Towards a Progressive Arts Policy – cultural contracts

This week gone by has been another big week for talking about the arts and where we are headed.  I was unable to attend the RSA/Arts Council event on their proposal for a Cultural Contract.  I did however watch the livestream (later) and follow the debate on twitter.  I missed out on the table discussions but have provided my own artist/artistic response here, at the bottom of the page.  It is a personal and visceral response and clearly more thought needs to be given to this.  Also, one might question if it is even possible for a group of people to make a contract on behalf of the millions of people involved in the arts and culture sector as both individuals and organisations.  From watching the event it seems others also had concerns – more work for us all to do!

Here’s the page on the RSA website with the info and hopefully they’ll post the video of the live stream here soon)

Yesterday I was proud to be part of the South East Region TUC conference on the future of arts and culture in the UK.  In my role as a steering group member of the Artists’ Assembly Against Austerity I was part of the committee organising the conference and also facilitated the session on Public Ownership, Privatisation and Gentrification.  There were so many good ideas and good thoughts going on I cannot capture them all here – hopefully I will be able to post here later a link to the report on proceedings.  In our group one of the overriding things that came out was the need for us all to support each other, across the sector and across issues – artists can help with those campaigning for homes – union members can strike for the rights of the public in maintaining ownership of what is currently, but may not always be, ours – as well as for their own rights as workers.  We all as individuals can do more than we think – just by giving our support and continuing to ask difficult questions of those ‘in charge’!

One thing that came out of both the plenary and our own session was a question around arts policy itself.  Eleanora Bellfiore, who is an academic at Warwick University and has been part of the Warwick Commission, warned against complacency in the value of arts and culture.  Our work is still mostly only consumed by the top 10% of society.  No matter how hard we work, how many goals we set – we are not making art for all – not yet.  We use the small success stories in this field – people like Immediate Theatre – working on estates in Hackney – to bolster the argument for larger institutions who are having much less impact.  We have failed to create a progressive arts policy that achieves arts for all.  In asking my workshop for suggestions of actions and pledges to take back to the final session of the conference someone suggested ‘create a progressive arts policy’. I presented this to the conference – because unless we, the people who are working as artists, as activists, at the grassroots level start working on this arts policy, it will never be the thing we want it to be.  If arts policy continues to be driven and created by those who already benefit from the arts policy that exists, things will never change enough to make it work.  I made a plea that all involved should start thinking, talking, writing and blogging about what a Progressive Arts Policy – an arts for all policy – would look like.  How would we achieve it – what elements should it have? What are the questions we need ask and to answer to get to that policy?  What are the aims and definitions we need to agree to make it happen?  If you are reading this – then you are the person who can do this work.

If you make it public please use the hash tag #showculturesomelove and tweet it to @showculturesomelove or me @debdavemason so I can see and retweet it.

If you are holding an event to talk about it – let me know

If you are just writing down some thoughts and don’t want to share so widely – please email it to me at thepossibletc@gmail.com

If you are making art/work about it – let me know by any of the above methods.

Or just leave a comment below.

Response by Deborah Mason to RSA draft Cultural Contract

My response to RSA draft Cultural Contract

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Re-Balancing Act

Rebalancing more than money  (from #ArtsPolicy50 collage set)

Rebalancing more than money (from #ArtsPolicy50 collage set)

There has been a lot of talk about re-balancing the economy to diminish the dominance of London and boost the ‘regions’ – forgetting of course that London is a region!  We have particularly heard about this in the arts and the ROCC Report – if you read it thoroughly, it gives a good view of the situation.  A lot of the discussions around this re-balancing have taken the starting point of limited financial resource – no more money – and ignored the possibility that actually there is money – you could just take a bit more off the rich – for example!  Also that investment in the arts brings a good return – I think I saw a figure quoted of every pound invested brings a return of six back – so you’d actually have more money for the other things we are supposed to be cutting back on if you did invest in the arts!  Even so this rebalancing needs to be seen as that – a tricky balancing act – not a see-saw.

