Monthly Archives: March 2018

Blog Post: Slung Low are opening a Cultural Community College. Why and What?

Slung Low_ Fairy Portal Camp_ 20 June 2016_2016_Photo by Sam Allard _c_ RSC_196078We’ve spent a lot of time recently thinking about education. Learning. In various different forms.

Over the years Slung Low have taught at dozens of universities, we were in residence at the University of Huddersfield for 8 years or so, and this year are spending a lot of time at LIPA. We all went to school.

And in preparation for last year’s Flood most members of the team went on a variety of training courses; the writer and composer on a 3 day first aid course; the designer getting a MEWP ticket, sound engineer an all terrain fork lift licence, producer food hygiene certificate and I did a rope access course with a bunch of recently demobbed marines looking to get a gig on the oil rigs. Learning.

And it struck me how much education, not just the industry of it but the philosophy of learning had changed over the last 30 years.

There’s a solid looking coffee table in my house. It’s moved house with me a dozen times, it is sturdy thing. Handsome, practical. My mother made it. Probably 35 years ago. In a wood working class the WI ran one autumn. Taught her to make a table. Proper joinery. Took a while. It is a good table. Skills. Learnt.

You see less of that now. The WI- and a whole hosts of other organisations that might have been interested in the general cultural well-being and education of their members and the wider population now pressed into service as a third sector, volunteer army of social fire fighters in the battle against the worst ravages of free-market crony capitalism that blights many of the communities that not so long ago didn’t consider themselves in desperate need. Soup kitchens, food banks. That’s what is needed now from the WI and their like. Not so much joinery.

In their place the market has done its thing, you can take your hen do on butchery weekends, learn how to bake French pastries at private cooking schools in evening sessions. There are craft classes that follow a similar pattern. My wife sent me on a Thai cooking day for a birthday but with prices north of £100 a day these are no longer the community adult education of before and well beyond the pockets of many.

And then there’s training. Skills. I work for you and you want me to learn how to use a forklift. So you send me on a course. And the parameters of that learning are carefully framed so it takes up the least amount of time away from work as possible. The hard edges of what will be taught is entirely in relation to what is immediately useful. But you get a certificate. Which is good. Because you pass a test. I should know I did at least a dozen of them last year. They all go a bit like this: The pass rate is 80%. 20% of the questions require actual knowledge. 80% of the questions are structured like this-

What should you always do before preparing food? A. Wash your hands. B. Sing two verses of Bon Jovi’s Living on a Prayer C. No dogs are allowed in the smoking compartment. D. Lick a picture of Delia Smith.

Because the companies supplying the certificates are being assessed by the employer paying on how many can you get through how quickly. Yes you can throw the odd dickhead out of class who won’t take it seriously but fundamentally the bar of knowledge is set at what the existing work force can manage. The market has dictated how much knowledge you are ever going to be offered, then give you a piece of paper to cover your bosses’ asses.

And the universities have changed beyond recognition but we all know that. The wheeze to make students customers has sucked the soul out of the university experience in many ways; just look at how profoundly unhappy so many lecturers are, how changed and reduced their relationship with the students is. The language of the market has done nothing to make students more engaged with their education, let alone more in control. And the customer/service relationship is now being pushed to its natural conclusion- the proposal of rating courses according to the earning power of its graduates is a wonderful idea because it will surely lay bare the inequalities of both our education and employment markets as we all scratch our heads wondering why for the 12th year running PPE graduates of two universities earn more money than graduates of engineering courses anywhere. The drive to the market place is seen in how the students behave, how the lecturers are treated, how the institutions present themselves to the world and in the borrowing of the worst elements of free enterprise in obscene pay at the top and prolonged industrial action at the bottom.

We as a society no longer (in any great number) have many affordable opportunities to learn for the sake of learning. The Liverpool mosque of Quilliam in astronomy, chemistry and maths. The craft courses of the church of England and the WI I remember from my childhood. Lecturer programmes of working men’s clubs and libraries. Ha! Libraries.

