Saturday, 27 April 2013

Fading away.

This morning, the news that the Bank of England is issuing a new five pound note reduced me to despair. Unreasonable, I know. But when Churchill replaces Elizabeth Fry, we will be left with no woman currently honoured on a British bank note – apart from the Queen. Who is of course a woman, not a very well-disguised twelve foot lizard. But she's only there through a freak accident of hormones and history: not on merit.

Over Easter, me and my husband were in the North East, doing initial research for a new show, Story Hunt. It's a walking tour of invisible things: buildings that are no longer there, people dead and gone, events and stories that in some cases changed the fabric of the nation's history – but left no visible trace. We spent several days in each of three towns, talking to local historians, reading books in libraries, walking the streets, and asking for memories in marketplaces. And in each place, we would put together our initial findings, look at them, and say, 'we need to find more women'.  The stories we found first were always about men.  The women we had to dig for.

I'm studying part-time for a Masters in Early Modern History. I sat in a seminar the other day where my fellow students bemoaned the Henry VIII phenomenon: the fact that public knowledge of the period 1500-1800 basically boils down to that bloke and his six wives. Personally, I don't see why historians mind so much. Whether you think Anne Boleyn was a husband-stealing witch or an intelligent woman working to Protestantise the nation, at least you can name her.

Name me a non-royal woman from that period.

I always wanted to have kids. I haven't, yet. And I'm starting to realise something that disturbs me. Sorry if you find this distasteful, but to have kids feels like giving in. Like failing.

I mean, there are loads of reasons not to have kids: finance and time and climate change and my pathetically low pain threshold and how boring small babies are and the startling rage induced in me by lack of sleep and the fact that my selfish genes are doing rather well via eight nephews and nieces, thanks very much. But those are the logical reasons. The illogical one, the feeling that actually stops me, is that then I'll disappear.

Because you're not strictly a woman until you've had kids. I mean, you're a sexual object and you probably shouldn't have any authority over men and you're obviously incapable of reading maps – but you've not undertaken the most important job a woman will ever do, so clearly you're not quite a woman yet.

And so, in some dark corner of my subconscious, I'm avoiding it. Because who the fuck would want to be a woman? What have they ever done?

There are one hundred and seventy-one names on the Bank of England's list of people who have been suggested to go on our bank notes. Twenty-four of them are women: for every one woman on the list, there are about six men. Sixteen of the people on the list have been used on a bank note: two were women. Statistically, it's quite possible the Bank of England just stick a pin in this list to choose who's next. Sadly, I don't think that's what happens. But please, could we add some more to the list, and increase the statistical likelihood of the next tenner featuring Claudia Jones or Elizabeth Garrett Anderson or Anna Atkins or Edith Cavell or Marian Evans or Ada Lovelace? Because I don't want my nieces to grow up scared of fading away.  

The email address is  Thanks.

(Update: the hashtag #WomenOnBankNotes has more great suggestions)

Wednesday, 5 September 2012

On failing

I'm fascinated by failure.  It terrifies me, and yet I can't stop thinking about it.

According to therapist Rick Carson, we all have a personal gremlin, whispering dark thoughts in our ears.  Mine sticks an electric cattle-prod on my spine and fires me with tension every time I make - or fear I'm about to make - any kind of error.  "You are a failure", she tells me.  "You don't know how to do this.  They're going to FIND YOU OUT".  She makes my shoulders tense, my face go slightly blank and my voice contract.  I can become quite angry, and blame other people for this potential disaster (in an outwardly terribly nice, slightly passive-aggressive way).  I have nightmares, stress dreams where other people discover my total lack of ability.  I lie in bed knowing they're dreams but unable to wake up.  I bore my husband with worries and problems blown out of all proportion.

And yet I don't let my gremlin go.  I hold on to her, her warm furry body next to mine, and deny her her freedom.  You see, I need her.  She's got me where I am today.

It's quite a motivating force, an absolute terror of failure.  It makes you work damn hard, for a start.  And perhaps in an effort to convince myself, I have become extremely good at convincing others that I'm confident and capable.

