Odds and sods: March 2023

It’s April, it’s getting on a bit, but at least it’s not late as last time. here’s my round-up of minor news stories from March.

Stuff that happened in March:

The big news from March was the mysterious closure of The Exchange, which North Tyneside Council insists isn’t a closure. I’ve given my full thoughts here, as this was covered at length during the launch of The Laurels’ new season. The short version is that The Exchange is it currently exists is coming to an end this month, as their lease has run out at it’s going to “Stonebanks investments”. North Tynesde Council, however, claims the Exchange isn’t closing, this scheme is part of a “cultural quarter”, and the new leaseholder is going to create something bigger and better.

Have to say, I am sceptical over North Tyneside’s version of events. One would have thought that a cultural scheme of this magnitude would have been planned and trailed months in advance, rather than left to the last moment. It also seems unusual that a property developer with no previous record of cultural activities is suddenly interested in being a part of the cultural scene. At best, this has been handled badly; at worst, The Exchange as a theatre is being set up to fail. I will keep a close eye on this.

Apart from that bis news, here’s what else has been happening.

Live Theatre playwriting competition

Since my last Odds and Sods was a proper gloom-fest, let’s open this one with something positive. Jack McNamara is still making his mark as Live Theatre’s new artistic director, and one of the new things that has come in is a playwriting competition. As many of you will know, my enthusiasm for opportunities through script submissions are limited; I’ve written a long piece about my issues with playwriting competitions and how to handle it (TLDR: if you can, produce your writing yourself rather than wait for a thumbs up that will probably never come). However, if you are going to do a playwriting competition, this one, I believe, is the way should should do it.

Firstly – God be praised! – we finally have a regional playwriting competition that recognises the value of feedback. One of the most harmful myths surrounding most script submission processes is “learning by rejection”. In a stance that looks suspiciously similar to what is the least work for the competition organisers, it’s often imagined that by getting a rejection, you are being done a favour by being told you need to get better. That is deeply flawed – even you can somehow work out what you’re doing wrong from a feedback-free standard email (you can’t), it’s virtually impossible to tell what’s down to artistic merit and what’s down to the tastes of the commissioning theatre. Live Theatre writes: “Forget what you think a Live Theatre play is or any preconceptions of what you think we would like you to write,” but whilst this eliminates a red herring, it’s still a guess as to what they do want. Feedback is an important resource to show aspiring writers whether to keep doing what they’re doing, change tactics, or simply conclude that this is not the right theatre to send scripts to. Anything is better than perpetual guesswork that’s the norm across most theatre.

The other thing that impresses me with tackling an issue I didn’t even bother raising because I thought nobody would take it seriously: the ethical debate over unpaid labour. I once did an estimate that if we estimate a conservative 10 hours to write a play and 3,000 entries, that’s equivalent to 16 years of free work in the hope of an opportunity – something that would be considered unacceptable in most lines of work. Of course, there’s no chance of paying every hopeful to write a script for a competition (much as I wish there was), but Live Theatre does the next best thing. They recognise it’s not fair to spend hours writing a play that they might not be interested, so a detailed treatment of a play and a sample of the writing is accepted as a substitute (with the play developed if it wins).

I might even enter this – and trust me, as someone who usually sees these competitions as not worth the paperwork, this is very high praise. We still don’t have progress in the area that I think is sorely lacking, which is how to help aspiring writers in the no-mans-land between an intrductory playwriting course and guessing your way to a first commission, but having been pleasantly surprised once, maybe I can be pleasantly suprised again. In the meantime, congratulations to Papatango, who for years were the outliers for believing in feedback to all – maybe, just maybe, they are winning the argument.

Coventry City of Culture goes bust

Wouldn’t normally pay attention to a major festival that happened two years ago in the West Midlands, but this is a big one that has knock-on effects on my turf. I’d assumed that a festival that came and went in 2021 would have been wrapped up by now, but perhaps the reason it wasn’t is the same reason it’s gone bust now. Indeed, there’s a lot of disquiet over where the money’s gone. Anyway, there are two reasons why this has repercussions beyond Coventry. One is that this creates a problem for future Cities of Culture – few people are going to want to take part if the other company goes bust before they get paid. The other problem is – as you may recall if your memory’s good – Assembly had a heavy presence in 2021 as a partial substitute for Edinburgh Fringe which only got the go-ahead very late. They are now owed a lot of money, which could affect their Edinburgh operations.

