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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. (www.thewhitewhale.org)

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.

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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.

Ax

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.

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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.

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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 joanna@slunglow.org 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.

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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.

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Drawings by the ever brilliant Rachana Jadhav

A Kingdom’s Story: Story-tellers made from courage and craft.

There was once a Kingdom whose King had sent his army to a far away land. None of the people of this kingdom had seen this far away land, it was too far away. The people heard little of this land, or their army whilst the war was happening. Their lives were full of the things that fill our lives. And they didn’t seem to have the time to think any more on it.

20140115-175024.jpgThen one day the first soldier, his name was Leader, arrived back from the far away land. He was limping. He was hurt, wounded. The people of the kingdom rushed out to help him. Bringing him water and food and medicine. Leader told the story of his battle. He told the stories of those who had been killed in the far away land and of the beauties and horrors he had seen there. Quietly and in small fragments as he saw fit.

20140115-175106.jpgThe people were hearing these stories for the first time. They were hard for them to understand at times, sometimes too sad to hear, sometimes Leader would laugh at things that no one else found funny and those moments were the most troubling for the kingdom’s people. Though they cared for Leader’s wounds they stopped listening to his stories. They were too difficult.

Before too long more soldiers started to arrive back. Some were too wounded to walk, carried by their friends. A soldier blinded held the hand of another whose arm had been ripped from his body. They came in pairs and small groups, looking after each other until they reached the kingdom where the people would lift them from their feet and place them in beds and special places to rest. Still they wouldn’t listen to their stories, but they did care for them, gently and with respect.

The return of the soldiers came to the ears of the King. He rushed to the resting place to see them. When he laid eyes upon his soldiers he burst into tears. So sad he cried as he pressed his face to the face of each of the wounded soldiers.

“What sadness King?” exclaimed Leader. “Sadness for our brothers laid in the soil of a far away land. Sadness for those that wont return. But we are returned.”

20140115-175153.jpg“But you without your legs” wept the king. “And this son of mine without his eyes. This one without arms. This one weeps day and night.”

“Then we shall build this man new legs.” replied Leader. “You shall be the eyes of this son of yours. I will lift the cup of wine to this man’s lips if he has no arms. And we shall cry with this man so we might shorten his weeping sentence with each of our tears. We shall be an army of brothers. We shall be an army made of courage and invention”

The King was stunned. Few beyond his own mother spoke to him in this tone.
He thought for a moment, rushed to Leader and hugged him to his chest. “You are right, this we will do” said the King.

The King commanded that the finest scientists and inventors and magicians came to the resting place for wounded soldiers. “You will listen to their stories,” commanded the King. “And then you will do as you need to.”

The scientists and inventors and magicians sat with the soldiers, listening, making notes in the way such people do. They asked what the soldiers wanted. “This man” said Leader, “needs new legs. But not the ones he had before. He has asked for legs like the cheetah, so he can run with the power of a cheetah.” A scientist leapt into the air with a yes! I know how to do this and was gone.
“And this man, he is blind and fears both loneliness and falling over. He has asked for a dog to be with him as his eyes, to guide him, to be at his side always, to know the ways of man.” Aha cried the magician this one is for me. And he was gone in a poof of smoke. And so slowly but surely each man was tended to, not just his wounds but his future too.

But still the people of the kingdom kept a caring distance. The stories of Leader and the others were too much for them to hear. Some in the kingdom thought there should never have been a war in that far away land. Others would cry that the stories were the burden of the soldiers to carry alone. There was a division, not just between the soldiers and the people but between those who had never had cause to tell their story to the scientists and inventors and the magicians and those who had. Leader saw this divide and asked to the King to command all the great story tellers of the land to come to the Soldier’s place.

20140115-175228.jpgIt was months before the story tellers were seen again, holed up in the soldiers’ place. But unexpectedly one day there was a large announcement, all people of the kingdom were to come to the very middle of the kingdom.
The moment it got dark the place burst into lights, sparks rained down from the sky as the inventor’s did their thing. The soldiers appeared now, their cheetah legs replaced for ones that let them fly above the stadium. Magic dogs danced in time to the music, men who had lain prone for too long a time stood proud high up above the people with voices strengthened by story tellers and magicians. They told the stories of Leader which the people had not wanted to hear before- the people now listened, their hearts moved by the simplicity of his tales. And in turn they told the stories of each of the soldiers. Not just of the war but of themselves, of each of their battles, not with the enemy but of their journey home. In magic fire and angry song, velvet words and impossible flight not just the soldiers story was told but the whole kingdom’s story was told too.

