Devoted & Disgruntled 12: What Shall We Do About Theatre and the Performing Arts Now?

Supporting artists making new work in Bristol (and other cities)

tom morris - 14 January 2017




This was a great session

It started out being a specific conversation about Bristol Ferment (Bristol Old Vic's artist development programme) and the opportunities it does and doesn't offer artists making new work in Bristol.

It then broadened out into a conversation about available opportunities in general and the collective responsibility of the city's funded organisations to make sure there was a balanced range of opportunity across the city.

The chat about Ferment was vividly polarised between a celebration of it's flexible application of resource to the specific needs of any given artist or company on the one hand (efficient, clever and transformative) - and a sense that the way it selected its artists was untransparent, immutable and poorly communicated on the other.

This developed into a fascinating conversation about creative gatekeeping and ended up with something like a consensus that the city in general needed a combination of opportunities for artists making new work- some subjectively curated (in which the gatekeeper was backing their own subjective passion and instinct about the potential of artists who made them excited about what they might do next) and others objectively selected (in which there was open application for assessment by a panel against published criteria). There was also talk of whether an element of entirely random selection might be an enriching addition to this mix (pick a card or roll a dice for a commission) - and that within the subjective gate-keeper model it was a good idea to have fixed terms of office for gatekeepers.

I explained that part of the reason for posting the question was that Bristol Ferment is entirely funded from trusts and foundations (it's not part of Bristol Old Vic's ACE funding agreement) and that Emma Bettridge (Ferment Producer) and I are very keen to make sure that it evolves in a way that both works for the benefit of the artists it supports and feels fair and clear to the creative community of Bristol. We know there are flaws in the system we have, for all its strengths.

Alongside this there is also rich opportunity for all arts organisations in Bristol offering this kind of opportunity to collaborate and communicate better about what we are doing. The group felt that this could apply to cross-artform opportunities too and Rob from Arnolfini popped into the conversation at this point to confirm his enthusiasm for this approach.

We therefore agreed that there should be a further open discussion of all these issues hosted at Bristol Old Vic and advertised through the Theatre Bristol Newsletter and other available networks.

The aim of this conversation will be to learn from Bristol artists so that we can improve the opportunities we offer at Bristol Old Vic (and communicate them better) and also to collaborate better with others offering similar opportunities so we can between us release the potential of a wider range and a higher number of Bristol's extraordinary artists.

I have to say that there was a lot of love for the Theatre Bristol Newsletter from the artists in the group, and for Theatre Bristol in general.

At around this point Dan from Hamilton House (google it if you don't know what it is) talked about new opportunities for subsidised space for arts use in Hamilton House. This sparked a conversation bemoaning the collapse of the Council's brilliant initiative to make un-used space available to artists in the city. There is just much less than there was and the community was vociferous about the negative impact of this.

On the back of this, we felt that we should all help Theatre Bristol to do two other things:

1. Develop a map of creative opportunity for the city (i.e. a list of all the funding and showcase opportunities (from Ferment to Wardrobe to Cube) together with a summary of what the criteria are for each. Bristol Old Vic will help with this.

2. Develop it's existing map of available rehearsal space and also help us to persuade a wider uptake of the policy we trialled at Bristol Old Vic (before the current building work obvs) to advertise any unsold rehearsal space to the creative public for free every friday.

We also talked about ladders, pyramids and funnels of development. You can pick your metaphor. But the group seemed in remarkable agreement about the principles that operate in these. There is a sort of Darwinian element to any workable scheme, in which a wide invitation with little resource graduates (or evolves) towards a narrow invitation with more concentrated resource. The priority of the group seemed to be two-fold:
1. that the opportunity to progress up the ladder/funnel/pyramid was genuine
2. that the way the system worked was transparently communicated.

Sitting alongside the strong sense that a diversity of opportunity was important across the city, this seemed to be the main implicit recommendation oft the group (again, please correct me, any who were present, if i misunderstood this).

The subtext to this animated and inspiring conversation was a realisation that much of Bristol's celebrated creative community exists in the barely-subsidised sector, with many artists living by other means and committing time for free to their creative work. Within this model, free space and any performance opportunity is hugely valuable but we also have to accept that there are economic barriers to participation in a culture of this kind which might slow down its cultural and economic diversification. For reference, this is close to the economic culture within which much of the most exciting experimental work in North America has evolved over the last 50 years.

Related announcements:

The Creative Mum discussion requested a monthly meeting space for creative mums with children to meet in.

Nincompoops at the excellent Wardrobe Theatre operates a “pay-what-you-think-it-was-worth” ticket price which has worked very well.

Tom, also operating at the Wardrobe is offering radically accessible development opportunities in puppetry, feeding towards his puppet cabaret.

many thanks to all for this brilliant session



Annette Chown

15 January 2017

I agree, I thought this session was great. Thank you, Tom, for calling it. I have collated everyone's email addresses from the sheet and will be sending them to Catherine from Theatre Bristol, to make sure you receive the newsletter with details of the discussion to be hosted by Bristol Old Vic. If you weren't in attendance but want to join the discussion, sign up to the Theatre Bristol mailing list:

Those in attendance were:

Daniel Balla
Catherine Boot
Rob Bowman
Ed Browning
Annette Chown
Kirsty Cox
Jack Drewry
Charlotte Dubery
Florence Espeut-Nickless
Lucy Harrington
Ian Harris
Alan Mandel
Rosamond Martin
Tom McDonagh
Tom Morris
Jack Price
John Ward
Lizzie Wiggs


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