I read a brilliant book last year, called Being Wrong.  Its author, Kathryn Schulz, carefully details all the ways in which being wrong is a fundamental part of the human condition - and yet in some ways a logical impossibility.  We don't often say, "I am wrong".  Far more usual to say, "I was wrong".  (Of course, we're very happy with "you are wrong".  It's a Yes, Minister irregular verb: I am right, you are mistaken, he is a total lunatic.)

Schulz's book - and her TED talk - argue that the healthy thing to do is to embrace our mistakes.  They're how we learn, after all, change and develop and become better at stuff.  So accept that we will be wrong - in fact, be glad and celebrate.  Embrace error, fawn on failure, and delight in disaster.

But as Schulz herself says, easy to say, hard to do in reality.  Because in the present tense, I don't think I am wrong.  If I thought I was, I'd do something about it, right?

Except, of course, I do often think I'm wrong.  But it doesn't make me a healthy, happy person.  It makes me feel tense and awful and terrified.  And that's because someone else might find out.

So I've been thinking that I need to find ways to let my failure out.  Slip the veil and reveal some wrongness to people.  In small ways, if possible, in order to not terrify anyone - including myself.

So I'm doing this crazy job at the Natural History Museum, which clearly I don't know how to do, because I've made it up and it's not been done before, certainly not by me.  And I've called it an experiment: which is genius, because it means that failure is OK.  As Ben Goldacre says, there's a moral duty to publish negative results as well as positive when running experiments.  Especially when funded by public money.

So yesterday I stood up in front of 30 people, including the Director of the whole museum, and told them that we'd run our first event and we'd failed to hit one of our targets.  Of course, I emphasised that we'd succeeded on two of the three, and I told them why it's bloody hard to hit the first.  But still.  Feels like a minor triumph.

I'm going to try and be publicly wrong about something else this week, too.  How about you?

(I think George Osborne is perhaps on a similar personal journey.)

Saturday, 7 July 2012

Giving Them What They Want

Last year I did the Clore Fellowship (, and as part of that had to write a "provocation paper" on a subject of my choosing.  So I went off and interviewed 8 artistic directors and a Chair of the Board about audiences, programming and quality.  These incredibly generous people gave me about an hour of their time each (there's a list of their names at the bottom).

Then I tried to fit everything those interviews had got me thinking and talking about into a few thousand words.  I mostly failed, and I certainly (in desperation) went for far too pat an ending.  But here's the result, anyway.

(please note: the brief was to provoke thought and conversation: be very interested in hearing others' thoughts...)

Giving Them What They Want”: Theatre Audiences and Artistic Leadership

There is an artform – or possibly a craft – which is practised by a small number of people across Britain. It is not something one can obtain formal qualifications in; it is surprisingly little studied academically; there are very few books or articles written on the subject. And yet the people who do it, and the people they work with and for, have very clear ideas on how it is, and should be, done. It is the programming of a producing theatre: what is produced, when, and how.

This job is done by the artistic director, who is often also the lone or joint chief executive of the organisation. She will take advice from a variety of sources: she may work with a creative producer, associates, an advisory panel, a senior management team. And her decisions must be approved by the Board of the theatre. But in the end, the programming of the theatre is the artistic director's task: success or failure will be laid at her door.1

Over the last year, I've interviewed eight British artistic directors: six of regional producing theatres, one of a London producing theatre; and one artistic director of a non-building-based national theatre. I also spoke to one Chair of a Board of Trustees. I've asked them all about audiences, quality, and success.2 And with each interview I became more and more astonished at the extraordinary balancing act they were all performing. Each seemed perfectly able to hold competing interests and contradictory ideas in creative tension. One or two seemed unaware of the obvious contradictions in what they said – but most seemed aware yet pragmatically undeterred. Like a chainsaw-juggling unicyclist heading out on a narrow plank bridge over a bottomless chasm, if they thought too much about the sheer ridiculousness of the task, they might stop, I suppose...

Q: How do you know what the core audience will think of what you programme?
A: Well, you don't, do you?”3

Nobody knows anything about audiences really.”

