Sunday, December 07, 2014

In Battalions: an update

Last week I held an open meeting in the Perseverance pub in London. The purpose was to ask if my In Battalions movement, which charted the effects of government cuts to the Arts Council on the development of new plays and playwrights, had run its course - or if it might have a role to play in the run-up to the General Election next May.

It was a really useful meeting and I'm grateful to everyone who showed up to help me think this through. These are a few notes about what we discussed - with more to come on the three ideas we settled on.

I started by outlining the history of In Battalions for those who were coming to it new, or had only sporadically engaged with it over the two years it has been running. The campaign has had some successes, and enjoyed considerable profile within the theatre industry. But in the meantime my circumstances have completely changed; I am no longer a freelance playwright with time to lobby, but a full-time Artistic Director of a theatre company, and therefore unable to dedicate the time to In Battalions which I once did. As a result, I was looking for either a small group of freelance theatre professionals to take over from me, or for some very 'light touch' low-workload campaign ideas - or indeed some combination of the two.

We had a long discussion about different examples of both. I won't list the ideas we discussed and then rejected, but suffice to say that what was most useful for me was to hear from culture professionals who had observed In Battalions from afar during 2013-14 without being directly involved, and their observations on what was unique about it compared to other lobbying efforts like What Next? or My Theatre Matters, which were taking place around the same time.

Put simply, the USP of In Battalions was my partnership with a professional researcher, Helen Campbell Pickford. 

Helen has been hugely generous with her time and expertise over the past two years. What she has brought to the whole thing has been an intellectual rigour, and an adherence to professional research methodologies which are recognised by the civil service. While I may have been the public face of the campaign, it was Helen who, quietly and behind the scenes, helped me structure a questionnaire to send out to theatres about the effects of the cuts they were experiencing. She then helped me interpret the results; it was because of her we were confidently able to generate statistical statements such as 'Two-thirds of theatres surveyed said they had had to cancel or postpone one or more production since April 2012 for funding reasons'. It was this rigorous and impartial research process which made the 2013 report so powerful - and therefore useful to the rest of the sector. It wasn't just an exercise in special pleading. It uncovered indisputable facts, which could be used in any number of other campaigns. Put simply, In Battalions loaded everyone else's guns.

Three ideas came out of this, which we agreed to carry forward into 2015.

The first was to continue to make use of that comprehensive (and still relevant) 2013 In Battalions report as a lobbying tool. One easy way to do this in the run-up to 2015 is to start a social media meme in which theatre professionals up and down the country make a pledge to print off the report in full and post it to their local MP, with a cover letter setting out that these issues are still very much alive, and indeed worsening, and asking the candidate what steps they would be taking to address the cuts in arts funding, if re-elected. 

I felt it was important to print out a paper copy of the report rather than just email it as a link or a pdf - which is easy to ignore or delete. A 50-page report has gravitas, and a physical presence in someone's office. It cannot be so easily ignored. If we can put in place an RSVP system for who has sent the report to which MPs, then we can map this visually via Crowdmap. Who knows - perhaps we might even reach all 533 English MPs? (Scots, Welsh and Northern Irish colleagues are of course welcome to join in, but the focus of the report is necessarily on Arts Council England, due to the funding system). 

I will publish more information on this blog in the New Year about how we will run this campaign, with a fuller set of instructions for those wishing to take part. Hold off acting on it for now - it will have most impact if we all do it at the same time. In the meantime, we could do with a snappy hashtag for the idea... If you can think of a good one, let me know.

The second idea was a generous offer from the MA Dramatic Writing course at Central Saint Martins College (CSM), to continue to host an annual In Battalions Festival. CSM hosted an inaugural In Battalions Festival in July this year, which was well-attended and received coverage in the Guardian and The Stage. It was useful to have a physical space in which what was, up until that point, pretty much an online campaign, for the 'battalion' to come together to meet and debate. Course leader Jennifer Tuckett (herself also a playwright) offered to dedicate another MA module to hosting the Festival again at around the same time next year. This means a team of postgraduate students to lead on organising and running it, with light tough input from me. Also, if we hold it in July again, then it will be at a time of year when we will have a new Government.  It would timely for the movement to reconvene to consider our position, and how to go about engaging with the new administration.

