Back to lunch. Of course ‘who’ our leading actors are is important. “Try making Our Friends in the North with 4 Benedict Cumberbatchs.” The type of people becoming our leading actors will effect the variety of stories told. That’s inevitable. These stories change the way we see ourselves. So if there is a corruption in our “leading actor selection” system we need to fix it.
But you don’t do it by dragging individuals down. You don’t do it by stifling the talent of Mr Cumberbatch. That’s idiotic. You don’t fix anything by attacking the top of the problem- there talent is rightly it’s own defence. The minute the discussion becomes about individuals it becomes small and mean.
You do it by looking at the source. You do it first by accepting that it is statistically so unlikely, so preposterously unlikely that access to opportunity is equal if so many of our leading acting talent comes from a financially selecting top 7% of the nation’s children. You accept that.
If our industry (and the educational worlds that feed into it) was fair, based entirely and only on talent, would our companies, our casts and our lists of 500 most important look like they do? No, they wouldn’t. They really wouldn’t.
And if that is the case (and just look at the lack of gender and ethnic diversity to be assured that it is) do we think we would see any change in the stories we were telling if we made it fair? fuck yes. Of course changing the people telling the stories would change the stories.
We- in part at least- are telling the wrong stories. No wonder we are fucked. We are telling the stories generated by the needs and outputs of an unfair system.

It was a nice lunch. Interesting, engaged, thoughtful company.
But there was something sloshing around the day after I couldn’t put my finger on; I thought it was forgetting Sean Connery was Bond but no.
7/7. Our Friends in the North. Daniel Craig. James Bond. Public Schools. Then I remembered.
About 12 or 13 years ago I applied to be an officer in the army. After bits and bobs I end up in an interview room with a Brigadier. Towards the end of the interview he asks what regiment or service I want to go into.
-Army Intelligence. My father was in intelligence, in the RAF. He had died not so long ago. I’d like to go into Army Intelligence.
He looked at my file. Is there something else? he asked.
-No not really.
You didn’t go to the right school for intelligence.
-I could go away and learn a language; arabic, chinese?
No, have a think about what else you might want to do.

I didn’t continue with my application.

I remember an episode of Spooks once when they had to create an elaborate back story for Rupert Penry-Jones about being an Aleppo arab with white skin and blue eyes so that he could infiltrate a gang of islamic terrorists. It was one of the sillier episodes of Spooks, and that is a bar set pretty high.

It matters who is doing the thing as well as how well it is done. (Not that I would have been much help in pushing back jihadism, I completely accept. Going undercover with my ginger beard and blue eyes!).

7% of kids in the country go to private school.
54% of top journalists went to private school.
66% of barristers.
75% of judges.
33% of MPs
26% of BBC executives.

There is nothing wrong with going to private school, or at least nothing wrong for which individuals should be punished. Some of the incredibly talented members of Slung Low and our finest collaborators went to public schools- I am their biggest fan, their most dedicated champion. The minute this discussion becomes about individuals it becomes small and mean. And neither is it driven by the politics of envy; no more than the certainty I feel that theatres must be physically accessible to all is driven by a resentment of the able-bodied. But if we don’t recognise that the overall system is inherently rigged, that the playing field is far from fair then we’ll never untap the talent (in all fields) that is going to waste.

Theatre and the arts are not the only offenders as Nicholas Hytner said earlier in the week. But he was wrong that we shouldn’t be picked on. We tell stories that help people understand the world, tackle the impossible issues of the day. If we do not have the very best people, if we do not have a diversity of tellers, then we will be telling the wrong stories.
This is important. Not as important as infiltrating a gang of islamic terrorists thanks to belonging to an unlikely if factually correct tribe of blue eyed, fair skinned Aleppo Arabs I grant you. But still. Important enough for Mr Hytner to turn his mind to as a matter of urgency.

Blog Post: there are worse things than being naive, theatre needs a revolution.

