Tuesday, June 04, 2013

I Am British Theatre

So, the In Battalions Delphi study is up and running. The call has gone out, the briefing notes circulated, and the clock is ticking on the 24 June deadline for the first phase. (If you'd like to take part, get intouch.)

But I've had another idea. I'm quite excited about it.

For a long time now, it has really bothered me that British theatre and theatre-makers have a serious image problem.

To prove it to you, let's play a quick game of Twat Bingo. You get to shout 'HOUSE!' at your computer screen if you can recall five separate occasions when you've heard one of the words or phrases below used in public discourse about professional theatre-makers in this country:


Well off








Arty farty



Waste of public money



Middle class





Rich parents

Proper job



Air kissing

Congratulations! You've won two tickets to an obscure, self-indulgent play by some poncy Oxbridge luvvies.

You get the idea. We have an image problem.

At the last In Battalions campaign meeting one successful (but not household name) playwright told us a non-theatregoing friend from school had once tried to guess how much he earned per year. The friend's estimate was £100,000.

Someone once asked if I wore a cravat.

How many members of the public can tell you what the Equity weekly minimum is? Or the Writer's Guild minimum rate for a full-length play? (£420 per week and £8,100 since you ask). But these rates are guidelines only, and many companies pay less.

The fact is that hardly anyone makes a full-time living creating work for the theatre. The vast majority of us have other jobs, whether it be journalism, teaching, or admin. I've yet to meet an actor who hasn't at some point worked in a call centre.

We are ordinary workers, making ordinary wages.

I don't say all this to try and elicit any sympathy. We all chose this profession and went into it with our eyes open. I am saying this to highlight a problem, which I think is becoming increasingly serious for us as the recession bites and the debate about arts funding rumbles on.

The general public all think we're millionaires.

This isn't the public's fault. There's a very simple reason for it. Those theatre professionals who do enter the public consciousness do so because they have reached a stratospheric level of success - and have usually also crossed over into films and TV. That of course comes with large financial rewards. But those people are the tiny, tiny minority at the very pinnacle of our profession.

The rest of us are ordinary workers, making ordinary wages.

In theatre we seem to be uniquely vulnerable to this misunderstanding. You wouldn't assume the clerk behind the counter in your local branch of RBS is as rich as Fred Goodwin just because they both work in banks. Yet the fact is that in theatre, most of us are 'clerks' rather than CEOs - low-paid, hard-working creatives, making an average living, producing innovative, accessible and popular new work for the stage. Many of us also use our skills to inspire communities, young people and nurture the next generation of talent.

I'm thinking of people like playwright Ishy Din. Ishy had a hit last year with his tale of northern, working-class Muslim lads Snookered. But straight afterwards he went out of his way to raise his own funds for his second play Alchemy - which was written with, for and about local teenagers in Middlesbrough. (I've just finished mentoring him on it.) Ishy's a second generation British-Pakistani bloke in his forties. He's been a taxi driver most of his life. (He still is. He says it's where he gets all his ideas.) You'd be hard pressed to get any kind of score at all on Twat Bingo with him.

I could also tell you about Scott Young and Clara Shield, who spent months running workshops and co-directing Ishy's teenage play. Both are young, working-class parents who have founded their own theatre companies and are doing their best to make a living as freelance creatives in the north-east.

I could tell you about actress and workshop leader JuliaVoce who, when she isn't creating and touring work with her cult variety duo Underbling & Vow, spends her time running weekly, open access theatre-making groups for the residents of Southwark, for London Bubble theatre company.

I could tell you about playwright, performer and poet Joseph Coelho who, when he isn't writing plays for Soho Theatre and The Unicorn, runs regular classes in schools across the UK, with a particular specialism in raising literacy levels in primary schools.

... I could go on.

The point is, the low and middle-ranking theatre workers in this country are almost entirely invisible to the public. But the fact is that we are exactly like them.

Ordinary workers, making ordinary wages, bringing value to the communities in which we work.

This invisibility is becoming increasingly damaging for us and I don't think we can ignore it any longer. All the rumours I'm hearing are that on the arts funding front, the worst is almost certainly yet to come. According to Dan Jarvis MP, the entire DCMS might even be abolished.

Politicians know they can get away with it, because the public all think we're rich luvvies. If we're to stand any chance of maintaining public support for who we are and what we do, we urgently need to fix this image problem.

