Thursday, May 07, 2015

The Domino Effect and other plays for teenagers

My publisher Nick Hern Books, have kindly given me permission to publish the Foreword to my new play volume, The Domino Effect and other plays for teenagers, as a blog post. In an eerie coincidence, this new volume of three large cast plays for inner city teenagers, is out today, Thursday 7 May, the date when Britain goes to the polls... I reflect on that towards the end of this Foreword.  
What's more, there's a 20% discount on ordering the volume in the next week, details here.

Fin Kennedy
I first experimented with writing for an ensemble in my very first play for teenagers, East EndTales, a series of dramatic poems about inner-city life, written for multiple voices and inspired by articles in East London newspapers. At the time (2004) I was writer-on-attachment at Half Moon Young People’s Theatre, developing my first professional play for young audiences for a national tour. That play, Locked In, involved only three actors, largely because they were all professionals who needed paying – and also because the entire show had to fit into the back of a van. East End Tales, however, was the result of a short residency in an East London school, into which Half Moon sent me as part of my own professional development as I learned to write for their target age group.
Writing a play for young people themselves to perform, as opposed to professional actors performing for an audience of young people, is a very different thing. For a start, in the former, large casts are actively encouraged so that as many people as possible can take part. This presents challenges as well as opportunities. Maintaining coherent storylines and meaningful character arcs for ten, fifteen or even twenty named roles is not always possible, especially when the overall running time is unlikely to exceed forty-five minutes. Then there is the nature of rehearsals stretching over weeks or even months, and the likelihood of cast changes due to teenagers’ busy lives, clashes with other projects or just general dropouts.
One technique I developed to deal with these variables is a choral writing style, which uses nameless narrators to introduce and guide the telling of the story. This can accommodate anything from two to twenty narrators in the chorus. Often the language is in a playful, lyrical style, which makes the lines easier to learn – the idea is that everyone learns the lot, so that in the event of cast changes (or drying on stage) others can cover the lines. This form also plays to one of teenagers’ great strengths – acknowledging the audience and telling them a story directly. Young actors are naturally good at this, and audiences love its conspiratorial nature. Other, named parts can and do emerge, but the chorus of narrators is never far away.
The three plays contained in this volume are therefore for large casts of young actors aged thirteen to nineteen. Cast sizes can vary due to this ensemble style, but the minimum is about eight (for The Domino Effect, though it can be done with more), and the maximum about sixteen (for The Dream Collector). Fast is more fixed as it uses named characters throughout, and tries to do justice to giving each of them a journey, but even so it can be performed with either nine or twelve actors (depending on whether the four older parts double or are separated out). Ensemble casting can also include non-speaking parts, who can use physical theatre, dance and music to create stylised representations of the world of the play. In this respect, the only upper limit on cast size is the imagination of the company taking the play on.
Each script in this volume was developed with a different group of diverse young people in inner London, though the characters and stories are universal enough to suit most young people’s groups. The specific circumstances of ethnicity, culture and geographical location are less important than a strong ensemble ethos. A willingness to experiment with a physical performance aesthetic will help significantly, as will a commitment to working together to create the onstage magic necessary to tell these stories in a way which will delight an audience, allow transitions to unfold smoothly, and communicate each story’s emotional truth.
Each play was conceived under different circumstances and it may help those of you hoping to stage them if I tell you a little bit about how each of them came about.

