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.

Blog Post: 2014, the year of more ceilidhs, allotments and dancing for your Nana

I’ve been on holiday. To the highlands. Where mostly I walked with Billydog in the mountains and thought about what I wanted to see more of in the coming year.

20140105-155227.jpgI can’t dance. Can’t do it (with the exception of my wedding day and very rare bursts of boogy on over enthusiastic press nights). Certainly not with any confidence or for any sustained period.
Last New Year’s Eve I went to a ceilidh. A village hall. The lights off. Plastic chairs around the outside. 3 musicians on the stage.
Everybody seems to know the dance: from the old grandparents in the corner to the hardest looking dudes in the other corner.
When one dance starts by everyone forming a circle and holding hands, everyone does it: 7 year old boys (natural enemy of holding hands) and dads and 14 year old girls and me. All holding hands because that’s how this dance starts.
Everybody participates, everyone is having a go. Sat next to me is an old man in his 70’s, Roy. Roy bust his leg falling down a few months ago, the pot is only two weeks off, “it takes it out of you more than you expect, doesn’t it” he tells me early on before the music starts. Now he is stood opposite me in the circle: he’s having a go too.
It is by some distance the most inclusive thing I’ve experienced, the structure of the dances themselves designed to let people access to them. They are repetitive, phrases of 8 or 12 moves that are repeated in two or three acts, so that even I, and the family of Eastern Europeans in the corner who haven’t ever seen the like, can join in quickly. Everyone is involved.

They all learn the dances at school Roy told me.
I believe him. Because amongst the crowd here tonight is a very lovely woman who is an exceptionally brilliant dancer and a PE teacher. And she is the one who keeps me on the straight and narrow, she leans in and sorts out my turns. She and I are doing the same dance, we’re both having a whale of a time, it’s just that she is doing it very well, gracefully, with a deal of composure and I am doing it with less grace but with what my wife maintains is a good deal more gusto.

There’s the band too. The Graham McKay Band. A drummer and two accordions who sound like there’s dozens more of them than there are. They are exceptional. They play for 4 hours, stopping only to let the piper on for a few minutes and to shout the bongs. Such skill. It stands as one of the most thrilling live music events I’ve ever experienced. And I’ve watched the LSO play the Firebird so I’m not just comparing it to Robbie Williams’ concerts.

It’s £15 in. There’s a raffle in the middle after the piper. At regular intervals young lads in their first kilts and scruffy trainers move around the the hall dropping off plates of fish and cheese sandwiches- £15 in and your tea too.

It is the most enjoyable evening I have had for a long time. So much so that we come all the way back to Kincraig the following New Year and do it all over again. Same thing happens a year later.
But what is extraordinary is not that it is enjoyable (although that is obviously a bonus) but that for that evening I can dance. Not necessarily well but certainly full bloodied, fully committed and better than I ever have anywhere else. I dance alongside the PE teacher and all her talent, the rest of the village, the completely bewildered Eastern European family, to the three men on the plain stage who sound like a dozen.
It is a piece of performance that is transformative, it transforms me, makes me better for a while and I understand as I wind my way home that night that I was both in the audience and a part of the company. It feels brilliant. I want more of this feeling. There’s a world with more ceilidhs in that I am interested in living in.
I remember something Steve Lawson (@Solobassteve off of Twitter) said when we were talking about our allotment at the HUB one day on twitter. Allotments are one of the best arguments that everyone can create things, that not all art is the preserve of a specialised elite. I think there is something democratic and empowering about allotments- it’s the main reason we have one at the HUB. In a world where there is little space for alternatives to the prevailing hegemony, where even attempting to discuss alternatives to the relentlessly dominant capitalist monoculture is deemed naive, that running an allotment is a positive, harmless, productive two fingers up to an ideology that worships Asda Walmart as a creator of futures. There’s a world that contains more ceilidhs and allotments that I’m interested in living in.

