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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.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog post: litter picking and shouting at BBC Question Time

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blog Post: Sitting in a supermarket car park telling people about theatre

20140612-233737-85057042.jpgThis is a picture of 500 tickets to The White Whale.
The White Whale by James Phillips is the new Slung Low show. A free adaptation of Moby Dick. It will perform on a floating stage with boats and fire effects and harpoons and flares and storms. The audience stand around the side of Leeds Dock and listen to the action through headphones whilst it takes place in front of them.
We’re planning for it to be a piece of theatre spectacle; combining the wow effect of outdoor events with the dramatic intensity of a piece of theatre. That’s the plan. (

The idea won the Leeds Inspired large grant, a £40,000 commission for ideas from artists who wanted to create an accessible event for the people of Leeds.

The tickets are free. They were always intended to be free. This is in keeping with the direction of travel that Slung Low has been on for a long time and that is preached and practiced weekly at the makeshift arts centre that we run in South Leeds, The Holbeck Underground Ballroom. It’s a complicated exploration that needs constantly defining, redefining and developing of how we value things, how theatre companies can behave in these straightened times, what is the definition of success and what are the ways that artists can respond to the preposterous demand for constant growth.*
Tickets being free for the White Whale is one of the responses to these questions and challenges, another way is the company wage we operate (more on that here). There are others.
Mostly The White Whale, its epic production style, its subject matter, how James has written it and yes the tickets being free are all focused on making a piece of theatre that might be equally attractive to those who love adventurous theatre already and those who fervently believe that theatre isn’t for them.

But free tickets are only any use if you hear about the event. And you are only going to hear about the event if someone tells you, and you are willing to listen. If you don’t think that theatre is for you you are unlikely to seek out the theatre pages of the Guardian. If you don’t think that theatre is for you then you are unlikely to have signed up to the mailing list of Slung Low, or Leeds’ Grand Theatre. In fact if you don’t think that theatre is for you then you are unlikely to even pay any attention to the big poster you see at the train station for the theatre show that I am sure everyone would love if only they gave it a go.
In fact if we can’t tell people who wouldn’t normally think theatre is for them about The White Whale then the decision to give the tickets away for free is doing more harm than good because I think the 400 people who immediately signed up for tickets after we announced on twitter would have paid money for them.
So we’ve given this quandary real thought. In a world of limited resources it would be a dereliction to spend all our resources on marketing to people who think that theatre isn’t for them. We could potentially end up with no audience.

This belief that many have that theatre isn’t for them is systematic, it’s learnt behaviour. It isn’t based on actually having ever gone to the theatre. It’s based on decades of how we speak about theatre, of how we market theatre, of Julian Fellowes** on the radio, it’s based on decades of the word luvvie being used by lazy journalists. And yes, sadly, based on hearing the stories told by others of money and evenings wasted on some truly terrible theatre and the perfectly reasonable desire to avoid that at all costs.
But I hold on to the sincere belief (I have to, I’m 35 and can’t go and do anything else now) that if you tell people in actual words that human beings use, rather than arts speak gibberish that alienates so many, what it is and why it is exciting then more people will be interested. That a lot of how we have been talking to people about theatre assumes that they already understand what is exciting about it. That’s not going to get it done any more, if the theatre world is going to survive in anything resembling it’s current relevance then attracting large numbers of those who think theatre isn’t for them has got to happen.
The people who aren’t meeting us half way are the people we wanted to attract with The White Whale, that was the point.

So (amongst many other things including a ‘proper’ marketing and press campaign) we have printed off 500 tickets to The White Whale. And over the next five weeks our airstream caravan is going on a tour. A tour of some of Leeds’ town galas (Beeston, Kirkstall, Holbeck for example) and supermarket car parks. We’ll park up and spend the day telling people about The White Whale. In return for an email address (to remind them nearer the time) those who are interested can have tickets: we’ve printed them off ready.

