Odds and sods: November 2019

Time for 2019’s final odds and sods. Let’s get straight into it. November has been a month of riots and the total destruction of the country, or at least that’s what Mark Francois told me. But in between rebuilding civilisation from the shattered remains of our society, this happened:

Stuff that happened in November

There was one important bit of news, and that was the events at Middlesbrough Town Hall coming to light. The short version is that this venue refused “comedian” (note use of quotation marks) Roy Chubby Brown the use of Middlesbrough Town Hall, the mayor overruled management, and the manager of the venue resigned in protest. The long version is these actions shine a spotlight into the normally murky world of programming and politics. And with both the original actions of the venue and the subsequent intervention of the mayor, you should be concerned. For more details, see We need to talk about Roy Chubby Brown.

Apart from that, here’s the rest of the news, and my thoughts on the matter.

Lumiere 2021 is on

ejgvzgzxuaieqqjWe start with the big event of November, which is Lumiere. As usual, I will be doing a roundup, probably so late that by the time it’s done it’ll be time for the next Lumiere. As anyone who was in Durham that week will know, the weather was not kind and there was a lot of rain on three of the four nights. Anecdotally, I overheard a lot of people saying they weren’t going to bother because of the weather, and for anyone who is used to Lumiere crowds and know when and where it’s hard to get around, it was plain to see the numbers were down, although there was a consolation that you had to spend less time queuing in the rain. The turnout estimates are now out and as suspected, it is down quite a lot: 165,000, a drop of nearly a quarter from last year’s peak of 240,000. Had this happened in 2013, when the question over a return was up in the air, that would have been a disaster.

Luckily for Lumiere, it turns out that Lumiere 2019 and Lumiere 2021 were commissoned by Durham County Council at the same time, and they show no sign of having second thought because the 2021 return was announced almost immediately after the lights went off. That doesn’t mean Artichoke has nothing to worry about; we can be sure the rain was a reason for a fall in numbers, but we can’t be sure it was the sole reason. There could be underwhelming figures again in 2021 without necessarily having weather to blame, then there might be trouble. But that test is two clear years away. For now, Lumiere Durham lives to fight another day.

Content warnings at Vault

Now it’s over to London. The Vault festival has announced its programme, so I’ve been looking through it to see what I can put in a preview. Most of the programme is still that’s completely unknown to me, but there are enough artists I recognise to produce a list of recommendations. Expect that in January next year. Right now, however, I want to highlight something Vault has started doing this year. Often I talk of the Vault Festival as a next-best thing outside of festival fringe season, but on the occasion, they have done something that I think Edinburgh and Brighton Fringes could learn from, and that is how to handle content warnings.

I last wrote about content warnings during my Brighton Fringe coverage when they joined Edinburgh in putting them on their online programme entries. I had various thoughts about this, but it boiled down to one theme: people should have the choice as to whether or not to see them. Now, one point that has been made since then is that in some venue there is a choice to see content warnings, but it’s not easy, often involving searching obscure corners of websites or having to ring up the venue and ask. But that does not change my view which is that it’s easy for content warnings to be one click away. Underground Venues at Buxton Fringe has been doing that for years and it works fine, so I’m glad to see a bigger venue taking on this idea.

That’s the easy bit. The harder bit – and the bit where I don’t have an answer – is what should actually go into content warnings. The pattern I’ve spotted with Edinburgh Fringe and Brighton Fringe is that everyone errs on the side of caution and puts content warnings against pretty much everything. A warning of violent or sexual content might be an advance warning of something really graphic or harrowing, but I’ve also seen plays where the it was so trivial I could barely work out what stuff warranted the warning at all. And if everything’s a content warning, nothing’s a content warning. But how do you make a content warnings more useful without it being an outright spoiler? Obviously the people who’ve experienced trauma should be the people to ask, but the last time I raised this I got responses from five different people and had five different answers.

But I still strongly believe content warnings should be goverened by individual choice, and it’s good to see Vault Festival recognises this. Now, I hope, we can start on the harder task of making these choices count.

