Monthly Archives: December 2014

Blog Post: there are worse things than being naive, theatre needs a revolution.

The Arc in Stockton recently announced they are offering their drama and poetry events as Pay What You Decide. Word is that a couple of venues in Yorkshire will announce similar plans in 2015. There’s movement. If not actually A movement.
A few weeks ago I wrote a blog about the possibility of Leeds becoming European Capital of Culture and how all the events contained within should be Pay What You Decide. In the response to Arc’s announcement, and the response to my blog and the HUB’s Pay What You Decide programme generally, what is really clear is that some people don’t get it. In their rejection of Pay What You Decide it is clear that it is not understood what issue this different way of valuing performance looks to solve. It isn’t a financial issue. It’s a social political issue.

I’ve spent the autumn sitting in meetings where absolutely EVERYBODY assures me that local council arts funding is over, most tell me that central government arts funding is about to fall off a cliff and some are even certain that the Arts Council itself is only 3 years away from extinction.
However much of this is to be believed what is clear is that the subsidised theatre scene I love is changing. Radically. And there is no stopping that change. But at this point it can still go in a number of different directions.
Everyone from the Culture Secretary, the head of the Arts Council to pretty much anyone with a decent mind working in theatre thinks that the breadth and depth of society’s enthusiasm for theatre is lacking; whether that is desire of every marketing manager I’ve ever met to fill more seats, Stella Duffy’s brilliant blog here or Peter Bazallgette’s recent demand for greater diversity in our companies and audiences. Our relationship with wider society is hardly ideal. We’re being forced to change, partly (or at least justified) as a result of the weakness of our relationship with the vast majority of the country who don’t enjoy our efforts. In this tension there is an opportunity for a revolution. But what sort of revolution?

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If customer is the primary relationship that theatre has with it’s audience then everything they do will be seen within the context of that. That prime relationship, the ‘norm’ will be between an organisation and a full price paying customer. We create a set of values in which too often our engagement programmes are valued because they create more of the norm, in which our front of house concentrates on rinsing the norm for whatever they can afford to spend on drinks and ice cream, and any deviation from the ‘norm’ is seen as an initiative, a loss leading scheme that looks to develop the ‘abnormal’ into future norms. The norm dictates how everything is seen, how the thing is understood.
Waitrose is a fancy supermarket. Everybody knows it. It’s understood. But still you can buy a tin of beans for 18p from there. But that’s not the norm for Waitrose, and it’s by it’s norm that the brand is known.
So when there are SOME tickets available at £12 but they are restricted views or only available on a Tuesday or there’s only 20 of them then it’s the £30 that is the norm. And it is the £30 that the experience will be known.
The other things? They are the loss leaders at the end of the aisle that designed to get you through the doors, they are special offers. The average wage in this country is £24k a year, non discounted tickets for our publicly funded theatres are beyond the reach of at least half the nation. Regular tickets for a publicly owned event is financially beyond half the nation.

I remember being in a discussion years ago, at Forest Fringe I think, where someone said it was immoral that people who had already paid for art products through their taxes were unable to afford to see them because of ticket prices. I remember thinking how impossible it was that anyone could be THAT naive. Well I’m ten years older and I’ve realised that there are worse things than being naive.
It is immoral. And, more relevantly, it’s one of the reasons why there isn’t as dynamic and as direct a campaign against the arts cuts as some of us hoped there would be. Because we’re not as relevant to the majority of the population as we could be. And the cost of theatre being beyond the reach of so many is a major problem. The influx of arts funding under new labour didn’t broaden the number of people who enjoyed the arts like was hoped.

At Slung Low we’ve experimented with free tickets in different ways over the last few years, from Converging Path shows throughout Yorkshire to the recent The White Whale. In some ways the end of those experiments was successful with 40% of the White Whale audience never having experienced theatre before.
But it is not the answer I hoped it would be because even as we were pleased with the outcome of The White Whale I was also aware that there was potential income that we turned our back on, there were plenty of people who would have happily paid good money for their ticket. I got that wrong.

I got it wrong because people should be able to support the arts that make their lives better, and it’s part of my job to help them do that. But not being able to support them financially should never stop someone being able to experience something that belongs to them.

The theatres belong to the people. They do. But it’s not instinctive to think so. We think the NHS belongs to us, the people. We think the BBC belongs to us. The protected forests of the nation are seen, predominately, to belong to us. But not the theatres. It doesn’t seem natural to think so. Making it natural, and widespread, to think that our civic theatres belong to us is the sort of revolution we need.

