Monday, July 07, 2014

In Battalions Festival 2014 - opening speech


Welcome. It's great to see so many of you.

I'm Fin Kennedy, playwright, co-Artistic Director of Tamasha theatre company and co-author of 2013's InBattalions report and 2014's follow-up, the In Battalions Delphi study. And now curator of this - thing - the In Battalions festival.

I should start with a confession. We called it a festival to get you all here. It isn't really. It's more of a conference. But we didn't think you'd come if we called it that. But where the festival model does apply is in the way we've curated the rooms. I've been ably assisted by an excellent student team, all budding writers, enrolled on the new MA Dramatic Writing course here at Central Saint Martins. They've each had responsibility for managing one of three rooms, or 'stages' as we prefer to think of them - these are the ones listed in your timetables. We have some excellent acts (speakers) lined up.

Room 1: NPO Analysis is a space to debate this week's recent Arts Council funding decisions. I'm delighted that we'll have the Arts Council's very own Neil Darlison performing live - thrashing his axe - or perhaps more likely listening to the sound of axes being ground. I'll be personally chairing that one and I've promised to take very good care of him. I actually think it's terrific that he's here, as is his colleague Mags Patten who'll be taking questions in the afternoon - a sign of the quiet but ongoing support the Arts Council have consistently extended to the In Battalions campaign. Also in Room 1 will be speakers from cut NPOs, new NPOs, and panels on how arts cuts are affecting diversity and theatre for young people.

Room 2: Building the Battalion focuses on using a new resource, Crowdmap, to try to build a permanent, online In Battalions community at www.inbattalions.crowdmap.com. 'Delphi Champions' in that room will be making the case for others to join them in using the In Battalions Crowdmap to take forward their top ideas from the In Battalions Delphi study. We'll also have some inspiring examples of culture professionals doing it for themselves, including Stella Duffy telling us more about FunPalaces and how she got that off the ground. One of our students, Liberty Martin, will be telling us more about how Crowdmap works, and how we intend to use it today, in just a moment.

Room 3: Money and Politics does what it says on the tin, examining funding models in the morning and political lobbying in the afternoon, in particular how UK arts and culture can best make their case to politicians in the run-up to the 2015 general election. If you look closely at your timetables you'll notice one panel in particular at the end of the day in that room, with no speakers at all. That was originally going to be a line-up of politicians from each of the main parties. I didn't have much luck. Those who turned us down include Sajid Javid, Ed Miliband, Ed Vaizey, Harriet Harman, Boris Johnson, Baroness Bonham Carter and pretty much everyone in between. Even UKIP and the Greens, who originally said yes, ducked out at the last minute. I'm told this has a lot to do with elected MPs being in their constituencies on a Friday, holding surgeries, but whatever the reason it shows we still have some work to do.

But in the spirit of In Battalions: fuck them. We don't need them - well we do, but we don't need them today. Today is about culture professionals doing it for themselves. That panel is now The People's Panel: Ideas for Action, in which anyone present can register to speak throughout the day by tweeting me @finkennedy by 2.30pm, including, please, your idea for action to make ourselves heard in the run-up to 2015.

There's also an open mic slot in Room 2 at 3.30pm, in which those of you seeking partners or advice for new projects and initiatives can book 5 minute spots to make your pitch to the room. Tweet your Room Chair Ben Musgrave for that - details in your timetables.

So that's the festival format. One of the students pointed out that that makes me Michael Eavis, which is fine by me. Feel free to wander between rooms, to drop in and out and curate your own festival experience. Though we would be grateful if you drew the line at singing along and throwing pints of your own piss.

The findings of the original In Battalions report are well known, or certainly should be to the people in this room.
  • Two-thirds of respondents saying they had cancelled one or more production since April 2012 for funding reasons.
  • Half saying they are programming fewer new plays overall 
  • Half experiencing multiple funding cuts from the Arts Council, local councils, dwindling philanthropy and audiences with less to spend. 
  • Similar amounts admitting to curtailing workshops, residencies, play readings, schools and community work as they contract around their main stages.
In Battalions took on a life of its own in a way my co-author Helen Campbell Pickford and I never expected. It's been downloaded over 25,000 times, had broadsheet coverage and even had questions tabled in Parliament.

But we are not here today to merely describe again the problems unearthed by the original study - though they will of course come up. Because what came next was another report, the In Battalions Delphi study - Helen's suggestion - a consultation exercise about ways in which we as a sector can generate solutions for ourselves, and come up with innovative ways to continue to protect risk-taking on new work and new talent, despite austerity.

