Monthly Archives: June 2014

Blog Post: Sitting in a supermarket car park telling people about theatre

20140612-233737-85057042.jpgThis is a picture of 500 tickets to The White Whale.
The White Whale by James Phillips is the new Slung Low show. A free adaptation of Moby Dick. It will perform on a floating stage with boats and fire effects and harpoons and flares and storms. The audience stand around the side of Leeds Dock and listen to the action through headphones whilst it takes place in front of them.
We’re planning for it to be a piece of theatre spectacle; combining the wow effect of outdoor events with the dramatic intensity of a piece of theatre. That’s the plan. (www.thewhitewhale.org)

The idea won the Leeds Inspired large grant, a £40,000 commission for ideas from artists who wanted to create an accessible event for the people of Leeds.

The tickets are free. They were always intended to be free. This is in keeping with the direction of travel that Slung Low has been on for a long time and that is preached and practiced weekly at the makeshift arts centre that we run in South Leeds, The Holbeck Underground Ballroom. It’s a complicated exploration that needs constantly defining, redefining and developing of how we value things, how theatre companies can behave in these straightened times, what is the definition of success and what are the ways that artists can respond to the preposterous demand for constant growth.*
Tickets being free for the White Whale is one of the responses to these questions and challenges, another way is the company wage we operate (more on that here). There are others.
Mostly The White Whale, its epic production style, its subject matter, how James has written it and yes the tickets being free are all focused on making a piece of theatre that might be equally attractive to those who love adventurous theatre already and those who fervently believe that theatre isn’t for them.

But free tickets are only any use if you hear about the event. And you are only going to hear about the event if someone tells you, and you are willing to listen. If you don’t think that theatre is for you you are unlikely to seek out the theatre pages of the Guardian. If you don’t think that theatre is for you then you are unlikely to have signed up to the mailing list of Slung Low, or Leeds’ Grand Theatre. In fact if you don’t think that theatre is for you then you are unlikely to even pay any attention to the big poster you see at the train station for the theatre show that I am sure everyone would love if only they gave it a go.
In fact if we can’t tell people who wouldn’t normally think theatre is for them about The White Whale then the decision to give the tickets away for free is doing more harm than good because I think the 400 people who immediately signed up for tickets after we announced on twitter would have paid money for them.
So we’ve given this quandary real thought. In a world of limited resources it would be a dereliction to spend all our resources on marketing to people who think that theatre isn’t for them. We could potentially end up with no audience.

This belief that many have that theatre isn’t for them is systematic, it’s learnt behaviour. It isn’t based on actually having ever gone to the theatre. It’s based on decades of how we speak about theatre, of how we market theatre, of Julian Fellowes** on the radio, it’s based on decades of the word luvvie being used by lazy journalists. And yes, sadly, based on hearing the stories told by others of money and evenings wasted on some truly terrible theatre and the perfectly reasonable desire to avoid that at all costs.
But I hold on to the sincere belief (I have to, I’m 35 and can’t go and do anything else now) that if you tell people in actual words that human beings use, rather than arts speak gibberish that alienates so many, what it is and why it is exciting then more people will be interested. That a lot of how we have been talking to people about theatre assumes that they already understand what is exciting about it. That’s not going to get it done any more, if the theatre world is going to survive in anything resembling it’s current relevance then attracting large numbers of those who think theatre isn’t for them has got to happen.
The people who aren’t meeting us half way are the people we wanted to attract with The White Whale, that was the point.

20140613-111511-40511102.jpg
So (amongst many other things including a ‘proper’ marketing and press campaign) we have printed off 500 tickets to The White Whale. And over the next five weeks our airstream caravan is going on a tour. A tour of some of Leeds’ town galas (Beeston, Kirkstall, Holbeck for example) and supermarket car parks. We’ll park up and spend the day telling people about The White Whale. In return for an email address (to remind them nearer the time) those who are interested can have tickets: we’ve printed them off ready.

Up to and including the Conservative Culture Minister, we in the arts now believe that culture should be excellent, affordable and accessible. Maybe we all always believed that. But those words don’t mean the same things to everyone. £10 is an absolute bargain for a play I think. But if you’ve never been to the theatre and only ever heard stories of people getting swindled by trips to hoary old crappy plays that talked down to the audience then £10 is a good two hours in an All You Can Eat Chinese Buffet and only a mug turns that down.

Yeah that’s right. This blog is basically me letting you know that I am going to sit in supermarket car parks and tell people about theatre in the hope that they’ll come and see our free play.
I don’t know whether this will have an impact. But I do know that we are hopeful and we promised to do it. So do it we shall.
A friend of the company suggested the other day that we might be reaching a peak of quixotic behaviour. Not even got started yet. All aboard, I reckon that windmill is looking at us funny.

