Anyone who has seen me in the last few months has more than likely had me talk at them about how Blood and Chocolate changed how I looked at things, how I looked at EVERYTHING.
The scale of the project, managing a nightly audience of 300 through the streets, working with Mike Kenny, making a piece about the First World War- they were all long term ambitions happily achieved.
But the element of it that had such an impact on me was the company of 180 performers who made up the real wonder of the show. A company taken from a wide section of society, from Grandmothers to school teachers, students from York College to incredibly confident and brilliant 8 year old girls. Each gave up an unbelievable amount of time in training and preparation in order to perform a type of theatre that none of them had any real previous context for: a leap of faith for all of them. The dedication, talent and commitment showed by the whole company has had a real and profound effect on me. I have spent so much time over the years in discussions at conferences all basically about the same thing– how can theatre make people care about it more?
And here I was night after night looking at 180 people who gave up every moment of free time they had over months to create a show that involved them, for large portions of the time, standing still in the freezing cold rain. And not only did they do it but they did it with an overwhelming energy and a real, and sometimes combative, sense of ownership. This was people caring, really caring, in a way that I hadn’t experienced to this extent before.
It was very hard to imagine doing something without those 180 people for a long time. I’ve never had that before. I’ve missed projects, been concerned that I wouldn’t make something as popular, effective again but never a real (and occasionally vocalised) sense of ‘what is the point if they aren’t doing it too.’
And then one day I realised what the answer was in reaction to all this thinking, a way forward- “We’re a community theatre company now” I announced to anyone who would listen. Slung Low is a community theatre company now.
But what does that mean, practically. Does it mean that we only make work now that has a company of 180? That seems ridiculous, let alone impractical. And quite dull after a while for audiences I would think. Not everything we do can have the same form as Blood and Chocolate, nor should it.
We’ve always prided ourselves at Slung Low at doing varied things, trying to excite audiences in different ways; from the box shows and short adventures for One of our earlier years, to the romantic epic Mapping the City and repeated series of live radio plays 15 Minutes Live.
And as I looked at what we had done over the last 8 years or so it started to become clear to me that this was the natural next regeneration for the company. There is often in the arts, and especially through certain types of public funding, a persistent insistence on growth, a demand to ever get bigger that is borrowed unthinkingly from the language of business and which I’ve never really truly understood. Not everything is designed to get bigger, not everything can without losing itself, it’s purpose.
But this was a form of expansion that felt natural, an extension of everything we had done before and that would see us continue to develop and explore new ground.
What does being a community theatre company mean?
The Pay What You Decide performances presented at the HUB is a part of our being a community theatre company. The £1 drinks at the bar is also a way we try to be a community theatre company.
The performances of 59 Minutes to Save Christmas at Cast in Doncaster where groups of kids with headphones crept around the new million pound building on a secret mission is a part of our being a community theatre company.
The expansion of our allotment at the HUB and our commitment to sharing the produce in different ways with the various groups of people who use the space is a part of our being a community theatre company.
The 15 Minutes Live in the Holbeck Working Men’s Club this past autumn, our annual Christmas Fayre and the yellow transit van that we lend to other theatre companies are all parts of our being a community theatre company.
In early 2014 we are making an interactive video installation for Clay Interactive that will be presented in the permanent exhibition of the Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s about the Venetian Masquerade. Not our specialist subject necessarily.
We’ll be making it with a company of 30 volunteers taken from the different parts of the communities that the V&A sit in. We’ll be training them up, sharing skills over a number of weeks of workshops and then we’ll make the video in a green screen studio. This is part of us being a community theatre company *
And later in the year the 4000 tickets for The White Whale that we give away for free will be part of us being a community theatre company.
We are making a new version of Moby Dick, it’s called The White Whale. The brilliant James Phillips is writing it, it’s a new take on the story of Ahab and his crew as they hunt the whale that took his leg. It will be performed on the canal with the actors on the water and the audience stood around the outside of a canal basin listening to the action on our headphones. There’ll be singing and fire and I am very excited to get going on it. We research and developed bits and pieces in 2013 with actor Oliver Senton at the New Wolsey Youth Theatre and with Opera North last year with cellist Oliver Coates and singer Anna Dennis.
We’re presenting the premiere of The White Whale in Leeds with our partners Leeds Inspired. The show will have an audience of 500 a night and we will give away all the tickets for the ten day run. Alongside internet activities one of the main way we’ll distribute the tickets is by getting in our airstream caravan and driving out into the different areas of Leeds, setting up the Knowledge Emporium and telling people about the show, one person at a time. We’ll hand out the tickets one at a time to those who want to come along,
I have done numerous speeches at events where I have talked about how we need to make people care more about theatre. About how ticket prices are too high and separating us from important parts of the cities we work in. About how too often marketing strategies are aimed at getting an ever dwindling supporters’ base to give more rather than spreading the word about what we are up to. I genuinely thought they were the right speeches to give at the time- but I’m suspicious that I was sometimes little more than the ranty entertainment at these things, needlessly urging on those who already agreed with me whilst being ignored by those who thought I was naive.
This is me putting my money where my mouth is.
But more importantly than that it is a part of us being a community theatre company.
Whatever Slung Low does next, however we approach audiences or the business of making theatre the first and last question we will ask is “How is this us being a community theatre company?” because that’s what we are now and perhaps always have been.
* A fuller discussion of this is destined for another day but to try and head off some of the inevitable it’s not any cheaper doing it like this. The amount of money given to artists remains
fundamentally the same and the project will involve professional actors who will all be paid our company rate of £475 a week.
The photos in this blog are from the photographic group that accompanied the rehearsals and performances of Blood and Chocolate. An unbelievably talented group of photographers whose work can be found here http://www.flickr.com/groups/blood-chocolate/
I can’t seem to find the specific photographers’ names to credit them individually. My apologies to them.
Blood and Chocolate was a co-production between Pilot Theatre, York Theatre Royal and Slung Low. It was written by Mike Kenny, Designed by Anna Gooch and Liam Evans-Ford was the producer.