Author Archives: alanlane2013

About alanlane2013

Artistic Director, Slung Low

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.


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.


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


“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

Some of the Things I’ve thought Post Flood

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 Or if you have no time for that shit you can watch a one minute video summary here

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.

17969There 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.

10863Over 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.

18101I 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.

18013 2

I’m walking 54 Miles in 24 hours because there’s a jellyfish on my laptop and other reasons

I met this family on a train a few years ago.

Partly because the 6 year old lad across the table, after seeing what was on my laptop screen, screamed at the top of his voice “THERE’S A JELLYFISH ON YOUR LAPTOP!”  and partly because when the teenage lad, all puffed up and moody 17 year old, offered his mother a stream of profanity over something and nothing I was just in the right sort of entitled confident mood to tell him with enough determination that at least outloud in public he’d do better to keep a civil tongue in his head. It’s a high risk strategy, I accept, I don’t make a habit of it.

But in this instance it worked, the mother appreciated the modest intervention. She was tired. Her 12 year old daughter, all bright precociousness, told me that they were going to a huge castle in the country, they’d been before, but it was a really long train journey and they had had to get up early and so their mother was tired and grumpy. The mum smiled the weary ‘when is the earliest I can have a glass of wine and is it that time yet’ sort of smile that I remember my mother having.

Over the next two hours I got to know them, their story unfolded first through the ridiculous honest babbling monologue of the two youngest that on more than one occasion caused me to catch my breath at the childish transparency of it all “Dad got killed in the war two years ago”,  then through the mother who seemed thankful for the additional distraction for the kids that my company meant “this weekend away is organised by the charity that looks after families like ours, it’s a god send, its the only weekend I relax” and then somewhat unlikely with the eldest once he realised that our backgrounds weren’t a million miles apart, “they get it, the other kids at this place, they understand”.

There were families in similar situations, dealing with the loss of a father, a husband, who they would spend the weekend with. Who they had been spending this weekend with for as many years as there had been since it happened. People who understood.

They were a lovely family. Genuinely lovely people dealing with something horrible.

I think of them often, something will remind me, or I’ll hear that sing song borders Scottish accent and “There’s a jellyfish on your laptop” will come back to me. That conversation, and how its stayed with me all this time, is one of the reasons why I started looking into the Soldiers’ Charity.

When I worked on the commemoration of the Battle of the Somme a couple of years ago we opened with a reading of No Man is an Islande. It wasn’t a decision that was understood by all, various civil servants and others confused by a poem written hundreds of years before the event we were commemorating. I know I did a bad job of explaining it; I couldn’t find the words to explain anything that I found simply so self-evident. I feel the same “but duh” trying to formulate opposing arguments after reading one of the increasingly regular columns about how the writer shouldn’t have to contribute to the upkeep of the wounded and bereft of our armed forces.

It is perfectly possible, as many comrades of mine do, to maintain a principled opposition to any specific or all general conflict and still realise the collective responsibilities to our armed forces, to support the rehabilitation of the wounded and the care of the families left behind. This recent flurry of “why should my bit of public money go on something I don’t like” pieces arrive on a foul wind that brings no good to anyone. No man is an islande.

In an ideal world our veterans and their families would be provided for fully by the Government, our collective responsibility demonstrated through properly distributed taxes that were sufficient to the demand. Charity is a cold thing as Atlee had it. Maybe. But there are colder things.
The military covenant is the bond between a military force and the community it serves and is drawn from. Most simply expressed it is the promise that whilst we ask them to do that which we would not or could not ourselves do in return we vow to treat them with dignity if the worst should happen and take on the responsibility of caring for their family if they should fall in our service.
That covenant is not being met. It hasn’t for some time now. It should not, like so much in our society, be left to charity. But it is. The Soldiers’ Charity does good work. They run a thing called the Cateran Yomp which is a sponsored walk, of sorts.