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Drawings by the ever brilliant Rachana Jadhav

Belle and her singing laugh

Last year the very excellent Kully Thiarai asked us to help her open Doncaster’s new theatre Cast (www.castindoncaster.com)
We did a ceremony involving a trombone player, flash mob dancers, a community choir, a song for the building and all sorts of fun.
To begin the process I’d written 3 parables on the importance of the arts. And then the magnificent Rachana Jadhev drew a series of illustrations. Both the text and illustrations were printed on ‘For Sale’ sign sized poster board. And then the stories were placed on lamp posts so that you could walk from specific parts of the town to the new theatre and read the stories on the way.
I was only slightly aware of the time how outrageous they are as piece of out and out propaganda, barely disguised as art. Of this I am, in retrospect, very proud. The opportunity to do all these things was incredibly precious to us, for which we have continued gratitude to the great guys at Cast.
I’ll be posting all 3 stories here with a selection of Rachana’s illustrations.
Partly because someone pointed out that this blog was basically the same speech rewritten every 3 months and I could afford to mix it up a bit 🙂

Belle and her Singing Laugh.

This place did not always looks like this. That shop behind you was not always there. The river ran a different course. The great squares of the town were once green and where there are now fountains once stood towers.
And all the metal and all the fire and all the men of this country once flowed through this town. On their way to somewhere else, or on their way from somewhere else.
And in this town, long ago when things were very different was a young girl called Belle. A young girl who could not laugh. Belle had tried. All her young life. But whenever Belle went to laugh she would instead sing. She couldn’t help it. She knew she wasn’t laughing but the message went from her brain- Laugh that was funny. And instead a great burst of impossible, high, powerful singing would come out of her mouth. Like a complicated hiccup. The singing was beautiful there was no denying it. But to not be able to laugh was a terrible thing. Think of all the times in our day when something is funny, and how exhausting it would be to sing in response to all those things. This had been Belle’s life.

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To make matters worse the people thought Belle strange. Some whispered of witchcraft, others just that she was peculiar. But the noises were enough to force the girl away from other people. She would be constantly on the look out for anything that might provoke her strange singing, avoiding anything that had a sliver of joy or the possibility of smiling in it. And so Belle grew lonely.
But most people gave her little thought, forgotten as she was in the corner.

And so, long ago in this town, the metal and the fire and the men would bustle and jostle through this place and no one thought anything of it because it had always been that way. It was what people were used to.
But one day there was a great accident, a great collision. Somewhere in the middle of the bustle and jostle all the metal and all the fire and all the men collided. Smashed into one another in a great screaming mess of metal, fire and man.

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A huge explosion shot into the air where the collision happened and the town sent their best firemen and helpers to the scene. But they soon came scurrying back, pale with fear.
What happened the firemen were asked. Have many men died?
It is worse, much worse replied the firemen shaking with fear.

20140114-221849.jpgAnd then, with a metallic roar came a creature from the collision. The metal and the fire had combined in the most horrible way with a poor soul and the tormented creature came stumbling into the square, screaming and spitting fire at all that came his way.

The firemen quickly threw up barriers around the creature to protect the town and people gathered at a distance to look at the monster that made such terrible noises and threw fire up in to the sky.

20140114-221932.jpgIt quickly became clear to everyone that this poor soul was in terrible torment but no one was sure what to do. The firemen had tried their hoses but it had made no difference. This was no ordinary fire creature, his torment was magical not physical. Everyone was stumped. The barriers would hold the creature secure but the town was troubled not only by the wails of the creature and the bursts of fire day and night but also by the knowledge that they couldn’t help him.
But they had no idea what to do so soon the creature had been trapped in the square for many months. And the people had got used to him and simply avoided the square he was kept in.

