An Open Letter to the Warwick Commission: My thoughts and experiences as a young producer and consumer of culture in the UK.

Disclaimer: this may provoke

“We may indeed be living in a new golden age of theatre, but even if we are, I would still like to think that, lurking in a dark alleyway round the back of every new £15 million glass-and-steel culturally non elitist Shopping Mall Playhouse and Corporate Entertainment Facility, is a gobby and pretentious twenty-year-old with a Passion for real theatre, a can of petrol and a match.”

Mike Bradwell in ‘The Reluctant Escapologist’

Yesterday I attended the first of the Warwick Commission’s Provocations on The Future of Cultural Value.  With the case presented by Robert Peston about the economic value of the culture, I decided to share my thoughts around marrying both the economic and holistic arguments – if we look at major arts philanthropists in the UK their giving isn’t fueled by one or the other; it’s fueled by both.

As I sat on this thought, the discussions that arose from the audience were similar to ones I’ve heard time and time again – how do we diversify our audiences? Where are the young people on the panel? How do we engage more people beyond the sector in this debate?

So I decided to share my experience; as a young person, as a loving and adoring spectator, as a person who has recently completed studying in both secondary and higher education, as an employee of the sector and as a theatre-maker. My contribution was the following (paraphrased slightly from an adrenaline fueled nervous memory bank):

“I’m Dana. I’m a young person. And I’ll gladly sit on any future panels should you need me to. I’m a theatre maker – and I saw my time at university as my artist development phase. I wasn’t subsidised for this – although I received a loan from the government I’ll be spending the rest of my life paying that back. I was never taught how to source funding, write an ACE application, and look for trusts and foundations at university. I love making theatre and I’ve never been paid for it, the irony being that I actually now work as a fundraising fellow in the arts, on a scheme funded by the ACE. My thought to the panel is this: the economic and holistic arguments are continuously separated – is there a way of joining these together? If we look at major arts philanthropists in the UK, their giving isn’t fueled by one or the other, it’s fueled by both.”

What I felt my contribution addressed was the following thoughts/questions:

a)      Unlike most other sectors, we are as a majority, both producers and consumers – as I said above I am an audience member of, I’m an academic of, I’m an employee of and I’m a creator of art & culture in the UK. I’m involved in every possible facet. We create our supply and demand. How productive is talk about audience development and diversification if, quite frankly, we are the majority of our audience? How productive is it to sit these passionate people who are invested with their entire lives in the sector that it’s not worth asking the government for more money, and that we need to find another way to articulate our value?

b)       Arts education is extremely important and valuable, but it needs to be more varied. If we want artists to be paid for their art, we need to make sure that they are equipped with the confidence and belief in themselves to ask for it, understand how to source funding, and understand how to make it sustainable. How do we do that?

c)       My actual question: can we join the arguments about the holistic and economic values of the arts?

To my dismay, this is what Twitter took from my contribution:

The first, from @Abi_Gilmore:

Tweet One

Can you believe it?! A GENUINE YOUNG PERSON! And no Steven, I’m not a son or daughter of a panel member.

The second, from @MariaBarrat:

Tweet 2

Whilst I’m delighted that I wasn’t referred to as a genuine young person this time, I wasn’t taking about college. Over my three years of study had to sustain a roof over my head by having two part-time jobs and getting the odd £50 food shop from my parents throughout my university degree. Despite my misleading name, appearance and accent I’m not actaully White British and middle class.

I spent every last penny I had on theatre books and theatre tickets. I actually went without food for two days so I could afford to go and see Punchdrunk – true story.

The final kick in the teeth, from @UoWCommission:

Tweet Three

DEAR WARWICK COMMISSION – THAT IS NOT MY NAME!

This summary was also not the point of my contribution: I didn’t address the panel to talk negatively about my university experience – my degree programme was wonderful and made understand me how to identify value within the arts and culture. It developed my work ethic, and it provided me with a place to meet like-minded people who I’ve gone on to work with creatively since.