54 miles over the Scottish Highlands in 24 hours. FIFTY FOUR MILES! Holy hell. It is a substantial undertaking. Team Yorkshire Yompers has started training all ready. And on 9th and 10th June we’re going to get it done. If you have the resources to sponsor us please do, it would be so appreciated. If you can’t then spreading the word would be just as appreciated.

Any amount would help. Thank you.

No Man is an Islande eh.

And there’s a jellyfish on your laptop.



Blog Post: Capital funding, buildings and Leeds

Leeds City Council is leading a process to come up with a cultural policy for the city. It is an admirably open, patient and democratic process. As part of that Cluny MacPherson- head of culture at the city council- has written a piece on capital funding and buildings.  I don’t agree with the acceptance of the logic of capital funding. It’s not necessarily a disagreement with what Cluny said per se, more I don’t think we have to start our thinking where he started his. He asked me to expand on my initial response which was “If we must accept logic of capital investment then let it be investment in people/skills/communities not just bricks” and that thinking is below. I haven’t posted it under his original blog for lots of reason but the main one is that I think the openness of the process of the council creating a cultural policy is brilliant. And nothing stops openness with the public like a long industry insider comment in the comments section. 
There are two unstoppable forces; entropy and government’s demand for expansion in the public sector.

Things will break apart eventually this we can be sure. And, with a gibbering national economy, year on year real-term reductions in funding and a public hit in the pocket, arts organisations that receive public funding need to demonstrate annual growth.

I’ve nothing against growth per se: Slung Low is a particularly spunky expansionist outfit never standing still for long. But sometimes the size of an outfit is just fine. And sometimes the easiest sort of growth is the wrong sort of growth for that organisation.

And capital can often be the easiest sort of growth. A few years ago a shrinking regional theatre audience, a tired leadership who had generally been in post for a while and huge pressures on funding combined to create a real sense of despair in the future direction of the theatre scene especially outside of London. There were numerous despairing conferences and meetings.

One of the options that was available to these organisations was capital funding. Build something new. Some theatres chose to rebuild their entire buildings, some chose to add auditoriums, some just their bar and restaurant. 

But most did at least one of those things. Of all the options available it’s the easiest option for boards. Capital are prestige projects: You can name an auditorium after a rich lad, it is a solid focus for your fundraising activity, it’s a set task around which you can galvanise your staff and supporters. It is substantially easier than the general philanthropic expansion also demanded.

And the capital funding can support some of your core activity; pay for time of fundraisers, project managers, execs, all sorts of other costs that take the pressure off the core costs that are such a big weight for big theatre buildings.

So it’s a winner, right. Capital for everyone.

The cost of capital is expansion. You want to build a new restaurant the argument that has to be made is that you can sell more meals in that restaurant because more chairs, or it is so much nicer that more people will come to it. You’ll raise more money over time because you’ll sell more meals to more people so the government is helping, so the argument goes, for organisations to stand on their own two feet, to be resilient. (resilient against a removal of government funding but that’s a different argument for a different day).

There are some theatres who have made a glorious success of this model. It is a major plank of the neo-liberal funding logic that sees subsidy as pump-priming rather than a natural state of being. I don’t agree with that definition of arts funding: some things are best owned and operated solely within the public realm and beyond the full pressures of market forces. Regional theatre is one of those things.