In discussion about this I am regularly accused of being naive. Most often it is said to be naive because without ticket prices as they are (or higher) we will not be able to run the theatres we currently have in the ways we currently have them. Okay. I accept that. But we can’t keep them the same, the cuts in train already will see to that.
And we shouldn’t. The world has changed. The banking crisis, the crumbling of trust in so much of the UK establishment and a profound shrinking of the size of the state means that the society theatres sit in have completely changed since 1997. I’m not talking about what plays we put on, or how we stage them. I’m talking about the very question of What Are Our Theatres For? If so much of our society has changed then theatres surely must have a different function now. And if there was ever a time crying out for a profoundly accessible central place that people could go to to be more than a customer than it is now.

This isn’t the argument of an impractical artist refusing to engage with the hard cold reality of income. The cliche of the artist uninterested in money.
It’s the opposite. I don’t want to spend the rest of my career dominated by a customer norm that have to be able to afford £35 a ticket to see The Seagull and spending my evenings asking bankers for money they should have paid in taxes in the first place. I am not pleading any artistic squeamishness about money, if money is going to impact upon the work I make, on the people who are going to be told about it, who are going to be able to afford to see it then I want to get my hands dirty with it.
I love that at every performance presented at the HUB one of the Slung Low team stand up in front of the audience and explain that the audience get to decide how much to pay at the end of the evening, that they should place the amount of money they chose in the jar at the end of the bar and that all of that money goes to the performing artists. I am not embarrassed by that speech, I bloody love it. Transparency. It’s part of our policy of sharing as much about the company’s money as people want to know in order to make what we do more understandable. And easier to appreciate I think.
I want a system that is available and open to all at the point of performance, regardless of financial situation. If one of the costs of that is a director standing up at the end of the show and saying, Thanks for coming, did you enjoy it? Can you pay for it please? then sign me up. That’s not refusing to deal with money. The truly naive idea is that increasing ticket prices and a relentless focus on philanthropic income doesn’t effect how our theatres behave, and what they do. The truly naive idea is that increasing ticket prices and a relentless focus on philanthropic income doesn’t effect what our theatres are for.

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Why is the idea of our cultural leaders spending an increasingly large amount of time charming rich people already standard operating procedure, conventional wisdom but the thought of our cultural leaders talking directly to the audience about financially valuing our work laughable? The complicated question of who our theatres are for is wrapped up in this.

I’ve been in a number of meetings recently where really clever people have asked What are our regional theatres for? And really clever people have answered with points about skills development, about mixed income streams and about ensuring a national spread of live entertainment. It’s been a while since I heard anyone talk spiritedly about the changes in society that a relevant theatre can support. In the crisis currently facing the arts there is an opportunity to redefine what our theatres are for. I want a publicly owned system that places the audience in a different relationship with theatre-going beyond customer. I want a theatre network that offers inspiring, provoking live entertainment to all members of society regardless of their financial situation. I want our theatres to offer small places of sanctuary to our communities that are being beaten back by the forces of both national austerity and global economics. I want our theatres to be seen as belonging to all the parts of society, passionately held as resources of the common weal not to be buggered about with by politicians. Like our schools, like our GPs, like our television channels, like our National Parks.
And I think we take a huge step towards that if our tickets, across the board for every show on every public stage, become Pay What You Decide.

Blog post: litter picking and shouting at BBC Question Time

Heads up: This isn’t a blog about theatre. In fact it’s a blog about why I am supporting a managed area for prostitution in Holbeck. But we’re going to take the long way round.

Earlier this week I went to a political fundraiser. I’m not sure what I was expecting but I’ve been talking about trying to get more involved in politics and paying extra to eat dinner seemed like an easy thing to try; I’ve tried local party meetings, going to public meetings, sitting on local committees- it’s all fine, important even but it’s not what I was looking for.
The fundraising dinner did, I suppose, deliver all that was promised. The politicians from the tele were there up close and personal. A lovely parliamentary candidate who had recently had a twitter bust up with Nigel Farage was sat at the table. I was sat next to a man who told me he was the pollster responsible for making my local MP shinier and more tv friendly. It was I suppose the sort of light weight political gossip experience that a man who has watched all 7 series of West Wing 5 times was secretly hoping for. It was perfectly pleasant, we raised some money to help some hopeful, bright young politicians compete against some specifically very bad conservative MPs. But as for being the scratch for a political itch it was like wanting to join the army and spending the evening playing Medal of Honour.
That evening, like most Thursdays, I came home and spent an hour shouting on Twitter at BBC Question Time. It’s a particularly childish and particularly satisfying part of the week for me. There’s a group of people who join in with me (or me with them) every week. Often agreeing but sometimes not, there’s not been a week gone by where I haven’t been corrected, my opinion shifted by something someone said. And not for the first time I’ve thought how many social functions Twitter plays for me.

But it’s not politics. Any more than live tweeting X-factor is politics. It’s shouting at the television with your friends.
In any case Thursday was one of those days where you end up feeling despondent and like one has no impact. A day when you start to question how useful it all is.

