The Treadmill of Theatre-Making

I loathe the end of a project. Evaluation forms and statistics, stepping back and seeing what you achieved and what you may have missed. If I could I would skip the end of a project and bathe in the joy of the liveness. Long live the ever present project! Realistically that would be impossible, someone has to tie up the loose ends and reconcile a budget. More importantly though evaluation and taking stock of lessons learned can only make you stronger in the long run, even if the thought of having to write another Arts Council England report sends a shiver down my spine.

That’s the thing about working in theatre. You’re constantly living for the live moment and as quickly as that appears on the stage it soon vanishes into a memory. You can record theatre, stream it online or write about it in fine detail but nothing will really capture the moment like sitting in front of a stage in a live moment. Having just finished a four week run producing Snuff Box Theatre’s Weald at the Finborough Theatre I suddenly find myself back at my laptop staring into another funding application deadline. Over the course of those four weeks we had some 900 audience members see our work. Whether they loved it or loathed it, those 900 people experienced something in the theatre and now they are out there in the larger world slightly changed because of what they saw. Even if that change is so small they may not notice it themselves, or perhaps so large they can’t stop thinking about what we made. Either way, the audience have been, they’ve left now, and we’re back to being in front of our laptops, planning and plotting.

So how do we keep the momentum going? How do we keep those audiences engaged with our ideas and work when the next time they might see something of ours is several months down the line in a different city, in a different country? That’s the difficulty of being a company that has no physical home, no bricks or mortar. Of course having your own building comes with a whole host of issues but being able to have audiences return again and again, to feel part of the community that make up that building, even if they go sit in the foyer and not see a show; that’s the experience I’m wondering how we replicate.

There’s mailing lists and social media, that keeps people informed, but without an actual piece of theatre living in a space in which audiences can experience something, what do we have left? Our ideas, our desires, our god damn funding applications? (Can you tell I’m really bitter about having to write the one I’m doing at the moment?).

Then there’s the perpetual problem of always being one step ahead in your work. As one show opens you’re already onto the next, securing a venue, opening a crowd funder and hoping that you’ll get paid in the process. As a freelancer that ‘always chasing the next job’ suddenly becomes a reality when you sit and find yourself on the other side of a show and a few months of empty diary pages. When do we have a chance to really sit back and take stock of what we’ve achieved if we’re constantly chasing the next pot of money or next potential run of a show?

It is something I’ve been questioning a lot recently. The need for evaluation (yawn) is actually paramount to improving your work, as an individual or as a company. At Making Room we have Vision Days and Strategy Meetings, which sound far more sophisticated than what they actually are (cups of tea and scribbles) to ensure we have some sense of continued narrative and development. It helps that there are two of us who can question and challenge each other’s work on a weekly if not daily basis. Why this work, why this venue and why this funder? Its a skill that they don’t teach you at University or Drama School, the evaluation of the industry, yourself, your work and the audience. If anything, we, and I definitely include myself in this, often take leaps into the dark with theatre expecting an audience to follow suit without shining a light on the way.

All of this makes me question; how do we keep the momentum going in our work when so much is required to get that work on in the first place? How do we evaluate and see the merits of our work without succumbing straight to the next funding application? How do you get off the treadmill of theatre-making if only for the briefest of moments to take stock of everything you’ve done so far?


On a lighter note. Here are some things you should read / watch / see.

Hear Me Roar logo

Dear Man

Good morning,

For this week’s blog, as Hear Me Roar is the main thing on my mind at the moment, I thought I’d try something a little bit different, and share with you the letter I contributed to Becci Sharrock’s Letters to Myself project. I hope to see many of you in Lancaster 8th – 12th March!


 

Dear Man,

I realise that in starting my letter this way, you might think I am not addressing you directly.

You might think you’re still just a boy, or you might think I’m not all men… You might even wonder if this is addressed to you if you weren’t born in a male body.

Whoever you are, wherever you are, whatever you might be thinking… I am indeed addressing you. You, right there, reading this. Yes, you. Thank you for bearing with this.

For a long time, I wasn’t particularly aware of my gender. I was bobbing along being who I am, carrying with me all the bits of identity that have built up over the years. All at once, I was carrying my social background, the religion I was raised with, my heritage, my age, my sexuality, my education and no doubt, many other things. Being a man was just a tiny, inconsequent piece of a multifarious thing called who I am.