The Arc in Stockton recently announced they are offering their drama and poetry events as Pay What You Decide. Word is that a couple of venues in Yorkshire will announce similar plans in 2015. There’s movement. If not actually A movement.
A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the possibility of Leeds becoming European Capital of Culture and how all the events contained within should be Pay What You Decide. In the response to Arc’s announcement, and the response to my blog and the HUB’s Pay What You Decide programme generally, what is really clear is that some people don’t get it. In their rejection of Pay What You Decide it is clear that it is not understood what issue this different way of valuing performance looks to solve. It isn’t a financial issue. It’s a social political issue.

I’ve spent the autumn sitting in meetings where absolutely EVERYBODY assures me that local council arts funding is over, most tell me that central government arts funding is about to fall off a cliff and some are even certain that the Arts Council itself is only 3 years away from extinction.
However much of this is to be believed what is clear is that the subsidised theatre scene I love is changing. Radically. And there is no stopping that change. But at this point it can still go in a number of different directions.
Everyone from the Culture Secretary, the head of the Arts Council to pretty much anyone with a decent mind working in theatre thinks that the breadth and depth of society’s enthusiasm for theatre is lacking; whether that is desire of every marketing manager I’ve ever met to fill more seats, Stella Duffy’s brilliant blog here or Peter Bazallgette’s recent demand for greater diversity in our companies and audiences. Our relationship with wider society is hardly ideal. We’re being forced to change, partly (or at least justified) as a result of the weakness of our relationship with the vast majority of the country who don’t enjoy our efforts. In this tension there is an opportunity for a revolution. But what sort of revolution?

If customer is the primary relationship that theatre has with it’s audience then everything they do will be seen within the context of that. That prime relationship, the ‘norm’ will be between an organisation and a full price paying customer. We create a set of values in which too often our engagement programmes are valued because they create more of the norm, in which our front of house concentrates on rinsing the norm for whatever they can afford to spend on drinks and ice cream, and any deviation from the ‘norm’ is seen as an initiative, a loss leading scheme that looks to develop the ‘abnormal’ into future norms. The norm dictates how everything is seen, how the thing is understood.
Waitrose is a fancy supermarket. Everybody knows it. It’s understood. But still you can buy a tin of beans for 18p from there. But that’s not the norm for Waitrose, and it’s by it’s norm that the brand is known.
So when there are SOME tickets available at £12 but they are restricted views or only available on a Tuesday or there’s only 20 of them then it’s the £30 that is the norm. And it is the £30 that the experience will be known.
The other things? They are the loss leaders at the end of the aisle that designed to get you through the doors, they are special offers. The average wage in this country is £24k a year, non discounted tickets for our publicly funded theatres are beyond the reach of at least half the nation. Regular tickets for a publicly owned event is financially beyond half the nation.

I remember being in a discussion years ago, at Forest Fringe I think, where someone said it was immoral that people who had already paid for art products through their taxes were unable to afford to see them because of ticket prices. I remember thinking how impossible it was that anyone could be THAT naive. Well I’m ten years older and I’ve realised that there are worse things than being naive.
It is immoral. And, more relevantly, it’s one of the reasons why there isn’t as dynamic and as direct a campaign against the arts cuts as some of us hoped there would be. Because we’re not as relevant to the majority of the population as we could be. And the cost of theatre being beyond the reach of so many is a major problem. The influx of arts funding under new labour didn’t broaden the number of people who enjoyed the arts like was hoped.

At Slung Low we’ve experimented with free tickets in different ways over the last few years, from Converging Path shows throughout Yorkshire to the recent The White Whale. In some ways the end of those experiments was successful with 40% of the White Whale audience never having experienced theatre before.
But it is not the answer I hoped it would be because even as we were pleased with the outcome of The White Whale I was also aware that there was potential income that we turned our back on, there were plenty of people who would have happily paid good money for their ticket. I got that wrong.

