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D&D Edinburgh followup: An open space to check in after the Fringe

Devoted and Disgruntled Follow-Up Edinburgh: The Mega-Report

Jen McGregor - 17 September 2012

WHO WAS THERE

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This turned out to be a small but perfectly formed group consisting of Jen McGregor, Mark Bolsover, Fiona McDonald, David McFarlane, Kerry Napuk, Louie Gardiner, Gillian Morrison, Laura Mackenzie-Stuart, Cat Joss, Angela Milton, Flavia D’Avila and Bev Wright. The group size stayed at about half a dozen throughout, but its makeup changed as people arrived and left at various times.

Due to the small size, we decided not to break out into smaller groups or go through the formality of calling specific discussions. Instead, we chose simply to talk and see where the discussion went. These were the main themes that emerged:

Year-round venues in Edinburgh

This discussion began with talking about the Fringe, the rise of Summerhall and the model being used at the Assembly Rooms. Under its new management (the same company as The Stand) the Assembly Rooms is believed to be working on box office splits without guarantees. On the one hand this gives the venue itself an incentive to work with the performers to promote the shows and bring in audiences. On the other, it’s a risky strategy for the venue since they must then meet their entire setup cost themselves, leaving them vulnerable in the event of cancellations. It was this kind of vulnerability which brought down Remarkable Arts. (A thought occurs to me while I’m writing this up – would a refundable deposit be a better idea? The venue keeps the deposit in the event of a no-show or cancellation after a certain date, helping to defray their costs, but the performer gets it back assuming they actually show up and do their show. I think the important thing here is that Assembly Rooms are showing willing to share the risk with performers.)

Laura pointed out that Edinburgh is actually very well-served in terms of the number of theatre seats available in the city, but this is somewhat skewed by the presence of the 3000-seater Playhouse. There is still a need for small venues, suitable for grassroots and experimental work, to take the place of spaces like the Roxy. The emergence of Summerhall is very exciting, but there is still a sense that we could benefit from having more than one place.

The difficulty in creating a new small venue is that most premises which are suitable to be theatre venues already function as such during the Fringe and are unlikely to want to lose that. However, the Bongo Club, due to leave its current premises in a few months’ time, is in talks about taking over the Underbelly space, which is dormant the rest of the year. They propose to fit it out as a working venue, run it and programme it for 11 months of the year, then step aside and let it function as the Underbelly during August. This seems like quite a good idea and is perhaps a suitable way of working round the same issue in other places.

The questions that arose: How do we talk to venue owners and managers? Would we benefit from advocacy by more established people like Ally at the Bongo Club? What is the gap between the cost of setting up a venue annually for the Fringe and setting one up to run year-round? What market research needs to be done and what is the best way to do it (perhaps getting in touch with Cultural Enterprise would help)? Is there safety in numbers – would we be more likely to persuade venue owners that this is a good use of their resources if we approached as a group rather than as individuals?

The last question fed into the discussion of Artists’ Co-operatives below.

Finding/building/attracting audiences

While we were talking about the need for new venues, we spoke about some of the existing venues that could be very useful, but which seem to struggle to attract audiences. Places like the North Edinburgh Arts Centre and the Brunton have good spaces, but tell people you’re doing a show in one of them and they respond as if it’s the ends of the earth. Even Art’s Complex and Out of the Blue are seen as a bit too far out. Is it really so difficult to persuade Edinburgh audiences to get on a bus?

David spoke about his attempts to set up a year-round space in the Rowantree, part of the Caves. They’re still ongoing, interrupted by the Fringe. Being in a central location like the Cowgate might well be of benefit.

Louie suggested drawing a map of where spaces are in Edinburgh, not unlike the venue map in the Fringe brochure. This would help to see where audiences are or are willing to go, so we could look at how to move people around the map rather than simply creating honeypot venues. She also wondered whether there are ways of going to audiences rather than bringing them to us. This can often present its own difficulties in terms of theatre licensing, but there may be ways round this – taking contracted entertainment into corporate spaces, for example, or exploring the loopholes and grey areas in licensing legislation.

Communication and exchange, particularly with Creative Scotland

Louie’s suggestions above led on to some thoughts about patterns of Chaos -> Emergence -> Organisation. We move from the chaos of a new idea into emergence as it takes shape to organisation where it becomes locked down. The latter stage is where things can get stuck, but we can nudge back into a state of emergence.

So how do we do that? Louie explained the idea of the three levers which we can metaphorically pull to initiate change. First, we can change the size of the container (which can be either a physical container such as a building or an intangible one such as a purpose). Second, we can create difference within the system – when there are too many similar people working on the same issue it can be comfortable but it doesn’t foster a creative outlook, so we can change the makeup of the group to make sure we’re not just preaching to the converted. Third, we can change the nature of the exchange, whether verbal or physical (an example, as I understand it, would be changing from chaired meetings to a format like open space – I hope Louie will correct me in the comments if I’ve misunderstood any of this).