Over the last few years we’ve run a very modest, and reasonably traditional, cultural learning programme, a writers’ group run by Mark Catley and Aisha Khan, a choir and a programme of How To Festivals (combining with the mighty Fun Palaces once a year).  A small test bed of activity over time, supported by our local councillors and community funding, that has allowed us to hear about the impact from our community that a cultural learning for cultural learning’s sake can have. The self-declared outcomes in our participants, on their well-being, on their imagination, on their cultural capital and confidence has been incredibly bolstering to hear and inspired much thinking. As modest as it was the impact is clear, what impact could a more ambitious project have?

My father left school for the RAF at 15 with a wood work O-level. The RAF taught him everything he needed to know. And then in later life, still in the forces, he did an Open University degree. In humanities, social sciences. Utterly pointless to any job he would ever have, any career development available to him at GCHQ. He’s been dead a long time now but one of the clearest memories I have is of him turning to me and my mum at tea one day and with complete horror and genuine surprise detailing how he’d just learnt how appallingly homosexuals had been treated in our country by the law.  Genuine revelation of knowledge. A man’s mind transformed simply by coming to know more. Learning. Learning undertaken just because he’d reached an age where he wanted to know about things he didn’t know anything about. To know of a different world. And because the forces-whatever their many failings and problems- are still one of the few employers who will fund the educational improvement of their employees even though it may have no immediate bearing on the work they are doing.

His horizon shifted. What a gift to give someone in their middle age. A shifting horizon.

Learning.

Slung Low have started preparations for a Cultural Community College. A place to come and learn, free at the point of use, a whole array of cultural activity; from Irish dancing to South Indian cooking, from poetry writing to carpentry, digital photography to singing in a choir. If I have my way (reader I will) the first course will be star gazing; profound knowledge, awe inspiring, practically useless. I can’t think of anything more changing of horizons than to understand the skies above us. And I can’t think of anything less useful to the market place. In the first wave of classes (different times of the week, different levels of commitment, varied levels of regularity) I have my heart set on welding and how to make the perfect pakora, CPR classes and sign language.

I’ll have to be quick because after the first instalment of classes the curriculum will be chosen by the members of the college, a co-op. If you have attended any class you automatically become a member, you propose classes and vote for your choice; we’ll do what the people decide.

We’ll hire the best teachers we can find and afford.

Someone asked me a few weeks back, why? We make big theatre shows, with a degree of success that would probably ensure we need not do anything else but that. The running of the HUB as a rehearsal space and erstwhile performance space for younger artists takes up more than enough time- why do something else?

Partly it’s our continued core mission to attempt to be as useful as possible with public money in as many imaginative ways as we can.

But mostly it’s because, as Lorne Campbell’s The Last Ship recently reminded in glorious style, you are what you do. That’s as true for organisations as it is for individuals. And I want Slung Low to be a thing that tries to imagine better versions of reality than this current shit show.

I was in an interview a long time ago and I proposed hosting the soon to be closed nearby library in the large and almost constantly empty foyer of the theatre. The chair of the board fell about laughing in a manner that made it clear I wouldn’t need to move house any time soon. “That’s not what we are for” he chuckled. What are you for then? That’s exactly what you should be for actually. That’s exactly what the privilege and opportunity of public funding is for. As I have written here before the need to imagine and explore new ways of being, of valuing things are urgent. And if it’s not the job of subsidised arts organisations then I don’t know whose it might be. If not us then who? Whilst we’ve spent ten years scrapping to keep the status quo, fighting off cuts and disrespect from our conservative governmental paymasters, other sectors, driven by the profit imperative and with scant regard for the majority of society, have been busy imagining new worlds in which technology plays a greater and greater role requiring a smaller, highly educated workforce but little use for anyone who might find themselves on the wrong end of the technological revolution.  Slung Low are going to create a place, a school, where people come to learn news things of wonder and beauty simply for the sake of the joy that such things might bring them. Because I think the people attending deserve that level of attention and provision. And because I think, I hope, it might help. Them, maybe. Society, hopefully. Me, definitely.