It also has to be recognised that one of the reasons that London sucks up so much of the arts cash is that it is home to many national institutions, galleries, museums etc, which would just eat up more cash if they were relocated elsewhere.  Accepting that protecting our cultural heritage and keeping it free as a public resource, is accepting that these institutions continue to need funding.  However that does not mean that to rebalance things we need to create new fixed galleries and museums elsewhere.  This is not a competition between who has the largest and best buildings, opera company, theatre company.  What we are trying to do is feed the ecosystem – re-invigorate the habitats that have been neglected.  This means investing in grassroots, regional and touring organisations, and in projects such as Creative People and Places so that culture does not centralise into metropolitan areas (as it has done historically – which is why we have the situation we do in London) but gets out to as many people as possible.  It is not just about the North, but about rural Cornwall, rural Lincolnshire, Northumberland – not just Newcastle.

But we don’t just have a regional imbalance.  We also have gender imbalance and ethnic imbalance and other imbalances that need to be addressed.  Diversity benefits us all, but currently it is best found at the grassroots (the place of least investment) and in the smaller scale organisations.  These are the types of projects and organisation at most risk from funding cuts, where cutting what might seem a small amount of money, or refusing a project grant can make the difference to that project happening, or the organisation continuing to be able to do work.  I have yet to meet anyone working in the arts who is not also working to make their organisation more diverse, to give more equal opportunities, to attract people from the widest range of backgrounds – and yet, 40 years after sex and race discrimination legislation it seems we still have a long way to go.

A lot of us are working away at the bottom, and in the middle and a little bit at the top.  But right at the top, on the boards of directly funded Government organisations, there is much less diversity than one might expect.  DCMS makes around 400 direct appointments to government funded organisations.  It gets one of the best reports on its appointment process from the Government auditor of such things.  Yet the fact remains that the balance is not there: if you look at just the arts and culture Executive Non-Departmental Government Bodies – the proportion is 66% male, 34% female and 87% white.  Something, somewhere isn’t working.  Given that DCMS are considered to be doing a ‘good’ job here – what are other sectors like?  Recent appointments (over the last year) have seen the gap narrowing – but not enough to redress this balance:

appointments 42% female / 58% male and

reappointments 41% female/ 59% male

Unless those proportions are reversed the status quo will not alter in favour of 50:50 male/female.

Something any political party might like to add to their manifesto is this:

A commitment to 50:50 male:female government appointments by 2020.

A commitment to a better ethnic balance in government appointments by 2020 (given the current situation it might be a lot to ask for 50:50 but perhaps we could go for 60/40 and see where we land?)

We can all do our bit for better diversity, and equality – and the Government can lead the way – let’s make it happen!

Note on the stats:

There is no published data on equality and diversity of Government appointments (so much for transparency).  For the Executive Non-Governmental Bodies I used the DCMS list of organisations, for the sake of time I did not look at gambling or sports bodies.  I then looked at the websites or each organisation and their list of trustees/board/council members, where no photos were available I googled the individuals to check ethnicity/gender where it was not clear.  (I did this on 10 February 2015)

For the information on recent appointments I looked at the DCMS press releases relating to this from end of February last year to the present day (11 March 2015)

This is not a scientific way of working I appreciate – however there is the information and whilst it may be challenged that not all these boards are completely appointed by Government – the stats still stand – that is their make up – those are the appointment/reappointment figures.  It is a shame that the Government itself has not made a commitment to audit and publish equality and diversity figures for all its

appointments – but that is another story!

 

 

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Show Culture Some Love

This is a campaign I am running on Facebook and Twitter for Artists Assembly Against Austerity as part of their involvement in the PCS Union conference on the Future of Arts and Culture in Britain.

Bob & Roberta Smith Show Culture Some Love

by Bob & Roberta Smith

The idea is that on Valentine’s Day (Sat 14th Feb 2015) instead of posting the usual romantic pictures you show Culture some love instead and post a selfie on Facebook, Twitter or Instagram with the hashtag #showculturesomelove

What do you have to do?

We are asking that people and organisations post ‘selfies’ of themselves ‘showing culture some love’.  Examples:

Hugging a statue

Hugging part of a building (a column of the Globe Stage, a corner of the National Portrait Gallery)

Hugging or kissing a cultural object of significance to them: their favourite book, favourite film, favourite video game, their musical instrument or other object that represents their own art or craft endeavour.

@DebDaveMason for Show Culture Some Love campaign

@DebDaveMason loving #Titian #Showculturesomelove

These would then be posted on Twitter/Instagram/Facebook etc with the hashtag #ShowCultureSomeLove

What if you don’t do social media but want to take part?

Just take the picture and send it to artists@thepeoplesassembly.org.uk with a short caption (100 characters or fewer) and the @showculturelove account will post it for you.

