Guest post: Jake Murray on starting from scratch

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The big theatre news in Durham over the last two years has been the appearance of Elysium Theatre Company. Set up by Jake Murray after moving from Manchester to Durham via London and using a core cast he already had links with, the company began with three productions in the Assembly Rooms: Days of Wine and RosesJesus Hopped the A Train and a Samuel Beckett double bill. This was then followed by The River at the City Theatre.

But 2019 is the year that marks the transition to bigger stages. Miss Julie is being performed at the Gala Theatre as well as three other venues in the north-east. Most notably, Queen’s Hall Hexham – who originally took on a single performance of The River in their studio space the week after the City Theatre run – are acting as co-producers for this play.

Starting your own theatre company from scratch: a brief introduction.

I am a theatre director of 25 years experience. I have worked freelance during that time, been part of the artistic team of several different theatres, most notably the Royal Exchange in Manchester. I have run my own small theatre company three or four times – Allende Theatre Company, State of Unrest and Panache Theatre Company. In 2017 I founded Elysium TC with my actor friends Danny Solomon and Hannah Ellis Ryan, with a view to directing new plays and classics in the North. Based in Durham, we have split our work between the North East – Durham and Hexham hitherto – and Manchester. This March and April we embark upon our first North East tour with a production of Miss Julie which will play at Queen’s Hall, Hexham, the Gala, Durham, the Exchange, North Shields and the Majestic in Darlington. Continue reading

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On Puppetgate

COMMENT: It was a pretty dumb decision to use a puppet to depict an autistic child for All in a Row. But the drive to talk over people on the autistic spectrum with differing views is worse.

I apologise for yet another autism post. I’ve been getting noisier on this issue in recent years , but after this post from earlier in the month on what I see as the problems in performing arts (along with this thread on twitter about my worst experience outside of theatre), I was planning to give it a rest. But then came along – and many of you should have heard by now – a particularly stupid incident over at Southwark Playhouse in London. A new play called All in a Row depicted an autistic child as a puppet. Cue outrage from everyone.

For anyone who’s not up to speed here, this article from the Evening Standard is a good summary. All in a Row is a play by Alex Oates, who is probably best known for Silk Road, a play about the dark web and buying drugs online. This play was meant to be drawn from his experiences as a carer, and it never really got any attention until a video trailer came out that made a big deal of portraying the child as a puppet. That was controversial, to put it mildly. I’ve checked some of the blog posts about this, and it seems that the objections were centred around the puppet rather than the actual content of the play. The National Autistic Society, which this theatre company had worked with, then went on to say it had withdrawn support. Alex Oates then, in an arguably ill-advised move to make the point of how important the story was, linked to a story about parents who’d ended up killing their autistic child. I’m pretty sure he wasn’t trying to justify why it’s okay to do that sort of thing, but after all this talk of a puppet being dehumainsing, that was the way may people saw it. And as is customary for incidents like this, all bloggers on the autistic spectrum are now obliged to give their opinion on the matter.

To be honest, if this was a straightforward story of arseholery and uproar, I would probably have sat this one out and let other people get on with it. However, I’m going to give my opinion because I think a lot of nuances are being overlooked. I still think it was a pretty dumb decision, but we should not waste the opportunity to learn from mistakes. Continue reading

What should be done about a Fair Fringe

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COMMENT: Bad employers on the Edinburgh Fringe must be brought to book – but it must be done out in the open if this is not to be abused.

This is a comment article I’ve mean meaning to do since August, ever since the news broke of allegations that some Edinburgh fringe venues offered unacceptably poor conditions for their workers. I wanted to get it done in good time for this year’s fringe – but it turns out things are moving faster than anyone imagined. Whilst I was thinking over some general principles the Edinburgh Fringe should work towards, Edinburgh University has gone ahead and booted C Venues – believed by many to be the worst offender – out of its main home on Chambers Street, with Gilded Balloon taking the building over.