Dyslexia and auditions

This isn’t a thing that happen in November as such, but it was about a column written in The Stage. I don’t normally respond to articles just because someone chose to write about something, but I’m making an exception here because I’m glad this has been brought up. In summary, it was a call for auditions to make allowances for people with dyslexia who may have trouble reading a script cold. I, of course, have my own gripes over lack of reasonable adjustments. I’ve previously written about issues faced by people with Asperger’s in theatres, and my frustration isn’t do much that things aren’t being done to overcome barriers, but that these barriers aren’t even being acknowledged.

However, let’s get back to the subject. In fairness to the people I complain to, the issues I raise aren’t easy to pin down or understand. But that excuse cannot possibly apply to dyslexia, and if there’s one thing about article that surprises me, it’s that this is still an issue in fully-professional theatre. I used to frequently work with a woman who struggled with auditions for this very reason, but I took this into account because she was invariably fantastic on stage once she knew the lines. Obviously, I had the advantage of already knowing what she could do – could I be ruling out other people who never had the chance to show what they can do? What I do to try to avert this is make it clear that if anyone has dyslexia or anything else that might hamper them reading a script at audition to tell me (privately if necessary) so that I can take this into account. Maybe I’m doing enough, maybe I’m not. But surely that’s got to be an improvement on people who seemingly behave like this problem doesn’t exist and doesn’t matter. It’s been nearly twenty-five years since the disability discrimination act, more than enough time to work this one out.

Perhaps I’m too cynical, but it seems to me that the root problem for Sian Polhill-Thomas and me and many other people is that too many organisations are wedded to doing things a certain way, and they refuse to consider that this might not be best for everybody else. It doesn’t matter how much evidence there is to the contrary; it’s too much of a leap to realise that not being able to read scripts on sight doesn’t mean you can’t act, just it it’s too much of a leap to realise that not being able to take in complicated instructions over the phone doesn’t mean you can’t do a job. But then, it seems to me that too many theatres are only interested in diversity when it makes them look good, and for some of us the game still hasn’t progressed beyond the disableds being weak and helpless and in need of help. The idea that someone who isn’t neurotypical being capable of having positions of responsibility with small adjustments still doesn’t seem to be in fashion. I’m glad that The Stage has considered this issue worth reporting – but I’m more disappointed that something that easy to solve is still going on.

Gilesgate Advent windows

ek-j9hkw4aigtxvNow let’s slightly beind the rules and report something from early December, because I don’t do a December odds and sods and I don’t want this waiting two months. It’s also a bit of hyper-local arts news that won’t mean anything to most of you. It is, however, really cool.

So in Glesgate on the green (where I lived until last month), there is a scheme known as the Gilesgate advent windows. It’s quite self explanatory to anyone walking past, but for each of the first twenty-four days in December, a lit-up picture appears in a window of a house. Together the number, of course, like a proper advent calendar. This, I am told, is co-ordinated by St. Giles Church, hence the more traditional themes. Such as Mary leading Jospeh carrying donkey expecting baby Jesus if I’ve remembered the story correctly. Last time there was a window with all the Christmas movies it, though. Whether anyone will go one step further and do a traditional blood-soaked diaorama of traditional Christmas movie Die Hard is yet to be seen.

Anyway, if you’re in reach of Gilesgate this December it’s worth a look. Everyone else, I’ll be posting pictures of Twitter of the advent windows every few days. Have fun either way.

Northern Stage at Vault

And the last bit of news – again breaking in December but worth reporting now – it’s back to the Vault Festival. But also a bit of local news too. Amongst the many things in the 2020 Vault Festival is what’s called a “Northern Stage takeover“. To London theatre, this isn’t big news – I’m still getting to grips with the intricacies of the Vault fesitval, but there’s been quite a few festivals within festivals there – but it’s significant for the north-east, as it’s a sign of the direction Northern Stage is going post-Edinburgh.

