Monthly Archives: July 2010

Blog Post: Going Home at Last and Accepting Offers

Well it’s been nearly 3 months but I’m finally going home.
It feels like an age since I set off for Kolkata.

India, South Africa, Giggleswick, Latitude, Notting Hill.

Apart from a 30 hour break in the middle it’s been a summer of being foreign, different. Often being alone. Or if not alone then somehow non ‘ordinary’- distant from anything that is usual, or crucially anybody that is usual.
Whether that be the more obvious example of Kolkata and its steamy other or trying to live in a posh public school or standing outside a caravan on the Portobello Road and talking to 50 strangers a day whilst wearing a bowtie.

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Often its meant being trapped in language- or out of it. Whether that be the smiling, nodding, incomprehension of a Xhose speaking South African or the strangeness of talking to people you have never met on the street and desperately trying to sound like your not selling something. (if only because you are not).

Nothing has been usual. That has often meant nothing has been easy. But then that’s never a bad thing.

My head is so full of new. So full of stories, that actually its time to go home because I’m not sure there is any room left in my head.

I go home gloriously for a full two weeks. Two weeks of planning for Slung Low’s new show with the Everyman; 2 weeks of site visits for the new show Mapping the City in Hull for iMove; 2 weeks of meetings with funders and men and women of ideas. 2 weeks to put a plan in place for our home The Holbeck Underground Ballroom so it might be useful to even more people than it currently serves. That’s a pretty good two weeks.
Crucially 2 weeks at home. Then to Liverpool for an equally crucial 3 months.

But something occurred to me tonight as I walking home to my rather lovely digs in Elephant and Castle.
I make a short (very) introductory speech at the beginning of the Knowledge Emporium’s presentations. I was thinking about it on the way home. There is a section when I explain that the 1000+ people who have written in the Knowledge Emporium’s Big Book of Everything that We Know have “made an offer- an offer made in good faith and from a unique perspective”.

It occurred to me that’s what this long 11 week road trip has been. Me bungling around the world and country standing relatively silent whilst a magnitude of magnificent people have made offers, in good faith and from a unique perspective. And I have had the unbelievable good fortune to be able accept all of them. Each story, smile, trip, entry, meal, bed, guiding hand. What an absolutely brilliant way to spend 3 months. Saying yes. Saying thank you.

And tomorrow I get to drive Slung Low’s very own airstream caravan- complete with installed sweet shop- home to Leeds. After some mad dashing around and rather brilliant figures juggling by producer Laura Clark we have- as the determination was vaingloriously declared on here and Twitter- bought the Emporium. It will be a thing of greatness for Slung Low I know. Expect to see it trundling around Yorkshire soon in all its shiny glory.

And more than that- more than even our very own 1960’s caravan- more than my head full of the memory of it all- more than India, South Africa, Festivals and Sweetshops- more than that…  I get to go home.

And the greatest luck of all is that waiting there for me is this: o lucky man.

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It’s a wonder I ever left home in the first place. But I am very glad I did.

Alan
Notting Hill- but not for long.

PS: for those that don’t know me personally the above is a picture of my wife Lucy and most excellent hound Billy. He celebrated the 4th anniversary of being our dog on Friday. That is why he is wearing his special celebration bow tie. He wouldn’t normally wear that on a week day.
I see also that- a la Frank Sinatra- he has undone the bow and is wearing it in a casual style. This detail allows us to be sure that the photograph was taken after sundown.

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Blog Post: Why I am in a caravan on the Portobello Road

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The Knowledge Emporium is an airstream caravan that has had a bespoke sweet shop fitted inside.

The sweet shop was designed by Barney George and physically created by Matt Angove, Daniel Rollings, Bronia Daniels, Lucy Hind and what felt like a small army of carpenters. 

It now sits in Tavistock Piazza on Portobello Road, near Ladbroke Grove Tube Station.

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And outside the Emporium stand myself, Oliver Senton and Suzanne Ahmet in candy stripe, bowling shoes and side partings. 

The whole thing tends to draw the eye.

People come up- quite naturally and ask, “what is this?” 

It’s a sweet shop. But we don’t accept money. We trade in sweets for entries into our Big Book of Everything that We Know. 

“Why?” 

I believe that everybody has some piece of knowledge, some memory, some experience that would be of interest to everybody. I would like to collect as many as I can. 