My idea is as follows.

There's a cheap version and there's an expensive version.

The cheap version is to start a weekly slot on this very blog, called I Am British Theatre. It would be a very simple Q and A format, with a different unsung hero of British theatre telling us a bit more about who they are and what they do, each and every Friday.

The problem with that is that I'm not sure how many of the general public really read this blog.

The expensive version is to make a series of short films about these same people. I recently came across this project in America, entitled I Am Theatre (whose title I've borrowed). The stated aim was to "capture pivotal moments in the lives of theatre-makers in an online video series ... raise awareness for the theatre field and champion the diverse group of people who are creating, supporting, and engaging with theatre."

The drawback is that this is expensive. Very expensive. My other half is a filmmaker, and the going rate for professional shooting and editing starts at £300 per day. (Tell me about it. We're all in the wrong industry.)

The rough rule of thumb for editing is one day's editing per minute of screen time. Even if we used the American model, stacked up ten people on one day in a studio in London, and shot the lot as a series of talking heads (visually, the most uninteresting way of doing it) then we're still looking at the best part of £10,000 once you've factored in two camera people, studio hire, equipment hire, and everyone's expenses. I'd also need to factor in a fee to produce something like that. In Battalions has been great, but I really am skint now. I can't do much more without bankrupting myself.

Ideally, I would want to go out on location, and meet our unsung heroes in their natural environment (Ishy in his taxi, Joe in his primary school). Doing it this way would have maximum impact, and if the films are professionally-made they could even be screened at film festivals, used as curtain raisers in theatres, and potentially picked up by broadcasters.

But you'd be looking at £20,000 or thereabouts for a series of ten 'three minute wonders'.

Then it occurred to me that we might be able to raise a figure like that through crowdfunding.

Given the widespread attention and ongoing support that In Battalions has so far received, it surely can't be beyond us. Like the Delphi study, it could be a good way for the campaign to have a lasting legacy. I would also hope that the initial ten short films might provide inspiration for others to start producing their own. We could buy www.iambritishtheatre.co.uk and mount them all together.

[The halfway-house version would be to ask young, student filmmakers to do this for the experience. But I'm reluctant to exploit young people in that way, and anyway I want production values to be high so that we present a professional image to the world, and stand the best chance of getting high circulation online.]

Anyway, I wanted to put the idea out there for discussion.

What do you think? Which option would you go for? Would you donate to something like that yourself, and if so, how much? Are the pricier options worth it? It is even possible to fundraise that much? Have you done anything like this before? What's your advice? Can you help pitch in somehow?

Should I shut up and stick to writing plays?

I would love to know what you think.


Phil Porter said...

Hello Fin,

The expensive version sounds like a great idea to me, and something I'd be happy to donate to. (I think the cheaper version might be worth doing, but, like you say, more limited in its reach.) I have no experience of raising money that way but obviously £20,000 is quite ambitious. Perhaps you could approach some private organisations, like the West End producers that have gone on record about the importance of arts funding, to attract some bigger chunks of money.

Andrew Haydon said...

You say: "The going rate for professional shooting and editing starts at £300 per day. (Tell me about it. We're all in the wrong industry.)"

Then: "The halfway-house version would be to ask young, student filmmakers to do this for the experience. But I'm reluctant to exploit young people in that way"

Might another halfway house be to ask film-makers (perhaps older, more comfortably-off film-makers) to work for "theatre wages"?

That's not "exploitation", per se. They'd be doing us a favour, and would be being paid the pittance that other professionals are expected to live on...

Anonymous said...

I don't think theatre types are unique in this regard. Try being a poet - you earn an occasional £50 for a high profile publication or reading, maybe one to two hundred for a full year of book sales. You rack your brains continually over the perceived problem of reader engagement, never taking for granted that what you do is good enough (although you're frequently told that so-and-so who doesn't normally like poetry likes your poetry). You devise and take part in live shows and projects designed to reach out to new audiences, stretching way out of your artistic comfort zone, trying to balance integrity with a recognition of the need to engage an apathetic public. And you do this while working your day job.

Yet the stereotype stubbornly remains: a cadre of deluded elitists lurking in universities, devising works with the sole purpose of belittling people with your big words and arcane references.

