Odds and sods: November 2021

It’s December, and we’ve had a November which almost looks like business as usual. So let’s do a business as usual roundup of things that have been happening other than plays to review and other things that didn’t warrant entire articles. For those of you who need a refresher, November is my last Odds and Sods of the year, because December is basically pantos and not much else. Let’s dive straight in.

Stuff that happened in November

So the big thing that got me talking was the Royal Court’s ill-judged character on Elon Musk named Hershel Fink. Cue outrage from everyone who thought the Jewish-sounding name was an insinuation that Jews secretly control the world. The Royal Court admitted they got it wrong; some people think that’s the end of the matter, others aren’t so forgiving and think there’s a deeper problem with the Royal Court. I’ve gone further: I suspect this is a problem endemic to the whole of the theatre industry, with the Royal Court merely being the most obvious offender. So what was originally meant to b a couple of paragraphs here became a long-read article in its own right. You are probably not going to like what I have to say. But read it anyway.

Apart from that, this all happened:

Vault Festival returns

festivalpasssmallSo we start the round-up with the news that the Vault Festival is returning in 2022. For festival fringe fans who are new to this, the Vault Festival takes a lot of acts of the length and scale you’d expect to the Edinburgh Fringe – indeed many of the acts go to or form there – but unlike the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s curated. I believe one in six of the applicants get programmed, and realistically there’s no way Vault could run as an open festival. However, until Brighton Fringe gets going in May, this is the closest thing you’re going to get to a fringe.

Vault Festival 2021 was called off. They made that decision in July 2020, which at the time seems quite defeatist, but, hey, we know what happened next. Instead, they put their resources into a smaller festival co-organised with the Pleasance called “Fringe Futures”. As the Pleasance had to throw together an Edinburgh Fringe programme at the last moment, they ended up taking a lot from this festival, so Vault can draw some consolation that way. I don’t know if there was any wavering over the usual eight weeks from late January to March, but I didn’t consider that a foregone conclusion. It’s far from certain it will be business as usual in winter 2022, and if it was me I’d have played it safe and gone back two months. I did notice from their application information their had contingency plans in place for reduced capacity, so that should be fine if we don’t have worse than reduced capacity to deal with. Big if. Staying put is a gamble, let’s see if it pays off.

Assuming the worst doesn’t come to the worst, I will be giving my preview of Vault picks closer to the time. In the meantime, however, one thing that’s got my attention is the “festival pass“. This is one of four different passes, with functions ranging from philanthropy to drinks promos, but the festival pass looks pretty good value for money: £45 for four tickets plus four drinks plus 10% of all remaining plays. If you’re planning a binge visit, this looks like a bargain. let’s hope this comes off.

Sunderland Fire station “open house”

auditorium-002Last month I reported on the imminent opening of Sunderland’s newest venue, the Old Fire Station. I commented that whilst it was welcome that Sunderland get a theatre of a size between the two extremes of the Empire and the Royalty, I hoped it would not repeat the mistake of most north-east venues and import all the talent from Newcastle and say that’s “local”. However, With the Arts Centre Washington (also run by Sunderland City Council) heavily relying on Newcastle-based performers and Live Theatre (running a heavily curated programme) as the Fire Station’s major partner, I wasn’t getting my hopes to high.

But wait: what is this? One of the launch events is “open house” which actually is open. There are a number of rules for who can take part, but there are two biggies: you have to be an amateur performer, and you need to be based in Sunderland. If I was based in Sunderland (and anyone could ever tell me one way or the other what I count as) I would be snapping this up. I guess the big question is why they are doing this. It might just be a way of getting word out there of a new venue in town. However, I’m hoping there’s more to it than this, and this is the first stage of Sunderland developing its own talent.

I’m not seriously expecting events like this to persist as the norm – it’s a big venue, it probably needs more business long-term than friends and family of local enthusiasts. But there is a lot of scope for developing the talent of local artist whose ambitions stretch further than Samuel French. In the meantime, all the best for this – please let it be the start of something bigger.

Zena Barrie leaves GM Fringe

Greater Manchester manage a sort-of fringe in 2020. Postponed from July to October/November, it just about underway before November happened. As we all know, this year they could have reverted to their normal July slot, but opted to wait until September, largely due to a lot of their venues not planning to open their doors until their autumn. Next year, it’s back to July. Nothing unexpected there – unlike Brighton, I don’t think anyone was seriously considering making their temporary move permanent, but now it’s confirmed.

However, the one bit of unexpected news is that Zena Barrie, who runs that fringe, is leaving. Normally a change of leader at a small fringe would be a footnote; however, the two small fringes that I’ve seen really rise in prominence lately are Greater Manchester Fringe and Camden Fringe, which she also runs. Before that, she ran the Kings Arms Theatre, which is now the leading fringe venue in Manchester. Clearly she was doing something right. So well done Zena for all you’ve achieved, and best of luck to Lisa Connor who’s got a very hard act to follow.

Actors’ digs in the spotlight

I’m normally happy to leave the inner workings of theatre up to The Stage, but I will chip in on this current debate on actors’ digs. A campaign was launched in November by several well-known actors for an overhaul of a system they describe as unsafe. It is not clear whether this is an off-shoot from the concerns of women’s safety following the Sarah Everard murder or a campaign that started off its own according, but in my opinion this is the correct thing to be focusing on. The main two complaints this campaign has highlighted are issues over staying in strangers’ houses and bookings being cancelled at the last moment. (I presume the issue of accommodation in dodgy areas is also part of the debate.)

