Blog post: Standing in the rain, 3 majorette prize givings and deciding when the weekend is. Ten weeks in The Holbeck.

Many years ago we did a project on Portbello Market. The Knowledge Emporium. A sweetshop in a shiny caravan that refused to take money and swopped sweets for people’s knowledge before reading the area’s contribution back to them at the end of the residency. Simple enough. 

TKE100612_118.JPGGod they hated us in Portobello Market. First two days I don’t think anyone approached us. Apart from two or three angry people who raged against Richard Curtis and the various ill-fated projects that had attempted to engage in this area of clashing levels of posterity.

The rules of Knowledge Emporium were always really clear. We didn’t try to sell it to folk, when people approached, intrigued we would explain as charmingly as we could but convincing people to come in was the wrong attitude for the thing. We stood. The high street is full enough of people who aggressively want things without adding to it. We would, in our reasonably silly costumes stand outside the caravan for 8 hours a day gently smiling and looking friendly. It was one of the founding rules of the project but in the face of such animosity in Portobello market I didn’t quite know what to do.
And then it rained. Rained for the whole day. That hard rain that bounces off your face. Rain no idiot goes out in. 

We stood outside that caravan the whole day in the piss pouring rain. Drenched through to the skin. Stood in bowling shoes and bowties like very daft palace guardsmen.

Next morning the woman who ran the laundrette across the square was the first to stroll over. “You’re mad you lot.” “We promised we would do this. Didn’t say we’d stop if it started raining.” We’d broken the back of it, they started coming in, the thing worked, and by the end of the fortnight the book was filled with their knowledge. 


Stand in the rain. It’s our short hand at Slung Low for doing the thing that shows you’re serious in your endeavour, that you are willing to pay the cost of keeping your word. It’s still only one of two ways I know of overcoming the sort of quite reasonable suspicion from communities who have been consistently let down or disappointed by cultural or civic projects. (I met the brilliant Rob Trimble at Bromley by Bow the other day who calls this sort of thing “turning up”- that’s how you get it done. I like that. You turn up when no one else will.)

IMG_8906We’re at the end of week 10 at The Holbeck. We’ve taken over the running of what was the oldest working men’s club and set about turning it into a community club and arts centre.  (Previously on The Holbeck here).

For the first four weeks we said yes to every practical request from the members: outside tap, new glass washing machine, re-varnish the bar and on. A month of grafting: we replastered, repapered and painted rooms for toddlers, bedrooms, offices for other theatre companies.


The last of the things that had been mentioned was a vertical allotment- a resident had tweeted us about it and we hadn’t got around to it in January. We got that done this week. The vast majority of club members are positive about our arrival and the collaboration between a theatre company and a members club. But just as when we moved into the area (transforming 5 railway arches in to The HUB) ten years ago and there were some who declared we were “rich playing at poor and we won’t last 3 months” so there have been people who write to us to tell us we are “just hipsters, for people who want to come to the rough side of town.” The person who said we wouldn’t last 3 months is, a decade on, part of our Cultural Community College choir now and so I know we will, eventually after standing in the rain some more, win over those who are suspicious of our move to The Holbeck- by actions not by statements- which seems fair enough. But making The Holbeck a space vital to every part of our community is no easy mission- it’s a task worth our best and every effort.

So we decided that we would accept all bookings for the rooms of the club (unless they were commercial ventures without redeeming features towards whom I feel we have no obligation). The Concert Room upstairs is a really lovely event room- we use it for college classes, teaching cooking and t’ai chi up there last week, and it’s also a 250 cabaret style performance space, we host our visiting shows there and our cabaret nights. But it’s clearly useful for other things, other types of events. And for a while it’s not been available so we set about making that right.

IMG_9037.jpgFirstly in order to book it you don’t need to know any of us or have an ”in”- you fill in a simple form online or in person at the club. They’re on the walls by the front door. It’s as transparent as we can make it.

And we say yes. As long as we are available and you are willing to accept the rules (no drugs, you can’t bring your own drinks, we’ve a zero tolerance policy on underage drinking, last orders is 2300, that sort of stuff) then you’re in.

And we ask that you make a contribution to the club. Whatever that may be. You don’t need to leave a deposit.

The least interesting way to look at the people who use the club is customer.

The club is not financially viable in the non-subsidised market place purely as a pub. Trust me. Ask the brewery if you don’t. If you want to pay all the people who work here then it will make a loss. No matter how much you charge people to use the space. The financial limitations of the area, the change in society’s drinking behaviour and leisure activity as well as the physical obstructions of Holbeck all create a perfect storm. 

But thanks to our partners and public funding and our position in the industry that allows us to leverage various cultural benefits to the club we don’t have to worry about that. As a base for our operations The Holbeck is an unbelievable bargain. And equally, Slung Low as management team is a set of skills and energy that the club couldn’t afford on their own.

We aren’t obliged to see the people who come into the club as customers, we can see everyone as participants, as partners. So saying yes to everyone who wants the space upstairs is the most useful thing we can do as we work to make The Holbeck vital to all. So far; a couple of Ghanian funerals, 3 different Majorette troop prize givings, couple of birthday parties, an LGBTQ+ safe space cabaret night, a first holy communion, a meeting of the Leeds Ghanian Austrian Society and fundraiser for a local charity.  Saturday is pretty wild and varied at The Holbeck.

And Sundays we have shows and workshops in the afternoon and so you can find one of the team on the morning after hoovering up food from the Concert Room floor which somehow attendees couldn’t quite manage to find a way to get in to their gobs.

“Hire a cleaner Al” someone tweeted when I was narrating my hoovering adventures on Twitter last Sunday (I’ve got to keep myself entertained somehow). We’ve got a cleaner but she isn’t going to come in on a Sunday morning without a shed load more money than I can justify. And if we charge that to the groups that list of events wouldn’t be quite so gleefully diverse and unlikely. And whilst I absolutely think arts subsidy should be used for a wide range of liberally defined cultural activity (and part of the whole The Holbeck project is about allowing a much wider group of people define what they think is cultural activity worthy of support) I think paying for a cleaning up after a first holy communion is stretching even my acts of determined persuasion.

So there it is. We hoover the floor on a Sunday morning. But we’ve been here before. It’s just standing in the rain. With a hoover. Doing what is necessary to make the offer we made a reality. Paying the price of your promise.

IMG_9875.jpgIf you come to a cultural community college class or a show at The Holbeck you are greeted by someone from the Slung Low team. If you’ve ever been to one of our shows you will have been met and briefed by a member of the team. It’s been really important that we are theatre making artists first and foremost and the same group who run a college, run a studio theatre and making space, run a conference now with Wild Conference. The gesture of that, the meaning of that feels important. And for lots of different reasons. For me a main one is seeing artists reduced in recent years in authority and importance by a managerial system that consistently implies that artists can’t be trusted to get real things done, that the creative skills we have aren’t appropriately applied to the logistical challenges of making an arts organisation relevant, useful and kind, the impact of which we see in the growing gap and distinction between the salaried and the freelance. But in any case it’s important: it means something to all of us and it has an impact on our practice and our participants and audience. We know in the arts that who does a thing is important.

And so the 5 of us run a theatre company that makes those outdoor pieces, and that’s a week day kind of affair mostly, and our college classes are mostly on week nights and sometimes weekends, and then the visiting show programme, our family festivals, cabarets and the prize giving of 3 different majorette troops is a weekend thing. And after 10 weeks we’ve realised that maybe that is not quite sustainable. 7 days a week 3 sessions a day is too much grizzing it out.