What's more, even other artistic and literary types - people who consider themselves refined - like to make generalisations about how poetry has gone down the pan, simply because, unlike theatre, poetry doesn't really produce any people who go on to be household names through television or cinema work. No stars = no culture, in many people's minds.

el dragón said...

I'll throw this out there... I don't live in the UK, so I may be culturally off the mark... but hey ho...

I agree you there does come a point when asking people to work for no money becomes exploitation. But I would say the concept of "young film maker" is perhaps not as cut and dried as you make out? As someone who (happily) did lots and lots of stuff for varying-degrees-of-free along the road of getting into film, I think it's a question of finding people at a certain point in their careers. People who would jump at the chance to be involved in a larger project, for the exposure it will lead to, or whatever... Perhaps not yet fullblown "young film makers"? Maybe students looking for an end-of-course project?

Also, I really do hope you've already bought that domain name! And if not, do it right now, credit card in hand! Don't google to see if it is free... just buy it! (<-- that is the voice of bitter experience talking!). Good luck with a great project!

The Larder said...

Hey Fin. I wanted to blog my response, so here's a link to it:


Harry Giles said...


Good to have someone initiating thinking about this. I guess a nicely-produced video series would be good to have, but what's the distribution method? Answering that question means asking another: who might we *want* to see it? There's no such thing as the general public, so which bits of the public can we target and how?

10 nicely-produced videos telling different stories would be good, but you're never going to be able to be fully representative, and you'll miss some good stories. It seems like it's pretty essential to open things out, as I Am Theatre did, to invite open contributions via Youtube (and other blogs?) or similar. That way you reach all of those folks's audiences.

Still, the I Am Theatre Youtube channel only caught 38 extra videos, and only got around 65k views -- not really enough to change mass public perception. Sorry to be a cynic -- I'm sure there is a way of making it work! -- but I think producing the videos, hard and expensive as that may be, might be the easy part: getting them out there is trickier still.

Lastly, I wrote this thing last year: http://harrygiles.org/2012/11/06/what-i-mean-when-i-say-i-am-working-as-an-artist/ It's a by-the-numbers account of how and where I work as an "emerging" artist, and also how the money works. It got a surprising amount of traffic at the time, particularly (heartbreakingly) from young performers and students glad of an insight into the early years of making it work. But what I found it did best was explain to my non-artistic friends and family what I did all day! I felt a newly strong understanding there that's lasted since. I think this reaching out to friends and family is quite a good way in to accessing a wider public, though they're an easier public to get, of course.

I'm also a big fan of open book accounting, both personally and organisationally. I think if more artists and arts organisations were actively transparent about where their money came from and where it went (scary, I know!) we might make a great deal of progress on this issue. So maybe a wee social campaign for artists to declare their actual income might be a good corollary to the videos or blogs.

Hope this helps!

Antony Pickthall said...

Hi Fin, it's a brillaint idea. Go for the expensive version and put an application into the WGGB Writers' Foundation, I reckon. Crowdfunding could work too mind! I think it is a really engaging idea to create short films. I wanted to have an annual playwrights day, to drive a focus on what playwrights do all over the UK and where - prisons, schools, hospitals etc. If I can be any help let me know.

Sylvan Baker said...

I think that you have identified a really hot issue but I fear that the point of departure is far deeper than the bingo game. It may be rooted in the colloquial understanding of the word artist and its relationship to the real theatre workers you listed. The image of us starving in garrets for 'our art' is still pervasive. Is there a way your thinking can reveal the implications of the work made by your cadre of workers and those like them, me included, without reducing us to justifications for that work. I think most people have a handle on what teachers do and lawyers do etc. Getting handle on the implications of the work we do might open the door to seeing why I am theatre.

I dont score that highly on your bingo either

Judith Johnson said...

Not entirely sure everyone does think of us as millionaire luvvies, it might be worth doing some real research into this before taking on all the work based on anecdotal assumptions. Also, the difficulty might come in distribution, where will you disseminate the films once you've put in all the hardwork fundraising and making them in order to get the message across? If on a website as you suggest how will you advertise to get ordinary members of the public to come to that website? This is worth thinking about and planning for before you reach that point.

Duncan Gates said...

Judith makes a very good point about assumptions about the general public - a friend of mine outside the industry read this and felt a bit offended at the generalisation.

