Monthly Archives: April 2012

Blog Post: a 2 minute response to "What is changing and how must theatre evolve to reflect those changes"

I was invited to give a two minute speech for a symposium as part of Transform at the West Yorkshire Playhouse on the theme of Transformation and change. Excited to take part I wrote something before realising that the structure and timescale of the event would mean I couldn’t take part (Saturday is the day of our read through for Slung Low’s upcoming Singapore adventure, Pandemic). So I thought I would post it here for anyone who fancies reading it. I’m finding it interesting to look back on this blog over the years tosee how my thinking has changed/is changing/will change about these sorts of issues. And many thanks to anyone who is reading along.

I was asked to consider “What is changing and how must theatre evolve to reflect those changes?”

One of the most radical changes I have noticed recently is the loss of the public’s good faith. By which I mean we (public discourse/opinion) appear to inherently trust many things less than we did. There is more sneering going on. We know that politicians are on the take. We know that the Police are bent and racist. That journalists steal the secrets of murdered children. That the established church don’t care for the meek and the mild and cover up child abuse.

Of course all those things are true. And it might be argued that we’ve always known them. Perhaps. But the thing that I have noticed changing is the strength of that knowledge- the certainty by which we know it. And the impact that certainty has on other things. Because we know all the above so strongly we know some other things now too;

We know that fuel tanker drivers are greedy. We know that protestors who jump in front of boat races are naive, stupid and selfish. That the youth are generally violent and lazy. That doctors are unfairly wealthy. That teachers have too much holiday. That the BBC is biased to the right wing of politics. That the BBC is biased to the left wing of politics. We know that the Europeans come here to steal our NHS. We know that people pretend to be from abusive nations so they can get fat and rich on housing benefit. We know that Millionaires give money to charity so they don’t have to pay tax because they hate us. That children go to university to get high paid jobs and then give nothing back after everything we’ve done for them.

In short we seem to know now more strongly than ever that the world is unfair, and everyone is on the take, stacking the odds against me. And if life isn’t going to be easy for me then I’m certainly not going to make it easy for you. You lying cheating scumbag. There seems to be little good faith left. And as a result we are incredibly suspicious- psychotically so- about things that proclaim to be for the common good, but may well benefit but a select few.

And I think theatre needs to change in light of this.
Because if ever there was a thing that looked like it was designed entirely for the benefit of the ‘man’, entirely for the benefit of the select few, it is publicly subsidised theatre shows. Which is ridiculous because it should be the most equal of art forms- a crowd of humanity watching their own condition mirrored back at them.

We need to reiterate to the public that we are as a sector, a part of public service designed entirely for and to serve them. We need to make it clear to people who don’t already walk through our doors, or sit in our seats, that we are their arts sector and without them we are pointless. And if we do not genuinely engage and delight all areas of our community then we will fail and very soon people will come and take our funding from us, and we won’t be able to do our magic anymore. They’ll take our money because the people will not care about us like they care about the forests and the BBC.

I think what the arts need to do is get their public support up to the same levels as currently enjoyed by trees.

And I think we should do that by being vital. Even more vital than we are now. Not by telling people we are vital. Or having other people tell everyone that we are vital. This is not a PR opportunity. We must actually become vital.

To begin with I think theatres should open on Sundays. As a rule I think that theatres should present their work when people have the time to watch it. That seems to me to be sensible. We should open our theatres on Sunday. Because if we don’t then people look at us and think- why aren’t they open when I’m free to watch something. Is it because they don’t want me to watch it? Is it because they don’t think that it’s for the likes of me?
Whatever is stopping theatres running Sunday as a normal opening day and taking the Monday as a closed day needs to be overcome with the full weight that an inventive and imaginative sector like theatre can bring.

Secondly we need to advertise our work in all areas of the community that we serve. I have been to theatres that have more of a marketing spend in borough councils from which they get no funding than in boroughs where they get the main bulk of their money. It’s not marketing departments fault- they are just doing what we told them to. But they must stop. We must vigorously- and without industry language- tell all members of the communities that we serve what we are doing at any one time. If the current systems don’t allow us to do that then we must change the current system as quickly and thoroughly as a sector of this considerable talent can manage.

And we must reduce the price of our tickets. Not through a programme, or a scheme or a lottery or a discount on certain nights with the moon in the right phase of so on and so on.
The average wage is ?24,000 a year. The idea that a financially average person can afford the just shy of ?50 that it costs two people to see a regional main house production of The Cherry Orchard is ridiculous. The idea that those financially average people should be assigned to previews or times that are too inconvenient for the rich is as ridiculous and offensive to boot.
The systems and expectations that require tickets to be priced thus must be changed. This isn’t an argument for more funding, it’s an argument for reassessing all the sacred cows that we refuse to engage with that sees our buildings shut on Sundays, or marketing focused on rich areas of society and ticket prices at a level where 50% of the community cannot afford them.

The part of the world I work in is being changed and remodelled by a whole number of forces at the moment and I feel it is being done through the exploration and research into what subsidised theatre making CAN’T do. I believe these 3 things re-calibrates that thinking into finding out what it MUST do in order to be a public service, a vital public service.

