The Bruntwood doesn’t want you. Now what?

Credit: dgim-studio on Freepik

COMMENT: The arts industry does aspiring writers no favours by implying script submission is the only route into play writing. There’s a far better way to hone your craft than waiting for the thumbs up of the reading room.

Today, the Bruntwood prize revealed its longlist. And out of the 1890 entrants, 1760 of you got the news you’re not on it. And, worse, you have no information of what you did wrong. They did of course congratulate you on your achievement of writing a play and getting it out there. But that is little consolation, and when “sending it out into the world to be experienced by other people” can mean “having it read once then put in the bin” it’s a bit of a platitude. “There’s always next time” is the usual upbeat message – but how are your prospects next time supposed to be any better? What have you learned from this?

To be fair to the Bruntwood Prize and all of the other major competitions, they are aware of the questions of whether they are there for everyone or the lucky few. In the case of the Bruntwood Prize, they publish a series of “toolkit” articles from various writers on how to make your scripts better. But you have probably already read those, and you still lost. You have also probably been on playwriting courses for beginners, read books about playwriting and searched for tips on the internet – and you’re still getting nowhere. What are you meant to do now?

Well, I’ve been there. I found a way forward. And it wasn’t by playing the game of submit-reject-sumbit-reject-submit ad infinitum. I do not claim to be an authority on how to write a good play, but this year I got my first nomination for new writing award on the fringe circuit and my first professional writing commission has just been produced, so I think my experience counts for something. Nevertheless, I have something to say that many of you aren’t going to like, and I don’t think the Bruntwood will like either. I have a lot of nuance and caveats to add to this message, so please try not to take this at face value, but there’s no getting round the fact this is an unpopular thing to say:

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Edinburgh Fringe must make a choice

Rubbish piles high on a big
This particular mess wasn’t Edinburgh Fringe’s fault. But there’s a lot of other messes that the Fringe Society need to clean up.

COMMENT: The fundamental mistake made by the Festival Fringe Society was trying to please everybody. They must realise this is no longer possible, decide who they want to please, and be open about it.

Well, we made it. Edinburgh Fringe was set for a bumpy ride, and the first few days were particularly turbulent, with complaints about support for reviewers, the relocation of Fringe Central, the lack of an app, and all sorts of other things being aired in the first week. There were even worries that the Big Four might break away and work entirely off their own ticketing site with other venues invited to join. Then the festival got underway properly and attention turned to what was actually being performed. In a way, it had parallels to the 2012 Olympics: lots of complaining in the run-up, but taking a back seat to the festival people love. Then came the Jerry Sadowitz saga and Assembly and Pleasance started fighting each other, undermining any prospect of a co-ordinated breakaway. Meanwhile, the performers at the free fringe venues have started clashing with the Big Four again – it seems the Festival Fringe Society was caught in the crossfire.

At the time of writing, it looks like the worst is over. Ticket sales are probably going to be okay. It’s not clear what sort of size we’re looking at next year, as it’s possible that numbers this year were inflated by postponed plans from the last two years, but we’re unlikely to be facing meltdown. There might also be a reduction as expectations of what post-Covid fringes would be like have been tempered with reality, but a modest reduction might be a good thing if it brings demand on accommodation down to something sane. The worst mistakes made this year can be rectified for next year. The app can be brought back, or, at the worst, the website can be improved to do the job. We can have the discussion of how best to support reviewers. Finances should be in a better state to roll back some of the less popular economisations. At this stage, I’m quite relaxed about 2023.

However, there is a root problem that isn’t going away any time soon, which is that Edinburgh Fringe has hopelessly outgrown the city that hosts it. Demand outstrips supply for both accommodation and performances spaces, and piles up expenses for performers; and although Edinburgh Fringe has tried to source some cheap accommodation, this is only a drop in the ocean. The bottom line is that unless you have a trust fund, already live in Edinburgh, or are able to run in one of the cheapest tech-free venues (or preferably a hybrid of all three), you are taking on a huge financial outlay without anything guaranteed in return. Anyone who thinks that your reward is directly proportional to how good your play was is naive – so much comes down to luck and factors outside your control. The Festival Fringe Society, remember, isn’t that big an organisation and can’t do that much about it. Even the Big Four supervenues can’t do that much about the sky-high rents that landlords charge for their spaces.

What the Festival Fringe Society can do, however, is decide who the fringe is for. The idealistic answer is “everybody who wants to go”, and I don’t think we should change that (indeed, if they dropped the open access I would probably stop going). However, we can still decide who Edinburgh Fringe is optimised for. Does the Festival Fringe Society concentrate its efforts of helping the minnows thrive in an environment where they compete with some big commercially successful players? Or should the society concentrate on a festival which the brightest and best compete for the prestige, and work on a sink or swim basis for everyone else? Both are valid aspirations, but they are very different aspirations that will please some and alienate others. However, alienating some performers is an improvement on alienating everybody, as happened this year.