Up to and including the Conservative Culture Minister, we in the arts now believe that culture should be excellent, affordable and accessible. Maybe we all always believed that. But those words don’t mean the same things to everyone. £10 is an absolute bargain for a play I think. But if you’ve never been to the theatre and only ever heard stories of people getting swindled by trips to hoary old crappy plays that talked down to the audience then £10 is a good two hours in an All You Can Eat Chinese Buffet and only a mug turns that down.

Yeah that’s right. This blog is basically me letting you know that I am going to sit in supermarket car parks and tell people about theatre in the hope that they’ll come and see our free play.
I don’t know whether this will have an impact. But I do know that we are hopeful and we promised to do it. So do it we shall.
A friend of the company suggested the other day that we might be reaching a peak of quixotic behaviour. Not even got started yet. All aboard, I reckon that windmill is looking at us funny.


More dates will be announced but for now the Airstream caravan is confirmed in:
Sat 14th June – Beeston Festival
Wed 18th June – Tesco Extra/Seacroft Green
Thurs 19th June – Morrisons Harehills
Sat 28th & Sun 29th June – Waterfront Festival, Leeds Dock
Fri 11 July Trinity Leeds City Centre
Sat 12th July – Kirkstall Festival

*It’s also a process based on where Slung Low is and what we want to achieve. We’re not telling anyone else how to do their business, so take your “Well try that with a staff of 65 full time professional staff!” indignation elsewhere, I’m not buying. This is Slung Low’s way, we don’t think anyone else should be made to walk it. Although all fellow travellers are welcome to join us for a stroll, naturally.

** There are people who say that this isn’t all Julian Fellowes fault and it’s unfair that I keep blaming him. Those people are puddin’ heads and should keep their opinions to themselves. In addition I also lay the blame for some of this at the feet of Simon Callow and his stories on Wogan.

Blog Post: Clive Wolfe, an inspiration

I learnt this last week that Clive Wolfe has died.
If you are learning this news through this blog I am really sorry for your loss. He was an extraordinary man.
He was the President of the National Student Drama Festival. From 1968 until 2000 he had ran the NSDF. The NSDF is an annual festival where the best of student drama performs to an audience of its peers and representatives of the professional industry. The list of alumni who have gone on to professional success is extraordinary; at its best the festival opens doors and connects up young people of talent who would otherwise never have those vital opportunities within the industry. And the festival’s best was Clive. There are legendary tales of him convincing different grandees to pitch in, of selection panels paid entirely in the promise of beer and cheese and how for twenty years the whole outfit was run from his chemists in North London. These are not my stories to tell, I came to the festival long after they had become myths spread around in the bar.

But Clive was vital to me. I wouldn’t be doing what I am with my life without him. For me he had an extraordinary ability to look past bullshit and have faith in the what else might be there: ignoring the cocksure, entirely fake, posturing of a young student director. I first met him when he selected for the festival a series of short Samuel Beckett shorts I had directed as a student. They were, in retrospect, short of the sort of intellectual rigour that was almost certainly needed to make the show work. As a result it didn’t, it was loathed by the judges (two of whom walked out, amongst them the celebrated and fearsome director Annie Castledine) but it had an ambition of intent and reckless energy that Clive rewarded with a place in the festival. He didn’t seem too bothered by its reception, he knew what he had signed up for and he demonstrated the sort of ego-less confidence that I try to hold in my mind clearly each year as we select the festival. A courageous leadership of an unusual kind.
Prior to the festival the news had reached the feared John Calder who managed the Beckett estate that our production featured exactly the sort of ambition of intent and reckless energy that he liked to aggressively sue out of people. Permission to perform at the festival was vigorously denied, disaster! I informed Clive. Leave it with me he said. Two hours later we had permission. I don’t know how he did it. He never told me. But anyone who can take on Samuel Beckett’s lawyer has balls of stone.