“But why sweets?” 

Most people like sweets. They make people feel nice, think of comforting things, remember. I want people to feel nice. And I am asking something of you. Surely I should give something in return? By way of thank you. 

At that point 99% of people have a look of understanding and acceptance and with an “Okay” climb in to the caravan and sit down by the book.

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It is by some distance the simplest, the easiest to understand and the most honest transaction that has ever sat at the heart of a Slung Low project.

There have been a few people of course who are unhappy, disbelieving, suspicious or just downright rude. A woman yesterday repeatedly compared me to Nazi Germany*.  She wasn’t drunk, or mad in any clinical sense. She was angry. Not at me (turns out she was angry at the Council) but being as I was there and wearing a bow tie I would do for a little while. It’s amazing- and this is the real triumph of the experience for me- how many times and in how many ways myself, Oliver and Suzanne “will do for a little while”. 

I don’t argue with people. Not here. 

That’s not the point of it all. It isn’t a chance for me to say anything. It isn’t an opportunity to challenge or investigate- it is the act of accepting and listening.

I spent 5 hours yesterday saying the word Yes. 

I could write something about my father. Yes.

Can I just write a little about where I was born? Yes.

Is it all right if I just put a sentence? Yes. Can I tell you about my life? Yes please. 

Quiet, unironic, un smart arse affirmation. Yes.

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And they write. They write when a few moments ago they said they didn’t want to. They write when a few moments ago they said they had nothing to say. They write when a few moments ago they said no one would be interested. Yes. 

We perform outside the caravan on the 30 &31 July and 1 August, in the evening. We will present some of the material. But that is not my worry today. And wont be tomorrow or the day after. In 5 days I will worry about that. How that will work. Whether it will be dramatic. Yes.  But for now I say yes. I don’t argue. I don’t contest. They do that. To themselves. If they want to. If they need to. Changing the story they told me outside to a slightly less bullish one in the book. Arranging the details to make the recollection less aggressive, or more so. Depending on what they want to do.

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It is the most brilliant experience- knowing that you will simply affirm for five hours as strangers approach you with generous gifts of knowledge. It is sometimes challenging- not everything is so easy to affirm. But that is the transaction. That is the idea. That everybody has some piece of knowledge, some memory, some experience that would be of interest to everybody. And it turns out they do. 

I want to buy the caravan. We’ve put too much in to it to just rip the set out and move on. It’s going to cost a lot of money: these things always do. An extraordinarily large amount of money. I sat with Slung Low’s producer Laura Clark last night and went through the myriad of financial, developmental, artistic, social and corporate reasons for why it is a good idea to take the risk and buy the thing. 

But if I’m honest I want to buy it, I insist (within the confines of polite discourse) on buying it because I do genuinely believe that everybody has some piece of knowledge, some memory, some experience that would be of interest to everybody.

I would like to collect as many as I can.

And I have much more of the book to fill.

And after that many more books.

Yes. 

Come see us if you are in the Portobello Road area until 1st August. We’re open 11-4. Say hello to me. I’ll be the one saying Yes.     

“This is how it starts. They come to take the livelihoods of good people. They bring in strange men. This is how it started back then in the 30’s. That’s how it started in Nazi Germany.”

“Please don’t say Nazi Germany. I can’t keep talking to you if you say Nazi Germany.”

“There were plenty of Alan’s in Nazi Germany?” 

“No I am sorry Im going to have to ask you to retract that.” 

“There WERE plenty of Alan’s in Nazi Germany!” 

“No I don’t believe there were. Alan is a Celtic name. There were not plenty of Alan’s in Nazi Germany.” 

“Okay. Helmuts then.” 

“Yes. I’ll accept there were plenty of Helmuts in Nazi Germany. Please carry on Madame.”  She did for 20 minutes. 

She says she’ll come back tomorrow and put something in the book. I hope she does.

Some Thoughts on Slung Low’s headphones shows

I’ve just received the drafts of all 7 of the writing commissions for Anthology: a collaboration between Slung Low and Liverpool Everyman opening this Autumn. Each of them is very good indeed but the process of going through them got me thinking about the form.