The Dream Collector

The Dream Collector was the fifth play developed with my long-term collaborators, Mulberry School for Girls in Shadwell, East London, with whom I have been creating new plays for over ten years. (Our first four are also published by Nick Hern Books in The Urban Girl’s Guide to Campingand other plays.) However, in 2012 we added a new twist. By this time our work had become known locally as a pioneering partnership between a playwright and an inner-city state school. In an effort to continually evolve the way we work together, and to share some of the expertise we had built up, we decided to reach out to another local school during the making of our next play, and see if it was possible to develop a new play across two schools simultaneously. I approached local comprehensive, St Paul’s Way Trust School in Bow, who were eager to be involved.
The practicalities of such an arrangement at first appeared to be problematic. If I was the sole writer then clearly I could only be in one school at a time. Yet running joint sessions, in which one school’s students would travel after school to attend workshops at their partner school, would soon become expensive and logistically difficult. With sessions having to start some time after 3.30 p.m. in order to allow the other school’s students to arrive, what would the students already on site do in the meantime?
After some deliberation, our solution was simple. As the one who was the most easily mobile, why didn’t I travel between schools, taking the ideas for the play with me? In this way we hit upon what turned out to be quite a neat model. After-school workshops were held twice a week on different days, one in each school. I would develop ideas with Mulberry in one session, then take them with me to St Paul’s Way, presenting them to their students, developing them further, then taking the new ideas back with me to Mulberry the following week. The whole thing became like a long-distance version of the party game ‘Consequences’. It was fun – each week the students were eager to see what new ideas the other school’s group had added to their own. In this way, the two groups never actually met one another until the readthrough of the first draft of the complete play.
All this had an impact on the play’s form. The Dream Collector concerns a Year-Eleven school group who go on a Media Studies trip to an isolated country house which had belonged to a black-and-white movie pioneer, Charles Somna. Upon arriving, they soon discover that Somna was responsible for much more than the creation of mere movies – as the inventor of the Somnagraph he had built the world’s first machine for screening your dreams. Once they step through the movie screen and enter the Dreamworld, each of the young friends meets their dream double, the sinister Neverborn…
The idea of having essentially two casts within one play was deliberate. It was intended to allow two real casts to rehearse their parts separately if necessary. While the Neverborn are present during the journey to Charles Somna’s house, the Real-World cast are not aware of them. Both casts could (in theory) rehearse their sections separately and come together later in the process to put the final show together. This could be useful in future iterations, if two groups within the same school cannot rehearse together for timetabling reasons.
However, once the play was written, it became clear that the logistics of joint rehearsals across two schools would be insurmountable. Who would direct the show? If it was to be two teachers, one in each school, how would creative responsibility be equitably shared? Would rehearsals have to wait each day for half the cast to show up from the other school? In which school would the set reside?
In the end, each school agreed to stage their own separate production. At first this seemed to be a pity, but the benefits soon became clear. Each school had co-commissioned the play via an equal financial investment, and that investment suddenly reached twice as many students. Eventually, each school’s students were able to visit one another’s production and discuss the creative choices made with a deep knowledge of the play. For some, this became a piece of coursework.
In terms of the education and theatre sectors working together in future, this got me thinking. If two or more schools co-commission a play from a writer, yet produce their own versions, suddenly the project becomes a lot more affordable.
It multiplies its reach, and the writer gets two (or more) productions all in one go. In this age of austerity, this kind of innovative thinking could well come into its own. If any schools reading this are interested in forming a consortium to work in this way to commission new work (and not just from me!) then I would be happy to advise – do get in touch.

Fast came out of a very different process altogether. It was commissioned by a theatre company rather than a school. Y Touring has for fifteen years been producing and touring plays for young people about complex, science-based issues. Their unique ‘Theatre of Debate’ format allows young audiences to be involved in the creation of new plays right from the start, by inviting them, along with the playwrights who will be creating the work, to workshop days in which scientific specialists present different perspectives on the issue under discussion. I was invited to attend the debate day surrounding diet, fast food and food security, which took place as part of the development of Sarah Daniels’ 2014 play Hungry. My brief was to conceive an accompanying play for an ensemble of young actors along similar themes.
Fast concerns Cara, a sixteen-year-old student at a comprehensive in an unnamed small town, close to some countryside. Cara is from a farming family, and we learn that one year previously her father had committed suicide. When Cara’s school holds a twenty-four-hour fast in aid of Oxfam, Cara decides she will not eat again until Tesco and the other suppliers, whom she holds responsible for driving her father to suicide, are held to account. The play touches on issues of diet, commerce, class, industrial farming, the environment, grief, austerity and friendship with (I hope) wit and a lightness of touch. In Fast, the ensemble are all named parts and as such have clear identities and character arcs, each with their own distinct view of Cara’s actions. This allows for considerable ownership of each character by each cast member, and would lend the play to analysis and deconstruction, for example hot-seating each character to learn more about their background and views. Fast was workshopped at Regent High School in Camden before being performed by a young people’s summer school cast in August 2014.