Messaging

The campaign is part of the TUC conference on the Future of Art & Culture in Britain – 14 March 2015 and the hashtag #ShowCultureSomeLove will also be used by organisations taking part in the Conference to link to the conference programme (once finalised and published) and also to a webpage hosting information about the campaign and the conference.  This is the message we want to get across:

People and organisations are posting selfies to ‘Show Culture Some Love’.  We would like to see National and Local Government doing the same – show culture some love – help sustain and support arts and culture in the UK so that it remains available for everyone to enjoy and participate in.

 You can find out more about the Conference here:

http://www.tuc.org.uk/events/sertuc-creative-and-leisure-industries-committee-conference-saturday-14-march-2015

More info – from me (Deborah Mason) at artists@thepeoplesassembly.org.uk or via mobile on 07957 145992

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Dear Labour

Dear Labour

I used to love you.  I’d like us to get back together, but you’ll have to change.  It’s not me it’s you.

Once, long ago, that time before, when you weren’t in power, I loved you then.  Not just enough to vote for you, but enough to put leaflets through letterboxes to get other people to vote for you.  And then they did, and then you changed.  It all went to your head.  You forgot about the people.  The people like me.  You started to worry about the rich people and the business people and the banks and the city boys, the greedy capitalists.  You changed.  I didn’t like it.

Now, though, I’m a bit stuck.  Because you are all I’ve got.  But it feels like there is only one café in the UK right now.  And the only thing on the menu is Cow Shit or Pig Shit.  We’ve had four and half years of Cow Shit, and you’d think by now I’d be ready to try the Pig Shit again.  But I’m not quite.  I can still remember the nasty taste it left in my mouth last time.  We are in a ‘dictatorship of no alternatives’.  But you could be the alternative.  If you wanted to.  If you tried a little bit harder to get out of the loop of Westminster policies.  If you stopped brushing the dirt off the next zombie policy to be resurrected and started using  the creativity and imagination of your members to create real, new, alternative ways of doing things.  But you got sucked in, didn’t you.  To the old boys club.  To the world where everyone got the same kind of education, did the same jobs, came from the same backgrounds and all that separates you is the colour of your ties.  You need to get back to your roots.  Listen to the people.  The real people, the 95% not the 5%.  Only you can do this now. Only you can do this in time for the next election.  Only you can prevent the catastrophe of a Conservative-UKIP coalition.

What I’d like you to do is this. FOCUS.

Focus on:

Creating an alternative to the capitalism of the market economy

Yes it will be hard work and it will take a while.  But it is possible to have an economy not based on the market.  Not based on growth.  There are perfectly respected Professors of Economics publishing books on this – you should read some.  Maybe give it a go.

And you really, really can’t sign up to TTIP.  To do so would be to sell the people, whose democratic freedoms you are supposed to protect, into slavery – owned by big global business.  It would also be seriously bad for the planet.  Yes, I know you say you’ve asked for changes, but just reject it.  Walk away from the table and see who follows you.  It will be a brave act but someone has to do it.  Make it you.

Health

Not some crowd-pleasing policy or pledge on waiting times.  Really focus.  Sort out the major issues.  You say you are committed to turning back the clock – to preventing the privatisation of the NHS.  You need to be really clear about what you mean by that.  You need to actually do it.  Put it all back together as an integrated NATIONAL health service, owned by the people, designed for the people (and that includes the people who work there).

Start with the staffing.  It’s a huge cost.  It’s the thing that people want: to see the right person, within the right time frame.  So you need to work on better ways of staffing the NHS.  Maybe that means joining it back together for employment purposes.  If everyone worked for the NHS (not different trusts and organisations) you couldn’t have the situation where someone can be made redundant with a handsome pay off and then start work in the same hospital in a new job the next week.  If you were better able to use your staff flexibily, you wouldn’t need so many temp workers and locums.  If you get the staffing right, then a lot of issues around waiting times, availability, dedicated doctors for the elderly just melt away.  .

Education

It is so essential to every person in this country – you really need to get this one right – not just tinker about with it.  This is where ‘equal opportunity’ starts.