Today is an extension of that. The Delphi study has been downloaded 6,000 times, not bad but far below its predecessor. Granted, it is more nuts and bolts, and not as newsworthy, but it contains 36 innovative ideas all sourced from and voted on by you, the British theatre industry. It has been a privilege to carve out that 'blue skies' time for our sector. But unless the sector - us, you - also come together to actually make those ideas (or versions of them) a reality then they remain just so much hot air. I hope that today will kick start that process.

So I would encourage you whenever you hear a problem described today, to also ask: what might be the solution, that we, here, in this room, right now, might be able to dream up. We're creative people. Let's use it.

I know how hard it is to keep up the momentum of something like this. I worked out the other day that In Battalions was a two day a week job for large chunks of the past two years. We've had some successes, notably Ed Vaizey crediting the movement with having been an influence on the Chancellor's decision to offer a tax break to new plays and regional touring. But today is about what we do next.

A battalion contains up to 1,200 soldiers. There's about a hundred of us here today. Not quite a battalion but not a bad start. I'd suggest we divide the workload - each of us taking up a small part of it by championing an innovative idea which you're passionate about. That way it feels less like work and more like an opportunity to work with others on something you've always wanted to do.

Lots of people have asked me over the years how they can help with In Battalions. Well the answer is: you can take over. The time has come to multiply this. I need to step away. Apart from anything else, I have a theatre company of my own to run now. I need the innovative solution-focused spirit of the Delphi study to take on a life of its own in the same way the bad news did.

We might not be able to change the funding situation, but we can take advantage of the silver lining - that we are all going to have to work together to get through this. Maybe on the other side we'll find we have built a future in which British theatre's true value is obvious to all, and maybe put in place a few bright ideas which will sustain it, whatever the Government decides to do.

Take up the baton. Be the battalion.

Go forth - and fight.

Tuesday, June 24, 2014

“Building the Battalion”, Crowd-Sourcing and Ushahidi



A guest blog from one of my MA students Liberty Martin, who is helping me organise the In Battalions Festival next Friday 4 July. 

The 4th of July is an exciting date this year. The In Battalions Festival at Drama Centre London will bring Fin Kennedy and Helen Campbell Pickford’s work on the In Battalions project into its third and most dynamic chapter.

By investigating the effects of cuts to arts funding on theatre, the first In Battalions report outlined the problem, the Delphi study suggested possible solutions, and now the Festival will create the opportunity to take action.

There’s an emphasis on the new in this provocation. If we maintain projects that foster creative risks, new work and diverse voices, we maintain a vital theatre industry as a whole, where the mainstream is continually fed by the experimental work being made on the fringes. But only if that work keeps getting made.

The first In Battalions report went viral in 2012. From personal blogs and tweets to comment in the Guardian, people harnessed the power of the report to express their frustration at a pending crisis in theatre. Through the In Battalions Delphi study industry professionals proposed ways to “work with the Arts Council to protect risk-taking” in British theatre - without having to spend much money. The problem is widely understood, the solutions are more difficult to grasp, but there’s a common sense that there is a crisis.

At the first In Battalions Festival we’ll be proposing that crisis-mapping could be a useful tool for people in the UK theatre industry to share information, ideas and resources in response to reduced subsidy.

Many in the industry are already familiar with crowd-fundingplatforms like Kickstarter and Seedr, but there’s more to crowd-sourcing than funding. Should we be using crowd-sourcing as a way of distributing information rather than funds?

Instances of crisis-mapping have been effective in cases of natural disasters, in political uprisings and in longer term efforts to build communities and respond directly to shared problems.

Ushahidi was the name given to a website created by a group of volunteers in response to the violence that followed the elections in Kenya in 2008: the word means “testimony” in Swahili. In a time of confusion and upheaval a small technically literate group created a tool for people on the ground to share information on a Google map, intelligence which could not be accessed directly via any other channel.

The humanitarian technology network crisismappers.net was set up by Ushahidi founders in 2009 and continues to function as an international community with member affiliations all over the world. Ushahidi was also successfully deployed in 2010, in the immediate aftermath of the devastating earthquake in Haiti. There the platform was used to link up aid organisations and people suffering in the crisis to share information in almost real-time and help respond to life or death situations unfolding throughout the country. It was also effectively used after typhoon Yolanda in the Philippines last year. You can read more about crisis-mapping on Ushahidi founder Patrick Meier’s blog

Now Ushahidi can be used or ‘deployed’ by anyone with the need or desire to share information on a map, inspired by the simple questions that have been so useful in crisis deployments, “What can you see?” and “What do you need?”

Crowdmap is currently being used in wide and varying contexts to deal with on-going situations. From “My health, my voice” an NGO project improving maternity care in northern Indian hospitals, to “Fix Your Street” a site allowing people across Ireland to report issues like vandalism, fly-tipping or broken streetlights for immediate review by their local council.