One of the Slung Low gang tell the best story about their Nana and Christmas. Every Christmas Day they all settle down as a family to watch Top of the Pops. After a few minutes the youngest member of the family would be given the nod, “it’s time to dance for your Nana.” And so the youngest would start to dance for her Nana. After a few minutes the coffee table would get cleared out the way and the rest of the family would join in until everyone was dancing whilst Nana delightedly watched from her chair. “Dance for your Nana.” What a brilliant inspiration for any piece of performance- dance for your Nana. The specific thing I love about this story is that it makes me imagine a space so safe, so supportive that an entire family will stand up to dance for a grandmother. I love imagining that space. There’s a world that contains more spaces like that, more ceilidhs and more allotments that I’m interested in living in.

2014: the year of more ceilidhs and allotments and dancing for your Nana. Here’s to it.

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Blog Post: Transparency, money and being the theatre company we want to be

I went to the theatre the other day. To see a new play. It was good. It cost £50 for me and my wife to watch it. It was a good play. It wasn’t worth £50. Might have been worth £50 on Broadway. Or even maybe the South Bank. But I don’t live there, I live here. And the absolute certainty that it wasn’t worth £50 isn’t a comment on the talent, determination and accomplishment of the show. It’s a comment on the context that show sat in. It’s a comment made with the knowledge that earlier that day I had done the weekly shop and spent £50 on that too.
At the end of the play an actor (one I particularly like as a performer by coincidence) stepped forward and said that it would be brilliant if we could write to our MPs to tell them of our love for the arts because without the subsidy this theatre got from the Government then it would be unable to keep the ticket prices at the levels they were.
A little while later, still thinking about the night out at the theatre, I read Bryony Kimmings blog (http://thebryonykimmings.tumblr.com/post/67660917680/you-show-me-yours). I am still not sure what I think about everything she said but it’s clear that there is a massive distance of understanding between her financial expectations and the behaviour of the venues she’s touring to. As great as the difference in realities between me and the play I saw. And then I read this blog (http://t.co/CkcfNnFuOa) outlining how no one had promised any artist a middle class income, and I was even more depressed and befuddled.

I don’t have the answer to any of this. I’ve been thinking about it for a long time now. Still nothing. A lot of what Bryony said resonated with a real sense of disappointment with the theatre sector I see in an increasing number of people, a growing idea that it doesn’t really do what we want it to. Some of the discrepancies between different parts of our sector are terrible. I did a show this year in which I got paid 1/3 of what the production manager received. It’s not that he didn’t deserve the money that sticks in my throat, it’s that this inequality is based I think partly on the collective knowledge that I, as a director, will in the end do it for a lot less money, where as his bargaining position of “it’s not worth my time to do it for less” is not a posture, it’s his truth. So, in this instance, and many more, the sector is subsidised and held up by those with the greater determination to do it: the actors who train themselves (on their dollar) in the skill your show needs, the director who does it for the promise of the next job, the playwright who writes the scratch for free and so on. But it’s not run by those people. And increasingly the sector is moving further from the ethos and energies of these people, artists, and ever more vocally to the ethos and energies of a business world.
And I think that this is why so many people I meet, and some days me, are so terribly unhappy with the sector.
And I have no idea what to do about it, it seems a set of intractable problems. Because if nothing else- and there is much else- no one has ever said with a straight face “please just do a bit of administration for the week, I’ve no money but it will look great on your CV”.

But I have come to a couple of realisations, the acceptance of a couple of limits. And they’re helping me. Not find a solution but find my way through it.
Firstly I realised there is no bad guy within. I don’t know anyone greedy in the arts. That production manager? He’s got two kids, he earns his money, and my shit isn’t his problem. I’ve met plenty of condescending (for example) administrators, I’ve met plenty who don’t actually LIKE theatre yet inexplicably keep working in it’s marketing department. But I’ve never met a lazy one. They earn their dollar.

