17 The Monte Rosa, Part 3

“Light wants to pass through the universe, and is alive in the crystal”

The third in a fortnightly four-parter about beauty, legacy and competitive town planning from the Nuketown universe. Part 3: Max hands over Walter Taut’s hard drive to Sophia, as the mystery around his death deepens.


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Here’s What You Could’ve Won #3: An Airship Fleet

[Part of the Here’s What You Could Have Won series, where I take issues from the news and make whimsical fag-packet calculations of things that the £205 billion due to be spent on replacing the Trident programme of nuclear submarines could buy, in preparation for the tour of my show Nuketown]

Guys. Bear with me.

In 1930, the last British airship to be made in the 20th century, the R101, set off into the skies over Cardington, Bedfordshire. It really was the Titanic of the Air: a bevy of high-profile guests were on board, including the Air Minister Lord Thompson. There was a full dining car painted with a faux marble effect, a kitchen, and a promenade section with huge glass panes. It was 200 metres long, an unsinkable ship, designed to set a new passenger line between England, Egypt and India.

Unfortunately, the R101 met a similarly Titanic-esque fate, crashing in an unexpected storm over France, killing 48 of the 54 people on board.  The British government almost immediately abandoned its airship programme, followed shortly after by nations the world over.

Now. Am I saying we should send government ministers out to die in flimsy death-balloons? No. Not in this blog anyway. Like I said, hear me out.

80 years on from the end of the era of the airship, new ones are emerging. Companies are attracted to the same virtues that once drew governments to lighter-than-air travel: the ability for vertical take-off and landing to obviate the need for landing strips, their potential for greater energy efficiency, and their increasing possibility for greater speeds. Two years ago, the Airlander 10 became the first airship to be inflated at Cardington for more than three quarters of a century, with a top speed of 100mph and the ability to carry thirteen tons of cargo. That ship was made with an old airship model the US had got bored of and sold them for cheap, and backed by Kickstarter, its most high-profile donor being Iron Maiden frontman Bruce Dickinson. Imagine what could be achieved with investment from more than just legendary metal singers and the kind of people who will spend $50,000 backing potato salad.

The Airlander 10 cost £25 million. Assuming some efficiencies from mass production are counterbalanced by the costs of R&D and some bigger ships,  our £205 billion gets us a fleet of 8,200 ships. At home, you could hop on one from your local station at any city in the country, and tear through sky with electric engines on a beeline to your destination, soaring above our decrepit rail network, and our choked-up roads, held in serene suspension over the moors and beaches. Abroad, China’s terrifying New Silk Road project would be met by a smaller, quirkier English version, with driverless ships taking raw materials, machinery or even whole buildings and dropping them into parts of the developing world hampered by poor road access. Even if safety wasn’t greatly improved you’d still be more likely to die in a car accident. And they’re so pretty. Wouldn’t it be worth the risk?

The Imperial Airship programme behind the R101, for all its flawed thinking and the ethical vortex of the Empire behind it, signified a people that believed in a future. A future that we would be a major part, perhaps the leaders of. That attitude seems vastly absent from people across the political spectrum. We used to think we were inches away from colonizing mars, flying cars and 1-hour work days. Now there are only competing images of decline and dystopia. This blog miniseries has been me trying to recapture some of that 20th century optimism. And maybe giant balloons is a weird way to start. And no, it’s probably not the best use of £205 billion of public money. But its still better than nuclear bloody submarines. And, to me at least, its an interesting comparison of like for like. Of course if that money appeared today it should go on housing, healthcare and education. But if it were ringfenced for quixotic, unwieldy future tech, wouldn’t a Skytanic or two be so much more fun? Or, as the man Bruce Bruce himself put it: “I told my wife, I’m about to put £100k into a big bag of helium. It may go up in smoke. She said, people have to dream, and unless you can dream something it’s never going to happen.”.


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?]




#6 Dormant Loving (LIVE at the Bike Shed Theatre)

A tale of how 30 people living in a secret underground location must find a new home. Featuring Joe Sellman Leava (@JoeSellmanLeava), Martin Bonger (@MartinBonger), Berengere Ariaudo De Casteli (@BeeInTheStalls), Andrew Kelly and Simon Day (@PlasticineMen). Join us as we make things better by totally making out.

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Meet The Humans #4: Mike Tweddle

The Biz:

What His Job Is

Artistic Director, Tobacco Factory Theatres

What He Programmes

All genres of live performance that can “tell epic and extraordinary stories in an intimate, atmospheric setting and to reflect, inspire and engage people of all backgrounds” (Programming policy here).