Anthology is one of our headphone shows. A Headphone show is a form of show we started making last year with the Almeida (Last Seen), a model we will use for Anthology this autumn and again revisit next year with Mapping the City in Hull (in collaboration with iMove). In many ways the opposite of our Short Adventures for One model.
The premise and fiction of the shows are very different but they share some common themes with each other. The most obvious connection is that the audience wear headphones and follow a character, the character is miced so that the audience can hear them and there is an originally composed soundtrack and set of sound effects that accompany the actor that play in the audience’s ears. More often than not they are almost through scored.

In terms of technology we have tried everything we can afford over the last couple of years trying to get the best effect; pirate radio equipment, systems shipped from the states that normally are only used by Christian fundamentalist communities, infra red, and even i-trips. It’s been a constant struggle to find a system that can be both reliable, flexible and portable. And anyone who saw my repeated, unexpected appearances during the first few shows at the Almeida will know it’s a struggle we have not always won.

Finally we have settled on, and invested a not insubstantial amount of money in, the technology used to allow rugby fans to hear the referee during games. One of the reasons why I was unwilling to talk about Slung Low and technology at the recent ShiftHappens conference was because with this technology- as with all similar problems at Slung Low- the question isn’t whether the technology exists- it absolutely does- it’s how to find a way to harness it that we can afford. We’re not inventing anything- we’re just finding the thing that can do what we want within a certain budget. Although in fairness to the member of the company who has to create the systems (Matt Angove) that is a skilful and difficult operation in itself. Just not one I felt fitting for ShiftHappens.

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The most important aspect of the system is that the headphones the audience are wearing must not only deliver the audio content for the show but it is must also stop any noise from the environment around that we do not want the audience hearing. We do this by putting headphones in ear defenders. Total control of sound.

In all of the headphone shows there are multiple narratives. That is to say you buy a ticket for a show called Last Seen and you will have an experience for an hour or so. But the person beside you may well go on a completely different journey. You cannot see all the routes in one visit. Something about multiple routes, multiple stories going out at the same time is of incredible interest to me and the team. As is the fact that the audience are never allowed to choose their route- the route chooses them (if most of the time by the most random of selection processes). We only guarantee that if you return a second time to the show you will not repeat your experience. It is to my mind much more interesting when the theatre offers a deal so seeing a 2nd/3rd etc route is considerably less expensive than seeing the first- rewarding your commitment and curiosity with a financial discount. But each of the routes must stand alone- as well as understand in parts in a larger experience.

As we develop the model one of the things developing is the relationship between each of these separate routes; that understanding of being a part of a larger experience. In Last Seen there was no real link planned at all, the writers working in isolation. Next in Liverpool they are more consciously themed- together they form an anthology of separate but complimentary work, like the name suggests. In Hull next year the challenge will be not only how the routes can thematically correlate to each other but how they can physically intersect- which will in reality require the different writers to work in close collaboration with each other in a way that we haven’t tried before.

Another need of the model that has become apparent is the performer must have a direct relationship with the audience. Not so much the absence of the 4th wall (although that certainly is true) but that the audience exists and is recognised for the character completely. More specifically that the performer/text must actively engage with the reality that the audience will have to follow them, the audience must receive direct instruction from the performer (if only for sheer safety reasons as they cross a road) and that the performer NEEDS the audience for some reason- the story must be heard for a direct reason that is made explicit to the audience. That in following the performer they are of course (as I am a little too fond of saying) following or chasing a narrative but they are also serving a function- bearing witness to something that might otherwise slip a way; or carrying things when the performer’s hands are full; or passing the story on to others so as to relieve the burden to the character. Whatever it might be is actively understood by the audience- the audience know their importance. Because they are actually present in the story.

The shows (thus with their actor/audience relationship, complete control of sound, radio styled voice, film styled score in ear) then leave the theatre space and go out into the world- sometimes to specially prepared sites and other times to wonder amongst the ‘real’ world and either blend in or clash with reality. The backdrop of reality is often very surreal- robbed as it is of any connection to sound. How the unreliable and utterly irrepressible real world is folded in to the created narratives that must in some sense be ‘convincing’ is my biggest challenge. The fiction must be flexible enough to withstand reality- the copper that arrested one of our chorus, the drunk that starts chatting to the performer, the commuter that walks past and mouths “Nutters” to the audience.