Consistency – that’s what we need now.  It’s pointless to have a national curriculum that only applies to less than 50% of schools.  It’s fine to have choice, but there need to be minimum curriculum requirements for all schools whether they are faith,f ree, academies, state or private.  Where changes are made they can’t just be implemented at the drop of a hat – people need time to phase things in and out – this is somebody’s future in your hands – you can’t just change the rules on a whim.  You need to make sure that creativity and the arts are part of EVERY child’s education.  Creativity not just in the way that lessons are delivered, but a real focus on encouraging and engaging pupils in classes whose sole focus is creativity: art, drama, dance, music, creative writing.  Giving every one the ability to develop and express their creativity will enhance their futures whether it is as a parent, an engineer, a teacher, a scientist, an entrepreneur, a financial sector worker or someone who is part of the ever growing and world dominant UK creative sector.  It will give them the adaptability to change and cope with whatever life throws at them.

You need to relook at University fees and student loans.  They are stifling diversity, they are stifling the arts.  Student loans don’t work, they cost the country more than grants.   They set recent graduates up for poverty and that prevents them from really getting the best from their education.

Society

Do something about poverty

Encourage measures that promote social cohesion

Provide real help – not just policies and legislation – that enable local people to make a difference locally.

Support arts and creativity nationally and locally and ensure that support is fairly apportioned across the country.

Don’t ignore the environment.  Without a planet your political rhetoric is meaningless.

There is so much more…

But let’s start with this.  Let’s start with you coming back to the people, let’s start with you standing up to global corporations and the needs of the 5%.  Let’s start with you actually saying something real not just something you had a chat with a real person about.   Start with actually stating what you stand for – not just what you might do.  No-one believes politicians’ pledges anyway.  So why not just tell us about the future you want to see, and the things that you will do and the things you need  us to do, to get us all there.  And I really hope, after all this time, that somewhere in your heart, the future that you see is a better, fairer, more sustainable world.

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Hard Times

Throughout September I stood on street corners in Peckham and handed out flyers for the Peckham Fun Palace.  Well I tried to.  The first set of flyers were designed to encourage people to come forward with ideas and suggestions, or just enthusiasm, to take part in the making of the Fun Palace, later on and nearer the date I had flyers with things that people could come to – a choir, a monster workshop, a flash-fry-Frankenstein.  Everything was free.  It was also supposed to be fun.  But for some reason the idea of ‘free fun’ or ‘free fun event’ or ‘Peckham Fun Palace’ seemed like anything but fun to the people of Peckham as they laboured along burdened by shopping, kids or just a scowl.  I mean, of course, some people did take the leaflet, some people even smiled and said thank you.  Some people even came.  But it puzzled me that so many people would reject something that was free, easy (no registration or logging in, just turn up on the day) and could provide either them or their kids with two hours free entertainment.

So I’ve been thinking about that for quite a while now.  And I think what it is, is that people are thinking ‘Life is Hard’.  And if you think life is hard, then it probably is, for you.  That is not to say that the people I’m talking about are self-deluded millionaires who worry about Waitrose dropping their favourite flavour of crisps.  Life is probably not easy for these people, like it isn’t easy for you and me, they have to work, they have to pay their bills, money is tight – for some just for the necessities, for others saving for something special.  Anyone with kids and no ‘staff’ to help them look after them is going to be working hard, one way or another.  But if you keep thinking to yourself ‘life is hard’, ‘my life is so hard’, it creeps into your attitude to everything.  So you look at me, handing out my little postcards and you think ‘I don’t have time, I don’t want to deal with anything else, I can’t be bothered with that.  Are you crazy woman? that you think I have time for ‘fun’!’ and maybe you just turn your head away, or shake it, or even tut as you go by.  If you do take the card (because it’s easier than not and maybe you sympathise with me and my ‘hard life’ standing there in the rain) you look at it and think, ‘oh maybe, if only I had the time, if only I had the energy, if only my life wasn’t so demanding and exhausting I’d actually do this, I could do with some fun, but….’  So one way or another, that hard life of yours is actually stopping you from doing something that might make it a bit less hard.

I don’t mean just fun things, but other stuff too, because you don’t want to take on any more ‘burdens’ you don’t volunteer for things, you aren’t active in your community, you don’t protest, maybe you don’t even vote, you don’t complain until you really, really have to.  If more and more people retreat into their hard life shells, then it will all get harder for everyone.  Instead of seeing an opportunity to work together to make things better, people are staying clear of each other for fear of being dragged into something that will add to their work load or their financial commitments.  But maybe it only takes a few people to step outside of that hard life shell to make a difference?