The Domino Effect

For The Domino Effect I returned once more to Mulberry School for Girls. In 2014, Mulberry was celebrating its fiftieth anniversary and was keen to take a new play to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Mulberry and I had built our reputations at Edinburgh, taking a play every year for three years between 2007 and 2009, with our third show, The Unravelling, scooping the Scotsman’s prestigious Fringe First Award. (All three of our Edinburgh plays, plus one other, are published in The Urban Girl’s Guide to Camping and otherplays).
The Domino Effect was conceived in summer 2013, while on a short break in France, during which I watched again one of my favourite films, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Amélie. Hang on, I thought. This is a Mulberry story. Set in the inner city, with a teenage girl at its heart, Amélie is about a quiet deep-thinker with a rich imagination, which starts to spill out into the real world, until even she isn’t sure what is and isn’t real. I often met young women like this in Mulberry, though I often met loud extroverts too, but this seemed a good opportunity to develop a play looking at the interior worlds of these more introverted students (who are also not always the easiest students to engage in Drama). I started to wonder, what would an East London version of Amélie look like? As I knew Mulberry and its students so well, the school agreed for me to lead on writing a first draft then to workshop it with students afterwards.
Around the time I was sitting down to write the first draft, I was having some work done on my house. One morning, one of the builders came up to my study and handed me a set of dusty Victorian dominoes he had found underneath our floorboards. Playwrights can be superstitious about these sorts of signs arriving as some kind of heaven-sent inspiration, and I am no exception. The metaphor seemed to be perfect – dominoes, and the domino effect, as a cascading symbol of actions we set loose into the world, knowingly or not, from apparently insignificant beginnings. All the subsequent sessions at Mulberry confirmed that this idea captured the students’ imaginations as much as it had captured mine. The resulting play about ‘small actions, big effects, and mastering the law of unintended consequences’ ended up securing us our first five-star Edinburgh review and a clutch of enthusiastic reviews comparing the dense, poetic text to Dylan Thomas’s Under Milk Wood.
The Domino Effect was the first time Mulberry’s Drama and Dance departments had collaborated on a show, and the script was conceived with this in mind. It is undoubtedly the most ambitious text I have ever written for a young people’s group. The detail of the world it observes is not only about the audience seeing things through Amina’s peculiarly observant eyes, it is about planting small references which will become significant later, and about charting the ripple of one’s actions in an area of high-density living. In performance it requires crystal-clear diction, an ensemble that support each other instinctively, and the sharpest of physical-theatre aesthetics to bring to life the play’s multiple locations in the blink of an eye. Every narrative section is intended to be physically animated onstage by the ensemble. The play will not work if everything stops for the narrative to be merely recited.
I have described The Domino Effect as a love letter to East London, and indeed to the wonderful Mulberry School, where I have spent a decade honing my craft. But I hope that the play will have a resonance far beyond the specific British-Bangladeshi community that inspired it. Ultimately, it is about showing young people that they have more power to change their own destinies than they could ever realise, whoever they are and wherever they are from. The play would suit mixed casts, though it also provides the opportunity for teachers to offer leading roles to Asian or Muslim students, and I would encourage them to do so.

