Sunday, February 26, 2012

rescue magic

Deleted my previous post, by mistake, from the Blogger app yesterday. Though I'd worked out I could get back the text through Google cached search, it also had great comments on it and was scared they were gone for good. Thankfully then found this genius tip for retrieving deleted posts. Yes, it's a bit worrying that deleted posts stay on the system with no official way of seeing they're there or having access to them, but right now I'm just thankful!

My notes from Devoted and Disgruntled I hope coming soon, but I typed them up on the laptop at the venue at the end of the session tonight so will have to get the text tomorrow.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

The uses and abuses of volunteers

I can't stop thinking about a Guardian stage blog post on the current proliferation of old Etonian actors, commenting that acting is an expensive business and hard for those without much money to get into. I'm not ashamed exactly but definitely uneasy myself about the fact that I'm able to try and start producing in relative comfort because my long suffering parents can afford to let me move back home for a while - and I'm nearly ten years into my career. It's far too hard to make a living in theatre when you're starting out, whether you'd like to have your own company or work for somebody else.

There has been an awful lot of fuss about the legalities recently, particularly of internships with work-like conditions, but the reason why people are still offering these and long term placements is because mostly, for the charitable arts organisations, they're not illegal. There is very clear guidance on Business Link, but in essence, charities and statutory organisations are allowed to hire "volunteer workers" (as well as and distinct from "volunteers" who can be used by any organisation) who have work-like conditions and contracts but are unpaid. This is a specific exception to National Minimum Wage rules to allow people who genuinely want to give their time to a good cause for free to do so. Unpaid volunteering shouldn't be banned because it allows people who want to freely give their time - if they're retired for example - to do so without needing to be paid the minumum wage. Charities might need to contract these people or insist on other work-like conditions, if, for example, they are running a shop and need to be there at a certain time, or are trusted with certain responsibilities.

This isn't legal for commercial arts organisations, of course, and many abuse the system, but equally, even when it's legal it doesn't mean it's always right. To be a charity, what you do doesn't need to be educational (as I saw someone quoted as misguidedly saying at the State of the Arts conference) but it does need to be for the benefit of the public. I'd take this to mean that charitable arts organisations also have a particular responsibility to conduct their business ethically and fairly.

Many volunteers in the arts aren't volunteering because they want to help a good cause. They want work, and they can't get it without experience, so they are left with no choice: work for free or don't work in theatre. That rules out many. In the article mentioned above, Theo Bosanquet says "it does seem that the politics preached by much of theatreland – those of inclusion, of fairness, of equality – are rarely reflected behind the scenes, where the old hierarchies persist." We denigrate "McJobs" in our culture - do we really think paid work is so much less dignified than unpaid exploitation? And that's just the "fairness".

The actors might all be old-Etonians, or similar: so are many of the audience members. Huge and important efforts are being made by theatre companies to engage children, particularly, with the arts, to diversify audiences and to ensure that what we're doing is accessible to as many people as possible. Much of this work is wasted if the move from youth involvement as an amateur participant to paid work is impossible for many of those who want to take the next step. Theatre is still too elistist, and for change to happen, it needs to be empowered from within. That means changing the workforce. It feels to me that the lack of paid opportunities for those at the beginning of their career is a key factor in the stagnation of audience engagement. If you're always working with the same people, it's always going to be an uphill struggle to get a wider, more diverse audience. No matter how much you try and make them comfortable or get them involved, participants, audience members and volunteers, from their relatively unempowered standpoint, are unlikely to change arts organisations.

Of course not all voluntary positions are exploitative. Many are excellent examples of good volunteering practice: where timescales are flexible, can be combined with other work, offer mentoring and learning experiences, appeal to those who do have the right motivations. Also, even where they're not, it's difficult, I know. Money is not flowing, budgets are tight and many arts organisations are left in a situation where they offer voluntary opportunities or none at all. The Future Jobs fund, which enabled many to take on young employees, has disappeared. However, I don't think we can abdicate responsibility. We've got to be aware of what we're doing. Someone once said to me that by 18 or 19, it's too late anyway. A paid job or not doesn't matter - the kind of young people that can't afford to work for free have lost their opportunities to engage with the arts long before that. I hope that's not true. I certainly don't think we can use that as an excuse. I've worked with volunteers in the past, sometimes for good reasons and sometimes for ones I'm not totally sure I can justify, and I expect I will again. Yet I can't stop thinking about that blog post. I want to try and do something about it. There must be something we can do.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Maybe it's because I'm a Londoner...?

