Abattoirs and the Armstrade = The reality we are in / at? Why do we pretend to be fine?

Emma Adams, 26 January 2013

People who attended the session:  Rose Biggin, Maddy Costa, Fergus Evans, J Frankland, Alex Swift, Annie Rigby, Chris Rowland, Kate Golledge, Jonny Liron, Tassos Stevens, Aliki Chapple, Cattierine Love, Amy Letman + more people that I didn't manage to capture the names of.

The Preamble:

So I called this session because in the moment of being in the room on the first morning of DandD8 I found that I was in fact feeling really angry. And that was a bit of a surprise. Because actually, I'd thought that I was just feeling tired. I'm rehearsing for a show at the moment and my head has been very in that. Very excited/exhausted/thrilled/challenged about that. And so when I found that I was feeling angry it was a bit of a shock and I got a bit of a rush of blood. A rush of blood about the way things are and the way we go on. Because, I sometimes feel like we make ourselves (artists in the widest sense across every art form) ripe for divide and rule manipulation, for the very reason that we struggle to really explore/ interrogate the unsaid anxieties / economic imperatives / issues of ego / and fear that actually do (to a lesser or larger extent) drive our working lives. As much as the good stuff. As much as the great ideas and creativity and the collaboration. We're pretty good at talking about that and presenting that ‘caring sharing’ face, I think. But we're not honest about the darker stuff. Or at least that is how I was feeling when I called the session. I was just thinking, ‘Why is no one calling a session about how we treat each other?' Because how we treat each other is often really not so good! Why are we sitting here in this circle and not addressing this? Because while our little individual worlds spin on with ourselves at the centre, and while we continue to allow ourselves to believe in the premise that its all about ’me and my career' and to care about ‘who’s hot and who's not' and to exercise ourselves by thinking about 'who deserves and who doesn't deserve (with the caveat being obviously that we ourselves are deserving! I mean that's obvious! That goes without saying! But look at such and such over there! They are too shit/over funded and too big to fail / irrelevant and small, I mean who would really miss them / niche /so old / too young /old fashioned / faddish /weird and in wheel chairs / women / Shakespeare fuckers / Shakespeare deniers / dancers for Christ sake! I mean why do they bother? / vanilla /don't get me started on the opera bastards / queers / blah blah fucking blah (please feel free to insert your particular dislike / prejudice here if I've missed one) to have any relevance / to have a right to do their stuff in this world. I mean, actually, it's time to cut away the dead wood isn't it?)' While all of that is going on, our government is free to continue the rather grand job it's making of erasing (pretty much unchallenged) ideas about pluralism / diversity / liminality / magic / playfulness / being for beings sake alone - out of our way of life. Which unfortunately are all values / concepts that the arts world (and humanity) can not flourish without (be that ENO or I Love West Leeds Festival or RSC or Theatre in the Mill). We seem only capable of taking an ‘ignore it all and carry on’ stance or we grandize the crumbs and argue about who should be getting some, while the government continues with their project to privatise / ‘moneytize’ every aspect of human interaction. Which, to say the least, is I think quite a worry. Arts education / arts funding / local council arts funding is all in the process of being dissappeared before our eyes and we are sitting here worrying about having a fucking career! Seriously? Its laughable."

Well as you might imagine, this tirade of thoughts led to a big rush of blood.

Which in turn led to going to me scrawling the pretty inarticulate title of this session (see above) and calling it. All that and I couldn't even spell abattoir. At the time I spelt it Ab-at-war. Which, some thought might be some kind of attempt to create a clever spin on words. I wish it had been, but in all honesty it was just that I'm dyslexic and didn't have access to a spell check at the time.

So, that was how things were when I started the day (to be clear I stand by the thoughts / the description of how we are failing to address our governments ideological project as described above. If you think my ideas are a little extreme I would urge you to wake up, find your nearest ‘rival’ and make a plan on how you are going to start supporting each other to continue making work when subsidised art in this country is finally erased around 2015/16). But even so.

No one likes a mard arse do they?

And besides, as the day progressed, actually I started having conversations that were, well, great! And I went to some sessions which delighted / challenged / surprised me. People here were patently being generous / challenging and thoughtful in their conversations and there was an amazing level of honesty and engagement that felt very meaningful...

Oh dear.


In response to this reality in the room, I began to feel like I had been just a little bit judgmental and my anger dissipated (to a point, to a point mind) and I found myself, turning up at the session I had called, not feeling quite so white-heat-irate as I had at the beginning of things.

Which, turned out to be very interesting!

It led to a very different kind of conversation to the one I thought I wanted to have earlier in the day. And it turned out to be probably a much more interesting conversation. Certainly a more wide ranging one. And while it didn't touch on the overtly political issues I raise above, it did illuminate a ton of stuff that felt / feels important...