One night Belle was creeping around town. She would often go out at night when she knew everyone would be asleep. She would go to the quiet dark corner of the town and get out comic strips that she didn’t dare to read during the day. She would read about the silly white dog and his yellow bird friend, about the imaginative schoolboy and his invisible tiger and the orange cat with his mischievous face. And, in the dark, when no one was nearby, she would sing. Sing her impossible, high, powerful laugh.
She had been reading the pictures of the Fat Viking and his silly soldiers and singing her laugh quietly to herself in the dark corner she used for reading her funny pictures.
All of sudden she heard a noise and looked up to see the town’s milkman stood completely still in front of her. She stopped her singing and waited for the familiar look of bewilderment that always followed people witnessing her singing. But he wasn’t bewildered he was terrified.
He whispered urgently “okay Belle, quietly, come as quick as you can to me.”
Why she asked scared, what’s wrong.
“I don’t know how it has happened but you… you… you… you are sat on the fire monster.”
‘What fire monster’ Belle asked as she looked down.

Sure enough Belle was sat on the fire monster, but she had no idea what it was keeping herself to herself in the corners of the town until it was dark. She had moved in the dark to sit on what she thought was a bench but in fact, now she chose to look at it was clearly a large creature made mostly from metal.
She was so taken by how ridiculous it was to be sat upon a creature made of metal that, although she was still a little to be scared, she started to laugh again. She wouldn’t normally have let herself laugh knowing the Milkman was there but it was so silly to have accidentally been sat on a huge creature made of metal. Why hadn’t the creature said anything?
“Why isn’t it doing it’s fire thing?” asked the Milkman still desperate for Belle to get away from the creature.
‘What fire thing’ asked Belle laughing even louder- fire thing, how ridiculous.
“He’s purring” she said between snatches of laughter. She could hear him purring now she knew he was there. Now she thought about it that sound had always been there as she had read her funnies in the dark.

Soon the firemen, and the helpers and the other experts in the town were called by the Milkman and he told them how he found the fire creature calm and purring and Belle with the strange laugh sat on top of it in the dark reading a comic book by torch light. And although the men couldn’t understand it, and although it didn’t make any sense to anyone everyone agreed that somehow Belle’s singing laughter, Belle’s laughing impossible, high, powerful singing soothed the creature and he was at peace when she was laughing.
Belle was just so happy to be laughing and not have people staring at her strangely she continued to sit on the creature reading her comics, although she had no need for the torch because it was the afternoon by now. And the creature had never looked so at peace and although they couldn’t be sure the Milkman was certain that what they used to call the Fire Monster looked like he was happy.
The men started to leave, happy that they understood as much as they were ever going to. “Are you going home?” asked the Milkman of Belle.
‘Oh I would have thought so’ said Belle ‘but just after this one’ as she burst in to laughter singing and turned the page on her big book of funny drawings.

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Drawings by the ever brilliant Rachana Jadhav

Blog Post: After Blood and Chocolate, What’s Next?

Anyone who has seen me in the last few months has more than likely had me talk at them about how Blood and Chocolate changed how I looked at things, how I looked at EVERYTHING.
The scale of the project, managing a nightly audience of 300 through the streets, working with Mike Kenny, making a piece about the First World War- they were all long term ambitions happily achieved.
But the element of it that had such an impact on me was the company of 180 performers who made up the real wonder of the show. A company taken from a wide section of society, from Grandmothers to school teachers, students from York College to incredibly confident and brilliant 8 year old girls. Each gave up an unbelievable amount of time in training and preparation in order to perform a type of theatre that none of them had any real previous context for: a leap of faith for all of them. The dedication, talent and commitment showed by the whole company has had a real and profound effect on me. I have spent so much time over the years in discussions at conferences all basically about the same thing– how can theatre make people care about it more?
And here I was night after night looking at 180 people who gave up every moment of free time they had over months to create a show that involved them, for large portions of the time, standing still in the freezing cold rain. And not only did they do it but they did it with an overwhelming energy and a real, and sometimes combative, sense of ownership. This was people caring, really caring, in a way that I hadn’t experienced to this extent before.

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It was very hard to imagine doing something without those 180 people for a long time. I’ve never had that before. I’ve missed projects, been concerned that I wouldn’t make something as popular, effective again but never a real (and occasionally vocalised) sense of ‘what is the point if they aren’t doing it too.’

And then one day I realised what the answer was in reaction to all this thinking, a way forward- “We’re a community theatre company now” I announced to anyone who would listen. Slung Low is a community theatre company now.
But what does that mean, practically. Does it mean that we only make work now that has a company of 180? That seems ridiculous, let alone impractical. And quite dull after a while for audiences I would think. Not everything we do can have the same form as Blood and Chocolate, nor should it.

