Odds and sods: most of 2020 and 2021

So, who remembers the “before” times? Well, one thing I used to write on most months was “odds and sods”, rounding up the little things that have been happening in theatre that weren’t reviews or recommendations or something that required a full article. Then along came a certain event that put paid to little events happening in theatres, or indeed any kind of event.

Contrary to what it feels like for a lot of people, things haven’t ground to a complete halt for 18 months. In spite of the high-profile cancellation of Edinburgh Fringe 2020 there’s still been a lot going on with the fringe circuit to keep me busy. However, in the north-east, theatre has only really got going in the last month. But things haven’t been entirely still on regional theatre, and we’ve got some pretty significant events to catch up on. So, let’s do a catch-up.

What’s been happening between March 2020 and September 2021. Apart from Coronavirus.

There’s a been a lot to talk about relating to Coronavirus, both directly and indirectly. Most of this I’ve talked about indirectly in my live fringe coverage. I might round this up later, but here I am concentrating on what else happened. Here are some events that could just have easily taken place another time.

New artistic directors

When we left off, Lorne Campbell had just departed Northern Stage for a new challenge at the National Theatre of Wales, and the search for his successor was underway. But part-way through 2020 came the shock news that his Live Theatre counterpart Joe Douglas was also leaving. The reason I say shock is because he was doing so well. Sometimes, when an artistic director leaves unexpectedly, I later find out that some of the trustees weren’t happy with the way he or she was taking the theatre, but that looks far form the case here. His first Live Theatre play sold out and came back for another run, and the second also sold out and looked set to come back too. I will say that I did hear a few grumbles over Lorne Campbell (not that I have any reason to believe that was why he moved), but Joe Douglas was getting universal praise. Ah well. Looks like sometimes life’s demands outside of the theatre are more important.

So, all change for the big two then. When a new artistic director comes in, there’s always a lot of excitement over what it means for the theatre concerned, but it can take a long time to get the answer. Normally, given the way programming works, it can be a year before the new AD’s first play takes to the stage. Natalie Ibu, previously director of tiata fahodzi, will shortly be directing Jim Cartwright’s Road for Northern Stage. Prior to that, she has, on my observations, been as serious as a great reset as Joe Douglas was when he stepped in, except that with all this down time she’s gone a further with events to get to know the region and ask what local creatives want from their local theatres. That’s the easy bit – the hard bit will be acting on all of these when it’s back to normal and her hands are full with plays. But we’ll see what becomes of it.

The more recent appointment is Jack McNamara. It’s harder to tell what he’s got in store for Live Theatre. Live has been the most cautious with its programming with nothing yet scheduled after Christmas – I hope they’re wrong about needing to be cautious, but who knows. As a result, we don’t have anything coming up that he’s set to direct. The only clue is that McNamara has come from new Perspectives, which specialises in touring to rural audiences. It would be interesting if Live Theatre found a way to bring work to local rural audiences. (Chris Monks tried this with the Stephen Joseph Theatre a few years back before it was thwarted by cuts, but perhaps McNamara will have better luck.) Beyond that’s we’ll have to wait and see. The most unpredictable period of theatre in the region’s history is going to be unpredictable a little longer.

Speaking of high-profile Newcastle theatres …

New programming policy

Meanwhile, over at Alphabetti Theatre, the news they made a big thing of at the start of the year was their new programming policy. You can read it in their own words here, but the short version is that they’re almost entirely moving towards being a producing theatre. You can still have your production on at Alphabetti, but as co-productions with them. The good news is that for those artists who get this status, you get a three-week run and a big fee from Alphabetti, rather than hope you make enough in Pay What You Feel revenue. The bad news is that if you’re not one of the lucky few, the opportunities to perform there are gone almost completely, with their two-week “Newcastle Fringe” being the only real spot left for existing shows that are touring.