From my own minimal experience of this, this debate is long overdue. In festival fringes, it’s probably inevitable that people will be organising their own accommodation, but I’ve been surprised how disorganised the system is for professional tourers – I’d just assumed the big host venues took care of it. Now, don’t get me wrong: when this is good, it’s how I prefer to do this. At Buxton Fringe, I stayed with the same couple year after year in a delightful home. However, I’ve had more bad experiences than good ones. Off-hand, there was the time I was treated like a freak because I look a bit autistic, the time I was staying with someone I suspect was a racist, and the time I literally turned up to my accommodation, and no-one was in and they cancelled on me there and then. I will add that on none of these times did I start fearing for my safety – but I only do this occasionally. If you’re doing this seven days a week, twenty weeks a year, the risks add up.

Bookings through Theatre Digs Booker have been getting a bit of flack; in response, they argue that they’re doing their best to make a bad system better and have offered their support. A wider observation is that businesses such as AirBnB have put competition on use for spare rooms in houses – indeed, some of the worst complaints are last-minute cancellations so homeowners can rent the room at a higher price to somebody else. Maybe the spare room business as a whole needs some better regulation. But I’d say the theatre business needs to make a decision on who is responsible for actors’ accommodation. Who do you call if your accommodation bails on you? Who do you log safety concerns with? And if the price of the buck stopping with host venues or the touring company is higher ticket prices or even fewer touring shows, so be it. There’s far too much at risk without.

The Warren in trouble?

(This actually blew up in late October, but I didn’t get wind of this until November.)

The last item is another unhappy one. Up to this point, I have called out questionable practices from arts organisations I don’t know and venues I’ve never been to, but I’ve also been critical of organisations for making themselves scarce when their mates are under fire. If you cannot stand up to people you respect – as I am going to do now – you are part of the problem. This matter is nowhere near as serious as things I’ve previously talked about, but it would be wrong of me to ignore this just because saying something is inconvenient.

No venue has earned more respect from me over the pandemic than The Warren. When most organisations switched into “can’t be done” mode for a year or more, The Warren took a big risk with The Warren Outdoors and showed that you can. That has been an inspiration for how other venues can work outdoors or with social distancing. Brighton Fringe 2021 has also wildly exceeded expectations, which couldn’t have been done with The Warren. And yet, months after their longest summer season finished, complaints are emerging that performers and staff have still not been paid. This isn’t one person complaining either; I have seen other complaints backing this up, and so far The Warren has not denied this. It also didn’t help that they were mysteriously absent from the Brighton Fringe 2022 launch, which fuels suspicion further.

Apparently, this situation happens quite a lot and often the cause is nothing worse than finance managers getting out of their depth. That can be redressed. I hope that is the reason, because the alternative is much worse. Is it possible that – in spite of running two festivals on the trot both of which were regarded as big successes – they have found themselves in financial dire straits? This is going to be nightmare for Brighton Fringe if this is the case. The bailout from the Pebble Trust covered not only the fringe society itself but some of the bigger venues. As I understand it, the bailout has not finished. It would be a disaster for Brighton’s biggest venue to collapse so further help (possibly a bridging loan) might be needed. But there is already a lot of disquiet from other venues who felt the Warren has already received too much help at their expense. God knows how you’d resolve that one.

In the meantime, here is my plea to the The Warren from one of your biggest supporters: you have to come clean about this. No matter what the truth is, nothing good is going to come from pretending everything’s fine. At best, you’re going to lose the trust of future performers who are going to think twice about signing up to a venue that might not pay up; at worst, the whole of Brighton Fringe is sleepwalking into a second major crisis within two years. And only a few months ago, it was the Rialto Theatre I was worried about – now I fear we’ve been looking at the wrong crisis all along.

Stuff I wrote in November

Okay, my excuse is I had a very busy summer, cramming four fringes into three months instead of my usual three fringes in four. So I’m doing a big catch-up right now. Here’s what’s kept my busy:

The unwelcome return of SSD Concerts: Just when we thought we’d hard the last of a disgraced manager implicated in sexual harassment allegations, he thought he could behave like nothing happened. It didn’t work.

Odds and sods: October 2021: Like this article, but October.

The outdoor era: Moby Dick and Coppelia: I start my summer catch-up with outdoor plays from the John Godber Company and the New Vic.

Lumiere 2021 preview: The round-up of what different about Durham’s flagship festival in 2021, and what I’m looking forward to. I will be coming back with my verdict later.

Back to the main stage: The Offing and Road: Newcastle’s two main producing venues do their first major productions of their relaunch. The Offing went down well across the board (indeed I bumped the review up the queue for this reason), but Road – which I assumed was a safe bet – proved more divisive.

Never mind Hershel Fink. The entire theatre industry is failing the Jews.: Yes, that one. Sorry, all theatres that aren’t Royal Court – I have some serious questions surrounding double-standards for you.

Relaunch at the SJT: Girl Next Door and Home, I’m Darling: A look at one of the early re-starters, who hit the ground running with their first two plays.

And that’s it. Next odds and sods at the end of January 2022. And please all behave yourselves this time. I don’t want to carry on calling out bad behaviour.

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