And I've also become slightly depressed at the very little distance my profession seems to have come in the thirty years since John McGrath made his plea for a popular theatre in A Good Night Out. The opinions of “a well-fed, white, middle class, sensitive but sophisticated literary critic” are still very widely universalised.4 We are still making theatre for a fairly small club, and very largely judging work by the standards of that club. And there are very good reasons why. But I'm still dispirited. And a little angry.

Let me explain.

At the centre of the whole enterprise is the audience. Financially, a producing theatre routinely sails close to disaster: with earned income from box office, bar and cafe making up between 40 and 75% of a subsidised theatre's income, a couple of shows selling much worse than expected can be enough to make a huge dent in a theatre's finances.5 And more than a couple may bring a theatre to bankruptcy.6

And it's more than that. An almost-empty art gallery, museum or library may not be great for the leadership of that organisation – it certainly doesn't help them make a case for public funding – but it is often a rather pleasant place for the visitor: a chance to enjoy the collections or the books in peace. An almost-empty theatre, on the other hand, is not only a PR and financial disaster. It's a horrible experience for everyone involved – audience, performers and staff.

So we need them. Desperately. But we also – often – don't trust them.

who are the best guardians of what success looks like? I think it’s the public... how many people want to come.”

A full theatre makes everybody happy.”

obviously one indicator of success is that people want to come and see the show – so sold-out houses are an indicator of success, of excitement about the piece of work”

I've sat in full audiences where audiences have been enjoying it, and it's been shit. And I've done that often. I've done it more often than sat in full audiences where it's actually been any good.”

All the artistic directors I spoke to flipped back and forth between apparently trusting an audience, and their sense of what was good (“Everybody knows when something's working or not”) and the acknowledgement that the reasons an audience attends and enjoys themselves are complex – and that artists may disagree with an audience's judgement.

Say I buy a ticket to something that I think you will like. We want to have a good time. We've paid twenty quid, there's a bus or a taxi, a round of drinks – so we've got a lot of investment in it being good. And you go there and most things are theoretically serviceable... People like a good story. And they laugh at the jokes that aren't funny because they're asked to. People are very polite. And partly that persuades them that they're having a good time. And they don't want to be persuaded that they're not having a good time.”

Sometimes I was sitting there thinking 'oh my God why is everyone clapping, this could be so much better'... that is where professional judgement does come in”

I do this too. I want to believe that the audience is right: that I can sit in an audience and tell whether they're enjoying themselves, and that that is the most honest and morally right assessment of the success of a show. After all, “theatre is always made as a conversation with the audience. The audience is half of the work”. If you didn't care about a live audience, you'd be making short films or writing novels. And it's very pleasant to believe that the audience are the best arbiters when you're sitting in an auditorium that's fairly full of people who appear to be enjoying your show. But then, I too have sat in theatres where a large audience was apparently having a great time – and thought the show was lazy, misguided, or simply terrible. So what then? Are they simply wrong? And if an audience can be wrong about this, was that other audience wrong about my show? Or is it all just a matter of taste?

Obviously it's going to be a matter of taste. It's got to be taste, hasn't it?

So whose taste should we pay attention to?

We're certainly not programming for critics.”

Of course the critics are in your head when you programme. I think anyone's lying who says they're not”

Theatre faces ever-increasing competition for audiences: what with cinema, multiple TV channels, and hours spent online, it's amazing anyone has time to go to the theatre at all. And in the competition for audiences, and with the almost total loss of the old model of season-ticket holders, national press attention is extremely important. As one AD told me, “we had to get a national reputation before I could get a local reputation. I had to interest the industry before I could interest the local audience.” Every artistic director I spoke to – every freelance director I know – has a detailed understanding of the output and taste of each individual critic at each of the major national papers.7

But those dozen or so people aren't the whole audience. The artistic director of an Arts Council- (and usually local council-) subsidised producing theatre is using public money to make their work. And all of those I spoke to were very aware of that fact. Allegedly, it used to be a rather frequent occurrence that an artistic director would “take over a theatre and run it into the ground by doing a Moliere season or whatever: 'I'm an artist, I need to create great art'”. I don't know whether this was ever a common attitude, but certainly none of the artistic directors I spoke to had it. Most of the people I spoke to were extremely conscious of a duty to “other people's money” and to the theatre that will “be – hopefully – here long after I’m gone.”