For the most part, who I am, was almost always all about me. Sure, it had some relationship to other people in my life; family, friends, lovers, colleagues… but my starting point was always myself. I couldn’t see how who I was had any bearing on anyone else, in the grand scheme of things. Never mind society, or the world.

And that was fine. It worked. I was bobbing along being who I am, carrying with me all the bits of identity that have built up over the years.

Chances are, this resonates with you. Chances are, you’re bobbing along too. Chances are you are or have been thinking I can’t help being who I am…

And that’s fine. It works.

I have an invitation for you. I’d like to invite you to consider that you can choose who you are. Are you willing to try that on? Great, thank you.

Every day, I choose who I am. In every waking moment, I choose who I am. Whatever the circumstances, I choose who I am.

This gives me the opportunity to choose that I am you, and you are me.

I am you, and you are me.

Remember, I mean you, really you, reading this.

This gives me the opportunity to choose that I am playfulness, love, contribution

This gives me the opportunity to choose that I am creativity, serenity, equality

In choosing this, I begin to notice where it is missing. I begin to notice where I am missing.

And I can take responsibility… Not like a prime minister or a president, not like a superhero or a god… Just with what’s there, what’s on hand, what’s possible…

Whichever kind of man you are, whatever categories you might fit in, whichever bits of identity you’re carrying with you… notice what’s possible, choose who you are and stand your ground.

Being a man – whichever kind of man – comes with an undeniable privilege.

Will you choose to keep it to yourself? If you would do me the favour of trusting me for a moment, I would promise you that it will grow when you share it…

Yours, truly.

Making a Commitment in Theatre Making

Normally with blog writing there is a burning question or point you want to make, but this week I find myself perplexed. I could talk about the new Arts Council portal for grants, or the What Next? group discussion on arts and climate change or maybe a talk with a friend about the need for universal access to theatre and then theres that nagging feeling that we’re not hitting the right diversity in the work we are presenting…and… and… Which is more important to write about? Which needs to be addressed and pull my focus the most?

When it comes to producing theatre there are always questions that are a constant. Most of the time they go unnoticed because to face them could potentially open up an avalanche of question marks and budget lines that just won’t add up. We at Making Room want to be the best producers we can be for the artists and venues we work with, but when it comes to choosing what draws our focus and what we need to be tackling sometimes it can just feel overwhelming. Climate change, funding, accessibility, diversity and that’s before we step into art for social change and education. Where do you begin with these sorts of questions when really all you want to be doing is all of them all the time because they are all just as important?

Leo and I founded Making Room with the statement of being a company that “boldly strives to make a positive change within society through culture”. During meetings we keep coming back to this statement and revising it. Not always in the words but in the meaning. What do we really mean through this commitment? How does it affect the artists we work with and the projects we undertake? Does a play about the pressures of young athletes and their well being have more weighting for us as a company compared to a play on male identity and rural farming? Which do we undertake as Making Room and which do we keep as freelancers? It feels good to question, but at the same time the more we interrogate our ideals of producing the more it throws open the larger questions of ‘how can we do more to make a difference?’

I want the theatre that I produce to be accessible, to reflect diversity and I want equality in genders of creative teams and everyone has to be paid a fair wage. Then I’m looking at a budget and I’ve got a choice, do I add a BSL performance or employ a graduate to learn about producing or remove all printed marketing and boost our digital output for environmental happiness. There is no right answer but when you’re a producer the decisions made when you first put together a budget has implications throughout the entire process. At what point do you make a commitment and how do you ensure that the commitment is seen throughout the process? Who holds us accountable as producers to that commitment?

These decisions can often feel overwhelming. You can have all the good intentions in the world for creating the most accessible production possible but there will always be something that can be improved upon or doesn’t quite meet the standard it should. During the Independent Theatre Council’s 40 year celebrations I attended a conference in which Jenny Sealey, Artistic Director of Graeae, responded to a question from a young practitioner, “how do we do all of this, thinking about equality and accessible and genders – how do we start?”. Her response has stuck with me and one I constantly come back to. Sealey commented that the first step was to “talk about it. Ensure in every meeting you have the conversation.” Allowing the conversation to begin will open up something within the process and planning, even if that discussion stays as a discussion for now. It has longer commitment if you continually question and ask how we can improve the work we make.