Maintaining a direct connection across the team with everything that we do, and how we do it feels vital as we expand, as we become more useful to our community, as our impact grows. And maintaining our core identity as theatre artists who strive to be useful, operating beyond the market and with a clear set of principles and values that sustain the company has never been more important with changes in society and the industry, and our community in Holbeck.

So from the 8th April we’re going to shut on a Monday. The club is always shut on a Monday so that makes no odds, artists can continue to use the space as a rehearsal space as we have a key system, and we never programme shows or classes on a Monday. But we need a day Slung Low stops every week. And it’s going to be Monday.

There’ll be times when it’s impossible and rehearsals and meetings still might have to happen occasionally but then we’ve worked plenty of Sundays in our time. 

The Holbeck has already had such an impact on what we do and how we do it. The opportunities it offers are huge in our mission to be a useful and kind theatre company. But it requires that we look again how we manage our work within the values we use to guide us- this Monday off might not be the answer, we’ll see but it’s one of the privileges of public subsidy that we get to scrutinise every aspect of what we do and how we do it. Even when the weekend is.



Blog Post: We need a little help.

So we’re moving in to The Holbeck. Hooray!  We move in in January 2019. All our 2019 activity will be there. It’s such an exciting opportunity for us, the artists in our community that we support, our participants and audiences. You can read all about it here if this is the first you are hearing about it.

But there are some challenges. These challenges are absolutely our responsibility but we need some help overcoming them. And so we’re asking if you can please lend a hand. There are two bits of help we really need, one is about money, when is it ever not, but we know that in these times not many people have much of that spare and there are lots of people who want to help who can do so in practical, lending a hand way. So here it is.

IMG_5498Access and a lift.

The top floor of the Holbeck isn’t accessible to those who use wheelchairs. Obviously we aren’t going to be moving in in January without having resolved that situation. 

To put in a lift we’ve been quoted around £30k. This is a responsibility that of course we are going to meet. Of course. But we’ve just agreed to give all the money we had ‘spare’ to Carlsberg Brewery to clear the Holbeck’s debts to them and make it possible for us to move in. So the cupboard is bare.

In the first instance, before we move in in January 2019, we will have a stair lift put in at the Holbeck as a temporary measure. This will resolve some of the access issues but not all and we are really aware of that. Those people who cannot get out of their wheelchair and into the stair lift will still be excluded from the upstairs performance space and so we are committed to raising the £30k for a full lift by the middle of 2019. 

This is the bit that we are asking help with. If you can spare anything to help us put a full lift in to the Holbeck then we would be very grateful. 

I thought long and hard about whether we should offer rewards for donations and in the end decided against it. Everything we have is all of yours: it alwa. Need the space for a private event? Yours, Pay What You Decide by way of payment. Want to borrow the van, some equipment, host your mum’s birthday party here? Yours, Pay What you Decide by way of contribution. All tickets to our events, Pay What You Decide. Our college classes, PWYD.

So it felt strange to put financial figures to fundraising “rewards” when we already share those things with anyone who have need of them.

So if you can spare some money we would be super grateful. And if you think we can do something to help you, or we have something that you need, know that you can simply ask for it. But that asking doesn’t require you to give us anything- that isn’t really how it’s meant to work. If we can we’re going to say yes regardless.

You can make donations via our PayPal link here (This link isn’t working for everyone so you can always pay the email through your Paypal account and that will sort it out or email us on same if you want bank details)

Every penny we raise from any source is going towards that lift until it’s complete. It’s our responsibility and we will meet it. With a little help from those of you who can.

IMG_4420_HDR-3420917336-OBarn Raising Days.

And we know that many want to help but simply don’t have any cash- we know how you feel. There are two bedrooms upstairs at the club that have been seriously damaged by a leaking roof over the years. We’re going to renovate them and put them to use supporting local, visiting and emerging artists. And we’re going to need some help doing that.

So on the 19th and 20th January and 26 and 27 January we’re going to have barn raising days. Days where everyone rallies around, strips wall papers, cleans walls, paints stuff, and gets it all done.

If you feel like you could contribute- come along and muck in- then we would welcome you with open arms. And give you lunch.

We’ll be starting at 10.30 every day and going through to 3. If you would like to volunteer then please just let us know you are coming, drop an email to me at saying which days you’d like to do, if you’re bringing anyone with you, and if you have any dietary requirements. We’ll sort the rest, provided tools, safety kit, all that good stuff. You don’t need any experience or knowledge of DIY.

And if neither of those work for you but you’d still like to help then please just bang the drum. Any help you can give spreading the word is really appreciated.

And if there is anything you ever need, say the word and if we can we will. 

The Holbeck is a really exciting adventure for us. And we hope that you will love coming here to see us. Any help you can give us to get ready for that will be most gratefully received.

Our Christmas Fayre is our last event at The HUB. 8th December 12-4. Come down, drink mulled wine, eat roast hog (or vegan alternative), sing carols, visit stalls and hear Christmas tales read aloud. Come say goodbye to the HUB with us.


Blog Post: The Times They Are A’changing. The story of The Holbeck, a social club.

The Holbeck is a social club in the heart of a housing estate in Holbeck. It is the oldest working men’s club in the country. But it changed its name to a social club  for very obvious and very good reasons. Ernie Wise played there. There’s a plaque. That’s not even one of the top 5 best stories about The Holbeck.

IMG_5498A few years ago it was in financial difficulty (like 95% of WMCs and many pubs) and some excellent volunteers moved to maintain it and start paying back the debt to the brewery. They ran the members’ club as volunteers for a number of years and started to pay down the debt. It continues to survive today- the volunteers are glorious but by their own admission tired.

We have loved The Holbeck for a long time- we’ve done shows there, attended community meetings, we’re members. It is a glorious place. 

And I rehearsed Tabby McTat for Freckle Productions there a few weeks ago. During which Slung Low Producer Joanna realised that there was here an opportunity for both organisations.

We’ve come to accept that we needed to make substantial improvements to the HUB in order to continue to support artists and welcome audiences the way we would like. But a perfect storm of uncertainty around the Network Rail sale of all the arches, gentrification plans of the Holbeck urban village area that never felt like they would include an outfit like ours and difficulty in engaging productively with the landowners around the HUB area who have made cultural partnerships with organisations elsewhere in the city meant we were loathed to spend energy on raising money to invest in a property that we had no security in.

And there was the added issue that no matter how welcoming we made the HUB (and our audience told us repeatedly that welcoming we were) we would never overcome the larger geographical issues of being on Bath Road and having the sex worker managed area between us and the one of communities  we are keen to engage with. My position has been for a long time that whatever best secures the safety of all the women of Holbeck, including Slung Low staff, sex workers, residents, visitors and audience members is what I’ll support and my admiration for our friends at Basis charity is boundless but there is still no denying that I was regularly being told that one of the main obstacles to attending events at the HUB (especially evening classes at the College) was the walk from the houses in Holbeck to the HUB on Bath Road. We looked at putting on cabs, driving people home, walking buses: all good temporary solutions but harder to maintain with the scale of impact we are hoping that the Cultural Community College and later Leeds Peoples Theatre will have.

So change was needed.

We approached the Holbeck Management Committee (an elected volunteer group made up of club members) with a proposal.

And the proposal was this;

We’ll pay the debt to brewery off so they can secure (and keep) the deeds.

We will pay an amount of rent each year to secure our sole occupancy.

We will manage and run the bar for the club, giving all profits back to the club. The current opening hours, member privileges, and activities in the main bar areas (including lounge, snooker room and bar) will be protected and maintained.

From now on everyone working at the club (primarily cleaners and bar staff) will receive Living Wage payment. All current volunteers will be honoured and offered their current position on the new paid terms.  Slung Low staff members can’t be double paid (we’re all on buy-out company wages so if we do a bar shift we don’t get paid twice).

