Sunday, December 07, 2014

In Battalions: an update

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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