If you’re unfamiliar with how the Edinburgh Fringe works, almost all the main venues are temporary and rent their space from a landlord who uses the estate for something else the rest of the year. The biggest landlord of all is Edinburgh University, and most of the major venues and all of the supervenues have at least part of their operations on university-owned property. So to be chucked out of your main building by the University is a very damaging blow, because there’s few options open to you as an alternative. Now, you can recover from losing your main building – most famously, Gilded Balloon survived after its main building on South Street burned down. But they had a lot of support and sympathy as they refocused on Teviot Row House. It’s harder to imagine C Venues getting this kind of good will.

For reasons I’ll go into shortly, I have little sympathy with C Venues. I am naturally protective of anyone on the receiving end of employers who think basic dignity and decency is optional (reason here) . At best, C Venues handled the situation incompetently; at worst, they got their just desserts. Even so, when anybody is the subject of a media pile-on I take extra care to give them a fair hearing. My view remains unchanged though: naming, shaming and retribution is not a long-term solution – we need an open debate on what’s fair and what’s achievable. And whilst it’s great to know that justice can be dispensed, the way this was done behind closed doors raises some serious questions that aren’t being asked. Continue reading

Today is Time to Talk day. Let’s talk.

COMMENT: It’s right for theatres to take action on mental health projects, but they have to understand the problems, not just give a generic leg-up.

This is an article that, a few years ago, I would have had no intention of writing. Those of you who know me will be aware I have a diagnosis of Asperger’s syndrome. That diagnosis came about under some pretty horrendous circumstances that have nothing to do with theatre; this is not the place for a blow-by-blow account of that – if you want to read about that you can read about it here and here. One of the earliest decisions I made on finding out about this is that I wanted no special treatment from anyone, in theatre or elsewhere. So after that, I carried on doing what I was doing and barely mentioned it.

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Warning! Long post ahead.

However, as anyone who has followed this blog may have noticed, more recently I have been getting noisier on this issue. One of the first things that prompted me to speak out was ITV’s awful hypocrisy over Susan Boyle and their selective freak-show mentality. But the things that’s mostly prompted me to speak out isn’t what I expected. A big thing has been made of diverse programming in the last few years ago. In principle that’s a good thing, and I’m not going to spend the article getting involved in any of those debates other than the one that concerns me. But for people like me, I have found a lot of these initiatives to be simplistic, and, in some cases, misguided. Late last year I did a guest post from someone who I believe understands the issues and does something about it – but I’m also seeing a lot of back-patting over things that aren’t helpful.

So it’s February 7th, and it’s Time to Talk day. This day seems to be mostly about positively sharing stories of mental health, but I want to talk about being included. Now, I’ve said before I don’t know whether my Asperger’s has been a help or a hindrance. Indeed, there is an argument that it’s been a net benefit, because in a place where support for aspiring theatre-makers was next to non-existent, the only people who stuck at it were people like me who develop obsessive interests to the exclusion of everything else – so when an local opportunity finally came along, I was the first/only person in the queue. But I’m also identifying areas where I believe there are barriers, and I don’t believe enough people realise these barriers exist to do anything about it. Continue reading

Guest post: Sarah Saeed on Lava Elastic and neurodiversity

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Introducing a brand new feature for this blog: guest posts. Regular readers here will know by now I have a number of subjects that grab my interests. One thing I’ve been speaking out on lately is diversity, especially for people with disabilities. I’ve done this with some reluctance – ever since my diagnosis with Asperger’s seven years ago, I’ve wanted to work to the principle of wanted to be treated like everyone else. Lately, however I’ve felt compelled to voice my concerns over some of the schemes meant to help; not because nobody needs help – of course some people do – but the simplistic approach taken. At best, they assume that anyone with any kind of disability needs a leg-up without attempting to understand what the barriers are in the first place; and at worst, they assume that anyone with any kind of a disability is a victim and only promote artists who give this message.

