Saturday, October 18, 2014

In Battalions open meeting, 7.30pm on Weds 26 Nov 2014

The Perseverance Pub, 63 Lamb's Conduit St, London WC1N 3NB (tube: Russell Square)

In December 2012 I met Culture Minister Ed Vaizey at a Writers' Guild event in Parliament, where he said to me that his government's cuts to the Arts Council were having "no effect" on the development of new plays and playwrights in England. I resolved to gather some evidence about the damage being done. The resulting report, In Battalions, showed theatres across the country curtailing a whole host of new play development in response to the cuts or fear of cuts. The report has been downloaded over 15,000 times (get your copy here), received broadsheet coverage and had questions tabled in Parliament.

2013 saw a follow-up report, by me and my researcher Helen Campbell Pickford, the In Battalions Delphi study, an industry consultation to find innovative ways to protect risk-taking on new work for the stage, despite austerity. (Also available free online here). There have also been several pub meetings, an open letter to Ed Vaizey signed by Helen Mirren and Tom Stoppard (among 70 others), and the In Battalions Festival at Central Saint Martins College.

One year on from our first meeting, Ed Vaizey stood up at the same Writers' Guild event in Parliament and credited the In Battalions campaign as having been an influence on the Chancellor George Osborne's decision to announce a tax break for new plays and regional touring, a move which is poised to inject a much-needed cash boost to the industry when it takes effect next year.

In Battalions proved that one artist (and a researcher) could channel the British theatre industry to speak to government with one voice, and effect a small but significant shift in government thinking.

There is a general election coming up. What's more, I have a new full-time job, as Co-Artistic Director of Tamasha Theatre Company. I am keen not to lose the momentum and profile which In Battalions has built up; it could help keep these issues on the agenda in the run-up to May 2015, and beyond. But I no longer have the time to spend keeping the movement alive on my own.

I am calling this meeting to discuss this, and to see if together we can find ways to make In Battalions a more shared movement, led by and contributed to by other theatre professionals. Are there ways in which, together, we can continue to make the case for subsidised theatre's social and cultural value, and to make our case heard by politicians?

I am also open to the possibility that In Battalions may have run its course. Other movements such as What Next? are campaigning on similar issues, with more resources, a higher profile and more regular industry and political engagement.

But rather than make this decision on my own I wanted to talk it through with the friends and colleagues who made In Battalions what it was.

Please come along if you can on Weds 26 Nov 2014 and be part of the conversation. It will be very informal, free to attend, and above a pub in central London, so there will drinks. Even if this is the end of the road for In Battalions, it would be nice to come together one last time to celebrate what we have achieved.

Fin Kennedy

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Domino Effect and other shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

For the first time in 5 years, I've got a new show on at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. 

The Domino Effect is a new play for Mulberry Theatre Company, the production wing of Mulberry School in East London, with whom I have a creative partnership stretching back ten years. From 2007-2009 we took a new play to Edinburgh every year, and in 2009 we became the first British state school ever to be awarded a Scotsman fringe First, for our show The Unravelling. In 2010, four of our plays were published in a volume by Nick Hern Books. Mulberry has since had their own theatre built on site, and been the hosts of Schoolwrights, the UK's first playwrights-in-schools training scheme. You can read more about my work with Mulberry here, and more about The Domino Effect specifically (and how to book tickets) here.

But that's enough about that. Those of you who have been tempted here via social media may well have clicked through on the promise of getting my personal list of recommendations for the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe. So here they are.

The usual caveats apply - I know next to nothing about most of these; they tend to be ones on when I am there at the start and great shows on later in the month may well not be listed; last time I walked out of 50% of what I saw... etc, etc. (It's also not all theatre - there's some comedy and other stuff like magic in there. We all need some time off.) The Fringe is nothing if not a great leveller. It's also no secret that there is no quality control - most shows are dreadful. I see it as like being a gambler. You will lose a lot - time, money, the will to live - before a big win comes along which (hopefully) makes it all worthwhile.

I've categorised my choices into Top Picks, Worth a Punt and Total Risks. There is also a separate list of shows which might suit teenagers, seeing as I will be there with some and looking for stuff to take them to.

Anyway, enjoy. And don't blame me if they're all rubbish. Apart from The Domino Effect obviously, which is the only one which has my personal guarantee. But then all the other shows will have their makers' guarantees too. 

That's Edinburgh for you.

Top Picks

At The Illusionist's Table
The Domino Effect
Ian D Montfort
Robert Newman's New Theory of Evolution
Stewart Lee
The Post Show
Tom Binns

Worth A Punt

A Play, A Pie and a Pint
Americana Road Trip

Baba Brinkman: A Rap Guide to Religion
Beats North
Blind Hamlet
The Devil Without
Early Doors
The Eradication of Schizophrenia in the Western World
The Initiate
Little On The Inside
The Lu-Tings
The Man Who Almost Killed Himself
Now's The Hour
Peter Antoniou: Happy Medium
Philosorap Cabaret
Standby for Tape Backup
Strange Resting Places
Thinking Drinkers
The Trip
Theatre On A Long Thin Wire

Total Risks

Bad Boys: Whisky Theatre
Baron Conspiracy
Burger Van
Burning Books
Circumcise Me
How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found
I Am Not Malala
Men In The Cities
Notoriously Yours
Object Lesson
Phone Whore
Pint Size
Race by David Mamet
The Secret Collector
Tea Time Story
This Is Where I Live

Stuff for Teens

Chasing Zeds
El Britanico (Wrestling Reality)
Error 404
Harriet - Teen detective
Now's The Hour
1 Green Bottle
Paper Play
Please Don't Cry (At My Funeral)
Pomegranate Jam
Private View
The Secret Collector
Tales From the MP3
Tea Time Story

Ps. You can thank me by booking a ticket The Domino Effect. You're welcome.

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 '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 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