I got it wrong because people should be able to support the arts that make their lives better, and it’s part of my job to help them do that. But not being able to support them financially should never stop someone being able to experience something that belongs to them.

The theatres belong to the people. They do. But it’s not instinctive to think so. We think the NHS belongs to us, the people. We think the BBC belongs to us. The protected forests of the nation are seen, predominately, to belong to us. But not the theatres. It doesn’t seem natural to think so. Making it natural, and widespread, to think that our civic theatres belong to us is the sort of revolution we need.

In discussion about this I am regularly accused of being naive. Most often it is said to be naive because without ticket prices as they are (or higher) we will not be able to run the theatres we currently have in the ways we currently have them. Okay. I accept that. But we can’t keep them the same, the cuts in train already will see to that.
And we shouldn’t. The world has changed. The banking crisis, the crumbling of trust in so much of the UK establishment and a profound shrinking of the size of the state means that the society theatres sit in have completely changed since 1997. I’m not talking about what plays we put on, or how we stage them. I’m talking about the very question of What Are Our Theatres For? If so much of our society has changed then theatres surely must have a different function now. And if there was ever a time crying out for a profoundly accessible central place that people could go to to be more than a customer than it is now.

This isn’t the argument of an impractical artist refusing to engage with the hard cold reality of income. The cliche of the artist uninterested in money.
It’s the opposite. I don’t want to spend the rest of my career dominated by a customer norm that have to be able to afford £35 a ticket to see The Seagull and spending my evenings asking bankers for money they should have paid in taxes in the first place. I am not pleading any artistic squeamishness about money, if money is going to impact upon the work I make, on the people who are going to be told about it, who are going to be able to afford to see it then I want to get my hands dirty with it.
I love that at every performance presented at the HUB one of the Slung Low team stand up in front of the audience and explain that the audience get to decide how much to pay at the end of the evening, that they should place the amount of money they chose in the jar at the end of the bar and that all of that money goes to the performing artists. I am not embarrassed by that speech, I bloody love it. Transparency. It’s part of our policy of sharing as much about the company’s money as people want to know in order to make what we do more understandable. And easier to appreciate I think.
I want a system that is available and open to all at the point of performance, regardless of financial situation. If one of the costs of that is a director standing up at the end of the show and saying, Thanks for coming, did you enjoy it? Can you pay for it please? then sign me up. That’s not refusing to deal with money. The truly naive idea is that increasing ticket prices and a relentless focus on philanthropic income doesn’t effect how our theatres behave, and what they do. The truly naive idea is that increasing ticket prices and a relentless focus on philanthropic income doesn’t effect what our theatres are for.

Why is the idea of our cultural leaders spending an increasingly large amount of time charming rich people already standard operating procedure, conventional wisdom but the thought of our cultural leaders talking directly to the audience about financially valuing our work laughable? The complicated question of who our theatres are for is wrapped up in this.

I’ve been in a number of meetings recently where really clever people have asked What are our regional theatres for? And really clever people have answered with points about skills development, about mixed income streams and about ensuring a national spread of live entertainment. It’s been a while since I heard anyone talk spiritedly about the changes in society that a relevant theatre can support. In the crisis currently facing the arts there is an opportunity to redefine what our theatres are for. I want a publicly owned system that places the audience in a different relationship with theatre-going beyond customer. I want a theatre network that offers inspiring, provoking live entertainment to all members of society regardless of their financial situation. I want our theatres to offer small places of sanctuary to our communities that are being beaten back by the forces of both national austerity and global economics. I want our theatres to be seen as belonging to all the parts of society, passionately held as resources of the common weal not to be buggered about with by politicians. Like our schools, like our GPs, like our television channels, like our National Parks.
And I think we take a huge step towards that if our tickets, across the board for every show on every public stage, become Pay What You Decide.

Blog post: litter picking and shouting at BBC Question Time

Heads up: This isn’t a blog about theatre. In fact it’s a blog about why I am supporting a managed area for prostitution in Holbeck. But we’re going to take the long way round.