There are have been various calls from the theatre scene for arts education to be better respected by the government and they are all absolutely correct. Most can be more or less summarised by these lines from something Rufus Norris wrote a couple of months ago; “We need an education system fit for the 21st century, one that champions this country’s creativity as the foundation of its economic health.” 

He’s quite correct but we’ve done this before. It’s the same argument we made for public subsidy for the arts.

The argument was won, funding stabilised, but not before the nature, purpose and logic of arts funding and many of our organisations were transformed. We need an education system fit for the 21st century that champions the country’s creativity as a foundation of its collective mental health, as a foundation of its collective sense of worth, as a foundation of its ability to take a moral leadership role in the world, to imagine better futures for our children, for other people’s children, fuck it for ourselves man.

You don’t wonder why you should bother spending time and money on teaching a factory worker how to paint, or understand geometry, or sing, or to code a raspberry pi, carve a candle stick when that is going to add nothing to the efficiency of the factory they work in, you wonder when it was you came to have such a low opinion of people who work in factories that a full, rich, accessible and varied creative, cultural life might not be something that every single person of the nation deserves. Jesus lads, this is Victorian logic. We are literally less humane and enlightened than owners of Victorian chocolate factories, can we get a grip please.

You are what you do. And so, in our little part of the world in Holbeck, we are going to make a varied, high quality creative education available to everyone who wants it regardless of financial status. Because that’s what we want to be- people who think that is important- so that’s what we’ll do. Hold the space to create the opportunity of a cultural education beyond the market place. We’re going to open a school. It’s going to be an adventure. The first classes will be in autumn 2018 and it will run for four years, forever or until the revolution and/or nuclear war makes it unnecessary. It is possible entirely thanks to the considerable support of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation and our long suffering but much appreciated partners at the Arts Council, England. The college will be supported by an advisory board of educators taken from a range of educational worlds, universities, theatre education departments, the private sector. The excellent Dr Rachel Perry will be coming with us on the journey to research our impact, success and misfires along the way which will allow us to learn what we learn wider than our immediate Holbeck community.

It’s what we’ll be spending a large part of the next few months on, creating the framework of the college. If you have any interest in it, want to argue about it, want to offer help in some way please do get in touch. It takes a village eh.

The picture at the top is of the mighty Rash Dash running a Fairy Rave at the RSC when we tried to learn how to open a portal to the fairy world. Experts and academics are still in disagreement as to whether the operation was successful. The photo was taken by Sam Allard.

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Blog Post: Working beyond the market, to find out together how else we can live.

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“To find out together how else we can live”

It was a line at the end of a tweet from a striking lecturer; talking about how being on the picket line had caused them all to discover new things, behave in new ways, “to find out together how else we can live.”

Been thinking a lot about this in relationship to the regularly funded Arts Council England subsidised theatre scene.

The philosophy of subsidy has subtlety shifted over the last decade or so, naturally as the amount of money available in real terms has reduced and the amount we expect from our organisations has increased. Increasingly, given that gap between funding and expected activity, the subsidy is seen as pump priming; seed funding that facilitates a range of income generating activity. Subsidy now sometimes used as investment for commercial ventures that can bring in the greater income needed to keep the ever growing buildings and operations funded as year on year the subsidy shrinks.
Subsidy becomes sticking plasters for failings of the market. We faced the somewhat Kafka-esque situation a few years back where in order to receive regular subsidy from the Arts Council you had to demonstrate that you had the resilience to survive without the same subsidy. So in a real sense, it seemed, if you weren’t using that subsidy to create a much greater income then you were at odds with prevailing attitude of the establishment, and your key core funder. There was concern at the time that many organisations were preparing the arguments for their own defunding, a concern that was unjustified but I can testify first hand how the shift in focus had a profound effect on the discussions some boards were having and the core principles at the heart of those conversations.

