Sunday, March 11, 2012

100 things: Brentford Bees

Finally, I got to go and see a football match at Griffin Park. I attended my first ever game of football here, aged eight. I can count on one hand the number of times I've been to the football since (including that one, and this one) but it's been an important part of the experiencing the culture of different cities I've lived in,  so when I came back I felt very strongly I wanted to go back.

I enjoy watching football. Especially in the smaller teams there is a great buzz in the air and the chants often make me laugh. It's an easy sport to watch without being an expert, too - I have no idea about the off side rule and of course there are many such subtleties, but anyone can admire a good tackle and tell not only whether the ball's gone into the net or not, but roughly how well a team is playing from how much they seem in control, and how often they get the ball near the goal.

I saw the Bees in luxury, too, which was a rare treat - excellent seats and private bar and food beforehand, all thanks to my kind friend Natalie who sorted me out my ticket. Yes, as many people have told me, it's the prawn sandwich brigade (or shepherd's pie, actually) but it was nice and she and her family are very long term supporters of the club: they're definitely the real deal.

Unfortunately they lost: my run of previously only supporting the winning team in even the most unlikely circumstances (I have no idea what happened when I was eight but Perth Glory, Plymouth Argyle and Manchester City all won in style when I was there to see them) has been finally broken. 0-2 to Sheffield United but still Sheffield needed the points and the Bees are probably better consolidating rather than being promoted this season... I'm told.

Playing the game

Of course when I went to see a football game on Saturday I couldn't just sit there and enjoy the match. For half the time, when not "yes"-ing and "ohh"-ing and "what was THAT?"-ing I was musing on the differences and similarities between spectator sports and theatre, and whether it would be possible to create something that is both (if WWE, previously known as WWF, hasn't done that already) and what it might teach both sides.

The thing I love about football is the engagement with what's going on, the noise, the atmosphere, and the chanting. People care about their teams, and are passionate about what's happening on the pitch. Shakespeare's Globe Theatre was probably much more like this. It's partly the competitive element. You're rooting for a team. You're also allowed to interact and make a noise so you can get much more fired up. It's a natural human instinct to express yourself when you're feeling involved in what's going on around you. That's an interesting question for theatre, in fact. I've heard that you can make yourself feel happier by smiling more so that might well work in reverse too. If you act as though you're not involved in something (apart from being allowed to laugh, I suppose) do you naturally then feel less involved?

The competitive element could easily be recreated. To still be a sport, it would need to be a genuinely open outcome: you couldn't know till the end who wins (and in fact this is where WWE plonks itself firmly on the side of being entertainment, as outcomes are pre-arranged). Quite a challenge for a company, but then Cartoon de Salvo, for example, manage to improvise so it's perfectly possible. It would probably be a bad idea to bring in real life loyalties, particularly because you might want to subvert them by the end, so better probably to put some thought into how you can recreate that and whip up the supporters during the play - always making sure it's with their consent. You could issue team clothing (perhaps avoiding deliberate football references like scarves and making it something more unlikely like pompoms or flowers), teach the audience chants, sit them in different areas. Even better you could ask them to choose a side. Ideally the theatre would be in the round so that it doesn't end up feeling like panto but is a space which is common to both activities.

You'd have to decide which sport. How fit would your players need to be? And how good would you aim for? It would be easy to think the acting comes first but watching skill at work is an important part of the enjoyment of sport too. How would it fit into a smaller space - or could you use clever camera angles and screens to zoom in on the action in a larger one? We use theatres for snooker, so it's all doable.

One problem would be keeping the enthusiasm going while still managing to impart the story, and how to manage the elements which are performance and pre-rehearsed in a way which keeps the game a real game. Football perhaps isn't the best model for this part; you could do it but the possibilities would be more limited. Using something like tennis for inspiration could be more helpful - everyone knows you have to be silent when play starts and the umpire tells you to be quiet if you're cheering and shouting for too long. There are conventions in the world of sport just as in theatre about when it's ok to respond and how to behave. Audiences can learn what your conventions are as long as you give clear cues. Another quite different useful model I was thinking of was the I'm Sorry I Haven't A Clue game Mornington Crescent (SPOILER: the game consists of naming tube stations. You win by saying "Mornington Crescent". The performance element of the game consists of pretending that there are very complicated rules governing play. In some episodes, the players have even been asked to explain what they are doing as they do it, and they always allude to the move they're making. In fact there are no rules, and anyone can say Mornington Crescent at any point)