How He Programmes

At weekly meetings with three other staff members, where they review tour packs, videos and things they’ve seen live.

When He Programmes

9-10 months in advance

Do’s and don’ts of talking Mike


– Send overly long emails


– Read the programming policy and find out about the venue before contacting.

His Email

mike@tobaccofactorytheatres.com (but you should send show proposals to programming@tobaccofactorytheatres.com )

Fun Fact About Mike
He and his partner got engaged while out rollerblading.

The Waffle

What do you do when you’re too successful? Not a question that many people who aren’t rappers will ask themselves, but one that seems to be on the minds of the Tobacco Factory. The venue draws 80% of its income from its box office, an unheard-of amount for a subsidised theatre. They average 80% of capacity for their shows, which range from the more mainstream to the weirder. They are coming to the end of constructing a new, smaller theatre so that they can programme even more from the weird end.

If I was in Mike’s position, a position I’d wager many venues would do violent crimes to be in, I’d just want to coast. But of course, Mike doesn’t just want to coast. “You only have to walk ten minutes from this building to get to places where educational attainment, life prospects, social mobility are some of the lowest in the country”, he points out. “There are loads of people we want to work with more, and listen to more”. It’s always worth remembering as arts professionals that success for us (usually defined as big audiences and/or plentiful funding) is not always success for the places we live and work – not if the people most in need of a lift are still not getting through the door, as is so often the case. Your average theatre audience (can’t speak for Tobacco factory’s) is 93% white , their average age is 52 and only 10% of actors are from a working class background. Mike is trying to expand the venue’s engagement activity, and make their programme more inclusive (a previous season was programmed almost exclusively by a group of young people). This is one hell of a mountain to climb, especially when trying to fill the void left by the vanishing of the arts in state education –a mountain that, on reflection, makes the fight to sell 80% capacity look mole-hillish. Certainly I don’t have the foggiest on how we get there. But it’s a mountain that we must climb somehow: no matter how well an individual theatre venue or company does, theatre as a whole is in poor health if the faces and walks of life that come with the bums on seats don’t match those that fill up our country as a whole.

This isn’t abstract for Mike, but personal: “When I was a kid, getting involved with theatre saved me”. Me too, actually. If I stopped working in the industry tomorrow, the outlets, the self-belief, the values and creativity that the art form gave me would still form an essential part of who I am. I’m sure it’s the same for a lot of you. So let’s save everyone we can.

Meet The Humans #3: Mair George & Jade Campbell

 [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.]

The Biz:

What Their Jobs Are
Jade: Co-Director & Co-Founder, Doorstep Arts.

Mair: Co-Parent & Lead Producer of Platform, Doorstep Arts.


What They Programme

Theatre from “national touring artists, emerging local theatre makers and regional young people” in venues around the Torbay area. Most shows that are booked come with some kind of participatory element that is accessible to young people.


How They Programme

Mostly through the Collaborative Touring Network, an open-application touring scheme led by Battersea Arts Centre, which programmes two tours a year.


When They Programme

In line with Platform, a festival that takes place in spring and autumn, (coinciding with CTN tours), booked 12 months in advance.


Do’s and don’ts of talking to Mair & Jade


– Talk inscrutable arts jargon at them.


– Make your copy accessible to a general audience.

– Bear in mind that your show will usually be pitched as whole evening’s experience – often with a meal after – at non-theatregoing audiences. “A show can challenge an audience, but it has to also welcome them”.


Their Emails




Fun Facts About Mair & Jade

Jade is a blue-belt in Brazilian Ju-Jitsu. Mair speaks four languages.


The Waffle

The more I think about the process of theatre tour booking, the more it seems analogous with the world of dating. You meet, sometimes in the real world, more likely these days on the internet. You try and woo them, usually presenting your best self rather than the reality. Maybe you go on a date (one-night booking). This might grow into something larger (run, commission, co-production) or might not. Some venues are poly, some seek exclusivity (I’m thinking of contracts with the biblical-style “thou shalt not perform within 40 miles for 40 days forsooth” clauses).  This similarity might go some way to explaining why I kind of suck at both (in this part of the Sex and The City episode, I look from laptop to the window as a voiceover goes “I couldn’t help but wonder”…)

After doing some more research, I find that a lot of the common pitfalls of online dating replicate themselves identically in tour booking. There’s “Ghosting”, when someone just stops contacting you completely and without explanation, “Breadcrumbing”, where someone feeds you a minimal amount of attention and correspondence but actually He/She’s Just Not That Into You, and “Zombie-ing”, where someone will disappear off the face of the earth for months and then contact you again as if nothing has happened. I dare say if you’re a theatre maker talking to venues you’ve experienced at least one, if not all three, of these. And while ghosting in the dating world is done pretty much equally by men and women, I’d wager a pack of Tinder Super Likes that artists are more ghosted that ghoster. (Prove me wrong in the comments! Flame war on!).  Either way, ghosting of all kinds is whack. And though it isn’t on the surface a gendered issue, it seems possible to me that it’s a feminist one.

