A little, extraordinary, heart-breaking thing that happened when I didn’t expect it

December 4, 2015

Advent Calendar Door 3

A little, powerful thing happened this evening that I’m thinking about when I should really be in bed asleep.

My colleagues and I at Hat Fair are currently producing, for the first time, a new winter festival (called, appropriately enough, Woolly Hat Fair…). It’s taking the form of a Live Advent Calendar which is happening all around our city of Winchester. For 24 days, from 1st – 24th December, a different (real) door will open somewhere in the city at 5pm. And behind that door, something fun, magical, quirky, and / or artsy will happen for 30 minutes or thereabouts. A different event every day for the 24 days of Advent.

It’s a new venture for Hat Fair and a fairly mammoth coordination-cum-jigsaw project for a small team, which comes in addition to a usually full workload of organising our major annual festival of outdoor arts each July. But it allows us to extend our reach, to offer a different kind of site-specific work to the city, to engage with broader audiences differently and our community more meaningfully, and to transform our place for more than just 3 days a year. The entire project is being delivered for just a few thousand pounds, which we’ve raised from partnership funds from local bodies and from 16 local business sponsors. Which is brilliant. But it does also mean that every single thing is being done on an absolute shoestring. (Although we’ve still managed to ensure that every professional artist involved gets a modest fee of some description). There are a team of 8 of us actively delivering the festival, 5.5 of whom are volunteers and 1.5 of whom are part-time.

Despite those rather modest parameters, lots of the 24 Live Advent Calendar events are ambitious – trying to open up hidden corners of the city in creative, surprising ways; trying to encourage new audiences to engage with the arts in ways they may not have previously thought to; trying to extend the usual character and reach of our activity. That includes creating an audio soundscape of World War II oral history interviews to be experienced in an underground air raid bunker never accessed by the public since the war; conjuring up a mini immersive promenade theatre piece around a private domestic house inspired by the poem ‘Twas The Night Before Christmas; and curating an alternative exhibition of art from local people’s living room walls for display in a disused retail unit, accompanied by a similarly alternative selection of ‘audio guides’ comprising interviews with the art-owners.

However, also given those modest parameters, some of the 24 events are deliberately designed to be more easily achievable by a small, overstretched team working on an almost infeasibly tight budget. They’re designed to be playful, sure, and fully aligned with the project’s ethos and the nature of invitation it makes to audiences. But they’re also designed strategically to buy us a couple of easier days in a rather intense month.

Today’s event was meant to be one of those days. The event was a simple but, we hoped, playful and inviting one, which – despite its simplicity – was full of heart. We thought it would represent the whole community coming together as the city prepared itself for Christmas; we thought it would be bonding and spark connections; and we hoped it would allow the very special kind of magic that happens when of people of all ages and types and characters share a space together for a short amount of time to participate in a shared purpose. But that purpose was nothing grander than collectively decorating a bare Christmas tree in the centre of an Assembly Room while a choir sang carols. It didn’t require any artistic commissioning or much advance planning; it was an easily graspable and deliverable concept; it didn’t give us great cause for concern as to whether we could pull it off well enough. (Plenty of the other events do…!).

I suppose I had therefore assumed that tonight’s event would feel lovely, sure; great fun, certainly; and perhaps pretty festive and heart-warming. But I didn’t expect a moment which caught me entirely off-guard and made me feel foolish for – still, even though I love it and believe in it and facilitate it and proselytise about it constantly – underestimating the power and impact of simple, shared activity.

At the end of the event as most people had left and those of us still lingering were feeling all aglow with Christmassy fervour, I caught sight of a particular bauble on the gloriously chaotic, liberally-and-riotously-decorated tree. A couple of my colleagues had hosted a decoration table during the event where, instead of just picking up a trinket to hang on the tree, people could write names or Christmas messages onto tags, attach those to a bauble and then hang them on the tree.

The bauble that had caught my eye had a message written on its tag, in pencil and in a child’s hand-writing. It read: “Dear mummy, merry christmas. I love you and hope you’re ok up there.”

Other than weep a few quiet tears there wasn’t anything to say or do.

But what a reminder of the fact that even in the froth and bubble gum, in the lightness and jollity, there’s also always the chance for something else to be given voice, to be given air; some context for self-expression which might run deeper than we realise.

For the rest of this month I want to remember the value in the simpler, more humble events.

Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travel Fellowship, Part 1

July 9, 2014

I know we shouldn’t play favourites at work, but nonetheless I have to admit that two of the best bits of my job as Producer of Oxford Playhouse entail looking after artist development and producing new shows under our Playhouse Plays Out strand of work which respond to the idea of place, and which connect and resonate with local communities in a way which is special to that place – be that the city, the county, or the particular venue, environment or community within which we’re making each show. Recent highlights on that front have been STAND, made with the brilliant Chris Goode and 6 brave residents of Oxfordshire; Soapbox City, which saw 200 people have their say during 12 hours of continuous public address on May Day 2014; and The Story of the Four Minute Mile, which took place on the very same running track where Sir Roger Bannister made history 60-odd years ago.

