Friday, December 14, 2012

Calling all Theatre-Makers! An extraordinary challenge from Culture Minister Ed Vaizey


Earlier this week, I attended the Performers’ Alliance Parliamentary reception, co-hosted by Equity, the Musician's Union and The Writers’ Guild. It's an annual event in the Terrace Pavilion in Parliament, and a chance for actors, musicians and writers to meet MPs and discuss any issues of concern. The Culture Minister and Shadow Culture Minister both come along and make speeches (Ed Vaizey and Dan Jarvis respectively) as do representatives from each union. MPs with an interest in culture also attend, like Ben Bradshaw, former Labour Culture Secretary and now member of the Culture Select Committee.

I was there to lobby about proposed changes to the English Baccalaureate, which regular readers will know I've been banging on about for ages. But as it turned out, something else came up as a more immediate challenge to those of us involved in new play development.

As the speeches ended and the mingling began, my Guild colleague - theatre, TV, radio and computer games writer Andy Walsh - bravely took on bullish Culture Minister Ed Vaizey. Andy decided to use the opportunity to take Vaizey to task over recent Arts Council cuts to theatre companies, and how those were impacting the development of new plays.

Vaizey's response was extraordinary. After hiding behind the principle that the Arts Council was an arms-length body, and the government is not responsible for its decisions (which wasn't what we were suggesting) he went on to assert in no uncertain terms that the cuts the Arts Council had imposed were in any case having no effect whatsoever on the British theatre industry. On the contrary, he said, new theatre writing was thriving - he cited in particular Soho Theatre's expansion into a third auditorium, and the Bush Theatre.

Andy and I were dumbfounded. I tried to explain to Vaizey that in tough times theatres contract around their main stages and protect their core work. What gets cut is the complex web of development which backs up the main stage work, such as writer attachment schemes and schools work. I cited Hampstead Theatre's recent decision to cut their entire education department, including their phenomenally successful Heat and Light youth theatre. In the short term, of course such work isn't essential to what takes place on the main stage. But in the medium and long term, it absolutely is. Where else will the new talent come from?

The fact is that 25 theatre companies or venues have suffered 100% cuts to their Arts Council grants, along with 5 writer development organisations. Further big cuts have fallen on some of our finest playwriting powerhouses, including the Almeida (39%), Soho Theatre (17.6%) and Out of Joint (27.9%). Smaller new writing companies who are busy nurturing the next generation, often in inner city or regional areas, have also been targeted - these include Red Ladder (39.6%), Theatre Centre (22.3%) and Talawa (21.9%). Even those who got off relatively lightly, like the Bush, Tamasha, BAC, ATC, Clean Break, Cardboard Citizens, Hampstead, the Tricycle, the Orange Tree, Bristol Old Vic and Salisbury Playhouse still suffered an 11% cut.

But Vaizey stuck to his guns: none of this was having any effect at all. And then he set us an extraordinary challenge. If we could provide evidence of our claims that Arts Council cuts were affecting new play development in the UK, he promised to read whatever we sent him. Moreover, if there was evidence that new play development was being adversely affected, he would bring it up on our behalf with the Arts Council.

At first, I couldn't decide whether Vaizey was being disingenuous or merely ignorant of how our sector worked. On reflection, I think it was probably the latter. The long tail of development which lies behind any new play is of course invisible to the public, Vaizey included. It's pretty specialist knowledge to understand how plays travel the long road from inspiration to opening night. That tail might be one, two, even three years long - sometimes far longer. Jez Butterworth is on record as saying Jerusalem was seven years in the making.

This is a fragile ecology which only those working within it truly understand. What you see performing on the nation's stages on any given night is like gazing up at the stars - it is a vision from the past. Those productions were first seeded years ago, long before the current round of cuts. Indeed, you could even say that much of what's playing right now is the final fruit from a pre-financial crash era of new play development. It would be an understandable mistake for a layperson to take a look around at Soho, the Bush, even the West End and say: new plays are thriving, what's the problem?

The answer is that the problem will be in two, three or seven years hence.

So I think we have to take Vaizey at his word here and, in good faith, to pick up the gauntlet he has thrown down. It is an opportunity not only to explain to him, but to the wider taxpaying public, precisely how new play development works, and how the cuts taking place now are hacking away at the roots of our future output.

So I've decided to take up Vaizey's challenge - but I'm going to need your help.

