Wednesday, February 19, 2014

In Battalions Delphi study - Parliamentary launch (4)

Three weeks ago, on 29 January 2014, Helen Campbell Pickford and I launched our In Battalions Delphi study in the House of Commons, at the invitation of Kerry McCarthy MP, chair of the Performers' Alliance All-Party Parliamentary Group. It was a well-attended event with MPs, peers and representatives from across the British theatre industry.

There were several speakers on the day and, in a series of blog posts since, I have been capturing and publishing the text of their speeches here. Today is the turn of Elizabeth Newman, Associate Director of Bolton Octagon.

Previous speakers include me, playwright Dennis Kelly, director of Theatre at Arts Council England
Neil Darlison and Giles Croft of Nottingham Playhouse.

Elizabeth Newman:

I set up Bolton Octagon’s new writing department nearly 5 years ago. In our first year we supported just over 100 playwrights. Last year - our fourth year - we supported 643 playwrights through various programmes, schemes, workshops and commissions.

My mission in 2009: to create a home for writers. At the Octagon we now describe ourselves as a ‘writers’ theatre’. David Thacker and I direct the majority of the plays you will see on the Octagon stage. We see ourselves as midwives when making theatre. We see our role as delivering the writer’s baby. It doesn’t belong to us, we’re the guardian trying to ensure the writer’s child takes its first breath (or second!) and continues to thrive - making an impact on the world.

However, our work developing writers will shortly become less and less noticeable to our audience in the work we share with them in our main auditorium. Let me explain why.

In our main auditorium 2012/13 financial year the Octagon produced four new works: three new plays, one adaptation. Supporting writers at varying stages of their career. All four productions were home grown. From experience we have seen our home grown new plays do substantially better financially than co-productions or incoming work.

In our main auditorium, this financial year 2013/14, the Octagon produced or will produce two new works: one new play, one adaptation. One was home grown, the other a co-production.

We are currently developing next season. In 2014/15 it looks like - at the moment - there will be no new play. And only one adaptation.

As you can see the fall is quick and great. And bizarrely it’s a false economy in the long term. Let me explain.

I’d like to use a case study, And Did Those Feet by Les Smith and Martin Thomasson. A new play that first appeared at the Octagon in 2007. It played to 6,010 people - in monetary terms £69,710. The pre-sales weren’t great. But it opened, word of mouth spread and reviews proclaimed that it was a great new play about Bolton and our important northern town’s culture. We revived it again in 2010 - a mere three years later - 8,188 attenders, monetary terms £94,632. Case in point that the Octagon needs to be developing its home grown cannon of new plays by our local writers. A further £25,000 earned and over a third more attenders.

As we stand this year, as David the Theatre’s artistic director and I sit in front of a white board with Roddy Gauld, our Chief Executive, looking at ideas, I can only imagine the conversations we’d be having if And Did Those Feet was on the white board to premiere this year. Would we be too worried to programme it? Would we be too scared to take a punt? Maybe. And we would have been wrong - paralyzed by fear and the responsibility of being asked to make even more revenue through productions due to slight decreases in funding across the board. Please don’t get me wrong the Octagon is luckier than a lot of theatres, like Giles [Croft] at Nottingham, as we have such a supportive council. But that doesn’t stop the pressure or the fear of taking a risk. David and I are being asked to make a surplus of over £200,000 on productions alone.  And for the Octagon - our size - it’s a lot of money to make when you look at our annual accounts. Over the last three years or so we’ve managed to make surpluses near that on productions but now we’re being asked to make even more.

And Did Those Feet
will continue to make the Octagon Theatre Bolton revenue for many years to come and more than that, which brings me to my main point: it is a play that validates the lives and culture of our audience. It is a play that makes the people of Bolton and its surrounding northern communities proud to be where they are from or where they call home. It also acknowledges their struggle and their fight to strive to live healthier and better lives. Isn’t that our job? To always remember Hamlet’s advice to the players? 'Both at first and now, was and is, to hold, as ‘twere a mirror up to nature...' And this must involve our reality now or the recent past for our communities, surely? And it’s not one size fits all. The ‘nature’ - to continue with Hamlet’s advice - in London is not the same as in the provinces, which is why commissions must happen outside of London.

