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. >

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