The third and final idea was more labour intensive, but built on the useful steer that In Battalions' power is as a 'factory' generating hardcore statistics on the effects of very recent cuts, which we are all arguing about but which no-one is actually studying. Why not try to raise some money for another report? This would mostly be to pay Helen (and perhaps a small team of assistants) a decent fee to continue the research. Helen has been hugely generous in working pro bono up to now, but she is finishing her PhD soon and will be in need of an income. Moreover, these issues are not going away. More cuts are undoubtedly coming. Other, bigger campaigns such as What Next? are better placed to lobby ideologically to try to prevent or mitigate those cuts. But In Battalions' most useful role is to chart their effects, impartially, dispassionately and using standardised research methods which it is difficult to dismiss. We can continue to be the ammunition factory of the British theatre industry.

We spent a while debating how best to go about raising the money for this. Between us, the people in the room had links to Equity, the Writers' Guild and the Arts and Humanities Research Council. We also discussed crowdfunding, which we may yet do. However, Helen made the important point that for further research to be taken seriously, the funding needs to also be seen as impartial (which may rule out Equity and the Guild). Discussions continue around this and I'll post an update as and when - and if anyone has a brainwave about appropriate funding sources, do get in touch. Helen is in the process of costing up what would be a realistic figure, but as a rough guide we all felt in the region of £20,000 was what we were aiming for. Ambitious but by no means impossible.

Finally we spent a while discussing what the focus of a new tranche of research ought to be. Several felt that a simple re-run of the original research would suffice - charting the latest effects of the cuts two years on, though probably taking in a larger number of theatre companies, who would probably take part given the increased profile we now enjoy since undertaking the first report.

However, others felt that a new angle to the research might be more beneficial, partly for publicity purposes (journalists would be most interested in a new research question) and partly to deepen and complement the previous research. We may undertake a brief consultation with the sector on this, to see if there is an angle which would be most useful (if you have a suggestion, let us know) but one question which seemed to interest all of us was around the effects of the cuts on access and diversity: 'Whose voices are being heard - whose stories are being told?' While new plays and playwrights are undoubtedly endangered, they probably aren't about to disappear altogether just yet. However what will happen long before then is that those plays and playwrights become drawn from a narrower and narrower pool of people - those who can afford to take part in an art form which is increasingly becoming economically unviable. This has huge implications for the worlds which appear on our stages.

So it looks like we might settle on something along these lines. Depending on how long it takes to raise the cash, the new report could be ready towards the middle of next year - meaning a second In Battalions Festival at Central Saint Martins could usefully double up as a launch event.

We finished the meeting on a real high.
We all swapped emails and those present agreed to act as an interim steering group as these ideas took shape over the next few months, and to volunteer a bit of time to do the odd bit of legwork to get some of them off the ground. If you weren't able to be at the meeting, but would like to join this list and would be prepared to volunteer a bit of your time if it needed, please get in touch.

Glasses were raised before we all went our separate ways, back out into the drizzly November night.

It looks like the battalion will rumble on for a little while longer yet.

Tuesday, December 02, 2014

Arcade writers' scheme crowdfunding

So I'm involved in an emerging playwrights' mentoring scheme up north, based at ARC Theatre Stockton, where some inspiring people (namely Exec Director Annabel Turpin and Programme Manager Becci Sharrock) are pioneering opportunities for new playwrights in a region where there are next to none. 

The Arcade writers' group was successful in a bid to ACE earlier this year, for funds to pay for a programme of mentoring and workshops, and I was approached to help match each writer to an industry mentor. I'm proud to say that we have got some great people on board, among them Viv Franzmann, Roy Williams, Alexandra Wood, Anders Lustgarten, Stella Feehily, Ali Taylor and Kenny Emson.  

There's just one problem.

It turns out the Arcade scheme ACE budget pays for us, and for the writers’ expenses to travel and stay in London, but it does not include a fee for the writers to write their actual plays. All of the writers are at the stage of having day jobs and writing in the evenings and weekends, so they are trying to raise a shared pot to buy them all a bit of time to properly dedicate to the task in hand, to allow them to make the most of this opportunity. They have very proactively started a crowdfunding campaign and I have said I would try to help promote it for them.

