Live reaction to the Sia film

Content warning: contains commentary to depictions of disability that some people may find offensive (duh)

6.00 p.m.: And thank you to everyone follow me except the Sia superfan on Twitter who’s been stalking me, straw-manned me at least twice, and paid no regard to the fact I might know something about this subject.

So, here’s the low-down of what I’ve learned:

  • Sia’s film isn’t quite as bad as I was only expecting, but only because my expectations were rock bottom after her fucking awful trailer.
  • The obvious problem which everybody is rightly calling out is the excessive amount of “cripping up” done to depict a character. I don’t agree that you shouldn’t be allowed to produced something that some people find offensive (if you did no-one could produce anything), but it is good practice to avoid causing offence if it’s not necessary. Sia failed miserably there.
  • The less obvious problem is that the character of Music is relentlessly portrayed as incapable of everything and anything. And yes, there are some people whose conditions are that bad. But Sia said the point of the film was to show autism is a gift. What gift? She might have intended to depict that, but I didn’t pick that up and I don’t see how anyone else could.
  • The other thing that might have saved the film was getting to know Music beyond the disability. But that didn’t happen. The character was barely developed in the second half of the film at all, and that was the biggest missed opportunity to redeem the film.
  • One thing that counts in the film’s favour is Kate Hudson’s portrayal as Zu. If you cut Music out of the film completely – and let’s face it, that depiction isn’t going to be missed by anyone – we could probably have had an okay film about an ex-alcoholic struggling with rehabilitation.
  • To be honest, however, I think the root problem is that Sia is completely out of her depth. You really need to know what you’re doing to pull off something this outlandish, and this is more like a Tom Hooper take on Cats than a David Lynch take on a detective series. Sia may well have intended to put positive features of Music’s character into the script, but that just doesn’t come across at all.
  • The worst problem, however, are the people rallying around her. The film comes uncomfortably close to saying all autistic people are incapable of anything and they’re a burden on society and all carers are martyrs – but the more her fans double down on defending the film, the closer they get to the ideology of Autism Speaks, even though they say they have nothing to do with it. I’m pretty easy going, but for once, this worries me.

So I’m signing off. Thank again for joining me on this marathon. Let me know if you want to buy the film. I paid £8. I’ll burn it on to DVD. And then snap it in half.

Goodnight.

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Don’t be mad at Seyi Omooba. Save your anger for Christian Concern.

COMMENT: The outcome of The Colour Purple is a cause for relief for the arts – but we must not allow the organisation behind this to make it into their victory.

I never seriously expected this court case to go any other way, but I’m thankful Leicester Curve won and Seyi Omooba lost. To an outside observer not familiar with the story, you might be forgiven for thinking for believing this was a case about religious discrimination. If it had been that, I would have been on her side. It was not. This was about the right for religious people do engage in whatever form of discrimination they choose just as long as their preferred brand of bigotry is mandated by their religion. Had she won, the precedent would have been catastrophic, not just for the arts, but everywhere. Thanks goodness she didn’t get her way.

And, inevitably, the arts world is making her into a pariah, not that I blame people for feeling that way too much. I’m staying out of the dogpile because I don’t kick artists when they’re down. Seyi Omooba’s career in the arts is almost certainly finished – who’s going to want to employ someone who pulls that sort of stunt? – but I still find career-gravedancing distasteful. Even if she brought it on herself. Even if there was no option but to end her career this way. They other reason I’m not joining in is that I’m uncomfortable with the arts world’s habit of making pariahs out of individuals. Especially here. Seyi Omooba is, at best, an expendable footsoldier, and at worst, a brainwashed victim. The real enemy is the organisation who put her up to this, Christian Concern, and if we do not realise that now, we will regret it later.