The concept of crowd-sourcing and crisis-mapping has gained popularity since 2008 and Ushahidi has been the most publicised developer, with founders going on to create new programmes based on their initial work. This tool is freely available and deployments can respond to any given problem or situation.

This is how a deployment could work in the context of British theatre. The In Battalions Delphi study highlighted a need to make free space available for developing new work. The most popular proposal was:

“Ask theatres to make under-utilised space available for rehearsal and performance of new work, scratch nights etc. on a free basis. These spaces would be listed on a national register of support and resources available for creative Research and Development, arranged by region.”
This was voted the most useful and practical way of protecting risk-taking in the industry, though naturally problems were identified. The difficulty of asking theatres to offer free space in a time of austerity, and the problem of who would administrate an online register were raised. The idea of getting councils and private renters to offer unused space was presented as a possible alternative.

A crowdmap deployment could respond directly to this proposal by bringing together reports on:

  • Free space that theatres are willing and able to publicise
  • Projects calling out for space to use 
  • Businesses that need to fill temporarily disused space

Information would be searchable by location, respond directly to a need identified in the industry and could help people make the most of the available resources in a local area.

In the Building the Battalion room at Drama Centre on the 4th of July, we’ll be bringing together people currently innovating in theatre (for instance the nation-wide movement for Fun Palaces), exploring the proposals in the In Battalions Delphi study for practical development, and using crowdmap as a tool for community building online.

As the pragmatist John Dewey said, “a problem well put is half solved.” The key to an effective crowdmap lies first in identifying a real and urgent need in a community, then setting up a deployment that speaks productively to that need. This Festival is an opportunity to work with a real problem and develop real solutions. We’ll be celebrating what we’re doing, and working out how to get what we need.

The In Battalions Festival is from 10am-5.30pm on Friday 4th July. Tickets are available to book now.

Liberty Martin trained specifically in Small-Scale Theatre Practice and is now completing a practical MA in Dramatic Writing at DCL, Central Saint Martin’s College. @LibertyMartin

Thursday, June 19, 2014

In Battalions Festival, Friday 4 July - first speakers confirmed!


19 June UPDATE - Confirmed speakers

In Battalions Festival
Friday 4th July 2014, 10am - 5.30pm
Drama Centre London, Central Saint Martins


Confirmed speakers so far

The first In Battalions Festival at Central Saint Martins on Friday 4 July is shaping up to be the summer's unmissable event of cultural debate and provocation.

Confirmed speakers so far include:

  • Neil Darlison, director of Theatre at Arts Council England - taking questions on ACE's National Portfolio funding decisions, which will have been announced just three days prior.
  • Kumiko Mendl, Gillian Hambleton and Chris O'Connell in conversation - all artistic directors whose theatre companies experienced a 100% Arts Council cut in 2011, but which somehow survived.
  • Tassos Stevens of Coney and Alan Lane of Slung Low - both new NPOs in 2011, talking about what NPO status has allowed them to achieve.
  • Dawn Walton of Eclipse, Jennifer Lim of British East Asian artists and 'disability diva' Mandy Colleran debating how cuts to the arts have affected diversity in the sector.
  • Natalie Wilson of Theatre Centre, Paul Webster of Pearson Education, plus some London school teachers, on the state of young people's theatre and the future of Drama as a subject in schools.
  • Mags Patten, head of Communications at Arts Council England, on the PR challenges facing the organisation.
  • Delphi Champions - theatremakers who took part in the In Battalions Delphi study making the case for their top proposal and inviting delegates to form a consortia to take it forward there and then. These include Jonathan Petherbridge from London Bubble and playwrights Ben Yeoh, Samantha Ellis and Hannah Khalil.
  • Stella Duffy, writer and performer, talking about her new project Fun Palaces and how she got it off the ground.
  •  Jez Bond of Park Theatre and Paul Robinson of Theatre 503 - thriving theatres without any regular public investment - talk about how they pull it off and the daily challenges they face.
  • 'Funding Provocateurs' - David Powell, co-author of Re-Balancing Our Cultural Capital, cultural policy guru John Kieffer, and UKIP's culture spokesman Peter Whittle all present radical ideas on the future of arts funding in the UK.
  • Experienced political lobbyist Rosie Luff of Hanover Communications and Nick Ewbank, regeneration consultant and director of the AHRC's Cultural Value Project giving their tips on how the arts can make their case to politicians from all sides in the run-up to the 2015 election.


As if that wasn't enough, keynote speaker Taryn Storey of Reading University will be unveiling her doctoral thesis The Arts Council and the Politics of Risk: Funding for New Writing in a Neo-Liberal Age. Taryn's research forms part of the AHRC funded project Giving Voice to the Nation: The Arts Council of Great Britain and the Development of Theatre and Performance in Britain 1945-1995, a collaboration between the University of Reading and the Victoria and Albert Museum. 