My guess is that the government will end up settling up debts left by Coventry City of Culture. The price of inaction (both to the companies owed money and the reputation of City of Culture) is too high. Whether the government or anyone else ever gets to the bottom of where the money went is another question. Either way, I hope Bradford is paying attention to this – it would be unforgivably careless for the same thing to happen in 2025.

Edinburgh Fringe numbers

With the mood emerging that 3,200 acts in Edinburgh Fringe 2022 was too much, there’s been a lot of speculation over how 2023 will compare. We now have the second batch of registrations, and as of March 30th it is 1,328. Comparing this to last year isn’t straightforward because the batch release dates don’t quite line up, but the closest comparable figure is April 7th 2022, when the numbers were around 800. Based on that, it looks like the numbers are going to be up noticeably.

Less clear is what’s driving these numbers. The big barrier to participation at the moment is accommodation costs, and, if anything, that’s even worse this year. However, next year a ban on short-term lets is coming in, which looks set to squeeze things further. As such, I wonder if Edinburgh Fringe 2023 has a “last chance saloon” vibe to it, with many artists seeing this year – whilst far from ideal – the last chance to get a big break via the Edinburgh route. Next year onwards might be impossible.

There is an alternative theory, though. Maybe acts have wised up to the accommodation crunch and have learned to register and book accommodation either early or not at all. It might be that Edinburgh Fringe isn’t getting bigger, just getting more front-loaded. As for long-term trends, definitely don’t read anything into 2023 numbers. If the short-term lets ban comes in as currently planned, all bets are off.

The one thing that does seem unlikely is topping 2019’s size – the comparable figures that year were 1,700. But as it stands, on the hotly-followed bet between Robert Peacock and Brian Ferguson over the size of the fringe, it’s advantage Ferguson.

Box Tale Soup’s new production

And finally, the occasional preview of a new show. Most of my fringe recommendations come up the respective pre-fringe previews, but with Box Tale Soup scooping the title of Best Production 2022, they’ve earned an early plug now. The production for the upcoming Edinburgh Fringe is Casting the Runes by M. R. James. This, I think, is the least well-known source material they’ve used for an adaptation, as I don’t think I’ve heard of either the story or the author. But lots of Edinburgh has now heard of Box Tale Soup, which puts them at a big advantage.

It’s not a completely new production – it was in fact first performed at the 2014 Edinburgh Fringe, before Antonia and Noel had fully made their mark with their first hit Northanger Abbey. It then reappeared in 2020 as an online audio play. But whilst this ghost may not be one of the best known entry in their back catalogue, I’ve seen how much they’ve developed in the last ten years, with gothic horror having grown from a side interest to one of their main specialities. I’ll be back with a full list of recommendations for the Edinburgh Fringe in advance of August, but this is definitely going to be on my must see list.

Stuff I wrote in March:

Here’s what else I’ve been busy with:

Love It When We Beat Them: back to the future: Live theatre open their 50th anniversary season with a 1997-themed play said to be about politics in a backdrop of football – but is more about the people behind the politics. Also: a roundup of what else is coming up in the anniversary season that caught my eye.

Run, Rebel: runaway hit: The first Ike Award of the year goes to Pilot Theatre’s adaptation of Manjeet Mann’s young adult novel. It would have been a good enough play if Amber Rai has been been standing up a patriarchal tyrant of a father, but Pushpinder Chani’s performance of a violent father who needs help is much more compelling.

The launch of The Laurels’ 2023 season: A look at the year ahead at The Laurels, with highlights from Juggling, You Need to Say Sorry and It’s All In Your Head. Plus my thoughts on The Exchange in full, something that The Laurels made a big statement on.

I also went to the Vault Festival in March. That roundup will be coming shortly – the big news there, of course, is what happens to the festival now that their landlord has turned on them.

And that’s the end of odds and sods for now. In April and May, any breaking news will be in my Brighton Fringe coverage. See you back in June.


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