A financial focus on capital, a secured substantial pot, is an artificial pressure on the industry. It is a force of change that isn’t driven by artists, or by audience, or artistic vision, or by community need. It is driven by a number of forces laid out above; some organisational, some fundraising, some conservative, some ego. And I’m not convinced that it creates resilience at all. Whilst there are some good examples of new shiny buildings who are successful and triumphant after their rebuild (Liverpool’s recent announcement of a rep season two years after their rebuild was particularly positive I thought) there are also many examples of theatres who got caught in the ego chase of a capital project and found themselves shiny and lonely in the middle of the town centre, wheezing under new staff costs and completely unable to shift their £9 fish finger sandwich that anyone with any sense could have told them were bad ideas. 
Not all growth is good. Not all directions of growth are good. And if you can’t fill 1200 seats a night you are unlikely to be able to fill 1500 seats a night, no matter how nice your new restaurant and foyer. But it is a central plank of how to maintain a modern arts organisation and so it makes complete sense for Chief Execs and Board Chairs to chase that particular chicken. When they catch it they’ve secured their organisation’s future for the next five or so years, given a bright shiny veneer of success and it will most likely be someone else’s problem to solve how on earth those fish finger sandwiches are going to get flogged. A number of towns, having used substantial amounts of public capital funding to build new theatres, fail to commit to funding and staffing them in the way that was once promised: their decline and reliance on regular bail-out funding is all too likely.
I don’t think for a second that capital funding isn’t necessary. Buildings need fixing. I’m even willing to allow that occasionally you might have to build a brand new theatre. Fix the roof if it leaks. Re-upholster your seats if you insist on having them. That isn’t my issue. It’s the acceptance firstly of capital as some sort of magic money that can never be confused with revenue: if the last year taught us anything it’s that there is nothing solid in politics and economy so I don’t buy Cluny’s assertion that the capital and revenue are different bank accounts that are really unconnected- what impact will central government’s capital decision to build the huge Factory arts centre in Manchester going to have on that city’s revenue funding set-up for example.
But mostly my issue with received wisdom around capital funding is that with all the pressures our large arts organisations are under it would be negligent for executives not to pursue all possible resources but capital expansion is profoundly changing the nature of our theatre scene, the focus of our theatres and the staff that work in them; it has an impact on ticket pricing, on the layout of the front of house, of who feels welcome and the nature of the space and all of that is being driven by non artistic forces. It’s a whole set of targets and pressures that often make it much harder for buildings to be the generous central supporters and leaders of their city’s theatre scene. And it’s a huge part of funding that by its very nature presupposes a theatre building as a default position of best theatre practice, the focus of our funding and our work.

Wales and Scotland have two of the most exciting national theatres in the world- neither of which have buildings. Meanwhile we keep building more and more of them in the north even though we can’t fill the ones we have. I don’t think that it is the state of the buildings themselves that are stopping people coming to the theatre. But I think for some building a new one gave them a break from thinking about how to fill the one they already have. I don’t think it increases resilience. I think it kicks the impossible question of how to make a regional producing theatre scene resilient without government funding further down the road. But each day it changes the theatre scene we’ll be left with if that day ever comes.
Slung Low applied for capital funding a few years ago. WHAT ALAN?! That’s a hell of a 3rd Act reveal- chill your beans friends, we’ll get there. 

We got it, just over 90 grand. We spent ten fixing the roof at the HUB, bought some hot water bottles and blankets for audience and spent most of the rest on two things. 

One was 800 headphones. One of the issues of working for regional theatres is they are strapped for cash. Slung Low shows cost money, proper money. Buying headphones for all the audience to hear the show and paying our creative fees is not easy. Now they don’t have to pay both. Hire Slung Low and we bring our gear with us. It makes it easier for theatres to be bold and programme the different type of work we make. And it means we can get paid. That’s our attempt at a form of resilience.

The other thing we did with the money is buy a van. It was our second van. The capital money meant we could buy and insure a van for anyone to borrow it. We lend it to other theatre companies and makers. It’s out all the time. Except for hairy arsed bands who trash it we’ve never turned anyone down for any other reason than it was already out. Over the years dozens and dozens of theatre projects have used it. For free. Naturally. That’s resilience.