Earlier this week I went to a political fundraiser. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I’ve been talking about trying to get more involved in politics and paying extra to eat dinner seemed like an easy thing to try; I’ve tried local party meetings, going to public meetings, sitting on local committees- it’s all fine, important even but it’s not what I was looking for.
The fundraising dinner did, I suppose, deliver all that was promised. The politicians from the tele were there up close and personal. A lovely parliamentary candidate who had recently had a twitter bust up with Nigel Farage was sat at the table. I was sat next to a man who told me he was the pollster responsible for making my local MP shinier and more tv friendly. It was I suppose the sort of light weight political gossip experience that a man who has watched all 7 series of West Wing 5 times was secretly hoping for. It was perfectly pleasant, we raised some money to help some hopeful, bright young politicians compete against some specifically very bad conservative MPs. But as for being the scratch for a political itch it was like wanting to join the army and spending the evening playing Medal of Honour.
That evening, like most Thursdays, I came home and spent an hour shouting on Twitter at BBC Question Time. It’s a particularly childish and particularly satisfying part of the week for me. There’s a group of people who join in with me (or me with them) every week. Often agreeing but sometimes not, there’s not been a week gone by where I haven’t been corrected, my opinion shifted by something someone said. And not for the first time I’ve thought how many social functions Twitter plays for me.

But it’s not politics. Any more than live tweeting X-factor is politics. It’s shouting at the television with your friends.
In any case Thursday was one of those days where you end up feeling despondent and like one has no impact. A day when you start to question how useful it all is.

Meanwhile the local community police officer organised a clean up of Holbeck Lane. A litter pick on a Saturday morning. Slung Low are committed to being more practically involved in Holbeck and it was my turn so I pitched up to pick litter. The area we were picking was slap bang in the middle of the managed prostitution area of Holbeck.

Holbeck has been the centre of Leeds’ kerb crawling for a decade or more. The police do not have the resources to eradicate it from the area completely; the local police inspector is absolutely clear that he does not have the resource (nor is there the political will from on high) to remove street prostitution from the area. This is very important to remember: eradication of street prostitution from Holbeck is not an option available to the community.
So for the last month or so there has been a managed prostitution area in Holbeck. A non residential area of the town where from the hours of 7pm-7am the police will not prosecute the sex workers. Nor will they prosecute the clients of these sex workers. Outside of this time the police will prosecute. Anti-social behaviour and drug use will be actively prosecuted whatever the time of day or location.
The HUB is in the managed area. Slung Low has taken a supportive position of the plan. This has not been popular with all the community. There are genuine, thoughtful, humane oppositions to the plan. I do not have the monopoly on consideration here and don’t pretend to.
But I have some clear priorities;
I want my staff and audience to be safe.
I want Holbeck to be the best community it can be, and this can’t possible happen unless we get prostitution out of the domestic areas of Holbeck.
And it has always been my best consideration that the managed area contributes to this in ways that mean I can lend my support to it.

But I have to admit as I was picking up the third needle of the morning and using tongs to place what felt like endless piles of used condoms into bin bags I was having some very un-liberal thoughts. This week our neighbours on Bath Road have moved out- partly it seems in response to their volunteers being offered sexual services on their way to work- and with each condom picked up my patience for justifying the managed area to other local businesses was fading. There were moments that morning when I was absolutely certain, in my internal monologue, that we needed to give up on this managed area thing, doing anything other than decrying street prostitution from the nearest mound was nothing more than hand wringing liberalism of the worst kind.

As I was finishing picking up my bags of crap from the ginnel of doom one of the leaders of a programme that works with the women told me that last week there was a particularly nasty assault on a sex worker. This has been a recurring theme over the last ten years. Vile men violently assaulting women who would never dream of reporting the crime to a police that they could never see as anything other than oppositional. So the attacks continued, the attackers unknown, somewhere.
Except last week, thanks to the new relationship between the police and the women, this violent attack was reported. And the attacker caught.