In the next month, I will be writing to theatre companies around the country to ask how the cuts which were made in April are affecting new play development. This might take many forms, for example:

  • Producing fewer new plays overall
  • Programming plays by household name writers rather than those less well-known 
  • Having fewer writers on attachment or in-residence 
  • Offering fewer full commissions 
  • Cutting back on literary department staff 
  • Cutting back on education or youth work 
  • Reassigning dramaturgical functions to associate directors rather than literary staff 
  • Programming musicals, comedy or revivals in slots where new plays would once have played 
  • Going dark for a few weeks 
  • Putting plays on for shorter runs 
  • Winding up writers' groups or other developmental schemes 
  • Limiting actor workshop time on new plays in development 
  • Having to give notes to writers primarily driven by cost - such as smaller cast size
  • Offering fewer playwriting workshops to beginners, or to the general public

I would emphasise that this categorically isn't about 'naming and shaming', or suggesting anyone isn't doing their job well. Rather, it is about celebrating our fantastic expertise, while lamenting its inevitable curtailment. Evidence can be submitted anonymously, if desired (though I would suggest it is more powerful to someone like Vaizey if theatres are prepared to go public). I would hope that, en masse, we can demonstrate a wider trend here which goes beyond individual theatres - that we're all in the same boat, struggling to continue what we do best under reduced circumstances, but that something, somewhere has to give. This is about explaining where, how and why those tough decisions have to be taken - and the likely knock on effect. When we look around us in three years' time, will it still be possible to say "new writing is thriving, what's the problem?"

As luck would have it, this week the Guardian's Lyn Gardner published a timely piece entitled Do theatres have to close down before government acts on the arts? In it, she references an earlier piece by the Independent's David Lister, pointing out that theatres need to get better at evidencing their claims of the damage they are suffering.

Well, now's our chance.

I got in touch with Lyn about Vaizey's challenge and she got straight back to me. She has agreed to publish on the Guardian Theatre blog an article, or even a series of articles, looking at the results of my research.

To be honest, I'm a bit anxious. It's a lot of work and I'm going to have to do it in my own time, unpaid, squeezing it in around other work. But I'm serious about doing it. And I would be immensely grateful for your help.

Do you run a theatre company or literary department? Would you be prepared - anonymously or otherwise - to contribute specific examples of how the cuts are materially affecting your new play development?

Or are you a writer or director? Have you had a commission rescinded, a tour postponed, an education package cancelled? Or, do you have good relations with an artistic director or literary manager who you could ask, on my behalf, about contributing to this research?

Perhaps you work outside London, or predominantly in youth or community settings. Is provision for the development of new talent where you are drying up?

In all cases, I would love to hear from you, either in the comments box below, or privately on finkennedy@yahoo.co.uk

This is it, theatre-makers. A challenge to each and every one of us. It's time to put up or shut up.

19 comments:

Sarah Berger said...

Finn, bravo. I would like to post this bog on my arts club website, where there are writers,actors, directors, producers and even Theatre Managers. Would this be of help? One of the reasons I set up my club was to help promote new writing, we are staging monthly rehearsed readings of new work in French's bookshop, as a way of showcasing work and trying to encourage future production. So far I have managed to find a free performance space, and free rehearsal rooms for a two day process, and to get 40 or so industry people to attend. This is a grass roots response to the difficulties of both finding new voices and encouraging the next generation of audience. I shall happily spread the word about your project, and offer you any help I can give. Best Sarah Berger www.thesoandsoartsclub.com

Andrew Haydon said...

To save everyone a lot of time, might I suggest you just send him a copy of the Boyden Report which details the effects of what happened after the last set of cuts?

Copy in my Dropbox folder here:

https://dl.dropbox.com/u/30706832/ACE%20-%20BOYDEN%20-%20Reps%20Final%20Report%20in%20Word.doc

Anonymous said...

Going by this post by a reader at the Guardian Northumberland Theatre Company might be one to contact

http://discussion.guardian.co.uk/comment-permalink/19748863

The Northumberland Theatre Company (NTC), which has toured productions at village halls in rural areas across the country for the last 33 years, was given major bad news last year when Arts Council England withdrew its regular funding.

In 2012
•33% of the Company’s work was new writing.
•The Company employed 203 actor weeks in rehearsal and performance. 95% of actors were locally based.
•The Company provided 92 weeks of employment for technical and production staff, 100% of whom were locally based.
•There were the equivalent of 3.2 full-time staff, comprising Artistic Director, Tours Manager, Design Management Associate and Finance Coordinator (part-time).

Ian shuttleworth said...

In some cases, venues will be unwilling to attribute changes to cuts. For instance, I'm sure you'd never get the Bush to admit that their decisions to cut their literary side by closing unsolicited applications for 46 weeks of the year and to field the theatre's first-ever season without any home-originated new material was at all influenced by financial strictures.

Anonymous said...

Thanks, Andrew. Boyden Report is spectacularly depressing but essential reading.

Flavia said...

Have you considered organising an Open Space meeting, like the ones Devoted & Disgruntled do? Scottish artists have recently managed to effect big changes in Creative Scotland by getting together at meetings like these to discuss action points with the participation of journalists and Creative Scotland staff.

Fin Kennedy said...

Thanks for these responses everyone.