We’ve always prided ourselves at Slung Low at doing varied things, trying to excite audiences in different ways; from the box shows and short adventures for One of our earlier years, to the romantic epic Mapping the City and repeated series of live radio plays 15 Minutes Live.
And as I looked at what we had done over the last 8 years or so it started to become clear to me that this was the natural next regeneration for the company. There is often in the arts, and especially through certain types of public funding, a persistent insistence on growth, a demand to ever get bigger that is borrowed unthinkingly from the language of business and which I’ve never really truly understood. Not everything is designed to get bigger, not everything can without losing itself, it’s purpose.
But this was a form of expansion that felt natural, an extension of everything we had done before and that would see us continue to develop and explore new ground.

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What does being a community theatre company mean?
The Pay What You Decide performances presented at the HUB is a part of our being a community theatre company. The £1 drinks at the bar is also a way we try to be a community theatre company.
The performances of 59 Minutes to Save Christmas at Cast in Doncaster where groups of kids with headphones crept around the new million pound building on a secret mission is a part of our being a community theatre company.
The expansion of our allotment at the HUB and our commitment to sharing the produce in different ways with the various groups of people who use the space is a part of our being a community theatre company.
The 15 Minutes Live in the Holbeck Working Men’s Club this past autumn, our annual Christmas Fayre and the yellow transit van that we lend to other theatre companies are all parts of our being a community theatre company.

In early 2014 we are making an interactive video installation for Clay Interactive that will be presented in the permanent exhibition of the Victoria and Albert Museum. It’s about the Venetian Masquerade. Not our specialist subject necessarily.
We’ll be making it with a company of 30 volunteers taken from the different parts of the communities that the V&A sit in. We’ll be training them up, sharing skills over a number of weeks of workshops and then we’ll make the video in a green screen studio. This is part of us being a community theatre company *

And later in the year the 4000 tickets for The White Whale that we give away for free will be part of us being a community theatre company.
We are making a new version of Moby Dick, it’s called The White Whale. The brilliant James Phillips is writing it, it’s a new take on the story of Ahab and his crew as they hunt the whale that took his leg. It will be performed on the canal with the actors on the water and the audience stood around the outside of a canal basin listening to the action on our headphones. There’ll be singing and fire and I am very excited to get going on it. We research and developed bits and pieces in 2013 with actor Oliver Senton at the New Wolsey Youth Theatre and with Opera North last year with cellist Oliver Coates and singer Anna Dennis.

We’re presenting the premiere of The White Whale in Leeds with our partners Leeds Inspired. The show will have an audience of 500 a night and we will give away all the tickets for the ten day run. Alongside internet activities one of the main way we’ll distribute the tickets is by getting in our airstream caravan and driving out into the different areas of Leeds, setting up the Knowledge Emporium and telling people about the show, one person at a time. We’ll hand out the tickets one at a time to those who want to come along,

I have done numerous speeches at events where I have talked about how we need to make people care more about theatre. About how ticket prices are too high and separating us from important parts of the cities we work in. About how too often marketing strategies are aimed at getting an ever dwindling supporters’ base to give more rather than spreading the word about what we are up to. I genuinely thought they were the right speeches to give at the time- but I’m suspicious that I was sometimes little more than the ranty entertainment at these things, needlessly urging on those who already agreed with me whilst being ignored by those who thought I was naive.
This is me putting my money where my mouth is.
But more importantly than that it is a part of us being a community theatre company.
Whatever Slung Low does next, however we approach audiences or the business of making theatre the first and last question we will ask is “How is this us being a community theatre company?” because that’s what we are now and perhaps always have been.

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* A fuller discussion of this is destined for another day but to try and head off some of the inevitable it’s not any cheaper doing it like this. The amount of money given to artists remains
fundamentally the same and the project will involve professional actors who will all be paid our company rate of £475 a week.

The photos in this blog are from the photographic group that accompanied the rehearsals and performances of Blood and Chocolate. An unbelievably talented group of photographers whose work can be found here http://www.flickr.com/groups/blood-chocolate/
I can’t seem to find the specific photographers’ names to credit them individually. My apologies to them.

Blood and Chocolate was a co-production between Pilot Theatre, York Theatre Royal and Slung Low. It was written by Mike Kenny, Designed by Anna Gooch and Liam Evans-Ford was the producer.