The managed area is not perfect. It would be incredibly useful if the police could be more visibly present and active in ensuring that times and locations are kept to- Holbeck cannot take the steps of regeneration it needs to until street sex work is removed from all the domestic areas of the town. It’s also really hard to find the justice in the civic decision to keep prostitution in a part of the city that has enough to contend with. And of course in an ideal world I would like to live in a society that does not see women forced to sell their bodies to men in cars at all, regardless of whether those streets are where I’ve opened my theatre or not. But those are not the options available to us: in a profoundly unequal world, in a difficult situation, this is the best way available to us to make our community better.
And if nothing else- and there is much else- there is a violent misogynist who used to prowl around Holbeck who now is in prison; my family, my team, my audience are safer now than they were before. And that is absolutely thanks to this managed area, the product of some incredibly progressive community policing.

We live with a media system that insists on black and white, right and wrong answers to difficult questions; BBC Question Time is a key offender in this- “Do you think we should raise taxes?” “Will you close the borders?” “Will you lower migration?” “Should private schools be allowed charitable status?” The ridiculous simplification of incredibly difficult questions, the aggressive search for reassuringly simple answers to problems that should demand at least four “yes but let us also consider…”. And in response to the frustration with this failure we turn politics in to a soap opera. I find comfort in the ministerial machinations on Radio 4’s PM, or the whispered gossip of a man who made a shadow cabinet minister get a hair cut. If we don’t have the patience or the time for real content let us at least drown in hours of personality politics and whispers.

There are no simple answers. The questions around, for example, immigration and the impact of a global economy on UK workers are far too complicated to be answered in the allotted time our media system allows, and far beyond the wit demonstrated by too many of our national politicians. The easy, direct answers by the current wave of UKIP populists (and increasingly other parties) are pleasant to hear and nod along to in the sense that they allow us the rare sense of control and understanding but they are no more the answer than the idea that the forcible removal sex workers from Holbeck is the silver bullet for a town that has for far too long been the bottom of the pile in one of the nation’s most affluent cities. But for now the management area is the best option in a difficult situation. And it also occurred to me that in all the hours that I had spent on ‘political activity’ the litter pick was by some distance the most politically useful thing I’d done all week. It wasn’t the most fun, or the most salacious. But it was the most useful. And relevant. I want to be more useful.

Blog Post: Sitting in a supermarket car park telling people about theatre

20140612-233737-85057042.jpgThis is a picture of 500 tickets to The White Whale.
The White Whale by James Phillips is the new Slung Low show. A free adaptation of Moby Dick. It will perform on a floating stage with boats and fire effects and harpoons and flares and storms. The audience stand around the side of Leeds Dock and listen to the action through headphones whilst it takes place in front of them.
We’re planning for it to be a piece of theatre spectacle; combining the wow effect of outdoor events with the dramatic intensity of a piece of theatre. That’s the plan. (

The idea won the Leeds Inspired large grant, a £40,000 commission for ideas from artists who wanted to create an accessible event for the people of Leeds.

The tickets are free. They were always intended to be free. This is in keeping with the direction of travel that Slung Low has been on for a long time and that is preached and practiced weekly at the makeshift arts centre that we run in South Leeds, The Holbeck Underground Ballroom. It’s a complicated exploration that needs constantly defining, redefining and developing of how we value things, how theatre companies can behave in these straightened times, what is the definition of success and what are the ways that artists can respond to the preposterous demand for constant growth.*
Tickets being free for the White Whale is one of the responses to these questions and challenges, another way is the company wage we operate (more on that here). There are others.
Mostly The White Whale, its epic production style, its subject matter, how James has written it and yes the tickets being free are all focused on making a piece of theatre that might be equally attractive to those who love adventurous theatre already and those who fervently believe that theatre isn’t for them.