This changing logic is important. It has an impact on the bare bones, the marrow of the thing. On ticket prices. On programming. And on the types of people who run our organisations. Years past we might expect all our major theatres to be run by Artistic Directors; it was once a guiding principle that our arts organisations were led by artists. Not so much nowadays. Often, in our major venues, ADs sit in a senior management structure along with Finance Directors, Head of Operations and Marketing heads. All sitting under a chief executive. In a literal sense the artistic direction is not the leading voice. I don’t blame the boards who have brought this in, it makes sense if your subsidy is intended to prime the pump, bank roll real income generation to fund the wider activity. But that income generating activity then becomes the momentum of your thinking- productions of theatre adaptations of 80’s film with once movie stars in them become the thing by which people know you, and you know yourself.

(It’s been pointed out to me that it sounds here like I’m saying that a non-AD Chief Exec is only going to be interested in income generation. That is a failure of how I’ve expressed my argument because it isn’t what I intended. There are some exceptional non-Artist leaders out there, along with plenty of tired dull ones, but there is a difference between being led by an artist (either solely or in conjunction with an Exec) and not.)

The relationship that subsidy has with capitalism dictates what you do and who leads you. If your subsidy is mostly intended to correct the market failings then your relationship to capitalism is clear. Like Hope to Trump. The hype man.

But we all know that capitalism doesn’t work. We know it’s a broken system. We ALL know it’s a broken system.  This isn’t a radical position, even the majority on the right recognise this: the repeated failures of the system over the last ten years too obvious and repeated to be ignored by anyone but the militant free-market zealots. The only real argument is whether capitalism is the best system we’ve ever had, could ever have: the practicality of an alternative. At which point in the conversation my favourite tory councillor on the internet will normally chirp in with “socialism killed more people than capitalism”. Maybe. Probably. But the attempt to keep this a binary choice when it’s anything but is one of the ways we keep ourselves from imagining alternatives to the current system. Like all those people who shout foul at inequality protestors when they have the audacity to go and buy coffee from an actual shop with actual money rather than self-brewing it on the pavement from crumpled up pages of The Communist Manifesto. We have more options than choosing between resuscitating socialism and shutting up about the failures of end stage crony capitalism.

Capitalism is fucked. It’s bent. And it may well be true that its the best system we’ve ever had.

But it doesn’t mean that it’s the best system we could ever have.

God it’s so hard to imagine an alternative. Rebecca Solnit is brilliant on this if you’ve never read Hope in the Dark: well worth your time. It’s so hard to think of alternatives to the huge wall of hegemony that is capitalism. That weight of certainty in a world view in which every one of us (at least anyone reading this) in one way or another has a stake. I didn’t want to bail the bankers out but I knew we had to if we weren’t to shit on the pensions of good people who had done nothing more than put their trust in a system for which there is no alternative. And so we bailed those reckless greedy wankers out. And most likely we’d do it again. We’re implicated.

That implication makes it so hard to think beyond capitalism. Beyond the market. But subsidy can allow us to do that. It can allow us the space to live beyond the market to try and find out together how else we can live.

You can only do what you can do. If you run a small theatre company in South Leeds then you can’t imagine and implement an alternative to a world value system. But what veganism, sobriety and not dying of cancer has taught me is not doing something because you think the impact of one person is meaningless in the face of an opposing consensus ignores the profound effect that act can have on yourself. And once you’ve profoundly effected yourself then you’re already one person in to your mission of world change and the second one is always easier. And the third. And the fourth. And who knows how many more you get but you’re already four in and it seemed impossible yesterday and this is how all change but nuclear annihilation happens. As Leo McGarry had it, never underestimate the change a small group of people can make in the world. Which, friends, is what I tell myself when I feel like a Don Quixote in my shipping container office next to a South Leeds’ railway arch.

