I went to the theatre the other day. To see a new play. It was good. It cost £50 for me and my wife to watch it. It was a good play. It wasn’t worth £50. Might have been worth £50 on Broadway. Or even maybe the South Bank. But I don’t live there, I live here. And the absolute certainty that it wasn’t worth £50 isn’t a comment on the talent, determination and accomplishment of the show. It’s a comment on the context that show sat in. It’s a comment made with the knowledge that earlier that day I had done the weekly shop and spent £50 on that too.
At the end of the play an actor (one I particularly like as a performer by coincidence) stepped forward and said that it would be brilliant if we could write to our MPs to tell them of our love for the arts because without the subsidy this theatre got from the Government then it would be unable to keep the ticket prices at the levels they were.
A little while later, still thinking about the night out at the theatre, I read Bryony Kimmings blog (http://thebryonykimmings.tumblr.com/post/67660917680/you-show-me-yours). I am still not sure what I think about everything she said but it’s clear that there is a massive distance of understanding between her financial expectations and the behaviour of the venues she’s touring to. As great as the difference in realities between me and the play I saw. And then I read this blog (http://t.co/CkcfNnFuOa) outlining how no one had promised any artist a middle class income, and I was even more depressed and befuddled.
I don’t have the answer to any of this. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time now. Still nothing. A lot of what Bryony said resonated with a real sense of disappointment with the theatre sector I see in an increasing number of people, a growing idea that it doesn’t really do what we want it to. Some of the discrepancies between different parts of our sector are terrible. I did a show this year in which I got paid 1/3 of what the production manager received. It’s not that he didn’t deserve the money that sticks in my throat, it’s that this inequality is based I think partly on the collective knowledge that I, as a director, will in the end do it for a lot less money, where as his bargaining position of “it’s not worth my time to do it for less” is not a posture, it’s his truth. So, in this instance, and many more, the sector is subsidised and held up by those with the greater determination to do it: the actors who train themselves (on their dollar) in the skill your show needs, the director who does it for the promise of the next job, the playwright who writes the scratch for free and so on. But it’s not run by those people. And increasingly the sector is moving further from the ethos and energies of these people, artists, and ever more vocally to the ethos and energies of a business world.
And I think that this is why so many people I meet, and some days me, are so terribly unhappy with the sector.
And I have no idea what to do about it, it seems a set of intractable problems. Because if nothing else- and there is much else- no one has ever said with a straight face “please just do a bit of administration for the week, I’ve no money but it will look great on your CV”.
But I have come to a couple of realisations, the acceptance of a couple of limits. And they’re helping me. Not find a solution but find my way through it.
Firstly I realised there is no bad guy within. I don’t know anyone greedy in the arts. That production manager? He’s got two kids, he earns his money, and my shit isn’t his problem. I’ve met plenty of condescending (for example) administrators, I’ve met plenty who don’t actually LIKE theatre yet inexplicably keep working in it’s marketing department. But I’ve never met a lazy one. They earn their dollar.
And secondly that I can’t do anything about anybody else. There is a system, there is an infrastructure, there is a ‘sector’. But I realised in the moment the Equity Manager of the North tried to arrange an introduction with my own wife it is not some great crushing, competent conspiracy. It’s made up of people, trying their hardest, in a terribly unfair world, in their own way. Doing whatever they can to achieve what they agreed to do when they got out of bed this morning. (This may sound terribly obvious to you but it took me well in to my 30’s to get this). You have the bit of the world you can control and the rest is just variations on screaming at the television during BBC question time: your bit of the world might grow, it might shrink, it could disappear but it’s all you can affect directly. And therefore it’s vital to be in your little world how you want the world to be, it’s the only way change really happens, when things are done differently. Your argument for change is how you behave.
Slung Low have been a part of Arts Council’s National Portfolio Organisation for the last 18 months. During that time we’ve operated a company wage. Everyone involved in a show is paid the same amount each week, £500*. The figure was based on the average wage of the nation. Everyone working on a show is paid the same and would be paid the national average for each week worked.
This did a number of things. Given that we were coming from a non regularly funded background it meant we saw a rise in our costs (On a personal level my income doubled from it’s traditional £12k). The extra cost was met with increased output, making more shows meant we could cover the costs. We’ve always been busy but that first year saw us make 12 different pieces.
More importantly it removed nearly all stress about fees. There are people, brilliant brilliant people who cannot or will not work for £500 a week. It is a great shame that we cannot work with them. There are others who will only work with us sometimes- they work elsewhere for much greater money and then they can afford to work with us for a bit. And there are others for whom £500 a week is a sizeable amount of money with which they are pleased (me for example who for the first time in 15 years of working is finally paying back debt).
We are not disrespecting anyone when we say the fee is £500 a week. That is what we pay. You can accept the job, you can reject the job but you will struggle to be offended by it.
The amount of money isn’t the transforming thing, it’s the transparency. If we all start from the shared understanding that we all get paid the same then there can be a transparency in the budgets, there is no secret, there is no great resentment building about this and that. And it means that the budgets for all the projects can be shared with all those working on them and even, if needed, with the audience.
This will have to change slightly in the next few years. Like all organisations we’ve seen year on year cuts which has slightly- but vitally- reduced our government investment whilst all our costs have been rising. Our £99k cannot go as far it did a couple of years ago and there just isn’t the commissioning money out there that there was once- we can’t work our way out of this, there’s not the work. So from the 1st January 2014 we’ll be taking a company pay cut. Every week worked (by any member of any of our teams including obviously me) will be paid £475. Whilst only a small amount of money each week it will, across all our projects, be the difference we need to make: a little from everyone and no impact on the audience experience is what we’re aiming for.