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My proposal for how to do content warnings

Don’t worry! One billion dead humans but the dog survived.

COMMENT: Good content warning systems empower audiences to make informed choices. Bad content warning systems don’t respect this. And the best system I’ve seen comes from a very unlikely source.

So, outside of theatre blogging, my exciting news is that I have my first professional writing commission. This, however, has left me with a bit of a dilemma. In some theatres, this script would come with a pretty massive content warning. Okay, I have previously been flippant with content warnings (such as links to Mail Online having “content warning: Daily Mail sidebar”), but I’m really not kidding this time.* The problem is that it would not be possible to tell you what this content warning is without spoiling the story – it’s up there with “Snape kills Dumbledore”. Equally, however, I’m aware that there will be some people who really really really really don’t want to hear about the relevant subject material. The term “trigger warning” is I think massively overused and applied to every trivial/incidental mention of something unpalatable, but I really really really mean it here.

* For anyone who saw Waiting for Gandalf: this is worse.

So far, I have handled this delicate matter by respecting the policies of the theatre company and/or venue. My reasoning is as follows: at venues that don’t give content warnings, the people who go know what to expect, but you can’t reasonably foist something unexpected on an audience at a venue that routinely warns you what’s coming. The problem I’ve found with some content warning-heavy venues is that they are so dogmatic they will quite happily give away a plot twist – even one on which the whole play depends – in the name of showing how responsible they are. You might as well stand outside the queue for the premiere of The Empire Strikes Back, shouting that the play may be distressing to those suffering trauma for unexpected news of parentage.

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A curated fringe won’t be a kinder fringe

COMMENT: An unwelcome part of open access is people spending too much money on Edinburgh Fringe who clearly aren’t ready – but it’s not open access you should be blaming for that.

With Edinburgh Fringe 2021 having pulled back from the brink, most are now expecting 2022 onwards to be the road to recovery. Few people, however, are enthusiastic about a return to 2019 levels. For years, Edinburgh Fringe has had a big problem of supply and demand. More and more people want to take part, but Edinburgh isn’t that big a city, and there’s only a finite amount of accommodation and finite number of buildings that can be made into theatre spaces. Consequently, the cost of these two things is going up and up and up; and no, the money isn’t being squirrelled away by greedy venue managers, but simply a product of landlords – in many cases Edinburgh University – simply renting out space for whatever people are prepared to pay.

As a result, there’s been a lot of talk of building back a “kinder” fringe. There are several things that might address the supply and demand problem without undermining open access (one of which I’m come on to later). Unfortunately, perhaps inevitably in the current climate of culture wars, a movement seems to be emerging that would rather undermine open access. I won’t link any particular story as this is a trend rather than specific people, but they do seem be edging towards the easy solution: let’s just not allow people who aren’t us to take part. At the moment the language used is that the principle of open access is “outdated” and maintains the “status quo” (whatever that means), but I think I can see where this is going.

Now, as most of you should be aware, I am a staunch supporter of open access. Not all arts festivals or venues need to be open access – indeed, it would be impossible for many of them to work that way – but it is vital that such festivals exist for those who wish to go that route. Why? Because there is way too much gatekeeping in theatre, and across the arts in general. Too many venues have exact ideas of what art people should be making and watching. That wouldn’t be so bad if every venue had their own tastes, but increasingly they’re all after the same thing, and if you’re not to the liking of one you’re not to the liking of any. Open festivals are a crucial check in the balance of power – if you’ve got something good to show an audience, and the audience likes it, no-one can stop you. I have to say, the loudest voices undermining open access seem to be the people who benefit the most from the current culture of gatekeeping. Perhaps they assume they’ll be amongst the approved line-up of a vetted fringe. I suspect it’s more likely they’ll get a nasty surprise, when the big venues pick big comedians and other commercially lucrative acts over them. But I have no intention of letting it get to that stage.

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Rod Liddle doesn’t understand freedom of speech

COMMENT: Controversial speakers have free speech to express their views, but the people you’re talking to have free speech to make it clear what they think. Especially a speaker who thinks he’s entitled to talk down to people who never asked for him.

