Wednesday, 6 June 2007

Doin' it for the Kids

I'm in a steaming distemper today, which could be for any of a dozen reasons, so let's just discreetly blame the weather. It's oppressive and it needs to rain. It's making me hate.

Yet it's rather ungrateful of me to be in such a foul mood, given that I was rather flatteringly offered a job last night. "Are you going to advertise?", I said. "Not if you want it", they said. Aren't people nice?

The job is as Artistic Director of the youth theatre company with whom I did The Apple Harvest a couple of weeks ago, which is to all intents and purposes a producing theatre with an ensemble company whose performers all just happen to be aged under eighteen. As The Apple Harvest was one of the most enjoyable and satisfying experiences I've had in the theatre for ages, and the show was really rather good (though I do say so myself etc), I'm well minded to take it. It's a part time position so I could carry on with all my other activities and the solid bedrock would save me having to scrabble for other work. What's not to like?

And given that they have their own theatre, there are loads of possibilities for a kind of creative mission creep. Why shouldn't the theatre start receiving really good professional work (funding permitting blah)? Why shouldn't it form a de facto home to Silver Tongue and Strange Bedfellows, and for that matter the handful of other ideas I've been knocking around in my head for yonks but haven't had the opportunity for because of the aforementioned scrabbling about for work - or, more to the point, for cash to fund work? Given I've made a resolution to cease being a producer from this autumn onwards, this could be the beginning of a brave new world.

(Warning: extremely lengthy parenthesis.

I didn't mention that resolution, did I? Well, I'm sick to death of scrabbling around for cash like a beggar looking for the last 34p towards his bed for the night. I was brought up not to go round asking people for money and quite apart from the indignity of it and the fact that, consequent to my perception of it as undignified, it's not my metier, it means I spend considerably less time than I want to thinking creatively about the projects I'm trying to make.

As I said a week or two ago, one of the reasons I was able to enjoy The Apple Harvest so much is that it involved none of the crap usually thrown my way during the making of a production. In the professional theatre that crap is irreducible, but there are people called producers whose jobs it is to deal with it; they do so creatively and with pleasure and they probably shouldn't be the same person as the director if he wants to stay sane and free of a heart condition all the way into his thirties.

So someone else does it, or I retire early. I'm not quite sure who that is yet, but frankly if no-one wants to pick us up after all the work we've done and the successes we've had over the last few years, then we should probably be left to die quietly. Man Across the Way is going to be our calling card to producers. Jolly good news then that it's going to be an extremely fine piece of work. Though I do say so myself, etc. Interested parties, apply here.

I've never believed anyone will go about producing for Silver Tongue with more commitment than I bring to it myself, but I've naively assumed commitment in equals success out. But I've effectively been charging with my head down for four years, and it's time for someone with more finesse to step in. Then I can get on with being a proper theatremaker poncing about making art like I always intended. How the hell did I turn into a producer? I used to be so much fun.)

Even now I get a great deal from working with young performers whose energy and enthusiasm haven't been dimmed by this very sapping profession. Not to mention the fact that the work is very good: there's a prevalent belief that community and education work is consistently second-rate and unartistic, partly because it's encouraged by admittedly unappealing Arts Council priorities and partly because too many people simply think they're above it. But good work can be done in all manner of contexts so long as there are good people doing it. (And yes, I'm trying to smuggle in the implication that I'm good - but if I didn't think that, I wouldn't bother, would I?) Anyone who thinks good work can't be done with youth groups doesn't know how to work with youth groups. If Anthony Neilson can work with untrained performers, why can't I?

The problem is with a funding system - and a theatre culture - that sets up a dichotomy between "art" and "the other stuff artists have to do". But approached properly, the two can enrich each other hugely to the extent that they are at some points identical (I heartily recommend Fin Kennedy's blog for his frequent more temperate thoughts on how so). Because any dynamic theatre is a fully engaged and engaging part of its community and its culture - BAC is, Live Theatre in Newcastle is. The Royal Court suddenly, spectacularly is again: look at how many writers in the new season have suddenly burst out of its young writers programme, speaking directly to precisely the audience Dominic Cooke identified in his opening press conference. This to me bespeaks a sudden refinding of trust in the areas of its operation that aren't dedicated to immediate production. A nervous Royal Court sees the Young Writers' Programme as a way of maintaining certain funding streams, hitting arts council targets and maybe, just maybe, finding some writers who'll maybe one day do something good - but not yet. An adventurous Royal Court, looking for renewal, draws heavily on all this resource, treating it as an integral part of a producing theatre's armoury and - hey presto! - an excellent theatre is born again.

Such young writers' programmes, or community programmes, or whatever, are too often a part of a theatre's programme of work as a result of some funding priority or other. This more or less guarantees that they will be effected in bad faith and thus be half-arsed and yield no fruit. But - whisper it - these priorities exist because enlightened theatres should be doing such work. Not because it's good for those people lucky enough to be selected to participate. Because it's good for the art. Now and forever. Amen.

Think of it as a football club. The short-sighted manager, in fear of his job, wants to buy a Ghanian today, not train fifteen local kids for some distant tomorrow. "You never win anything with kids", said Alan Hansen. But the visionary manager invests in the kids and proves Alan Hansen comprehensively wrong, winning the treble in the process. But more to the point: it shouldn't be one or the other. Sir Alex Ferguson can afford to invest in the kids and buy Owen Hargreaves; why should we in the theatre be denied the same sort of opportunities just because we want our subsidy from the government rather than from some dubious foreign billionaire?

Unfortunately no artistic director in a panic and in search of a quick fix can be forced to believe that the youth set-up is anything more than an expensive lottery, an enforced tax on hope, any more than they can be forced to believe in God the father, the son and the holy spirit. He'll always resort to the safe, to the tried and tested. This, then, is the central idiocy of the fundingocracy: they haven't got their priorities wrong. They just shouldn't be trying to bribe people into sharing them. Chris Goode once said that, when at university, he thought he'd invented devising. As artists, we like to think it's our idea: even if the government body happens to have got it right, they won't make us believe they have. We need to find it out for ourselves.

So I exhort you all: look to the kids! Which in some contexts, includes me!

And apologies for the intemperacy/inarticulacy of all this. It still hasn't rained.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Hey Dan,

I, for one, would be chuffed to bits if you were artistic director at th'coach. The Apple Harvest was a resounding success and I think the place would really benefit from (and enjoy, of course) doing more devised pieces.