I've been wondering recently what makes a true Londoner. Born within sound of Bow Bells? Grew up at an address with a cool London points of the compass postcode? Lived here for 10, 15, 20 years? Instinctively think that Britain is far more diverse than it is because that's how it is here (and know that's a good thing)? Never visit the major tourist attractions except when someone visits from out of town? Never smile at anyone on the tube and don't say good morning or afternoon to people going in the opposite direction when out for a stroll?

I'm mainly wondering because I'm not always sure that I feel like one anymore, though I was once, born and bred. I'm living in the same house now in Chiswick that I was first brought home to from the old West London Hospital. My parents are not Londoners, their families respectively being from the West Country and Scotland, but I grew up as a proud city girl, despite hardly ever venturing anywhere near the centre and being disgracefully ignorant of the geography of central London until I got my first 'proper' job in Covent Garden when I was about 23. I went travelling for a year after university and stayed in some amazing cities including Toronto, Sydney, Hong Kong and Moscow, but coming home knew that of all the places I'd been, I still loved my home town the best.

I moved out four years ago slightly on a whim, chasing a certain kind of job which didn't really exist in London, and feeling vaguely that since I was going to spend the rest of my life here, it'd be interesting to live somewhere else for a year or two before coming back for good. I was aware that you see life from a certain perspective in the capital and wanted to shake that up for myself a bit. Most of my friends, particularly those who also grew up here, were sceptical. "Why on earth would you want to live anywhere else" was the question at first and then later "So when are you coming back?"

My eventual return, though unsurprising to them, has been, to be honest, more born from practical considerations than anything else: I had no particular urge to come back other than missing friends and family. Having very mixed feelings about it was why I started this blog. Transport and rent costs have gone up about 40% since I left 4 years ago; I miss walking in the countryside, breathing clean air, seeing for miles, feeling the reality of what's under all our concrete; I don't like the restrictive inconveniences of having to share my space with millions of other people, such as difficulties parking, the hideousness of public transport at rush hour, how long it takes to get to work, how difficult it is to walk at any speed in Central London because of all the other people. On the other hand, nowhere in the UK is as diverse, cosmopolitan, and exciting. There are a myriad of things to do and discover, people to see and meet, and choices: the choice in London is incredible.

So: I know when it's quicker to walk than to take the tube, and that it often is in the centre of town. I know that you can find green spaces here as well as buildings. I don't think much of travelling an hour for a night out with friends or of getting two night buses to get home again. I call it my home 'town'. I walk through busy streets and fall in love with the city all over again. On the other hand, I'm not as slick with my Oystercard as I used to be. I see on the tube map that Tottenham Court Road isn't on the Northern Line and for a moment I can't quite remember if that's how it's always been - or not. I've chatted to people on the train. And, most of all, I can imagine moving back out again; quite possibly sooner rather than later.

I think that's what really makes a Londoner: not being able to understand why anyone would want to live anywhere else. We - they? - love their city, deeply, passionately. We - they - see its flaws but as though London is a relative and so, despite the fact it often infuriates us, can't be criticised by anyone else in our hearing. Friends, especially those who've grown up here and still live here, look at me as though I've committed an act of betrayal when I complain about our city. Somehow, inside, I look at myself that way too. To be honest, I'm not sure where that leaves me.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

100 things: Pump House Gallery

Meanwhile, I've still not managed to make any special trips out to see anything else in London, but I did go for a meeting at the very special Pump House Gallery the other day in Battersea Park. I forgot to take a photo of it; by the time I remembered I was half way out of the park and it was too cold to go back. I got this shot of the lake at dusk instead!

The gallery is in a tiny building overlooking the lake, some way into the park. There is some interesting history about it on their website; it used to house a pump used to circulate water around the lake and the artificial waterfalls. It now has four floors inside and is still small but perfectly formed, comprising a permanent gallery space but housing changing exhibitions. What I liked was that although the exhibition wasn't enormous the current one is very good and not at all obvious. It's titled Art, Performance & Activism in Contemporary Japan and included work from various artists and in various formats. My favourite I think was a photo about age, with a younger woman's face being cradled by the hands of older women. Definitely worth a visit.