Mornington Crescent may not be competitive enough to count as a game, but it's not really of a different nature; it just takes the conventions and also the unwritten rules and the elements of performance in a game or sport to an extreme. The things that happen when footballers score a goal; giving back the ball to the other side if your team has had injury time: things which don't advantage a player or a team but are an important part of events. In a theatre piece you could build in elaborate rules of sportsmanship, of celebration, breaks between play, and plenty of the mini-dramas between the players which happen in sport, just heightened: the player who is always feigning injury, the friends across teams; those who desperately need to win and those who are giving up. There is plenty of room for story and imagination.

So finally, why? What would be the point? For me this afternoon it was clear: I think the two types of event would bring a lot to each other. As I've already said, sport engages a crowd in a way which theatre often doesn't. Even in participatory theatre I often feel a company are only pretending to ask me to be involved, and the storyline flows on. There is something real about nobody knowing who's going to win. Sport is hugely profitable, popular, and many sporting events are attended by vast numbers of the population with millions more watching on TV. There is also often (though not always) an equality too which theatre lacks: in football the players are from all backgrounds and countries: they may earn a lot but I think it's fair to say that anyone has a fairly equal chance if they've got talent. And what theatre could contribute to this is the challenge: using this passion and vigour to question what's going on in the world. Why do we support one team or country or ideology over another? Are we making informed choices or allowing random twists of fate to put us on sides? What can happen if we become too blindly loyal? How do we feel when we are winners or losers? Not too heavy or preachy a way - that'd ruin the fun of the game. But hoping that people go home reflecting.

Maybe it's been done already. It'd probably never catch on, on a vast scale. But it's going down on my list of projects I'd like to try some day. Theatre as sport, and sport as theatre. A new audience perhaps, a new way of working. Let me know what you think.

Sunday, March 4, 2012

not only plan but also believe

"To accomplish great things, we must not only act, but also dream; not only plan, but also believe." Anatole France
I met Chris Grady yesterday for one of his arts surgeries: free mentoring sessions for people working in the arts, he does them once a month in the Lyttleton Bar at the National Theatre. What a great idea, for a start, and fantastic that they are openly offered: lots of people mentor but sometimes you need to already have a certain level of knowledge and an "in" to get a chance to benefit from it.

If I'm really honest with myself, I probably didn't really need my session. I'm not in any way saying it wasn't useful, interesting and potentially very helpful, it was both of the former and I expect prove to be the latter. But I'm sure I'm not the only one of Chris's mentees for whom most of the difficulties are in my head rather than in actuality. In actuality, I am in a pretty good position to be doing what I'm doing. I am aware of and grateful for this. I've got a range of experience, good part time work, somewhere to live and connections (maybe not quite as many as if I'd stayed in the same place, or studied theatre at university, but still quite a few as Chris made me realise).

I also do have the right skills. I've not been so confident in myself lately, and though the reason why is a long story, some of it's got to do with needing to work out my place within the industry. For a while I've been struggling with the fact that if you're not an artist, frustrated or otherwise - and I'm definitely not - the only other place to go has sometimes seemed to be being an administrator, and the thought of doing that for the rest of my career doesn't inspire me. It's not because it's a dreadful job but because I just don't think I'm suited to that either. I love a good spreadsheet, like things to be organised and am a bit of a perfectionist but I always catch the train at the very last minute, forget things, and get bored with admin tasks. We didn't discuss this specifically, but still, meeting Chris helped me to realise that these are not the only two options. It's difficult to define a creative process because it's different for everyone, but mine definitely works best when collaborating with artists to make projects out of ideas. I can also do, and enjoy, the talking about projects, the fundraising, the budgets, knowing the landscape, seeing the gaps, and working out of how things should and can happen. Chris helped me believe that maybe being a creative producer (a much overused and abused term but probably still the best one) is actually something I can say I am.