It was a very nuanced argument we made to qualify the above for capital funding. To argue that to give away our resources was about sector resilience. That is a very hard argument for the Arts Council to approve in the face of the pressure they’re under. We were much helped and led in that argument by Cluny MacPherson who used to run Yorkshire arts council before he ran Leeds city council culture. Hate the game not the player.
The arguments that the arts have had to make defending funding over the last 8 years have been torturous. There is a danger that we start to believe the things we do to survive are the reason why we exist. We give up the direction of our art form, the core value of what we do, to board chairs and external pressures at our peril. I’ve heard of two Artistic Directors who have left their organisations because of a conflict with the board over a capital project they had foistered on them. That’s two too many.
We recently created a hostel. Five beds that those in the area on theatre business can come and stay in. The idea was that companies in residence at the HUB or small scale touring or bloggers visiting Leeds might find their tasks more achievable because that large cost of accommodation was removed. One of the main issues in Leeds is that we fail to retain our talent beyond five years. We’ve lots of early graduates which is great. But not that mid range/ aged artist or company- the list of those that tried and moved down south is very long. To make something without substantial funding happen in the city is hard. There’s less spare rooms to crash in than there should be because they all moved to London. The idea of the hostel is to try and make engaging with West Yorkshire’s alternative scene easier, increase the diversity of work being made and shown and written about in the city. It’s an attempt at resilience.

At time of writing it had been live for three days. Two different groups have applied to use the hostel already. Both are performing at the big theatre up the road. The money to open your new show at the most funded theatre in the city won’t cover the cost of digs. This isn’t resilience. It is a system that doesn’t work. We need to fix it before it transforms beyond use. And we need to stop building new theatres and start working out what to do with the ones we’ve got.

There is more pressure on funding and more work to be done than ever. Ring fencing a large portion of cultural public money for Capital projects encourages the wrong headed notion that shiny new buildings are the answer to anything.

Blog Post: the speech I didn’t write for the Arts Council

I have to confess I haven’t written a speech. Those of you who know me will know my wonderful wife is expecting a baby. Today. Tomorrow. Soon.

I had a great ambition to write a speech about how two years ago Slung Low took the decision to be a community theatre company. And how we pushed that change through everything. Community Philanthropy. Community media strategy. Everything. And we discovered that it had an extraordinary impact. We have raised more money. We’ve had more press. Our community board push harder and more clearly. And not just the participation has improved but the actual marrow of our work- the art- has become deeper, more ambitious and more relevant. That in all way we could we tried to be useful to as many people as possible. And how that might be something for us to discuss.

But the weekend was full of NCT classes. And yesterday I had to wash all these little clothes in Non-bio powder. And I put them on the line to dry and I just became mesmerised. And then it was dinner and I hadn’t written a speech.

Which is a disaster. I said to my team. All these important people and I’ll have no speech. And they said, don’t worry Al. You just have to create a connection. Jump cut the relationship with a revelation. Tell them something that will embarrass you if everyone finds out and then there’ll be a relationship and all will be well. Brilliant advice.

So. For a long time now every month I writer a letter to my pen pal. George Osborne. Obviously I have a poilitical rep to protect, this would be disastrous if it got out. On Monday I sat down to write my most recent letter to him and so I thought I would read it out to you and then we could just forget all about this embarrassing affair. Right? Good. Sit back and relax.
Dear George,

Hope you are well pal

Congratulations on the party conference. A triumph. So pleased you took my advice about the power stance. I consulted a number of movement directors and they were unanimous in their advice that the diagram of the stance I sent you was the best for projecting total command and caring national leadership. You see, it does help to have friends in the arts- bet your mates in banking would have had you standing like a right nobber.

I myself am giving a speech later this week to some very important chief execs from theatre and will absolutely be utilising the power stance of caring leadership throughout.

Also, whilst I’m on, wanted to throw a big well done at you for the Theatre Tax Relief. You know me, I’m an imaginative guy but I literally could not blue sky think a more efficient, speedier way of getting more cash to the various misanthropic, highly affluent, often off-shore for tax purposes 1 per centers that financially speculate on the commercial west end. I am pretty excited for you to drop a big bag of trickle down magic on that dosh and watch it flow into the pockets of individual artists and small companies that are locked out of the scheme. I think trickle down magic is what you will win your nobel prize for- it’s a beautiful thing G-man.