No wonder the sector doesn’t engage young people’ in this discussion. This was hardly the first event that I’ve attended with a similar format: the key note speech, the panel discussion, the Q&A… followed by networking wine & canapés. This isn’t a format that is going to engage a diverse audience. If anything, and I can confidently speak on behalf of a lot of young people at these events (because I’m normally huddled in the group with them), I felt extremely intimidated by that situation. There are so many artists and young people who don’t consider themselves part of the ‘sector’. We’re all creative folks – there has got to be a more creative way that we can engage different people in this discussion.

The value of culture to me is semantically understood by the way it has shaped me as a person: my experience, my hobbies and passions, and my professional life. What’s made and shaped my experience? Well, a big part of this has been working at the Roundhouse.

As a sector we use the terms ‘disadvantaged’ and ‘marginalised’ to describe young people far too often. It’s not that I don’t agree that we’re not at a disadvantage or that we aren’t marginalised because we are. The Princes Trust published a report this year which highlighted that 1 in 10 young people feel they have nothing to live for – and there have been times in my life I’ve identified with that feeling.

There are many social care & social justice charities and organisations that work with disadvantaged young people in an impactful way talking through their problems with finances, domestic issues, bullying… And yes, as highlighted in the debate, so many artists are more worried about welfare cuts than they are about arts cuts. I’m not devaluing those services – but what culture does is give young people a reason not just to live, but to enjoy living. That’s why it’s so important.

A great example of this is the Roundhouse – it lets “young people” enjoy the freedom of creativity through access to artists, equipment and space. It’s from that freedom that they develop the skills that we talk about as a sector – team work, confidence building, technical and artistic skill etc… as a theatre maker, and there is no better feeling than that of an artistic discovery or development in the rehearsal room. This is quantifiable value. This in small, regular measures is the best confidence builder I know.

At the Roundhouse young people are treated not like professionals but as professionals. We aren’t treated as young people with disadvantages – everyone is given a level playing field through equal opportunities and endless resources – and because the Roundhouse says “look this is all yours, do what you want with it” that’s why people thrive here – we have the space and time to develop as professional artists and sector employees.

I don’t think the entire focus should be on young people of course, but I do strongly believe that those of us who are young artists, audiences and employees of the sector can really help in shaping these conversations.

It’s my time to take that can of petrol and strike the match. I’d like to leave you with this final proposal if you will…

I can gather 50 young people who are cultural contributors from VERY diverse backgrounds and disciplines. They are not all from London. Some have government funding and some don’t even know it exists. All of these people are producing cultural output that is accessed by non-middle class white audiences. All of these people can name at least five other cultural outputs that have inspired them to do what they do.

Meet with us. Let us be a part in helping to shape the future of cultural value. Get us on those panels. Commission us to respond to this question.  Introduce us and get us talking to the right people. Give us half an hour, a room and a microphone to talk to those we need to convince that culture has an incredible value.

With the greatest love and respect,

Dana Segal

“Sealand” at the Arcola Tent

After a successful run in Edinburgh, Sell A Door theatre have brought this quaint little piece of new writing to the Arcola tent.

We witness the story of a meeting of two families brought together by a strange coincidence – Ted, a father grieving after the loss of his wife builds a land on sea with his son Alex. The other – a family typical of the society Ted complains about: an alcoholic father & erratic mother, constantly shunned by their daughter Sarah, a girl more who would much rather be at a squat rave than a floating utopian state.

There are some seriously incredible performances – Jessica Stone who plays Sarah, is so believable, you could have sworn they picked her up at the nearest tube station and dumped her onstage. However the cast are all East 15 graduates (which provoked an interesting post-show discussion about whether reviewers can tell if an actor is trained or not – turns out we can’t). She brings all of the qualities you would like in an actor, which makes her characters journey for me, the focus of the play and the reason to go see this show. Slightly worrying however is a the echo between the character of Sarah and the character of Tilly in Jumpy by April De Angelis (writer Luke Clarke’s mentor on the project).

The set is lovely – built with serious skill for the stage, it represents the isolation and claustrophobia presented to us through the relationships of the characters. Considering the play is 90 minutes, the cast maintained a great energy and connection which kept the audiences focus – the text is also ludicrously funny in parts which is a great credit to Luke.