The form is not combative- you simply can’t bully an audience around a 2 mile march. It has to be persuasive. There’s a lovely moment in one of the new drafts when the character says “So if you want to have a watch at the janitor having Elsie then you’d better come with me”. My money is the audience flying out of their seats in pursuit, if only to see how we fudge it (God only knows but I’m taking suggestions- maybe I can just pay two people to have sex in the bushes every other night for a 5 week run?)

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The form doesn’t naturally support certain types of naturalism or verbatim inspired material very well- real life is right there alongside the show as it walks the streets- the form doesn’t favour ‘gritty’. There are real scallies outside any theatre in the country- actors pretending tend to look a bit silly no matter how convincing they might be on stage.

The form does seem to favour Magic Realism though- being bedded in an everyday narrative that bu
rsts into flights of (especially) visual fantasy works very well indeed. A golden phone box on a high street tends to have a much greater effect than you would expect- the familiarity of phone box with the surprise of gold I suppose. I’ve started to use a bastardisation of Tassos Stevens’ “What is? What if?” to explain this to newcomers. That is to say, start with what is there, what life has presented. Now don’t ignore that reality, shift it slightly to make it magical- the impact on the audience is greater. A gold phone box. Not a space ship. It’s what all the best Doctor Who episodes do instinctively.
It’s a form as reliant on the suspension of disbelief as stage theatre is- just a different type of suspension.

It is totally unforgiving of any staged theatricality. If you want a special effect then you must talk the language of film, of event- there are no wings, no sight line cheats, there can be no flying lines. Which led once to a very expensive (not public money I hasten to add), very short-lived experiment to test whether we could use remote controlled helicopters to fly set outside. We can’t. As our magnificent composer Heather Fenoughty proved beyond all doubt when she nose dived the helicopter into the ground beyond all repair.
Stage Managers in blacks positioning a prop become ludicrous. I am suspicious that dance inherently doesn’t work in the form but I also think that’s because I haven’t contextualised it the right way yet- so I’m going to have another go at it.

And yet similarly ‘arch’, theatrical sound devices are completely acceptable to an audience it seems. Voices that exist in abstract (as ghosts, memories) are readily accepted within the form (as they would be in radio) in a way that wouldn’t seem to work in stage work.

Audience plants don’t work. I don’t know why- I just assume the audience sniff them out no matter how good the actor. Or maybe they are expected in the form and therefore have little impact. But moments of visual serendipity are given Derren Brown like amounts of respect. Again I don’t fully understand why- a helium balloon released from behind a wall is no more complicated or magical than any other cue but it will always get them chatting in the bar afterwards. *

Something I’ve also realised in the last few weeks as I’ve been preparing for Anthology is exactly how filmic a form it is in many ways. I was thinking about how our sound team continues to grow even in the face of a slight cutting back of the team overall. It’s perfectly natural and needed expansion, we are making full film soundscapes for 7 hour long pieces. They are not scored like a theatre show but like a film- each and every sound recorded and engineered, the headphones leaving no naturally formed sound at all. Each show is underscored in a manner that wouldn’t work on stage a lot of the time but gives an emotional cocoon to the piece as the audience move around, and counter intuitively (at least to someone who has only every worked in theatre) makes it feel more natural. In the way that exegetic music can be profoundly moving in film but tends to distract in stage plays (there are of course considerable exceptions to this).

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It’s also like film (or at least film preparation) in the sense that deep focus is also possible in a way that it isn’t on most stages (certainly not the ones they give to the likes of me). I can- given the right planning- create a picture tracking back 100 metres, longer even. I can have close up magic in combination with epic sky line; angels of death, burning with flame, condemning from 25 metres above the audience; a man crying in the same room as you are in with his dead daughter staring up at the window from the street two stories below. And while in Liverpool I’ll have all these things and more (permissions from councils and dioceses notwithstanding).
I can’t decide the exact focus point the audience will choose like I might with a camera but I can make intuitive suggestions to them and frame things in such a way as to make it more likely they see what I would like them to. And vitally not look in the direction I’d rather they avoided.
Certainly as I go through the scripts scribbling key images in the margins I am drawing on cinematic inspiration rather than theatrical. It’s much more to do with bodies in existing space, and therefore selecting those spaces rather than creating those spaces in the way that such story boarding exercises happen for stage plays.