There will also be ‘open mic’ slots for delegates to pitch their own ideas for new projects and innovative solutions to protect artistic risk-taking, with the opportunity to found a consortium to take the idea forward there and then, using online crisis-mapping resource Crowdmap – tutorials for which will be available on the day.

Tickets start at £20 for freelance culture professionals and are selling fast! Box office: http://www.inbattalionsfestival.eventbrite.co.uk  

Ends.


Notes for Editors

The In Battalions summer festival is a follow-up to playwright Fin Kennedy's 2014 In Battalions report (www.finkennedy.co.uk/in-battalions). The event is a new opportunity for professional theatre-makers, academics, politicians, journalists and other culture professionals to share innovative ideas and practical models for maintaining a vital theatre ecology in the UK.

The Festival will be arranged across three rooms:

NPO Analysis: a room dedicated to charting and debating the Arts Council's funding decisions announced on the 1st of July - just three days prior to the Festival.
Building the Battalion: a room dedicated to founding a permanent online In Battalions community inspired by open-source crisis-mapping platform Crowdmap.
Money and Politics: a room devoted to discussion of alternative arts funding models, and ways for the subsidised theatre sector to make its case to politicians in the run-up to the 2015 general election.

The one-day Festival runs from 10am to 5.30pm with a social event in the evening. It will take place in the new Central Saint Martins building at Granary Square in central London, just behind St Pancras and Kings Cross stations. The Festival is organised with students from Drama Centre London's new MA Dramatic Writing programme, and is part of The Year of Experimentation, a three day new writing festival taking place as the culmination of the first year of the course.

Tickets to the Festival cost £20 (Non-NPO), £35 (NPO funding up to 500k) and £50 (NPO funding in excess of 500k). They can be booked through www.inbattalionsfestival.eventbrite.co.uk

For further information contact: inbattalionsfestival@gmail.com  

Tuesday, June 10, 2014

In Battalions Festival, Friday 4 July, Central Saint Martins College




In Battalions Festival
Friday 4th July 2014, 10am - 5.30pm
Drama Centre London, Central Saint Martins

A celebration of risk, innovation and collaboration in British theatre

On the 4th of July 2014 the first In Battalions Festival will take place at Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martins. This one-day summer festival is a new opportunity for professional theatre-makers, academics, politicians, journalists and other culture professionals to share innovative ideas and practical models for maintaining a vital theatre ecology in the UK and will take place as part of The Year of Experimentation, a three day new writing festival taking place at Drama Centre London as the culmination of the first year of its new MA in Dramatic Writing.

The In Battalions report, published by playwright Fin Kennedy and researcher Helen Campbell Pickford in 2013, received widespread coverage and formed a significant part of the recent debate about arts funding cuts, in particular around theatres' capacity to take risks on developing new plays and playwrights in an age of austerity.

The 2014 follow-up, the In Battalions Delphi study, brought together 36 innovative solutions to this problem, sourced from and voted on by theatre professionals. These proposals suggest new ways for theatres and theatre-makers to work with the Arts Council to protect creative risk-taking on new work.

Playwright Fin Kennedy said:

"The original In Battalions study of 2013 found theatres across England cancelling shows and cutting back on creative Research and Development as a result of Government cuts to the Arts Council. The Delphi study was a solution-focused follow-up. Both studies have been widely circulated online, and carved out some valuable 'blue skies' space for our sector. But what's needed now is a physical space where culture professionals can come together to make real connections to take these ideas forward. The In Battalions Festival at Central Saint Martins is the third stage of the campaign, and attempts to do just that. I'd invite anyone who cares about the future of new British theatre to come along, meet inspiring speakers and share their ideas."

The In Battalions Festival is a chance to discuss some of the issues raised by the In Battalions reports, form consortia to take forward solutions, and suggest new ways in which the sector might work together better, fund itself more sustainably and articulate its case more effectively. The Festival will be made up of talks and provocations from invited speakers, studies of best practice within the theatre industry and other art forms, space to debate how best for the theatre industry to make its case in the run-up to next year's general election, as well social time for attendees to make connections with one another.

The Festival will be arranged across three rooms:

NPO Analysis: a room dedicated to charting and debating the Arts Council's funding decisions announced on the 1st of July - just three days prior to the Festival. Neil Darlison, Arts Council England’s director of Theatre, has agreed to talk about the NPO process and take questions from delegates.

Building the Battalion
: a room dedicated to founding a permanent online In Battalions community inspired by open-source crisis-mapping platform Crowdmap. Delegates can form their own online groups to take forward proposals from the In Battalions Delphi study.