So it’s something of a dream that I now find myself in Bolivia on the first leg of a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travel Fellowship during which I get to spend an extended period of time with some artists I particularly admire, thinking about how theatre making and ideas of place go hand in hand. I’m hoping that the time spent with these extraordinary international artists will feed in to our Playhouse Plays Out ambitions back in Oxford and inform or encourage the work I’ve recently started to have a go at making on a more modest scale all on my ownsome!

I write this in the middle of Week 2 of 3 that I’m spending with Teatro de los Andes, a wonderful company I first saw perform in New York, at the 2006 Under The Radar festival. In fact, anyone eagle-eyed will notice that I’ve been banging on about them on here for quite some while.  (They don’t yet have the profile in the UK which I think they deserve, but the folks at CASA festival are on a mission to change that, having succeeded in getting them over to London for the first time in 2013; fingers crossed they’ll be returning to UK stages before too long.)

“We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.” 
― T.S. EliotFour Quartets

The WCMT’s mission is to support travel which enables you to learn best practice and to make a difference – quite a thing to live up to – although thankfully the learning part of it is, it seems, inevitable. There is definitely something about being elsewhere which makes you think about your own somewhere: the place you started your journey from, the place to which you’ll return at the end of the adventure, and the place which is in your blood and your instincts; the place which is the formative reason why you are how you are. The philosophical argument that the self is best defined through the other is well-trodden ground (I believe the likes of Rimbaud, Hegel, de Beauvoir and Sartre have had a lot to say on the subject), and I doubt I’m the first person to think that the same approach can be applied to ideas of place: we can best get to know the place we’re from by better understanding places where we’re a stranger. And of course I’m particularly interested in how theatre from different places can speak both of and across cultures.

On arrival in Bolivia’s second city, Santa Cruz, just over a week ago, after a long flight from Madrid and with time to kill on an overnight pit-stop before my final flight up to the Andes, it was wandering around the main plaza in a haze of jet-lag that these overly grand thoughts lodged in my head. Because of the benches. Not long before I left home, there were reports in the press about recent aggressive developments in the UK’s architecture of street furniture, which is increasingly being designed to dissuade people, in particular people who find themselves homeless, from making full and free use of our public spaces. In Santa Cruz’s 24 de Septiembre plaza there are at least 150 benches and a dozen free public chess tables (at which I was soundly thrashed all afternoon long by the old masters of the game).  The plaza was of course swarming all day and evening with people from all walks of life and all generations. It felt very much like the architecture of that space made an open invitation to its citizens to spend time there, however they chose, and, without wishing overly to romanticise a difference which I expect is accounted for by respective land and property values, I was saddened on the UK’s account at what our contrasting discouragement of residents’ use of our public spaces says about us. (Vancouver’s response to the UK approach also offers us pause for thought.)

So, the connection to theatre? For me it’s about how we make an invitation. All theatre is an invitation, of course, to share in stories and ideas, but the way in which we make that invitation – in particular the openness and the generosity with which theatre makers are able to make that invitation to audiences – has a profound effect on the audience experience. With Playhouse Plays Out, we talk about trying to open up a city which to many people can seem closed off by both literal and conceptual barriers; the audience experience I know we hope to foster has more akin with the thrumming metaphor of Santa Cruz’s plaza than the hostility of London’s spiked benches.

And so, 24 hours later, I found myself in the mountain village of Yotala, 20km south of the historic city of Sucre (the Bolivian constitution was signed here after Simon Bolivar and General Sucre finally defeated Spanish rule), at Teatro de los Andes’ base, observing rehearsals for their new show (working title, El Cuaderno de las OlasThe Book of the Waves).

Teatro de los Andes' base in Yotala, Bolivia

Teatro de los Andes’ base in Yotala, Bolivia

Appropriately enough, this new show is all about place, or rather, about a country’s understanding of its identity and capacity through its concept of place and territory. More than concept actually: through its ownership of and entitlement to place and territory. 135 years ago in the War of the Pacific, Bolivia lost its access to the sea to Chile. The loss of its coast – from Antofagasta north – is something Bolivia still feels keenly: it manifests itself both as a live political hot potato and in more trivial, though still heartfelt, ways, such as serving as the main reason why most Bolivianos have been ferociously supporting any South American country bar Chile in the current World Cup. The show takes the form of a metaphorical fable of an old woman (Bolivia) whose final wish, which her three children are committed to fulfilling, is to see the horizon and be plunged into the sea before her death.