Since writing these three plays I’ve been appointed Artistic Director of touring theatre company Tamasha, a new chapter for both me and the company. In the immediate future it means I’ll be doing less writing of my own and more working with other writers to develop a new generation of dramatists. But I carry the inclusive, community-focused ethos which inspired these plays with me into my new role. Having an infrastructure opens up some exciting possibilities – such as Schoolwrights, Tamasha’s pioneering new playwrights-in-schools training scheme, the first of its kind in the UK. If you are inspired by the plays in this volume I’d encourage you to get in touch with us to see how we might be able to work with your school, to support and develop the work your Drama department is doing. As a national touring company, Tamasha has national reach, so it is not necessary for your school to be in London or the south-east.
I could not finish an introduction to a collection of plays for young people in 2015, with a looming General Election, without some reference to the current Government’s attemptsto downgrade arts subjects, and especially Drama, in our nation’s schools over the past five years. To be putting out a new volume of plays for schools at such a time feels positively defiant.
It is.
As I hope the plays in this volume show – and the many more by my colleagues still writing for young people, not to mention the Drama teachers up and down the country heroically defending their subject from a hostile Government – to teach Drama is to teach life. It is to teach how to be human, how to have agency, how to be heard. How to work through our differences, how to compromise, struggle, think and feel. How to be an intelligent, successful and humane society.
I’ve written elsewhere that teaching creativity in schools is like installing the software on which all the other information will run. Disincentivising it within the curriculum makes no sense. To teach Drama, creativity, the arts, is to teach how to think for oneself, and ultimately therefore, how to become oneself. What lesson could be more important than that?
I hope that this volume, in its own small way, will help keep our subject alive in the place where its flame can burn most brightly: in the next generation’s hearts and minds. 

The Domino Effect and other plays for teenagers is published today by Nick Hern Books and can be ordered here.
For more on Tamasha Theatre Company and its work see:
For more on Fin kennedy and his work please visit: 

Monday, March 30, 2015

Operation Mobilise: A pause in the fighting

So, the big date is here at last.

30 March has always been our deadline for In Battalions: Operation Mobilise. That's because Parliament is formally dissolved today, which means it is also the official commencement of hostilities in the general election campaign. Technically, your MP is no longer an MP but a candidate fighting for re-election. (Technically, it means the UK doesn't actually have a Government for 5 weeks, but let's try not to worry about that and hope we don't need one for a while.) 

But the main reason the date is significant to our campaign is because it means you no longer have your MPs' attention any more - unless they knock on your door, in which case by all means bring up the issue of arts funding. But for now, cease fire, put down your weapons and take a deep breath, soldier. Because for the next five weeks, Operation Mobilise is paused

I say paused because there will be a Part Two, but we'll get to that in a moment. But for now, let's enjoy the lull in the fighting, relax, have a drink and look back on what we've achieved.

Let's all have a pint and watch the election

For an idea which was born in a pub, Operation Mobilise hasn't done too badly. Our In Battalions Crowdmap has been charting our progress. In total, 44 copies of the In Battalions report were sent to MPs across 34 constituencies. 

Here's the full list:

Manchester Central
Hackney North
Islington North
Leeds North East
Holborn and St Pancras
Brentford and Isleworth
Hornsey and Wood Green
North Thanet
Lewisham and Penge
Nottingham East
Islington South and Finsbury
Camberwell and Peckham
Ruislip and Pinner
Brent Central
East Ham
St Albans
Richmond Park
York Central
Bermondsey and Southwark
Hackney and Shoreditch
Bethnal Green and Bow
Coventry North West

So, there's a preponderance in London and the south-east, but we got as far north as Harrogate, as far north-west as Manchester, as far west as Stroud and as far east as North Thanet and Colchester, with Nottingham and Coventry representing for the Midlands. So not too bad a spread. 

Very few constituencies received multiple reports. The highest was Hackney North with five, followed by Holborn and St Pancras with three, but that's mostly because a year group of student from MA Dramatic Writing at Central Saint Martins (where I am a visiting tutor and got them all fired up) sent a bulk batch, and lots of them live in the same constituencies nearby. A handful of other constituencies got two, but overall we spread ourselves out quite well given the numbers taking part.

So, first of all, a big Thank You to everyone who took part. You have done a Heroic Act and tonight there are many more MPs who are aware of this issue than who would otherwise have given it any thought. Together, we really are stronger and although we only hit 5.2% of the 650 UK constituencies this was basically all done via goodwill, word of mouth and Twitter. It didn't involve any kind of mainstream publicity (save an honourable mention from the ever-supportive Lyn Gardner, The Stage and the Writers' Guild of Great Britain) or any large organisation getting behind us. Yet at times it really did feel like we had a bit of a head of steam, so I think we can fairly say Well Done Us.

And for those of you who didn't get your act together in time, there is still another opportunity. But more on that in a moment.