It may sound simplistic, but everyone pays for us, so everyone has an equal right to experience us and be enriched by us... The ambitious aim is to somehow at some point reach everyone.... It's clearly impossible.”

The 'everyone' here is probably limited to those living within a reasonable distance of the theatre building – or more simply, everyone who lives within the council boundaries. But even this is more of an aspiration than a reality. Even a large, successful regional theatre like the Sheffield Crucible will be visited by only a proportion of the population of Sheffield.8 So who will come? Who is the theatre actually serving?

The obvious answer is those who are interested in going to a theatre at all (and that already excludes a great swathe of the population who just don't think of it as for them9) – and, more specifically, those whose taste matches the programmer's taste.

You can only programme work that you want to see... Because you totally have to believe in what you are doing. And if you don't, if you programme something for the sake of putting it on, because you think it will be popular, or you're trying to reach all of the people some of the time, the audience are going to smell that. They can sniff that out, no question.”

This belief that the audience will know if you make work cynically was almost an article of faith amongst the artistic directors I met.

the key thing is not to programme anything which you think “oh that’s the banker”... Because if I don’t believe that thing can be brilliant, then that’s going to wash down like a hideous tide of horribleness.”

I've always done the plays I've wanted to do, that I'm interested in putting on. That has to be the bottom line, I think...”

I have a duty to put on plays I want to see.”
And yet. How is it possible to marry this need for the individual artist's investment and belief in every single show with the desire to serve “everyone”? In London, the circle is more easily squared: there are plenty of other theatres down the road, so if a local council tax payer isn't getting the work they want at your theatre, they can easily go off somewhere else and find it. But almost all the regional artistic directors I spoke to provide a city with the only subsidised theatre for quite some distance. So they feel “a duty” to provide “something for everyone”.

And it's not only a moral duty – there are financial imperatives:

I hope even if I don't like it, I hope it's not something I would be ashamed to have on. But you know, hand on heart, I couldn't really say – [touring theatre company], for example, that's not really my thing. But there's definitely an audience for it. And they come in and have a perfectly lovely time, and it's a different audience, and it means we can programme other things either side of that... because we're not going to have [the same] people coming every week, so if you think about all the performances we have on all year, we must have lots of different groups of people coming, who self-select what they want to see out of the programme.”

It sounds a little like providing a selection box. Of course, it's not for everyone – as previously discussed, it's a narrow band of society that will be reading that season brochure and picking and choosing the shows they'll turn up to. But the problem is, even that limited segment of society that reads your season brochure or sees your posters will have varied tastes. And how do you know what they want – what range of flavours to put in their selection box? Even if you were prepared to just give them what they want, how can you if you don't know what that is?

This is the conundrum commercial theatre tries to solve by only ever putting on work with plenty of familiarity factors: a title, a star, a writer (preferably all three) that we already know the public like. Regional reps in Leeds, Bolton, Oldham or Plymouth find it rather harder to attract well-known stars, but they certainly try – and a well-known TV actor in the right part makes a massive difference to box office.

'Who's in it?' That's always the first question.”

Failing a TV star you can still go for a well-known playwright or classic well-loved play (preferably on the syllabus to get lots of schools in). But repeating the same safe list of titles won't get you national press attention and plaudits. There's “a danger of becoming the theatrical equivalent of UK Gold”. And nobody bothers to review UK Gold – or provide public subsidy for it.

Of course, you can always ask the public what they want to see. But that may not be particularly useful. One artistic director I spoke to had a Jacobean tragedy currently selling badly in his main house – despite the feedback he'd received from focus groups which had indicated that audiences wanted to see more Jacobean drama.