@sarahberger Yes please do circulate far and wide!

@ianshuttleworth Yes i know what you mean but i'm just going to have to work with whatever i get...

@flavia Hmm yes i could do this i suppose but it's a lot to organise in a short time (i have one month, with xmas in the way). Maybe could be a follow-up event after the results are in and the report submitted?

Anonymous said...

Hi, I'm aware that you have been told about the demise of Theatre Writing Partnership in the East Midlands, which was a genuinely influential and creative organisation that influenced policy across the region and provided opportunities for both emerging and established writers. At Nottingham Playhouse we have had to reduce our annual commissions from three to one. We haven't reduced our commitment to new work in our 700 seat auditorium for now (three in the past 12 months) and we have a 3 new plays in the schedule and 2 more in development, but it is going to make it harder for us to take a risk with a writer and therefore harder for writers to make a living.
Giles Croft, AD Nottingham Playhouse.

Ian Shuttleworth said...

Working with what we get: well, quite. But what's that achieved so far? Time and again the instrumentalist argument - thoroughly vile though it is - has been made: "All right, Tories, if you see the arts solely in terms of commerce, we're going to show you that funding is investment which generates a return in healthy multiples." And it's been ignored. Because commerce is a figleaf in this case for ideology.

And consider Vaizey's own terms: if damage is proved, he'll go to the Arts Council. Yeah, and get them to do what? Reallocate money that they no longer have because they've been cut to the bone and beyond? He should have promised to go to the Treasury, to the Cabinet (of which, I know, he isn't a member), to the country. As it is, all he's said he'll do is pile some more shit on an already beshitten plate. That's a cosmetic exercise for him and an utterly futile one for all those who actually are concerned.

And at its most basic, Vaizey - as an M.P. of a few years' serice now - no doubt knows that... well, it's of the basic nature of debate that you back up your own case, rather than just declaring something and then loftily demanding that your opponents disprove it. (And I note this with some authority, since I am Bartok, King of the Giraffes - go on, then, prove I'm not.) Time and again this government has shown its offensive sense of entitlement, of being above the ordinary rules and even on occasion the law of the land... but I think it pushes things to new extremes to find someone who considers himself above the rules even of reason and logic. Not to oppose the approach of this blog in any way - it's admirable, and every opportunity must be taken to get these gits to eat even a morsel of humble pie - but the real onus is on Vaizey to prove that what he said is anything more than smug, self-serving, ignorant horsehit.

jenmcgregor said...

Hi Fin,

I organised one of the open spaces in Scotland that Flavia mentioned above. Forgive me if I'm telling you things you already know, but the next Devoted & Disgruntled is coming up in January - rather than organising an open space yourself, might it be worth attending? Based on my experience of D&D, I think you'd get some valuable contributions and probably find some people willing to help you collate the information you find. Improbable Theatre also has all the reports from all the D&D sessions they've ever run available online, and I'd be surprised if there aren't already some reports containing useful evidence. I'd be happy to trawl through and forward you whatever I find if that would be helpful.

If there's anything useful that I can do from north of the border, please let me know and I'll be happy to assist.

Jen McGregor

http://jenmcgregor.com/2012/12/15/fin-kennedys-quest-to-educate-ed-vaizey/

John Webb said...

I'm currently working at The Belgrade Theatre in Coventry which has just had £250,000 cut by its local authority (an authority which has been a keen supporter of the theatre.) Hamish Glen the Artisitic Director has written a blog at:http://www.belgrade.co.uk/news-and-blogs/blogs/the-joys-of-regional-theatre/
He closes thus:
"I finish this post on the day of the final model showing for the design of MARRIAGE by Gogol I’m directing in a new version by Laurie Slade that goes into rehearsal at the beginning of January – a brilliant design by Libby Watson that we can’t make work within the budget and so the tortuous journey of either cutting the set or somehow finding some money to deliver the best possible quality of work to audiences – but probably a bit of both."

Fin Kennedy said...

Thanks again everyone, all good points...

@GilesCroft If I included you in my mailout next week would you be prepared to be named in my report?

@shutters I feel your pain, and love your fire in the belly! And yes, Vaizey's ACE point is rather disingenuous. I wonder if we can ever get them on the ideology point somehow?

@jenmcgregor Sounds great, and would love a bit of help with that. Can you email me directly? finkennedy@yahoo.co.uk

@JohnWebb Thanks for the link. Any chance you could approach Hamish on my behalf?

Giles Croft said...

Yes,

Giles

southdevonplayers said...

We are a small theatre co. in Devon; non-profit, doing historical-theme shows and specialising (primarily) in shows about the Southwest.