Although this change was trumpeted a lot when it was announced, it’s not quite as dramatic as it sounds. Ever since Alphabetti moved into its current space, they’ve been headed that way already. In before times, their programme was increasingly dominated by longs runs of plays with them as either producer or co-producer. Alphabetti’s current space is not as good a bet for acts starting something off as its old smaller spaces were, with its post-2017 offering for grass-roots artists being comparable to those from Live Theatre and Northern Stage. For what it’s worth, I think Alphabetti Theatre can do what it likes, but above all it must put itself on a secure financial footing – we cannot have a repeat of the 2016 funding crisis – and if this producing theatre model is the best way to do it, then go ahead. For Artistic Director Ali Pritchard’s own reason, it’s summed up best in this article from Exeunt, but the short version is they think they can be of more benefit forming serious partnerships with a few acts than a “revolving door” for many.

However, there is a down-side to this: Alphabetti Theatre is losing sight of its original goal to give people somewhere to perform. For many people, the revolving door is good – it gives you the chance to get your work on stage, see how it goes, and learn from it – and if beating off the competition to land a three-week run is unattainable, it’s the revolving door or nothing. Ali Pritchard argues there are opportunities elsewhere for such. I hope he’s right, but off-hand I can’t think of anything in Newcastle that compares to the original incarnations of Alphabetti Theatre. So I think the time has come: it would benefit the north-east a lot if someone set up a theatre similar to original Alphabetti at the Dog and Parrot. I’ve held off advocating this before because I was worried two similar competing theatres might cause both to go bust, but I’m confident Alphabetti is secure enough to not need to worry. And, in the long term, maybe Newcastle can become more like Manchester, where there’s a theatre for everyone somewhere in the city.

Speaking of a theatre for everyone …

New theatres

One thing we’ve been waiting forever on is the completion of the Old Fire Station in Sunderland. It’s been open for a few years new as a multi-purpose arts facility, but the one bit of it that we’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting on is the actual theatre bit. However, time has been ticking on and we’re almost there. The first performances are scheduled for December, although at the moment it’s a bit thin on the ground with theatre. It’s not clear what they’re planning to programme, but my guess is that it will be something comparable to Sunderland City Council’s other major arts venue, Washington Arts Centre.

However, there’s another new venue that’s seemingly come out of nowhere, and that’s Laurels in Whitley Bay. But whilst the venue might be brand new, the founder isn’t. Until recently, Jamie Eastlake ran Theatre N16, one of London’s most respected fringe theatres. Sadly, landlords are dicks and they lost their upstairs of a pub that ran so well, and rather than look for another premises, Jamie Eastlake decided he’d done enough in London and opted to return home. But London’s loss is Tyne and Wear’s gain because that’s where he’s chosen to run a theatre instead.

But what benefit do these bring? In Sunderland, a theatre the size of the Old Fire Station is clearly needed; up to now, it’s been the amateur Royalty Theatre (albeit one that took a lot of touring acts) and the fully-commercial big-budget Sunderland Empire – it will be good to have something in between. However, my concern is the same as all north-east theatres outside Newcastle run by the council: they are generally are more interested in importing talent from either Newcastle or outside the region completely than developing any local talent – I hope this turns out to be an exception. Laurels, however, looks quite promising: unlike most north-east theatres who seem to think “local” means Newcastle, this really does seem to be going for a hyper-local focus on the North Tyneside coast. Well, we’ll see. Whichever one of these is the first to have something to show for local talent development can have the credit.

Speaking of local initiatives …

New fringe festival

I’ve deliberately avoided promoting this on the blog, because I played a significant part in one of the host venues, but it’s impossible to not write about this here, because Durham Fringe is a big deal for the north-east. I’ve been banging on for a long time that the north east needs a fringe that’s open to anyone, and I’ve been looking enviously at what appear to be in every English region except mine. (Alphabetti’s “Newcastle Fringe” does its job as a festival for touring work, but I’ve long maintained we need a means for artists not backed by the big players to stand a fair chance against those who are, and the open festivals do this the best.) After delaying a launch from 2020 for the obvious reason, they went ahead in 2021, and by all accounts surpassed expectations. They were expecting to have 12-16 acts, and ended up with nearly double. Most notably on my radar, Screen 9, one of the most prominent plays, went on the the Edinburgh Fringe and blew the socks off most of the Fringe plays backed by Live Theatre and Northern Stage.

