Odds and sods: February 2016

Well, I was thinking we wouldn’t need an odds and sods this month, as most of February things have been rather quiet. But it’s all got rather busy towards the end, so I’ve got quite a bit to write, after all. Here we go:

BBC Three goes online – and it’s not encouraging

New BBC Three logo

Oh dear

As we’ve been resigned to for months, BBC Three’s so-called “online move” took place this month. Last time I wrote about this, I was a bit more upbeat, because the plans implied that it would remain as a broadcast channel online – that, I believe, would have acted as a brake to stop the channel being eroded further. It also wouldn’t have been too hard for satellite and cable to carry on transmitting the channel where limited bandwidth isn’t an issue.

Instead, it’s been whittled down to a page on iPlayer, with a pink background. The new logo has been widely ridiculed as the same kind of “brand” bullshit that the BBC itself lampooned on W1A – and okay, you shouldn’t judge a whole TV channel an a choice of logo, but it’s not an encouraging sign for how seriously the BBC is taking this channel. And already the BBC is talking about merging BBC Three with Radio 1. The BBC stresses this is just in case online BBC Three fails to get “sufficient traction”. But if they were planning for the online channel’s failure before it had even launched, that throws serious doubts on their supposed belief in a bright online future.

Coupled with the fact that much of BBC Three’s money has been diverted to the far more risk-averse BBC One, you really have to wonder about the BBC’s priorities under Tony Hall. Seems that creativity and risk-taking are the things most at stake when a leadership changes. Speaking of which …

The SJT has a new artistic director

Now for something more encouraging, making it into this month’s news by the skin of its teeth. This time last month I reported that the Stephen Joseph Theatre had finally started recruiting its new artistic director. I wasn’t sure how long this would take but … we have an answer. It’s Paul Robinson, who I admit I’ve never heard of before. But he is currently artistic director of Theatre 503. That’s a well-know theatre is south London that I had heard of.

Paul RobinsonI know very little about this at the moment; I’ll write more when I have a better idea of what this means for the theatre. At first glance, there is one difference I can see from his predecessors. Alan Ayckbourn and Chris Monks both had some new writing credentials to their name: Monks with his adaptations of Gilbert and Sullivan and other operas; and Ayckbourn with – well, Ayckbourn. Paul Robinson doesn’t seem to have any notable new writing credentials of his own. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: it does look like the post of SJT artistic director doesn’t allow much time to pursue your own new writing any more, as (so it seems) Chris Monks found to his cost. Maybe best under these circumstances to pick someone without such strong interests in this.

What Paul Robinson has instead is a long track record of supporting other people’s new writing. He is widely credited with building Theatre 503 into what it is today.  So perhaps this is a lifeline for SJT’s new writing. A few months ago it looks like they’d lost interest in this, but maybe this will now change. Also – perhaps more importantly – he guided Theatre 503 through a difficult time a few years back when it lost its Arts Council funding.

Another point of note it that Paul Robinson took a lot of plays to other theatres, so maybe this will give the SJT some ready-made partnerships. Quite a few collaborations with Live Theatre; I always thought it was a pity that Live and SJT never followed up on their collaboration with Geordie Sinatra. Maybe now they will. Speaking of which …

Live Theatre’s new associate artists

Last year Live Theatre’s Live Lab introduced a new scheme called “associate artists”. Last year this went to three spoken word artists, and they’ve been in action lately with their collaboration called Red is the New Blue. I will be covering that shortly. But before then, some news about this year’s associate artists that grabbed by interest.

First up is Nina Berry. She’s primarily a writer and not a performer, but what I’ve seen so far looks promising. Alphabetti Theatre will be pleased with this news, because Nina Berry can be considered one of theirs, but the thing of hers that impressed me the most was The Terminal Velocity of Snowflakes that I saw two months ago at Live Lab’s Christmas adventures. At this stage, it’s unclear what being an associate artist writer entails, but I can probably guess there’ll be some sort of longer plays coming at point in the next year. We will see.

The other associate artist is not a person but a company. It’s Plane Paper Theatre, who don’t appear to have had any previous associations with Live at all. I have, however, heard of their production of Odd Shaped Balls; I never got round to seeing it myself during its run at Edinburgh Fringe 2014, but I heard a lot of good things about it from people I trust. Again, it’s unclear what being an associate artist entails, but a rough guess we could be looking at joint Plane Paper / Live productions in 6-12 months’ time. Also good to see Live reach out to artists who haven’t worked their way up a new writing theatre hierarchy – they just went ahead and took their play to a festival where anyone can take part. Speaking of which …

A new supervenue at Brighton

We won’t know the line-up for the UK’s biggest open festival for another couple of months, but we do know the line-up for the second festival. Brighton Fringe’s programme has just been announced. I am still looking through this to pick out things that grab my attention – watch this space for my recommendations.