But free tickets are only any use if you hear about the event. And you are only going to hear about the event if someone tells you, and you are willing to listen. If you don’t think that theatre is for you you are unlikely to seek out the theatre pages of the Guardian. If you don’t think that theatre is for you then you are unlikely to have signed up to the mailing list of Slung Low, or Leeds’ Grand Theatre. In fact if you don’t think that theatre is for you then you are unlikely to even pay any attention to the big poster you see at the train station for the theatre show that I am sure everyone would love if only they gave it a go.
In fact if we can’t tell people who wouldn’t normally think theatre is for them about The White Whale then the decision to give the tickets away for free is doing more harm than good because I think the 400 people who immediately signed up for tickets after we announced on twitter would have paid money for them.
So we’ve given this quandary real thought. In a world of limited resources it would be a dereliction to spend all our resources on marketing to people who think that theatre isn’t for them. We could potentially end up with no audience.

This belief that many have that theatre isn’t for them is systematic, it’s learnt behaviour. It isn’t based on actually having ever gone to the theatre. It’s based on decades of how we speak about theatre, of how we market theatre, of Julian Fellowes** on the radio, it’s based on decades of the word luvvie being used by lazy journalists. And yes, sadly, based on hearing the stories told by others of money and evenings wasted on some truly terrible theatre and the perfectly reasonable desire to avoid that at all costs.
But I hold on to the sincere belief (I have to, I’m 35 and can’t go and do anything else now) that if you tell people in actual words that human beings use, rather than arts speak gibberish that alienates so many, what it is and why it is exciting then more people will be interested. That a lot of how we have been talking to people about theatre assumes that they already understand what is exciting about it. That’s not going to get it done any more, if the theatre world is going to survive in anything resembling it’s current relevance then attracting large numbers of those who think theatre isn’t for them has got to happen.
The people who aren’t meeting us half way are the people we wanted to attract with The White Whale, that was the point.

So (amongst many other things including a ‘proper’ marketing and press campaign) we have printed off 500 tickets to The White Whale. And over the next five weeks our airstream caravan is going on a tour. A tour of some of Leeds’ town galas (Beeston, Kirkstall, Holbeck for example) and supermarket car parks. We’ll park up and spend the day telling people about The White Whale. In return for an email address (to remind them nearer the time) those who are interested can have tickets: we’ve printed them off ready.

Up to and including the Conservative Culture Minister, we in the arts now believe that culture should be excellent, affordable and accessible. Maybe we all always believed that. But those words don’t mean the same things to everyone. £10 is an absolute bargain for a play I think. But if you’ve never been to the theatre and only ever heard stories of people getting swindled by trips to hoary old crappy plays that talked down to the audience then £10 is a good two hours in an All You Can Eat Chinese Buffet and only a mug turns that down.

Yeah that’s right. This blog is basically me letting you know that I am going to sit in supermarket car parks and tell people about theatre in the hope that they’ll come and see our free play.
I don’t know whether this will have an impact. But I do know that we are hopeful and we promised to do it. So do it we shall.
A friend of the company suggested the other day that we might be reaching a peak of quixotic behaviour. Not even got started yet. All aboard, I reckon that windmill is looking at us funny.


More dates will be announced but for now the Airstream caravan is confirmed in:
Sat 14th June – Beeston Festival
Wed 18th June – Tesco Extra/Seacroft Green
Thurs 19th June – Morrisons Harehills
Sat 28th & Sun 29th June – Waterfront Festival, Leeds Dock
Fri 11 July Trinity Leeds City Centre
Sat 12th July – Kirkstall Festival

*It’s also a process based on where Slung Low is and what we want to achieve. We’re not telling anyone else how to do their business, so take your “Well try that with a staff of 65 full time professional staff!” indignation elsewhere, I’m not buying. This is Slung Low’s way, we don’t think anyone else should be made to walk it. Although all fellow travellers are welcome to join us for a stroll, naturally.