A few years later I would proudly become a festival selector. One of the judges that year was a returning Annie Castledine. At the end of the festival I was asked to drive Annie back to London from the festival’s home in Scarborough. The only thing was that she liked to go no faster than 50 miles per hour so it would take a while. Fine, I didn’t mind, she was a legendary theatre force, the time would be full of brilliant theatre anecdotes from her I was sure.
As we were setting off, a by now increasingly frail, Clive flagged the car down and poked his head through the passenger window. “You remember Annie, a few years ago you were here and there was that series of short Samuel Beckett plays that made you so angry you had to leave?”
“Oh yes” replied Annie. “Terrible!”
“Well you do know that Alan directed them.” said a chortling Clive who then promptly waved us goodbye. Predictably Annie proceeded to tell me at length the flaws in my production all the way from Scarborough to London. At 50 miles per hour.
He had the extraordinary ability to look past the bullshit and have faith in what else might be there, but that didn’t mean he didn’t also have a wicked sense of humour. That car journey was one of the most informative experiences of my life.

The story of Clive, the achievement of Clive, of how he and his wife Pat kept the festival going against all strifes, without funding, in the face of union strikes, for decades, even when many advised against it is one that I hold as inspiration.
He is the first person I met in theatre that showed that you could hold your own course, protect a set of vital principles and aims in a generous, but pragmatic, way. And how you can sustain this over decades. With an impact on thousands upon thousands of young (and increasingly not so young) people. A model of how if you hold your nerve, and work tirelessly the impact that the thing you build can have will be immense.
There is a small army of us who, each in our own ways, owe a great deal to Clive Wolfe. I was so sad to hear of his passing. He was an inspiration.

Blog Post: Philanthropy and Participation.

I have never been able to put my finger on why I resent this new focus on philanthropy so much. I’ve made jokes and raged about it in the past. I thought, though never quite admitted that maybe it was because I was scared of how that world view left a company like Slung Low or our colleagues working on the edges of things: you could sponsor a rat at the HUB I suppose but we don’t know any really rich people. In honesty I thought I was worried we’d get left behind. Which I didn’t particularly like as self-preservation is the worst of arguments when it comes to the future of the not for profit arts.

And then after reading this blog about patrons from Lyn Gardner I was talking to a journalist from a local Holbeck newsletter and the two together made me realise what it was exactly about the recent zeal for philanthropy that I mistrust. It isn’t fear (although fear of irrelevancy is a natural response I think).

Slung Low (as are lots of our peers) are attempting to find new ways of the arts being, new ways of creating arts, new ways of attracting and engaging with an audience. A new way of being relevant in what we do and how we do it.
And lots of these attempts involve (hold your nose now because here comes the cold water) trying to imagine different ways of engaging with money. If not alternatives to capitalism then enough room to allow for the POSSIBILITY of variations from the current form of capitalism that masquerades in public light as free market trading. And so much of the language of philanthropy (and corporate sponsorship) is borrowed from the ideological phrase book of the treasury- wealth creators trickling down benefit and investment to those below. It sets those that are wealthy at the top of the food chain. Whilst by definition they have more money than everyone else I refuse to believe that the wealthy have a surfeit of charity, of common feeling, of social responsibility. You listen to Michael Kaiser talk about how carefully you must treat your patrons. Our public funded bodies spending all that attention, time and focus on the wealthy must surely be elitist, no?
The last 6 decades in the UK have seen the public purse, not the private patron, as prime supporter of artistic endeavour and I think that is entirely a good thing, for everyone, but particularly for those that will, like most of us, spend all of their lives not being very wealthy. Imagine the alternative.

From each according to their whim, to each according to the number of rich acquaintances they have. That’s a belief system fit only for Gary Barlow’s accountant.

But I was wrong. Or rather I was staring at the wrong end of the telescope. I’m staring at the Hyundai deal for the Tate and wondering where that leaves Slung Low. Like a chump. I don’t stare at Matilda the Musical and wonder how on earth we’re going to get the rights to James and the Giant Peach. I feel no pressure to emulate the bigger organisations artistically (as much as I think if I could get the right hot air balloon Slung Low’s production of James and the Giant Peach would be killer).
I don’t think our work is a scaled down version of a larger organisation so why would I think of our philanthropy in that way.
Staring at the wrong end of the telescope.