The link to the campaign donation page is here. A few of the writers have also written heartfelt blog posts about what being part of this scheme means to them (which also serve as compelling reasons to donate). You can read those here, here and here.

There’s just one catch – the campaign has been running for a while but they have only just told me about it. So there are only 6 days to go before the funding deadline closes!

If you can pitch in, even a little bit, it would be hugely appreciated. I'm optimistic that in time, what Annabel and Becci have started up in Stockton could be the beginning of a movement of new writing from a seriously under-represented region on the nation's stages.

This is your chance to help make that happen.


Saturday, October 18, 2014

In Battalions open meeting, 7.30pm on Weds 26 Nov 2014

The Perseverance Pub, 63 Lamb's Conduit St, London WC1N 3NB (tube: Russell Square)

In December 2012 I met Culture Minister Ed Vaizey at a Writers' Guild event in Parliament, where he said to me that his government's cuts to the Arts Council were having "no effect" on the development of new plays and playwrights in England. I resolved to gather some evidence about the damage being done. The resulting report, In Battalions, showed theatres across the country curtailing a whole host of new play development in response to the cuts or fear of cuts. The report has been downloaded over 15,000 times (get your copy here), received broadsheet coverage and had questions tabled in Parliament.

2013 saw a follow-up report, by me and my researcher Helen Campbell Pickford, the In Battalions Delphi study, an industry consultation to find innovative ways to protect risk-taking on new work for the stage, despite austerity. (Also available free online here). There have also been several pub meetings, an open letter to Ed Vaizey signed by Helen Mirren and Tom Stoppard (among 70 others), and the In Battalions Festival at Central Saint Martins College.

One year on from our first meeting, Ed Vaizey stood up at the same Writers' Guild event in Parliament and credited the In Battalions campaign as having been an influence on the Chancellor George Osborne's decision to announce a tax break for new plays and regional touring, a move which is poised to inject a much-needed cash boost to the industry when it takes effect next year.

In Battalions proved that one artist (and a researcher) could channel the British theatre industry to speak to government with one voice, and effect a small but significant shift in government thinking.

There is a general election coming up. What's more, I have a new full-time job, as Co-Artistic Director of Tamasha Theatre Company. I am keen not to lose the momentum and profile which In Battalions has built up; it could help keep these issues on the agenda in the run-up to May 2015, and beyond. But I no longer have the time to spend keeping the movement alive on my own.

I am calling this meeting to discuss this, and to see if together we can find ways to make In Battalions a more shared movement, led by and contributed to by other theatre professionals. Are there ways in which, together, we can continue to make the case for subsidised theatre's social and cultural value, and to make our case heard by politicians?

I am also open to the possibility that In Battalions may have run its course. Other movements such as What Next? are campaigning on similar issues, with more resources, a higher profile and more regular industry and political engagement.

But rather than make this decision on my own I wanted to talk it through with the friends and colleagues who made In Battalions what it was.

Please come along if you can on Weds 26 Nov 2014 and be part of the conversation. It will be very informal, free to attend, and above a pub in central London, so there will drinks. Even if this is the end of the road for In Battalions, it would be nice to come together one last time to celebrate what we have achieved.

Fin Kennedy

Monday, July 28, 2014

The Domino Effect and other shows at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe

For the first time in 5 years, I've got a new show on at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. 

The Domino Effect is a new play for Mulberry Theatre Company, the production wing of Mulberry School in East London, with whom I have a creative partnership stretching back ten years. From 2007-2009 we took a new play to Edinburgh every year, and in 2009 we became the first British state school ever to be awarded a Scotsman fringe First, for our show The Unravelling. In 2010, four of our plays were published in a volume by Nick Hern Books. Mulberry has since had their own theatre built on site, and been the hosts of Schoolwrights, the UK's first playwrights-in-schools training scheme. You can read more about my work with Mulberry here, and more about The Domino Effect specifically (and how to book tickets) here.

But that's enough about that. Those of you who have been tempted here via social media may well have clicked through on the promise of getting my personal list of recommendations for the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe. So here they are.

The usual caveats apply - I know next to nothing about most of these; they tend to be ones on when I am there at the start and great shows on later in the month may well not be listed; last time I walked out of 50% of what I saw... etc, etc. (It's also not all theatre - there's some comedy and other stuff like magic in there. We all need some time off.) The Fringe is nothing if not a great leveller. It's also no secret that there is no quality control - most shows are dreadful. I see it as like being a gambler. You will lose a lot - time, money, the will to live - before a big win comes along which (hopefully) makes it all worthwhile.