Meanwhile the local community police officer organised a clean up of Holbeck Lane. A litter pick on a Saturday morning. Slung Low are committed to being more practically involved in Holbeck and it was my turn so I pitched up to pick litter. The area we were picking was slap bang in the middle of the managed prostitution area of Holbeck.

Holbeck has been the centre of Leeds’ kerb crawling for a decade or more. The police do not have the resources to eradicate it from the area completely; the local police inspector is absolutely clear that he does not have the resource (nor is there the political will from on high) to remove street prostitution from the area. This is very important to remember: eradication of street prostitution from Holbeck is not an option available to the community.
So for the last month or so there has been a managed prostitution area in Holbeck. A non residential area of the town where from the hours of 7pm-7am the police will not prosecute the sex workers. Nor will they prosecute the clients of these sex workers. Outside of this time the police will prosecute. Anti-social behaviour and drug use will be actively prosecuted whatever the time of day or location.
The HUB is in the managed area. Slung Low has taken a supportive position of the plan. This has not been popular with all the community. There are genuine, thoughtful, humane oppositions to the plan. I do not have the monopoly on consideration here and don’t pretend to.
But I have some clear priorities;
I want my staff and audience to be safe.
I want Holbeck to be the best community it can be, and this can’t possible happen unless we get prostitution out of the domestic areas of Holbeck.
And it has always been my best consideration that the managed area contributes to this in ways that mean I can lend my support to it.

But I have to admit as I was picking up the third needle of the morning and using tongs to place what felt like endless piles of used condoms into bin bags I was having some very un-liberal thoughts. This week our neighbours on Bath Road have moved out- partly it seems in response to their volunteers being offered sexual services on their way to work- and with each condom picked up my patience for justifying the managed area to other local businesses was fading. There were moments that morning when I was absolutely certain, in my internal monologue, that we needed to give up on this managed area thing, doing anything other than decrying street prostitution from the nearest mound was nothing more than hand wringing liberalism of the worst kind.

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As I was finishing picking up my bags of crap from the ginnel of doom one of the leaders of a programme that works with the women told me that last week there was a particularly nasty assault on a sex worker. This has been a recurring theme over the last ten years. Vile men violently assaulting women who would never dream of reporting the crime to a police that they could never see as anything other than oppositional. So the attacks continued, the attackers unknown, somewhere.
Except last week, thanks to the new relationship between the police and the women, this violent attack was reported. And the attacker caught.

The managed area is not perfect. It would be incredibly useful if the police could be more visibly present and active in ensuring that times and locations are kept to- Holbeck cannot take the steps of regeneration it needs to until street sex work is removed from all the domestic areas of the town. It’s also really hard to find the justice in the civic decision to keep prostitution in a part of the city that has enough to contend with. And of course in an ideal world I would like to live in a society that does not see women forced to sell their bodies to men in cars at all, regardless of whether those streets are where I’ve opened my theatre or not. But those are not the options available to us: in a profoundly unequal world, in a difficult situation, this is the best way available to us to make our community better.
And if nothing else- and there is much else- there is a violent misogynist who used to prowl around Holbeck who now is in prison; my family, my team, my audience are safer now than they were before. And that is absolutely thanks to this managed area, the product of some incredibly progressive community policing.

We live with a media system that insists on black and white, right and wrong answers to difficult questions; BBC Question Time is a key offender in this- “Do you think we should raise taxes?” “Will you close the borders?” “Will you lower migration?” “Should private schools be allowed charitable status?” The ridiculous simplification of incredibly difficult questions, the aggressive search for reassuringly simple answers to problems that should demand at least four “yes but let us also consider…”. And in response to the frustration with this failure we turn politics in to a soap opera. I find comfort in the ministerial machinations on Radio 4’s PM, or the whispered gossip of a man who made a shadow cabinet minister get a hair cut. If we don’t have the patience or the time for real content let us at least drown in hours of personality politics and whispers.

There are no simple answers. The questions around, for example, immigration and the impact of a global economy on UK workers are far too complicated to be answered in the allotted time our media system allows, and far beyond the wit demonstrated by too many of our national politicians. The easy, direct answers by the current wave of UKIP populists (and increasingly other parties) are pleasant to hear and nod along to in the sense that they allow us the rare sense of control and understanding but they are no more the answer than the idea that the forcible removal sex workers from Holbeck is the silver bullet for a town that has for far too long been the bottom of the pile in one of the nation’s most affluent cities. But for now the management area is the best option in a difficult situation. And it also occurred to me that in all the hours that I had spent on ‘political activity’ the litter pick was by some distance the most politically useful thing I’d done all week. It wasn’t the most fun, or the most salacious. But it was the most useful. And relevant. I want to be more useful.