We will guarantee the club each year against loss: it will become a thriving business.

We will move Slung Low’s entire operation (specifically but not exclusively administrative HQ, shared artist rehearsal space, Cultural Community College classes, visiting performances and How To Festivals) to the Holbeck. The non-bar spaces (250 seater stage events room, flat with living quarters, dressing rooms and office space) will be where appropriate renovated and all put to use homing artists, classes and performance.

We’ll commit to being in The Holbeck and honouring these terms until end of 2023.

And ten minutes ago, on a Sunday morning in the main bar, the members of The Holbeck voted on this proposal and approved the plan. The opportunity this presents to Slung Low are huge; in terms of developing audience, participation and hosting artists making work this is a real step forward for us.

Slung Low’s base will sit physically in the heart of a community.

The future of The Holbeck will be secured and an important, and rare in Holbeck, community asset will be secured for the community in the face of market pressures.

If you are a HUB audience member then everything will stay the same, it will just get warmer and 600 m to the south of where it used to be.

This is the most useful thing we can do. So we’re doing it.

The last event at the HUB is our Christmas Fayre on 8th December. From midday we mull wine, roast a hog (eat vegan alternatives where appropriate), browse stalls, sing carols, hear Yuletide stories and have a merry time of it. Then at 3 we’re going to walk over to The Holbeck where the cast of Tabby McTat will give a special Pay What You Decide performance of the show to raise funds for the outstanding homeless charity Simon on the Streets. 

That’s the perfect end to our time in the HUB I think. It has been a good home, a free place, a useful place. I can only imagine what we’ll all manage together in the new home. The Holbeck. Now with added Slung Low.

IMG_5499And a few quick FAQ so we all know where we stand.

It’s not a take over. From the start we were keen to reiterate that the members of the Holbeck continue to hold the deeds. We don’t want them. We’re not buying them out. We’re entering into a partnership.The club and its value is still theirs to collective own.

We’re keeping the bus classroom. It is a great piece of work by the team. It will be really useful, there’s room for it at the Holbeck and we’ll continue to use it.

We intend to start moving in to the Holbeck early January 2019 and be gone from the HUB end of January 2019. All activity in 2019 will be hosted at the Holbeck.

All the equipment that we can’t take with us (85 theatre seats, two shipping containers, various furniture, a golf buggy etc) will be offered to other community and arts groups for free. If no one wants them we’ll sell them.

No we can’t take the Hickling Wing with us. God guys, let it go, it was years ago and he isn’t even the theatre critic for the Guardian anymore and he liked the last thing of ours he saw and when are you going to let it go even? Okay, fine we’ll take the sign and put it over one of the cubicles. Are you satisfied now you monsters!

Yes we will continue to be a Pay What You Decide company for all our hosted performances, meals, classes, festivals. The beer you’ll have to pay market value for from now on- this does mean the end of the £1 bar. But it’s a social club in South Leeds so I think you’ll like our prices just fine.

We will continue to lend all our equipment, our van and rehearsal space to whoever have need of it. Nothing changes. Our mission remains to be useful. What is ours is yours.

Where are you finding the money to pay off the club’s debt? Well. There’s a tale. Do you remember when we did that massive show Flood? It was so big it qualified for Theatre Tax Relief (the what? See And I was in two minds because obviously I think TTR is not progressive at all and fundamentally a way to make Andrew Lloyd Webber richer and you are what you do and if we take this money then that’s a bit isn’t it but then on the other hand it’s an act of idiocy to not take it when we work so hard to raise money to do useful things but what could we do with this money that would be useful, secure a home for the company that we could grow in and also help secure a really vital community asset. Ah. Yes. Good. If you think that makes me a hypocrite I understand but i’ve got some news about where the Arts Council get their money from which is going to break your heart.

Everything we do will continue. Including being a home to Yorkshire Aid who are a really important local charity helping refugees in Europe who we are committed to supporting in all the ways we can. That will continue at the Holbeck if Yorkshire Aid want to come with us.

Does this have anything to do with that time Network Rail sent literally a bouncer to do a fire inspection? Yes. We were not intimidated. We were angered. We do not run away. We fight through the opposition and re-organise on the other side. We upgrade. Thanks for the motivation.


Blog Post: Culture can be dangerous in the right hands and the hope of confident citizens

Fairy Portal Slung Low 3-099-Edit

Tonight we have a ceilidh at the HUB. If you don’t know what a ceilidh is it’s a collective community dance, led by a team of brilliant exceptional artists, in which all levels of experience and talent can participate and the more involved the better it is. It’s also much fun.

The ceilidh is to mark the opening of Slung Low’s Cultural Community College. 

The ceilidh is a metaphor innit. A metaphor with a £1 bar and some free sandwiches. You’d be very welcome.

Recently I’ve been doing press interviews for the college: a Pay What You Decide programme of cultural activity from star-gazing to documentary making, cooking to blacksmything. It’s been different from doing press for a show. Partly because nearly everything at the college is sold out so it stops being about urgently telling people to book tickets. But also because the journalists and me know how we’re meant to talk about an upcoming show- there’s a rhythm to the conversation- and normally it’s hard to break out of the pattern set for both of us.

But there’s no pattern for talking about a theatre company creating a cultural community college and that freedom for both parties has led to some really interesting chats: about education, the arts, the market, the value of things and caring less about your legacy and more on your impact on people tomorrow. And as is natural if you spend that long explaining what you’re up to to people you come to a much better understanding of what it is you’re up to and crucially why.

We’ve spoken a lot about the training the company undertook to prepare for Flood last year. Training in boats, abseiling, pyrotechnics and forklifts made us confident about undertaking those tasks of course but more importantly made us more confident generally- the act of learning new things building an internal confidence. The whole company went on 3 days of first aid training with some trainers from the mountain rescue. It was intense. A few days later one of the gang called to tell me that since the training they were just feeling so much more confident and as a result a bit happier. Asked why that was they said that after the training there was one less thing to be scared of, one more thing that they didn’t feel intimidated by, one less thing to be scared of in the wide world. Specific knowledge brought general confidence.

Fairy Portal Slung Low 4-156-Edit

I remember the first time I went to see an orchestra. It was at the Barbican. I was directing a show in their studio at the time so hardly an outsider, packing plenty of cultural capital. I went to see the ENO. It was excruciating. There were all these people who knew the rules, I was wearing the wrong clothes, I was certain they were looking down their noses at me, I clapped at the wrong time, I didn’t have a clue what was going on. By the end of that performance- which was extraordinary I recognise now- I was about as antagonistic about orchestras as is possible. And ungenerous. So ungenerous in my opinion of the art, the form, their funding- everything. Partly that was a response to being made to feel unwelcome sure, but it was also a lot to do with not knowing- feeling lost- unconfident. And the antagonism was a response to that unconfidence. I mean I know all you lot know that but it took me years to realise it. 

The more confident we are the kinder we can be, the more generous we can be. When we feel threatened we are less outward looking, less confident. And less kind.

We need kindness right now.

Knowledge brings confidence. Confidence allows kindness.

I’ve been reading the autobiography of Joe Papp. He is an American producer who founded the Public Theatre.  He was in the Navy, worked at the Actors Lab and then was a stage manager at CBS. Then he starts putting on Shakespeare in downbeat outdoor parks. It was a revolutionary idea. He didn’t charge for tickets- passing a hat around some of the poorest communities of New York at the end of the show. He decides to build a stage on an old lorry and tours New York’s poorest boroughs until he finally ends up parking the stage permanently in Central Park because the bus is too knackered to carry on.  The shows are profoundly successful, full, critically acclaimed, free.