I don't really take very much notice [of focus groups]. Because I don't really believe in it. Because people will say what you want them to say... Sometimes they say, “we'd like to see more unusual plays”, and then we do something more unusual and they don't come!”

And in any case, “people actually don't want what they want” - or perhaps more precisely, people don't know what they want. Because they haven't read every play that exists, they haven't met every interesting artist out there, they don't know all the options. They've got jobs and families and other things to do with their time, so they've delegated that judgement to their subsidised expert.

We are selling our judgement. You've got nothing else to sell.”

People want you to surprise them... to be surprised and delighted”.

Which is why unexpected hits and failures happen. Why there's no formula. Why Bill Kenwright still makes losses on things now and then despite years of expertise, and why Les Mis has unexpectedly been running for 25 years in the West End. As Sam West said recently in a speech to the House of Commons, “If in trying to drum up support for Les Miserables I'd called a hedge fund to say "how'd you like to back a musical adaptation of a 900-page Socialist novel by two unknown French guys?", I don't think they'd have called me back.”10

So where does this leave the beleagured artistic director? Needing to provide enough familiarity to get people in through the door, yet needing to surprise and delight them enough that they go home and tell their friends they must see it too. Needing to personally love every play she programmes, yet with a duty to provide something for everyone. Needing to sell enough seats to keep the theatre financially viable, but not “sell out” or “pander” so far that the national critics or the Arts Council decide the work's not of high enough quality.

Oh – and no-one can actually tell you what they mean by 'quality', either. But the audience certainly aren't the people who decide.

The Arts Council of England and Wales, under pressure to include some element of peer review in their assessment processes, recently (2010) set up a system whereby all ACE-funded work is now seen by an artistic assessor, who writes a report on the quality of the work. Informal peer review, of course, has always happened, as has assessing critical response. The Australian Council for the Arts has gone even further, and is currently advocating an extremely thorough research-based method for assessing “artistic vibrancy”. There are, apparently, five elements:

Quality & Excellence of Craft;
Audience Engagement & Stimulation;
Development of Artists;
Curation & Development of Art-Form;
Relevance to the Community.

Each can be assessed using a combination of surveys, focus groups, internal discussion and interviews. The audience will be asked about whether they were emotionally engaged and intellectually stimulated; the local community will be asked about relevance. But the quality and excellence of the craft demonstrated – “the demonstrated skill of the actors, directors, set designers and other crew members” - is to be assessed only via interviews and surveys of artists, staff, peers and guest artists. Not any ordinary audience members.11

These are the ways we judge quality. Industry peers, expert witnesses. Not by asking a bunch of amateurs.

They may need to be taught to recognise it, though.

the reality is that when you sit in a theatre, you recognise quality. Now I've trained them, they won't take less than that quality.”

Few were as blunt as this, but several of my interviewees talked about developing their audience's tastes.

some of the things I did were to catch the audience up with some of the things that had happened in theatre in the last 20 years”

it is really important that you do want to take them by the hand and lead them somewhere – you cannot pander – I mean otherwise we'd have a staple diet of Ayckbourn”

It sounds rather patronising put like that – and there are those who think this attitude is old-fashioned:

That used to be a very common way of describing things, didn't it - “I want to take the audience on a journey” - that there's a direction you knew you should be taking the audience in – and it was a direction towards Howard Barker or the late Jacobeans or whatever it was.”

There is certainly a whiff of superiority here I'm uncomfortable with. The experts who know what is good for the audience better than they do can all too easily get very sniffy about all popular theatre. But there are truths I recognise buried here. Expert knowledge is different to amateur appreciation – there is a difference in the judgements Anthony Blunt and I would offer in an art gallery. And left to programme a theatre themselves, the audience would only ask for, and get, what they already know about – how can they do otherwise?

But they don't want that, necessarily. They want to be surprised and delighted.

And there is another side to this: a side which came up rather less often in my interviews. It works both ways. The artist needs to be surprised and delighted by the audience, too.

theatre is a conversation with an audience... a theatremaker should always be thinking about the audience, and if they think about an audience that is essentially themselves replicated then it may not be the most interesting conversation that you could have.”