In his track ‘Hard Times’ Plan B has this to say:

Through these hard times people see what it’s like for the poor

Through these hard times people really find out what it’s like to be ignored
Through these hard times people just don’t seem to give a damn, oh oh no
Through these hard times it really feels like no one understands, mm mm yeah yeah

To a certain extent I think more people now do see and understand what it is like for the poor.  The “squeezed middle”, may not be living in a damp, overpriced, bedsit living off value beans, but they are beginning to understand what financial insecurity feels like, what working harder for less feels like, what ‘hard life’ feels like.  And yes it does seem like people don’t give a damn.  And certainly politicians will have to search their memory banks to remember what it feels like.  And most of the cabinet and most of those on the other front bench haven’t got a clue (although I daresay some of them do think their lives are hard) and some of them also don’t give a damn.

In my own little world I divide people up into ‘people who give a damn’ and ‘people who don’t’.  There are some people who will take an active part in society, regardless of whether it brings them any direct benefit, because they care about the whole, not just themselves.  They are the people who will start an action group, go on a march, sign a petition, create an event, raise money for charity, volunteer, vote, do stuff that helps make the world a better place (even if it’s just picking up litter from a communal square).  Other people want it done for them. They might not articulate it like that, but effectively, they want a nicer world, but they either don’t think it is achievable (so why bother to try) or don’t think they have the capacity to do anything extra (hard life) to make a difference.

Despite the lip-service that is ‘Big Society’ the austerity propaganda of the Government, actually reinforces the idea of ‘hard life’ of belt tightening, hard times, financial insecurity, and that creates a climate of paranoia about the future and that promotes hard life thinking.  Far from believing that we are ‘all in this together’ hard life thinking makes us more concerned to protect ourselves and our own and less inclined to offer help out to strangers or the world in general.  It fuels the kind of paranoia that allows far right parties such as UKIP to gain a toe-hold.  Their simplistic policies are easily understood and provide no intellectual challenges or equivocations, their subliminal message is ‘we will protect you and your interest from all threats’.  Not un-surprisingly they appeal to the struggling workers who despite employment still find themselves on the borders of, or in poverty (8 million adults live in poverty in the UK, but officially only 2 million are unemployed – putting 6 million in jobs that don’t pay enough to lift them out of poverty).  Not understanding how that might feel, the other parties continue to bicker amongst themselves and rely on ad-men and pollsters to try and work out what might appeal to voters, usually resulting in unconvincing gloss over small changes in policy details, rather than anything that will make a difference than anyone can understand.  So maybe if we are to counter UKIP and its encroachments we need some positive propositions – how we can ‘all be in it together’, how being poor is not unalterably a bad thing, and being rich a good thing.  Yes we need roofs over our heads and enough to eat, but there is so much more we could have with that that doesn’t need to cost a thing – the c.60,000 people who attended 139 Fun Palaces over the weekend of 4/5 October found that out – free fun – how about that!  And many of the Fun Palaces, like the one in Peckham, cost very little to put on and make – maybe £100 for some flyers and supplies, but most run on voluntary effort, volunteered and shared resources and spaces.

So how do we get round this, how do we change our state of mind from ‘hard life’ to ‘good life’ without changing our actual circumstances?  Well to quote Sam Kogan ‘we think what we want to think’ so we could just think about it differently.  It isn’t always easy to do that, and even with an effort of will, the small obstacles that life throws up can easily dump us back into our hard life thinking.

But here is an example from my own life.  In June I got made redundant from my part-time job.  The job that paid the rent and the bills.  I still had another freelance job – but it wasn’t going to keep me afloat.  Just before I got made redundant a friend had approached me with some freelance work and that would keep me going for a bit too.  I figured with my pay and redundancy money (not much, about two month’s wages), and some savings, and the freelance job, I could probably keep going till November.  So I decided I would only apply for jobs I really wanted to do.  I decided that I wasn’t going to panic until the money actually ran out.  I still had the occasional panic (of course), but I reminded myself that things had been worse in the past, in fact my financial situation had often been worse when I was in full unemployment and with a good salary.  I had to keep reminding my friends (who were practically coming round with casseroles) that I had been made redundant not bankrupt and that the two were not inextricably linked.  In fact I hated my job and was trying to leave anyway, as soon as I got over the shock of being told I was being made redundant I felt like an enormous burden had been lifted.  In the months since, when I’ve begun to think those ‘hard life’ thoughts again I’ve just had to remind myself ‘at least I’m not working at xxx anymore!’ and that is often enough to put me back on track.

