in it together by Gavin Stride

There is a story told, i think, about Sibelius in which he was asked ‘How come all your friends are bankers and financiers rather than artists’ Sibelius thought for a second and then replied ‘because bankers talk less about money than artists’  I guess when you have money its easy to not talk about it. The fact that there is a much welcomed discussion that started with money is a reflection of the state we are in.

It’s hard to disagree with many of the perspectives that have been prompted by Bryony Kimmings heart felt blog You show me yours. And followed up by many others including Andy FieldDavid JubbEmily Coleman and Amelia Bird. Thank God, people care. The debate has widened to include the questioning of where investment is best directed in the run up to a new NPO process. So, somewhat trepidatiously, here are a few thoughts of my own. I offer them as someone who continues to make my own work as well as lead an organisation that produces a number of companies and supports a wider range of artists to achieve their ambitions. We are also one of the prime movers in house, which works with programmers in 120 venues across the south east to build the audience for contemporary theatre.

And that would be my first point. The unspoken truth in many of these conversations is that the market for contemporary theatre is small and in danger of becoming smaller.  We need to grow the pie – and that is going to take artists and programmers understanding each other.

We have got to build the audience if we are to avoid turning further in on ourselves. I completely agree that artists should be paid fees but I also know many venues don’t have the resources. There are a host of buildings being kept open with sticking plasters . But would we have them shut altogether to show that their ambition is too great or to demonstrate the scale of the crisis? Less would be less.

Many venues, including the one I work from, don’t have programming budgets. Indeed I know that many venues have an income target against their programme line, often around 120%.  We have to make the programming budget balance across the year. Of course, we will mix and cross subsidise where we can. Tim Vine and Showaddywaddy fund theatre. But we have to work hard to build an audience for the theatre that we want to present – to say nothing of the intimate, locational or participative models that nearly always require more of the venue, additional funding and time. As a North American colleague says ‘they’re killing us with intimacy’.  As an aside I should say that comedy agents and programmers delight in box office splits (usually around the 80/20 range) because they are confident they will get an audience. We trust each other less with theatre.

I share some of the concern around the proliferation of artist development programmes but I would say three things. Firstly, sometimes, they are built with resources that are new, often from completely unexpected sources with staff taking on additional responsibilities because they want to make things happen. Secondly they can be created with no resources  at all but with a desire from a particular venue manager to send a signal to the sector that they want to use what they do have to support artists. Be it space, or advice or the weight of association. Thirdly, it is possible to do lots just by being open. For example we will meet any artist or company from the South East for one hour, just to start a conversation, whoever they are.

And then there is house. Which I hope is doing some of the things that we all yearn for. Working at finding shared ambition among artists and programmers to make the best use of our resources, energy and enthusiasm to reach an audience. One of the key things house does is pay the full fee directly to the artists in return for a % of the box office in the presenting venue. It’s not a particularly original model but it takes some of the risk away so that artist and venue can focus on building a relationship. And it has meant that artists such as Richard Dedomenici and Caroline Horton have been able to tour extensively to places that would not have taken the work. And, yes, sometimes it doesn’t work and the venue doesn’t get an audience. In which case we can explore why and decide to either help more or suggest that the venue might lack the will or ability to programme theatre. But we delight when it works and a venue is introduced to a new artist or an artist to a new town. Or, as has happened, an artist returns without our help.

I should say something about judgement. The work that house programmes is chosen, almost always from work that has been seen (we have toured international work on the basis of seeing a DVD) and I think that there is a completely legitimate role for programmers to play in knowing and testing their audience and selecting the artists that meet those ambitions best. I do not think that venues are there solely to fulfil the ambitions of artists. At their best they are able to face both ways and make new experiences happen for artists and audiences.

There are other things we can do. Try new models, develop new relationships and use our position to champion the sector. Esmee Fairbairn have recently agreed to invest substantially in a three year programme of work to allow artists to spend paid time working with a venue at the start of a new idea that might achieve the ambitions of both. In that instance they needed someone to articulate the challenge and propose one way of changing things.

Enough. i am going for a walk. but i am bound to keep thinking. i might add more later