And now, a rare post on this blog: a post about neither theatre nor anything else in the arts. The reason I’m doing this is that, as well as christontheatre being a theatre blog, it is also an anti-censorship blog. Normally, I am anti-censorship in the name of artistic freedom, but I am also pro freedom of speech in general. Until, now, however, everything I have written has been in support of people on the receiving end of censorship. This time, however, I am going to be singling out someone who thinks his right to free speech is being infringed when it isn’t. There are a lot of people like him, they give free speech a bad name, and it is in the interests of anyone who values free speech to stand up to this bullshit.

The reason I’m taking action over this one is because I’m doing something I’ve criticised other people for not doing: speaking out when things you say you care about happen on your doorstep. This relates to a shitstorm going on at my old university which I still have connections to. Tim Luckhurst, the principal of South College (the newest college of Durham University), invited a speaker for the end-of term Christmas formal dinner. Normally a non-issue, interesting and entertaining speakers (along boring, unfunny and incomprehensible speakers) come to dinners all the time. However, this speaker was Rod Liddle, who made exactly the kind of speech you’d expect Rod Liddle to make. Contrary to what some people think, the students of Durham University are not a bunch of ultra-right-wing Katie Hopkins worshippers and this speech went down like a lead balloon. This has escalated into widespread calls for Luckhurst to be sacked.

I will give my 2p’s worth on that row later, but what I’m really interested in is Rod Liddle’s reaction to this. He is demanding an apology from Durham University and implying that his right to free speech has been infringed. Now, there are some valid criticisms to be made of the anti-Liddle protests, but that does not stop Rod Liddle being wrong. For the reasons I will go into, Rod Liddle has not had his free speech infringed – and, if anything, he is the one who lacks respect for free speech. Here’s why.

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Never mind Hershel Fink. The entire theatre industry is failing the Jews.

COMMENT: The Rare Earth Mettle debacle exposed that the Royal Court did not take complaints of anti-Semitism seriously – but there’s little reason to believe any other theatre would have behaved any better.

A common mistake made by theatres in the regions is to obsess over the latest drama hitting a London Theatre. Nine times out of ten, it’s a local issue of little consequence elsewhere in the country – or at least not as bad as more serious issues on your doorstep your local theatres are ignoring *cough* *cough* *cough* *cough* *cough*. If this uproar over the naming of a character at the Royal Court was only a London issue, I would quite happily have left it to Londoners to argue over. However, this one I believe goes deeper than a local row. I am in agreement with the majority of people that the Royal Court has screwed up big-time, but I’m not convinced it’s wise to single out one theatre here. I fear this is a symptom of an endemic nationwide problem.

So, for those who need to catch up, this is all about a play at the Royal Court satirising billionaire, master bullshitter and possible Bond villain-in-waiting Elon Musk. Now, I could put a lot of energy into why Hyperloop and all his other miracle transport solutions are bollocks, but that’s a different story completely and not for a theatre blog. Everyone was fine with this play until the name of character based on Musk was announced: Hershel Fink. Cue outrage from all Jews in London (pretty much) for stoking stereotypes. The Royal Court apologised and agreed to rename the character to Henry Finn, which might have settled things down had they not attempted to blame their mistake on “unconscious bias”. Then a Sunday Times article (£) came out that suggested this concern had previously been raised and ignored, prompting a second statement promising to reflect further. It could have been worse, but boy, what a fiasco.

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Don’t blame reviewers for stupid judgements of attractiveness

Above: Six people cast entirely on acting talent alone and definitely not on shallow grounds such as looks because film and TV are too virtuous to do such a thing.

COMMENT: Reviewers need a debate amongst themselves of whether to mention attractiveness in reviews. The film and TV industries, however, are the last people to be taking lessons from.

This topic reared its head back in April, and my immediate reaction was “Oh no, not this again”. Ever since I naively offered my 2p’s worth on Quentin Letts’s notorious “jolly fit” remark (and realising later I’d played straight into his attention-seeking hands), I’ve tried to stay out of this argument. I partially relented just over a year later when I begged everyone to stop feeding his attention-seeking habits (and failed miserably). But the latest version of this row was over Carey Mulligan in Promising Young Woman. As a publication seemingly made a scapegoat out of an individual review, and the film critics’ guild subsequently weighed in, it became a censorship issue. And as with all censorship issues, I must have my say.

If you managed to miss this, well done. But for your benefit, this blew up when Carey Mulligan publicly railed against against a review that contained an ill-advised phrase that her character “wears her pickup-bait gear like bad drag”. Now, without seeing the film I can’t comment on the validity of this phrase. (I have heard a lot of good things about Promising Young Woman, but I’ve heard good things about lots of other films and never got round to watching them, so don’t hold your breath.) What he was possibly trying to say was that Carey Mulligan doesn’t suit looking like Harley Quinn, whom director Margot Robbie played so successfully, but I’m not really interested in one sentence of one review. This is an issue we need to take seriously, and every incident like this should spur reviewers on debate this.

