Blog Post: time ‘being’ a theatre company, playwrights on the board of banks & a new van.

Sometimes it’s good to say stuff out loud not because there’s a solution to share but because talking out loud might help to frame the right question. This is one of those times.

It is possible for me to write all the beneath whilst still remaining committed to some central beliefs that i’ve shared here and elsewhere on a number of occasions; that to be given public funding to make art is a privilege to be respected, appropriately spent and properly accounted for; that I was incredibly proud when Slung Low was made NPO; that I believe the Arts Council to be a partner in our ambitions and not the enemy, nor my boss; and most people don’t get to experience a Slung Low adventure and I want to do whatever I can to change that

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“Do you think funding will kill the company?” It was a question someone asked shortly after the funding decision, I didn’t understand what they meant at the time and it’s been rattling around ever since.
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The last few months have been a process of administrative capacity building for Slung Low. I didn’t even know what administrative capacity building was 6 months ago. Mostly in preparation for the NPO period that begins next year.
For the first time we’ve spent time ‘being’ a theatre company. Rather than making theatre. We’ve had meetings about corporate governance, we’ve become Ltd, we have meetings about strategy now and worry about the Slung Low brand, we’ve hired an accountant and I meet with him whilst he chides me and so on.
I’m not being naive- i understand that a lot of this is simply a result of receiving public funds in a different way. I’m not complaining. It’s just in ten years I’ve spent only moments on being a ‘theatre company’ rather than making theatre.
I think that’s what they mean when they say “Do you think our funding will kill the company.” It wont.

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But the number of distractions there are to actually getting on and making a piece of theatre have increased considerably and it’s important to register that. And the number of people who tell me/us that we ‘must’ do this or we ‘must’ do that if we are going to be deemed ‘proper’ has also increased. And it’s important to register that those people have increased, and certainly got louder but that they are no more important (and no less) than they were before.
And being ‘proper’ has never really been an aim of mine.

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Slung Low was originally an umbrella for a group of people to do something in the arts. It started life (as surely all companies do) as a better way of say “i’ve convinced some people i’ve met to do this thing, let me explain to you what the thing is”. Now years later that ‘thing’ is under pressure to behave like an institution, or at least an organisation. Something that is to be protected, something to be valued in and of itself- beyond the experiences it has given/will give to audiences. And actually in many ways that ‘thing’ hadn’t changed in my head very much from “I’ve convinced some people I’ve met to do this thing…”. Or clearer…
It’s been said- “You need to set up Slung Low now so it would survive your leaving.” No I don’t. I don’t NEED to do that. More importantly I tell you who doesn’t NEED me to do that, the audience or the development of the theatrical form in this country. They absolutely do NOT NEED me to do that.
“You need to have a plan to protect you if you aren’t successful with funding applications for 2016.” No I don’t. 3 years ago Slung Low was making box shows for one audience member at a time that explored how a combination of actors, computers and switches operated by the audience might create a flowing audience experience.
4 months ago we set fire to the Liverpool Everyman roof whilst over a thousand people looked on.
I’m going to be much smarter in a year, even better at my job in 3 years. We should let future Alan decide what to do in 2016- he’ll make a better job of it.

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The British Council hosted an event in Edinburgh a couple of years ago, the key note speaker was a director Heiner Goebbels. Don’t laugh at his name, he runs German theatre and opera. Or something. He was a brilliant speaker.
He said (ish)- An institution’s main function is to protect the institution, to ensure that it survives. The main function of an artist should be to make art. That will never be the function of an institution. (I’ve paraphrased but the meaning is there i think)

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From my place in the world it strikes me that many of our institutional arts organisations are made up of three types of people; the artists (my definition of this word is catholic- in this instance i believe if you make the art you are an artist); the people who run the organisation, and the people who protect the institution from the artists (and sometimes from even the people who run it). My main thinking has been over the last few months how to ensure that Slung Low meets its new responsibility as is right and proper but remains inherently a group of artists determined to make art today not preparation to make art tomorrow, and if it must be an organisation it never becomes an institution.

——

We bought a van yesterday. A beautiful yellow monster. Second hand, ex-AA, nothing fancy but something incredibly useful. We wouldn’t have been able to do it before. Not just because of the money but because of the lack of certainty of being in existence in 18 months time. Or even 12 months time to secure the insurance instalments.
Turns out unincorporated arts collectives can’t get 12 monthly payment insurance. Limited companies do though.

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I’ve been reading Mike Bradwell’s book (Reluctant Escapologist). I’m aware that he divides opinions and his Guardian blog last year was so unnecessarily combative that it drove the discussion about how our theatre organisations had changed into an immediately aggressive and defensive place when there was so much more to be said on the subject than the set-up allowed.
However the book reminded me about the original Bradwell’s ‘Hull Truck’- the pre-Godber moment that was genuinely innovative in its structure and content and often theatrically and politically subversive. And Bradwell’s book deserves more than the reductive and aggressive blog that he gave the Guard
ian.

Something from the book is still rattling round my brain (again i’m paraphrasing Mike here)- I’d be much more receptive to a banker being the chair of a theatre company if anyone was thinking about putting a playwright on the board of a bank. Personally my vote is for Joel Horwood but then I like fireworks.

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What’s become increasingly clear is that there is no such thing as a certainty in our corporate systems- banks falling into the sea, overvalue, bailing out not just banks but whole financial systems. Anyone who speaks with certainty now is a liar: see this little wanker of a banker on the BBC saying “Goldman Sachs runs the world”. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bhrtJq2G-DU&feature=youtube_gdata_player
Once you’ve got through all the arguments and counter arguments about whether he was for real or not the real revelation is that he’s just plain wrong. Goldman Sachs doesn’t run the world. Nobody does. Look at the world. Just look at it. The idea that anyone runs that is just wishful thinking.

It’s a weird time to be spending time thinking about where to take a unincorporated arts collective. I am now an eager advocate of the idea that Slung Low had to make some changes to its corporate sophistication- well anything is more sophisticated than me, a community bank account and a mobile phone! It will allow us to achieve some of the larger artistic ambitions we have.
But I refuse to believe that there is only one way of doing this- or that the models that suit a starship like the West Yorkshire Playhouse (my local producing theatre building) would also be a bespoke fit for Slung Low- a yellow van, 2 interns and a metal box for an office.
And I know that I’ve stopped listening to anyone who starts a sentence, “What you must do…” There’s no way in this trembling world that anybody who works in the arts can be sure enough of anything to use the word ‘must’.

And mostly I can’t wait to get started again. The thing we’ve all always prided ourselves on at Slung Low is our pragmatism- defining principles by what is possible by stretching and pulling at existing systems whilst actually making things. And so this period of contemplation has been useful but unnatural for me.
Original Bearings is our new show with the West Yorkshire Playhouse about histories and fiction and the area of Leeds that we are based in, Holbeck. Original Bearings, like all the previous Slung Low projects, will surely teach me a little bit more about what we are, how we are meant to behave and what we are meant to do.
Back to it.
A

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