Ax

More dates will be announced but for now the Airstream caravan is confirmed in:
Sat 14th June – Beeston Festival
Wed 18th June – Tesco Extra/Seacroft Green
Thurs 19th June – Morrisons Harehills
Sat 28th & Sun 29th June – Waterfront Festival, Leeds Dock
Fri 11 July Trinity Leeds City Centre
Sat 12th July – Kirkstall Festival

*It’s also a process based on where Slung Low is and what we want to achieve. We’re not telling anyone else how to do their business, so take your “Well try that with a staff of 65 full time professional staff!” indignation elsewhere, I’m not buying. This is Slung Low’s way, we don’t think anyone else should be made to walk it. Although all fellow travellers are welcome to join us for a stroll, naturally.

** There are people who say that this isn’t all Julian Fellowes fault and it’s unfair that I keep blaming him. Those people are puddin’ heads and should keep their opinions to themselves. In addition I also lay the blame for some of this at the feet of Simon Callow and his stories on Wogan.

Blog Post: Clive Wolfe, an inspiration

I learnt this last week that Clive Wolfe has died.
If you are learning this news through this blog I am really sorry for your loss. He was an extraordinary man.
He was the President of the National Student Drama Festival. From 1968 until 2000 he had ran the NSDF. The NSDF is an annual festival where the best of student drama performs to an audience of its peers and representatives of the professional industry. The list of alumni who have gone on to professional success is extraordinary; at its best the festival opens doors and connects up young people of talent who would otherwise never have those vital opportunities within the industry. And the festival’s best was Clive. There are legendary tales of him convincing different grandees to pitch in, of selection panels paid entirely in the promise of beer and cheese and how for twenty years the whole outfit was run from his chemists in North London. These are not my stories to tell, I came to the festival long after they had become myths spread around in the bar.

But Clive was vital to me. I wouldn’t be doing what I am with my life without him. For me he had an extraordinary ability to look past bullshit and have faith in the what else might be there: ignoring the cocksure, entirely fake, posturing of a young student director. I first met him when he selected for the festival a series of short Samuel Beckett shorts I had directed as a student. They were, in retrospect, short of the sort of intellectual rigour that was almost certainly needed to make the show work. As a result it didn’t, it was loathed by the judges (two of whom walked out, amongst them the celebrated and fearsome director Annie Castledine) but it had an ambition of intent and reckless energy that Clive rewarded with a place in the festival. He didn’t seem too bothered by its reception, he knew what he had signed up for and he demonstrated the sort of ego-less confidence that I try to hold in my mind clearly each year as we select the festival. A courageous leadership of an unusual kind.
Prior to the festival the news had reached the feared John Calder who managed the Beckett estate that our production featured exactly the sort of ambition of intent and reckless energy that he liked to aggressively sue out of people. Permission to perform at the festival was vigorously denied, disaster! I informed Clive. Leave it with me he said. Two hours later we had permission. I don’t know how he did it. He never told me. But anyone who can take on Samuel Beckett’s lawyer has balls of stone.

A few years later I would proudly become a festival selector. One of the judges that year was a returning Annie Castledine. At the end of the festival I was asked to drive Annie back to London from the festival’s home in Scarborough. The only thing was that she liked to go no faster than 50 miles per hour so it would take a while. Fine, I didn’t mind, she was a legendary theatre force, the time would be full of brilliant theatre anecdotes from her I was sure.
As we were setting off, a by now increasingly frail, Clive flagged the car down and poked his head through the passenger window. “You remember Annie, a few years ago you were here and there was that series of short Samuel Beckett plays that made you so angry you had to leave?”
“Oh yes” replied Annie. “Terrible!”
“Well you do know that Alan directed them.” said a chortling Clive who then promptly waved us goodbye. Predictably Annie proceeded to tell me at length the flaws in my production all the way from Scarborough to London. At 50 miles per hour.
He had the extraordinary ability to look past the bullshit and have faith in what else might be there, but that didn’t mean he didn’t also have a wicked sense of humour. That car journey was one of the most informative experiences of my life.

The story of Clive, the achievement of Clive, of how he and his wife Pat kept the festival going against all strifes, without funding, in the face of union strikes, for decades, even when many advised against it is one that I hold as inspiration.
He is the first person I met in theatre that showed that you could hold your own course, protect a set of vital principles and aims in a generous, but pragmatic, way. And how you can sustain this over decades. With an impact on thousands upon thousands of young (and increasingly not so young) people. A model of how if you hold your nerve, and work tirelessly the impact that the thing you build can have will be immense.
There is a small army of us who, each in our own ways, owe a great deal to Clive Wolfe. I was so sad to hear of his passing. He was an inspiration.