Doorstep Arts describe themselves several times as a female-led organisation in our conversation, and big up other ones that they know as well. I ask them why that’s important to them as a label, and how it differentiates them from an organisation led by the penis-havers. “We value the process of working together, as a web, rather than a hierarchy” says Mair. “Jade is a Director for putting on forms, but on the day-to-day my input is valued equally”. There certainly seems to be a different culture – people are given “parent” roles over projects (like Mair’s) rather than management ones. Staff can bring their babies and small children into the office whenever they like “We have a list of tasks, and we trust that they will get done”. They don’t view these elements as something a male-dominated workplace couldn’t have, but they’re vocal in declaring its uniqueness and its value. “We might have a meeting where Erin is breast-feeding, and some of the men are uncomfortable, but you know what, eat that. We’re going to breast-feed our children and we’re still going to crush the meeting”.

If we work together as equals more, we are pushed to use trust rather than coercion to achieve our aims more. If we trust people more, we communicate with them more, and we develop more empathy. Hierarchies fill the void where trust is absent. The three avoidance techniques above come from a fear we can all relate to – the fear of being cruel. A director friend said a literary manager once told him he didn’t ever like to send script rejections because “I don’t want to be the person that says no to the next big hit”. We all like to keep our options open, and we all find it hard to let people down at times. But we invariably prefer an honest rejection over evasion when we’re on the receiving end. A study in 2012 identified seven strategies people use for breakups, and out of all of them, people who were broken up with ranked “openly confronting your partner, expressing your feelings and your desire to break up” as the best strategy, and “avoidance” as the worst – worse even than “using manipulative tactics” and “becoming unpleasant and picking fights”. I know first hand how much I’d rather get an honest no from a venue than months of being ignored. But in the position of power that venues often are in over artists, and the hierarchical thinking that comes with it, many will opt for avoidance in the belief that they are within their rights to do so. Even venues that make a documented commitment to respond to emails, as the Venues North group did and the new Venues South West group have, can fall short of these declarations. And technology makes it so much easier – ignoring an email carries so much less emotional baggage than binning a letter, hanging up a phone call or blanking someone in the street.

People of the theatre world, whatever your line of work, artist, manager, officer, executive or co-parent, I implore you – answer your emails. You may have hundreds of the fuckers, but “no” is a wonderfully short word, and will be the stitch in time to save you from nine thousand followups. Let us walk, arm-in-arm like Gilbert, Yates and Holtzmann in a film that had no controversy whatsoever, to bust these ghosts once and for all.

Meet The Humans #2: Becca Gill

[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.]

The Biz:

What Her Job is
Live Art Programme Manager, Dartington Arts

What She Programmes

Live Art (her definition of this is “all art that is live”, including theatre, music, spoken word, etc) that can “tackle some of today’s very real challenges and explore the ‘big’ questions in an imaginative, innovative and transformative way.” (No current programming policy webpage, but hopefully one is in the works).

How She Programmes

Curated programme of touring shows and residencies by artists she feels meet the above criteria best.

When She Programmes

 9-12 months in advance. No shows in summer.

Do’s and don’ts of talking to Becca


  • Try to trade off your track record instead of focusing on the show you’re touring. “I don’t care how established you are.” 


  • Send videos if she can’t make your shows
  • Be visual – send pictures or information that really demonstrate how the show looks on stage
  • Pitch a show that isn’t made yet if you want to, but make sure it meets the above criteria.

Her Email


Fun Facts About Becca

She’s doing a sculpture course, and wants to move to Berlin.


The Waffle 

It’s a good show, but we just couldn’t get an audience in for it”. This is the perpetual cry of the programmer. Or at least, it’s a phrase I’ve heard a lot of times in response both to any and all of my touring shows, and many other artists’. This feels deeply frustrating at times on a political level – the public funding intended to allow organisations to take risks seems to stop short before it reaches the artist – the theatre gets a guaranteed income as a recipient of NPO or local authority funding, but the artist must live or die by the market. Socialism for the theatre building, capitalism for the theatre maker.

“But Jack”, says the straw-man I have constructed to try and give this article a false sense of balance. “Why should a venue be responsible for the fact that people don’t like your weird shit? They have financial pressures too. You are the supplier, and if the product was more marketable, and not feature-film-length monologues investigating town planning or grime musicals about the textile industry the 1810s, it would fly off the shelves and the vendors would clamour for it.”