There is no way theatres outside of London can make the same kind of money from philanthropy to support the art. And I am not including community or participation work in this, I’m only talking about philanthropy supporting the art being made in our auditoriums. And their choice is not because the quality is less. Or because we try less hard. I’d be willing to ask anyone for money and prove to them in any way they’d like me to that their donation or sponsorship is being spent wisely, well and having a great effect. But please ask yourself: how many business people want to bring their clients to Bolton to see the ‘great art’ they are sponsoring when they live in London or another city? I can honestly say not many. So please, introduce me if you know any.

Plays cost money. New plays cost more. Why? They are unknowns. We can’t work out what we can scrimp on, as there is no previous ‘form’. And often when a new play goes into rehearsals it evolves and changes and this ‘unexpected cost’ has to be budgeted for too. This, combined with things costing more and our budgets not reflecting inflation, and David and I are on a losing streak when it comes to programming a new play.

An example. A material we made a production floor out of in 2009 (which we used for 2 productions) cost £5,000. We wanted to buy another to use this year again for two productions: £6,500. A rise in 30% - fair enough. However, the production budget is nowhere near the same. I have to produce two plays on £12,500. How can I justify spending £6,500 on a floor? Impossible. The actors wouldn’t be able to wear clothes! What does this mean - no nice floor? Yes, OK. No nice floor.

Another example. We produced a new adaptation of David Copperfield in 2010. Production budget: £22,000. Some two years later for our new adaptation of Peter Pan – budget was £19,000. We’re allowed one less actor but we have more children to clothe. No flying on this budget. We couldn’t even really afford to make stairs, we had to reuse them from another show. What does that mean – no magic at Christmas?

What both of these examples demonstrate is the potential for artistic stagnation. Lowering of quality. And it’s a slippery slope. Lower the investment and eventually the audience figures will drop. And this will mean quashing of local creativity and nourishment. And also not serving the writer with an adequate expression for their wonderful play. And of course the writers themselves cost money - commissioning fees, visits, development. Far less expensive when they are no longer with us... dead. How is this being a good midwife?

Our development provision has also changed, though not all for the bad. These times of austerity have kept me up at night concocting hare-brained schemes that aren’t all foolish. The latest involves working closely with Bolton Council who are incredibly supportive of the Octagon. We’re seen as a positive evening offer - one of the few things open other than Walkabout . So I’ve just signed a contract to take over our old TK Maxx. It’s massive. They can’t get anyone to rent it for love nor money. No cost to the theatre. Tax relief for the owner. Win, win.  Over the next couple of months, this space will house companies producing new plays to tour across the north.

However, downsides - cancelling planned new writing project studio season. Stopping our script reading service. Reduction in our playwright schemes including our young playwrights scheme - supporting young people who wouldn’t usually access arts provision, especially writing. The sponsorship for this ends this year and we just don’t have the resources. Again, narrowing the new voices we’ll hear and experience on the British stage. And yes, over the last few years we have done more group writing to try and help more writers. But this can’t go on forever, and shouldn’t be the only offer. David Edgar made a very valid point in his foreword in the Delphi Study that we have to support the ‘individual voice’.

We have found innovative ways to undertake more work through our collaboration with Higher and Further Education facilities, especially the very supportive Bolton University. We have even supplemented our commissions through launching a Playwriting MA, which we run with Liverpool Everyman, the Royal Exchange and Salford University. And of course being part of schemes like the Bruntwood Hub, with many other northern theatres, which looks set to reinvigorate joint northern commissions.

BUT I keep returning to my concern about how we assess value? Our work with writers benefits our mental health programme, all our work in learning and participation and our extensive community initiatives.

With all the attacks on drama and literature in schools are we honestly saying that we don’t learn through stories? We don’t learn through sharing narrative experiences designed to stimulate our intellectual development and massage our emotions? Are we going to discard our unquestioning understanding that we learn and develop through looking at those paintings on a cave wall, which evolved into storytelling through spoken and written word as we evolved? I fear we could end up fighting to stay alive in this time of austerity and lose sight of what we’re actually fighting for.

I agree with David that the theatre community would benefit from the Arts Council making new writing a national development priority, but they have to understand this will mean a financial risk. But as I hope I have demonstrated one that will undoubtedly pay off.

The In Battalions Delphi study contains 36 innovative proposals on ways to protect risk-taking on new work for the stage, despite austerity.

Photo: Christopher Thomond

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