Money and Politics: a room devoted to discussion of alternative arts funding models, and ways for the subsidised theatre sector to make its case to politicians in the run-up to the 2015 general election. The room will end with Cultural Question Time, a panel discussion in which representatives from all the major political parties will set out their cultural policies and take questions.

The one-day Festival runs from 10am to 5.30pm with a social event in the evening. It will take place in the new Central Saint Martins building at Granary Square in central London, just behind St Pancras and Kings Cross stations. The Festival is organised with students from Drama Centre London's new MA Dramatic Writing programme, and is part of The Year of Experimentation, a three day new writing festival taking place as the culmination of the first year of the course.

Tickets to the Festival cost £20 (Freelance artists and non-NPOs), £35 (NPO funding up to 500k) and £50 (NPO funding in excess of 500k). They can be booked through www.inbattalionsfestival.eventbrite.co.uk. For further information contact: inbattalionsfestival@gmail.com

Ends.
Notes to Editors

In Battalions
In Battalions was a research-led report in 2013 and follow-up Delphi study in 2014 about the effects of Government cuts to the Arts Council on theatres' capacity to develop new plays and playwrights. It has since given its name to a loose collective of professional theatre-makers eager to continue this conversation. http://finkennedy.co.uk/In-Battalions


MA Dramatic Writing
The MA Dramatic Writing is a new course at Drama Centre London, Central Saint Martins, and is dedicated to exploring new models of training for dramatic writers in the UK. The course is led by Jennifer Tuckett, who previously founded the UK's first formally industry-partnered MA in Playwriting in partnership with the Royal Exchange Theatre, Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse and Octagon Theatre Bolton, ran industry-partnered projects training writers for theatre, radio drama and digital media with the BBC, and developed Guardian Masterclasses Manchester.  http://www.arts.ac.uk/csm/courses/postgraduate/ma-dramatic-writing-drama-centre-london

National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs)
NPOs are client organisations of Arts Council England, which receive an annual grant for a three-year period. Applications for the last funding round closed on 14 March 2014 and the results will be announced on 1 July 2014 – just three days prior to the In Battalions Festival. In the 2011 round over 200 arts organisations lost their Arts Council support after ACE was forced to pass on a 29.6% cut to its funding from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. This latest round is expected to be equally dramatic.



Friday, February 28, 2014

In Battalions in the House of Lords

In an interesting post-script to my recent series of blog articles summarising the speakers at my In Battalions Delphi study launch in Parliament, I have just been alerted to a subsequent (quite lengthy) mention of the report, and the event, in the House of Lords earlier this month. 

On 12 Feb Lord Mawson instigated a debate in the House of Lords on the current challenges faces UK Arts and Cultural Organisations. The Earl of Clancarty, who attended the In Battalions launch, made a thoughtful contribution in which he made significant reference to both the report and the speakers we presented at the launch, as well as drawing a few conclusions of his own. 

You can read it in context on Hansard here, but I reproduce the Earl's speech here, as it works as a standalone piece in its own right.

Thank you, the Earl of Clancarty. It's terrific to see this issue being taken seriously and given such thoughtful consideration in the Upper House.

Thank you too to my excellent speakers, who clearly made a strong case and gave the Earl some tangible examples, and food for thought.


 
The Earl of Clancarty: 

My Lords, at the latest Performers’ Alliance All-Party Parliamentary Group meeting last month, we heard a presentation of the second Delphi study, In Battalions, by Fin Kennedy and Helen Campbell Pickford. I came away from that presentation with three concerns in particular. The first is the key question they identified from discussion with those working in theatre: in what ways can theatre-makers, theatres and the Arts Council work together to help to protect risk-taking on new work and new talent, without creating significant expense?

The second concern which became clear was that the arts organisation most at risk is the organisation of one, the playwright, the individual artist who, if not wholly, certainly significantly provides the raison d’ĂȘtre for the existence of the larger arts organisations, the theatres and companies which facilitate new work. That is after acknowledging that there is much collaborative work within the theatre, as within the arts as a whole. If that crucial individual risk-taking and experimentation is not nurtured, the arts will not progress but stagnate.


At the same event, we heard presentations from Giles Croft, artistic director of the Nottingham Playhouse, and from Elizabeth Newman, associate director of the Bolton Octagon. The message that rang out loud and clear was how increasingly difficult and time-consuming it is to try to balance the books and bring through new work, rather than rely on tried and tested productions.