Ticket sales are less clear – my anecdotal observations was that this was about the same as a typical fringe festival – but there’s a lot of variables (‘rona included) that make it difficult to tell if this is good. Nevertheless, I can tell you the organisers were pleased with this and Durham Fringe 2022 is all but guaranteed. However, I must be consistent with my earlier position and mention that Durham Fringe isn’t quite an open festival. Unlike Edinburgh and Brighton and Buxton, the people who run the fringe are the same people who programme the venues. Realistically, it’s unlikely to be anything else in the short term. Nevertheless, most of the acts who applied were offered a slot, so Durham Fringe is ten times as inclusive as anything else on offer in the region. I will keep making the case for a fully open festival, but I promise you I would not be throwing my weight behind this if it was more of the same.

Sadly, I don’t have a way to link this story to the last, less happy, story.

New scandals

This final one I have written about a lot over the last year, but it wouldn’t be right to brush this under the carpet now. One of the defining cultural events on 2020 was the emergence of numerous scandals involving workers at Tyneside Cinema, mostly sexual harassment or worse. Whilst the subsequent investigations stopped short of branding management as actively complicit, they were deemed sufficiently negligent to be forced to move on. And then, just when we thought the new manager might be getting this house in order, another scandal got everyone’s attention. This time it was a major music promoter in the region, SSD concerts, with the prominent allegation again being sexual harassment. That too resulted in a resignation, although this time they have recent been caught back-pedalling, with the manager most implicated in the allegations seemingly staying on as manager in everything but name. They are also reverting to their original rhetoric that they didn’t grope anybody, all the women were lying and had axes to grind and employed by rival companies etc. etc.

Meanwhile, the big news nationally was Noel Clarke (investigations still ongoing here, but based on the evidence so far it’s not looking good). It is not clear whether the fact this all blew up over various states of lockdown was a coincidence or there’s something more to it. For what it’s worth, my guess is it’s not a coincidence. The extra time on their hands that most creatives had probably contributed to this, and I suspect a lot of staff facing redundancy decided they had nothing to lose. We can comfort ourselves with the fact that some patterns of systemic abuse have been halted, but with the downfall of Harvey Weinstein supposed to be the start of a new dawn for the arts, serious questions need asking over why this is still going on over three years after we were supposed to turn our backs on this. And, so far, most people with power to change this seem to think the answer is to double down with more of the discredited same.

What is bitterly disappointing is that not a single one of the fellow members of Newcastle Gateshead Cultural Venues has lifted a finger to help here. If they felt morally obliged to engage in a month of contrition over a racist murder in America, they can’t shrug their shoulders when something appalling happens on your their doorstep and behave like it’s not their problem. There is a perception that the major cultural venues in Tyne and Wear are loyal to each other first, and their artists and workers second – which would mean that if your burn your boats with one, you burn your boats with them all. I don’t know whether or not this is true, but as long as people think it is they are going to be scared to speak out. It would be so easy for any venue to promise that no-one will be treated adversely in casting or job applications or whatever just because you made a complaint. Any coward can condemn a bunch of racist cops, but it takes real courage to stand up to your friends. I am tired of this fence sitting. Pick a side please.

It’s not been all bad : the local arts media, whom I’d been critical equally critical of for not standing up to wrongdoing, pleasantly surprised my by showing some teeth during the SSD Concerts scandal. So far, however, the venues have shown themselves to be toothless. A lot of things have happened over the last year and a half that could put north-east theatre in a strong position. It must not throw it away by allowing itself to become the national capital of abuse in performing arts.

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