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.

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