So I’ve just written 600 odd words about how much I want to be making the best theatre possible which doesn’t tick the boxes of diversity and accessibility but smashes them apart. Then I’m thinking “how?!” and I’m projecting a mental image of my producing partner Leo and I’m thinking, “Actually, it’ll be alright, we’re committed to those conversations and that is the first place to start”. Let’s not be overwhelmed by all the questions that get thrown at us as theatre-makers. Let’s question ourselves, our work and working practices but most importantly lets engage in that conversation first and foremost. As my friend noted yesterday, “make sure you ring-fence that accessibility line in your budget” and whilst he said it with a knowing wink he’s absolutely right. Some things can’t be outweighed by others on a budget, you’ve just got to ring-fence it and make that commitment.


Some Making Room plugs:

Some shows worth looking at:

  • I was balled over by Complicite’s The Encounter at the Barbican. It has smashed its way into my top 5 shows ever, so take a look.
  • Vaults Festival runs for a few more weeks and there is such a diverse lineup that you can’t really go wrong.

Photo by Spiva Arts via a Flickr Creative Commons Licence.

Friends with Money

I’m writing this blog as I make my way to Manchester, where I’ll be rehearsing (or rather, finish making) The Best of Both World’s: A Busker’s Opera, which premieres at the end of next month at Camden People’s Theatre.

While it’s a lot of fun, making this show currently feels really raw. The tension it explores – the intangible values we hold vs. the state of our bank balance – is very real as I can probably state currently having under £100 to my name.

Now, I know that I’m definitely not in the worst situation around. I have a roof over my head, and I know I’ll be able to feed myself this evening. And until that £100 runs out, I also have no form of debt.

If you ignore my bank statement though, in many other aspects of my career (and indeed, my life), you could probably say that I’m doing alright… you might even go as far as saying that I’m relatively successful… (whatever that means…)

I also must acknowledge that I feel like a bit of a wally writing this. Once again, I’m not about to provide anyone with any answers, and it’s the second post in a row that I seem to be writing from a place of aaaargh…

Listening to Chris Goode’s podcast with Ridiculusmus last week, late at night, whilst walking home from the tube was both reassuring and terrifying… In my book, having been around for twenty years is a massive success in itself. Never mind having toured extensively, published books, and generally made what many would agree is a significant mark in the world of theatre-making… And yet, from what I gather, their bank accounts aren’t in a much better state than mine.

And that’s terrifying because if they haven’t cracked it in twenty years, how am I meant to make it to the end of the month?

And that’s reassuring because they’re still around. They’ve had good years as a regularly funded organisation (RFO) of Arts Council England, then a National Portfolio Organisation (NPO) when it became a thing… They’d spent time building up to that, and it then enabled them to do a bunch of things they wouldn’t have been able to do without that support… and now… Now I guess they’re going to have to make a bunch of choices about what they can do moving forward…

There was no drama, in their conversation with Chris Goode. They stated what’s so, in what sounded to me like calm frustration… It was clear that while they have had some tough moments, they love what they do, and they are aware of the political pose they choose to strike up by doing the work they do…

I’m not as wise yet, and I’ll certainly be frantically waving spreadsheets around for the next few weeks… and one thing that I’m also clear on, is that emerging/early career makers have to be aware of the fine print when committing to being an artist.

A few years ago, in the aftermath of the “I’ll show you mine” campaign, I wrote of my frustration of the debate that opposes “the emerging” and “the established”. I think there’s a lot to be gained from the dialogue between both sides of the coin. (I didn’t even mean that money joke…, you’re welcome)

I couldn’t end this blog without mentioning the crowdfunding (or friend funding, as Stella Duffy puts it – and which is often a lot more honest) campaign we are currently running with Drunken Chorus’ development scheme Drunken Nights – of which Jon Haynes is a previous mentor – as it speaks to many aspects of this conversation.

What Drunken Nights does, is give artists some time to consider how they might make DIY, adaptable pieces devised to be put in front of an audience that wasn’t necessarily asking for it. And it gives them some time to be in conversation with an established maker (this year; Nic Green, Ursula Martinez, Third Angel).

I don’t know if the company would quite agree with me, but to me, Drunken Nights has always felt like some kind of DYI free university, where in playing together, many different people are slowly unfolding some very concrete, very responsive ways forward in terms of thinking about what both artists & audience development might look like when it’s done hand in hand…

So yes, here comes the ask.