My third concern is that it is entirely clear to those working in the arts, if not to the Government, that there is no substitute for public funding. Nothing really replaces what it achieves. Arts organisations are being told to “adapt”, a euphemism for becoming more commercial so that they may survive, but that change means that the very thing that made them worth while in the first place is in danger of being lost. This potential loss of risk-taking, entirely due to a lack of funding, becomes a more critical problem the further away we go from London.


In the year since the regional debate on the arts introduced by the noble Baroness, Lady Quin, much has already changed. We have had the report Rebalancing Our Cultural Capital, mentioned by noble Baroness, Lady Kidron,showing that public spending on the arts is now 15 times greater in London than in the regions. Indeed, the Nottingham Playhouse, which is facing a possible 100% cut in grant from the local council, is located in the East Midlands region, which this report identifies as being the most affected. The devastating Local Government Association report of 2012 is now joined by last year’s equally devastating Joseph Rowntree Foundation study, which predicts that arts and cultural funding by local councils may fall within a few years to almost nothing, and in December we had further local authority funding cuts.


In the short term, I am pessimistic about the discrepancy of funding between London and the regions. The discrepancy is increasing mainly because public funding is being cut—local authority funding, of course, but also the decreased reserves of core funding that will inevitably be hoovered up by London and the bigger institutions. Things will not change substantially until two things happen: first, the funding cuts are reversed and, secondly, the regions and the regional cities obtain greater autonomy, because arts and culture will follow political power. In this sense, of course, the arts are in the same boat as every other area of government subsidy. The regions need to be making their own funding decisions for their own arts production as well as services, and they need to have the money to do so. In addition, a future Government must bring in statutory provision for the arts.


We have a Government who are interested in the arts and creative industries as an export product and for tourism, but are less interested in how the arts are nurtured and produced. I ask the Minister whether the DCMS could take a careful look at the composition of the Creative Industries Council, which helps to formulate policy and which has both a strong global and London-centric feel. It looks outwards but it does not back inwards towards arts production across the whole of the UK. There is no sense of that geography, and that is important.


My other question for the Minister is the same one that I posed to the noble Lord, Lord Nash, at Question Time today. How important do the Government think arts education in schools is as a pipeline into the creative industries, which we hear are now worth £8 million an hour to the UK economy? If the Government think that it is important then the DCMS should be concerned at the continuing fall in the take-up of art and design subjects in schools, as well as the threat that exists to arts higher education.



The In Battalions Delphi study contains 36 innovative proposals on ways to protect risk-taking on new work for the stage, despite austerity.


Friday, February 21, 2014

In Battalions Delphi study - Parliamentary launch (5)

Three weeks ago, on 29 January 2014, Helen Campbell Pickford and I launched our In Battalions Delphi study in the House of Commons, at the invitation of Kerry McCarthy MP, chair of the Performers' Alliance All-Party Parliamentary Group. It was a well-attended event with MPs, peers and representatives from across the British theatre industry.

There were several speakers on the day and, in a series of blog posts since, I have been capturing and publishing the text of their speeches here. Today is the turn of three different contributors from the floor. After all the various panel speakers, there was too little time to have a proper debate, so afterwards I sent out an email asking if anyone would like to say anything on my blog which they didn't get to on the day. Below are three replies I received.


Previous speakers featured in this series are:


Me 
Dennis Kelly, playwright 
Neil Darlison, director of Theatre at Arts Council England  
Giles Croft of Nottingham Playhouse
Elizabeth Newman, Associate Director of Bolton Octagon

Speakers from the floor


Tassos Stevens, Coney:

"I’m from Coney, which makes all kinds of play in all kinds of ways, theatre in the broadest sense of the word where the audience is present with scope to play. I am here to support the need for new work and considered risk-taking as part of a thriving theatrical landscape, and to champion the value of space and support for what might grow into the successes of the future: whether that’s made by a writer’s singular vision, actors running around with cardboard boxes, or in Coney’s case, some early crazy experiments with telecommunications and theatres. We’re all playwrights, for a wright is a maker by any means necessary. And I repudiate any division between those who help make theatre happen, including ‘the administrators’, without whom fall away the structures we need for great theatre to grow and happen with an audience. We’re all in this together, and that’s why I’m here."



Sudha Bhuchar, Tamasha:

"It was great so see evidenced what we all know through our experiences: subsidy is essential so artists and theatre companies can take risks! Tamasha's East is East and our musical Fourteen Songs, Two Weddings and a Funeral both started life as huge shows with big casts, bursting out of tiny studios. Both went on to have various remounts on the middle scale with East is East the film being named as the point of cross-over of British Asian culture into the mainstream. My children's play Child of the Divide about the experiences of children during the partition of India would be deemed too risky in the current climate and would never get commissioned. It is now on a recommended reading list for A-level and AS level English literature. All this work could not have happened without proper subsidy. Cuts are endangering diverse voices from coming to the fore. Even proven classics and revivals from BME artists are harder to realise. It is essential that work from Britain's multicultural communities comes to the fore to truly reflect our changing society."