** There are people who say that this isn’t all Julian Fellowes fault and it’s unfair that I keep blaming him. Those people are puddin’ heads and should keep their opinions to themselves. In addition I also lay the blame for some of this at the feet of Simon Callow and his stories on Wogan.

Blog Post: Clive Wolfe, an inspiration

I learnt this last week that Clive Wolfe has died.
If you are learning this news through this blog I am really sorry for your loss. He was an extraordinary man.
He was the President of the National Student Drama Festival. From 1968 until 2000 he had ran the NSDF. The NSDF is an annual festival where the best of student drama performs to an audience of its peers and representatives of the professional industry. The list of alumni who have gone on to professional success is extraordinary; at its best the festival opens doors and connects up young people of talent who would otherwise never have those vital opportunities within the industry. And the festival’s best was Clive. There are legendary tales of him convincing different grandees to pitch in, of selection panels paid entirely in the promise of beer and cheese and how for twenty years the whole outfit was run from his chemists in North London. These are not my stories to tell, I came to the festival long after they had become myths spread around in the bar.

But Clive was vital to me. I wouldn’t be doing what I am with my life without him. For me he had an extraordinary ability to look past bullshit and have faith in the what else might be there: ignoring the cocksure, entirely fake, posturing of a young student director. I first met him when he selected for the festival a series of short Samuel Beckett shorts I had directed as a student. They were, in retrospect, short of the sort of intellectual rigour that was almost certainly needed to make the show work. As a result it didn’t, it was loathed by the judges (two of whom walked out, amongst them the celebrated and fearsome director Annie Castledine) but it had an ambition of intent and reckless energy that Clive rewarded with a place in the festival. He didn’t seem too bothered by its reception, he knew what he had signed up for and he demonstrated the sort of ego-less confidence that I try to hold in my mind clearly each year as we select the festival. A courageous leadership of an unusual kind.
Prior to the festival the news had reached the feared John Calder who managed the Beckett estate that our production featured exactly the sort of ambition of intent and reckless energy that he liked to aggressively sue out of people. Permission to perform at the festival was vigorously denied, disaster! I informed Clive. Leave it with me he said. Two hours later we had permission. I don’t know how he did it. He never told me. But anyone who can take on Samuel Beckett’s lawyer has balls of stone.

A few years later I would proudly become a festival selector. One of the judges that year was a returning Annie Castledine. At the end of the festival I was asked to drive Annie back to London from the festival’s home in Scarborough. The only thing was that she liked to go no faster than 50 miles per hour so it would take a while. Fine, I didn’t mind, she was a legendary theatre force, the time would be full of brilliant theatre anecdotes from her I was sure.
As we were setting off, a by now increasingly frail, Clive flagged the car down and poked his head through the passenger window. “You remember Annie, a few years ago you were here and there was that series of short Samuel Beckett plays that made you so angry you had to leave?”
“Oh yes” replied Annie. “Terrible!”
“Well you do know that Alan directed them.” said a chortling Clive who then promptly waved us goodbye. Predictably Annie proceeded to tell me at length the flaws in my production all the way from Scarborough to London. At 50 miles per hour.
He had the extraordinary ability to look past the bullshit and have faith in what else might be there, but that didn’t mean he didn’t also have a wicked sense of humour. That car journey was one of the most informative experiences of my life.

The story of Clive, the achievement of Clive, of how he and his wife Pat kept the festival going against all strifes, without funding, in the face of union strikes, for decades, even when many advised against it is one that I hold as inspiration.
He is the first person I met in theatre that showed that you could hold your own course, protect a set of vital principles and aims in a generous, but pragmatic, way. And how you can sustain this over decades. With an impact on thousands upon thousands of young (and increasingly not so young) people. A model of how if you hold your nerve, and work tirelessly the impact that the thing you build can have will be immense.
There is a small army of us who, each in our own ways, owe a great deal to Clive Wolfe. I was so sad to hear of his passing. He was an inspiration.