And that’s when the chief city official decides that unless Joe Papp is willing to charge people tickets to come and see the shows then he’s throwing them out of the park. He’s a powerful man this official, everyone is scared of him. Papp isn’t. It’s a really simple threat: charge people to see the show and you can stay, keep giving it away for free and you’re done- if it is any good people will pay for it, right?  Papp pulls in every favour, every trick he can and holds his nerve. He wins. Of course he does. It’s daft to bet against people like Papp: there are some people who can bring a reality in to being with sheer force of will. 

Papp was investigated, just before the city official comes for him, by the House Un-American Activity Committee: the McCarthyite loons who investigated left-wing American artists, blacklisting whole swathes of the industry and ruining lives. Joe Papp refused to name names and was one of the few who wasn’t crushed by the refusal.

Joe Papp got it. He understood on a fundamental level that asking people to pay what they decide at the end of a performance is not an act of social charity. It is an act of politics.

And in 1950’s New York it was a dangerous act of politics.

IMG_5476We’ve been working with the brilliant Sam Scott-Wood on how Slung Low talks to the public and about itself now it’s simultaneously a maker of epic peoples’ theatre around the country, runs a studio theatre and a rehearsal space in Leeds and operates a Community Cultural College in a converted double decker bus. That needs a bit of clarity and thinking about: Sam led us on that process. We spent a long time talking about the distinction between reckless and danger, risk and hazard. Finding a way to express the determination and boldness and wildness which we work hard to maintain in everything we do in a way that might not appear unhelpfully combative. Amongst much else Sam came up with the tagline 

Culture can be dangerous in the right hands

I’ll be eternally gratefully to Sam for giving me the language to be bold and not overly combative. And to Joe Papp for reassuring me that there are times when combative is what the day demands. Extraordinary things require extraordinary effort. Some days.

Camelot Selects 2 (1)

The Slung Low Cultural Community College is being made possible because of money and support from the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and the Arts Council, England.

Funders quite rightly want solid outcomes they can measure: it’s important to help make the argument about where the money should be spent: not everyone agrees with the world view that culture should be accessible and shared so the argument must be made and remade. 

In many places the received wisdom has been for too long that outreach in theatres can be measured best by how many new customers is generated for the “core” work of the main stage. Participation driving people to the core business of a playhouse.

I’m not interested in creating more customers for work that wasn’t designed to excite those people in the first place. What cultural education can do at its best is to make people more confident. It surely sells us all short to imagine the best thing that can be done with that confidence is to buy tickets to another production of Twelfth Night. Much more exciting is the idea that with that confidence can come the realisation that the most powerful role available to our participants is not that of customer but that of confident (and one dreams kind) Citizen*.

That’s what I am hoping for. That’s the goal for the college. That in four years what we know to be true is that the college helped a load of people, including us, be better citizens. 

Camelot youth riot

*when I’ve spoken about citizens before people have expressed disquiet about the phrase because of the distinction between UK Citizens and foreigners. I just want to take a moment to explain I am talking about something different: Citizen as empowered decision making individual, connected to its community and confident in taking responsibility from corporation and state to ensure that where and how they live is good enough for all of us. As someone married to a non-UK citizen I am well aware of the inherent inequalities in the distinction between UK Citizen and other and reject that as the best we can be entirely.

**That’s right we bought a double decker bus and David Farley designed it into 2 classrooms and Matt Angove has been leading a team of artists in the work to make it a reality. It’ll be finished this evening then I promise photos.

The photos above are from Fairy Portal Camp and Camelot and taken by James Phillips.

Blog Post: Slung Low are opening a Cultural Community College. Why and What?

Slung Low_ Fairy Portal Camp_ 20 June 2016_2016_Photo by Sam Allard _c_ RSC_196078We’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about education. Learning. In various different forms.

Over the years Slung Low have taught at dozens of universities, we were in residence at the University of Huddersfield for 8 years or so, and this year are spending a lot of time at LIPA. We all went to school.

And in preparation for last year’s Flood most members of the team went on a variety of training courses; the writer and composer on a 3 day first aid course; the designer getting a MEWP ticket, sound engineer an all terrain fork lift licence, producer food hygiene certificate and I did a rope access course with a bunch of recently demobbed marines looking to get a gig on the oil rigs. Learning.

And it struck me how much education, not just the industry of it but the philosophy of learning had changed over the last 30 years.

There’s a solid looking coffee table in my house. It’s moved house with me a dozen times, it is sturdy thing. Handsome, practical. My mother made it. Probably 35 years ago. In a wood working class the WI ran one autumn. Taught her to make a table. Proper joinery. Took a while. It is a good table. Skills. Learnt.

You see less of that now. The WI- and a whole hosts of other organisations that might have been interested in the general cultural well-being and education of their members and the wider population now pressed into service as a third sector, volunteer army of social fire fighters in the battle against the worst ravages of free-market crony capitalism that blights many of the communities that not so long ago didn’t consider themselves in desperate need. Soup kitchens, food banks. That’s what is needed now from the WI and their like. Not so much joinery.

In their place the market has done its thing, you can take your hen do on butchery weekends, learn how to bake French pastries at private cooking schools in evening sessions. There are craft classes that follow a similar pattern. My wife sent me on a Thai cooking day for a birthday but with prices north of £100 a day these are no longer the community adult education of before and well beyond the pockets of many.

And then there’s training. Skills. I work for you and you want me to learn how to use a forklift. So you send me on a course. And the parameters of that learning are carefully framed so it takes up the least amount of time away from work as possible. The hard edges of what will be taught is entirely in relation to what is immediately useful. But you get a certificate. Which is good. Because you pass a test. I should know I did at least a dozen of them last year. They all go a bit like this: The pass rate is 80%. 20% of the questions require actual knowledge. 80% of the questions are structured like this-

What should you always do before preparing food? A. Wash your hands. B. Sing two verses of Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer C. No dogs are allowed in the smoking compartment. D. Lick a picture of Delia Smith.

Because the companies supplying the certificates are being assessed by the employer paying on how many can you get through how quickly. Yes you can throw the odd dickhead out of class who won’t take it seriously but fundamentally the bar of knowledge is set at what the existing work force can manage. The market has dictated how much knowledge you are ever going to be offered, then give you a piece of paper to cover your bosses’ asses.

And the universities have changed beyond recognition but we all know that. The wheeze to make students customers has sucked the soul out of the university experience in many ways; just look at how profoundly unhappy so many lecturers are, how changed and reduced their relationship with the students is. The language of the market has done nothing to make students more engaged with their education, let alone more in control. And the customer/service relationship is now being pushed to its natural conclusion- the proposal of rating courses according to the earning power of its graduates is a wonderful idea because it will surely lay bare the inequalities of both our education and employment markets as we all scratch our heads wondering why for the 12th year running PPE graduates of two universities earn more money than graduates of engineering courses anywhere. The drive to the market place is seen in how the students behave, how the lecturers are treated, how the institutions present themselves to the world and in the borrowing of the worst elements of free enterprise in obscene pay at the top and prolonged industrial action at the bottom.

We as a society no longer (in any great number) have many affordable opportunities to learn for the sake of learning. The Liverpool mosque of Quilliam in astronomy, chemistry and maths. The craft courses of the church of England and the WI I remember from my childhood. Lecturer programmes of working men’s clubs and libraries. Ha! Libraries.

Over the last few years we’ve run a very modest, and reasonably traditional, cultural learning programme, a writers’ group run by Mark Catley and Aisha Khan, a choir and a programme of How To Festivals (combining with the mighty Fun Palaces once a year).  A small test bed of activity over time, supported by our local councillors and community funding, that has allowed us to hear about the impact from our community that a cultural learning for cultural learning’s sake can have. The self-declared outcomes in our participants, on their well-being, on their imagination, on their cultural capital and confidence has been incredibly bolstering to hear and inspired much thinking. As modest as it was the impact is clear, what impact could a more ambitious project have?

