On Theatre, Socialism and Projectile Vomiting (Meet The Humans #5, feat. Christina Poulton)
[Part of Meet The Humans, a series of blogs investigating how artists and programmers in the theatre industry can talk to each other without anyone screaming or crying. Supported by Unlimited. Christina’s views are her own, and not necessarily those of Strike A Light]
“The world is a raft sailing through space with, potentially, plenty of provisions for everybody; the idea that we must all cooperate and see to it that every-one does his fair share of the work and gets his fair share of the provisions seems so blatantly obvious that one would say that no one could possibly fail to accept it unless he had some corrupt motive for clinging to the present system. Yet the fact that we have got to face is that Socialism is not establishing itself. Instead of going forward, the cause of Socialism is visibly going back.”
– George Orwell, The Road To Wigan Pier.
Back in February, the night before the last date of a tour of community venues in North Kirklees, I fell violently ill. I vomited nine times in the night, first food, then bile, then blood. I couldn’t even keep water down. I called 111, crawled into an overnight care centre at 5am, was given anti-emmetics and sent on to A&E. When I got there, I was told the wait time was approximately seven hours. My performance was in seven hours. So I had a choice: use the last 1% of my phone’s battery life to call up the venue and team to cancel, or go back to my digs, try and bag a quick nap and head out for the getin. I chose the latter. I’d like to say that chief among my motivations were lofty concerns, like high professional standards that condemn cancellation on principle, a will not to let the creative team down, a concern for the audiences that were banking on me to provide them with art and entertainment. In reality, my main concern was that cancellation would make the programmers of the tour not want to book me again. And this was a REALLY good gig.
Given its sudden onset, I was convinced that I had food poisoning, and thus wasn’t infectious. I was wrong. Both of the other artists on the tour later told me they caught whatever gastrointestinal bug I had the next day. Given the 100% infection rate among my team, how many of the 50 or so audience members gathered caught it? How many days of productivity were lost, how many others infected, how many more hours added to A&E wait times? What if I’d popped during the show? What if the fatigue made me crash my car on the way back to my digs? You’d think I’d be the only person in my peer group of theatre makers with a did-a-show-between-bouts-of-projectile-vomiting story. But I’m not. By any logical appraisal, both me and this unnamed peer should’ve called to cancel. Why didn’t we?
The world is in crisis. The postwar liberal-capitalist orthodoxy, for all its staying power, is falling slowly apart, and there is no clear contender for its replacement. Inequality is soaring with the sea levels. The ever-present threat of nuclear apocalypse stalks us as brittle, toxic apes head up the global superpowers. At home, the NHS flails and suffocates with underfunding, millions of children live in poverty, the streets of London are flooded with stabbings. In my own hometown, and on the culture front, a venue that was the heart of the indie theatre world for seven years has closed for ever. We are on a raft floating through space. Who gives a flying fuck if some small-scale theatre makers don’t feel they’re getting their emails answered enough?
Last week I was heading through the Gloucester docks at night to catch the last train home. I’d just been talking with Christina Poulton from Strike A Light (info on them is in this document. Info on everyone in this blog series is in it in fact. I probably should’ve packed it in the day I found out about it. But here I am.). I was walking past the towering warehouses that 150 years ago took in corn from the banks of the Danube, timber from the Baltic, and shipped out good old English salt to ports around the world. Now it’s mostly chain restaurants. I was feeling sad. Christina had taken an hour out of an incredibly hectic festival schedule to talk with me, and our conversation was illuminating, and then they comped me for an excellent show, but I still felt melancholic. With these blogs I’ve tried to stimulate a debate with the programmers I’ve talked to, along the lines of “small-scale touring is fucked, what are we going to do about it?”. Given that I kind of sprung this argument on the unsuspecting interviewees, their responses were admirably thoughtful, and largely in agreement that there was a problem. As someone who spends about half her week when she’s not with Strike A Light working as an independent producer, Christina backs up my diagnosis: “runs are getting shorter and shorter, which means the opportunity to engage audiences in unusual work is being reduced…you might be one of only two or three small-scale shows an arts centre books in an entire season”. But her suggestions for treatment are where we enter an interesting disagreement.