In the meantime, many of you have been tweeting and emailing letters of response from your MPs which you have received. This is great. Someone was even offered a meeting with their MP about this issue, if re-elected. That's even greater. You should definitely take them up on it if your MP offers this. (If you're nervous about what to say get in touch and let's talk it through.)

Several of the letters have offered to write to Ed Vaizey on their constituents' behalf. This is less good. Not only will it annoy him (you will recall that he was the whole reason In Battalions came about in the first place) but it also shows that your MP hasn't read the report properly. In the report's Introduction it clearly describes the genesis of the report being the comments Ed Vaizey made to me when I met him in Parliament at the end of 2012. Even the most cursory Google of 'In Battalions' brings up the protracted and public exchange of letters he and I had about it. 

But perhaps more importantly, your MP writing to Ed Vaizey about this issue isn't the point. This issue has been raised at Ed Vaizey's level already. Operation Mobilise was more about getting it onto the agenda of constituency MPs, for them to recognise its importance to ordinary voters when they next come across it.

So, I would like to encourage everyone who has received a letter to write back making some of these points. In order to support you in doing so, I'd like to propose that everyone who has received a reply scan or photograph it and email it to my tireless In Battalions helper Liberty Martin. Liberty will collate them all and send them on to me. I am genuinely curious to read them to see how MPs have been responding to this issue, but also to see if there are any recurring themes or points they are making. If you can do this then I pledge to write another blog post in a few weeks collating these recurring points and listing what I would argue is the best response. Then you can use that to craft your own letter in your own name and send it to your MP, assuming they are re-elected.

Which brings me on to my final point: Operation Mobilise Part Two.

At last summer's In Battalions Festival, professional lobbyist and What Next stalwart Rosie Luff made the point that there are two times to write to your MP: just before and just after an election. Putting aside for a moment that this depressingly seems to suggest they couldn't care less outside these times, this means that we have another window of opportunity after 7 May.

Keep an eye on what happens in your constituency. Here are some possible scenarios and what to do in the eventuality that they arise. This is how Operation Mobilise Part Two is going to work. (If I knew how to put this into a flow chart on Blogger I would, but I don't, so I can't):

1. Your MP is re-elected. You sent them the report before the election and they responded.

What to do: Write back congratulating them on their win and responding to the points they made with help from my forthcoming blog post (see above).

2. Your MP is re-elected. You sent them the report before the election and didn't get a response.

What to do: Write back congratulating them on their win and asking for a response to the report now that the election is over.

3. Your MP is not re-elected. You sent them the report before they election and maybe they responded, maybe they didn't but it doesn't matter now because they've been booted out.

What to do: Write to your new MP congratulating them on their win and sending them a copy of the original report and cover letter. Await response.

4. Your MP is not re-elected. But like an arse you didn't get round to sending the report anyway.

What to do: Now is your time to shine! Albeit retrospectively. Send the new MP the original report and cover letter. Await response.

Newly-elected MPs can be ridden like this hog

I think that just about covers it. 

Now get that pint, sit back and watch the 24-hour election coverage, heckling loudly.


P.s. My previous 'save the date' p.s. about Weds 17 June (all day) still stands. We are planning a major In Battalions event shortly after the election. More details soon....

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

In Battalions: Operation Mobilise


The 2015 General Election is almost upon us. Parliament will be dissolved on Monday 30 March, after which campaigning begins in earnest across all UK constituencies. 

Those of you who have been paying attention will have noticed that I held an open meeting late last year to discuss whether or not my In Battalions campaign has run its course, or whether it had a role to play in the run-up to the May 2015 election. 

The answer was a most resounding: YES (to the second bit).

Drumroll please ... It is time for the Battalion to mobilise!

Look at us in our finery

Here's the plan:

The original In Battalions report from 2013 made quite a splash. It went from a personal project to gather some evidence on the effects of government cuts to the Arts Council (for an incredulous Ed Vaizey) to become a campaign with national profile, broadsheet coverage, thousands of downloads and questions tabled in both chambers of the Houses of Parliament. It was even credited with having been an influence on the Chancellor George Osborne. 

I've since got a new job so I don't have time to take on anything on this scale again. However, as someone rightly pointed out at the campaign meeting last year, all the issues within the original report remain current. A General Election is an ideal opportunity to make more use of the research which has already been done, and to collectively share the workload - and cost.

