“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.
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