Whilst I was trying to pull together the Peckham Fun Palace I had a lot of ups and downs, as the time neared for the actual weekend, I got more and more apprehensive, things seemed to fall apart a bit in terms of arrangements and I definitely got sucked back into ‘hard life’ thinking.  But was it really so hard?  I had several happy volunteers to help me on the day.  People did turn up for at least part of it.  They enjoyed themselves.  I enjoyed helping them make monsters.  But dragging a shopping trolley full of paint and a wheely suitcase full of other stuff back in the rain on the Sunday evening I felt miserable.  But really I was just tired and hormonal (PMT) and I needed to get over myself and not wallow in a rut of hard times.

Because what I have found, since becoming poorer, by losing my job, is that I’ve actually got richer.  I have time to do things that make me happy.  Time to do more of the things I enjoy and care about; working on What Next? Southwark, making a Fun Palace, writing, painting, teaching a friend to draw, dog-sitting and walking, acting, reading, getting involved.  So far I haven’t run out of money, and of course I save money because so much of the stuff I’m doing is either free or costs little.  I don’t need to self-medicate with lunches from Pret and a treat for dinner when I get home.  I don’t need to go shopping for clothes and shoes I don’t need because I need to feel that working for money has to have a point to it, if I hate the work itself.  The money I’m earning now comes from things I do care about, things I do want to be involved in and do.  The people I’m working with respect me and treat me like an equal and a colleague not a minion, so I don’t need to bolster my self esteem by enhancing my appearance, I can just be me (and it turns out I’m very cheap to run if I’m just myself!).

So I’m staying in this moment, and living like this is going to be my life. I’m not thinking, what if the future is bleak, what if I die old and poor, what if…. Because I’m not a clairvoyant and I can’t see all the details of my future so I’m not going to worry about the details of my future.  I think if I make an effort now to make the world I live in a better place, if I make an effort now to live in a more sustainable way and work with people who are trying to make governments understand what needs to be done to sustain the planet and sustain the people on it, then by the time the future comes round maybe it will be the better future I’ve made, rather than one I can imagine from the fixed point of now.

So here’s another little song lyric from one of my favourite albums – The Harrow and the Harvest – it’s from a track called ‘Hard Times’ by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings:

“Singing hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind, Bessie
Hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more”

So there you have it: hard times ain’t gonna rule my mind no more.  Give it a go.

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#create365 no.16 a different way of doing things

I was going to title this piece ‘a better way of doing things’ and then I stopped because I wasn’t sure that what we did at the weekend was ‘better’, but it was ‘different’ and it was certainly very enjoyable.  What was it that we did? Well…..

Slide1

The programme (made in a hour on Thursday morning)

Hilary Jennings finally got to put her long-held plan of a Southside Players play in a weekend (that was also a new directors workshop) into action.  We took the play ‘Two’ by Jim Cartwright – although it is designed for just two actors to play a huge number of parts, this means that each scene is a manageable duo-logue (or in some cases mostly monologue), making a collaborative approach easier in terms of logistics, style, continuity and story.   A company of 20 people assembled, some would direct, some would act, some would do both, some parts were played by more than one person and some people played more than one part.  Hilary had the joyful job of writing the schedule for this.

Having done a basic readthrough on Wednesday and been allocated our parts and directors, on Saturday we met in the weird and wonderful ‘Shakespearian style globe Theatre’ of the Bedford pub.

20140628_155018

Looking down from the Gallery of the theatre, rehearsal in progress

We sat in a circle and we talked – we did a lot of this -it was a good thing – we found out, that we all knew a lot more than we thought we did, that we had a wide range of expertise and that the individual view point of experiencing something (as an actor or a director) was just as valid as a system or method that required training and practice.  We started off talking about warm-ups, why we do them, whether we should do them, what works, what doesn’t, why they need to be adapted to the type of play you are doing, the kind of cast you have, and the point you are in the process – a rehearsal warm-up and a pre-show warm-up might be very different.