By happy coincidence the voice of Pete Seeger has just drifted out of the radio “Participation: that’s what is going to save the human race.” Quite Pete, quite.

We have been lucky enough, first a wonderful woman called Linda then later by a most excellent chap called David to have individuals approach Slung Low and give us substantial amounts of cash to support our work. And their enthusiasm and personal generosity had a profound effect on how we saw ourselves. We were given not just money, but important self-belief by their support.
But it is a course of action that is beyond a large section of people who want to support us. In reality an extra £5 is beyond many of the people who are otherwise incredibly supportive of what Slung Low does. And what I don’t like about this new emphasis on philanthropy is that those people’s enthusiasm, those people’s support is somehow lessened- or this new world view doesn’t appreciate that those who support Slung Low but don’t have the money to do so philanthropically are as important to us as Hyundai is to the Tate.

And then I remembered the film 7 Brides for 7 Brothers. It’s a musical. In it a community has a barn day. A moment when everyone comes together and builds a barn. Everyone brings what they can, does what they can; some make hot drinks for the tired, some lift wood, some hammer nails, some sew curtains. It’s a team effort. Everyone is included. You don’t have to be rich or strong in order to contribute.

After not knowing what to do for some time with the very generous offers of (non-financial) support from people we’ve realised what we should do: we’re going to have a barn day at the HUB.
We’re asking people who want to support us to come down and spend a day renovating the HUB. The HUB took an absolute battering over the winter and it is in real need of repair. But there is so much to do, far beyond what the 3 of us can manage. So we are hoping that all that can will come down to lend a hand at our barn day. We’re going to paint the walls, fill the skip, recurtain the ceilings, chop up all the wood for the burners: a barn day.

The company now operates a company wage. £475 a week. Which is £95 a day. So if you come down and spend Sunday 23rd March with us you will in fact be donating £95 to us. Because this is work that has to all be done and without your contribution we would have to pay those who do it (even if it was ourselves) £95 a day. Because we have a company wage.
So for each of you that comes and help basically donates £95.
So come down with a friend and spend 6 hours toiling on the HUB, £180 given. Bring a family of 5 and it’s £475. That’s nearly £500- what are you, Alan Sugar?!

I said a few months ago that Slung Low have realised that we are a community theatre company and that must impact on how we do every single thing. It’s taking me some time to realise the full effect of that sentence but this Barn Day is us wondering how a community theatre company working today and in South Leeds can attempt to increase it’s philanthropic activity. There will be other ways (keep an eye out for news of a fund raising ceilidh!), this is the first.

The HUB Barn Day is on 23rd March. From 11-5.
We will serve everyone a Breakfast Bap by way of nourishment at lunchtime. Please wear clothing suitable for outdoor grubby work. You do not have to be strong or DIY minded to be involved.
All sizes, ages, strengths and mobility issues will be catered for. You just need to be willing.
As Pete Seeger said, Participation: that’s what is going to save the human race.

It would be brilliant if you could let us know you are coming. By dropping an email to telling us how many are coming down, if any are vegetarian or vegan and if you have any specific DIY skills we can plan to use.


The Boy Who Saved the World: Loud Enough and Quick Enough to be Everywhere at the Same Time

20140115-191914.jpgOnce upon a time there was a boy. His name was Lucky. He wasn’t an ordinary boy. Lucky lived in a town like this one. In a regular house like yours and mine.
But Lucky was too big for the world. Not a giant. Just always a bit bigger than the other children. Always a bit bigger. He could throw a ball a bit further. He could climb a bit higher. He run a bit faster.

But after a few years, when Lucky was a bit older, this got to be embarrassing. Always a bit different from everybody, in a town just like this, in all directions and in all ways. So one day he made sure he ran a little bit slower. He climbed a little bit lower. And he threw the ball a little bit shorter. He held his breath every third breath, he thought a thought less every few thoughts and ate a mouthful less at meals every day.
Slowly but surely he got smaller and he got slower. Just like he wished.
But his shrinking in all ways and from all directions came at a cost.