However, the problem I have is hypocrisy. Whilst there are a important ethical questions to be discussed, at the moment the answers seem to be mostly coming from the film and TV industries. For reasons I will go into, they have absolutely no business lecturing the rest of us on valuing women based on looks. Even Carey Mulligan herself is not immune from being part of the problem. But before going into this, I may as well be open about how I handle this.

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7 possible futures for the Edinburgh Fringe

Through most of the last year, there has been a lot of justified alarm over the future of theatres. Amongst that is what would happen to the the festival fringes. But what no-one forecasted was for Edinburgh Fringe alone to be in uniquely dire circumstances. Whilst Brighton Fringe is bouncing back better than anybody’s wildest dreams, Edinburgh has still not even listed a single show. As everybody now knows, in Scotland they’ve been ultra-cautious and planned restrictions well into August and beyond. The problem is the level of restrictions demanded: two metres indoors for performing arts, ignoring all possible forms of mitigation such as masks, barriers, or everyone facing the same way. That is virtually impossible to comply with.

Make no mistake, this is the perfect storm for the Edinburgh Fringe. Had all festivals in the UK been in this situation, it would have been more secure, but with strict rules only applying to Scotland, the festivals south of the border have stepped up where Edinburgh can’t. Last year’s Warren Outdoors was a success because they were able to programme a lot of popular acts seeking to fill an Edinburgh-shaped hold in their schedules – it now turns out this was only the tip of the iceberg. Now many of the the Edinburgh venues are staging new festivals in England: Pleasance is running “Fringe Future” in partnership with the Vault, Gilded Balloon are running a pop-up festival with their inflatable cow, and Assembly is running “Assembly Garden” in City of Culture Coventry. As a result, many of Edinburgh’s favourite acts have already signed up for these or other non-Edinburgh fixtures. There is no guarantee they’ll go back to Edinburgh.

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My thoughts on Alphabetti’s Aware

I said I wasn’t going to review Aware from Alphabetti Theatre – I don’t think I am fairly judge a performance based on artistic merit on an issue where I openly take sides. However, I presume a large part of Alphabetti Theatre’s aim is to raise awareness, I can do my bit by giving my own take on neurodiversity in respect of these issues. The short version is that I believe they did best they could realistically achieve from one production, but there’s a lot of details to get through here.

First, a catchup on where Alphabetti Theatre is.* Alphabetti Theatre has gone from one of the most cautious theatres to one of the most bullish. Last year, when most theatres were looking at an autumn reopening, Alphabetti were predicting nothing until the New Year. They did go for a low-scale socially distanced production for Christmas, but we know what happened then. But when May 17th was named as re-opening date and numerous theatres went for that very week, Alphabetti went one step further and went for an audio production, Listen In, which you could listen either online or at a table at the theatre. The table in theatre option didn’t go head in the end, but respect for trying nonetheless.

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Why it’s right to stop covering SSD Concerts

Note: I wrote this article on the 3rd April, after Narc magazine published its editorial about not covering SSD events but before the manager announced his resignation – that happened between writing the first draft and linking the sources. However, I am posting this anyway, as what I said still applies.

COMMENT: It is too soon to pass judgement on the sexual harassment allegations on Glassdoor. But as long as SSD continue to respond to the allegations the way they are, NARC Magazine is correct to stop covering their events.

When I wound up my coverage of the Tyneside Cinema scandal, I finished by saying I did not want to come back in a few years’ time when the next scandal breaks and ask why nothing was done. Well, never mind years – it is barely six months since the damning report and the resignation of the CEO and Chair of Trustees and we’ve got another case on our hands. This time, it’s in the music scene, specifically in relation to SSD Concerts, regarded by many as the leading music promoter in the north-east from big events to the grass roots. On this occasion, however, we do not have to wait for pressure from a major funder before action is taken; numerous bands and venues have cut ties in protest.

Normally, when an organisation is implicated in serious allegations, I open my coverage with an examination of the evidence available. And that is indeed what I tried to do here; it was slow business, with events continually moving as was I writing. However, one event has taken place that has spurred me into action: NARC magazine has announced it is ceasing its coverage of SSD events. (See also this page for numerous links to background info.) It is fair to note that – unlike Tyneside Cinema, where it was possible to sit on the fence – NARC, as a magazine dominated by music coverage, had to pick a side this time. But it is my understanding (based on an off-the-record source that I trust) that this editorial decision was not made out of obligation, but was taken proactively and wholeheartedly. Having criticised the local arts media for inaction during previous scandals, I shall now back them up for doing the right thing.

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