It’s a great piece that still writing-wise still needs to develop, so all the actors can receive the same audience response as Stone. However with the support of fantastic production companies, great writers and a responsive audience, there is no doubt that this play has all the potential to become a modern classic.

Running at the Arcola theatre till 10th November.

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Theatre debates: Why they still matter

This morning, I was blissfully scrolling through Twitter, when a link appeared to the following blog.

http://guerrillasemiotics.com/2012/10/21-theatre-debates-i-would-love-to-put-a-moratorium-on/

“21 Theatre ‘debates’ I would love to put a moratorium on” by Jana Perkovic, an Australian based theatre writer. I found myself feeling completely enraged – unsure whether it was the commute/terrible weather/shockingly unpredictable hormones, I attempted to let it settle.

However, I find myself sat here, plugging away at the keyboard, in some vein attempt to translate this frustration into a fairly legible counter-argument. In my opinion, this blog highlights some big issues surrounding attitudes towards theatre study, participation and engagement.

My perspectives of the value of theatre have dramatically changed since leaving university. This is almost entirely down to my current job, as well as my artistic work. I am taking responsibility for the future of the theatre industry, and therefore my perspective is almost entirely in consideration of how writing/performance engages young people of all backgrounds, hence why I feel so strongly about the importance of debate.

NB: This response is in no way intended as a personal attack on Jana. It is used as an example to highlight what I feel is a much larger issue with attitudes towards theatre in a variety of capacities.

NB: I also apologise in advance for having to describe myself and certain people as ‘young’ or ‘emerging’. I hate those terms. I have no doubt of the level of professionalism; unfortunately it is an easier way of distinguishing career development thus far.

Why debate still matters:

I am saddened by the cynical use of quotation marks around the word debate. I understand that for someone like Jana, who has had the privilege of studying and engaging with theatre for many years, may become slightly exhausted by particular conversations (21 to be precise).

However since the Edinburgh Fringe this year, twitter has been rife with blog posts, articles & hashtags surrounding many of the issues highlighted by Jana as redundant debate issues. These posts have been coming from theatre heavyweights such as Lyn Gardiner and Mark Fisher, as well as from talented emerging writers such as Catherine Noonan and Dan Hutton (catherinanoonan.com & danhutton.wordpress.com). The best part is that these two ‘worlds’ of theatre are engaging and debating with each other. This has been going beyond the cyber too, with events like ‘For the Love of Theatre’ at Battersea Arts Centre – inviting professionals and young people to discuss such issues around critisism in an open forum.

It’s not coincidence that across the theatre spectrum these issues are being explored. It highlights a need for these debates to still exist: firstly, to inform the younger generations of the industry, aiding them with their intellectual development which can only inform whichever artistic practice they develop. This in turn directly aids any current investment in the future of the industry – advocated by those professionals engaging with us.

On academic/intellectual engagement with the theatre:

I agree with many of Jana’s responses to the debates, particularly those surrounding arts funding.

However any form of relating or understanding from the perspective of the everyday theatre-goer (unless they have had the privilege of an academic crash-course in performance theory) is abolished with the following statement:

“15. Poor and wrong definitions of post-dramatic theatre, followed by fierce discussions of how there is a story in everything, you can’t not have a story, etc. (Everyone should actually read Hans-Thies Lehmann.)”

I have read Hans-Thies Lehmann on the recommendation of a tutor at university. I wrote extensively about the theory in relation to various works. I would never recommend everyone to read it. Why? Well firstly, there are so many alternative ways of engaging with the arts in a meaningful way that don’t relate to the avant garde. Many ways which much more valuable to society than debating things in academic circles.

NB: I am not entirely dismissing the importance of academic enquiry – in many disciplines it can later go on to inform government policy etc, but I’m talking about it in terms of the arts & making a direct, current impact to a particular group of people.

I understand that perhaps Jana’s point attempted to illustrate the annoyance we all experience when someone enters a discussion with large statements about a topic they are ill-informed in. However, if a young person approaches me looking to engage more with theatre, I am not going to order them to go out and spend £25.99 on a copy of Postdramatic Theatre.