The best theatre is made when the artists involved are fascinated by their audience. Not assuming they know how they will react, not pandering to their perceived whims, but entering into a dialogue in which the end result isn't already decided. Where the audience are genuinely part of the show – where the show would be different if a different group of people had turned up.

For a live art form, it's depressing how rarely that happens.

In my experience, it happens most often in work for children, and in work made for non-traditional theatre spaces. My theory now is that this is because making that work requires theatre artists to come to their audience afresh: they can't assume they know how they'll behave or react, because the usual rules won't apply.

To take one example, the National Theatre of Wales spent its first year making “located” pieces of theatre: work which was developed in a spirit of research and enquiry, in a specific Welsh location – sometimes including non-professional performers from that location. I saw two of those first twelve pieces. They were both disjointed, flawed, highly variable in quality and tone. One of them, frankly, bored me. But they both contained fresh and joyful moments, and one (The Passion in Port Talbot) was the most exciting piece of theatre I've seen in years. Was that because of the way the work was created: in partnership with a whole town?

NTW's first show, A Good Night Out In The Valleys was the result of a series of workshops with people in the South Wales Valleys: “asking them what they thought a show about the valleys should be like, asking them what they thought the valleys story was, asking them what a good night out would be.” The company set themselves the challenge of making a piece of work which responded to whatever they discovered – even when it didn't quite suit their expectations.

we'd expected to do a piece with six characters in it and we had six actors, and one of the things we got as feedback was that they really liked character changes, so we ended up making this piece with about 30 characters...”

The messy, multi-strand, anarchic piece they created sold out at every venue they played at. People loved it. However, I've also heard it described as “playing to the lowest common denominator... it was crass”12. And John E McGrath, NTW Artistic Director13, said it was a piece that “amongst some of the great and the good in Wales was not considered necessarily an appropriate piece to start a national theatre with.”

Some people just don't like funny plays, of course. They feel that somehow the thing isn't valuable or worthy if it's making them laugh. The same woman who told me A Good Night Out in the Valleys was crass, also told me she thoroughly enjoyed it. I felt rather sorry for her.

And also rather depressed. Because this is where we've got to. Thirty years on from John McGrath's call to arms for a populist theatre which doesn't universalise the middle-class literary critic's opinion, subsidised theatre is still essentially a middle-class entertainment, judged by the standards of a small group of white, middle-class, university-educated people.

And that's not an insult, despite what it may sound like. Extremely talented theatre-makers are making and programming work they love and believe in, in theatres across the country. And audiences are enjoying it – including me. But we're still deceiving ourselves if we claim that we're making “something for everyone”. And we're all too often not making work out of a genuine spirit of enquiry. We still talk about taking an audience on a journey towards something we think they'll like, rather than inviting them to join us in a journey towards an unknown destination – a journey on which we both might discover something surprising and delightful.

Addendum, Spring 2012

I sent this paper to my interviewees to check I hadn't insulted or misrepresented them, and they kindly agreed to let me go ahead.

John E McGrath replied with a point which feels important to add. He questioned why I'd been depressed by some of the attitudes to programming and to popular theatre I'd come across:

“If your paper is asking what role the audience should have in programming, then what the NTW first year suggests is that it's not simply a question of choice, but of engagement, in a variety of ways, in creation of work. That seems an exciting rather than a depressing thought!”

John, I salute you. And I look forward to seeing and hopefully making more work which genuinely engages with audiences in its creation. There are some brilliant people out there exploring what that means.  Exciting times.

With enormous thanks for the time, thoughtfulness and patience of my interviewees:

Helen Birchenough, ex Chair of the Board, Salisbury Playhouse
Ian Brown, ex Artistic Director & Chief Executive, West Yorkshire Playhouse
Daniel Evans, Artistic Director, Sheffield Crucible
Sean Holmes, Artistic Director, Lyric Hammersmith
Gwenda Hughes, ex Artistic Director of the New Vic Theatre, Stoke
John E McGrath, Artistic Director, National Theatre of Wales
Andrew Smaje, Chief Executive, Hull Truck Theatre
Simon Stokes, Artistic Director, Theatre Royal Plymouth
Joe Sumsion, Artistic Director, Dukes Theatre, Lancaster

And a moment's regret for all the other amazing artistic directors and programmers I didn't get to speak to – but then this paper would have been even longer and further past its deadline than it is already.