Anyway the real reason why I am writing is to let you know about a project that me and the free-market capitalist zealots at Slung Low did earlier in the year. We made a show called Camelot The Shining City with Sheffield Theatres and Sheffield People’s Theatre. I am actually gutted that you missed it. In the comments beneath the glowing Financial Times review someone called it a fascistic defence of neo-liberalism. Yeah, I know, right up your street. But I now you’re busy. Balancing the books.

It was a contemporary reworking of the King Arthur myths. Aside from it’s fascistic defending of neo-liberalism it was the story about how a group of people created an entirely new future direction for a country based on a fictional recounting of a nation’s history until a crowd rose up and beat the leaders to death. A parable that has absolutely no relevance to you George.

It was made with 137 members of the Sheffield People’s Theatre. 137 businessmen, students, doctors, ex-serving soldiers, current traffic wardens, stay at home parents, entrepreneurs, kids and successful asylum seekers. The full gamut of the big society.

They combined with a professional team from Sheffield Theatres and Slung Low to create this show that was watched by 600 people a night for two weeks. The show sold out, the audience only paid £15 a pop for their tickets but this is zone 27 after all and the trickle down hasn’t quite reached Sheffield yet like it has Mayfair so let’s call 15 pounds a good start. The show was reviewed well and all the national critics who managed to actually watch the show and not just stand at the back hiding and reading the script really enjoyed it- a feather in the cap of the southern suburbs of the Northern Powerhouse!

There was a moment in rehearsals when 4 members of the company- citizens of Sheffield- were working on the opening scene. One of them being French was encouraged to try it in French, to unlock things. James Phillips- the writer- was in the stalls- his ears pricked up. He went down to talk to the cast, jump cut a few hours and he has written new words to respond to these changes. New words, new meanings, renewed focus to the drive of the play because of a new understanding of the social, political context for the play. We in theatre have a word for that. Dramaturgy. And I’ve checked. The going rate for that is like £200 a day. And there were 4 of this lot!

That play was published by Methuen and was sold at least 7 times in America. Which means it is International Dramaturgy. And that means a better day rate!
Because there were 137 people in it the television were interested in a way they aren’t always in theatre shows. So a number of the cast were involved in live TV news slots. There are clear and specific payments for such appearances in our well regulated industry so it’s worth is easy to decide. But what’s harder to evaluate is that the good news story about involvement in the arts is better for the health of the nation than stories about the usual cuts to services and establishment paedophiles. And what is good for the health of the nation as you always say G-string is good for the GDP of the nation. Exactly.
The 137 volunteers brought in their own costumes for part 3 of the show- the riot!- it was amazing how perfectly these citizens chose the right clothes to take part in an act of violent disobedience against their government. Anyway, they all worked with David Farley- the show’s designer- collaborating to make sure they looked just right. And provided their own stuff as well. Design assistant credit and ‘with thanks’ mention in the programme normally.

Each of the cast spread the word in person and digitally on the old social media. Working with the brilliant comms team at Sheffield Theatres but generating their own content too. I’ve checked what a digital comms assistant makes in a regional rep house and it’s not as much as you’d think G-I-Joe but still, all starting to add up. Because of their personal connections print appeared in places that no comms department could ever hope to reach which clearly led to this piece of contemporary new writing with no one off the tele in it selling out. Which, as surprising as this will be to you G-bot, isn’t a daily occurrence this far from the Donmar Warehouse.

 So when you work out the market value of all this volunteering, and expertise, it really starts to stack up. And when you start to factor in the various impacts it has on the mental and social health of the community, well I can tell you G-weed it’s a hefty figure.