Over the years I’ve seen three other Teatro de los Andes productions: En Un Sol Amarillo, about the aftermath of a 1998 earthquake in a small altiplano town; El Cyclope, inspired by the ancient Greek myth but recalibrated to modern day Bolivia and often performed for free in barrios on the edges of a city; and La Odisea, in which Odysseus is cast as an eternal global immigrant seeking asylum in the world. El Cuaderno de las Olas seems to pick up the baton of this repertoire very naturally, being deeply, intricately, emotionally connected to and informed by its place of creation. The specificity of its metaphor runs throughout the piece, including precise and detailed references to, for example, the violence which erupted in Sucre in May 2008. And yet, the reason I love this company’s work isn’t because it speaks to me in the way it clearly speaks to local audiences; despite the specificity of place which filters through it unapologetically, it speaks to me as a stranger from another world – a stranger who doesn’t know what it feels like to live in a landlocked country with only your great-grandparents’ memories of the sea for solace and who doesn’t know what inter-community violence on your doorstep feels like, but who does know about the sense of home, of belonging, of loss, of wasted potential, and of hope.

Theatre which is truly embedded in its place and authentically connected to its community can, this experience reminds me, also be universal. As a producer I’m often thinking about how best to contextualise a new piece of work: who is it for, where is it best presented, what context would give it its best life? And while I don’t for one second question the importance of that process or doubt the care I should continue to give to it, the last week has been an inspiring reminder that the universality of the best-made theatre will always speak far beyond its given context too.

In for a penny, in for a pound

December 1, 2013

It’s the eve of the annual deadline for the Artist in Residence scheme I look after at the regional venue in which I work (Oxford Playhouse; views here obviously my own etc etc…), and I’ve just read this blog post by Amelia Bird suggesting venues abolish their artist development programmes in favour of paying higher fees for fully finished productions.

Here are a few thoughts on why I think differently.

Because it’s about value not cost.
We offer 3 artists £1,000 cash a year, plus access to the full resources of the Playhouse to use however they see fit. They don’t have to spend that cash on a production (though some choose to do so); they can spend it however they want to develop their practice – including train fares to go and see mentors, fees for taking part in masterclasses, coffee to make it all bearable, match funding to leverage other investment, subsistence costs to support themselves during R&D periods, whatever they want… The scheme has been deliberately and lovingly designed to be as un-top-down as possible; to be entirely and genuinely artist-led. We just invite artists to make a pitch to us encompassing what they’d like to do with that combination of time, cash and resources, and we let three of them do just that. And I know for sure that they, and our audiences, get a lot more than £3,000-worth of value for that cash investment. I also know that spending that £3,000 on marketing or paying 3 visiting artists an extra £1,000 on their fee wouldn’t yield anything like the same (tangible and intangible) return for any of us.

Because creative producing is about artists and audiences, not about one or the other.
Artist development is audience development in my book. Growing, developing and serving audiences includes doing our bit to grow, develop and serve artists. A few venues or producers are explicit about putting artists first (see David Jubb’s entry in The Producers for example), but for a lot of us, the two go hand in hand. They’re not mutually exclusive things, and our job is to bring them together as meaningfully and as congruently as we can. Investing in artists ensures we’re continuing to do our best for our audiences: sowing seeds, fledging ideas, starting up artistic romances which one day just might flourish into an extraordinary experience for our audiences.

Because it’s about the important rather than just the urgent.
About the future and not just the now.

Because it’s about being generous with what we have.
Mi casa su casa and all that. Because none of us has very much, or as much as we’d like, to do all the things we’d like to do. And because so often the exacting realities of the responsible stewardship of sizeable organisations mean we can’t muster up great big cheques free of strings. So what we do have, which we can offer generously and without strings, we should.

Because we have to be about breadth not depth.
Venues have a greater responsibility than artists to make an open invitation to a really broad cross-section of audiences. Artists have a responsibility to themselves and their work to focus in depth on their practice and on the materialisation of their ideas with as much integrity and authenticity as possible. Venues’ responsibility to offer a portfolio of experience includes seeking out a broad range of opportunities where a little can go a long way.

Because we need to take risks. And to manage those risks.
One of the most exciting things we do is to introduce a new artist to our audiences. But we can’t start at that point; we need to start somewhere long before that. We need to get to know an artist, and that artist who’s never had anybody invest anything in them needs someone to take a risk on them, by investing something which can start something more. Because if we only ever invest big bucks in artists we already know and trust, what happens to the artists nobody yet knows or trusts?

Because we should play a creative role in our place
Venues should have a sense of responsibility to the idea that a vibrant creative community should be able to thrive in their city, town, or region. If we don’t think that creative community is yet as fulsome and as productive and as supported as it might be, and as our city or town or region deserves it to be, then shouldn’t we, as a home to creativity in that place, do our bit to encourage more of it? To make more of something possible?