Whether you agree with my hay-based colleague or not, there’s an assumption in his statement that underpins a lot of thought in the small-scale theatre world. Programmers are usually curatorial in their role. This usually means that, like a séance leader or shaman, they channel the thoughts of their potential audience members, their tastes, their interests, their reaction to a piece of art, and the audiences speak through them to give their pre-emptive verdict on the show you’re pitching. Sometimes this voodoo mastery is backed up by genuine audience data, sometimes by anecdotal experience, sometimes by programmers deploying their personal tastes with the confidence that enough people out there will share them. But either way, the logic dictates that this gauntlet of audience astral-projection must be run before the show can meet the public.

But at Dartington Hall, something quite different is happening. In a remote village in south Devon, on the grounds of a country estate, in a repurposed college building, someone is programming weird shit. Belgian game-theatre about banking elites. Seances inside shipping containers. Underwater contemporary dance. Panto at Christmas? Fuck off, get some of this epic fairytale bloodbath with unabashed bestiality in it. Becca is finding the most provocative, challenging stuff she can. And it is selling out. Between November and January, 4000 people have been through their doors to see stuff.

I can’t get my head around how exactly this is happening, and neither, it seems to a degree, can Becca. When I ask her what the secret is, she replies “I have no idea”. Clearly the unique situation of the programme plays a role. It’s funded entirely by the Dartington Hall Trust, meaning some of the constraints of public funding are absent. Becca knows this may not last forever: “In the long term, I’m going to have to prove that the whole thing can break even [on ticket sales or other funding], but at the moment we’re in a real halcyon time”. There’s also clearly something gained from the legacy of Dartington College, a centre of body-painted performance-art weirdness founded in the sixties and sadly closed in 2008. But I’m still in awe as to how much these numbers buck the apparent trend of my industry. I ask her if there’s any audience development tricks she’s using to drum up trade that she could pass on. Her advice? “Just do it, and tell people about it”. Surely it can’t be that simple?

Perhaps it could. Perhaps we’re framing our thought about audiences wrong. What if we viewed attracting audiences less as a perpetual balancing act between high art and the lowest common denominator, between what “we” like and what “they” like? What if instead we view it as our job, our mission, to provoke, to challenge, even to be controversial? What if we provided the weird, and let the market handle the normal? That way, whatever the box office sales, a civic function would be served, conversations would be had. Public funds would be explicitly supporting a non-commercial kind of art, rather than commercially unviable organisations. Is this idea naïve? In one place at least, it seems to be working. And not in north London, in fucking Totnes.

Becca has further radical plans in terms of audiences. She’s going to do the unthinkable and ask them what they want. A big town hall meeting is planned for April with artists, staff, stakeholders and the public to figure out what they should do next. This concept really gets my inner anarchist going. What if every major theatre in the country did this at least once a year, and was bound by its results? What would their programmes look like? They might have even more panto and cover bands and less weird shit than before. But if we learned anything from recent times, it’s that democracy throws up some unexpected results.





Meet The Humans #1: Emma Bettridge

[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.]


What Her Jobs Are:

Bristol Ferment – Producer

Arts Council England – Artistic Assessor

Wivelisccombe Town Hall – Chair of Board / Manager-in-waiting

Move & Gather, Annie Siddons-  Freelance Producing Consultant

The Countryside – Dog & Horse Trainer

What She Programmes

Bristol Ferment – All of these things, plus some performances of finished work at the Studio of the Bristol Old Vic. (no current Programming Policy page on their website)

Wiveliscombe Town Hall- Eventually, a mini-Ferment Festival, more residencies, cinema, ceilidhs and lord knows what else.

How She Programmes

 Bristol Ferment – Curated programme made up of artists she has met and/or seen the shows of.

Wiveliscombe Town Hall- As above

When She Programmes

 Bristol Ferment – Year round – festivals usually booked 3-6 months in advance

Wiveliscombe – When it’s finished (currently in the planning stages of a major refurbishment project)

Bristol Old Vic Studio – No touring work until Spring 2019 (also in major redevelopment).

Do’s and don’ts of talking to Emma


  • Send template / mass emails.
  • Spell her name wrong
  • Get angry or defensive if you don’t get what you want


  • Show your personality as possible in an email – be informal and don’t be afraid of banter (warning: may not be transferrable to other programmers)
  • Do your research on Bristol Old Vic
  • Ask for introductions to programmers you don’t know, or even to programmers in general who might like your show.
  • Send a film of your show if she can’t make it to any of your performances. It doesn’t have to be super-high production values (iphones and handycams are fine), as long as the action on stage can be clearly seen and heard. Emma, and a good chunk of her programming peers, WILL book something off of seeing a film.
  • Try and set up a chat before you pitch anything.