And secondly that I can’t do anything about anybody else. There is a system, there is an infrastructure, there is a ‘sector’. But I realised in the moment the Equity Manager of the North tried to arrange an introduction with my own wife it is not some great crushing, competent conspiracy. It’s made up of people, trying their hardest, in a terribly unfair world, in their own way. Doing whatever they can to achieve what they agreed to do when they got out of bed this morning. (This may sound terribly obvious to you but it took me well in to my 30’s to get this). You have the bit of the world you can control and the rest is just variations on screaming at the television during BBC question time: your bit of the world might grow, it might shrink, it could disappear but it’s all you can affect directly. And therefore it’s vital to be in your little world how you want the world to be, it’s the only way change really happens, when things are done differently. Your argument for change is how you behave.

Slung Low have been a part of Arts Council’s National Portfolio Organisation for the last 18 months. During that time we’ve operated a company wage. Everyone involved in a show is paid the same amount each week, £500*. The figure was based on the average wage of the nation. Everyone working on a show is paid the same and would be paid the national average for each week worked.
This did a number of things. Given that we were coming from a non regularly funded background it meant we saw a rise in our costs (On a personal level my income doubled from it’s traditional £12k). The extra cost was met with increased output, making more shows meant we could cover the costs. We’ve always been busy but that first year saw us make 12 different pieces.
More importantly it removed nearly all stress about fees. There are people, brilliant brilliant people who cannot or will not work for £500 a week. It is a great shame that we cannot work with them. There are others who will only work with us sometimes- they work elsewhere for much greater money and then they can afford to work with us for a bit. And there are others for whom £500 a week is a sizeable amount of money with which they are pleased (me for example who for the first time in 15 years of working is finally paying back debt).
We are not disrespecting anyone when we say the fee is £500 a week. That is what we pay. You can accept the job, you can reject the job but you will struggle to be offended by it.
The amount of money isn’t the transforming thing, it’s the transparency. If we all start from the shared understanding that we all get paid the same then there can be a transparency in the budgets, there is no secret, there is no great resentment building about this and that. And it means that the budgets for all the projects can be shared with all those working on them and even, if needed, with the audience.

This will have to change slightly in the next few years. Like all organisations we’ve seen year on year cuts which has slightly- but vitally- reduced our government investment whilst all our costs have been rising. Our £99k cannot go as far it did a couple of years ago and there just isn’t the commissioning money out there that there was once- we can’t work our way out of this, there’s not the work. So from the 1st January 2014 we’ll be taking a company pay cut. Every week worked (by any member of any of our teams including obviously me) will be paid £475. Whilst only a small amount of money each week it will, across all our projects, be the difference we need to make: a little from everyone and no impact on the audience experience is what we’re aiming for.

This level of transparency, with artists and audiences, is at the heart of the HUB, the rehearsal and performance space that we run in 5 railway arches in South Leeds. If you have need of it for a performance project then you can have it. If you have money we’ll take it off you. But if you don’t you are welcome and we ask you to repay in some form of labour- cut the old sets up for the wood burner, do a bit in our allotment, something.
Every two weeks Porl Cooper (Slung Low’s General Manager and HUB Programmer) presents a performance of a visiting company (Middle Child, Idle Motion, Flannagan Collective, Daniel Bye, Ad Infinitum, Hannah Nicklin, Rogue Theatre are just a selection of the artists). These shows are Pay What You Decide. On the way out you put the money in a jar. No-one watches or hassles, it’s between you and your God. There’s no charge for parking, the tea is by donation, there’s sometimes free soup made from the allotment veggies and all drinks are a £1. There are no hidden charges. There’s no trick.
All the money in the jar goes to the visiting company, we just put it in an envelope for them.
This only works by a series of trusts. The company trust that we’ve done our best to tell people about the show (there’s no marketing department, there’s me and (mostly) Porl sending emails and tweets and putting up posters in the supermarket); the ever growing and increasingly diverse audience trust that if Porl says it’s worth coming out in the dark on a Sunday evening then it is, there’s no filler; and we all trust that the audience are going to put the money in the jar.
What I love about this all is the real sense that when Porl stands up in the HUB’s parlour to tell the audience to go and take the seats and he makes the speech about the money jar and all the rest that he- as an artist curator- is saying to a group of people, “I’ve picked this for you to watch, I think you will find it interesting, I’ll be around at the end for you to let me know.” That for the first time I am seeing the act of curator as one of an artist. I know that this happens elsewhere, whether at Contact, Stockton’s Arc or a host of other places, but I’ve never SEEN it operating before. In fact quite the opposite, I’ve played venues with shows where absolutely no one from the venue has seen the show. Hell I’ve done full commissions for buildings where no one bar the AD has come and seen the show.

