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!


  1. Huge, irrelevant, deletable:
    Right, I'll try commenting on THIS post, seeing as the website ATE my entire, huge, long post. Ok, here goes.
    There seems to be two different ideas here, which can be linked, but need not be:
    1) New ideas & support from within the arts for others within the arts.
    2) Changing the demographics within the arts, on and behind the stage, and in the audience.
    Idea 1) seems to have two aspects to it although I am not sure you can split them entirely, but I am going to run with this:
    1a) a project helping with practicalities: phone, computer, wifi, conversations, planning and strategy sessions, advice on what makes a show workable etc, getting an idea someone has into a shape that is fundable, space & matching space with groups.
    1b) a project helping with the art side: ideas, new ideas, reinvigoration of ideas, collaboration, working through ideas, trying out ideas for the sake of it, trying out ideas to see if there is something that can lead to performance, challenging people, mixing groups, challenging people with space, finding space for the mix of people involved, taking people out of their comfort zone/ rut to find new vigour.
    These are both necessary for a project, but one might always exist and which one does determines the direction of the project.
    Obviously, as I am in a numbering mood, you are going to see that the second point also has a few aspects to it, and these are significantly different to those of 1:
    2a) What do we understand by 'the arts'?
    2b) what do we understand by 'the stage'?
    2c) what do we understand by 'the audience'?
    And your answer to all 3 is probably veering towards 'we understand that you are disappearing up yourself, DB'. But I have my reasons! I shall go into these anon! But let us keep to numerical order. You might also claim that my wording influences this, and that the idea is the changing of the demographics. But until the arts allows for the pressganging of the public, you are reliant on people coming to you and it is only within your power to change what you are or the perceptions of this, I think. Please bear in mind I know NOTHING of theatre, so be kind in your rebukes:
    (see next commetn)

  2. 1a) ‘a project helping with practicalities’ This is where the idea is in place and the (I assume small, or unconnected, or new) company wants to get it done. I assume that all under 1a is what a producer does? I don't know. Are there 'flying producers'? Is that what you are? A wee production has the artistic vision and wants it done, want the practicalities done with as little hassle for them as possible? You ring Rentaghost or rentaproducer, I suppose, to be there, in the background, sorting it all out and allowing the vision to proceed? Is that what you do, want to do, are doing? I assume you charge for this service? Do the companies come to you even with the idea and want you to organise the funding, which gets you your pay? I don't know about any of this, but it seems to me that this is the producer where the artists come to you. There is something in Germany, goodness knows what it is called in UK, but here it is called 'BetaHaus' and their website is also in English: they provide space. Admittedly space for techy or start up folks, but others too and it's a flexible idea and I wonder if it can't be applied to arts? Does this, should this exist as a model for the arts? Maybe it already does. Space where everything you need is there, childcare, reference books, man, what do theatre companies in particular need… drop-in costume service? Scenery workshop? Mobile lighting or sound? I don’t know, but this sounds like something that could link lots of different people – schools could use this, small companies, businesses… The question of who one would invite would disappear as the answer would be that collaboration would hopefully occur arbitrarily depending on who was working there. Allowing for ANYONE to use this could mean architects, software engineers, whatever. I knew an architecture student who did hid holiday experience (when you are supposed to be in an architectural office to get work experience) in a dance studio because ‘dance is architecture, it’s just a less permanent way of filling the space’. He also presented a piece of work in a tutorial in the form of a poem. Most of his lecturers were engineers and, I think, would happily have throttled him. This also links into 1b). The idea, not the throttling.

  3. 1b) ‘a project helping with the art side’ This is where the idea is what is sought. In order to get the best ideas, you mix up the folk, mix up the situation, bring folk together. But the 'bring' is here important - this seems to be something coming from the side of the producer? It comes from the other direction: you organise the funding, space, etc etc and bring the artists together. Here, rather than the space and everything fitting the idea, you can go to town on this: the space could be anything: rent a garage, a shop, an office, a pub, an abandoned building, whatever. Who you and invite and how you invite them is also up to the organiser. That could be different every time. Who the idea belongs to, well, that is sorted out in the contract which signs the folk up in the first place. In fact, writing this is making me think this is a bit like the angel investor company that I sort of keep tabs on. They are for software / apps start ups, but I think the ideas are similar. The have a tool for generating a business plan, a big (partly jokey) flowchart of how the ideas work and get funded, an overview etc. They also take the pressure off the idea for the first year by organising all the business side of things, so is relevant to 1a). It is interesting because they try to keep things simple. Take a look and see if that generates any ideas themselves: For this to work it has to be easy for people to partake. Not in the sense of ‘anyone can join in’ but the making of the ideas should be the most difficult part, everything else should be sorted out as to be easy. This does seem to me as if 1a and 1b are just different directions. But they ARE different. Also, in the hackforward thing, the flowchart, there is one thing that made me ponder and that is the bit where it asks ‘will it make money’ and if the answer is ‘no’ then one of the possibilities is ‘make it open source’. I am very fond of open source, and wonder what the theatre equivalent is. I wonder if something wouldn’t work as a play which will make money or change the world, one couldn’t make it into a radio play, or the process itself couldn’t be made into a journal article, or the ideas why it wouldn’t work investigated and reported or something. That SOMETHING of the experience could be used either to build on or as free content for hospital radio or something. My obsession with hospital radio will continue below, I think. But I wonder if some of the ‘failure’ couldn’t be put to use: open source it in some way.
    The terrible twos! This is where I risk disappearing up my own rear, so please tell me if I do.

