@NoOrdExp

Small People Big Questions. May 29 & 30 All Points East

I am excited to bring Small People Big Protest to All Points East, with Coney. My first artistic project in a few months...

I studied politics at school, it fascinated me – how does the big wide world work? I went on to study international politics at University and the sad truth is, I cant really remember as much as I would like about the 1994 Northern Ireland Peace Treaty or the exact details of the American elections work (its actually really complex, don’t judge).What has stayed with me, however, is a confidence to read news stories knowing I might only understand some of it. And, a confidence to have my own opinions on world events as they unfold. Don’t get me wrong – this isn’t necessarily highbrow stuff. I will happily muscle in on conversations across the full spectrum of the role of Israel in the Middle East, and Eurovision.

Young People 18-24yr olds vote less than the silver surfers of today by a fair wack. In the 2015 general election, 43% of our youth took to the polls compared to 78% of those aged 65+. That’s nearly double.  And what I find most shocking about this, as someone who has chatted to a lot of young people about the state of play, is that they care. They care A LOT. Check out any cause or campaign on social media and you will find an active youth army on both sides of the discussion. 

Over the last ten years, political and civic education has pretty much ‘left the building’. Or should I say, curriculum. Political education that was once worth half a GCSE is now squeezed into the odd session as part of the social, spiritual and cultural curriculum. And for this to go well, it relies on passionate teachers who can bring politics to life, outside of their core subject time.  And so less young people are learning about politics, less well. 

Small People Big Protest is born of a desire to get young people excited about activism and to ask questions about how the system ‘works’ from a very young age. It’s also a call to action for the rest of us. Young people often over simplify big world issues and in doing so, come up with pretty brilliant campaign ideas. It is intended to be fun, loud and very public – everything a good politically rally should be.

We hope you can come and join us for our first Protest at All Points East Festival (hyperlink). 

And if you cant, here are some top tips for you and your small people to get up to speed…

1/ Watch 10mins of news a day. Newsround is actually pretty good these days…

2/ Visit our institutions. Did you know you can write to your MP and get tickets to climb Big Ben? Worth it just for the view… 

3/ Vote as a family, even if your kids can’t vote. It’s impressive to get close to real power, on your doorstep.

4/ Let young people be passionate about issues that matter to them. This will most likely involve some level of vegetarianism, but hey, 5 a day and all that.

5/ Find politicians you like

We moan about politicians all the time. It’s fun. But there are actually some good ones. Amy Lé May is the Night Csar of London, and she kicks arse. Dr Taylor is an Indepednet MP who was elected to parliament on a 'save our hospital' ticket platform outside of the big parties. Not just once, but twice.Glenda Jackson was a famous actress before she sat in Parliament. 

There are 650 of those MP’s. Find one that inspires you.

Do we really need one view of the ideal British Theatre? A response to David Hare

A response to David Hare’s article My Ideal Theatre printed in the Guardian on 30th Dec 2017

On reading David Hare’s article My Ideal Theatre I wanted to begin 2018 in the spirit of debate.

I am a fan of David Hare’s work – from the Absence of War to the Blue Room – David has left a legacy of powerful and important plays, among his other writings. This article however, is not helpful. In a climate of cuts to the arts and the start of active diversification by commissioning venues, we need positive, realistic visions not outdated rose tinting from times gone by...

Specific points on touring and appropriate pay for writers (and arguably everyone in the Arts?) are salient and should be acted on. now. However, a fair amount of this article left me feeling there is still a divide in the arts between the white male Oxbridge gang and well, everyone else.

Policy in the arts and audiences

No one likes bureaucracy in what should be a hub of creativity however, endless admin should not be confused with positive moves to diversify our stages and stories. Having worked closely with the Teams who experienced the fall out from both Exhibit B at the Barbican and the banning of the UK Jewish Film Festival at the Tricycle, it is clear our artistic leaders and audiences aren’t necessarily agreeing on what work should be made and who should be making it.  For example, time and time again I hear white male artistic directors ask ‘ but where is the female talent? Its just not there...’. Diverse talent is everywhere and those in control of commissioning money are only now starting to take what is a perceived risk on these artists as a result of more stringent encouragement from policy makers and funders. You are kidding yourself, Mr Hare, if you think we will get to where we want to be without the help of both the stick and the carrot. As I sit in the audience of lets say,  a Boy Blue show at the Barbican, I am reminded of just how white the audiences are across our major playhouses on all the other nights of the year. Since both Exhibit B and the UKJFF incidents, I have noticed positive change – more diverse production teams and better supported work from diverse artists. But there is still a long way to go. Casting stock white talent in modern repeats of old Shakespearean tales is not enough for many audiences out there. We need to be more dynamic.