Don’t get me wrong, I adore a good theory book. However, think back to the beginning of this fascination with theatre – how did you first engage with it? I’d tell them to take that money, take advantage of the brilliant subsidised ticket offers and go see as much work as possible, because the experience of performance is what informs debate more than anything theory book does (Lehmann’s himself is informed by SRS, DV8, Pina Bausch etc). For me, provided that someone has seen a piece of theatre/read a play and has an opinion on it, it is enough to engage in a debate with.

NB: If you are now curious about postdramatic theatre, read this lovely summary from Andrew Haydon: http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/theatreblog/2008/nov/11/postdramatic-theatre-lehmann

On writing:

I find it really difficult to accept the tone of the piece, which is a shame because many of the other blogs featured on the website are engaging and informative. I have clearly outlined my motivation and interest in the arts in terms of my work, so you can of course understand my complete outrage at the following statement:

“10. Whether and how we should ‘support’ ‘emerging’ artists. (Support to do what?)”

This appears to be the only debate in which Jana has not closed the argument with her clear opinion; therefore I have decided to construct a clear answer to this to assist Jana with putting this debate to bed:

Yes we should, and we can support them in many ways that go beyond financial. In fact, many organisations do: Roundhouse, Soho Theatre, A Younger Theatre, Ideastap. NB: Apologies for not having more info about other regional schemes, to illustrate the point I have used ones directly accessible to me.

These institutions provide facilities in which to practice the art, offer platforms and funding opportunities to show it, they offer inspiration and opportunity at a time where our government is letting us down. (I have addressed this issue in a piece on funding which can be found here)

It contradicts the fact that Jana believes that there should be lots of art funding available; does that not apply in her eyes to younger people who are still in the very early stages of developing their craft? I really hope not.

Conclusion

I am hoping that several of the topics I have addressed have highlighted that debate should be encouraged in a healthy and intellectually fulfilling way, for anyone of any academic background.

Review: “Cesarean Section – Essays on Attempted Suicide” @ Summerhall

A bit of distance is what is most certainly needed for this review.

C – Section is a show that goes beyond the usual arc of emotion one is encouraged to experience in mainstream British theatre.
 A visceral experience in its truest form – it attacks you in a place where most people are too afraid to access (unlike me, who basically sobbed my way through the entire show). So what makes this show so different to anything else we’ve seen?

Most of us are vaguely familiar with the idea of ‘physical theatre’. Using a physical language of gesture & movement in order to narrate to us relationships and emotions. Some of us have had the pleasure of seeing amazing British physical theatre in action, like Frantic Assembly and DV8. But what is it about Teatr Zar that goes somewhere beyond this?

I was lucky enough to experience a three day workshop with Gzregorz Bral (well I say “lucky enough”, what I mean is I paid money for it) who is the Artistic Director of Song of The Goat Theatre. In these three days, besides sweating enough to equate the amount of rainfall in Edinburgh, what I was reintroduced to (touched upon by my wonderful tutor Ian Morgan at university) was the amazing training method they have. Polish theatre is the trust form of presence: actor development isn’t about stripping away any social, political & personal boundaries that one may carry subconsciously (through physical tension, or vocal restraint) and re-accessing a point where impulse, presence and creativity are allowed to exist in their purest form.

This is exactly what exists onstage when seeing C – section: we have various actor interactions, scored by the most beautiful and haunting choral work you will ever hear, that deliver for us (dare I say it) the mental and emotional experience of attempting suicide. We are presented with various attempts on a stage littered with metaphoric symbols of suicide – the spilling and spitting of red wine as the biological and religious symbols of blood, the glass representing both the fragility of life and the very real material with which  one can commit suicide.

It is hard to sum the experience up in words, let alone try to ‘review’ or critique it. The reason for this is quite simply due to the fact that Poland funds its theatre with the greatest support and respect for it. Before I laid eyes on it, the show was under development for many many years, and supported to do so. Shows like this make me genuinely sad about the current state of British theatre, but the fact that everyone is loving Polish theatre at the moment, and that it is being so heavily included in academic and educational contexts, that it will only have a positive influence on the future of British theatre.

What makes a good reviewer? My Edinburgh Fringe experience, and mini-campaign for the abolition of the “star rating” system.