I think it’s because we’re so small, so homemade by necessity (last night at the HUB the movement director of our last show handed out hot water bottles to audience as they went into the auditorium- you can only do that when you seat 70) that what we’re trying to do is clear, on the surface, transparent. A company wage. All the money in the jar goes to the performing company. You might not want to work for us, you might not like it, you might think we’re a bunch of hippies: but you can’t complain you’re being taken advantage of. And it is this honesty of energy, this transparency that audiences are on one level responding to.

But is it scalable? I am often asked. This works for you for now, but could it be used elsewhere? Good god, why would you want it to? This works for us, I don’t think it is right for anyone but us. We can do this because of a unique set of circumstances that saw us here.
That said the very least we should be expecting of artistic companies- of any size- is that they engage with where they sit in the world, not just in what they do but also in how they do it. I don’t think it is unrealistic for theatre organisations to stand for things, and to be and behave accordingly. But it’s foolish to demand that any two organisations should stand for the same things.

There are days I sit in Holbeck, especially if its raining and i can’t get the wood burner to work, and look out at the yard with the smoke from the tyres the dodgy garage next door has set fire to, or as my knee starts to ache as we’re emptying gear from the 5th chuffing van of the week and I think it’s all ridiculous. This is no way for a man to spend his ’30’s. That what we are doing here is not going to make any difference to the play that costs £50 for two to see, it doesn’t address any of Bryony’s issues. It does nothing in the grand scheme of things to demolish the bullshit idea that theatre is something that only the privileged and preposterous do: an art form fit only Julian Fellowes and other well fed dandies.
But the theatre world is a mosaic, made up of little pieces of fragmented ideas, endeavours that failed or succeeded but existed regardless. No one runs a theatre like the original Liverpool Everyman anymore-it’s impossible in this day and age- but even in it’s new bricks the spirit of that original can still be seen in the contemporary Everyman. Reading Joan Littlewood’s biography you’d have a sense that her life’s ethos was completely ineffectual, yet there isn’t a day that goes by without seeing on Twitter yet another commitment made to Stella Duffy’s ambition to create Littlewood’s fun palace. She is as invoked as any artist in this country.
I am not for a second suggesting that what Slung Low does is in even the same postal district as any of those glorious ventures AT ALL but the realisation that not being able to change anything other than what our audiences and artists experience does not let us off the hook but in fact emboldens us further. The only way things change happens is because people do things differently.
“Idealistic little fucks” said one visitor to he Hub, at least partly fondly I hope, as I was explaining the barter system and that the ketchup in the HUB kitchen was from the tomato plants in the yard and that we are hoping to create a community kitchen to support rehearsal processes. I don’t think it is unrealistic for theatre companies and buildings to believe in things, and to be and behave in accordance with the change they want to see in the world. I think it’s far too realistic, and crushingly dull, for us to behave like glorified grocery stores in response to a political class lacking any demonstrable imagination.
Yes. Idealistic little fucks. That it’s full of idealistic little fucks should be the least we demand from our theatre sector.

On 7th December we’re having our Christmas Fayre at the HUB. There are stalls, we roast a pig, we sing carols, mull wine, hug each other, and eat cake. It’s 12-4. Come down, say hi. We’ll be the idealistic little fucks behind the bar.

Alx

*Brilliant producer Laura has reminded me that there are some exceptions to this; projects that involve a high level of expenses (The Knowledge Emporium where the fee is £450 plus £75 expenses) or our continuing live radio programme 15 Minutes Live but fundamentally the principle is at the heart of what we do although I recognise the exceptions.