Over the past few weeks there has been a lot said in the Herald and the Scotsman about Creative Scotland, mostly about its failures. These have ranged from criticisms of the lack of transparency in their funding process to the nationalistic overtones of things like Year of Creative Scotland to the price of tickets for an award ceremony. This may be an example of needing to change the nature of the exchange. At the moment, artists are engaging in the discussion about the role and operation of Creative Scotland through newspaper articles. Without wishing to detract from the value of these articles, perhaps we need greater face to face engagement with the organisation, and not just on an individual level when we’re looking for funding.

I suggested that an open space meeting, essentially another D&D follow-up, should be held in Creative Scotland’s space at Waverley Gate. They have a large, welcoming room that would be perfect for it (and was used for the recent Theatre Sector Review reflection meeting, which attracted criticism for coming across as a box-ticking exercise). Rather than being a Creative Scotland event it should simply be in their space and hopefully with people from CS choosing to attend. Perhaps regular open space meetings, held not just in Edinburgh but throughout Scotland, would be a good way to maintain an ongoing conversation between CS and working artists, rather than communicating through commissioned reports and newspaper articles.

Laura Mackenzie-Stuart, Portfolio Manager for Theatre at Creative Scotland, was part of the group and suggested that the best way to go about this is to approach Venu Dhupa (Director of Creative Development) and Kenneth Fowler (Head of Communications and External Relations) jointly with the proposal. Kerry Napuk indicated that there may funding available to support a scheme like this through the RSA.

Where are the actors?

Kerry Napuk pointed out that there were no actors in the room. (This was true at the time, since no-one present was primarily a performer, although during this very discussion two actors arrived.) We were in a similar situation at Devoted & Disgruntled, which was mostly attended by directors, producers, writers, technicians and multi-taskers.

I believe that there are issues with actor empowerment and a lack of creative equality in many people’s practice. It has been my experience that actors have been conditioned to expect poor, often disrespectful treatment, to see themselves as puppets who play out a writer’s words and director’s vision, waiting to be told what to do, rather than as artists in their own right. If this is the case, it is hardly surprising that they don’t turn up at events where the aim is to improve the industry as a whole – to feel drawn to such events, you have to believe there’s something you can actually do. This is a problem that seems to be experienced by Equity, where attendance at branch meetings and AGMs tends to be low and little of the membership votes. Perhaps the real problem is the hierarchical structure of many rehearsal rooms, of some kinds of training and of Equity’s current structure?

It was suggested that should another follow-up be arranged as mentioned above, the invitation could request that attendees bring along an actor (or less specifically, someone from a different discipline to themselves).

Artists’ Co-operatives

Mark Bolsover expressed his concern at the term “theatre sector” being used, suggesting that we need to reconsider how we think about theatre in the first place. The arts are not a “sector”. They are in the economy but not of the economy, and we should stop expecting the arts to serve the economy but instead allow the economy to serve the arts. The arts should not be an end product but part of our continuing growth as human beings – by relegating them to the role of leisure activity and thinking about return on artistic investment in purely monetary/quantitive terms, we do both the arts and ourselves a disservice.

If we do not believe that organisations such as Creative Scotland (which are necessarily bureaucratic, being office-based) are in the best position to judge a project’s artistic merits, do we need something which is artist led? Would it be possible to establish a co-operative and perhaps some kind of credit union where artists could be judged by other artists? Projects could be proposed and voted upon by members, and a diverse enough membership would hopefully cancel out any element of individual bias.

Working together, artists could talk to Creative Scotland on a more equal basis – rather than an individual artists communicating with the organisation through an application form or goal-specific meeting, where we feel we must attempt to speak their language and second-guess what they want, we could work towards something mutually satisfactory and effective.

A co-operative might also offer a new way of giving each other feedback, which is a subject that has come up in at least two D&D discussions in Scotland. How might it work if feedback sessions took the form of open space meetings? Rather than criticism being given to the artist(s), who is then expected to accept it without question or explanation or be accused of being unable to take feedback, constructive discussions would allow artists to talk freely and work through the feedback.

So what are we going to do about theatre?

As a result of this meeting, we’ve developed/expressed the following plans:

• David is continuing his negotiations with The Caves. I will put him in touch with some of the artists I met at D&D who have expressed similar views on the need for small venues and suggest that we ask the Cultural Enterprise Office for guidance.
• Kenneth Fowler has already been in touch an offered me the opportunity to meet with him. I will request the space in Waverley Gate for another open space and point out the benefits of being seen to engage with artists in an open way. I’ll investigate Kerry’s funding suggestion further.
• Should that meeting go ahead, I’ll consult Louie on how to word an invitation that will encourage people to bring actors so we can find out what they need.
• Mark and I will look into artists’ co-operatives and how they can work. Angela, who trained in America, has offered to do some research into American co-ops. We will call a future discussion to talk about what we find, gauge interest and get a sense of what people perceive to be the pitfalls and possibilities.

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