It is often a bloody tricky form. If only because of all the technology needed to deliver the show. And how audience can behave around technology. I remember one audience member coming up to me after a preview and saying he thought it a very challenging and esoteric experience. That didn’t seem to fit with my understanding so after he had gone I checked his headphones. The tuning had slipped and he had spent an hour following an actor around whilst listening to the cricket on 5 Live. We should have checked, it was entirely our fault. But that he never said a word for 55 minutes was bewildering to me. Equally a number of people complained after an Almeida show of a bass like thumping noise in their headphones and reported a malfunction- some quite unhappy with the quality of their equipment. It was the sound of their own footsteps, resonating up their bodies as they walked in total silence. They didn’t believe me.
The technology allows us to create so much effect, bringing a magical quality to the stories. It also makes people behave awkwardly and I must overcome this if the show in Liverpool this Autumn is to really fly. The first step is for all involved in the making to stop behaving awkwardly with the gear and we’ll hopefully have the time to achieve this.

It’s also a wonderfully magical form. We’ve all dashed home in the rain with our iPod blaring something magnificent and vainglorious in our ears- ourselves transformed into the hero at the heart of a landscape snatched from a fast paced film. Well that’s just the beginning with this form. It can harness all the immersive qualities of a good radio play, a good iPod dash, a good film watched in the dark with the phone off, with the communal event of witnessing stories as part of a crowd. The personal and collective, the passive and participatory brought together in a way that I have never been able to manage with other forms.

The magical, fictional, hopeful side by side with the real, the everyday, the familiar.

Now just to get it right.

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All the images are from Last Seen; a collaboration with the Almeida Theatre in 2009.

*I remember in Helium at the end of a scene a card was revealed hanging above the audience’s head. Dozens of people asked me how we did it as there was no one else in the box with them at the time. I didn’t know how to break it gently to them that it had been there since before they entered- they just hadn’t looked.