Because one size doesn’t fit all.
I’m thinking particularly about our Artist in Residence scheme this evening because that’s at the top of my inbox this coming week, but this is of course only one aspect of our artist development activity. It’s right for some artists; it’s not for others. There are other opportunities too, which suit other artists better. But just because this scheme isn’t right for everybody doesn’t mean it’s not really really right for somebody.

Because we want a relationship not a one-night stand.
And my best guess says that a lot of the 70 or so applications I’ll find from artists on my desk tomorrow morning will be saying the same thing.

Poacher turned Gamekeeper

November 4, 2013

There were a few late nights over a few bottles of wine with a friend.

There were a few conversations playing Fantasy Theatre in our home city, usually starting with “Wouldn’t it be great if there was…”, “I wonder why there aren’t more people making…”, “I’d love to see / hear / come across…”.

Until the light dawned on us all of a sudden that we could just give it a go ourselves. Freewheel it. Make something happen. Write it, produce it, birth it, publicise it. Without our job titles (much though we love them), without a 3 year plan, without a commissioning agenda, without grand ambitions or pretensions to being proper artists, or fear of not being proper artists. Actually there was a bit of fear, but we bullied each other on past it until it was too late to worry about it anymore.

And so we did it. We had an idea – a very small, simple idea – and over the last 9 months, we’ve made it happen. With a lot of favours and phone calls, a few late nights and one or two more bottles of wine along the way. And it’s been every bit as terrifying and all-consuming and exhilarating as the biggest project I’ve turned my hand to under the auspices of Real Work. And possibly that bit more fun, knowing that we’ve gone off piste.

It wasn’t a surprise that what I’ve learned in the last 10 years as a producer would more than see me through this playful busman’s adventure. What I didn’t expect was that the reverse would be true too. That by being a writer of a play I’d learn a lot about how I could be a better producer of one*. And that by going indie I’d learn a lot – or remember a lot – about how organisations and infrastructures could work better, could be more supportive, more creative, more enthused. That by taking care of every penny of our £1500 of funding (thank you kindly Oxford City Council), I’d find some new ideas for how to get the most creativity out of the £100,000s I look after each year.

Variations on this list of the stages of the Creative Process have been doing the rounds online recently:

The Creative Process:
1.This is awesome
2.This is tricky
3.This is shit
4.I am shit
5.This might be ok
6.This is awesome
7.I am awesome

I’ve definitely gone through 1 – 4 in orderly succession and, with funding secured, the recording of the audio play complete, and three weeks to go before it all comes shuddering into life, I reckon I’m fairly comfortably oscillating between stages 5 and 6 most days now. Stage 7 is probably a first-night-g&t-induced hallucination but I’m looking forward to it immensely.


And so here’s what we’ve made:



*When you think you’re being really good to artists, be better. Be kinder. Be more indulgent. Big them up more. Let them worry about something with you. Don’t get exasperated when they’re not worrying, they’re just sharing. Even though it sounds really similar to worrying. Know how to tell them they’re not the best person for a particular task without them thinking you’re telling them they’re shit at everything and that you wish you weren’t working on their project. Make them let other people do stuff with their project. Show them that you love their project every bit as much as they do. If you don’t there’s no way of blagging this bit. Then you need to work with a different artist. Or they need to work on a different project. Allow time for over-thinking things, and use tough love effectively but sparingly. A team of a few loyal friends achieves way more, way more efficiently than anyone could on their own, but also more than an army of organisational departments could too (except if you’re talking about the Olympics opening ceremony). Small is beautiful. And it means something. And it matters.

Some things that I’ve learned and the people I’ve learned them from

October 19, 2013

I owed a favour to a production manager. As all producers do to all production managers almost all the time.

The production manager called the favour in. Or rather, she asked if her Dad could call it in instead. And so I find myself wondering what theatre producing nuggets of interest I might share with the local rotary club as their guest speaker this month – the production manager’s Dad being their newly elected president.

My train of thought has ended up dwelling on some of the most valuable things I’ve learned and the remarkable people I’ve learned them from. The things I try and put into action, the tenets I try and work by. The things which have resonated so deeply with me that I’ve clung on tight to them and never let them go. The things which I hope make me better at what I do.

Some of them are lessons I’ve learned of old; some of them are inspired by people I’ve only come to know recently. Some of them contradict each other. In the main they’re things I’ve learned through working with or alongside these good, good people at the coalface. Some for a short time only, others for longer. Or through experiencing them first-hand in some way. They’re not theories that have been spouted to me or things these people are maybe even aware that they’ve taught me. They are not quotations. They’re mostly things I’ve inferred from seeing a little of the way they forge their way through the world.

I’m going to take the plunge and credit all my unwitting gurus by name in the hope that they won’t mind their wisdom being shared that little bit more widely. Any errors of interpretation are of course entirely mine. If anyone feels misrepresented, I hope they’ll let me know.