My father left school for the RAF at 15 with a wood work O-level. The RAF taught him everything he needed to know. And then in later life, still in the forces, he did an Open University degree. In humanities, social sciences. Utterly pointless to any job he would ever have, any career development available to him at GCHQ. He’s been dead a long time now but one of the clearest memories I have is of him turning to me and my mum at tea one day and with complete horror and genuine surprise detailing how he’d just learnt how appallingly homosexuals had been treated in our country by the law.  Genuine revelation of knowledge. A man’s mind transformed simply by coming to know more. Learning. Learning undertaken just because he’d reached an age where he wanted to know about things he didn’t know anything about. To know of a different world. And because the forces-whatever their many failings and problems- are still one of the few employers who will fund the educational improvement of their employees even though it may have no immediate bearing on the work they are doing.

His horizon shifted. What a gift to give someone in their middle age. A shifting horizon.


Slung Low have started preparations for a Cultural Community College. A place to come and learn, free at the point of use, a whole array of cultural activity; from Irish dancing to South Indian cooking, from poetry writing to carpentry, digital photography to singing in a choir. If I have my way (reader I will) the first course will be star gazing; profound knowledge, awe inspiring, practically useless. I can’t think of anything more changing of horizons than to understand the skies above us. And I can’t think of anything less useful to the market place. In the first wave of classes (different times of the week, different levels of commitment, varied levels of regularity) I have my heart set on welding and how to make the perfect pakora, CPR classes and sign language.

I’ll have to be quick because after the first instalment of classes the curriculum will be chosen by the members of the college, a co-op. If you have attended any class you automatically become a member, you propose classes and vote for your choice; we’ll do what the people decide.

We’ll hire the best teachers we can find and afford.

Someone asked me a few weeks back, why? We make big theatre shows, with a degree of success that would probably ensure we need not do anything else but that. The running of the HUB as a rehearsal space and erstwhile performance space for younger artists takes up more than enough time- why do something else?

Partly it’s our continued core mission to attempt to be as useful as possible with public money in as many imaginative ways as we can.

But mostly it’s because, as Lorne Campbell’s The Last Ship recently reminded in glorious style, you are what you do. That’s as true for organisations as it is for individuals. And I want Slung Low to be a thing that tries to imagine better versions of reality than this current shit show.

I was in an interview a long time ago and I proposed hosting the soon to be closed nearby library in the large and almost constantly empty foyer of the theatre. The chair of the board fell about laughing in a manner that made it clear I wouldn’t need to move house any time soon. “That’s not what we are for” he chuckled. What are you for then? That’s exactly what you should be for actually. That’s exactly what the privilege and opportunity of public funding is for. As I have written here before the need to imagine and explore new ways of being, of valuing things are urgent. And if it’s not the job of subsidised arts organisations then I don’t know whose it might be. If not us then who? Whilst we’ve spent ten years scrapping to keep the status quo, fighting off cuts and disrespect from our conservative governmental paymasters, other sectors, driven by the profit imperative and with scant regard for the majority of society, have been busy imagining new worlds in which technology plays a greater and greater role requiring a smaller, highly educated workforce but little use for anyone who might find themselves on the wrong end of the technological revolution.  Slung Low are going to create a place, a school, where people come to learn news things of wonder and beauty simply for the sake of the joy that such things might bring them. Because I think the people attending deserve that level of attention and provision. And because I think, I hope, it might help. Them, maybe. Society, hopefully. Me, definitely.

There are have been various calls from the theatre scene for arts education to be better respected by the government and they are all absolutely correct. Most can be more or less summarised by these lines from something Rufus Norris wrote a couple of months ago; “We need an education system fit for the 21st century, one that champions this country’s creativity as the foundation of its economic health.” 

He’s quite correct but we’ve done this before. It’s the same argument we made for public subsidy for the arts.

The argument was won, funding stabilised, but not before the nature, purpose and logic of arts funding and many of our organisations were transformed. We need an education system fit for the 21st century that champions the country’s creativity as a foundation of its collective mental health, as a foundation of its collective sense of worth, as a foundation of its ability to take a moral leadership role in the world, to imagine better futures for our children, for other people’s children, fuck it for ourselves man.

You don’t wonder why you should bother spending time and money on teaching a factory worker how to paint, or understand geometry, or sing, or to code a raspberry pi, carve a candle stick when that is going to add nothing to the efficiency of the factory they work in, you wonder when it was you came to have such a low opinion of people who work in factories that a full, rich, accessible and varied creative, cultural life might not be something that every single person of the nation deserves. Jesus lads, this is Victorian logic. We are literally less humane and enlightened than owners of Victorian chocolate factories, can we get a grip please.

You are what you do. And so, in our little part of the world in Holbeck, we are going to make a varied, high quality creative education available to everyone who wants it regardless of financial status. Because that’s what we want to be- people who think that is important- so that’s what we’ll do. Hold the space to create the opportunity of a cultural education beyond the market place. We’re going to open a school. It’s going to be an adventure. The first classes will be in autumn 2018 and it will run for four years, forever or until the revolution and/or nuclear war makes it unnecessary. It is possible entirely thanks to the considerable support of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and our long suffering but much appreciated partners at the Arts Council, England. The college will be supported by an advisory board of educators taken from a range of educational worlds, universities, theatre education departments, the private sector. The excellent Dr Rachel Perry will be coming with us on the journey to research our impact, success and misfires along the way which will allow us to learn what we learn wider than our immediate Holbeck community.

It’s what we’ll be spending a large part of the next few months on, creating the framework of the college. If you have any interest in it, want to argue about it, want to offer help in some way please do get in touch. It takes a village eh.

The picture at the top is of the mighty Rash Dash running a Fairy Rave at the RSC when we tried to learn how to open a portal to the fairy world. Experts and academics are still in disagreement as to whether the operation was successful. The photo was taken by Sam Allard.

Blog Post: Working beyond the market, to find out together how else we can live.


“To find out together how else we can live”

It was a line at the end of a tweet from a striking lecturer; talking about how being on the picket line had caused them all to discover new things, behave in new ways, “to find out together how else we can live.”

Been thinking a lot about this in relationship to the regularly funded Arts Council England subsidised theatre scene.

The philosophy of subsidy has subtlety shifted over the last decade or so, naturally as the amount of money available in real terms has reduced and the amount we expect from our organisations has increased. Increasingly, given that gap between funding and expected activity, the subsidy is seen as pump priming; seed funding that facilitates a range of income generating activity. Subsidy now sometimes used as investment for commercial ventures that can bring in the greater income needed to keep the ever growing buildings and operations funded as year on year the subsidy shrinks.
Subsidy becomes sticking plasters for failings of the market. We faced the somewhat Kafka-esque situation a few years back where in order to receive regular subsidy from the Arts Council you had to demonstrate that you had the resilience to survive without the same subsidy. So in a real sense, it seemed, if you weren’t using that subsidy to create a much greater income then you were at odds with prevailing attitude of the establishment, and your key core funder. There was concern at the time that many organisations were preparing the arguments for their own defunding, a concern that was unjustified but I can testify first hand how the shift in focus had a profound effect on the discussions some boards were having and the core principles at the heart of those conversations.