I've categorised my choices into Top Picks, Worth a Punt and Total Risks. There is also a separate list of shows which might suit teenagers, seeing as I will be there with some and looking for stuff to take them to.

Anyway, enjoy. And don't blame me if they're all rubbish. Apart from The Domino Effect obviously, which is the only one which has my personal guarantee. But then all the other shows will have their makers' guarantees too. 

That's Edinburgh for you.

Top Picks

At The Illusionist's Table
The Domino Effect
Ian D Montfort
Robert Newman's New Theory of Evolution
Stewart Lee
The Post Show
Tom Binns

Worth A Punt

A Play, A Pie and a Pint
Americana Road Trip

Baba Brinkman: A Rap Guide to Religion
Beats North
Blind Hamlet
The Devil Without
Early Doors
The Eradication of Schizophrenia in the Western World
The Initiate
Little On The Inside
The Lu-Tings
The Man Who Almost Killed Himself
Now's The Hour
Peter Antoniou: Happy Medium
Philosorap Cabaret
Standby for Tape Backup
Strange Resting Places
Thinking Drinkers
The Trip
Theatre On A Long Thin Wire

Total Risks

Bad Boys: Whisky Theatre
Baron Conspiracy
Burger Van
Burning Books
Circumcise Me
How To Disappear Completely And Never Be Found
I Am Not Malala
Men In The Cities
Notoriously Yours
Object Lesson
Phone Whore
Pint Size
Race by David Mamet
The Secret Collector
Tea Time Story
This Is Where I Live

Stuff for Teens

Chasing Zeds
El Britanico (Wrestling Reality)
Error 404
Harriet - Teen detective
Now's The Hour
1 Green Bottle
Paper Play
Please Don't Cry (At My Funeral)
Pomegranate Jam
Private View
The Secret Collector
Tales From the MP3
Tea Time Story

Ps. You can thank me by booking a ticket The Domino Effect. You're welcome.

Monday, July 07, 2014

In Battalions Festival 2014 - opening speech

Welcome. It's great to see so many of you.

I'm Fin Kennedy, playwright, co-Artistic Director of Tamasha theatre company and co-author of 2013's InBattalions report and 2014's follow-up, the In Battalions Delphi study. And now curator of this - thing - the In Battalions festival.

I should start with a confession. We called it a festival to get you all here. It isn't really. It's more of a conference. But we didn't think you'd come if we called it that. But where the festival model does apply is in the way we've curated the rooms. I've been ably assisted by an excellent student team, all budding writers, enrolled on the new MA Dramatic Writing course here at Central Saint Martins. They've each had responsibility for managing one of three rooms, or 'stages' as we prefer to think of them - these are the ones listed in your timetables. We have some excellent acts (speakers) lined up.

Room 1: NPO Analysis is a space to debate this week's recent Arts Council funding decisions. I'm delighted that we'll have the Arts Council's very own Neil Darlison performing live - thrashing his axe - or perhaps more likely listening to the sound of axes being ground. I'll be personally chairing that one and I've promised to take very good care of him. I actually think it's terrific that he's here, as is his colleague Mags Patten who'll be taking questions in the afternoon - a sign of the quiet but ongoing support the Arts Council have consistently extended to the In Battalions campaign. Also in Room 1 will be speakers from cut NPOs, new NPOs, and panels on how arts cuts are affecting diversity and theatre for young people.

Room 2: Building the Battalion focuses on using a new resource, Crowdmap, to try to build a permanent, online In Battalions community at 'Delphi Champions' in that room will be making the case for others to join them in using the In Battalions Crowdmap to take forward their top ideas from the In Battalions Delphi study. We'll also have some inspiring examples of culture professionals doing it for themselves, including Stella Duffy telling us more about FunPalaces and how she got that off the ground. One of our students, Liberty Martin, will be telling us more about how Crowdmap works, and how we intend to use it today, in just a moment.