  1. To avoid “he or she” awkwardness, I'm sticking with the feminine. It's my provocation paper. I'm allowed.

  2. Depending on how you define a regional producing theatre, there are between 35 and 45 of them in England & Wales. Include all the London NPO producing theatres and you get beyond 50, but not much. So my sample is small, but not completely insignificant.

  3. All quotes, unless stated otherwise, are from interviews conducted in person during 2011.

  4. McGrath, John. 1981. A Good Night Out: Popular Theatre: Audience, Class and Form. London: Nick Hern Books

  5. The Lyric Hammersmith, a London producing theatre with a good fundraising profile: 44% income from box office & trading (bar, programmes, etc) in 2009/10. West Yorkshire Playhouse, a large regional producing house with high levels of Arts Council & other grants: 54% income from box office & trading in 2009/10. Theatre by the Lake, Keswick, a producing theatre with a much smaller level of grant funding: 73% from box office & trading in 2010/11.

  6. Admittedly when a theatre goes into administration, the reasons why are usually very complicated (and often disputed). However, poor return on the box office is usually involved: and

  7. Although our obsession with national press critics may soon seem quaint: see for one summary of the state of theatre criticism. This argument is too involved to have here, however.

  8. A musical at the Crucible averages 28,000 attendees; a new play might only reach 2,000. The estimated population of Sheffield City is 555,500.

  9. Masses has been written about who doesn't attend theatres and why. If you're interested in this stuff, this might be a good place to start digging deeper: According to my interviewees, these excluded segments are from both ends of the social spectrum. An artistic director (not of the Sheffield Crucible) told me “We don't really get posh people here... Not like the National.. They're all watching opera”



  12. A conversation in a pub with a London theatre-maker who shall remain nameless.

  13. No, not the same John McGrath as the one who wrote A Good Night Out. I know. It's confusing. Sorry. Incidentally, it's no accident that John E McGrath's A Good Night Out In the Valleys references John McGrath's classic book. “It launched our year as a conscious way to explore the questions about programme and audience that he asks”.  

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Negative emotions, Cancer, Death: a cheery post

A couple of months ago I contacted Cruse Bereavement Care and asked for help - my Mum died of cancer last August and I am finding things very hard.  After some waiting, I had my first appointment with a counsellor on Monday of this week.

About two thirds of the way through our hour she started saying something about cancer starting in the etheric plane with negative emotions. I was extremely angry and told her so in no uncertain terms.  She stuttered a little and changed the subject.  

I've just looked up what she was going on about, and it's this: 

"Many disease conditions begin on the etheric plane and work their way down to the lower frequency of the physical plane and eventually show up in the body. By the way, most chronic disease conditions begin as stress producing thoughts, specifically negative emotions (resentment, anger, hatred, fear, jealousy, envy, etc.), which adversely affect your aura over time."

Ironically, found on a website called Educate Yourself.

She is not the first person to say something along these lines to me. Usually with fewer daft pseudo-technical words, but I am terrified by the number of people who think that cancer comes from having negative emotions.  My Mum, I think, believed it.  I think that's why she refused to admit she was dying until a couple of weeks beforehand.  She thought you died if you "gave up" and stopped "fighting", that the will had ultimate control over the body.

It's kind of admirable, in a crazy way.  This human determination to make meaning where really there is none.  Magical thinking from scared people, trying desperately to make narrative sense of soullessly irrational random horror.

Because usually, cancer doesn't make good stories.  There isn't a nice narrative arc.  It wouldn't make satisfying theatre.  If you dramaturged death, you'd change a hell of a lot.  