This changing logic is important. It has an impact on the bare bones, the marrow of the thing. On ticket prices. On programming. And on the types of people who run our organisations. Years past we might expect all our major theatres to be run by Artistic Directors; it was once a guiding principle that our arts organisations were led by artists. Not so much nowadays. Often, in our major venues, ADs sit in a senior management structure along with Finance Directors, Head of Operations and Marketing heads. All sitting under a chief executive. In a literal sense the artistic direction is not the leading voice. I don’t blame the boards who have brought this in, it makes sense if your subsidy is intended to prime the pump, bank roll real income generation to fund the wider activity. But that income generating activity then becomes the momentum of your thinking- productions of theatre adaptations of 80’s film with once movie stars in them become the thing by which people know you, and you know yourself.

(It’s been pointed out to me that it sounds here like I’m saying that a non-AD Chief Exec is only going to be interested in income generation. That is a failure of how I’ve expressed my argument because it isn’t what I intended. There are some exceptional non-Artist leaders out there, along with plenty of tired dull ones, but there is a difference between being led by an artist (either solely or in conjunction with an Exec) and not.)

The relationship that subsidy has with capitalism dictates what you do and who leads you. If your subsidy is mostly intended to correct the market failings then your relationship to capitalism is clear. Like Hope to Trump. The hype man.

But we all know that capitalism doesn’t work. We know it’s a broken system. We ALL know it’s a broken system.  This isn’t a radical position, even the majority on the right recognise this: the repeated failures of the system over the last ten years too obvious and repeated to be ignored by anyone but the militant free-market zealots. The only real argument is whether capitalism is the best system we’ve ever had, could ever have: the practicality of an alternative. At which point in the conversation my favourite tory councillor on the internet will normally chirp in with “socialism killed more people than capitalism”. Maybe. Probably. But the attempt to keep this a binary choice when it’s anything but is one of the ways we keep ourselves from imagining alternatives to the current system. Like all those people who shout foul at inequality protestors when they have the audacity to go and buy coffee from an actual shop with actual money rather than self-brewing it on the pavement from crumpled up pages of The Communist Manifesto. We have more options than choosing between resuscitating socialism and shutting up about the failures of end stage crony capitalism.

Capitalism is fucked. It’s bent. And it may well be true that its the best system we’ve ever had.

But it doesn’t mean that it’s the best system we could ever have.

God it’s so hard to imagine an alternative. Rebecca Solnit is brilliant on this if you’ve never read Hope in the Dark: well worth your time. It’s so hard to think of alternatives to the huge wall of hegemony that is capitalism. That weight of certainty in a world view in which every one of us (at least anyone reading this) in one way or another has a stake. I didn’t want to bail the bankers out but I knew we had to if we weren’t to shit on the pensions of good people who had done nothing more than put their trust in a system for which there is no alternative. And so we bailed those reckless greedy wankers out. And most likely we’d do it again. We’re implicated.

That implication makes it so hard to think beyond capitalism. Beyond the market. But subsidy can allow us to do that. It can allow us the space to live beyond the market to try and find out together how else we can live.

You can only do what you can do. If you run a small theatre company in South Leeds then you can’t imagine and implement an alternative to a world value system. But what veganism, sobriety and not dying of cancer has taught me is not doing something because you think the impact of one person is meaningless in the face of an opposing consensus ignores the profound effect that act can have on yourself. And once you’ve profoundly effected yourself then you’re already one person in to your mission of world change and the second one is always easier. And the third. And the fourth. And who knows how many more you get but you’re already four in and it seemed impossible yesterday and this is how all change but nuclear annihilation happens. As Leo McGarry had it, never underestimate the change a small group of people can make in the world. Which, friends, is what I tell myself when I feel like a Don Quixote in my shipping container office next to a South Leeds’ railway arch.

When we started Pay What You Decide as a policy for all performances (and then all activity) at the HUB I remember the snide. The accusations of naivety and foolishness. It has been by any measure a resounding success. We weren’t the first to think of this policy, we went to school on the coat tails of some of the great radical food projects in Leeds. But, along with the ever mighty Annabel Turpin at Arc in Stockton, we were amongst the first in theatre to commit to it as a policy, as a principle underpinning what we did and how. Now it’s a strategy used by numerous theatres, of all scales and mentality throughout the country. We didn’t necessarily directly inspire them, but we were part of a body of action that allowed the idea to seem reasonable in the minds of the chief execs and heads of marketing in much larger organisations. An alternative idea is mocked, gains momentum and then before you know it every bugger is doing it. Because an idea, however much snide can be flung at it, can gain enough momentum to change the status quo that seemed insurmountable just a moment before. Ask that pork-faced clown Farage. It works both ways.

PWYD is mostly used as an audience development tool. Which it does very well. But that’s not what we use it for. There’s a difference between Pay What You Can (if there’s a substantial constituency in your town that can’t afford normal tickets then have a word with your business plan), Pay What You Feel (a strangely passive proposition) and Pay What You Decide. Customer is the least interesting role the audience can play. It’s flattening and flattering. The argument of the last twenty years that customer is somehow a powerful role is rancid nonsense; if you think students are any more powerful now they pay for their university experience you’re not paying very much attention. Customer is a binary decision making role- you want it or not? Pay What You Decide at the HUB was an attempt to provoke a better conversation about the role of money in theatre and in the subsidised sector, and to do that as thought in action, with the thousands of multi-layered decisions made at the HUB by each member of the public who comes to see the show.  When you are at the HUB seeing a visiting show you are reminded at the beginning and the end of the show that every penny goes to the visiting company and the decision as to how much you give is entirely up to you. It is a decision, based of course in part in how much money you have- you can’t give what you don’t have. But more than that, it is based in part in how much you enjoyed it, how much you think it cost to make, how much you’d like them to return to perform again; a whole range of thoughts that provoke a specific decision. And one that places the audience directly in conversation, practical conversation, with those that have made and perform the theatre they’ve seen, the artists.

It is often asked why a company who makes large scale outdoor theatre runs an 80 seater studio theatre. It’s a lot to do with our central mission of trying to be useful to the wider community. And it’s a lot to do with this endeavour to find ways of developing a relationship with audience that moves beyond that of customer. How we can create a space that moves beyond the market. That supports the endeavour to find out together how else we can live.

The company wage policy has the same intent. For the last five or so years everyone who has worked for Slung Low gets paid the same. It’s been £500 a week. It was based on the average wage of the nation. This month we increased it to £540 as we had drifted too far from the national average. In addition on a project all travel is paid, we find every member of the team somewhere to live and you get fed or we’ll pay subs. (We run internships, learning placements, for those not in full-time education which pay 50% of the company wage and last no more than 6 months. And allow a small number of course mandated student placements for those in full-time education that we do not pay.)

The company wage is the most gloriously frustrating liberating restriction. What it does is make real and concrete the belief that those of us working on a Slung Low  project are a team of equals. Yes with different levels of experience, responsibility and duties but all vital to the larger endeavour.

Main perk is I don’t argue with agents. Sometimes you will get one who, having received the offer, will ring to say how offensive it is. If you honestly want to ring me to tell me how offensive it is to be offered the average wage of the nation from a publicly subsidised theatre company I’m probably going to listen for maybe 3 minutes before I put the phone down and never ring your agency again. But apart from the odd gobshite the word spreads amongst the agents we have regular contact with; you can of course reject the offer, there’s some that have done that over the years but there’s no point arguing money with me. It’s what I’m getting paid, it’s what everyone is getting paid and I’m not making an exception for your client. When I’m confronted by the negative aspects of the policy I think of an entire career of not negotiating with agents and the time and peace that I’ve saved and I feel better about it.

