Posts Tagged ‘arts’

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.

Taking the Pledge

December 3, 2009

Last week, at the invitation of the Arts Council West Midlands’ Theatre Officer, I attended an Open Space discussion entitled The Challenge of Change – How can we create a better future for theatre in the West Midlands? It was something of a call to arms for the sector in the region and demonstrated a very positive collective will from the 80 or so theatre makers who attended to address the challenges we all identified through a series of conversations over the two day event.

This morning I was visiting the Stan’s Cafe website to book my tickets for their latest show (The Just Price of Flowers – on until Saturday at their A.E.Harris factory site in Birmingham; well worth a look!) and I came across a blog post from their director James Yarker on his thoughts following the event. He has come up with a series of pledges that he’s encouraging all of us to take to ensure the conversation results in us all ‘doing’ as well as ‘talking’. I think he’s on to something so I’ve decided to join him and take up the pledge too. Do spread the word and, just maybe, this will begin to make a difference.

The West Midlands Theatre Pledge

1: Attend 12 theatre shows in the next 12 months, 4 by West Midlands writers/artists/companies you haven’t seen before, 1 in a West Midlands Venue you’ve never been to before.

2: Take 12 people who have never been, rarely go, or don’t ‘do’ Independent Theatre to a show. Share transport.

3: Host a meal/party for 8 people 4 of which you barely know.

4: Write 12 comments/reviews/blog entries about theatre on other people’s sites.

5: Attend 1 mid*point or return to the next Open Space event.

Beneath the labels

September 23, 2009

Today’s afternoon session on the Clore Leadership programme, led by Sandy Nairne and Gus Casely-Hayford, focussed on the issue of diversity in the arts. It’s a subject that I have thought on a lot over the last few years, having worked for companies whose work has stemmed from communities who often find themselves in a minority of one sort or another, but my response to the session was more complicated and more challenging than I had expected. So before my head hits the pillow for the night, I want to work through some of this complexity.

As expected, the discussion was relatively wide-ranging, although, as ever in time-limited conversations, only able to skim the surface of some intricate and deeply personal issues. Topics touched on included identity (both created by and in protest against imposed labels), concepts of the mainstream and the margins, of nationalism and interculturalism, and of reductiveness and homogeneity. Participants in the discussion included people of various nationalities, ethnicities, and sexualities.

Despite believing passionately in the importance and relevance of the conversation, I did not contribute, and felt increasingly uncomfortable about my inability to participate. I realised that, coming as I do from various communities which are all traditionally representative of the UK mainstream – white, heterosexual, able-bodied, middle-class – I felt increasingly unable to enter the conversation, for fear of being seen to be an inappropriate spokesperson on the issue. I found myself very wary of errors of imposition, of assumption, of cultural ventriloquism: colonialism by another name. Whoever’s story it was to tell, or point to make, I certainly didn’t feel that it was mine.

And yet, through hesitancy on joining the discussion, I worried that I was guilty of the equal but opposite crime of appearing not to engage, not to acknowledge or admit the importance of the conversation. Something that couldn’t be further from the truth.

With my path through life having been inadvertently smoothed by belonging to multiple majorities, I now find it deeply difficult to know how to enter and support the conversation around diversity without, by default, reinforcing the voice of those already dominant majorities to the detriment of voices that have for too long gone unheard. I am rarely, if ever, referred to as white, heterosexual or able-bodied: they may be my labels, but they are ones that go largely unmentioned. My white, heterosexual, able-bodied experience is rarely remarked on in those terms. I pass under the radar, without having to live up to or shake off assumptions about or categorisations of my identity (/identities). Consequently, I do not want my voice in a conversation to strengthen a mainstream identity against which those who identify with minority indentities have to struggle to be heard in their own words.