Jack Bradley, Sonia Friedman Productions:

"I did not get to say the West End cares. I commissioned Chimerica for the National Theatre Studio. Ben Power and Headlong took it on and Sonia Friedman Productions brought it in to shore. That's what I want. To change Shaftesbury Avenue. I wanted to say in this centenary year a hundred years ago a generation of playwrights died. So theatre invented revivals, a form previously not explored. It dominated the last century. This century should have no time for it. We must make anew. Cuts will endanger that. The West End will be the poorer."



The In Battalions Delphi study contains 36 innovative proposals on ways to protect risk-taking on new work for the stage, despite austerity.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

In Battalions Delphi study - Parliamentary launch (4)

Three weeks ago, on 29 January 2014, Helen Campbell Pickford and I launched our In Battalions Delphi study in the House of Commons, at the invitation of Kerry McCarthy MP, chair of the Performers' Alliance All-Party Parliamentary Group. It was a well-attended event with MPs, peers and representatives from across the British theatre industry.

There were several speakers on the day and, in a series of blog posts since, I have been capturing and publishing the text of their speeches here. Today is the turn of Elizabeth Newman, Associate Director of Bolton Octagon.

Previous speakers include me, playwright Dennis Kelly, director of Theatre at Arts Council England
Neil Darlison and Giles Croft of Nottingham Playhouse.


Elizabeth Newman:


I set up Bolton Octagon’s new writing department nearly 5 years ago. In our first year we supported just over 100 playwrights. Last year - our fourth year - we supported 643 playwrights through various programmes, schemes, workshops and commissions.

My mission in 2009: to create a home for writers. At the Octagon we now describe ourselves as a ‘writers’ theatre’. David Thacker and I direct the majority of the plays you will see on the Octagon stage. We see ourselves as midwives when making theatre. We see our role as delivering the writer’s baby. It doesn’t belong to us, we’re the guardian trying to ensure the writer’s child takes its first breath (or second!) and continues to thrive - making an impact on the world.

However, our work developing writers will shortly become less and less noticeable to our audience in the work we share with them in our main auditorium. Let me explain why.

In our main auditorium 2012/13 financial year the Octagon produced four new works: three new plays, one adaptation. Supporting writers at varying stages of their career. All four productions were home grown. From experience we have seen our home grown new plays do substantially better financially than co-productions or incoming work.

In our main auditorium, this financial year 2013/14, the Octagon produced or will produce two new works: one new play, one adaptation. One was home grown, the other a co-production.

We are currently developing next season. In 2014/15 it looks like - at the moment - there will be no new play. And only one adaptation.

As you can see the fall is quick and great. And bizarrely it’s a false economy in the long term. Let me explain.

I’d like to use a case study, And Did Those Feet by Les Smith and Martin Thomasson. A new play that first appeared at the Octagon in 2007. It played to 6,010 people - in monetary terms £69,710. The pre-sales weren’t great. But it opened, word of mouth spread and reviews proclaimed that it was a great new play about Bolton and our important northern town’s culture. We revived it again in 2010 - a mere three years later - 8,188 attenders, monetary terms £94,632. Case in point that the Octagon needs to be developing its home grown cannon of new plays by our local writers. A further £25,000 earned and over a third more attenders.

As we stand this year, as David the Theatre’s artistic director and I sit in front of a white board with Roddy Gauld, our Chief Executive, looking at ideas, I can only imagine the conversations we’d be having if And Did Those Feet was on the white board to premiere this year. Would we be too worried to programme it? Would we be too scared to take a punt? Maybe. And we would have been wrong - paralyzed by fear and the responsibility of being asked to make even more revenue through productions due to slight decreases in funding across the board. Please don’t get me wrong the Octagon is luckier than a lot of theatres, like Giles [Croft] at Nottingham, as we have such a supportive council. But that doesn’t stop the pressure or the fear of taking a risk. David and I are being asked to make a surplus of over £200,000 on productions alone.  And for the Octagon - our size - it’s a lot of money to make when you look at our annual accounts. Over the last three years or so we’ve managed to make surpluses near that on productions but now we’re being asked to make even more.


And Did Those Feet
will continue to make the Octagon Theatre Bolton revenue for many years to come and more than that, which brings me to my main point: it is a play that validates the lives and culture of our audience. It is a play that makes the people of Bolton and its surrounding northern communities proud to be where they are from or where they call home. It also acknowledges their struggle and their fight to strive to live healthier and better lives. Isn’t that our job? To always remember Hamlet’s advice to the players? 'Both at first and now, was and is, to hold, as ‘twere a mirror up to nature...' And this must involve our reality now or the recent past for our communities, surely? And it’s not one size fits all. The ‘nature’ - to continue with Hamlet’s advice - in London is not the same as in the provinces, which is why commissions must happen outside of London.