Now obviously the cast of Camelot, the good citizens of Sheffield People’s Theatre did this not for any financial recognition but because they believe in the various personal and societal benefits of all the actions I’ve described above. I don’t know for sure if they are ALL members of the Conservative Party but I can tell you G-note that they certainly act like it. Cut these guys in two and you would find Big Society stamped right through them.
But I was thinking, this behaviour, it’s as worthy (isn’t it?) as the gift of some cash from a rich businessman to a theatre? It’s as worthy- pound for pound-as the giving of money to a theatre and having the name of that theatre changed to your own? isn’t it? I mean I’ve heard some bleeding heart liberals argue that given that we’re often talking about time (as well as cash) poor volunteers the pitching up week after week after week to support our large public arts organisations is actually MORE valuable pound for pound as the donation of money by someone who has more money than they are EVER GOING TO BE ABLE TO SPEND. But lets not even listen to those lunatics G-string.

But assuming that we agree- as I am sure we will- that pound for pound these things share a value then it seems only fair that they are treated equally by your exchequer. So I’m putting in a Gift Aid claim. By my reckoning 28% of the contribution of Sheffield Peoples Theatre is £28 grand.

When we think about the current payments to producers of all colours and stripes in tax relief this one seems like a no-brainer to me. So G-chord, if you can have your chaps cut a cheque and make it payable to Sheffield Theatres then that would be brilliant. After all there’s got to be some reward to theatres for letting Slung Low run around setting fire to public squares in fascistic defences of neo-liberalism. And you know G-dog, as you always say, if we don’t do it who will? Exactly

Right. Must go now, more Picketty to read. And remember, legs wide apart, knees uncomfortably pointed in, straight-lipped grimace like you are mugging a nation.

Much love

Big dog Al x

Blog Post: Our local MP, James Bond and going to public school.

We had our local MP down the HUB. It was first time we’ve done that so it was pretty exciting. It is to a theatre company what hoovering is to a 6 year old; you are aware that everyone older than you hates it but it all seems so exciting you can’t imagine a time when it will become dull.

He asked “why are you an artist?” straight out of the gate. Which is a smart question to open with. I talked about how stories are how we work out our place in the world, how we make sense of the most painful and joyful parts of life; making stories for crowds of other people is an amazing thing to do with your life. Standard. I believe it too. Every bit. Not just on a personal level (on which I’ve bored before) but because the two times a show of mine has attempted to be changed by the authorities the sheer terrifying weight they bring to bear on you is all the proof I need to be certain that stories are important. Actually important in the real world important, not just five stars in The Stage important, otherwise they wouldn’t have bothered.

I mentioned Chris Bryant. He asked if Bryant’s comments about public school boys dominating cultural life had exercised me. Aware that at least some of my lunch guest school’s had been independent and not wanting to piss in the soup I brushed past the point to say that what had exercised me more was that Bryant had declared there were areas of cultural drought when I think that underestimates the breadth and depth of the cultural scene in UK. Chris Bryant is MP for Rhonnda so maybe he just needs to get out more.

At some point, in the manner of these conversations where you are trying your hardest not to say anything contentious, I surprised myself by saying “imagine how different the global image of the UK would be if James Bond had a northern accent?”
Which I then sat kicking myself for. Sean Connery. I’m an idiot.

We talked about the fact that the ten year anniversary of 7/7 was approaching, that he was the MP for the place the bombers came from; we talked about the difficulties we’d had in the staging of James Phillip’s brilliant new adaptation of Moby Dick with it’s young, angry British Muslim lead character; and the fact that in July we’ll be performing on the streets of Sheffield a new version of the King Arthur myth that deals with Christian violent extremism. We talked about how in many northern cities there are people’s theatres, large performance companies of citizens led by professional creative teams, performing contemporary versions of national stories, and often not on stages but in public spaces; Library Theatre’s take on Peterloo Massacre in a northern quarter warehouse; York Theatre Royal and the Mysteries and Blood & Chocolate; and of course Sheffield People’s Theatre.

