Monkey Tennis – how can we make the work we want, rather than what we think someone else wants? 

Convener(s): Ellan Parry           

Participants: the piece of paper with names on it got lost. Sorry. Contact me if you want your name to be recorded.  The only names I got were Rob Haughton, the artistic director of Donkey Work and Andrew Mulligan. 

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

In an episode of Alan Partridge, he attempts to pitch increasingly craven and desperate ideas for television programmes, culminating in ‘monkey tennis’ – I feel like I and others, in attempting to second guess what funders, the arts council, producers, venues, a potential, possibly imaginary audience etc want, are in danger of creating monkey tennis. Is there room for creating the work we want to make first?  Or should we be led by market factors?  How do you prove a demand for your work?  How many people lie on their funding forms about benefit to community, inclusion and other arts council buzz words?  How many badly run workshops are inflicted on luckless children and teenagers because a ‘youth outreach’ or ‘workshop’ programme was the only way someone could get the funding they needed to produce what they wanted?

Marketing – Rob Haughton works in marketing in commercial sector, wants to move into theatre, raised issues surrounding marketing – targeting audiences – is targeting audiences putting the cart before the horse?  What happened to ‘build it and they will come’? – it was suggested that this was also a legacy of the arts council funding process, proving demand for work – how accountable should we be?  How accountable can you be in theatre – that’s to say, how do you prove that something was good, was worthwhile?  Therefore the almost arbitary tick-box approach of ‘inclusion’ and ‘community benefit’… 

Art for Art’s sake – it was argued that theatre is the only art form which cannot justify or sustain this idea –  the fact that it has a live audience negates this?  It must have an entertainment, if not a commercial obligation – but how can theatre grow and develop if it can’t produce work that is purely about experimenting with the form?  Is it fair or right that the government, through the arts council process of validating work through a social responsibility remit, has essentially legislated against art for art’s sake in the theatre? 

The idea of within the arts council a voice to speak for the audience, and a voice to speak for the artist was floated, which led to the suggestion that these voices may sometimes be in opposition – a dialogue and a negotiation between the needs of both…

The benefit of working within a smaller area than London – Bristol and Manchester were examples – greater access to space, tighter and more supportive communities, the potential of building a loyal local audience etc

  • the London fringe was seen as being exclusive, and overly ‘official’, difficult to get involved in..

someone suggested there should be a law restricting the number of artists per civilian within a city or country.

Someone talked about dance companies in France being decentralized, companies effectively made to belong to a particular town or area

Practical ways of getting money:  If we’re disillusioned or frustrated with arts council and charitable funding, there’s the corporate sector – firms with ‘corporate responsibility’ sections of their budget – the artistic director of Donkey Work described  his experience of getting money from law and accountancy firms.  

A big problem is the initial capital needed to put on work, even scratch work, in order to develop it, get funding, get work seen….  the biggest expense or problem is often the venue – the idea of a ‘free’ (subscription run perhaps?) venue was proposed where work could be presented quickly and flexibly – what can we take from the open mic format of music or stand-up?  Andrew Mulligan was amongst the participants who were keen to take this idea forward – contact he or I (Ellan Parry) in order to talk more about this….