Operation Mobilise will involve making a pledge to:

  • Download a copy of the 2013 In Battalions report.
  • Print out a paper copy of the report in full (48 pages) and staple it together.
  • Go onto Find Your MP and get the name and postal address of your local MP.
  • Post the report to your MP, with a covering letter explaining why you are doing so (more on this below)
  • Send an email to my wonderful In Battalions helper Liberty Martin, telling her that you have done this, and which constituency you live in.
  • Tell the whole of Facebook and Twitter and your entire email address book that you have done A Great Thing and encourage them to do the same (include a link to these instructions).
  • Hashtags = #InBattalions #OperationMobilise (See below for some ready-made tweets).
  • Liberty will add your Heroic Act to the In Battalions Crowdmap, so that we can see at a glance just how many constituencies we have managed to hit, and where we still need to target.
  • Watch in shock and awe as all the past five years' Arts Council cuts are reversed!

Well alright, maybe not the last one. 

But a concerted, coordinated effort of this kind is likely to place this issue onto the agenda of MPs across the country, at a time when they are open to hearing our concerns - and hopefully articulating their own policies for what they intend to do in response. At the very least it extracts further value from the work that has already been done, and does so in a way which spreads the printing and postage costs so that we only have to do one each.

I expect you've got a lot of questions. I have thought of some of them already.

Do I have to print a paper copy? Why can't I just email my MP a link to the report online, or send it as an attachment?
MPs get thousands of emails a day. Many don't even read them personally, but get some assistant to do so and write a bland, standardised response. Emails are easy to ignore, or delete, as are file attachments. Hardly anyone writes paper letters to their MP any more. Doing so gets noticed. Doing so and enclosing a 48-page report makes a powerful thump on the doormat. You then have a physical presence in their office, which is a lot harder to ignore. Someone will have to physically throw the report away, which is more deliberate and more conscience-pricking than deleting an email. Please do not email your MP the report. You may as well blow a kiss in their direction.

Posting it will be expensive won't it?
Here's the current rates. It's likely to be about three quid. Pull yourself together, soldier.

Do I have to send a cover letter? I don't know what to write.
Sending the report without an explanation makes no sense. It isn't clear what your concerns are. I've written a template cover letter which you can use, or adapt, and uploaded it here.

What if someone other than my current MP wins the seat?
A very good point. Keep an eye on this. If someone else wins then write to them after May 7 to congratulate them, and send them another copy of the report. You can use most of the same cover letter again. I will try to remember to do another blog post to remind you. Alternatively, if you're feeling really generous, you could send a copy of the report to every candidate standing in your constituency. That ought to cover all the bases. But I'll leave that up to you.

Why do I have to do the Crowdmap thing?
You don't - Liberty is going to do it for you if you email her. But do make sure you tell her you've enacted your pledge. Crowdmap is an excellent way to see at a glance just how the campaign is going, and where else we still need to target. It will be useful to be able to put a call out to regions where we're looking a bit thin on the ground. So please do send Liberty that email after posting your report.

What if I look at the Crowdmap and see that someone has already posted it to my MP?
Post it to them again. It doesn't matter if some MPs get lots of copies - on the contrary, it will make quite an impact and show how seriously their constituents are taking this issue. MPs have a little known formula they use to calculate what proportion of their constituents are likely to be concerned about any given issue. One letter on one issue is often taken to stand for a percentage of constituents - most of whom haven't bothered to write in. Imagine what they'd think if they got ten or twenty copies of In Battalions?

My MP has written back debunking everything in the report, or with a load of guff about how committed their party is to arts and culture...
That's to be expected. I will be writing another blog post in due course looking at likely responses on this issue, and what the counter-arguments are. Don't you worry, your Battalion Commander will be providing you with all the ammunition you need...

That's pretty much it. I hope you'll join me in this. It isn't much to ask and feels like an easy way of working together to have a greater impact than any of us could alone.

So ...Who's in? 

Sign up for Operation Mobilise below.