The downside is of course everyone gets paid the same. 50 something actors with families and a career of extraordinary experience that I lean on receive the same as 22 year old drama school graduates who live with their parents. I’m not sure that’s right, even after years of it I still am not sure. It’s a  principle based on the idea of a team of equals. But like all principles it smarts sometimes; it has costs. On a selfishly personal level there are the days that it smarts to be a 40 year old reasonably successful theatre director who realistically can’t really afford a holiday. It certainly smarts royally that going to see theatre is more often than not out of my reach financially: the average wage of the nation can’t afford to go to too many £30 a seat productions. I know these same frustrations are true to a lesser or greater extent for everyone associated with the company. But then it is true that, having been a freelance alternative theatre director based in the north of England I still vividly remember the days when £500 a week for every week of the year felt like a fortune in comparison to what I was making; as is still the case with so many of my comrades. So don’t cry for me Argentina eh.

If you work for Slung Low full-time then you’re on a buy-out. The fees goes back to the company. Directing things like National Commemoration of the Somme we charge the market rate (rather than the company wage we get paid) and this raises good money and for the last couple of years supported the work the company was doing in Holbeck like our choir. Removing the connection between work and payment does something interesting; a tiny step beyond the market. There are days when the amount of pressure, risk and grief on a job isn’t reflected by the £100 I’m getting paid that day.
But there’s also something freeing about breaking that connection between the job of work and the contract with the employer; just a tiny breath beyond the market. I still work for the producers but I do so in a slightly different relationship with them. The money isn’t of direct relevance to me, and I find slightly freer: I have a degree more confidence when the pressure comes. Never craven is a touchstone and it helps no end to know that the fee attached to the job can’t be used to pressure me: it has made a real difference in arguing any number of points about the primacy of the artist, the diversity of performers, the ethics of a specific decision. Operating a step beyond the market. Thanks entirely to the subsidy Slung Low gets. Absolutely changing the way I behave, the creative choices I make, the audience experience.

It isn’t perfect. It has its limitations. And like everything Slung Low does it is based on the specific circumstances of the company. Privileges and challenges both. But the benefits and opportunities the company wage brings are so important to us, has such an impact on how we behave in the world. A main impact is that we can be entirely open about money with the public. This has proved to vitally important in places like Holbeck where people are naturally suspicious about the idea of publicly subsidised arts. There are people who think £500 a week is too much to pay artists so it isn’t a silver bullet by any means but the ability to have that open frank discussion that comes from equality is crucial.

I am hoping our collective attention soon investigates the differences between the highest and lowest paid in our theatre institutions. As our institutions are expected to do more and more and as the institutions change nature the rewards of the leaders move further and further away from the levels of rewards of the theatre makers themselves which will soon be unjustifiable and then unsustainable in the subsidised sector. The discrepancy between how much we pay people to run the subsidised theatre industry and the majority of people who make theatre is going to be the next moment of clarity in the current dawning realisation of how shit the details of our world are.

If you are working in a system that echo the inequalities and injustices of the capitalist system, if you are making theatre work in those systems then it’s really hard to avoid repeating the inequalities and injustices in your work. Theatre is meant to imagine other worlds so that we might learn more about our own. And hopefully find ways to improve it. Subsidy allows the privilege to imagine, test, create other ways of living. Ways beyond the market. Not only with the work we put on stages but with the structures we create to make that work. The chance to create mini worlds beyond the market, to imagine other ways of being, to find out together how else we can live. If our subsidy is used just to correct the market, or as seed funding for institutions to venture into the commercial sector then we are the least interesting versions of ourselves: and the least justifiable. The idea that in order to receive subsidy you must demonstrate how it isn’t needed is a strange proposition. How much more glorious a claim is it that without subsidy we would not exist, too precious a thing to be able to be sustained by the crude transactional reasoning of the market; so rare a thing that the only way we can exist is if we pool our resources, leaning on the commonwealth to create sanctuaries beyond the forces of the market. Places where people can come to be more than customer. To work out what living like that might look and feel like. Together. New ways to live. Because the current system isn’t working. And some of the few people left with the headspace to think about what an alternative might look like is us.

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After writing this I read this brilliant piece by Diane Ragsdale and it talks really brilliantly about much of the same landscape as the piece above, well worth your time

Some of the Things I’ve thought Post Flood

I wrote this over the weeks after Flood and never posted out of fear of rocking the boat. But there’s no point to me if I’m craven and tomorrow there’s a big announcement about Slung Low’s future plans so I thought it would be good to get it out now so I’ve recorded what I was thinking.

24 hours after the final van of kit had been unloaded in Leeds and we were clear of the site in Hull someone broke into the HUB and stole pretty much everything from the show, every boat engine, every weather proof cable, every projector.

In the process of clearing up and as the realisation that all the bits of the project that we might have kept to use elsewhere was what had gone missing  it was hard not to think that Aslan may well be making a point about the transient and temporary nature of theatre. Reality is written nowadays like the 14th series of a television franchise, all heavy handed metaphor and assumption the audience are stupid.

Flood was a four part epic written by James Phillips, a headline of the Hull 2017 City of Culture programmed and performed online, on a floating fiery set land on BBC2. You can watch bits of video from it at Or if you have no time for that shit you can watch a one minute video summary here

It was the biggest undertaking Slung Low ever attempted, each part had its own community chorus, the script a mix of the lyrical, political and spectacular: fire breathing floating tank cars with monologues about how much room there was in this nation and who might take it up. All performed in the middle of a housing estate in Hull. It delighted audiences (“Stunning. Haunting. Thought Provoking. Brilliant!”) and critics in equal measure as long as you don’t read the Observer. It involved an unfathomable amount of logistics, dozens of people pulling on ropes and diving in water. And in all the ways that it is possible to control a process we did. We were able, thanks to the support of our Hull 2017 commissioners and later The Space and the BBC, to imagine an entire process free from most pre-existing structures: to imagine from scratch how a seemingly impossible thing might be achieved- from how we welcomed audiences to where the company ate their lunch. A way of making that allowed the creative artists the closest possible relationship to the practical making of the thing; a creative process restricted only by our determination, safety and the physically possible. And we were determined.

What a thing- to be given all at once the permission to be wildly ambitious, the resources to match it and the support to imagine a tiny world in which a small group of people might achieve the near impossible.

It was an undoubtedly a privilege. And it is done. And I must be honest it’s left me rather bereft. I miss Flood.

17969There is a straight line between the company 15 years ago when the idea of being paid any money at all to make the theatre we wanted to make was genuinely a dream like prospect and the company who delivered Flood with as much resource and freedom as you are likely to find in regional subsidised theatre (and there probably aren’t many worlds more free than that one).

It’s the end of that first industry impulse, we make this show to get permission to make the next, to get the opportunity to make the next and on. And on chasing the artistic ambition. Until finally you get to the top of your own hill, out of breath and look up and realise that for the first time in 15 years you’ll stop climbing. Please understand it isn’t complacency. Nor even satisfaction necessarily. It’s as much a gasping pause enforced by cramp as anything else.

Of course there are more adventures, shows dreamed and not made real, schemes and programmes. I’ve got 3 new shows on this year’s slate and another 4 in hopeful conversation. And so much more to learn, always, the things done poorly, the members of the team lost in the process, the nuance and detail lost of lines, scenes, acts, the whole project.

But it does feel like the end of the long first slog. That whatever comes next it wont be provoked by that initial impulse; could we find a way to make the sort of theatre we want in the way that we demand with our values and get paid for it.

And what comes next? Maintenance? Do Flood 2? Turning Slung Low into an institution that could survive the disappearance of those of us who hold it up?

I’m fighting that. I’ve seen what that does to minds that sparkle much brighter than mine. And the resentment it breeds. Resentment must be avoided.