It started like this:

Several people who came, wanted to know what the references to abattoir and arms trade was all about? So I explained everything from above (kind of/not really/I tried but I couldn't find the words I think) and then explained that in reaction to this, it appears to me that our world (the theatre/performing arts / arts in general world) has much more in common with these very obviously brutal industries than we choose to acknowledge, because our world is truly brutal. And my title was just a way of slamming down something, in a moment of frustration to express that. I just wanted to find a way to say that ‘I wish that we could look that brutality in the face and at least acknowledge it’. Because how can you begin to address something if you can't acknowledge it? And/or even if we don't want to change it (and feel the brutality is actually an essential part of what we do?), isn't being able to look something in the face for what it is, a better way of engaging with your life and your work? People who work in abattoirs don't go to work in the morning pretending that there won't be some blood spilt during the day. They may however feel that what they do is valuable. They help feed people. Some may argue that while this is true, there are better ways that don't involve blood letting to feed people. So the conversation about what is appropriate to eat can continue on a honest level. However much meat eaters / vegetarians / vegans / fruitarians may loath each others ideas and principles, they are at least all clear about where each other stands. I think, that so much of our creative life in the theatre/performance world is hampered because we don't articulate honestly what our starting points are. Blood is often spilt in the rehearsal room / in the development meeting and in the audition process but because we are not honest about that, it's difficult to define what is happening or even how to respond. Upsetting things happen but we are supposed to smile through it all. And in turn doesn't that stifle our ideas about how our creative lives could be different / how we might imagine different ways of being? And in turn doesn't that mean that our work is affected/effected (please choose the right one)? In short, how do we know how to start imagining what our world could be if we can't even bring ourselves to honestly describe the reality of how it is at present?

It has to be said, it didn't quite come out like this. I rambled far far more. Forgot big chunks of what I meant to say. Lost my drift etc. But this is what I meant.

Then I asked if anyone else felt like that / or recognised the brutality I was talking about? / Recognised my frustrations? Felt the same or otherwise?

And out of this came a discussion that evolved to be about honesty, transparency and clarity...

And it was (speaking personally) a very lovely / useful / at times challenging / at times surprising conversation. And I'd like to thank everyone who came, talked or listened:

The conversation:

NB I haven't named people / attributed conversations to individuals below. This (in the context of more honesty / clarity / transparency etc) may well appear a strange decision. But the reason I've chosen to do this is two fold :1 - I didn't know everyone's names so it felt odd to name some people and not others. 2 some of the stuff people talked about is quite sensitive. I was not able to be involved in the discussion and take crystal-verbatim notes. Under those circumstances, it would feel important to only attribute stuff if one is absolutely sure of what was said and are not ‘approximating’ / getting the gist. 3 (I know i said there would be 2 but it turns out there are 3 reasons) I didn't ask people explicitly in the session what level of reporting they were comfortable with, so I think going for anonymity is fair enough. HOWEVER if anyone who was present wants to add their name / say ‘I said this’ or clarify any of the things I've tried to approximate / add in more detail below, I think (in the spirit of the discussion) that would be cool. But only if you want to. And not other wise.


So we talked about where we are and what our experience has been. There were several different perspectives. Some work within organisations and have a ‘gatekeeper’ role, others work outside and try to take work to organisations / venues. There were also artists present who choose to work without/ explicitly outside of traditional organisations. There were also critics / journalists in the space too, who write for papers / websites and who had a different perspective again.

Discussed Things:

How work gets on / is developed / critiqued - how the conversations around those processes are presented / talked about in a rose tinted light but often don't work like that in practice.

How people were frustrated with this.

In this context we talked about the ‘tyranny of feedback’ and the way that loops of feedback often lead to a kind of endless process of deferment instead of an honest response of ‘yes or no’.

This led to a discussion about clarification. Perhaps it wasn't about a tyranny of feedback but of ‘bad’ feedback. Others felt it was important to remember that sometimes it takes time to see what the potential of an idea is...

There was an acknowledgment that many people were familiar with the following kind of conversation: In private a friend expresses the real truth of something that has happened to them in a work / development / making context but the thing that has happened can't be talked about in the wider world because it could have ‘repercussions’. So for example one person present talked about a conversation they had had with a friend. The friend is a writer who had had some feedback from a respected theatre venue, where she had been told that she ‘needed to be more like a bloke’. When the friend asked what this actually meant, the feedback giver had said that the friend needed to be ‘more aggressive in her writing’ and also that she should ‘get out and network more in the pub’. The friend, while really upset by this ‘feedback’

didn't feel able to challenge it publicly. But just as upsetting, the speaker explaining the story also expressed how they felt unable to challenge / talk about this situation even though they were also in contact / had a working relationship with the theatre in question. So now the speaker felt like they knew something awful but they had to keep quiet. In effect there was a conspiracy of silence... Many people seemed to nod about having similar experiences.

This was roundly seen to be a pretty bad state of affairs by the people in the session (I think) and led to some discussion about frustrations with venues and how they pursue / calibrate / commission / make work.


Then someone else challenged the idea of the venue / feedback giver always being the ‘bad guy’... They commented that when they had worked inside a building that something they regretted was that ‘about 80% of their time was taken up dealing with work that was frankly shit and wasn’t going anywhere' They really regretted that only 20% of their time got to be spent on the work that showed real promise'. They said they felt this was a terrible state of affairs where the wrong people were getting all of their attention...