 Her Email


Fun Facts About Emma

Strangers are always approaching her to tell her their secrets. Her dog is called Hobbs.



When I was finishing my studies at Bath Spa University (90th best uni in the nation, get in!) I had no marketable skills, no major postgraduate prospects, no work experience beyond ushering in a dark red waistcoat at the Theatre Royal. One of my professors gave a lecture where he said “most likely, you won’t make a living as a writer”. What I had was buckets of White Straight Cis Man Confidence, and a meeting I’d set up with a woman who worked for a thing I’d never heard of called Bristol Ferment who had seen me do some spoken word. We chatted for about half an hour, and she offered me £350 to make something and try it out at the next festival.  I didn’t really know what a work-in-progress was (cheers degree), and I’d never seen that much money before, so I used it to spend the whole summer making a full 45-minute storytelling epic with stop-motion animation and original music. I think my deeply earnest, slightly over-the-top response to this tiny commission made a good impression. This woman was not Emma Bettridge (gotcha good!), but Kate Yedigaroff, Emma’s predecessor as Ferment Producer. The two of them kept giving me small commissions, advice and gigs until I left the southwest four years ago. My career simply wouldn’t exist without them.

When a person hears that two folks who work in the arts are dating or roommates, or have some other unexpected connection, regardless of whether said person is in the art world or not, their comment is very often “gosh, the arts is very incestuous isn’t it?”. I’m always aback a bit: it seems a bit of an escalation to compare two people who work in the same industry going out to The Full Jaime & Cersei. But it nods to a different truth, an open secret: opportunity in the art world is overwhelmingly defined by personal connections.

This is what me and Emma talk about for a bit. As someone who manages a curated (aka closed) programme, she makes an articulate case for this way of doing business. “I have to understand the art to confidently sell it” she says. Theatre is about human relationships, and to help develop the artist-audience one, she has to have to have a relationship with the art herself, and thus also the artist. I sort of get this, but I still think there’s so many unanswered questions there. What if you find chatting with certain people a bit difficult, but are excellent at making theatre? Sophie Willan brings this up in a Guardian article this week. You might feel like too much of an outsider to hobnob with everyone in Theatreland, whether because of class, ethnicity, disability or plain shyness. But I didn’t ask her about that, so more fool me.

We also talk about Development Hell – the limbo brought about when early career artists can access small pots of money from venues to research and develop shows, but not the chance to actually put anything finished in front of an audience. I heard Paula Varjack coin the phrase at a conference in 2016 and I realised I’d been in Development Hell for years: in the 5-and-a-bit years since my explosion of paint and words in a Bristol summer in 2011 I’d made seven shows, out of which only one had been seen by more than a thousand people. I was scraping a living, but who the hell was I working for? I’m always grateful to the organisations who’ve backed me in any way, but the public who were paying for me to make art, through them, didn’t know I existed. Surely the best thing for me to develop would be, y’know, the bit where people look at it?

Emma is not responsible for creating Development Hell, but of course, as a person working in artist development, she is more than aware of it happening. She names several companies that have been in the same predicament. Ferment is a rare exception to most artist development schemes – you can actually progress from there to proper gigs in the Studio (although the Main House is out of bounds – don’t get too many big ideas, you uppity maker you). She’s also usually frantically giving advice, cajoling other venues and making introductions to try and get artists on in their career, whether they’re in or out of the Ferment squad: “I might not be the Yes Guy, but I can often find the Yes Guy for what you have”. And in this world, who could really ask for more than a Fredo of Yeses?

#5 Love, Honour and Abbé (with Deborah and David)

A tale of how three English knights with suspiciously familiar names must quest through the chaos of the Hundred Years’ War to find a French Abbess who guards a powerful secret. Featuring Deborah Bucella (@DebsBucella) and David Lockwood (@dwlockwood). Join us a we bring death to tyrants and try and find out who the hell Margaret Beckett is.

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#2 One Monkey (w/ Tom Wright & Amie George)

A tale of how slightly messed-up kid Iris must face the terrifying consequences of clairvoyance and stop the mysterious evil Hands, while exploring some…alternative sexual options. With special guests Tom Wright (@talltomwright) and Amie George (@amieimaG). 

Come See Horace and the Yeti on Tour! I promise it will be more family-friendly than this episode!

Tour Dates

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