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On Tyneside Cinema (part 2)

I realise there’s been a lot of things going on to distract us, but it’s time I did the follow-up to the Tyneside Cinema scandal I promised once we had an outcome. Just when everybody seemed convinced the report into allegations of sexual harassment would be a whitewash, the report came out – and it was bad enough to prompt the chief executive and chair of the trustees to resign. An action plan has also been drawn up with the Board of Trustees have adopted. This hasn’t settled every dispute – I will outline those shortly – but, crucially, Save Tyneside Cinema have changed their stance from hostile and confrontational, to working with the cinema for the best outcome.

The outcome for Tyneside Cinema is in my view the right outcome, with some give or take on a few details. But … are we learning all the right lessons? The arts industry was supposed to put an end to sort of behaviour this four years ago when the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, and the theatre and film industries drew up plans to make sure this wouldn’t happen again. And yet it has. It’s not just one bad apple either; around the same time there was a pretty bad scandal breaking about a Scottish ballet school. How is this still happening years after the entire performing arts industry vowed to put an end to it?

The answer I gave last time – the one I felt I could safely say at the time without danger of prejudicing the outcome – is that we got complacent. We collectively behaved like the job was done as Weinstein faded from the news. In particular we assumed that arts organisations forming better codes of conduct would do the job – an assumption that, in hindsight, now looks dreadfully naive. Now I can say a lot more about what this culture of complacency is and who should be doing better. And not everyone’s going to like this, because a lot of these people who are falling short have so far avoided any real scrutiny.

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This Sia film (or: FFS, how many times do I have to say this?)

COMMENT: Yet again, a production about autism is being deservedly panned for crass decisions. And yet again, the dogpilers don’t deserve the moral high ground either.

You bastards. I’m sure you’ve specifically done this to annoy me. I’d barely finished my last piece on disability access and how much I hate grand gestures, especially from people who don’t listen. And now what happens now? A massive bonaza of grand gestures from people who don’t listen, all centred around a garish film trailer. Music is an upcoming film I’ve never heard of, from Sia, a musician-turned-director I’ve never heard of; and it would have quite happily have stayed this way were it not for a shitstorm over the depiction of an autistic character. As always, it is not right to criticise something on the internet without giving people the means to see what it is and makes up their own mind. So I am duty-bound to post this. I am very sorry to inflict this on you.

Sia says this film is about showing autism as a gift, and not a disability. Having watched this twice (I don’t think I can take it a third time. “A musical cinematic experience?” Fuck my life.) I get the impression that Music is a kind-of Blue Cross Week Rain Man. A lot of people on the autistic spectrum – tired of people who think we’re all incapable social misfits with mythical casino superpowers – are a bit narked off by this film. I don’t blame you. And with this has come a lot of people assisting us with our outrage. All in all, this looks like a re-run of All In A Row a year and a half ago, when everyone was expressing outrage over using a puppet on stage to depict an autistic child.

But just hang on a second – it’s all very well piping up every 18 months when someone does something as crass as this happens, but what about the rest of the time? During the furore over All In A Row and the furore over Music, I heard plenty of people proclaim the important of being inclusive to artists with autism; but between these two events, the effort I’ve seen go in roughly amounts to the square root of sod all. It would useful to identify and remove the everyday barriers that stand in the way of artists with autism (or any disability), but I’ve seen to next to no efforts to even ask what the barriers are. So forgive my scepticism to those of you who’ve suddenly rediscovered your dedication to the cause this month.

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Enough with the grand gestures. I want real change.

COMMENT: The highly-publicised practice of giving grants and opportunities to artists with disabilities is good for a few but does little for the many. If you’re serious about helping, you’re going to have to do some hard and thankless work.

Apologies for the long essay here. As they say, I’ve written a long letter because I don’t have the time for a short one.

It’s quite common for acts of hypocrisy or censorship to push me to boiling point, but this is the first time I’ve been prompted to speak out by good intentions. I might be imagining it, but I could swear that in the last few months most of the local theatres have gone into overdrive announcing all the ways they are supporting artists with disabilities. It is not clear whether this was something planning in its own right or it’s a side-effect to theatre’s reaction to the George Floyd murder (presumably by accompanying opportunities for black artists with opportunities with other minorities), but they’ve really gone to town advertising what they’re doing. It varies from theatre to theatre, but it’s a predominantly a mixture of partnerships with disability advocacy organisations and opportunities for artists with disabilities – either in conjunction with partner organisations or schemes in their own right.