So all that is remaining, really, is the self belief, and my main feeling walking away from the meeting was that I need to get over that. Most of us have doubts but over the last year or so I've let mine get the better of me. I need to move on now. I'm not one of those types who just believes "I can" until I actually have, but as Chris reminded me, I've got too much experience to get away with thinking everything should be happening overnight, I know these things take time. I've got the required slightly reckless courage, I need to balance determination with patience and just get on with it.

Hopefully, then, at some point, I'll be able to actually start writing here about what's going on rather than what I'm thinking about it. It is starting. After earlier set-backs the director I'm working with and I have two really strong ideas which we're ready to at least start trying to get to a stage where we can make them happen, that early bit of investing time and resources into getting ideas to a fundable state of course always being the hardest as I've said before. I'm excited about both of them. One is a piece of immersive theatre (ha! Not so original these days but the form definitely suits the story), the other the project I had a session on at Devoted and Disgruntled, the notes from which I've posted up on this blog. 

The best piece of advice Chris gave me yesterday is an old adage but one I'd forgotten: not to worry about difficulties until you've got to them: not crossing bridges, etc. Projects can feel impossibly intimidating but you can break that down into things which are doable and things which are harder, and the order in which they need to happen, get on with the bits which are achievable, and tackle the difficult bits when they come up, by which time they may not feel so insurperable after all. Maybe I did need the session after all. Thank you Chris. Watch this space.

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Devoted and Disgruntled

Last weekend I went to the annual Devoted and Disgruntled. The theme is "what are we going to do about theatre and the performing arts" but lots of the conversations seemed to be more on the topic "what's wrong with theatre and the performing arts". Mine included. Ah well. I enjoyed it, mostly, and met some lovely and interesting people, though I didn't feel much more part of what was going on than I do at any of these things. I was talking about this to someone else in theatre the other day and we both agreed we'll never be the type who feels "one of the group". The interesting thing about it is that it's run in Open Space, a format with minimal management, only a structure which aims to allow those who come to set the agenda. Sessions are therefore called and attended only if people are interested, and sessions can be serious conversations or a walk round the block, or lemon jousting (you need two wooden spoons and a lemon). I heard lots of devotion to the event itself as well as to theatre but also some disgruntlement about it, some of which I shared, but I also appreciate the convener Phelim's response, as he reported on one of his own sessions: "I feel strongly that adding stuff from the top down was not the way and that the great thing about OS was it was a process that teaches itself"

I called a session on a project which I know to be very ambitious, and hardly anyone turned up, which in Devoted and Disgruntled land means either it's a rubbish idea, or it's an ok idea but everyone has something more interesting/important to do, or you're a misunderstood genius. I quite like the latter interpretation, personally. My notes are below, though they're also on the website which is worth a visit if you want to read up on a wide variety of conversations had by theatre makers at the event.

I want (to make?) a project which pays people to make connections and come up with ideas


 Not many people came to my session and I still can’t decide whether that means it’s a bad idea, not needed, too good to be true (I did choose Utopia as my location) or whether I just worded it badly. Certainly there feels like there is a lot of context I struggled to get into my punchy title. I probably could have (there have been other conversations about what we can and can’t do this weekend) but didn’t manage to.

My idea came from several observations verging together about which I also still haven’t quite decided whether they come together meaningfully or not.
  • Trying to make work independently for the first time aged 32 feels difficult. Lots of schemes which help people are for those under 25 or under 30. I think my experience of working for organizations for the last 10 years is helpful but I don’t think it makes it SO much easier that I don’t still need (want?) help! And there are others for whom this will be so much more true 
  • Even development funding needs a strong idea – a creative idea and an idea of key people you want to work with. This takes time, energy and often money, and until you have an established organization this usually means doing this unpaid 
  • An article in the Guardian about how many old Etonian actors there are 
  • Feels to me like there is a gap between being encouraged to get involved in the arts as a young person and being able to move into employment. Audiences and workforces in mainstream theatre are not getting bigger or more diverse. I don’t think anything will change until we genuinely empower people from more diverse (culturally/socio-economically and otherwise?) backgrounds and that means giving equal employment opportunities. If people can’t afford to do the frequently unpaid schemes which are on offer and they need to get experience to get paid jobs then that is very exclusionary – equally if they can’t afford to give the time energy and money to coming up with ideas they’ll struggle to get started independently 
My idea is to have an intensive scheme that brings people together maybe for just a week to have time to work on ideas and have time to work practically with other people, and help them get to a place where they have experience and maybe ideas to move forward on. Mentoring could also be involved.