Michelle Dickson, Director of Oxford Playhouse:

–          It’s all about audiences. As a theatre, as a presenter, and as a producer, that’s where our focus should begin and end. Which isn’t to say that artists aren’t an absolute priority, just that looking after the two are intrinsically interlinked: looking after artists is never divorced from looking after audiences. Helping an artist grow in the best possible way for them is, ultimately, about serving our audiences.

–          Pragmatism isn’t a dirty word. Knowing when it’s right to let your head rule your heart is an enormous source of strength. When it’s right to toughen up and make the responsible, practical choice. Because protecting your stability in the long-run is what allows you to keep taking risks now. Without the wisdom of the former, the excitement of the latter is impossible. Or redundant. Or reckless.

–          Take a breath. It’s not always best that it’s now.

The guy on the 2010 Common Purpose Meridian Leaders Course in Birmingham from The National Trust:

–          Having an eye on the long-term means having a 100-year plan for your organisation. Not a poxy 3-year plan. 3 years is a blink in a strategic eye. 100 years is where we should all be heading.

Emma Stenning, Executive Director of Bristol Old Vic:

–          Dream big. Be ambitious. Once you’ve chosen an exciting path for all the right reasons, don’t turn your back on it. Compromise the art and you’ll compromise your whole direction. Put the art first; the rest will follow.

–          Commit to and invest in place. If you can, move your life – lock, stock and barrel – to your place of theatre. Know it, enjoy it, love it from the inside. Be proud of it and celebrate it. Don’t wish it was somewhere else. Don’t pretend it’s as good as somewhere else. Know that it’s the best of itself and nowhere else is like it. Make the theatre of that place which speaks to and with that place in a way that theatre from elsewhere can’t. Court the greats of the big wide world in the hope that they’ll come to you, yes. But, more importantly, go and find the greats on your doorstep who are already there and nurture them.

My darling friends Naomi & Lisa:

–          Be full to the brim with ‘mitfreude’: a made-up German-esque word (literally ‘with’ & ‘joy’) which someone at the other end of a Google search has helpfully coined as the opposite to ‘schadenfreude’. Be generous, unconfined, and utterly without ego or credit-taking in your joy in others’ success, achievements and good fortune.

Mannie Manim, formerly Chief Executive of the Baxter Theatre, Cape Town:

–          Know when to walk away.

Vicky Graham of Vicky Graham Productions (with thanks to Nike):

–          Just Do It. Make it happen. Don’t let an idea stay just an idea. Get out there. Just bloody do it.

Ceri Gorton, Culture Manager for Oxford City Council:

–          Make a little do a lot. What’s the furthest you can make a small amount of money go? What’s the most exciting good you can do for the most people with what you’ve got?

–          Make the quick wins win quickly. Impact fuels momentum; it makes the next barrier easier to tear down.

Dame Vivien Duffield, Chair of the Clore Foundation:

–          Cut the strings to your generosity. When you’re in the wonderful position of being able to give, offer, enable, or invest, where you can, when you can, do it freely. Free up the offer, free up the agenda, don’t attach strings. Be generous about the how, not just the how much.

Tom Morris, Artistic Director, Bristol Old Vic:

–          Artists see round corners. They’re special and they’re brave. They let the light in. They help us see things about the world we wouldn’t otherwise see.

Brian Underwood, Violin Teacher at the Royal Academy of Music:

–          Don’t be afraid for something to get worse in order for it to get better.


–          Just sometimes, good enough is good enough. If good enough gets something done when holding out for perfect would have left you without anything at all, good enough can be the better achievement.

Anna Glynn & Robin Colyer, Flintlock Theatre:

–          Always be at the start of something. If you’re not, find something to start. Be at the most exciting stage of a new journey, at the inhalation of the deepest, bravest breath, at the coiling of the spring. Look for your next giant leap. That is where you’ll find your energy and how you’ll be most likely to live up to your promise.

Mission Impossible: On Alan Davey, Ambition, and Grammar

November 21, 2012

This morning, Arts Council England’s Chief Executive Alan Davey did a great disservice to his organisation – and to the arts sector at large – by admitting defeat at the hands of the Arts Council’s own mission statement. As part of a misleading and downright lazy article on elitism in the arts by the usually more nuanced Will Gompertz on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Alan Davey stumblingly pronounced on what he appeared to deem the futility of Arts Council England’s mantra: “Great Art for Everyone”. Gompertz’s article has been passionately and eloquently countered by many voices since it aired (most notably by Lyn Gardner and Charlotte Higgins of the Guardian), but Alan Davey, it seems to me, has escaped his share of the critical heat.