When we started Pay What You Decide as a policy for all performances (and then all activity) at the HUB I remember the snide. The accusations of naivety and foolishness. It has been by any measure a resounding success. We weren’t the first to think of this policy, we went to school on the coat tails of some of the great radical food projects in Leeds. But, along with the ever mighty Annabel Turpin at Arc in Stockton, we were amongst the first in theatre to commit to it as a policy, as a principle underpinning what we did and how. Now it’s a strategy used by numerous theatres, of all scales and mentality throughout the country. We didn’t necessarily directly inspire them, but we were part of a body of action that allowed the idea to seem reasonable in the minds of the chief execs and heads of marketing in much larger organisations. An alternative idea is mocked, gains momentum and then before you know it every bugger is doing it. Because an idea, however much snide can be flung at it, can gain enough momentum to change the status quo that seemed insurmountable just a moment before. Ask that pork-faced clown Farage. It works both ways.

PWYD is mostly used as an audience development tool. Which it does very well. But that’s not what we use it for. There’s a difference between Pay What You Can (if there’s a substantial constituency in your town that can’t afford normal tickets then have a word with your business plan), Pay What You Feel (a strangely passive proposition) and Pay What You Decide. Customer is the least interesting role the audience can play. It’s flattening and flattering. The argument of the last twenty years that customer is somehow a powerful role is rancid nonsense; if you think students are any more powerful now they pay for their university experience you’re not paying very much attention. Customer is a binary decision making role- you want it or not? Pay What You Decide at the HUB was an attempt to provoke a better conversation about the role of money in theatre and in the subsidised sector, and to do that as thought in action, with the thousands of multi-layered decisions made at the HUB by each member of the public who comes to see the show.  When you are at the HUB seeing a visiting show you are reminded at the beginning and the end of the show that every penny goes to the visiting company and the decision as to how much you give is entirely up to you. It is a decision, based of course in part in how much money you have- you can’t give what you don’t have. But more than that, it is based in part in how much you enjoyed it, how much you think it cost to make, how much you’d like them to return to perform again; a whole range of thoughts that provoke a specific decision. And one that places the audience directly in conversation, practical conversation, with those that have made and perform the theatre they’ve seen, the artists.

It is often asked why a company who makes large scale outdoor theatre runs an 80 seater studio theatre. It’s a lot to do with our central mission of trying to be useful to the wider community. And it’s a lot to do with this endeavour to find ways of developing a relationship with audience that moves beyond that of customer. How we can create a space that moves beyond the market. That supports the endeavour to find out together how else we can live.

The company wage policy has the same intent. For the last five or so years everyone who has worked for Slung Low gets paid the same. It’s been £500 a week. It was based on the average wage of the nation. This month we increased it to £540 as we had drifted too far from the national average. In addition on a project all travel is paid, we find every member of the team somewhere to live and you get fed or we’ll pay subs. (We run internships, learning placements, for those not in full-time education which pay 50% of the company wage and last no more than 6 months. And allow a small number of course mandated student placements for those in full-time education that we do not pay.)

The company wage is the most gloriously frustrating liberating restriction. What it does is make real and concrete the belief that those of us working on a Slung Low  project are a team of equals. Yes with different levels of experience, responsibility and duties but all vital to the larger endeavour.

Main perk is I don’t argue with agents. Sometimes you will get one who, having received the offer, will ring to say how offensive it is. If you honestly want to ring me to tell me how offensive it is to be offered the average wage of the nation from a publicly subsidised theatre company I’m probably going to listen for maybe 3 minutes before I put the phone down and never ring your agency again. But apart from the odd gobshite the word spreads amongst the agents we have regular contact with; you can of course reject the offer, there’s some that have done that over the years but there’s no point arguing money with me. It’s what I’m getting paid, it’s what everyone is getting paid and I’m not making an exception for your client. When I’m confronted by the negative aspects of the policy I think of an entire career of not negotiating with agents and the time and peace that I’ve saved and I feel better about it.