There is no way theatres outside of London can make the same kind of money from philanthropy to support the art. And I am not including community or participation work in this, I’m only talking about philanthropy supporting the art being made in our auditoriums. And their choice is not because the quality is less. Or because we try less hard. I’d be willing to ask anyone for money and prove to them in any way they’d like me to that their donation or sponsorship is being spent wisely, well and having a great effect. But please ask yourself: how many business people want to bring their clients to Bolton to see the ‘great art’ they are sponsoring when they live in London or another city? I can honestly say not many. So please, introduce me if you know any.

Plays cost money. New plays cost more. Why? They are unknowns. We can’t work out what we can scrimp on, as there is no previous ‘form’. And often when a new play goes into rehearsals it evolves and changes and this ‘unexpected cost’ has to be budgeted for too. This, combined with things costing more and our budgets not reflecting inflation, and David and I are on a losing streak when it comes to programming a new play.

An example. A material we made a production floor out of in 2009 (which we used for 2 productions) cost £5,000. We wanted to buy another to use this year again for two productions: £6,500. A rise in 30% - fair enough. However, the production budget is nowhere near the same. I have to produce two plays on £12,500. How can I justify spending £6,500 on a floor? Impossible. The actors wouldn’t be able to wear clothes! What does this mean - no nice floor? Yes, OK. No nice floor.

Another example. We produced a new adaptation of David Copperfield in 2010. Production budget: £22,000. Some two years later for our new adaptation of Peter Pan – budget was £19,000. We’re allowed one less actor but we have more children to clothe. No flying on this budget. We couldn’t even really afford to make stairs, we had to reuse them from another show. What does that mean – no magic at Christmas?

What both of these examples demonstrate is the potential for artistic stagnation. Lowering of quality. And it’s a slippery slope. Lower the investment and eventually the audience figures will drop. And this will mean quashing of local creativity and nourishment. And also not serving the writer with an adequate expression for their wonderful play. And of course the writers themselves cost money - commissioning fees, visits, development. Far less expensive when they are no longer with us... dead. How is this being a good midwife?

Our development provision has also changed, though not all for the bad. These times of austerity have kept me up at night concocting hare-brained schemes that aren’t all foolish. The latest involves working closely with Bolton Council who are incredibly supportive of the Octagon. We’re seen as a positive evening offer - one of the few things open other than Walkabout . So I’ve just signed a contract to take over our old TK Maxx. It’s massive. They can’t get anyone to rent it for love nor money. No cost to the theatre. Tax relief for the owner. Win, win.  Over the next couple of months, this space will house companies producing new plays to tour across the north.

However, downsides - cancelling planned new writing project studio season. Stopping our script reading service. Reduction in our playwright schemes including our young playwrights scheme - supporting young people who wouldn’t usually access arts provision, especially writing. The sponsorship for this ends this year and we just don’t have the resources. Again, narrowing the new voices we’ll hear and experience on the British stage. And yes, over the last few years we have done more group writing to try and help more writers. But this can’t go on forever, and shouldn’t be the only offer. David Edgar made a very valid point in his foreword in the Delphi Study that we have to support the ‘individual voice’.

We have found innovative ways to undertake more work through our collaboration with Higher and Further Education facilities, especially the very supportive Bolton University. We have even supplemented our commissions through launching a Playwriting MA, which we run with Liverpool Everyman, the Royal Exchange and Salford University. And of course being part of schemes like the Bruntwood Hub, with many other northern theatres, which looks set to reinvigorate joint northern commissions.

BUT I keep returning to my concern about how we assess value? Our work with writers benefits our mental health programme, all our work in learning and participation and our extensive community initiatives.

With all the attacks on drama and literature in schools are we honestly saying that we don’t learn through stories? We don’t learn through sharing narrative experiences designed to stimulate our intellectual development and massage our emotions? Are we going to discard our unquestioning understanding that we learn and develop through looking at those paintings on a cave wall, which evolved into storytelling through spoken and written word as we evolved? I fear we could end up fighting to stay alive in this time of austerity and lose sight of what we’re actually fighting for.

I agree with David that the theatre community would benefit from the Arts Council making new writing a national development priority, but they have to understand this will mean a financial risk. But as I hope I have demonstrated one that will undoubtedly pay off.



The In Battalions Delphi study contains 36 innovative proposals on ways to protect risk-taking on new work for the stage, despite austerity.

Photo: Christopher Thomond