Teal Deer sign
Warning! Very long post ahead! (Skip to Summary)

So why should I have a problem with this? In principle I should be delighted that disabilities are being taken seriously, especially mental disabilities. We have been making progress on obvious areas such as wheelchair access for decades, but it’s really only in the last 10-20 years that society has started getting to grips with access for people who think differently. Disability discrimination is quite different from other forms of decision in one respect: whilst you generally need some pretty unpleasant views about someone’s race, sexuality or gender to discriminate on those grounds, disability discrimination can simply come down to thoughtlessness. Something as basic as failure to respect communication preferences can be huge problems for some people, an the fact this is finally being recognised is a good thing.

The problem is a lot of people are way ahead on being seen to be fighting disability discrimination than doing actual fighting. I’m afraid I’ve seen little evidence of any theatre making progress where it counts: identifying where the barriers are and removing them. The unfortunate truth is that the hard work needed for real change is an unglamorous job that requires a lot of trial and error, which offers few opportunities to advertise the good you’ve done. The one recurring problem I observe with the arts is that they will always pick a simple and easy solution over difficult and complex reforms. As a result, superficial changes take precedence over any real attempt to solve the root problems – and this culture of grand gestures is a prime example.

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The top 10 times I got it wrong

This might looks like another novelty lockdown piece, but it’s actually something I’ve been planning for over a year. It’s the eight anniversary of my theatre blog when I wrote this. On the third and sixth anniversaries I wrote about what I’ve learned, but for this milestone I thought I’d do something different. It’s sort of about what I learned, but only what I learned the hard way.

As any regulars will know, I made up my mind quite long ago that I don’t want to be an unconditional cheerleader for theatre, and definitely not a cheerleader for the people in charge of theatre. I want to be noisy and frequently off-message, supporting decisions when they’re right, speaking out when I think it’s a mistake. Nor do I go along with consensus just to fit in with what everyone else think of plays. I plan to keep it that way, because there have been times I’ve stuck my neck out and later been proven right, the most obvious case being Pantogate – I was asking questions long before their treatment of staff and actors came out in the open. But I don’t always make the right call. There several thing I’ve said that, looking back, I now thing I got wrong. In general, I’m embarrassed I wrote this now.

So, let’s get straight to business. The worst mistake I ever made is …

wait for it …

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15 ways Coronavirus might change theatre for good

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As you might have noticed, my last article on Coronavirus didn’t age well. I won’t go over the embarrassing details just yet, but pretty much everything I could have got wrong I did get wrong. The latest I’ve heard is that consensus is most theatres are provisionally planning things to get back to normal in September, with a few having plans on standby for started sooner at short notice.

Do you think I’m making any more predictions after that fiasco? Of course not. So what I’m doing instead is, instead a single vision of the future, I’m going to give fifteen. I will stress straight off that none of these are predictions – indeed, most of them are mutually contradictory. But all of these are, in my opinion, plausible outcomes. There’s still a multitude of things that could happen in the short term, but this is my speculation for how things might turn out in the long term.

So, imagine it’s 2025. Coronavirus is long consigned to the history books, as is the great shutdown, but its legacy lives on. But what is that legacy? It might be any of these:

1: Edinburgh Fringe reinvents itself for the better

[This is the scenario a lot of commentators are hopeful for. I am sceptical about this one myself, but let’s see how it might work anyway.]

It is August 2025, and Edinburgh Fringe has a record-breaking 4,452 acts. Any observer from the now-infamous 2019 fringe, where the 3,841 acts seemingly pushed the it to the limits, might call that a disaster waiting to happen. But the pessimists are confounded and the Fringe has sorted out its problems.