The last news we heard of this nature was last year, when Northern Stage announced a “hiatus” from its Edinburgh Fringe venue it had been running since 2012, firstly at St. Stephen’s Church to the north of the hubbub, and later within Summerhall as a close partnership. With Northern Stage not returning this year either, it looks like the hiatus has become permanent. One thing Northern Stage took pride in was providing an affordable route to the Edinburgh Fringe, partly through their NPO subsidy, partly through a risk-sharing model. Sadly, however, Northern Stage at Edinburgh seemed to suffer the same fate as Forest Fringe: the endless tide of growth leading to an endless tide of costs, and all attempts to stem the tide having the same success as King Canute. As I understand it, Northern Stage could have persisted if they wanted to, but it was the workload that proved the deal-breaker: whilst other theatres used the summer months to have a breather and take stock, Northern Stage were tearing their hair out organising their annual Edinburgh foray.

This, it seems, is further evidence that Northern Stage won’t be coming back to Edinburgh and is now testing the water with this alternative. But far from a climbdown, I think this is a step in the right direction. Why? Because one of the reasons why Edinburgh Fringe is becoming a runaway money sink is because too many venues give it the holy grail status. As I’ve previously said, I was unenthusiastic for the Venues North award at the Edinburgh Fringe because it entrenched the culture that if you want a chance to be discovered you had to take part in the super-expensive festival, ignoring all the alternatives out there with non-insane price tags. There does seem to be a trend to acclaim the Vult Festival as the official Edinburgh alternative, and I have some reservations with this: the best thing about Edinburgh was and still is that it’s open to everyone – that is not the case at the Vault. I do wish the arts industry would take Brighton Fringe more seriously, as that’s got the best of both: the quality and open culture of Edinburgh without the cost. But any moves that takes us away from the mentality of Edinburgh or bust is a good thing.

Of course, this thing, as with all things Northern Stage, is up in the air with a change of artistic director coming up. Will this be a one-off or will it be the successor to Northern Stage at Edinburgh. A lot will depend on how this does next year.

Stuff I wrote in November

So that’s what happened. Here’s what I wrote during this time:

If I didn’t like your play …: I’d been meaning to put these thoughts together for some time. What I think is the best way to react if a reviewer wasn’t enthused by your play, together with my views on responding in public that not everyone will like.

Odds and sods: October 2019: Like this one, but October.

Preview: Lumiere Durham 2019: As always, in advance of Lumiere I give the installations that grab my interest the most – plus one surprise bit of news about Lumiere London.

SJT and Ayckbourn 2019: A catch-up of a pleasing season from the SJT: Season’s Greetings and Birthdays Past, Birthdays Present, and an accidental piece of political satire in the shape of Ten Times Table. Plus how an extra fifteen minutes on Build a Rocket works wonders.

We need to talk about Roy Chubby Brown: As mentioned above, why the unaccountable politics behind the decision to ban and unban an controversial acts has more repercussions than the right to see an unfunny act.

Lord of the Flies, Hound of the Baskervilles: Reviews of two plays seen at the Gala, with two very different initiatives for theatre training.

And one brief word from me

You may have noticed that I have got very behind with my reviews this year. This is not the first time this has happened, but this time I’ve ended up missing a few things completely because I didn’t have the motivation to get out.

When I first started this blog, one of the reasons for doing so was to get things back in some sort of order after a really bad episode of anxiety I had over nine months in 2010 and 2011. You don’t need to know why – anyone who’s been following this blog closely enough will know the reason. Anyway, this year I had a relapse – not as bad 2010-2011, but still the only time since then I’ve had to go back to the doctor’s about this, with August being about the worst month. There’s been a lot of different things that contributed to this, but the details of that are for another time. I’d not really been enjoying anything for months, and when I said I loved something, what I really meant is that I know I would have enjoyed it if I’d been in a normal state.

However, I think I am getting out of this hole. I’m not quite back to normal yet, but I’m in a better state than I was. So hopefully I can catch up on everything I need to catch up on and get this back to pace I mean to keep it at. Thanks to everyone for bearing with me, and with a bit of luck it will be back to business as usual soon.

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