In pursuit of support for his misplaced contention that millions have been spent on the arts “to no great effect”, Gompertz asked Davey whether Arts Council England’s mantra of Great Art for Everyone was in fact “a politically expedient but unrealisable goal”, to which Davey replied:

“Of course great art for everybody is probably unachievable because you’ll never get everybody in the country wanting to encounter the arts and what it can offer [sic]”.

Probably unachievable.

This seems an alarmingly casual statement given that it features Arts Council England’s chief executive admitting his belief that the goal towards which he is leading his organisation is an unachievable one. (And that’s even before we note the irony of the 2010 ACE manifesto title: Achieving Great Art for Everyone… Maybe that document got a re-write at Great Peter Street today.)

 I suppose Mr Davey might be a shoot-for-the-moon-and-if-you-miss-you’ll-end-up-among-the-stars kind of a guy, but if so that demonstrates a random and wilfully lacklustre brand of optimism which isn’t going to help the arts very much in these particularly challenging times. I don’t want to believe that he would be so cavalier with the hopes, dreams and efforts of the sector for which he works.

When most of us acknowledge that the goal we are striving to achieve is, in fact, unachievable, we feel pretty defeated, demoralised, de-motivated; redundant even. Or, we reassess the goal, we redefine it; we find a new goal, a new mission, and a new energy with which to pursue it. It felt pretty hard not to feel defeated, demoralised, and de-motivated by Davey’s ‘unachievable’ admission this morning. If ACE doesn’t feel it can achieve its overriding mission for the arts, then…

But maybe, it’s a grammar problem. A mission statement is the expression of an organisation’s core ambition, and articulating it requires a long hard, self-reflective look in the mirror and a rigorous distillation process of interrogating what, fundamentally, it is trying to do. To Do. A mission statement answers the questions ‘What do we want to do?’, ‘What are we trying to achieve?’, ‘What’s our purpose?’ with a verb. With a word that says this is what we do.

‘Great Art for Everyone’ is missing its verb. What does the Arts Council want to do with ‘Great Art for Everyone’? Does it want to provide it, to offer it, to distribute it, to facilitate it, to enforce it, to share it, to prescribe it, to insist on it, to be it, to carpet-bomb it, to regulate it, to force-feed it, to dangle it, to spread it, to kindle it, to nurture it, to develop it, to buy it, to preserve it, to provoke it?

For me the best explanation for Alan Davey’s ‘unachievable gaffe’ (which frankly seemed not far short of a betrayal of the most honourable, respectable and laudable aims of Arts Council England), is that he simply doesn’t know what that invisible verb is which precedes his mission statement. He speaks as if that verb were a verb of universal conscription, of comprehensive and unyielding enforcement, implying that ACE will fail unless each and every person in the country encounters great art relentlessly and pervasively whether they like it or not.

Well, firstly, I don’t think that is so unachievable, especially if we’re all prepared to accept a more exciting and vital understanding of ‘art’ than Will Gompertz’s lamentably restrictive definition allows (which, as represented in his piece this morning, embraces opera, ballet and not a lot else). And I’m deeply saddened that the leader of the organisation responsible for husbanding the nation’s arts thinks that it is.

And secondly, I don’t think that is what Arts Council England’s mission is. It’s not about administering the arts with statutory ubiquitousness; it’s about making an invitation, and, in order to make that invitation with integrity and sincerity and diversity and relevance, it’s about furnishing every corner of the nation with the opportunity to discover and encounter great art.

It’s bloody difficult, yes. We’re not there yet, no. But probably unachievable?
No Alan, don’t you dare say that.

Dear Artist, Love Audience: A provocation by Helen Cole

December 11, 2011

Since hearing Helen Cole present her provocation setting out a utopian partnership between artists and audiences at the British Council showcase in Edinburgh this summer, I have been searching for a freely available transcript of the text of this brilliant bit of thinking to no avail. (It is published in full in the Live Art Almanac).
So I’ve done the job myself, transcribing from the video record of Helen’s contribution to the British Council’s panel discussion on The Art of Programming here (Helen’s provocation for those who’d like to hear her deliver it in person is on the second speaker video and begins at 10’20” approx).

Here is the text in full:

Dear Artist,

When I come to see a show by you, I want to be shown things I would not have the opportunity to see anywhere else. I want to discover new possibilities that I could not find without you. I want you to be a seer and a doer, a magician, an explorer. I want you to effect change, be that large or small. I want you to understand why you have invited me here: to be aware of my presence and what I’m offering in return. I want you to be curious and fearless, humble and questioning. I want you to be a bit impressive, strange and special, clever and full of charm. I want your imagination to work all the time, overtime even in your sleep. I want you to create beauty, disorientation, newness and dreams. I want you to play and think and make a difference whilst you touch and shock and amuse. I want you to be alive to risk and difficulty, incongruity, intrigue and doubt. I want you to hold a magnifying glass to uncertainty, contradiction, ambiguity; to be mobile, nomadic, dynamic. To disrupt and unshape.  I want you to possess good timing, humour, skill and humility. I want you to be ordinary, real and unreal, familiar and wild. I want you to open up the doors between worlds and navigate the gaps in between. I know this is impossible but I want you to be all of this.