This level of transparency, with artists and audiences, is at the heart of the HUB, the rehearsal and performance space that we run in 5 railway arches in South Leeds. If you have need of it for a performance project then you can have it. If you have money we’ll take it off you. But if you don’t you are welcome and we ask you to repay in some form of labour- cut the old sets up for the wood burner, do a bit in our allotment, something.
Every two weeks Porl Cooper (Slung Low’s General Manager and HUB Programmer) presents a performance of a visiting company (Middle Child, Idle Motion, Flannagan Collective, Daniel Bye, Ad Infinitum, Hannah Nicklin, Rogue Theatre are just a selection of the artists). These shows are Pay What You Decide. On the way out you put the money in a jar. No-one watches or hassles, it’s between you and your God. There’s no charge for parking, the tea is by donation, there’s sometimes free soup made from the allotment veggies and all drinks are a £1. There are no hidden charges. There’s no trick.
All the money in the jar goes to the visiting company, we just put it in an envelope for them.
This only works by a series of trusts. The company trust that we’ve done our best to tell people about the show (there’s no marketing department, there’s me and (mostly) Porl sending emails and tweets and putting up posters in the supermarket); the ever growing and increasingly diverse audience trust that if Porl says it’s worth coming out in the dark on a Sunday evening then it is, there’s no filler; and we all trust that the audience are going to put the money in the jar.
What I love about this all is the real sense that when Porl stands up in the HUB’s parlour to tell the audience to go and take the seats and he makes the speech about the money jar and all the rest that he- as an artist curator- is saying to a group of people, “I’ve picked this for you to watch, I think you will find it interesting, I’ll be around at the end for you to let me know.” That for the first time I am seeing the act of curator as one of an artist. I know that this happens elsewhere, whether at Contact, Stockton’s Arc or a host of other places, but I’ve never SEEN it operating before. In fact quite the opposite, I’ve played venues with shows where absolutely no one from the venue has seen the show. Hell I’ve done full commissions for buildings where no one bar the AD has come and seen the show.
I think it’s because we’re so small, so homemade by necessity (last night at the HUB the movement director of our last show handed out hot water bottles to audience as they went into the auditorium- you can only do that when you seat 70) that what we’re trying to do is clear, on the surface, transparent. A company wage. All the money in the jar goes to the performing company. You might not want to work for us, you might not like it, you might think we’re a bunch of hippies: but you can’t complain you’re being taken advantage of. And it is this honesty of energy, this transparency that audiences are on one level responding to.
But is it scalable? I am often asked. This works for you for now, but could it be used elsewhere? Good god, why would you want it to? This works for us, I don’t think it is right for anyone but us. We can do this because of a unique set of circumstances that saw us here.
That said the very least we should be expecting of artistic companies- of any size- is that they engage with where they sit in the world, not just in what they do but also in how they do it. I don’t think it is unrealistic for theatre organisations to stand for things, and to be and behave accordingly. But it’s foolish to demand that any two organisations should stand for the same things.
There are days I sit in Holbeck, especially if its raining and i can’t get the wood burner to work, and look out at the yard with the smoke from the tyres the dodgy garage next door has set fire to, or as my knee starts to ache as we’re emptying gear from the 5th chuffing van of the week and I think it’s all ridiculous. This is no way for a man to spend his ’30’s. That what we are doing here is not going to make any difference to the play that costs £50 for two to see, it doesn’t address any of Bryony’s issues. It does nothing in the grand scheme of things to demolish the bullshit idea that theatre is something that only the privileged and preposterous do: an art form fit only Julian Fellowes and other well fed dandies.
But the theatre world is a mosaic, made up of little pieces of fragmented ideas, endeavours that failed or succeeded but existed regardless. No one runs a theatre like the original Liverpool Everyman anymore-it’s impossible in this day and age- but even in it’s new bricks the spirit of that original can still be seen in the contemporary Everyman. Reading Joan Littlewood’s biography you’d have a sense that her life’s ethos was completely ineffectual, yet there isn’t a day that goes by without seeing on Twitter yet another commitment made to Stella Duffy’s ambition to create Littlewood’s fun palace. She is as invoked as any artist in this country.
I am not for a second suggesting that what Slung Low does is in even the same postal district as any of those glorious ventures AT ALL but the realisation that not being able to change anything other than what our audiences and artists experience does not let us off the hook but in fact emboldens us further. The only way things change happens is because people do things differently.
“Idealistic little fucks” said one visitor to he Hub, at least partly fondly I hope, as I was explaining the barter system and that the ketchup in the HUB kitchen was from the tomato plants in the yard and that we are hoping to create a community kitchen to support rehearsal processes. I don’t think it is unrealistic for theatre companies and buildings to believe in things, and to be and behave in accordance with the change they want to see in the world. I think it’s far too realistic, and crushingly dull, for us to behave like glorified grocery stores in response to a political class lacking any demonstrable imagination.
Yes. Idealistic little fucks. That it’s full of idealistic little fucks should be the least we demand from our theatre sector.
On 7th December we’re having our Christmas Fayre at the HUB. There are stalls, we roast a pig, we sing carols, mull wine, hug each other, and eat cake. It’s 12-4. Come down, say hi. We’ll be the idealistic little fucks behind the bar.
*Brilliant producer Laura has reminded me that there are some exceptions to this; projects that involve a high level of expenses (The Knowledge Emporium where the fee is £450 plus £75 expenses) or our continuing live radio programme 15 Minutes Live but fundamentally the principle is at the heart of what we do although I recognise the exceptions.