This lead to a discussion around what is expected of venues: Because they receive public funding there is an expectation that everyone who brings work to their door should be seen to have a fair crack of the whip. But those dealing with submissions are not resourced to a point where this can be done at the level that feels necessary.

We talked about how a way of dealing with this would be for more honesty...

We were all nodding that more honesty was the solution...

But then people began to challenge that too.

Which led to a really interesting conversation around honesty, its importance but also its drawbacks. People questioned whether ‘just being honest’ was good enough. Being honest can be used in its way to be highly brutal. Sometimes people need encouragement. Sometimes they need 100% truth at other times they need sugared truth... So then we talked about how that conundrum could be maneuvered through?? In the end we seemed to come to a consensus that people need to give more careful thought to the intentions behind the creative conversations they have. Which might sound obvious, but in some ways it isn't. Someone talked about ‘feed’ back. It's about nourishment. But we forget this. How often is there an expectation to speak and fill a vacuum with words and opinion because it is our job to do so? Shouldn't we stop more often to think what gift we are giving people when we talk about their work (from development right through to the experience of being an audience member / critic)?

Other thoughts that came up in the conversation:

One person said they had no expectation that any venue would treat them in a decent way because theatre venues create product / commodities / its a privatized business going on under the name of subsidised art, so why act surprised if the situation is brutal? Lets work outside the mainstream / make an alternative instead.

The industry uses a lubrication tool that looks like ‘friendship’ but often what looks like friendship isn't friendship and this can be confusing/demoralizing - and its really dishonest.

Actions/Thoughts/Outcomes that people in the group suggested - I hope this captures / reflects everyone's thoughts / opinions in the conversation properly (if I missed something please say):

Clarity of purpose. When you give feedback / cast someone / decide which play to commission and which to reject - is everyone in the process absolutely clear what the agenda is? Is everyone in the process absolutely clear about why their opinion is relevant at that moment in time?

If you find yourself in a position which involves giving feedback, a good maxim that was suggested was - ‘To seldom praise, never condem and always distinguish’. This is a jesuit idea.

Intentions / journey / process matter as much as product.

But product matters too!

Venues need to be clear about what their policy is around dealing with artists. They need to explain why they have come to that decision and be consistent.

We all need to bring a consciousness of our own fallibility into the creative discussions we are having.

The power balance in relationships (say between a gatekeeper in a building and an artist who wants to work in said building) should be appreciated. If you have power,

understand what you are wielding and use it carefully.

Linked to this, we need to find ways to stop conspiracies of silence around bad practice. (But how?)

Loose the tyranny of the expert. We need to move towards models where we create a level playing field for a dialog. (between building / company or artist or between an artist and a critic etc etc etc).

The model of the traditional theatre has to change and that might be difficult for some people to accept. Theatre buildings / venues need to start communicating their real situation to artists because (while its unpalatable) the current situation can't continue. Theatres are going to need to become more like seeds / a place which hosts a community but which doesn't necessarily fund it all. More flex less cash...

Stop talking about ‘how can we make people engage with theatre and start talking to people about what their stories are and then reflect that / make that the work. If we do this (which is more honest) they will come (which would be good).

Stop looking for acknowledgment from venues / gatekeepers. Start building relationships with peers.

The need to open up a conversation / break down the expected model of ’commission - rehearsals - press night - star rating- progress or die'. Everyone involved (artists / press folk / critics are not served by this) We need more forums for real / meaningful conversation.

Just because you work in a venue / are seen to be occupying a ‘gate keeper’ role by others, this doesn't mean you have to know everything. You can tell that to people. You can say ‘I don’t know'.

Asking ourselves ‘what is the purpose and usefulness’ of the things we are about to say and do with another artist, is the way forward. How often do we really do this?

Can we find ways to be honest / open more often? Why can this level of openness only happen once a year when we come to DandD?

If the discourse between people in the arts is founded upon the model of ‘this looks like friendship but isn’t really' is that a good way to take things forward? Is there another way to do things? What would it be like if the lubrication of our creative lives wasn't ‘fake friendship’?

We need to find new ways / a new language to explore and describe what theatre / performing arts is/are. There is a lot of rose tinted language.

Despite ACE investment designed to increase audience uptake in theatre, theatre audiences haven't increased. So its time to address this. A way to do so would be to take more risk / build identity / make close connections and communicate honestly.

Take risks or die.

Capitalism gets inside and fucks every process. The answer then is to attack Capitalism. Make the work you believe in with the people you believe in.

So that's a lot of diverse actions / thoughts. But it gives a flavour of the way the conversation went.

That's it for now.


clarity, Theatre, politics, artists, Venues, capitalism, organisations, Funding, change, funding, venues, honesty, transparancy, theatre, Organisations

Comments: 2

Stella Duffy, 27 January 2013

I love this report.

SUSIE RIDDELL, 28 January 2013

Thank you for this report. I wasn't at the session but the notes are great and make a lot of sense. Take risks or die. Brilliant.