If you’ve got anything going spare and you care, head there.

If times are tight, tweeting you might.

Theatre that looks beyond its walls

I’ve just done three twelve-hour days back-to-back as Snuff Box Theatre prepare to open their new show Weald at the Finborough Theatre. Sitting in the darkness of the theatre for stretches of three or four hours at a time and you can easily forget about the world beyond the theatre’s walls. I couldn’t tell you what has happened since Saturday. Perhaps the odd snippet of information has broken through in our breaks but during the last few days everything has been focused on getting Weald ready for an audience.

That’s one of the joys about production week, it is all heads down and getting the show where it needs to be, but I can’t help wonder who is keeping an eye beyond those theatre walls, connecting the show with an audience and how that will have an impact upon society and culture. Perhaps that is a big ask and it throws up many questions about the purpose of theatre which isn’t what I intended to write about.

When I give lectures to students I always find myself coming back to one phrase:

You can’t make art in a vacuum

For me and I think I can speak for Making Room with this too, art is vital to the running and understanding of a society; art runs through the very veins of society. It has to constantly be looking outwards just as much, if not more so, than looking within itself. Self-indulgent art has no place in my vision of how I want society to be informed. In practical terms I’m not sure how this is done. Is it my job as the producer of Snuff Box Theatre to keep one foot rooted in the external world? Or does that role belong to the director, Bryony Shanahan, as she carves out the world within the theatre for an audience beyond it?

This stems from a worry of mine. As we get closer to opening this show we get more focused until we’re almost wearing blinkers and can’t see anything but the world in which this show has created. We’re practically living in the world of the play, occasionally reminded that there is something beyond as we clock off to get some sleep before we start it all again.

I might be exaggerating slightly and I know any production has an element of having to narrow its field of focus to ensure the work becomes the best it can be but I do wonder who is allowing that membrane of the real world to filter through and where does that responsibility lie? And how do we ensure that this play we’ve made is more than just some theatre we’ve created.

Thankfully I know, having gone through the process of producing the show for Snuff Box Theatre, just how rooted in the world the play sits. How every word and action has been thought about not in terms of theatrically but authenticity. I know Weald speaks to a wider audience but it doesn’t always feel that way when you’re tucked away in a darkened auditorium spending hours perfecting the sound and lights.

It’s about perspective. Theatre can just as easily zoom in on the micro but it has to constantly question and explode outwards again. At the Fringe last year I ended up shaking my head and asking the question ‘Why?’ constantly. ‘Why are you making this work? What is it meant to say, where does it sit within society? Why now, why here?’ I think it is important for us as theatre-makers to be rooted in the why, to question and challenge it. Otherwise what is the point? Great art has to be rooted in the society and culture of today. We have to keep perspective.


… and with that, here’s a video of a TED talk I’ve enjoyed in the past. Looking at how to build a theatre that responds to an ever changing set of needs, thinking beyond how it functions inside but opening it outwards.

 

Photo by Hernan Pinera via a Creative Commons license.

Any questions?

In focus

This year has already got off to an excellent start, in many ways. Our calendar is filled to the brim with excellent projects, the beginnings of new adventures and fruitful conversations with oodles of talented people.

If I look at the bare facts of what we are currently undertaking, there’s not an ounce of doubt that I love the work I get to do, and I am very aware of the privilege that comes with doing that work – and indeed, the lifestyle that comes with it.

Yet I can’t help but feel a distinct kind of pressure. It isn’t stress in the usual sense. Of course, there are a number of potentially stress inducing things lying ahead… Whether it is the opening of Weald at the Finborough, the imminent programme launch and looming marketing deadlines for Hear Me Roar, and setting things in motion for the beginning of a crowdfunding campaign for Drunken Nights… and all sorts of other things, small or big. But all these things are manageable, and enjoyable in their relative franticness.

The pressure that seems to be there for me seems to come from the constant tension between making things happen on the ground, and the awareness of the bigger picture of the world at large – and not knowing where to start.