“We live in an extremely corporate world, and the arts industry in the UK is largely sheltered from that”. She argues that, if anything, people in this industry don’t think enough in business terms. There is an unavoidable element of salesmanship in pitching a show, and if artists aren’t clear and targeted, giving the venues some sense of how they can sell their show to the public, the level of response they get is likely to suffer. “If I set up a florist tomorrow and no-one bought my flowers, I would close the shop and be sad, but I wouldn’t be out saying ‘you SHOULD be buying my flowers’”. When the above document full of venue info came out, Christina’s inbox was flooded with emails asking her to book shows. Clearly many artists had trawled the document for email addresses, copied them out and fired off speculative tour packs, without doing any research on what Strike A Light was about or whether their show would fit with their programme. She replied to each of them, even though this led to her staying late in the office several nights. The word “entitled” came up, not for the first time in my conversations with venues. Artists expect venues to fit their world around them, rather than the public they are supposed to be serving. And then she says something that, through no fault of her own, hits me right in the neuroses – “I don’t know how many genuinely artistically brilliant artists there are out there that don’t get programmed.” There’s so much I wanted to discuss about this statement with her. But she needed to help with front of house. And then, understandably, as it was near the end of the festival, to go home and sleep.
Dinner table conversation at my parents’ house last week:
MUM: So you’re rehearsing the new show for four weeks?
ME: Yep, and working with maybe eight other people.
MUM: And you’re only doing three performances?
ME: Yeah. Maybe four.
MUM: That seems bit of a waste.
ME: It is. There might be more next year, but who knows?
MUM: Your job is a mystery to me, Jack.
ME: Yeah, me too.
I’m white. I’m male. I’m middle class. I’m highly educated. I have a disability and some sporadic mental health issues, but neither impair my day-to-day functioning in any major way. I’ve been lucky enough to be a theatre maker full time for four years now. I have close to every possible conceivable advantage that could be handed to someone. Am I just bitching? Do I just have inadequate product and/or sales technique? Do I just suck? Has no-one had the confidence to tell me that yet? Am I doing that thing that socialists always get accused of, pinning their personal inadequacies on an imagined social problem? A sort of “I can’t get laid because of the Patriarchy” whiny passive-aggression? Should I quit? Maybe it’s not just when I have nasty viruses that me doing shows is a net loss to society. Maybe I’m projectile vomiting my self-indulgence on every stage I’m on, taking up funding, space and audience attention that could be better directed somewhere else.
When I get on the train at Gloucester station, there’s an email from Christina. Instead of eating or sleeping like she should be, she’s sent a long email full of ideas on how to improve the theatre touring world. She’s clearly a lovely person. Everyone I’ve met making this blog is a lovely person. That’s why talking about this shitty system is so hard.
Here’s what I believe:
– Every time someone comes to see a piece of theatre, it is an exercise in trust. It might be their first theatre show altogether, or their first time seeing something devised, their first time in a studio. If it isn’t, they may yet still be in a place where they can get put off these things for life. They may have invested a proportionally large amount of their income in the ticket, travelled a long way, navigated difficult parking or public transit. Theatre is a live medium, so on some level they have invested in the show without really knowing what it is going to be like.
– Venues (I include producing organisations in this) are the guardians of this trust. For better or worse, they are the ones in our system who have the resources and skills to reach out to audiences, and when they do, it has to be with something that they find trustworthy.