Also, re. funding we don't want to come across like Amanda Palmer (http://www.newyorker.com/online/blogs/culture/2012/10/amanda-palmers-kickstarter-scandal.html) or Zach Braff. If we want to make a point about how we don't work for very much, it could be misconstrued if we ask for money with which to make that point. I for one know a number of filmmakers/post-prod people who could very probably help out with this - maybe that could be an additional factor, that actually the film industry and indeed many others are in the same position?

For me the two most important points are the arts' economic contribution and the fact that we're "normal" people, who might even be working in "everyday" jobs right now because unlike Ian McKellen we don't make an absolute mint. This needs to be defined against asking for more money for US.

We can't let this be turned into playwrights asking to be paid more. Obviously that would be great (as it would for nurses, police, firemen, or indeed MPs who until the Patrick Mercer situation were probably in line to get one), but we're not asking for US - we're asking for the whole industry to be funded, so that more theatre is created, more audience attend, the Treasury gets more money back and that money can help fund EVERYTHING. Because we're normal people who sometimes need the NHS, the benefits system, etc too.

Jonathan Petherbridge said...

Wouldn't it be lovely if it were Julia Voce not Juliet Stevenson who got some media attention ? And if it were Ishy Din not Alan Bennett who we associated with the word "playwright".

But I don't think the problem is that "the general public all think we're millionaires" - most of the general public really don't care or certainly don't think about it that much.

Our image problem is more to do with people's suspicion of motives, reinforced by gushing egos receiving too much facetime, leading to the assumption that theatre is about limelight.

I think this sometimes stops us less visible practitioners talking about how much we enjoy and are nurtured by what we do. Speaking honestly about the life affirming honesty and joy that we get from the process of making theatre. A recent example was listening to Jo Carter from Immediate Theatre talking about her enjoyment of working with "unsupported" young people. Not about what they get out of it but what she receives from the process.

Perhaps people would understand and show a greater interest in our motives if we told our stories using the "I" word.

And film might be one medium.


maddy costa said...

i really love this idea, and am very up for helping to celebrate the theatre-workers who get overlooked - this is very much part of the slowly growing project that is dialogue - but i also v deeply believe that we have to stop thinking of money as the answer to everything. there is surely a way of doing this modelled on the blogotheque (or at least, what i know of how the blogotheque started - for those who don't know, live music videos shot on the fly, with bands performing in taxis, on the streets, then uploaded - all super cheap, not necessarily perfect quality, but the imperfections being part of the aesthetic): so, short guerrilla films recorded on people's phones or digital cameras, whatever cheap equipment people have to hand. i don't think this is about being swish is it? it's about being human, making the best of what resources we have, showing theatre is part of every day life.

WilkieWoo said...

I commented on your FB post as my phone is dicky. Just wanted to add support for the view above that it needs more than anecdotal evidence of this being a big issue (certainly some people think theatre folk are toffs, and some theatre folk are toffs, but I'm not sure this is a big factor in the cuts - what the 'public' think doesn't seem to have much sway anyway). Also re distribution - showing the films at festivals/theatres isn't really reaching those whose views you wish to change, and if the idea has legs for a broadcaster then funding routes exist - pitch it to a production company. However it seems more of a campaigning tool than a format tailored for an audience, which will be the biggest hurdle in getting non-believers to care. I applaud the wider aim of getting people to engage with theatre but still think that community involvement in making plays is the way to impact on people's perceptions, whether its youth theatre, am dram or big projects like that Jesusy one in Wales or even, dare I say it, the Andrew Lloyd Webber type West End tv talent searches - v low twat bingo score for the contestants, whatever you think of the form/ALW.

This is from Joy W by the way, can't seem to log in properly. Apologies for long post.

Jayne Kirkham said...

Hi Fin,
Great idea. Might be worth talking to other unions about their members getting involved: we're all in the same foundering boat.

Fin Kennedy said...

Thanks everyone for these thoughtful responses. I've had a lot via email too, and really appreciate it.

I need a bit of time to collate everyone's thoughts and work out the next step. This will probably be another blog post with a revised version of the idea, incorporating various people's suggestions, followed by an exploratory meeting with a small steering group. Please could you email me privaetly if you'd be interested in taking part in this? (It wouldn't be for a few weeks though, as I have a big project coming up.)

Thanks so much for your support.