Sweet venues logoBut before then, the headline news has been the arrival of Sweet Venues in Brighton. As Edfringe veterans will know, for the last few years Sweet has been running a few spaces in a hotel on Grassmarket (and, in my opinion, doing a considerably better job than The Space). They are a small player compared to the giants of Underbelly, Pleasance and Assembly, but in Brighton it’s a different matter. They are going to take over managements of an existing venue, the Dukebox (plus St. Andrew’s Church over the road), and they are adding in two extra spaces at the Waterfront hotel. That’s a total of four spaces, which is arguably a supervenue by Brighton’s standards.

(Full disclosure: I am performing with Sweet Venues this year, but this is something I would be reporting regardless.)

The other interesting detail is that fringe entries this year have increased from 720 to 900. That is a big increase, and it doesn’t look like something that can be accounted for simply by the extra capacity of Sweet and Otherplace. For one reason or another, there seems to have been a big upsurge in interest for taking part. Now let’s see if it’s matched by an upsurge in audiences.

But going back to the arrival of Sweet, I think this will be good for the Brighton Fringe for two reasons. Firstly, whilst I wouldn’t like all venues in Brighton to be side interests of big Edinburgh venues, it’s good to have at least one venue setting up in Brighton to show there’s more to “the fringe” than the big one in Scotland. But I also think it’s good to have a counterbalance to Otherplace. This year, The Warren is going up to five spaces, which combined with their other two spaces at the Basement, gives them seven. That’s an awful lot of dominance for one venue chain in a festival the size of Brighton. I don’t think this is healthy for a festival fringe, nor do I think it’s fair on the venue in question to be left open to allegations of abusing its power. Let’s hope for some healthy competition in years to come. Speaking of which …

The end of Underground Venues?

One festival fringe that is already dominated by a single venue is Buxton Fringe. Underground Venues run three spaces, and whilst I believe Tom and Yaz exercised their great power with great responsibility, it did kind of end up as a two-tier festival with everybody who’s anybody fighting over the limited slots at Pauper’s Pit, the Barrel Room and the Arts Centre Studio. Attempts to create other venues to counter-balance Underground Venues never really took off.

Well, it now looks like the balance of power is going to be shaken up the hard way. Last month I joked that Underground Venues were having their very last season again, because of the grand redevelopment plans that never seen to go ahead. This time, it looks like they really mean it, and the mood is that 2016 really will be the last time that Pauper’s Pit and the Barrel Room can be used as fringe spaces. The Arts Centre studio will almost certainly continue, but with its use shared by the Buxton Festival, that can only take a small number of acts. So far, it is unclear where the rest will go.

So Buxton Fringe 2017 onwards looks to be highly unpredictable. Can Buxton find a new space that works as a proper fringe theatre? Can they keep the performers who’ve grown to love Pauper’s Pit? Some big questions for the months to come. And will Tom and Yaz manage a new venue? Speaking of which …

No stopping Boris Johnson …

… at least, not when Dave Benson plays everyone’s favourite comedy politician. Boris: World King was last year’s headline production of Tom and Yaz, Managers of Underground Venues and Three’s Company, their artistic arm. I expected that to do well at the Edinburgh Fringe, and it did, but I don’t think anyone expected it to be the runaway success it turned out to be.

Boris on his Boris BikeWhen a production is that wildly successful, the question is what happens next. And now, we have an answer. Boris: World King is embarking on a run at Trafalgar studios. I’m not too familiar with their hierarchy of small London theatres and their prestige, but I’m assuming that a theatre in the West End – even a studio theatre surrounded by 800-seaters – has got to be at the top end of the scale. Now, as we all know, the real Boris Johnson has been in the news lately with a certain stance on a certain referendum, and anyone who’s seen the play will know this is going to be a spanner in the works for the ending. Tom Crawshaw says this is going to need a major rewrite. It’s almost tempting to trek to London and see it again just to see how he does it.

But will the West End’s gain be Buxton’s loss? Tom, Yaz and Three’s Company have been primarily based in London for years, but in spite of their success in London and Ediburgh, their loyalty to Buxton has held out remarkably well. My guess that whatever happens, Buxton will always be their #1 choice for performances prior to future Edinburgh Fringe adventures, but beyond that, who knows?

And that’s all for February. No news of new projects this time, but I’ve been chatting to Caroline Horton and Paddy Campbell and they both seem to have interesting projects in the pipeline – although at this stage plans are too vague to say anything. Maybe next month. That was February, roll on March.

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