Then we did some warm ups! My favourite was (I think) called House.  People are grouped in differently numbered groups around a circle (two people in one place, three in another, five in another) – these are the houses – a big group is a big house, a small one is a flat.  The homeless person has to go round to each of these houses and ask to be let in – they can do this in any style, the houses then reject them and tell them to move on mimicking the style they have been asked in – so far so good.  At any point someone in a house can decide to ‘move house’ they do this by running to one of the other houses – each house must only ever have the right number of people in it so everyone starts to run – the person left without a house at the end is the new homeless person – repeat until you all fall on the floor from exhaustion/laughing too much.

We then looked at ways of looking at text.  Again we had some general discussions, how you might mark the actual text to make it easier, how you might analyse it for the verbal structure, how you might analyse it in the context of the play.  We did some interesting exercises with a piece of text from the play and looked at all sorts of ways of finding meaning, relationship, physicality – to be honest at one point we did start to make it up but that is the nature of the game anyway so we just went with this.  We then sat around and I explained a bit about the ten steps for creating a character/analysing a play and that led to a discussion about different ‘methods’ and styles – ie not everything is Stanislavskian.

We then split off into our director/actor groups and did some work on our scenes.  After lunch I did a short session on ‘objectless action’ as the play specifically states that all props are to be ‘mimed’.  Then we did some more work on our scenes and those of us doing more than one thing did the other thing.

At the end of the day we came together to agree things that needed a consensus – this was the most interesting bit, with eight directors and another 12 people involved you’d think this might be tricky.  It took minutes.  We had a flip chart sheet with the plan of the theatre on it.  We decided where the street was, where the bar was, where the tv was, all the physcial context of the pub.  We agreed the season.  We agreed any other stuff that were required.  We agreed the timetable for the next day.

Using the map actor/director

Using the map actor/director

 

On Sunday we mostly just rehearsed the different parts, then did a run through and then did the performance.  What struck me as so interesting and maybe ‘better’ was that in one room you could have two directors directing two different scenes and some actors running through stuff they’d already worked on.  There was no tension, no huffing about ‘too loud’ or ‘in my space’ and it seemed (to me) some how more relaxed than a normal rehearsal – even though we were technically ‘up against the clock’.  It felt like the divided attention actually allowed the actors to be freer, braver, and the divided responsibility of the directing also gave the directors breathing space.  Often being part of a cast can feel great, like you’re part of a crack troop of soldiers, but being the director sets you apart, you’re the Captain, or the General and you have to take charge and ‘make it happen’.  In our very communal set up, everyone was one of the troops.

A panoramic view of one of the rehearsal rooms, three different scenes in progress

A panoramic view of one of the rehearsal rooms, three different scenes in progress

Because of the duplication of directing effort – we got so much more time – a play in a weekend – yes, but working 10 till 5 each day with an hour for lunch is only 12 hours.  Take out all the workshops and discussions and its more like 5 hours of actual scene work.  But times that by 8 and you have 20 hours of scene work (and it’s a short play) which is a big difference.  So this made what might have been a mad-scramble into something that felt way more leisurely than the average rehearsal period for either am-dram or fringe (50-80 hours for am-dram and maybe 80-150 hours for fringe/low budget).

And it worked, the performance worked, and people were happy.  The audience, the directors, the actors.  So happy that we all wanted to do it again.  Or maybe try it on something more challenging, or in a different style, we started talking about plays that might work, and how collaboration is so much more enjoyable, interesting and rewarding than just doing your own thing.  I suspect there will be more of this to come and it may be ‘better’ or it may just be ‘different’ – as long as we come out the end of it with something that people enjoy and find worthwhile it doesn’t really matter which.

 

 

 

 

 

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Things I’d like to see (part 1): Real diversity in the arts

I’ve been thinking a lot, a lot, a lot about this.  And, you know me, talking about it quite a bit.

The thing about diversity is – it’s quite diverse and there are going to be certain barriers that are specific to certain groups and not others.  It’s also not always helpful to lump people into bigger groups just for the ease of not having to spell everything out.  The needs of people with mobility challenges – in wheelchairs and so on, are not necessarily the same needs as those with sensory impairment challenges (hearing or sight loss) so you can’t just talk about ‘disability’ as if it was a big homogenous group.  Ditto BAME – that’s a lot of different people you’ve lumped in their in that 4 letter acronym.  The cultural backgrounds of different ethnic groups might not necessarily depend so much on their genetic ethnicity but where they were brought up, where their parents were brought up and the socio-economic circumstances of both their own and their family’s past generations.  A third generation black kid from a family of academics and diplomats isn’t going to face the same barriers to accessing the arts as the child of first generation Somalian imigrants working in low paid menial jobs.  We are all different… Or are we.