– As it stands, with some small exceptions, there is no organised system for theatre programming that is open to all. Instead there is an informal, network-based market, with no standardised rules. The problem is, artists are generally crap salesmen. Or, at least, quality of salesmanship and networking ability has no guaranteed correlation to quality of art. It also creates an inherent incumbency bias that is potentially disastrous for diversity: if white, middle class people book someone they know, chances are it’s going to be another middle class white person. Venues are completely within their rights to not programme something they haven’t themselves seen live. But the only place they gather in any significant numbers to do this is in the nightmarish overcrowded artistic Hades that is the Edinburgh Fringe, where access to this market might cost you £10,000 a pop. Artists unwilling to do that are likely to barrage venues with waffly tour packs, grainy videos, invites to shows miles away from them and earnestly irritating follow-ups (“just checking you got this?”). Venues rarely have the spare capacity to filter through this stuff, or to go and see things outside of the Fringe. This means either working overtime like Christina does or just ignoring it. In the face of enough of the latter you’d think artists would change tack. But artists are desperate. Getting or not getting a gig can swing a tour plan, which can swing a funding application, which can decide whether or not they are employed for several months. We don’t even cancel when we’re walking chunder-vesuviuses for fear of losing a future gig. We’re not going to stop sending unsolicited emails. The ensuing breakdown in communication leads to confusion, hostility, and cyclically, to worse communication.
– Venues don’t owe artists anything. Not gigs, not money, not even necessarily a reply to an email. To assume otherwise is entitlement.
– Artists don’t owe venues anything. Not unpaid time, not putting their own health second, not even to personally care about the venue and its mission. To assume otherwise is a different kind of entitlement.
– We both owe everything to the public. The people that fund us, directly or indirectly. The people who we all do it for. The people whose trust is placed in us. The Arts Council’s moniker is Great Art For Everyone. I actually think that’s a wonderful goal. It’s also, I’d say, a socialist one. We can’t accomplish that goal if we don’t fairly, democratically and transparently decide on what Great Art is, and we can’t make it For Everyone if we waste our energies on this flimsy, nepotistic pseudo-marketplace of theatre shows.
Here are some possible solutions that me and Christina came up with (although not necessarily agreed on), in descending order of how actually useful I think they would be.
a) The Arts Council pay the best artists salaries to make art. It commissions the best producing organisations to make sure their work (shows, workshops, whatever) gets in front of the right audience in the right way at the right time. We work together to give the public what they want and deserve, and no-one has to harass anyone. And we can all take sick days when our holes are exploding without fear of penury.
b) A new set of annual theatre festivals, one in each Arts Council region, that are open to apply to anyone. A jury of the public goes through applications, whittling them down to maybe 100 per festival on set published criteria, with equal opps monitoring. The artists are paid and given accommodation. A new organisation manages the festival, promotes it to the public and handles the technical and production. A venue delegation comes by for two weeks of it, and shows are scheduled in such a way that they can see everything. The festival goes to different cities each year, like the Olympics without the White Elephant stadiums. I reckon this’d cost the Arts Council about £5m a year to do nationwide, or less than one new foyer (Credit due to Simon Day, who kind of came up with this idea in his blog). But even if it was completely unfunded and just free to enter it would be vastly cheaper than the current Fringe.
c) Venues adopt a job-interview-like process for each season they programme, advertising exactly what they want, holding showcase-interviews and picking the most appropriate candidates, again with equal opps monitoring. They could club together to make this more efficient. Artists asking for a gig outside this process would be like in the 90s when you went around shops in town dropping off copies of your cv speculatively – nobody would do it anymore.
d) Venues use, and perhaps share, a “programming@” email address with an out-of-office that explains how and when they programme, giving whatever response time is realistic for them (even if its three months, at least then its clear). If artists send the wrong info, or don’t wait long enough, or try and get programmed by chumming it up with a specific staff member instead, they are hit with sticks.
Whether you agree with any of these, we have to have this debate. That involves getting away from the pervasive myth of the arts that we all agree on everything. It means being honest and open and willing to change, whatever side of the divide you’re on. And when we reach consensus, we need to take action, not just complain about how bad it is. We are on a raft sailing through space. None of it ultimately matters. But this is our industry, our patch of the raft and we know we can do better. We are the creative ones, the ones who understand the transformative power of art, if we can’t fix this problem, who the hell is going to fix anything?
As an artist, I’m going to keep making the best stuff I can, and try and not let the desperation push me into doing more harm than good. Together, we can win, even if socialism doesn’t. Yet.
[Addendum: the Arts Council is currently holding an online public consultation on what it should do from 2020-30. If you agree with the above, or have your own ideas, why not go here and tell them about it?]