One of the things that became really clear as the omnibus performances of this behemoth loomed and then were done was the sense of disappointment within about the impact the show was having in some places. Not on the audience present each night live (“You blew my mind with Flood last night”): nor on the numbers- 500,000 people saw a part of Flood. I mean that is nuts. Half a million. *Robert Downey Jr GIF of him fanning himself coquettishly here*

But there was an overriding sense- however ineptly communicated- that there was A NATIONAL CULTURAL CONVERSATION and we were- for all the numbers and all the money and a well heeled London PR firm- not part of it. I wrote a piece for the Stage pretending to be about high minded principles but basically bitching about this. Everything I say in that is true but let us not fool ourselves for one second that if Rufus Norris had sent an associate and a single, solitary London-based national newspaper critic had come to see the show I would have written it. So the high ground is not for me here. Some days you’re just a man angry that the outstanding work of your friends and colleagues is being ignored because some people find it implausible that they might get on a train to the UK City of Culture and there’s no point pretending that that is a high minded position to take. Still, The Stage will pay fifty quid for that sort of thing and that’s a laser quest session for 6 so don’t knock it. If your unhappiness can be monetised for the greater laser quest good then some days that’s the win and you take it. God I miss laser quest with the Flood team.

10863Over half a million people saw a part of Flood, it cost several hundreds of thousand of pounds, it was a politically trenchant new play with a performance company of over a hundred on a floating burning set in the middle of the UK City of Culture. And despite all that and the best efforts of the finest PR company we could not get a single London based national theatre critic to come. Months after that initial petulant frustration there is a freedom to be found here; if I can’t do it with this then I can’t do it. Which once accepted frees up all sorts of others much more interesting thoughts. A discussion about what we use public funds to pay PRs to do in regional theatre and what we expect from that investment is well overdue.

Around the same time as the blog for The Stage those mighty folk at Forest Fringe tweeted “Also, ARTS ORGANISATIONS, if you want good criticism as a vital part of our theatre ecology it’s time to invest in the people that are writing it, rather than forlornly chasing ever-shrinking reviews in the broadsheets.”

Well that’s a bloody good point isn’t it. Our subscription to Exeunt was long overdue, we’ve rectified that now, one of the many tiny realisations that are much clearer now I don’t spend my days driving boats around a canal in Hull. God I miss those boats. But still, Exeunt is excellent- get involved.

Inviting Maddy Costa up to see the show (and in the interests of transparency- making sure that her expenses were covered- something that the PR company assured us was an offer to any newspaper critic who needed it) was the smartest move we made. Here was a writer who I was interested in hearing from. Of course I care whether she ‘liked’ it or not but more importantly, much more importantly, i was desperate for someone to understand what it was we were doing. Not just the show but the whole endeavour. Actually clearer than that I wanted to make sure that what we were doing, how we were doing it and why was actually understandable: after nine months on the canal I wanted to make sure that there was still signal coming through.

18101I was profoundly thankful when her piece was published.  I’m told it isn’t the done thing to thank a Critic for the understanding in their writing about you.  I’ve named toilets after critics who have disappointed me, I’m certainly going to take the time out to thank those who have spent thoughtful time considering our endeavour. It occurred to me not for the first time that the relationship between theatre and its critics is weird.

The structural discrepancies between north and south are well worn on this blog and by more incisive folk elsewhere. It’s fucked. 20% of the population are serviced by well over half of the funding, and a statistically improbable amount of national coverage and whilst the arts council funding programme is trying to rebalance this it will take a generation before some at the BBC and national arts leadership stop being snotty shits about the north. (“But Hull, I mean Hull, must you” said one TV bod. Well yes we fucking must, I mean that’s sort of the whole point). And until you win the battle in the well worn conceits of the urbane middle class any amount of funding will always feel like you are compensating people for not working in London. We should stop doing that. If they wont move out of London without extra money let them all go work in exhibitions and see how they like that. They’ll soon hush their row. God I miss Hull.

Slung Low doesn’t use production managers in the traditional sense, rather spreading the important tasks that that role would normally encompass through the team and creating a much closer relationship between the creative and practical processes. In Flood that was mostly possible because of the immense practically creative, creatively practical mighty mind of designer David Farley and the order to the process that producer Joanna Resnick brought. The historical reason for this are manyfold, and before you @ me there are of course some amazing production managers out there, but the moment of decision when the production manager rubicon was crossed is from many years ago when, having been invited, as is usual for the company, into a theatre building to make something unusual and out of the ordinary with the in-house team a production manager explained that he wasn’t going to be releasing any of the considerable resources at his disposal because “look mate, we’ve told the bosses that we can make so many shows a year within the current resources so if we make this extra thing work outside on top of that they’ll want us to do it every year.” He went on holiday for the entire length of the project, we made the show almost entirely in isolation, a handful of freelance artists working in the shadow of a large, much better paid staff and the building talked at length for years later how rakishly risk taking they had been in their achievement of our co-produced show.

That one experience influenced a lot about Slung Low’s process and how we positioned ourselves. It wasn’t a one off. As much as we’ve been blessed with some mighty partners over the years there has always been in almost every single institution we’ve ever worked with some reasonably high up managers playing the same oppositional roles with the exact same sentiment if not exact wording.

And so it became a personal ambition that one day we would make a show as far from the institutional restrictions as was possible. A promised land. And with Flood we got there. Hull17 were incredibly generous and supportive partners but there was no structure there for us to butt up against, Martin expected me to make the show, to deliver on the promise and ambition, we were free to imagine our own process.

And so much of this was the personal highlight of the project- systems and processes in place to ensure that the practical act of making theatre was as closely aligned to the creative act of making theatre to make them almost entirely the same thing. Not a practical process responsive to the creative, an officer class instructing the workers, but actually to make a team of equals with sympathetic skills working as one. God I miss the Flood team.

There was some capacity issues- I (along with others in the team) fell across the finishing line- and there were a few who couldn’t cope with the transition, some clinging on to managerial authority and others not happy to step up and live in a world where they weren’t just to take instructions. But in the main it worked. And the art I believe was different for it, a different tone, a different effect. A different audience experience.

And yet. And yet. In finding that extreme freedom we lost something. Or more clearly I realised the things that we had had before from our partners but failed to notice enough because the energy aimed at the obstruction masked it. But I missed the sort of brilliant collaboration that we found from Sarah Lewis at the Liverpool Everyman, from Liam Evans Ford and Sarah Rorke in York, and Sarah Gentle and her mighty team in Sheffield. And the many others. (Someone needs to do a research paper into the unreasonably high quality of Sarahs in UK Theatre). Their vital part in the making was in large part because of their individual talent, grace and skill but also because of their role in the organisation that we were working with. Even as it becomes much more possible practically, financially for Slung Low to make major shows without a practical producing collaboration I doubt we ever will again. In finding the freedom that we had demanded for over ten years I also found a better appreciation of the amazing relationships we had made over the years with those working within institutions. Some of that is of course the confidence to know that that production manager wouldn’t get to the end of his sentence now- a confidence that comes from having done something like Flood, and also the learning of strategies to move around and through such obstruction. But there is a more creative discovery here. Something more positive. There is something in the skills needed to work in those institutions that would have benefitted Flood, more that we can learn from that.

That’s quite a difficult realisation to be honest. After a decade positioning in firm opposition to the stability that too many of our institutions value over responding to their commissioned artists and the new demands of their audience, the certainty that I’ve hit as hard in one direction as it is possible to and must now reassess is not an easy resolution for me. I liked the certainty of tilting. Still, learning is learning.

Flood was a set of extraordinary opportunities. A privilege unlikely to be repeated in my career. The response from audiences and participants has been overwhelming and nourishes our current imagining about what comes next in Slung Low’s development. It can’t be more of the same. But it must have the same ambition, the same desire to imagine new ways of making new things for audience. It must build on the past but drive hard in a new direction. I can’t wait to find out what it is.

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