  4. 2a) What do we understand by 'the arts'?
    I swear this is legit! Bear with me. A lot of people, esp young folk are put off by 'the arts' as a term and as a thing. Which doesn't mean they don't like or aren't involved in the arts: they might say they are turned off by the arts, but they'll worship music and film. I've recently been thinking about radio a lot - in the US they are going to be selling a lot of the frequencies due to digital. Podcasts and radio and stuff is popular. I was wondering the other day what the difference is between a radio play and an audio book. And the difference between an audio book and a 'speaking newspaper' for the blind. What is a difference between a podcast, a radio show and hospital radio? What is the differnce between film and theatre? Why are folk interested in reality shows, love to watch but won't watch a play? Why do folk like making podcasts, want to be extras, but can't make the leap to theatre? Can folk be 'lured' into theatre via drama etc on radio or making hospital radio, or making podcasts in a professional setting? Why are recording studios always associated with music and not with drama? Have you even listened to a radio play on the world service, btw? The people there actually ACT, not like radio plays on UK radio, MUCH better. I wonder why. Can theatre nick some of the more ‘friendly’ arts to be put to its own use and get people through these? Decoy ducks not wild geese…
    2b) what do we understand by 'the stage'? In this sense of getting people in to work in, on, behind scenes? Is it getting people into the building itself, or writing, or wanting to work, what is it exactly that they are to be involved in? It doesn't need to be a 'where' really does it? I don't know, but it seems that there is much talk of 'space' and I wonder if that space is in any way important to the people you are trying to attract, or where they think they are going to or what they are going to do there? I wonder if playing with the space in the sense of people not associating it with 'the arts', so a recording studio, or a film studio, or this Betahaus thing, open to all would work better as a way of getting people involved than mentioning things like theatres and plays in the first instance. Hospital radio volunteering where longer things like documentaries or reports or (eventually...sneaky) radio plays will always be seen by people who are looking for work experience as 'good' while working in theatre might be seen as 'flippant' or a 'waste of time' in some communities. Why can’t the theatre ‘hide’ itself a bit – don a mask, so to say… The link between providing entertainment, culture etc and learning skills such as sound management, or writing or acting would eventually be made, but in the first instance not necessarily. A studio can be hired out when not in use (getting communities into the space that normally wouldn't and making a bit of income). What with t'internet and all, folk travelling, or learning English want listening products. Why does the audio book have to be an audio book and not an audio play? Why can't a play (sorry, a decent play) be written for limited vocabulary? Or the play be filmed and uploaded and allowed to be downloaded for English learners abroad (for a small amount of money?) What does the establishment think of Oran Mor's A Play, A pie and a Pint? Is that being used in London anywhere? The location, but also the time is of relevance there - they are lunchtime plays of no more than 15 mins, NOT evening plays. You get folk into the pub. Folk can normally do that anyway. You get them at lunchtime when they are in the city anyway. Perhaps this is all old stuff, that is no longer talked about, I have no idea. Where you want the demographics to be involved might mean going to where those demographics are anyway and getting them involved without them really being aware of it.

  5. 2c seems to have disappeared...! It was:

    2c) what do we understand by 'the audience'?
    Does it have to be bums on seats? The argument above about downloadable plays for everyman or perhaps for schools or something? Hospital radio, sorry I keep coming back to this, but nobody ever remembers about hospital radio - volunteer run. Audience? CAPTIVE! It is not even the fact it is a good cause, it is the fact they are generally always looking for content (back to open source idea again). Demographic? Um, in London? Everyone and anyone that is sick? But honestly, listen to a world service play first. UK sucks at radio plays. Back again to does the audience have to know it is watching a play? I ask just because the whole flashmob thing seems to work along the lines of blurring the lines between reality and performance, voyeurism and participation which is perhaps why it has arrived post-reality shows. It cannot, I think, make money, (but what the hell do I know) but as a way of reaching people, and providing them with a joy they weren't expecting and letting them know at some point that they have watched a mini(very)-play without knowing it, seems to me to be a powerful thing. Which is why advertisers have used the concept a lot, I guess.
    All the questions link together at points, but I think they are different things. It seems to me that your idea of 'I want (to make?) a project which pays people to make connections and come up with ideas' is mostly centred on 1b), I think, or perhaps wants to link 1a and 1b. I wonder if the tech-based ideas of Betahaus and Hackforward are useful there, I wonder if a building that had everything a company needs for a production (short of the stage itself, but that could be arranged from there) that could be rented for the day and where angel investors could be contacted, or floated about, or where you paid for the services, but the chance of collaboration was always there. I think I’m repeating myself. But I’m wondering if what you are wanting is to do things differently and I don’t know how things are done and am trying to think of different ways of proceeding. Ponder.
    Anyway, this is all just what has come into my head since reading your report. I have read it a few times, because it was genuinely making me think, and believe me, B, that is something I really haven't been doing recently, and I apologise that my lack means that I write a huge bloody comment on your post, but I am enjoying the process. Sorry if this is absolute bollocks or not relevant or old news, or not actually what you intended at all.

    It seems if I don't allow 3rd party comments, this makes the comment disapper. ANd you are allowed 4096 characters per comment, hence me royally messing with your page. You may wish to ban me, B.

    ---- this was from Donalda too

  6. I know I've replied to you off line but just to say online as well, thank you for this Donalda. You are not banned! I am amazed a) by how much time and effort you put into this and b) how totally you've hit the nail on the head about some of the issues, arguments and potential solutions going round in the industry at the moment, when you're relatively removed from it. Cheers!