Climate change

Brexit

The ‘migrant crisis’

The list goes on…

While I’ve always been relatively politically aware, I’m now grappling with a spooky sense that it’s all joined up. Reading Maddy Costa’s recent blog, this quote really stood out for me:

In her book Depression: A Public Feeling, Ann Cvetkovich argues that depression is “how capitalism feels”

In the past I’ve written about how as artists and creative practitioners, we still operate with language (here, for example), and within value systems that don’t belong to us but that are deeply rooted in a broader systematic logic that definitely doesn’t work for everyone.

I’m aware of it, and I’m aware of the contradiction that lies as I both point it out, and continue participating in it.

I won’t be able to be in Lancaster for the Festival of Questions, but by Jove am I full of them… I’m so full of them that it is actually quite difficult to be writing this morning… I’m so full of them I haven’t even yet found a way to express them. I’m lacking focus in my reflection – and thank you for reading, as I can’t be sure how much sense I’m making.

I guess this is something of a message in a bottle, a gentle distress signal to those who might feel the same, a longing for a community of people who tend to swap full stops for question marks?

I also guess that the real question is – how might we take time out to formulate questions, how might we embrace wondering while keeping ourselves afloat? My questioning isn’t very good at paying the bills these days… and once again, it all traces back to the dollar…

 

2016 is the year I gave up theatre

I have a confession. It is not a widely kept secret, I tweeted about it the other day, but it is a confession all the same. I have not seen any theatre this year. I’ve read plays, watched trailers, even attended Devoted and Disgruntled in Birmingham (more on that later) but have I seen any theatre? Nope. I can hear one half of the industry gasping in mock horror and the other shrugging their shoulders.

I remember four or five years ago when I was out at least four nights a week seeing theatre because it felt like my life depended on it. I had to see the latest show at the Young Vic or Camden People’s Theatre and I swear I spent most of my formative theatre-understanding days hidden in a room at Battersea Arts Centre. At the time I remember artist Dan Bye saying to me the urge to see work will change until you’d much rather spend a night at home than watch another piece of theatre. Well, it’s true Dan. 2016 is the year I gave up theatre.

Joking aside, taking time out of seeing work – a forced sense of distance – is making me a better producer. Focusing on the work we’ve got in development as Making Room or spending time being your stay-at-home twenty-something London-living guy is a good thing. Like going on holiday (I’ve actually booked one this year and will be going regardless if I get offered a job like running the National Theatre – I shall get some sun) taking time out of seeing theatre refreshes the senses and refocuses the mind. I challenge you to try it. You’ll pick the shows you go and see based on smarter, more determined and researched choices. You’ll also save your wallet a bashing, which can only be a good thing at the start of the year.


 

I’ve been enjoying Rachel Briscoe recently. She’s just left Ovalhouse as co-director of theatre and wrote this fantastic piece on thinking around what our cultural buildings are. Here’s a quote that particularly struck home for me:

But maybe everyone in buildings is living out their perfect version of the world – a world where no one can bother them (no demanding artists or difficult audience members), where they get to have meetings which make them feel powerful and successful, where their ‘community’ can exist as a kind of theoretical concept that gives them a warm and fuzzy feeling.

The more I interact with buildings as a producer, programmer and theatre-goer the more I can’t help but think we’re doing it wrong. Then I read Rachel’s response and actually what I’m experiencing is someone else’s vision of what a building should be, funny that.


Devoted and Disgruntled has come and gone. First time it was outside of London, thank heavens for that. One conversation that got my mind whirling was The London Conundrum. Should we all move out of London and live in other places, investing our art and money and time in communities that might just appreciate us more than the stoney-faced Londoner? Okay, that’s my take on the conversation but it is one I keep coming back to.

Thinking on a national level is one of our commitments as Making Room. It helps that Leo spent many years in Lancaster and I’m craving to do more outside London. So here’s an invitation: I don’t know what it is like to truly make theatre or art or whatever outside of London, can I experience that journey with you? (As a side note: We’re working with a bunch of artists who are based outside of the M25 – hurrah! So watch this space)


The shows I’m holding back on seeing but really, really want to see at the moment are:
Herons by Simon Stephens at Lyric Hammersmith (here’s a ticket deal)
Give Me Your Love by Ridiculusmus at Battersea Arts Centre
Richard III by Faction at New Diorama Theatre

Other good reads on theatre:
Scottee on Artist’s pay in 2016
Hawks in the Wings’ look at Northern Stage’s financials “surviving, not thriving”

Until next time…

Jake
@jakeyoh

Image by Craig Sunter