I got very angry recently at a scratch of a young company's new work, when we were all made to imagine and write down the details of our own deaths: the date, where we'd be, who would be with us, what our last thought would be.  I tried inarticulately to express my anger in the post-scratch discussion, and didn't succeed.  I realised later that what enraged me so much was these 23 and 24 year olds innocently blundering into an area they seemed to know nothing about.  I felt like standing up and shouting, "The premise of your questions is ridiculous! The last thought through my head before I die - before most of us die - will probably be incoherent drug-fuelled nonsense.  We'll probably be morphined-up to the eyeballs, struggling through clouds of pain and inadequate anaesthesia to think anything at all.  And by the way, why the fuck would I *want* to imagine in detail the moment of death?  I'm spending most of my time trying really hard not to fixate on that, thanks very much.  What happened to cheery plays with happy endings?".  

And then Dan pointed out that most people haven't seen death happen.  And that perhaps my experience is rather unusual anyway.  And that perhaps I should be less harsh.

I make stories, I understand the power.  We're meaning-making animals, that's what we do.  But there is no meaning or rationality to cancer.  Dinosaurs died of it - I doubt they had problems with their auras.  And although I stand in absolute awe of my mother's will-power and spirit, I think in the end her body won.  Or rather the cancer won over her body.  And once your body's defeated, that's game-over, folks.  

Everybody dies.  "Whether or not you eat six almonds a day. Whether or not you believe in God."  It's impossible to believe until you see it.  But it's true.

Happy Thursday everyone.

Thursday, 17 May 2012

on walking out of Three Kingdoms

So. A Russian prostitute has been murdered in a spectacularly brutal way for attempting to inform on her “owner”. The British police track down the killer in Germany because his sperm was in her hair: he'd wanked on her head whilst it was held in a vice, then sawed her head off with a blunt hacksaw. Whilst she was alive. But he isn't the big baddie. No, that's his Estonian boss, who made him do it.

Now we meet the boss, and his gang of sex-traffickers. They discuss the realities of market capitalism: the fact that very soon the traffic will be going in the opposite direction. They'll be getting girls from Amsterdam, Berlin and London, and selling them to Beijing, Moscow and Rio de Janiero. In between, they mock the silent prostitute who sits in the room with them: calling her stupid, giving her a name like a dog, discussing the smell of her. Then they're violent towards her.

Does this sound like fun entertainment yet?

I mean, we've seen something a bit like this before, right? We've had ordinary, sordid, naturalistic versions of this story before. On stage. On TV. I myself got into a terrible state by stupidly watching the whole of Abi Morgan's Sex Traffic in one go whilst on my own, with no-one to reassure me that no, all men do not despise all women. All women are not helpless, silent, at the mercy of whoever's the strongest and most violent.

Ah, but this is different. This is a brilliant, genre-changing, horribly funny, nightmarish version of the story. It's been made as an international collaboration between three amazing companies.

So the predatory men sometimes wear wolf masks. The mostly silent women sometimes wear deer head-dresses. People sing, and dance. The blonde, musclar Estonian gang come on like some kind of Aryan fantasy in white vests and boxing gloves, and beat hell out of the set whilst having their chat about market capitalism. The silent prostitute in the corner is wearing a very expensive and restrained green silk dress and carrying a silver platter. When the men talk about getting girls from London, they clock the audience, checking out some of the women and smirking at us. A chunk of the audience giggles at their theatrical naughtiness.

Or perhaps at the idea of being trafficked by these men. Because that would be great fun, hey? When they're violent towards you, they just spit cucumber at you, or stamp on it in a theatrical demonstration of violence. It's not actual violence. No women were harmed in the making of this play. It's all just a play, Sarah.  Stop taking it so fucking seriously.

So I left. I walked out from the front row and went home. And I wish I'd gone earlier, because then I would have fewer of these images in my mind. And I would feel less disturbed about what all those middle-aged middle-class white men who made that piece of work really feel about women. When they put eleven strong male actors on stage, of all ages, shapes and sizes, and only two young, slim, beautiful and mostly silent women. When they let the men on stage look at me the way the scary men on street corners in Brixton sometimes look at me when I walk home late at night. When they fill my head with horror. And give me no hope.