But I’ve come across one venture that is doing something right. Lava Elastic – who came to my attention through their association with Sweet Venues Brighton – is an event that calls itself “One of the UK’s first openly neurodiverse comedy/performance nights”, run by Sarah Saeed. What do she offer that other ventures don’t? She gets it. She shows an understanding of the barriers faced and how they can be overcome that I find sorely missing from other initiatives. So I am delighted to have as a my guest poster Sarah Saeed, founder of Lava Elastic, for her take on the issue:

I have to admit to having been incredibly cross very often (understatement) about the lack of respect given to gifted, inventive, often highly trained, performers and very, very smart people by promoters and similar… just because those people are different, or don’t do things quite like everyone else. It’s one of the main reasons – subconsciously, in retrospect – I started putting my own nights on, sporadically (when I lived in Leeds before moving to Brighton) To give platforms to unusual acts that didn’t get as many bookings as more ‘run-of-the-mill’ less creative (but much better at networking) individuals…it is a side of the performance world that has always driven me bonkers! Continue reading

The other problem with political theatre

COMMENT: It’s good to support political theatre. This should not turn into political vetting of theatre.

Last year, I went on record over the issue I have with most political theatre. Not the concept of political theatre – when done right, political theatre can be a huge vehicle for change – but my frustrations with how often it’s done badly. If your idea of political theatre is a play on a safe subject matter, where you know you can get a like-minded people to turn up and approve of what you say, it’s a relatively easy job. But if you are actually seeking to influence anyone – and entrenching views your audience already hold isn’t enough here – it’s a harder task. And most frustrating is that so many artists keep making the most basic mistakes: crap arguments, incomprehensibly abstract, or talking down to anyone you hope to get on your side.

However, you can ignore that here. For purposes of this article, I am talking about political theatre that gets the basics rights, with arguments that are not shit, incomprehensible, or condescending. I am now turning my attention to the next level up, and that’s the groups and theatres who support political theatre. The thing that got me thinking about this is Live Theatre’s new artistic director, Joe Douglas, seeking to bring in a lot more political theatre. Welcome though this is on the surface, it does raise some questions about vetting of work and artistic freedom. In the worst-case scenario, it could even be an issue of censorship.

Before I go any further, I want to make it clear this is not meant to be a grilling of anyone in particular, and definitely not a grilling of Joe Douglas. I’ve met him and I like him, both as a person and someone who’s made an effort to open up Live Theatre to everyone and not just rely on inheriting an existing in-crowd. I haven’t seen his Live directorial debut yet, but Clear White Light sold out by press night so he must be doing something right. And I will stress that the questions I’m raising are genuinely meant as questions – I honestly don’t know what the answer to this is. But these are difficult questions that require difficult answers from someone. Continue reading

Time to drop the “Holy Grail” mentality of Edinburgh

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COMMENT: It’s right that arts organisations and arts media speak out on the huge costs are risks borne on artists at the Edinburgh Fringe – but they helped create this problem, and they need to undo it.

There can few success stories bigger than the Edinburgh Fringe. In their founding year of 1947, they were massively the underdogs against the brand new Edinburgh International Festival – after all, who’d want to see eight acts nobody invited and weren’t good enough to be in a proper festival? But people liked the idea of a festival where anyone can take part, and in a stunning turnaround of Davids and Goliaths, by the 1960s the fringe has already overtaken the international festival for comedy. Not even Beyond the Fringe could turn things round. (Although they should have chosen a different name as everyone thought they were part of the fringe. Fools.) Not long after, the prestige of the Fringe had overtaken the international festival in every discipline. The Edinburgh Fringe became the place to be discovered. They inspired fringes all over the world, some embracing Edinburgh’s spirit of openness, others sadly not. But the Edinburgh Fringe dominates not only Edinburgh festivals but arts festivals worldwide. It’s viewed as a rite of passage for performers, and a successful run at Edinburgh is the arts world equivalent of finding the Holy Grail.

But, as well as a great success story, there can be few bigger examples of being a victim of your own success than the Edinburgh Fringe. Now the fringe is at the phenomenal size of 3,500 – and this comes at a price. Edinburgh isn’t a huge city, and there’s only a finite number of places that can be used as performance spaces, and only a finite amount of accommodation. In line with the basic laws of supply and demand, the price has rocketed. The increased competition has also normalised the month-long run – any less than that any you don’t have a realistic chance to stand out from the crowd. This, combined with all your other expenses, places a huge financial liability on performers – and with ticket sales far from guaranteed, it’s a huge risk. A bad run elsewhere could leave you a debt that takes months to clear. A bad run in Edinburgh could cost you your home. I cannot imagine the founding acts of the Fringe saw that coming. Continue reading