I know implementing these simple things would force dozens of small and large changes throughout our entire theatre system. We as a sector are talented, determined and engaged. We should not doubt our ability to ride those changes out and end up with a more connected, more inventive sector- and crucially- one vital to the everyday lives of all our community.

I’ll get my coat.

Blog Post: thoughts about audience capacity, ticket cost and why we’re asking people to enter a draw for our new show

We often make adventures for very small audiences. We take no pride necessarily in keeping audiences small- it’s not driven by some great principle of exclusivity. It’s just that sometimes we scrutinise the best way to create an adventure and we realise that it’s optimum audience capacity is 50. Or 10. Or 1.

One of our most successful shows was Helium: A Short Adventure for One. To compensate for having one audience member at a time Helium played relentlessly on a loop. On Saturdays we did 9 hours of performance (Interestingly LipSync, Robert LePage’s 9 hour epic was in the Barbican’s main space at the same time we were in the Pit.)

Helium was made up of 5 scenes and each scene lasted 5 minutes and each was repeated back to back without pause 12 times an hour for anything up to 4 hours- the performers in the boxes (Victoria Pratt, Richard Warburton and Alexander Winterkamp) displayed a real determination in those times. Helium played to over 1100 people in the end.

But many of our shows aren’t appropriate for such relentless repetition. And we’re also getting older and I am not sure I could cope with such a schedule now.

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And so we have made our peace (of sorts) with the idea that not all of our shows will be seen by huge crowds. More importantly our supporters and funders have made their peace with this too. A wonderfully enlightened commissioner once declared, when the issue of value for money came up- “I’m wanting eyes on stalks, not bum on seats.” I like that. Eyes on stalks.

And so Mapping the City in Hull played to 30 a night because that’s how many you could get on an antique bus that magically appears from around the corner mid show and everyone was okay with that. Good.

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We are very lucky at Slung Low that we can make such decisions and they don’t affect the price of the tickets. It is a position of unbelievable privilege and one that we take very seriously. 

I made a new year’s resolution this year that I would start paying for my own theatre tickets. Like most people who work in the theatre I am invited to so many things that I need never actually pay cash for a theatre ticket. But (partly inspired by witnessing an Artistic Director of a building quietly, over a number of years, pay for the coffee of every one of his guests when other staff members put them on account) I was worried that the value of the experience of going to the theatre was being reduced in my mind.
I was right- it was. But having kept up the resolution for a number of weeks I had to stop. I was broke. 

Going to the theatre once a week with my wife was destroying any semblance of budget that I had- a pair of tickets for a non commercial show was costing more than the very lovely dinner that we had had before. 
I don’t know when going to the theatre became so expensive but it has and it worries me a great deal. People will talk about offers and schemes but if a middle class couple don’t want to go to first Tuesday evening performance then neither will a working class couple who can’t afford ?25 a ticket on a Saturday. But both groups of people pay taxes for their subsidised theatre industry that only couple can afford to attend. 
And crucially we’re all going to rely on the public support and enthusiasm of both couples when the Government turn their attention yet again to reducing the subsidy.

But with funding cuts and current Government pressure to embrace both commercial and philanthropic models more and more organisations are forced in to raising ticket prices. Pushing the idea of going to the theatre as an activity further and further from many people. I have no idea what the answer is but the problem is becoming increasingly obvious.

And so it is with a growing sense of responsibility and privilege that Slung Low thanks it’s lucky stars that we are fortunate enough to continue to explore forms that have limited capacity and keep ticket prices within reach of everybody. Indeed- thanks to the far sightedness of the Arts Council and the North Yorkshire County Council- Slung Low’s Converging Paths as a series of performances is entirely free.

But- beyond money- I have woken up to a responsibility that I haven’t fully understood before. We’re starting to run out of tickets- more people now want to see our work than we have capacity. 

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If you are a friend of the company, or have seen our work before, or our mate or our Arts Council dude then you will have much more chance of getting a ticket to see a limited capacity Slung Low show. Because you will hear about it first. But that doesn’t seem fair on all the people who don’t follow us on twitter or such. We have had big discussions about how to cherish the existing audience but make room for new ones.

Obviously one of the ways we are working on this is just to increase the capacity of some shows when we can- we’ll play to more people in 2012 than we ever have: it feels me with great pride to know that more people will experience a Slung Low adventure in 2012 than every before.

But we’re also trying out new ways of processing the request for tickets- carrying out a draw so that those that don’t know us all that well might have a chance to get a ticket. I don’t know whether it will work but if it doesn’t then we’ll try something else. It’s an issue that we’ll have to find a solution for, this is our first draft.

Converging Paths: Retrospective

Slung Low, in association with the Devonshire Institute, invite you to a private view of Retrospective. Tickets are Free.

But due to the nature of the work, places are very limited. Viewings will take place on the evenings of 18 – 23 June

In order to apply for one of the invitations please email your contact details and choice of evening to retrospective@convergingpaths.co.uk

In your email please state whether you require a single ticket or a pair. A maximum of 2 tickets can be applied for.

A draw for tickets will be made on the 1st May and successful audience members contacted on the 2nd May.

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