He was starting to get louder. He couldn’t help it.
At first his sneeze would scare the cat. Then a cough shattered a glass. Before too long his friends couldn’t stand too close to him for fear their ears would burst.
Lucky was too dangerous to be near. Even his mother couldn’t be near to him without 15 pillows taped to the side of her head, to protect her ears.

Lucky was alone and lived far away in the dark peaks of the country where nothing but boys with voices too large for a town like this lived.

20140115-191954.jpgA teacher in a town nothing like this heard about Lucky. Heard about his shrinking of himself and the explosion of his voice. And this teacher thought to himself- I could help this boy, I could teach him to control his voice, teach him to make it big only when he wants. And so the teacher set off to find Lucky in the dark peaks.

20140115-192325.jpgMeanwhile, in a town like this one, the chief scientist had discovered something terrible and rushed to the Mayor to tell him.
The scientist had been monitoring the melting of the ice caps that can be found at the very top and bottom of the world.
The ice had melted and the seas and rivers were rising. But much quicker than we thought, the water was already lapping at the towns that had shops that sold sticks of rock.

20140115-192043.jpg“When would the water reach a town like ours” asked the Mayor
“By my calculations,” the scientist said, sweating,”Sunday week.”
A town like this was in disarray. No-one knew what to do and ran to and fro looking for things that might help stop the water at the ever creeping water’s edge.

“I have an idea” said a wise old woman who had always lived in a town like this as long as anyone can remember and was the oldest person anyone had ever known. “If we could just shift all the land a step to the left then all the new water could fill the hole that was left.”

“We just need everyone in the world to leap into the air and land together at exactly the same time.” said the wise old woman after she had spoken to the scientist. “At exactly the same time.”

So the Mayor called up all the other towns like this one, and all the other towns nothing like one and spoke to all the other Mayors. And with the water starting to lick at the doors of the town’s shops all the people of all the towns got ready to jump together.

“3, 2, 1 JUMP” cried the Mayor of a town just like this one down to the crowd and down the phone to the other Mayors. And everyone jumped.

20140115-192155.jpgBut you could hear in the way that the noise travelled back from the different towns that everyone was jumping at slightly different times. “It’s a delay on the phone line” said the scientist. The plan hadn’t worked.

They tried everything. Flags. Fireworks. Nothing worked. There was no sound so loud and so fast that it could be everywhere at the same time. The water was lapping at their feet now. Fountains of water were exploding out of the pavements and the walls of the building. A town like this one was doomed.

At exactly that moment Lucky and his teacher walked briskly in to town. In the years he had spent with Lucky in the dark peaks the teacher had taught him all the poems of the world, all the great speeches from books true and false. He had taught him how the spoken word was a weapon, how it could be used to hold back an army, to make someone love you, to move the cold hearted to pity, and the broken to defiance. Most importantly he had taught Lucky how to control how he spoke those words. Voice as breath. Breath as voice.

“What you need,” Lucky addressed the town “is something so loud and so fast and so clear that it can be everywhere at the same time.” Lucky took a breath and his voice got louder, louder still and impossibly loud as he said,” And I have just the thing. Me.”

20140115-192431.jpgThe people of a town like this one sensed that there might still be hope and they cheered Lucky on as he bounded up the highest mountain in the land. After a while they couldn’t see him as he disappeared into the clouds but they certainly heard him as his voice boomed out…

“People of towns like this one, People of towns not like this one. Prepare and be ready. And 3, 2, 1 JUMP.”
Lucky’s voice was so loud and so fast that it was everywhere at once. The people of all towns flung themselves in the air and all, every man and woman and child landed on the wet ground at exactly the same time.

The earth clicked round one step just as the old woman had thought it would. The water rushed back to fill the space left and the people of a town like this one, and of towns not like this one, cheered Lucky louder than even Lucky would have managed. Probably.

Drawings by the ever brilliant Rachana Jadhav