Odds and sods: January 2023

Yes, I know, it’s nearly March. The excuse I had is that for the last three weeks I was working solidly on two consecutive plays. I did think about rolling everything over to next month, but on reflection, I’ve decided to stick with a January catchup. Many of the events that started rearing their head in January have gone on to escalate into February. Those I won’t cover here, but I’ll have a lot more to say about them in February.

Stuff that happened in January

So the one thing I won’t be going over here is the business in Oldham Colosseum. Towards the end of January there were signs things might be coming to a head – now, the situation is much much more serious. As a result, I won’t be covering this here, as the small bit in information I had at the time is already wildly out of date. There were also the first signs of grumbling of accommodation for Edinburgh Fringe 2023, but again, things are moving quickly. I’ll cover those in next month’s odds and sods, where there will be a lot to talk about.

Apart from that, there’s only a couple of things left to mention:

Brighton Fringe venues

So the big news coming to a head in January is that it’s all change with the venues yet again. With no word from The Warren going into the New Year, everybody was increasingly working to the assumption that they wouldn’t be coming back to Brighton Fringe 2023, and then, on the 31st January, it was confirmed they’re not coming back ever. Otherplace Productions Ltd has gone into liquidation. I haven’t forgotten my promise to write about this and I will be doing so shortly (it’s easier to avoid writing damaging material about a venue when they’re already kaput). In the meantime, however, The Warren-shaped hole that Brighton Fringe needs to fill has become permanent.

But … we might have just the thing to step into the breach. On the Warren’s original site north of St. Peter’s Church, we have a complete newcomer to Brighton Fringe. Step forward Caravanserai. This, I gather, is something that until now has functioned as a pop-up area of music festival camp Bestival, and as far as I can tell, they will probably look similar to how The Warren did (just hopefully without the financial fuck-ups). What I don’t quite get is how they are planning to programme this at relatively short notice, but maybe they’ve got pre-existing contacts from Camp Bestival who are going to be coming on over. Whatever the plan, The Warren might be gone for good, but the kind up venue that The Warren pioneered in Brighton looks set to stay.

However, the shock news from January is that Brighton Fringe has lost The Rialto. That is a bitter blow. As the only major Brighton Fringe venue not to get emergency funding in 2020-2021, I was worried; but last year, with the Rialto back to a full programme, I assumed they were home and dry. There’s been very little said about this, with the only clue coming from one of the last events (a club night called Scallywag), which said the building has been sold. Nothing to confirm this, but given that many theatres run on 10-year leases, that timing would make sense.

It’s not quite the catastrophic impact that it might have been in 2020. Back then Brighton Fringe was becoming increasingly polarised into two big venue chains, and the Rialto was needed for a variety; now the fringe is much more decentralised and other venues are in a better position to fill the gap. But even so, this is a big loss, and possibly avoidable. Some serious questions need asking about the bailout money – so much money was thrown at The Warren which we now know was a doomed venture – could that money have kept The Rialto going instead? Or maybe this is just another case that landlords are cocks. Whatever the reason, Brighton Fringe remains in a state of flux, but whilst the loss of The Warren was an inevitability we were resigned to, serious questions need asking over how this was allowed to happen.

Digs reform

This is a small piece of news, but I think on important one. Back in November 2021, I covered a campaign to overhaul actors’ digs. I won’t repeat my reasons for support in full here, but I can vouch a lottery. Some places I’ve found delightful – I’ve also been turned up to non-existent accommodation, and I once stayed with a host who I suspect was a massive racist. And I only do this occasionally – actors who do this as a full-time job might be doing this thirty times a year. I can certainly see quite valid concerns over safety.