This year I had my first experience of “mass reviewing” – as part of the U Review scheme in association with The Stage, myself and six other writers found ourselves reviewing over 100 student shows, in less than two weeks between us.

Although one cynically might not think so, it came as a complete surprise to me that the more and more I wrote, the more negative I became.
I love theatre. I make theatre. I believe that everyone should be involved in the arts.

But the more and more work I saw, the more and more I felt like an X factor judge – crushing each hopeful but talentless performer’s dreams of a great review with a single glare from behind my notepad.

At first, I was understanding: sympathetically writing about new companies in a much less critical way than I would scrutinise professional work. Why? Is it because as an ex student I can empathise? No, because if we’re not aspiring to professional standards then how are we ever to become professionals?

Is it because I understand what it like to create a production on a shoestring budget with a unrealistic rehearsal schedule? Absolutely. It’s a simple fact that no student company has even 10% of the funding that professional companies do, which limits artistic decisions immensely.

Yet, for example Entita’s “Fall to The Top” (see review here) was created with nothing but a few briefcases as set, giving the show a visual and conceptual core. On the other hand, Be Fruitful and Multiply (see review here) an amazing play – had a serious lack of visual appeal, reliant on quite frankly average acting performances to sustain the audiences attention.

Having given generous reviews to young companies, it was clear that the nail in the coffin was John Roberts review of my show, Pornography. (I’d rather you didn’t, but the link is here).
TWO FUCKING STARS.
Now I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to see a two star show. To publish a two star review in my eyes is saying “this show isn’t worth seeing”, it doesn’t say positive things or provide feedback to work on.
Yes I am biased – I have every right to believe that my show was superior to those that I have given better reviews for. So why should my show in direct comparison be made to look worse due to its review?

We accidentally sold out, it was our first night in the space, and the cast panicked and naturally reverted into a comfortable (i.e. average) performance. As a reviewer I felt like I would have understood this and overlooked these factors when writing my review (or at least considered it within the review itself). But John Roberts doesn’t care about this – he doesn’t care that it was my first production – so why should I care about other peoples circumstance?

R.I.P Dana Segal, the sensitive and empathetic reviewer. Enter Dana Segal, the theatre CRITIC.

The whole experience raises a lot of interesting questions.

Writing for The Stage means that we do not allocate what are commonly known as “star ratings”. However, plastered all over every Edinburgh Fringe flyer, included on every tweet, shouted at you down the Royal Mile, are the words “FOUR STAR REVIEW”/”FIVE STAR REVIEW”.

The problem is, that there is no clear overall system for what each star indicates that is mutual between review papers/websites, yet there is a clear indication as to what audiences and artists regard as a good review (4 and above). To get a two star review from John could possibly be a miracle and have the value of a five star review from somewhere else – but no audience member cares for that, and no artist takes positive feedback from that either.

Another issue I have with the star review system is that often when a company has received a positive review, they take nothing but the star rating system, and don’t act on any of the review notes. This seriously undermines the work of the reviewer who has attempted to translate the experience of a show into 250-300 words. Although particular reviewing bodies seem to try and combat this (Three Weeks place the rating of the show at the end of the review, in tiny detail), others still rely heavily on the star rating system.

Of course, there are some cons to the removal of the system. The day after John Roberts’ performance, Andrew Haydon came to see the show, and wrote an interesting and rewarding review/analysis (read here).
Which of them has a greater value to the artists and potential audiences of the show? In which case, if we remove the star rating system, the only thing that enables the value of the judgement is the writing and theatre-going experience. In which case despite a lot of theatre-going experience for my age, I am nowhere near as experienced as someone like Haydon, therefore is my review is less valuable than his. Hmm.
Then again, I have a varied experience of acting, directing and producing, more so than people who have studied the art of writing, so who’s opinion is more valuable with that comparison?

Then again, the theatre-going experiences of the audience will always be varied. And as reviewers it is ultimately our job to assess whether the investment of time and money from the audience is worth an experience, from the truest audience perspective.

So here’s to abolishing the star review system and re-embracing the incredible and varied reviewing talent of reviewers – whether it’s for fun, for the future, or if you’re fortunate enough, for your pay cheque.

a great addition & further discussion on here: scores of reviewers