The speech I did at Shift Happens today

> My name is Alan Lane and I am the Artistic Director of Slung Low. We are a new work company based in Leeds. We make a range of work; from Short Adventures for One to shows that tour the streets of cities. The 2 unifying themes of this work are that- whatever the structure of the piece- the audience move through the show (whether that be over 10 foot or a number of miles) and that by moving through the show they are following a narrative. And crucially that we start each project with the creation of a story. That for all the noise that many of our projects create inherently we aim to be story tellers. > > > We are a very pragmatic company- we concentrate not only what our shows are about but also the mechanics, the structures, the systems and engineering of our shows. At the heart of our work is the desire to create new ways of experiencing the live story telling event- that in trying to create new presentation models we discover new stories but also invigorate audiences- bringing new people to theatre and opening the eyes of those used to the experience. Sometimes that works and sadly sometimes it doesn’t- but the passionate endeavour is there always. Beyond that belief, that specific determination we’re not dogmatic about theatre- we’ll make whatever we can work to serve that central endeavour. And that pragmatism is in a way what I want to talk to you about today. > > > Slung Low started at the University of Sheffield ten years ago. We spent a number of years making on the outside of the publicly subsidised theatre infrastructure. Partly trying to get inside that structure, partly because I didn’t know any other way but also it has to be said quite happily. I was working out what it was I was doing or rather what we were making. After 5 years we were firmly placed in the alternative sector without much success. It was then that I took up a position as Ian Brown’s assistant director. Ian is the Artistic Director at the West Yorkshire Playhouse. He asked me at the interview what my alternative sector colleagues would think of me taking the job. I told him that many would think I was selling out. And so it was. To this day some parts of the alternative, ‘up stream’ scene in West Yorkshire think that I- and the work of Slung Low- are part of the mainstream, and beat us around the head with that term. Whilst in grant applications, theatre buildings and large organisations describe us as ‘alternative innovators’.
> > > It’s not a complaint it’s just something I’ve been thinking about for a while now. I spent the last month working on projects in parts of the world where the idea of a funding system or a supportive infrastructure- or even the idea of a mainstream- is just not a realistic objective. It made me think a lot about Slung Low’s position in the UK’s theatrical world. Alongside these travels were the echoes of a number of conversations I have had recently with equally inspiring industry people here in the UK. The conversations were collectively about whether real innovation is best occurring within or without the existing funded theatre structure. That central question has provoked a great deal of thought over the last few months. > My time at the playhouse, really moving into the structure of our industry for the first time, opened my eyes to a great number of things: here in the rep house were resources, a determined support team, skills and more importantly an audience arriving daily to be told stories. And good people who fought hard for the funding that allowed those things. > A system designed, staffed and funded to support the making of brilliant theatre for an audience. As naive as it sounds- I really had no idea before then that such a thing existed. > > > The time I spent at the playhouse, coupled with Slung Low winning the Oxford Samuel Beckett Theatre Trust Award, sped up the artistic journey that we had been on for some time- combining a relatively traditional aim of telling stories with a desire to re-examine the model of audience sitting in the dark for 7 performances a week. For the last 5 years Slung Low has worked almost exclusively in partnership with established theatre buildings, within the industry structure. Our partners- when the relationship works- allows us to achieve more than we’d ever manage alone; tell our stories to more people, build pictures on a bigger canvas and crucially, and humbly, pay our rent whilst we do it. > > > In the last 2 years we have made work with the Lowry, the Barbican, the Almeida, the European Capital of culture and presented work at the Lawrence Batley Theatre and Theatre in the Mill, Bradford and are about to embark on new shows with the Gate, Liverpool Everyman and iMove in Hull. Without these partners, their werewithal, passion and enthusiasm Slung Low would not have made the work of which we are very proud, nor the work that taught us so much and that was sadly not as successful. That said the question of whether within or without is the best way to explore new stills troubles me.
> > > There are times when working so closely within the establishment have threatened to compromise the work- indeed there have been times when it has actually compromised it. Is it better then to surrender to the reality of playing that work to less audience and making it on our own with less compromise? There are moments when the inability of a project to fit in to an existing model sets development back. We are still too frequently asked to make a brand new thing that fits exactly in to the hole left by the old- nothing really new, genuinely new can be made in those circumstances. I don’t know, each and every time that happens, whether it’s better not to fill that hole and leave the old in it, or set about it with my team in the hope that we might make a dent for another day, another team. There are still large sections of the sector I work in who are seemingly dedicated to protecting the status quo rather than inspiring an audience. And I don’t know- even after ten years- how to convince them that the system is run for the creation of making brilliant theatre for all kinds of audiences and not the protection of what has been before. > > > > And I don’t know whether not being able to answer those questions, make those change means that I should lead Slung Low to work without partners and accept the limit in impact and audience reach that would mean. Within or without? > Specifically there were times last year when I lost control of our shared process in such a way that it required a rethinking of our position. I wasn’t willing to completely opt out of the system. This system that is as subsidised by the artists who make the work as it is by the councils that fund it. I refuse to believe that my team cannot with it equally. This is our theatre system too. But something needed to be done to support Slung Low’s artistic control that wasn’t a total retreat from working within established structures.
> > > After much thought we decided that having the space to develop things at our own pace, was a resource that would increase our control but would not be the move to full independence that I was sure would limit the impact and reach of our work. The Holbeck Underground Ballroom is 5 railway arches in South Leeds where we have rehearsal and making facilities. Where we can store and properly access the considerable collection of equipment that we have gathered over the years. Where we can, at our own pace, develop the new technologies that we rely on, where we have the space and time to develop the stories and concepts to our satisfaction. > > > The Holbeck Underground Ballroom was always designed as a shared resource. We have a rough 80 seater studio, an HD editing suite, sound recording facilities, offices, wood workshop and an awful lot of gear. Me and my company didn’t pay for this stuff with our money- it isn’t ours- just ours to look after. If you make progressive work- and that definition is for you to decide not us- then you are very welcome to come and use our home. If you have money lucky you and we’d love some, thank you- our current support won
t last forever. If you don’t then recently someone paid for a week’s rehearsal with a zucchini plant and that’s okay too. It is a genuine offer made in absolute good faith.
> > > Slung Low’s body of work is the continuing endeavour to examine whether real innovation can happen within the existing structure. It is work provoked by the belief that it has a right to happen within that system-if of the necessary quality- because the system’s function is to support the art that delights an audience- and the alternative, the new is as capable as doing that as anything else. We are not anywhere near the end of that endeavour, nowhere near a conclusion; I still don’t know the answer to so many questions. But it is hoped that the HUB will revitalise us for the next stage. And we genuinely want it to be a resource for many more beyond our small company. If you have need of it you will be welcome at the HUB. >