The downside is of course everyone gets paid the same. 50 something actors with families and a career of extraordinary experience that I lean on receive the same as 22 year old drama school graduates who live with their parents. I’m not sure that’s right, even after years of it I still am not sure. It’s a  principle based on the idea of a team of equals. But like all principles it smarts sometimes; it has costs. On a selfishly personal level there are the days that it smarts to be a 40 year old reasonably successful theatre director who realistically can’t really afford a holiday. It certainly smarts royally that going to see theatre is more often than not out of my reach financially: the average wage of the nation can’t afford to go to too many £30 a seat productions. I know these same frustrations are true to a lesser or greater extent for everyone associated with the company. But then it is true that, having been a freelance alternative theatre director based in the north of England I still vividly remember the days when £500 a week for every week of the year felt like a fortune in comparison to what I was making; as is still the case with so many of my comrades. So don’t cry for me Argentina eh.

If you work for Slung Low full-time then you’re on a buy-out. The fees goes back to the company. Directing things like National Commemoration of the Somme we charge the market rate (rather than the company wage we get paid) and this raises good money and for the last couple of years supported the work the company was doing in Holbeck like our choir. Removing the connection between work and payment does something interesting; a tiny step beyond the market. There are days when the amount of pressure, risk and grief on a job isn’t reflected by the £100 I’m getting paid that day.
But there’s also something freeing about breaking that connection between the job of work and the contract with the employer; just a tiny breath beyond the market. I still work for the producers but I do so in a slightly different relationship with them. The money isn’t of direct relevance to me, and I find slightly freer: I have a degree more confidence when the pressure comes. Never craven is a touchstone and it helps no end to know that the fee attached to the job can’t be used to pressure me: it has made a real difference in arguing any number of points about the primacy of the artist, the diversity of performers, the ethics of a specific decision. Operating a step beyond the market. Thanks entirely to the subsidy Slung Low gets. Absolutely changing the way I behave, the creative choices I make, the audience experience.

It isn’t perfect. It has its limitations. And like everything Slung Low does it is based on the specific circumstances of the company. Privileges and challenges both. But the benefits and opportunities the company wage brings are so important to us, has such an impact on how we behave in the world. A main impact is that we can be entirely open about money with the public. This has proved to vitally important in places like Holbeck where people are naturally suspicious about the idea of publicly subsidised arts. There are people who think £500 a week is too much to pay artists so it isn’t a silver bullet by any means but the ability to have that open frank discussion that comes from equality is crucial.

I am hoping our collective attention soon investigates the differences between the highest and lowest paid in our theatre institutions. As our institutions are expected to do more and more and as the institutions change nature the rewards of the leaders move further and further away from the levels of rewards of the theatre makers themselves which will soon be unjustifiable and then unsustainable in the subsidised sector. The discrepancy between how much we pay people to run the subsidised theatre industry and the majority of people who make theatre is going to be the next moment of clarity in the current dawning realisation of how shit the details of our world are.

If you are working in a system that echo the inequalities and injustices of the capitalist system, if you are making theatre work in those systems then it’s really hard to avoid repeating the inequalities and injustices in your work. Theatre is meant to imagine other worlds so that we might learn more about our own. And hopefully find ways to improve it. Subsidy allows the privilege to imagine, test, create other ways of living. Ways beyond the market. Not only with the work we put on stages but with the structures we create to make that work. The chance to create mini worlds beyond the market, to imagine other ways of being, to find out together how else we can live. If our subsidy is used just to correct the market, or as seed funding for institutions to venture into the commercial sector then we are the least interesting versions of ourselves: and the least justifiable. The idea that in order to receive subsidy you must demonstrate how it isn’t needed is a strange proposition. How much more glorious a claim is it that without subsidy we would not exist, too precious a thing to be able to be sustained by the crude transactional reasoning of the market; so rare a thing that the only way we can exist is if we pool our resources, leaning on the commonwealth to create sanctuaries beyond the forces of the market. Places where people can come to be more than customer. To work out what living like that might look and feel like. Together. New ways to live. Because the current system isn’t working. And some of the few people left with the headspace to think about what an alternative might look like is us.

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After writing this I read this brilliant piece by Diane Ragsdale and it talks really brilliantly about much of the same landscape as the piece above, well worth your time http://www.creativenz.govt.nz/assets/ckeditor/attachments/1504/transformation_or_bust_by_diane_ragsdale_transcript_for_cnz_june_2016.pdf