UPDATE 25 February: Some people seem to be finding that has started charging for a subscription to download what should be a free document . I've changed the links above to connect to a copy of the report on Google Drive instead. Download it directly from Google Drive here.


Some ready-made tweets which are good to go:

I'm doing this. Can you too?  Quick, easy, cheap, big impact on UK theatre funding.  

ATTENTION THEATRE-MAKERS!! We can have a voice in the 2015 election. Here's how:   

Play your part in lobbying for UK arts and culture - I've signed up, have you?   

Theatre Folk! A call to arms before the general election from

I've heard the call to arms and written to my MP today . You can too.

How to lobby. 1) Download 2) Print 3) Send to MP 4) Email 5) Vote.

Remember to tweet every few days if you can, we need to get this trending as a meme before Parliament dissolves on 30 March.

You can also follow my updates on Twitter (@finkennedy) to re-tweet my own tweets and for news of the campaign as it unfolds. 

To join the In Battalions email mailing list drop me a line and I'll add you.  Press enquiries can also be directed to this address.


PS. There will be more from In Battalions later in the year, including another conference at Central Saint Martins college on Weds 17 June. More soon but for now, save the date!

Sunday, December 07, 2014

In Battalions: an update

Last week I held an open meeting in the Perseverance pub in London. The purpose was to ask if my In Battalions movement, which charted the effects of government cuts to the Arts Council on the development of new plays and playwrights, had run its course - or if it might have a role to play in the run-up to the General Election next May.

It was a really useful meeting and I'm grateful to everyone who showed up to help me think this through. These are a few notes about what we discussed - with more to come on the three ideas we settled on.

I started by outlining the history of In Battalions for those who were coming to it new, or had only sporadically engaged with it over the two years it has been running. The campaign has had some successes, and enjoyed considerable profile within the theatre industry. But in the meantime my circumstances have completely changed; I am no longer a freelance playwright with time to lobby, but a full-time Artistic Director of a theatre company, and therefore unable to dedicate the time to In Battalions which I once did. As a result, I was looking for either a small group of freelance theatre professionals to take over from me, or for some very 'light touch' low-workload campaign ideas - or indeed some combination of the two.

We had a long discussion about different examples of both. I won't list the ideas we discussed and then rejected, but suffice to say that what was most useful for me was to hear from culture professionals who had observed In Battalions from afar during 2013-14 without being directly involved, and their observations on what was unique about it compared to other lobbying efforts like What Next? or My Theatre Matters, which were taking place around the same time.

Put simply, the USP of In Battalions was my partnership with a professional researcher, Helen Campbell Pickford. 

Helen has been hugely generous with her time and expertise over the past two years. What she has brought to the whole thing has been an intellectual rigour, and an adherence to professional research methodologies which are recognised by the civil service. While I may have been the public face of the campaign, it was Helen who, quietly and behind the scenes, helped me structure a questionnaire to send out to theatres about the effects of the cuts they were experiencing. She then helped me interpret the results; it was because of her we were confidently able to generate statistical statements such as 'Two-thirds of theatres surveyed said they had had to cancel or postpone one or more production since April 2012 for funding reasons'. It was this rigorous and impartial research process which made the 2013 report so powerful - and therefore useful to the rest of the sector. It wasn't just an exercise in special pleading. It uncovered indisputable facts, which could be used in any number of other campaigns. Put simply, In Battalions loaded everyone else's guns.

Three ideas came out of this, which we agreed to carry forward into 2015.

The first was to continue to make use of that comprehensive (and still relevant) 2013 In Battalions report as a lobbying tool. One easy way to do this in the run-up to 2015 is to start a social media meme in which theatre professionals up and down the country make a pledge to print off the report in full and post it to their local MP, with a cover letter setting out that these issues are still very much alive, and indeed worsening, and asking the candidate what steps they would be taking to address the cuts in arts funding, if re-elected. 

I felt it was important to print out a paper copy of the report rather than just email it as a link or a pdf - which is easy to ignore or delete. A 50-page report has gravitas, and a physical presence in someone's office. It cannot be so easily ignored. If we can put in place an RSVP system for who has sent the report to which MPs, then we can map this visually via Crowdmap. Who knows - perhaps we might even reach all 533 English MPs? (Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish colleagues are of course welcome to join in, but the focus of the report is necessarily on Arts Council England, due to the funding system). 