Room 3: Money and Politics does what it says on the tin, examining funding models in the morning and political lobbying in the afternoon, in particular how UK arts and culture can best make their case to politicians in the run-up to the 2015 general election. If you look closely at your timetables you'll notice one panel in particular at the end of the day in that room, with no speakers at all. That was originally going to be a line-up of politicians from each of the main parties. I didn't have much luck. Those who turned us down include Sajid Javid, Ed Miliband, Ed Vaizey, Harriet Harman, Boris Johnson, Baroness Bonham Carter and pretty much everyone in between. Even UKIP and the Greens, who originally said yes, ducked out at the last minute. I'm told this has a lot to do with elected MPs being in their constituencies on a Friday, holding surgeries, but whatever the reason it shows we still have some work to do.

But in the spirit of In Battalions: fuck them. We don't need them - well we do, but we don't need them today. Today is about culture professionals doing it for themselves. That panel is now The People's Panel: Ideas for Action, in which anyone present can register to speak throughout the day by tweeting me @finkennedy by 2.30pm, including, please, your idea for action to make ourselves heard in the run-up to 2015.

There's also an open mic slot in Room 2 at 3.30pm, in which those of you seeking partners or advice for new projects and initiatives can book 5 minute spots to make your pitch to the room. Tweet your Room Chair Ben Musgrave for that - details in your timetables.

So that's the festival format. One of the students pointed out that that makes me Michael Eavis, which is fine by me. Feel free to wander between rooms, to drop in and out and curate your own festival experience. Though we would be grateful if you drew the line at singing along and throwing pints of your own piss.

The findings of the original In Battalions report are well known, or certainly should be to the people in this room.
  • Two-thirds of respondents saying they had cancelled one or more production since April 2012 for funding reasons.
  • Half saying they are programming fewer new plays overall 
  • Half experiencing multiple funding cuts from the Arts Council, local councils, dwindling philanthropy and audiences with less to spend. 
  • Similar amounts admitting to curtailing workshops, residencies, play readings, schools and community work as they contract around their main stages.
In Battalions took on a life of its own in a way my co-author Helen Campbell Pickford and I never expected. It's been downloaded over 25,000 times, had broadsheet coverage and even had questions tabled in Parliament.

But we are not here today to merely describe again the problems unearthed by the original study - though they will of course come up. Because what came next was another report, the In Battalions Delphi study - Helen's suggestion - a consultation exercise about ways in which we as a sector can generate solutions for ourselves, and come up with innovative ways to continue to protect risk-taking on new work and new talent, despite austerity.

Today is an extension of that. The Delphi study has been downloaded 6,000 times, not bad but far below its predecessor. Granted, it is more nuts and bolts, and not as newsworthy, but it contains 36 innovative ideas all sourced from and voted on by you, the British theatre industry. It has been a privilege to carve out that 'blue skies' time for our sector. But unless the sector - us, you - also come together to actually make those ideas (or versions of them) a reality then they remain just so much hot air. I hope that today will kick start that process.

So I would encourage you whenever you hear a problem described today, to also ask: what might be the solution, that we, here, in this room, right now, might be able to dream up. We're creative people. Let's use it.

I know how hard it is to keep up the momentum of something like this. I worked out the other day that In Battalions was a two day a week job for large chunks of the past two years. We've had some successes, notably Ed Vaizey crediting the movement with having been an influence on the Chancellor's decision to offer a tax break to new plays and regional touring. But today is about what we do next.

A battalion contains up to 1,200 soldiers. There's about a hundred of us here today. Not quite a battalion but not a bad start. I'd suggest we divide the workload - each of us taking up a small part of it by championing an innovative idea which you're passionate about. That way it feels less like work and more like an opportunity to work with others on something you've always wanted to do.

Lots of people have asked me over the years how they can help with In Battalions. Well the answer is: you can take over. The time has come to multiply this. I need to step away. Apart from anything else, I have a theatre company of my own to run now. I need the innovative solution-focused spirit of the Delphi study to take on a life of its own in the same way the bad news did.

We might not be able to change the funding situation, but we can take advantage of the silver lining - that we are all going to have to work together to get through this. Maybe on the other side we'll find we have built a future in which British theatre's true value is obvious to all, and maybe put in place a few bright ideas which will sustain it, whatever the Government decides to do.

Take up the baton. Be the battalion.

Go forth - and fight.