In return, I will be attentive in the dark and make you aware I’m here. I will react to anything you throw at me with interest, compassion and belief. I will be awake to possibility, especially the untested and untried. I will not always seek beauty but will look for the restless and the truth. I will allow my subconscious to be free and my senses to be alive. I will be active, open-minded, questioning and fierce. I will be brave and loyal, challenging and intrigued. I will consider your suggestions and meet your curiosity with interest and understanding. I will question you but my mind can always change. I will bring knowledge and experience, excitement and hope. I will be appreciative, supportive, critical, honest and clear. I will put my bum on the seat and if there’s no seat I will not complain. I will follow you and match the risks you take with risks of my own. I will be generous, intelligent, responsive and pleased. I will give a standing ovation, come back again and bring others too. If you meet your part of the bargain, I promise to fulfil mine.

Love, Audience.

This should be how it should be.

The Love of the New

May 30, 2011

This weekend I found myself surveying the Belgian battlefields at Waterloo and soaking up the atmosphere of the annual Brussels Jazz Marathon. The continental mini-break wasn’t just any old weekend abroad, however: it was this week’s contribution to my New Year’s Resolution of 2011, given to me – as is becoming traditional – by my best friend. Knowing that I was facing a tough year ahead in my personal life she determined that I was to ensure that positivity and vibrancy featured in the coming year by commanding me to experience something new each and every week. Rules were established via an inevitable haggling process over what was allowable but variety was key: experiences might be grand or humble, planned or spontaneous, solitary or communal, significant or frivolous. Documentary evidence must be kept by way of witness to (and souvenir of) the tale of my year of All Things New.


The resolution is now nearly half-way through and I am beginning to see what this year of new experiences is teaching me, what it’s giving me, how it’s bringing me back to life and getting me through almost without me noticing.

All of which has got me thinking about the possibility of translating this healing and invigorating approach to my professional life. Having found myself in the position of needing to help steer a theatre company through its own ‘annus horribilis’, I wonder whether a similar approach could be adopted by a cultural organisation staring into the abyss, and, if so, whether it might yield similarly encouraging refreshment. It would of course be a brave company to embrace the experiment – as I’m myself finding, the levels of organisation, creativity and upfront expense required can be daunting and time-consuming, but if my own experience is anything to go by I can’t help but think that there’d be benefits to reap. When change is forced upon you, to dare to go one step further and invite yet more newness into life is an empowering move.

I love the idea that for a theatre company, say, this might mean changing the way you recruit your creative practitioners one week or trialling the use of Open Space technology for your staff meetings the next. For me, it’s the little things as much as the big things which are important in encouraging new habits of openness, positivity and forward momentum: sharing lunch together on a Friday, for instance, or changing to a supplier of Fair Trade paper. They’re helpful because they re-set patterns and re-calibrate norms without presenting too much of a painful challenge; they’re easy wins which give courage for embracing bigger changes.

That said, there’s no doubt a fine line between encouraging radical levels of openness to organisational change and welcoming in a damaging level of instability. And it probably takes a braver producer than I, or one in a better position to command buy-in from an entire organisation, to achieve this weekly schedule of new experiences. But what’s important is that experiments aren’t as scary as people think: their not working means nothing more than that they didn’t work. Trial of something new doesn’t have to equate to immediate wholesale change in the long-term, but I do think the process of habituating an organisation to change and newness can usefully reveal, and perhaps helpfully re-shape, its values.

The Challenge of Touring

January 8, 2011

It seems abundantly clear to me that small arts organisations are facing a real battle at the moment, by which I mean organisations small in terms of infrastructure, not in terms of ambition, profile or achievement. Organisations which aren’t building-based risk being less visible in the public consciousness, and we only need to look at the rationale of how local authorities are implementing their budget reductions to realise that it’s the organisations with smaller infrastructures which will suffer the greatest impact over the next few years. Having spent most of my career working in touring theatre on the small and middle scale, I’ve been turning my attention recently to the challenges touring is going to face over the coming year or so, and wondering if it might be time to think of some new ideas and experiment with some new models.

As far as the obvious challenge of finance and fundraising goes, suffice to say that of course there are vitally important conversations for every touring company to be having around the topical pressures which the UK’s mixed economy funding model is going to come under in our more straitened times. I think these conversations need to include the level of reliance on public subsidy; the concept and realities of philanthropy; and possibilities for diversifying income or embracing a spirit of entrepreneurialism that don’t threaten the primacy of the company’s artistic purpose. I’m sure each and every company worth their salt will be using the next year to interrogate these conversations thoroughly and honestly and to design a long-term strategy for securing their financial future beyond 2012 in the context of whatever Arts Council decisions are handed down at the end of March.