I will publish more information on this blog in the New Year about how we will run this campaign, with a fuller set of instructions for those wishing to take part. Hold off acting on it for now - it will have most impact if we all do it at the same time. In the meantime, we could do with a snappy hashtag for the idea... If you can think of a good one, let me know.

The second idea was a generous offer from the MA Dramatic Writing course at Central Saint Martins College (CSM), to continue to host an annual In Battalions Festival. CSM hosted an inaugural In Battalions Festival in July this year, which was well-attended and received coverage in the Guardian and The Stage. It was useful to have a physical space in which what was, up until that point, pretty much an online campaign, for the 'battalion' to come together to meet and debate. Course leader Jennifer Tuckett (herself also a playwright) offered to dedicate another MA module to hosting the Festival again at around the same time next year. This means a team of postgraduate students to lead on organising and running it, with light tough input from me. Also, if we hold it in July again, then it will be at a time of year when we will have a new Government.  It would timely for the movement to reconvene to consider our position, and how to go about engaging with the new administration.

The third and final idea was more labour intensive, but built on the useful steer that In Battalions' power is as a 'factory' generating hardcore statistics on the effects of very recent cuts, which we are all arguing about but which no-one is actually studying. Why not try to raise some money for another report? This would mostly be to pay Helen (and perhaps a small team of assistants) a decent fee to continue the research. Helen has been hugely generous in working pro bono up to now, but she is finishing her PhD soon and will be in need of an income. Moreover, these issues are not going away. More cuts are undoubtedly coming. Other, bigger campaigns such as What Next? are better placed to lobby ideologically to try to prevent or mitigate those cuts. But In Battalions' most useful role is to chart their effects, impartially, dispassionately and using standardised research methods which it is difficult to dismiss. We can continue to be the ammunition factory of the British theatre industry.

We spent a while debating how best to go about raising the money for this. Between us, the people in the room had links to Equity, the Writers' Guild and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. We also discussed crowdfunding, which we may yet do. However, Helen made the important point that for further research to be taken seriously, the funding needs to also be seen as impartial (which may rule out Equity and the Guild). Discussions continue around this and I'll post an update as and when - and if anyone has a brainwave about appropriate funding sources, do get in touch. Helen is in the process of costing up what would be a realistic figure, but as a rough guide we all felt in the region of £20,000 was what we were aiming for. Ambitious but by no means impossible.

Finally we spent a while discussing what the focus of a new tranche of research ought to be. Several felt that a simple re-run of the original research would suffice - charting the latest effects of the cuts two years on, though probably taking in a larger number of theatre companies, who would probably take part given the increased profile we now enjoy since undertaking the first report.

However, others felt that a new angle to the research might be more beneficial, partly for publicity purposes (journalists would be most interested in a new research question) and partly to deepen and complement the previous research. We may undertake a brief consultation with the sector on this, to see if there is an angle which would be most useful (if you have a suggestion, let us know) but one question which seemed to interest all of us was around the effects of the cuts on access and diversity: 'Whose voices are being heard - whose stories are being told?' While new plays and playwrights are undoubtedly endangered, they probably aren't about to disappear altogether just yet. However what will happen long before then is that those plays and playwrights become drawn from a narrower and narrower pool of people - those who can afford to take part in an art form which is increasingly becoming economically unviable. This has huge implications for the worlds which appear on our stages.

So it looks like we might settle on something along these lines. Depending on how long it takes to raise the cash, the new report could be ready towards the middle of next year - meaning a second In Battalions Festival at Central Saint Martins could usefully double up as a launch event.

We finished the meeting on a real high.
We all swapped emails and those present agreed to act as an interim steering group as these ideas took shape over the next few months, and to volunteer a bit of time to do the odd bit of legwork to get some of them off the ground. If you weren't able to be at the meeting, but would like to join this list and would be prepared to volunteer a bit of your time if it needed, please get in touch.

Glasses were raised before we all went our separate ways, back out into the drizzly November night.

It looks like the battalion will rumble on for a little while longer yet.