I wrote this over the weeks after Flood and never posted out of fear of rocking the boat. But there’s no point to me if I’m craven and tomorrow there’s a big announcement about Slung Low’s future plans so I thought it would be good to get it out now so I’ve recorded what I was thinking.
24 hours after the final van of kit had been unloaded in Leeds and we were clear of the site in Hull someone broke into the HUB and stole pretty much everything from the show, every boat engine, every weather proof cable, every projector.
In the process of clearing up and as the realisation that all the bits of the project that we might have kept to use elsewhere was what had gone missing it was hard not to think that Aslan may well be making a point about the transient and temporary nature of theatre. Reality is written nowadays like the 14th series of a television franchise, all heavy handed metaphor and assumption the audience are stupid.
Flood was a four part epic written by James Phillips, a headline of the Hull 2017 City of Culture programmed and performed online, on a floating fiery set land on BBC2. You can watch bits of video from it at floodsurvivalpack.com Or if you have no time for that shit you can watch a one minute video summary here https://vimeo.com/253315881
It was the biggest undertaking Slung Low ever attempted, each part had its own community chorus, the script a mix of the lyrical, political and spectacular: fire breathing floating tank cars with monologues about how much room there was in this nation and who might take it up. All performed in the middle of a housing estate in Hull. It delighted audiences (“Stunning. Haunting. Thought Provoking. Brilliant!”) and critics in equal measure as long as you don’t read the Observer. It involved an unfathomable amount of logistics, dozens of people pulling on ropes and diving in water. And in all the ways that it is possible to control a process we did. We were able, thanks to the support of our Hull 2017 commissioners and later The Space and the BBC, to imagine an entire process free from most pre-existing structures: to imagine from scratch how a seemingly impossible thing might be achieved- from how we welcomed audiences to where the company ate their lunch. A way of making that allowed the creative artists the closest possible relationship to the practical making of the thing; a creative process restricted only by our determination, safety and the physically possible. And we were determined.
What a thing- to be given all at once the permission to be wildly ambitious, the resources to match it and the support to imagine a tiny world in which a small group of people might achieve the near impossible.
It was an undoubtedly a privilege. And it is done. And I must be honest it’s left me rather bereft. I miss Flood.
There is a straight line between the company 15 years ago when the idea of being paid any money at all to make the theatre we wanted to make was genuinely a dream like prospect and the company who delivered Flood with as much resource and freedom as you are likely to find in regional subsidised theatre (and there probably aren’t many worlds more free than that one).
It’s the end of that first industry impulse, we make this show to get permission to make the next, to get the opportunity to make the next and on. And on chasing the artistic ambition. Until finally you get to the top of your own hill, out of breath and look up and realise that for the first time in 15 years you’ll stop climbing. Please understand it isn’t complacency. Nor even satisfaction necessarily. It’s as much a gasping pause enforced by cramp as anything else.
Of course there are more adventures, shows dreamed and not made real, schemes and programmes. I’ve got 3 new shows on this year’s slate and another 4 in hopeful conversation. And so much more to learn, always, the things done poorly, the members of the team lost in the process, the nuance and detail lost of lines, scenes, acts, the whole project.
But it does feel like the end of the long first slog. That whatever comes next it wont be provoked by that initial impulse; could we find a way to make the sort of theatre we want in the way that we demand with our values and get paid for it.
And what comes next? Maintenance? Do Flood 2? Turning Slung Low into an institution that could survive the disappearance of those of us who hold it up?
I’m fighting that. I’ve seen what that does to minds that sparkle much brighter than mine. And the resentment it breeds. Resentment must be avoided.
One of the things that became really clear as the omnibus performances of this behemoth loomed and then were done was the sense of disappointment within about the impact the show was having in some places. Not on the audience present each night live (“You blew my mind with Flood last night”): nor on the numbers- 500,000 people saw a part of Flood. I mean that is nuts. Half a million. *Robert Downey Jr GIF of him fanning himself coquettishly here*
But there was an overriding sense- however ineptly communicated- that there was A NATIONAL CULTURAL CONVERSATION and we were- for all the numbers and all the money and a well heeled London PR firm- not part of it. I wrote a piece for the Stage pretending to be about high minded principles but basically bitching about this. Everything I say in that is true but let us not fool ourselves for one second that if Rufus Norris had sent an associate and a single, solitary London-based national newspaper critic had come to see the show I would have written it. So the high ground is not for me here. Some days you’re just a man angry that the outstanding work of your friends and colleagues is being ignored because some people find it implausible that they might get on a train to the UK City of Culture and there’s no point pretending that that is a high minded position to take. Still, The Stage will pay fifty quid for that sort of thing and that’s a laser quest session for 6 so don’t knock it. If your unhappiness can be monetised for the greater laser quest good then some days that’s the win and you take it. God I miss laser quest with the Flood team.
Over half a million people saw a part of Flood, it cost several hundreds of thousand of pounds, it was a politically trenchant new play with a performance company of over a hundred on a floating burning set in the middle of the UK City of Culture. And despite all that and the best efforts of the finest PR company we could not get a single London based national theatre critic to come. Months after that initial petulant frustration there is a freedom to be found here; if I can’t do it with this then I can’t do it. Which once accepted frees up all sorts of others much more interesting thoughts. A discussion about what we use public funds to pay PRs to do in regional theatre and what we expect from that investment is well overdue.
Around the same time as the blog for The Stage those mighty folk at Forest Fringe tweeted “Also, ARTS ORGANISATIONS, if you want good criticism as a vital part of our theatre ecology it’s time to invest in the people that are writing it, rather than forlornly chasing ever-shrinking reviews in the broadsheets.”