Staffing

I have worked across 3 major arts organisations in London and in my experience most theatres provide staff with the opportunity to see both the work of their theatre and that of their competitors.  Internal write up of other venue’s work is often shared with staff and from my experience, discussing the wider ecology of work across the 'scene' is one of the highlights of working in theatres. Sometimes it may not be economically viable for everyone in a large venue to see the work. This that is a different thing from not wanting to go.

Worryingly, your article seems to confuse passion for the work (which I see endlessly across the arts) with a desire to have a life outside of it. Your ideal Playhouse - one in which a lead artist outlines his vision and staff support it with 100% of gusto - is a vision that will burn theatre out. Whilst I am sure most large venues like the National Theatre could make cuts in favour of larger creative budgets, it is a dangerous, unsustainable vision when theatre runs on passion alone. Women have worked so hard to achieve flexible working across the Arts to allow those with family, childcare and health needs to participate. What about our young people whom often work evenings alongside low paid internships in the Arts? Or the cleaner working two jobs? These are passionate people with real lives who make theatre happen just as much as those at the top and who on many occasions, make greater sacrifices to do so. We need Playhouses that can produce world-class art without relying on terminally underpaying and overworking to achieve it.

The State and funding

For those of us who are self-employed, freelance or creating our own work, State funding is vital and visibly diminishing.  There is a real risk that if reduced further, our culture and society will suffer.  And yet, I worry about a vision which  totally shuts us off from mixed funding models, which from my understanding have kept the Arts going since the Greeks. Commercial and Individual philanthropy is often more flexible and innovative than the Arts Council, something I experienced when working on a VR Gallery supported by Lexus before the Arts Council even had recognised VR as an art form. Individual donors can often give quicker support for smaller projects and venues, as the two Joe’s proved with their inspirational fundraising journey for Good Chance Theatre. Where Arts Council and other funders require endless monitoring and evaluation for their subsidy, other income streams can be more fluid and supportive of the actual Art itself Development Teams have become large - perhaps this needs addressing - but it is a mistake to think that if the State alone funded the arts, these Teams would disappear. In fact,  they would likely grow in the face of all the forms the State would need. We need a better defined financial future for the Arts, from our Government, which includes well financed partners and secures the continued development of our profitable sector.

Education

Having produced participation projects across most London borough’s at one time or another, it feels like we have started to reach a good balance between offering space and training within our theatres and reaching out beyond our theatre doors to those who don’t even know we exists. The current apprenticeship programmes are working however many of those young people who secure them are motivated and supported.  Nothing wrong with that but what of those who are intimidated by the thought of it? There are many brilliant companies and venues – The Roundhouse, Tamasha, Commonwealth and Punchdrunk - who inspire the next generation of theatre makers, designers, musicians and artists outside of formal arts spaces with an understanding that demystifying and democratising goes beyond the theatre walls.

Effect

I am and always have been a producer and audience member who seeks out cross art-form work.  From Akram Khan to Katie Mitchell, I listen, learn and enjoy most when more than one of my senses is stimulated. Receiving Art in the form of the written word alone can be a cold  experience, especially for those of us with forms of dyslexia, dyspraxia and disabilities. We want more than a peppering of music as a side dish to animate our stages and the presumption that this is ‘sucking up’ or lesser is truly a sign of an old fashioned interpretation of the stage. Who should determine that the work of Coney or 1927 should not be in our theatres? Scripts can work in beautiful partnership with other art forms and as we digitalise, younger audiences will expect this more and more. This is not to undo the work of the Pen. It is a request to put a end to this belief in a hierarchy of art forms. Good work is good work and audiences and their hard earned cash will help separate out the good from the bad.

And this is my wider point; hierarchy. It’s fantastic that a national newspaper continues to champion the arts and publish content which explores what the Arts means to our society.  That said, I was amused by the irony of David Hare defining a young leadership for his ideal view of his Playhouse and yet the Guardian has commissioned (albeit a legend) a 70year old white male to share his reflections on what the landscape of British Theatre should be. As a self-employed female producer trying to champion non conventional artistic experiences, this article feels like (another) opportunity to support a traditionalist manifesto. Others will disagree with me on this, and that’s fine. What is clear is we need to recognise the smorgasbord that now makes up ‘the Arts’ across age, wealth, class, gender and identity lines. I would have loved to hear from Inua Ellams, James Graham, Kate McGrath and Sharon Watson -  what do they think it should be?

David and The Guardian; your work is vital, but this outlook is not. Talk to those working on the ground day in day out, trying to make what we found when we started in this craft, even better.

Blog Post 1 - August 17: Diversity does not maketh a play....