Progress is sometimes backwards

I mentioned back in December that I was starting something up for myself, and trying to become a producer. We're still at very early days with our theatre project. Just as the director and I felt we might be getting the ball rolling a couple of weeks ago - meeting with Arts Council England arranged; funding and performance possibilities identified; exciting and excited creative people lined up - we discovered the rights we wanted were no longer available. Sometimes things just don't work out the way you want them to, but, though I know it's probably sentimental rubbish and more of a trick of the mind than anything else, we do mostly both subscribe to the "things happen for a reason" philosophy and though we might therefore be on pause for the moment, we'll get there somehow some time. Meanwhile, I've been meaning for a while to write a bit about what this process has been like for me. Someone said to me recently that the weird thing about being a producer was that there was no defined role or way of doing it, so I'm hoping that sharing this might be interesting, at least, for others.

The weirdest thing about this producing lark for me is that it's not something I thought I'd ever be quite brave enough to do. I've watched in awe as other people have started up their own projects and had wistful daydreams about how maybe I'd like to be a producer, but underneath I was telling myself that I should know, really, that it would never happen. I don't think of myself as an entrepreneurial self starter type; or as madly cool and creative; I don't have the sort of impermeable self confidence and belief that it feels as though you might need if you're putting yourself out there as an individual or partnership rather than representing a company. Also, a lot of the support and help is also aimed at those under thirty (if not younger) and in many ways it feels as though after that it's too late: you've either made it or you never will.

However, I had a strange old year last year. I've mainly worked in arts education (of various sorts) up till now and though I'd loved it, I could never quite see what came next. In fact I've never quite been able to see what comes next in any job I've done, in terms of sensible career progression, not because there haven't been options but because I haven't quite seen what's the right move. It's why instead I've always slightly reinvented what I'm doing, moved sideways as often as up (something which, by the way, I think has proved useful in the long run). However, I got to a point where I felt as though I was in the middle of a wood and the path had stopped, and I wasn't sure where to go. On the other hand, after I calmed down a bit, I was surer than ever that theatre was what I wanted to be doing. The thing is, I like a map and step by step route instructions but no one is going to give that to you. The time felt ripe to stop playing by some kind of imaginary rules I have in my head.

So: I came back to London where my friends and family are, I finished the Masters I was doing, I got a part time contract at a wonderful theatre company which would give me a bit of an income while I had time to think about what to do next, I started looking for freelance work, and then a friend of mine came up to me and said "would you consider producing this play I'd like to direct?" I said yes even before I'd thought about it, and then I did think about it, and I said yes again.

Now, three months on, I still can't quite call myself a producer because nothing's really happened yet, but what I've realised is that although lots of things about what I'm doing feel scary and perhaps rash, they also make some sense. No-one has laughed at us as we've come in the door and said "what are you doing here?" People have been generally interested, and supportive, and want to hear more. Being 32 doesn't feel old and past it (though there is less specialist support) but as though maybe I've built up some experience and skills which might be worth having. My partner in the project may be my friend, but she's also an experienced director with plenty of work under her belt and clear ideas about what she wants to do and how she'd like to do it.

So yes, it's early days, but this is what I've been doing so far:
  • Going to see as much theatre as I can afford.
  • Talking to as many people as possible.
  • Going to anything which might offer support, mentoring or just the opportunity to chat to other people involved in theatre, including for example Devoted and Disgruntled, Improbable's Mentoring Fete, and the Ages and Stages conference.
  • Doing my research: reading relevant blogs and websites (the Guardian theatre blogs, Exeunt, Creative Boom), following links, looking for funding possiblities, venues who we might be able to work with, going to see new work.
  • Being as open as I can be to everything that might be interesting: varied art forms, ways of making theatre, people involved who might do things differently in a way I'd never thought of
  • And in a linked sense, trying to bring all the things I do and am involved with together a bit more. I used to be a huge compartmentaliser but at the moment I'm trying hard to make it all at least just facets of the same thing, such as this blog which combines theatre and trips around London, and is about my personal and professional interests all at once. 
  • Tweeting - which has been useful for almost all of the above.
  • And last but certainly not least: enjoying myself hugely.