There is a degree of homogeneity in the arts and that is white, male, privileged and in control.  Sounds familiar?  Yes, it reflects government, banking, big business, etc, etc.  Clearly women have made a bit of an impact – we are no longer quite as marginalised and you could say that on the second rung of privilege were white, privileged women.  It should be said that having a disability of any kind in these two groups – will knock you down the rungs a bit.  It’s a snakes and ladders kind of game after all.

I don’t think quotas are the answer – even for women who actually are half the population.  Ethnic diversity in the UK is not as great as one might think – sitting in the centre of London – here in the capital we are nearly half and half, elsewhere in the UK that drops significantly.  That isn’t the point though.  Diversity in the arts isn’t about representation, about giving people a proportional share, because that isn’t the value of it.  The value – as it would be if we could ever crack diversity in political representation – is in the multiplicity of viewpoints, the variety of experience, the difference in approach not just to the idea of cultural diversity, but to all sorts of things that spring from variety.  Right now a lot of the people of influence, success and power in the arts have arrived their through the same routes, learning the same things in the same handful of institutions and taking the same paths to their achievement.  Right now there might be a few of them left that had a slightly different educational route – maybe even from a comprehensive, but as those few retire, the next generation will become even more identical.  Unless we do something about it of course.

What could we do – what is this thing I’d like to see?

Education – the Department of Education needs to stop faffing about tinkering with examinations and make up its mind whether it is going to have a National Curriculum – or not.  There is no point in a National Curriculum that is only enforced on c. 45% of schools.  If they aren’t going to bother – and given that the rhetoric over Free schools is that they are better ‘ because they can make free choices about what they teach’ it seems odd to impose what they are saying are less than ideal restrictions on the very schools they have direct control of.  So how do you influence what is taught if you don’t have a National Curriculum.  By performance measures in certain subjects – that’s how.  Currently it’s STEM (Science, technology, engineering and maths) and it really ought to be STEAM – A for arts.  Every child should have the right to choose arts GCSE and A levels.

Engagement: Given that arts education in schools can be limited – there must be greater opportunities for children to engage with the arts through after-school clubs and through actual trips out to theatre, galleries, dance, concerts, etc.  I have been told anecdotally that in some areas there is no budget for trips as the parents can’t cover the costs and nor can the school – surely here is a worthy recipient of Arts Council lottery money?  The ability to attend after-school clubs can also be shut off due to weekly fees and ‘extras’ for kit and trips.  Again the poorest kids miss out.  But surely it isn’t beyond the wit of man to find a way to help out – if we can hand out free school meals, why not free school arts and sports?  It isn’t really that the stuff isn’t there for them either – there are lots of good companies, both aimed specifically at children and also big companies running education programmes – but if they aren’t properly funded to enable them to provide chunks of stuff for free then barriers pop up, but even if they do, people need to get to these places and get home again.

Visibility – it’s easier to see diversity in the arts if you are already engaged – on the stage and on tv it is possible to see all sorts of people from all sorts of background.  But that pool of diversity is shrinking and drying up, and the people behind the scenes, and the backers, producers and purse string holders remain resolutely white, privileged and often male.  It would be great to see more critical weight and more wide ranging media coverage of smaller and more interesting productions – it’s all very well to televise of live broadcast big star shows from big star companies – but how much better engagement would be if we also got some of the small stuff – maybe some of the stuff from the regions?  The Royal Exchange Manchester is churning out an extraordinary amount of theatre that addresses all sorts of different ‘gaps’ in the system – using ‘mainstream’ plays they bring different view points – recently an all black ‘All My Sons’ and coming soon Maxine Peake in Hamlet – where are the live broadcasts from Manchester?  I recently had Theatre Royal Plymouth rehearsing in the space I manage in London.  I said ‘look forward to seeing the reviews’ and they laughed, sadly, and said ‘you won’t see any reviews. No-one will come to Plymouth’ – how outrageous is that?  Fabulous things could be going on all over the country but unless you are right next door – we’ll never know – because national critics can’t be bothered or can’t get the expense budget to stay overnight.

This is just a starting point and I’d really welcome comments either challenging what I’m saying and offering an alternative approach or giving some ideas of what else we could do, how else we can make this happen.   I just want to see it happen – I don’t claim to have any or all of the solutions that can make that so.

 

 

 

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