This would have an emphasis on process over product though I was imagining some form of sharing.

There doesn’t seem to be such a scheme (though China Plate? does seem to operate a scheme slightly similar for devising companies to have paid time with new writers) so I want to try and make one. Ideally I’d like this to help people from a variety of disciplines – producers, actors, directors, designers, writers, other artists. Everyone should be paid but as equally as possible.

My questions
  • Who owns the idea afterwards if you bring different people together 
  • What’s the role of the producers in that space? 
  • Who gets involved / who really needs it / how do you make sure those people are the ones who get involved 
  • Will anyone fund it? (I reckon it could be done for £25k (or smaller and cheaper) if space and some other venue-type support was in-kind) 
  • Who decides who takes part – do I have the expertise/experience to choose? 

As already mentioned, one piece of feedback was the lack of people at my session.

 I spoke to three people, one other producer and two artists. Both artists agreed this would be useful and that they have ideas which they need help to get off the ground. This seemed to be partly about them needing a producer (and a producer that doesn’t need to be paid until the idea has mileage) and partly about a desire to collaborate and work ideas through.

Won’t be able to note whole conversations but these were key things for me:

Dan and I talked about how it would be important for it not to be too restrictive with too many conditions or caveats. We said both that there must be loads of empty spaces around but also that space really seems to be at a premium (I have seen various possibilities for space during DandD so that’s been interesting)

Zoe mentioned lots of things that would be helpful that I hadn’t even thought of (as I had a practical workshop style thing in mind) eg phone, computer, wifi, conversations, planning and strategy sessions, advice on what makes a show workable etc as well as practically trying out ideas.

This was good because it slightly answered my question as to what the producers might do in that space without becoming glorified stage managers. I felt strongly they should be involved (ha, of course, as I'm a producer!) as that feels like an important relationship to allow people to create as well as artist to artist relationships.

 I also realised during discussions that ideas can take a long time to develop and maybe my thought that ideas could be come up with during the session is overambitious. Aliki and I talked about how lots of artists will have an idea but they may be unformed and not in a state that’s fundable. Maybe I should be looking for artists who have ideas they want to bring in to explore.

 Another thought that came out was not to have to know answers was positive – to have a space for trials, where a sharing was the ideal end result but not necessarily performance, not audience focused and that the possibility of no sharing at all was an option.

I was also assuming a theatre venue was the space I was looking for but other spaces could be a possibility especially if a performance (even a scratch one) is not going to be a necessary end result of the project. Even scratch performances are quite formal in a sense if they’re in a theatre space so maybe more beneficial not to be.


I’ve been interested in who leads with an idea and I went to some sessions about post-dramatic drama and design-led theatre which all questioned who can lead a process. I’d be interested in having people come in with ideas who are not directors.

 Piloting would be a good idea and this could be possible in a much smaller way than I was originally thinking I’d want to pilot. Maybe one group made up of one artist with an idea and others in a venue which has very close links to a diverse community and could bring in emerging artists (of any age) to see how the week itself works and what’s useful before looking at the wider format of applications etc.

In fact not having applications per se in an open way but referrals might get the “right people” – or even better a mix, not to ghettoise?

Might be useful to bring in some established artists who might not need the project so much but benefit from reinvigoration of practice from working with new people or having a test space for an idea (or working on someone else’s idea) and again meet less ghettoisation, more useful for emerging artists to meet a mix of people. Would it then be even more important that everyone gets paid and everyone gets paid the same?

Seth Honnor (hope he doesn’t mind me quoting) said creative practice is a constant tension between openness and quality and though I need to think about that a bit more, I think that’s a good context in which to set the above – have some known quality and some unknown openness (which doesn’t mean either isn’t risky but to different degrees?)

Again possibilities for space came from other sessions eg the Theatre Lab session about people in Streatham Hill who have space and want to encourage use of it for artistic collaboration and no-one came to that session either – interesting!

And that was it - if you're interested, let me know!