Well that’s a bloody good point isn’t it. Our subscription to Exeunt was long overdue, we’ve rectified that now, one of the many tiny realisations that are much clearer now I don’t spend my days driving boats around a canal in Hull. God I miss those boats. But still, Exeunt is excellent- get involved.
Inviting Maddy Costa up to see the show (and in the interests of transparency- making sure that her expenses were covered- something that the PR company assured us was an offer to any newspaper critic who needed it) was the smartest move we made. Here was a writer who I was interested in hearing from. Of course I care whether she ‘liked’ it or not but more importantly, much more importantly, i was desperate for someone to understand what it was we were doing. Not just the show but the whole endeavour. Actually clearer than that I wanted to make sure that what we were doing, how we were doing it and why was actually understandable: after nine months on the canal I wanted to make sure that there was still signal coming through.
I was profoundly thankful when her piece was published. I’m told it isn’t the done thing to thank a Critic for the understanding in their writing about you. I’ve named toilets after critics who have disappointed me, I’m certainly going to take the time out to thank those who have spent thoughtful time considering our endeavour. It occurred to me not for the first time that the relationship between theatre and its critics is weird.
The structural discrepancies between north and south are well worn on this blog and by more incisive folk elsewhere. It’s fucked. 20% of the population are serviced by well over half of the funding, and a statistically improbable amount of national coverage and whilst the arts council funding programme is trying to rebalance this it will take a generation before some at the BBC and national arts leadership stop being snotty shits about the north. (“But Hull, I mean Hull, must you” said one TV bod. Well yes we fucking must, I mean that’s sort of the whole point). And until you win the battle in the well worn conceits of the urbane middle class any amount of funding will always feel like you are compensating people for not working in London. We should stop doing that. If they wont move out of London without extra money let them all go work in exhibitions and see how they like that. They’ll soon hush their row. God I miss Hull.
Slung Low doesn’t use production managers in the traditional sense, rather spreading the important tasks that that role would normally encompass through the team and creating a much closer relationship between the creative and practical processes. In Flood that was mostly possible because of the immense practically creative, creatively practical mighty mind of designer David Farley and the order to the process that producer Joanna Resnick brought. The historical reason for this are manyfold, and before you @ me there are of course some amazing production managers out there, but the moment of decision when the production manager rubicon was crossed is from many years ago when, having been invited, as is usual for the company, into a theatre building to make something unusual and out of the ordinary with the in-house team a production manager explained that he wasn’t going to be releasing any of the considerable resources at his disposal because “look mate, we’ve told the bosses that we can make so many shows a year within the current resources so if we make this extra thing work outside on top of that they’ll want us to do it every year.” He went on holiday for the entire length of the project, we made the show almost entirely in isolation, a handful of freelance artists working in the shadow of a large, much better paid staff and the building talked at length for years later how rakishly risk taking they had been in their achievement of our co-produced show.
That one experience influenced a lot about Slung Low’s process and how we positioned ourselves. It wasn’t a one off. As much as we’ve been blessed with some mighty partners over the years there has always been in almost every single institution we’ve ever worked with some reasonably high up managers playing the same oppositional roles with the exact same sentiment if not exact wording.
And so it became a personal ambition that one day we would make a show as far from the institutional restrictions as was possible. A promised land. And with Flood we got there. Hull17 were incredibly generous and supportive partners but there was no structure there for us to butt up against, Martin expected me to make the show, to deliver on the promise and ambition, we were free to imagine our own process.
And so much of this was the personal highlight of the project- systems and processes in place to ensure that the practical act of making theatre was as closely aligned to the creative act of making theatre to make them almost entirely the same thing. Not a practical process responsive to the creative, an officer class instructing the workers, but actually to make a team of equals with sympathetic skills working as one. God I miss the Flood team.
There was some capacity issues- I (along with others in the team) fell across the finishing line- and there were a few who couldn’t cope with the transition, some clinging on to managerial authority and others not happy to step up and live in a world where they weren’t just to take instructions. But in the main it worked. And the art I believe was different for it, a different tone, a different effect. A different audience experience.
And yet. And yet. In finding that extreme freedom we lost something. Or more clearly I realised the things that we had had before from our partners but failed to notice enough because the energy aimed at the obstruction masked it. But I missed the sort of brilliant collaboration that we found from Sarah Lewis at the Liverpool Everyman, from Liam Evans Ford and Sarah Rorke in York, and Sarah Gentle and her mighty team in Sheffield. And the many others. (Someone needs to do a research paper into the unreasonably high quality of Sarahs in UK Theatre). Their vital part in the making was in large part because of their individual talent, grace and skill but also because of their role in the organisation that we were working with. Even as it becomes much more possible practically, financially for Slung Low to make major shows without a practical producing collaboration I doubt we ever will again. In finding the freedom that we had demanded for over ten years I also found a better appreciation of the amazing relationships we had made over the years with those working within institutions. Some of that is of course the confidence to know that that production manager wouldn’t get to the end of his sentence now- a confidence that comes from having done something like Flood, and also the learning of strategies to move around and through such obstruction. But there is a more creative discovery here. Something more positive. There is something in the skills needed to work in those institutions that would have benefitted Flood, more that we can learn from that.
That’s quite a difficult realisation to be honest. After a decade positioning in firm opposition to the stability that too many of our institutions value over responding to their commissioned artists and the new demands of their audience, the certainty that I’ve hit as hard in one direction as it is possible to and must now reassess is not an easy resolution for me. I liked the certainty of tilting. Still, learning is learning.
Flood was a set of extraordinary opportunities. A privilege unlikely to be repeated in my career. The response from audiences and participants has been overwhelming and nourishes our current imagining about what comes next in Slung Low’s development. It can’t be more of the same. But it must have the same ambition, the same desire to imagine new ways of making new things for audience. It must build on the past but drive hard in a new direction. I can’t wait to find out what it is.