Well, one thing that looks about to change is an agreement between Equity and the independent theatre council. This is part of a package mostly covering pay rises in the face of inflation, but the crucial component is that responsibility for arranging accommodation goes to employers. I think this is a wise move for one important reason: there’s currently no effective sanction against bad landlords Whether it’s shoddy maintenance or racist abuse or poor cleanliness or unwelcome advances, the only sanction that creatives can easily take is to not come back. In the case of tours, there’s a high chance they won’t be coming back to that town any time soon regardless. Unless you do something really bad and end up on an actors’ grapevine, what do you have to lose?

Get producers and theatres to do the bookings, and you can’t rely on the naivety of actors any more. The same few producers will be getting in touch with you. And if you have stepped out of line, actors who previously stayed with you will complain to their producers, who will – if they have any sense – not book you again. True, this is only a deterrent, and it won’t stop a rogue landlord determined to do something bad. But experience throughout the arts has been that the worst offenders are the people who think they can get away with it forever. Hopefully this change will mean that they can’t any more.

There, you see, you can look after the safety of actors if you pull your finger out. Now do something about misbehaving leaders of arts organisations and we’re really getting somewhere.

Arts to be devolved?

One final thing is an announcement from Michael Gove. (Yes, I know, that Michael Gove, the one whose idea of being Minister for Education was making schools more like Enid Blyton, but look, that’s an improvement on my otherwise rock bottom expectations.) He seems quite keen to devolve spending and cultural policy to a regional level. That probably means the Mayors of North East, West Yorkshire, South Yorkshire, Greater Manchester and Merseyside are shortly going to become a lot more relevant to culture in the north of England. Labour has also said it supports devolving cultural powers, so this or something very similar will almost certainly go ahead.

Combined Authority mayors are already making their mark. In Newcastle, new arts centre/venue Boho Arts owes most of its crowdfunder to a big grant from the North of Tyne authority. One thing that looks to be the most prominent change is funding that currently comes from Arts Council England. They only have a limited amount of money and have to prioritise, but not everyone’s happy with their priorities. Some people also complain about too much micromanagement. Devolved authorities probably won’t have much more money to play with – but they might have a lot of discretion over how money is spent. They might be more relaxed over conditions for the money, or they might have different stipulations. They might be more popular or less popular than the status quo. But different regions pursuing different priorities, I think, would be a good thing. If one region does something right, other regions can follow.

An obvious reason to be sceptical? This government hasn’t a great track record of levelling up promises. The big one was transport, which has at best stalled. But the difference here is that transport was getting the government to spend more money – whilst this is the easier goal of changing how you spend existing money. It remains to be seen whether individual authorities are blessings or disappointment to local artists. But one way or the other, this is likely to go ahead. Get ready for it.

Stuff I wrote in December and January

With December being a month on mostly pantomimes, most of my coverage has been catch-ups from earlier in the year. I wrote:

Roundup: Edinburgh Fringe 2022: My embarrassingly late summary of Edinburgh Fringe.

December 2022 roundup: A very strong showing in what’s normally the quiet month of the year, from Potatohead, Wishes on the Wind, AntiChristmas and the final Ike Award of the year to 1902.

Chris Neville-Smith’s 2022 awards: Back to a full year’s viewing, and some tough choices, but in the end the overall winner went to Box Tale Soup with Gulliver.

7 Thoughts I have on the Jerry Sadowitz uproar: A look back at the most controversial moment of last year’s Edinburgh Fringe. Open verdict on whether it was the right decision, but either way, Pleasance handled it badly.

What’s worth watching: Vault Festival 2023: In hindsight, a bit premature to say the Vault festival was back to normal. But I didn’t know that at the time. This was a list of shows I recommended.

Alice in Wonderland: pink elephants edition: My first review of the year is a revival of the new Vic’s most popular Christmas show. I knew it would be to a high standard, but I wasn’t expected a drug-induced nightmare (that’s a good thing). Also my verdict on Family Album at the Stephen Joseph Theatre.

What’s worth watching: winter/spring 2023: My usual look-ahead to the upcoming season in the north-east.

Done, finally. February Odds and sods coming very soon, I promise.

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