Easier said than done, no doubt, but while impossible to ignore, the challenge of money isn’t the only one touring companies are facing.

For me, the most important challenge for a touring company right now is simply: how do we remain brave and artistically adventurous?

Of course a large part of this will be down to the artistic choices the company makes, but I think there is scope for an organisation’s whole culture playing a part in rising to this challenge. As I see it, every decision a small arts organisation makes is made within a context of risk and in support of the artistic programme, and for me the real challenge for producers, general managers and executive directors is to cultivate a positive culture of ambitious risk-taking which doesn’t jeopardise the things rightly regarded as too precious to risk losing. Being able to decipher and articulate what those all-too-precious non-negotiables are feels like a crucial process for touring companies, whether it be the ability to have an artist-led infrastructure, for example, or the scope to commission work on an international platform. I certainly think that knowing what you’re not prepared to give up liberates you when it comes to reconsidering everything else. I know that I want to work in organisations which manage to achieve a congruence between the sense of bravery and spirit of adventure of the work on stage and the way they work as a team off-stage, and I think this is easier to achieve when there’s a collective understanding of what you’re protecting at all costs, and what you’re bold enough to re-examine.

The second challenge for me is about partnerships: how do we find the best partners and how do we best nurture our relationships with them?

I don’t think it’s at all contentious to suggest that one of the keys to success for arts organisations now and in the future will be the strength and authenticity of their partnerships. I think the conundrum about collaboration is how you reconcile inevitable challenges of ownership, voice and compromise as you go about the often tricky process of translating hopeful theory about partnership working into the reality of practice. The danger as I see it is that, as collaboration becomes as much a necessity as a choice, incipient relationships can be hurried along too enthusiastically for the sake of short term benefit, before a genuine symbiosis has established itself organically between the artists or organisations in question. That for me is both the risk and the challenge: of being open to new partnership opportunities but always allowing the demands of the work to remain the primary stimulus of those relationships, rather than the sheer convenience of what each partner can bring to the table.

The final challenge I’ve been thinking about is the challenge at the heart of touring: how do touring companies connect meaningfully with audiences?

All touring companies face the inevitable challenge of, by definition, being absent from most of their audience for most of the year. Unlike building-based organisations the focus of their attention is forever split: they both need to connect with their neighbouring communities in their year-round base, and also with their audiences distributed further afield. The challenge for a company with touring at its core is to be as open to engaging with those geographically distant audiences as it is with those in its immediate locality.

I think that the time is ripe to re-examine the status quo of the touring model, to look at different patterns of working both with artists and with theatres, and there’s a great opportunity for a bold company to lead the thinking in this area. Just as venues are teaming up with resident companies and sharing certain costs or functions, might there, for example, be scope for a squad of touring companies to team up and provide a selection of shows in repertoire, sharing subsistence and travel costs as they travel the country alongside each other…?

Touring will always be the best platform for sharing artists’ work and I believe it is crucial for the health of the sector as a whole, but I think it’s going to have to work harder and become more flexible and imaginative in its structures in order to continue to serve as the backbone of a healthy business model for small organisations.

User-led innovation: A NESTA provocation

July 15, 2010

Sir John Tusa, Sarah Weir & John Holden

Yesterday I and 6 other Clore fellows took part in a symposium hosted by Nesta on the theme of leadership in times of uncertainy. Nesta and the Clore Leadership programme had commissioned each of us to write a provocation on an aspect of contemporary cultural leadership. My paper investigates the sector’s resistance to user-led innovation and attempts to offer some suggestions as to how the sector’s leaders might better embrace or apply some of the fundamental principles underlying this evolving form of activity.

I was particularly interested in how the practical application of values of openness, freedom and co-creation might question or challenge the concept of the role of the professional artist and the received notion of the safe space for creative risk and experientation, where ‘safe’ can often mean ‘closed’.

My article looks at three aspects of resistance:

– responsivity: how can our arts organisations be truly responsive without their artistic autonomy feeling under threat?;

– permission and permissive leadership: how do we create a culture within which we give permission to our users to transgress, to do what we don’t want them to do as much as what we do want them to do?;

– and messiness: innovation by definition is not the hand-maiden of best practice, and if most innovation stems from radicalism, how do we allow for that radicalism without sterilising it in the very process of permitting or legitimising  it?.

I end by looking at the role of institutions and producers in all of this – something I think will become ever more critical in offering a pivotal context for this kind of activity, which can on the one hand protect safe spaces for artistic experiment and on the other make work and creative processes porous for users to access and contribute to.

I gather that all the articles are due to be published on the Clore and Nesta websites, but having received a couple of requests, have decided to publish mine in full here also:

Final EDITED Nesta article M KNIGHT