17th July 2017 was sort of like A-Level results day for the Arts Community in the UK. Our Arts Council released it's latest batch of longer term funding for arts companies and venues and for the first time I can remember, people seemed, well, alright about it. There wasn’t the usual soap box responses and hushed conversations at the back of over priced conferences. Most people I know generally seeming pretty happy about the shift towards regional funding and support for more diverse companies at the (fairly tiny) expense of the bigger London based venues.

Done. We shall have a more diverse inclusve arts landscape from this day onwards.

Well, not quite.

Last month, I saw two very different plays – Barbershop Chronicles by Inua Ellams at the NT and Persuasion by James Jeff at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Each featured diversity on stage and contemporary techniques in playmaking. One ended in a standing ovation, the other with an audience shuffling silently towards the exits like a huddle of bemused penguins. It left me wondering – why does one piece work and another, not?

This is the bread and butter question of the arts sector, and the one which keeps theatre makers making theatre against high levels of competition and low levels of income. In this instance, the answer felt clear; the audience. Well, more specifically, who the playmakers were making their play for. Persuasion featured a multicultural cast, contemporary music and a new translation, offering something that should have been warmly applauded. The setup gave the opportunity to shine fresh light on our society through the prism of a well-known fable. And hey, isn’t that just the fashion these days – Simon Stone’s Wild Duck, Rob Icke’s Oresteia and Yael Farber’s Crucible all did it pretty damn well. Yet, up in Manchester at Jeff James’ production, this multicultural cast and a commission for a new script were channeled through a white, male director, playing to a largely white audience. So in truth, no change. No new diet for this reliable theatre crowd.

Rather than compare the artists or venues, it could be a matter of taste. Plays and stories are subjective; I like, you don’t….and so on. But this audience didn’t even seem to like it. Which then makes the whole thing feel like a bit of a waste, for a production which likely cost more than most projects I work on, in staging alone. A formula of ‘classic text + multicultural actors doesn’t always = good. What could have been a smart social commentary became a sort of Eastenders does Jane Austen. With the likes of Austentatious (improvised Austen-themed comedy by a largely, all white gang) already nailing that work really well, this retelling seemed to have nothing new to say. That, coupled with no significant or intrinsic relevance to the multicultural cast, meant most of us itched to get to the exits and un-mute our iPhones.

Barbershop Chronicles seemed fully connected to its audience. In fact, it’s two audiences – firstly, it spoke to those born of African heritage with ties to the UK, and secondly, to those of us who have never been on that journey, and who may just want to know a bit more. Inua Ellams took in-jokes, daily observations and ‘familiar faces’ to tell a story which leveled the playing field on complex conversations around slavery, what it means to be African, British and everything in between. No one in the play, or audience, owned his story. It was bigger than Inua, any central character and any of us.

Why am I interested in exploring this distinction? It’s genuinely not to punish theatres – all commissioning theatres have hits and flops. Just like football teams (so im told…). In co-running MUJU, a Muslim Jewish Theatre company, for more than 6 years, we made work which brought Muslims and Jews together. And most of the time, it worked. Audiences who would never normally share a space (or maybe even go to the theatre) laughed side by side. Participants embarked on devised theatre processes which involved creating a shared narrative of ideas. Yet, the work wasn’t always able to bridge the gap and engage audiences outside of those two cultural groups. For a host of possible reasons; maybe the marketing wasn’t right, maybe the quality of work wasn’t there. Figuring out how to do this well remains a challenge for work focused on identity or cultural narrative, and commissioners need to find the space for mistakes to happen, before pieces hit the main stages. From the MUJU gang, Josh Azouz and Alia Bano best achieved it with Mikvah Project at The Yard and Shades at the Royal Court. Well-crafted stories of faith in urban settings were made for audiences reflected both on the stage, and those beyond it. And that is what we need to see more of.

If theatre is to move beyond a constant homage to the white, well-spoken upper echelons, we can (and must) continue to cast colour blind. However, we can’t use casting to hide what is still colourlessly white thinking, under a pretense of offering something new. Persuasion is trying to update a classic work by injecting a ‘modern’ twist. And y’know, its intention may well have been to genuinely say something. But if so, I couldn’t hear it. Updating our cherished old works isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it just feels, sometimes, a little bit lazy. Barbershop Chronicles had purpose, it had style. It knew what it was trying to say and who it wanted in the room to say it to. If the Arts are to flourish and future generations are to buy their tickets, dynamic venues now have the mandate to commission work which is modern, diverse, relevant and of quality. With many central London theatres showing unwavering dedication to supporting white male auteurs, there will always be Austin’s.

What many of us want is more Inua’s.