Big public stories. Stories about things that matter. Stories that help us think about impossibly large things. Told by people who live in those places.
How the stories are told are as important as the what. These aren’t plays for quartets of professional actors in studios but armies of citizens. And the who is telling them is important too. The ownership, the civic nature of these productions. Hearing about the Paralympic Opening ceremony taught me that. The who is important. I believe that.
Back to lunch. Of course ‘who’ our leading actors are is important. “Try making Our Friends in the North with 4 Benedict Cumberbatchs.” The type of people becoming our leading actors will effect the variety of stories told. That’s inevitable. These stories change the way we see ourselves. So if there is a corruption in our “leading actor selection” system we need to fix it.
But you don’t do it by dragging individuals down. You don’t do it by stifling the talent of Mr Cumberbatch. That’s idiotic. You don’t fix anything by attacking the top of the problem- there talent is rightly it’s own defence. The minute the discussion becomes about individuals it becomes small and mean.
You do it by looking at the source. You do it first by accepting that it is statistically so unlikely, so preposterously unlikely that access to opportunity is equal if so many of our leading acting talent comes from a financially selecting top 7% of the nation’s children. You accept that.
If our industry (and the educational worlds that feed into it) was fair, based entirely and only on talent, would our companies, our casts and our lists of 500 most important look like they do? No, they wouldn’t. They really wouldn’t.
And if that is the case (and just look at the lack of gender and ethnic diversity to be assured that it is) do we think we would see any change in the stories we were telling if we made it fair? fuck yes. Of course changing the people telling the stories would change the stories.
We- in part at least- are telling the wrong stories. No wonder we are fucked. We are telling the stories generated by the needs and outputs of an unfair system.

It was a nice lunch. Interesting, engaged, thoughtful company.
But there was something sloshing around the day after I couldn’t put my finger on; I thought it was forgetting Sean Connery was Bond but no.
7/7. Our Friends in the North. Daniel Craig. James Bond. Public Schools. Then I remembered.
About 12 or 13 years ago I applied to be an officer in the army. After bits and bobs I end up in an interview room with a Brigadier. Towards the end of the interview he asks what regiment or service I want to go into.
-Army Intelligence. My father was in intelligence, in the RAF. He had died not so long ago. I’d like to go into Army Intelligence.
He looked at my file. Is there something else? he asked.
-No not really.
You didn’t go to the right school for intelligence.
-I could go away and learn a language; arabic, chinese?
No, have a think about what else you might want to do.

I didn’t continue with my application.

I remember an episode of Spooks once when they had to create an elaborate back story for Rupert Penry-Jones about being an Aleppo arab with white skin and blue eyes so that he could infiltrate a gang of islamic terrorists. It was one of the sillier episodes of Spooks, and that is a bar set pretty high.

It matters who is doing the thing as well as how well it is done. (Not that I would have been much help in pushing back jihadism, I completely accept. Going undercover with my ginger beard and blue eyes!).

7% of kids in the country go to private school.
54% of top journalists went to private school.
66% of barristers.
75% of judges.
33% of MPs
26% of BBC executives.

There is nothing wrong with going to private school, or at least nothing wrong for which individuals should be punished. Some of the incredibly talented members of Slung Low and our finest collaborators went to public schools- I am their biggest fan, their most dedicated champion. The minute this discussion becomes about individuals it becomes small and mean. And neither is it driven by the politics of envy; no more than the certainty I feel that theatres must be physically accessible to all is driven by a resentment of the able-bodied. But if we don’t recognise that the overall system is inherently rigged, that the playing field is far from fair then we’ll never untap the talent (in all fields) that is going to waste.

Theatre and the arts are not the only offenders as Nicholas Hytner said earlier in the week. But he was wrong that we shouldn’t be picked on. We tell stories that help people understand the world, tackle the impossible issues of the day. If we do not have the very best people, if we do not have a diversity of tellers, then we will be telling the wrong stories.
This is important. Not as important as infiltrating a gang of islamic terrorists thanks to belonging to an unlikely if factually correct tribe of blue eyed, fair skinned Aleppo Arabs I grant you. But still. Important enough for Mr Hytner to turn his mind to as a matter of urgency.