Chris Monks quits Stephen Joseph Theatre after six years

Chris Monks

Guys, continued apologies for anyone waiting for the Brighton Fringe roundup. Next post, I promise. But before I can do that, a bit a surprise news I didn’t see coming at all: Chris Monks, Alan Ayckbourn’s successor as Artistic Director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre, is stepping down on the 11th December, falling just short of a seven year tenure. It’s a surprise because it’s a sharp contrast to his famous predecessor Alan Ayckbourn who was around for donkey’s years. Likewise for Max Roberts at Live Theatre.

The last time I heard an announcement of this nature was Simon Stallworthy’s sudden departure from the Gala Theatre in 2010 after five years. But that was pretty acrimonious affair after his cherished new writing programme got cut back very quickly. (For the record, I don’t miss the Gala’s new writing at all, but I still felt it was a bit off to cancel plays already programmed.) Chris Monks’s departure, however, is somewhat more mysterious. The main reason given is that the arrival of a new chief executive made it “the right time to step aside”. But with outgoing chief executive Stephen Wood also having been round for donkey’s years, that to me felt like another stage of moving on from the Ayckbourn era. Unless there’s a massive long-standing feud between Chris Monks and incoming chief executive Matthew Russell that none of us know about, it does seem a very unusual reason to choose to step down. Continue reading

Sorry Graeae Theatre, but I don’t want to be a quota-filler

COMMENT: Graeae Theatre’s “Write to Play” sounds like an great opportunity for writers with disabilities. Here’s why you can count me out.

Write to play logo. Sub-title Last week I had one of the strangest experiences in my writing career. On Tuesday, a writing opportunity came up on Live Theatre’s Twitter feed, from Graeae Theatre Company. Normally, I don’t bother with these things. Blog regulars will know I’m generally cynical about script submissions and competitions – the rest of you can look here to see the depths of my cynicism. The reasons I rarely take part are many and varied, but the bottom line is that the chance of getting somewhere is usually so vanishingly small it’s not worth my time to put an e-mail together. But this was different. It pays well – and believe me, I could do with the money. It would involve a partnership with Live Theatre – and there’s nothing I could use more than a new writing theatre seeing first-hand what I’m doing. And – most crucially of all – what they are looking for would put me with an excellent chance of getting this.

But I didn’t snap it up. I had reservations. For six hours, I ummed and ahhed about whether to put myself forwards. And then, coincidentally, I read an article in The Stage where the artistic director Jenny Sealey called for something I fundamentally disagreed with. So I said what I thought of this idea, and put myself fundamentally at odds with her position. And in doing so, I think I’ve burnt my boats. I don’t think Graeae’s going to be coming back to me in a hurry now.

So what was this programme that looked so good? It’s their Write to Play scheme, now in its third year. What do they look for? Live in the Yorks, Humber or the north-east. Tick. Have a passion and commitment to writing for stage. Tick. Have experience of writing for performance. You betcha. And the biggie: identify as deaf or disabled. In law, yes. That’s most of the competition out of the picture – and also the problem I have with this opportunity. Let me explain. Continue reading

What’s worth watching: summer 2015

Apologies to anyone waiting for my Brighton Fringe roundup saying how great you were – that’s going to have to wait a little longer. Right now I’ve got to hurry up with my recommendations for the summer months for theatre back here in the north-east.

This list covers plays up to the end of September. There’s a play or two I have in mind that’s programmed in the final quarter of the year, but that will come in my next list. Yet again, please treat this as a cross-section of good plays on offer than an exhaustive list – there will be some good plays I’ve never heard of. You also won’t find recommendations for the Edinburgh Fringe (or Buxton fringe) here – that is coming later.

Sticking with my current practice, there’s my lists of safe choice, bold choice, and a completely new category. Read on … Continue reading

A tough choice is coming on arts funding – and we need to make it

Baltic mill during the Turner Prize
Prestige and pride for the north-east – but is it still a good use of our money?

COMMENT: What is arts funding for? That is a difficult decision the arts community has to make, before someone else makes it for us.

Now, don’t get me wrong. In the early hours on May 8th, I was one of the many people who threw my cushion at the telly in disgust and went to bed – along with, I suspect, most of the arts community. But the fact remains a Conservative majority has been elected, and that means more cuts are on the way. (For the record, my own view is that some sort of cuts were necessary in the last Parliament but no further cuts are needed in Parliament, but that’s not what the voters decided. Arse.) And this almost certainly means that arts funding is going to take a further hit. Let’s be realistic: there’s not much we can do to stop this. It is inconceivable that we can make the case to exempt arts from cuts when services such as the Police and social care are facing cuts too. There was a good case to argue no further austerity is needed, but the other side won the vote. There are perhaps some battles to be fought over how much of the cuts should fall on the arts, but the chance of escaping cuts altogether is about zero.

And it’s a shame that the arts are facing further cuts. I feel the arts industry – theatres in particular – have handled this matter with remarkable pragmatism and dignity. Most anti-cuts protests seem to either call for the government to either stick more paper in the money-printing machine, or make ludicrous claims about how we could definitely pay for everything if only we raided the tax havens of those fat cats. Campaigns such as My Theatre Matters, on the other hand, have accepted they can’t be exempt from cuts but don’t want the arts subsidies to be singled out as an easy cash cow (such as what councils such as Newcastle try to do). Some big theatres such as Newcastle’s Theatre Royal are even honest enough to say that they can manage without a subsidy and other theatres need the money more.

But the reality is that you can’t escape cuts simply by being pragmatic or dignified. The question is likely to be not if there’s cuts but where the cuts fall. Chances are the choices will be more painful than last time. But if it has to come to this, it’s important that we have our say. I’m not saying that the arts industry should do the government’s dirty work in deciding where to make cuts, but the one thing we urgently need to agree is what the purpose of arts funding is. Continue reading