While there is a great deal of enthusiasm for creativity, many people seem to reject the idea of small theatre companies as somehow wotherless - we have dropped jaws on the floor when we have proven what can be done on a small budget. People assume that a theatre company needs an enormous budget and huge professional venue, and masses of glitz, to be able to be "legitimate". Up to a point we have disproven that.
However, due to the fact that for a long time we had no money for lights/ sound equipment, we really suffered in our startup years, some people decided that we were just fooling about (rather than trying to fundraise for equipment!)... Luckily we recieved a grant and now have the tech equipment we need. But getting over that hump was a nightmare. And when it is funded from a few carboot sales (how we started), people immediatly nay-say you.


I (person posting; Laura the secretary and co-founder) recently completed a Masters of Education degree at Exeter, looking at the educational value of community-based historical theatre, which showed that there was a massive benefit, both to people in formal, and informal education, showing (using a show - run from the Players as a case study) a marked increase in various areas including literacy, historical knowledge, self presentation, citizenship, technical knowledge, marketing skills, communications skills, etc. In the past we have had members of the theatre company (which ranges from beginners to semi-professionals) develop performance skills enabling them to go on to RADA, and linking them to film shoots etc, a doorway to wider performance-based employment (despite being a small community group, we have had approaches from Disney feature films, the BBC etc, for our members).
All of our work is "newly" written and researched, and just to give you an idea of the struggle; all of us are employed or studying. So writing, research etc take place in spare time and days off. We are currently in the final stages of rehearsals for a two and a half hour medieval show, involving 15 cast members, 30 costumes (which have had to be hand-sewn from recycled fabrics obtained from Freecycle)... A lot can be done with nothing, but let me assure you that if we didn't have some people willing to work every spare hour on it, as volunteers, we would collapse. If those of us doing this went ill, for example, that would be the end of the group. We have been in existance since 2005, and hope to exist for a lot longer, but as with many theatre companies, things are a major struggle, and it is simply sheer luck that we continue onwards and upwards at the moment.

Phelim said...

Finn
Do please contact the Improbable office about support regarding D&D not least we could mobilise people on the Website at www.devotedanddisgruntled.com and use the resource and website to create a report. There are 1400 people on the site and you could invite Vaisey to come to D&D in January

Alan Barrett said...

Whilst I'm not a theatre writer per se, I'm freelance, teaching creative writing in all its forms, including playwriting. I work mostly in schools and libraries through the UK. my income this year has dropped by a third, simply because I'm reliant upon public funding to schools, who can then employ me. I don't pretend that I'm going to encourage the next Arnold Bennett or Dennis Potter, however, I might. It is a specific skill and a great many teachers don't have it. Not because they're inadequate, but simply because we all have different skills. I'm just one sole trader, but I know most of my artistic friends, from all genres, are struggling to make ends meet simply because there isn't the money to go around. This doesn't just affect direct payments for gigs, it affects theatre attendance because jobs are fewer and income is lower. This then pushes up the possibility of more closures of theatre education arms, and theatres going dark. It's a very short-sighted policy this government has. Essentially, cutting the roots to preserve the branches without thought that with neglected roots, the whole tree will die. When everything you do is geared to cost, not value, you have a very narrow grasp of life.

Peth said...

Hi Fin,

London Bubble received a 100% cut in the 2008 ACE portfolio review (£415k). This resulted in the lost of 6 core posts and our 2 touring productions. Each year those 2 projects provided, on average, 112 actors weeks, 98 technician weeks and 8 commissions (2 x writer, composer, designer, choreographer). They attracted just over 15,000 attendances which ranged widely in age and class.

While we have managed to survive and have built our education and participatory activities (incidentally I think you should ask respondents to separate participation from education), it will take us until 2014 to create a summer tour through Fan Made Theatre. If Ed wants to examine how cuts effect a community company, send him round.

Good luck with this,

Peth

Caroline Routh said...

As the Executive Producer of Musical Theatre Network I did just want to pick up on your comment about venues "programming musicals...in slots where new plays would once have played". I imagine that you are referring to revivals of classic musicals and tours of shows that have had successful runs in the West End (probably out of the Andrew Lloyd Webber stable, or one of the so-called jukebox musicals) but I think it's really important to make the distinction between this established, familiar work and the new and innovative work that is being developed within musical theatre and that needs every bit as much support as new plays do. In fact, probably more, as the costs are higher and the gestation period even longer. So I am a big believer in grassroots support for new work (I've worked in that area for most of my career), but I would like to see this debate encompass the breadth of exciting new theatre this country produces and not focus purely on new writing.

Fin Kennedy said...

@Phelim - I've emailed you about this. Drop me a line when you can.

@Alan - Thanks for pointing this up. Which region do you mostly work in?

@Peth - Indeed! I have included you in my mailout so you can contribute some of these experiences.

@Caroline - Yes, sorry, this is what I meant. New musicals are of course as fragile and important as new plays. In fact, we should talk more about having a section on this in my report. Could you email me?

Thanks again everyone.