In hindsight, the problem was time. For all the Festival Fringe Society’s efforts, they could only achieve token victories single-handedly. What they really needed was the co-operation of the major venues, but the moment the fringe finished the venues had their hands full planning next year. Suddenly, the shock cancellation of the 2020 fringe gave all the venues time on their hands. With the PR disaster for Hogmanay 2019 still reverberating, Assembly, Pleasance and Gilded Balloon were all eager to show they’d learnt the lessons Underbelly hadn’t – Underbelly was forced to go with the flow. Edinburgh University, Edinburgh City Council and the Scottish Government got on board, and an unprecedented level of co-operation arose. Continue reading

10 common mistakes in playwriting from people who should know better

I never guessed this when I first posted this in the first year of my blog, but 10 common beginners’ mistakes in playwriting is by far the most read post on this blog. Since then I had advanced a lot further and learnt a lot more, but it’s interesting to discover that I haven’t changed my mind about any of these. It’s frequently linked as a resource by  schools, and Papatango even once named this one of their resources for their playwriting competition.

But … am I pointing the finger at the easy targets? I want to help, but there’s always the nagging doubt that the real audience of the post is people who are familiar with writing plays exchanging knowing laughs about people who aren’t. Well, if that’s you, it’s time to stop smirking. My biggest frustration in the last few years isn’t from the people who don’t know any better, but the people who should. I can understand why novices would keep making the same mistakes, but I’m increasingly noticing that there’s another set of repeat mistakes made by established artists. People who ought to have learned by now.

So here’s comes my less popular companion article: 10 common mistakes in playwriting  from people who should know better. Unlike beginners’ mistakes, not everything here will get your script binned in the reading room – on the contrary, some people think any or all the things listed here are a plus. If you want a commissions performed in front of a praiseful clique, ignore everything I say. But if your goal if for people to look back at your play years or decades later and say “wasn’t that good?” – and I hope this is what you’re aspiring to – you should take heed. I’m listing this in ascending order of controversy – I’m expecting the last one to piss quite a few people off – but all of these things are inspired by plays I’ve seen. I won’t say which ones*, because I don’t want to personalise this, but if you think it’s you, please consider this my hint to change tack.

[*: And no, I’m not going to tell you, so don’t ask.]

Without further ado, here we go.

1: Set piece overkill

This one is a giveaway of recent drama school graduates. I’m not knocking drama schools here: whilst there some damned good performances from people with no training, in my experience the biggest strength of professional training is versatility. (Good amateurs are great at playing variants of their real selves – with professional training you can do a lot more.) Another asset of drama schools is learning every trick in the book to put together a great performance. After seen enough plays, you learn to spot the “set pieces”. Things that wow regular theatregoers are known by more experienced viewers to be quite easy if you know how. Which is fine – you should be trying to impress the 95% of the audience who just want to enjoy this, not the 5% who know enough about the craft to judge your skills. Continue reading

We need to talk about Roy Chubby Brown

Roy Chubby Brown and Robert Walpole
FIGHT!!!!!

COMMENT: It won’t be easy to find a right balance when programming controversial acts in publicly-run venues. But neither unofficial blacklists nor political intervention are the way to do it.

Oh dear. This almost passed me by, but there’s been a pretty major controversy over at Middlesbrough. Roy Chubby Brown is coming to Middlesbrough Town Hall in spring next year. Given the, shall I say, “contentious” nature of Roy Chubby Brown’s material, that alone raises a few eyebrows. But the really controversial bit is not the decision itself, but how the decision was made. The management had originally refused the booking – it was the newly-elected Mayor of Middlesbrough who overruled them, and the manager of the Town Hall resigned apparently in protest.

In the end, however, something like this was bound to happen. The issue over venues refusing to programme Roy Chubby Brown goes back years, with reasons for refusal rarely being more specific than “it’s offensive”. And with so many venues owned by their respective local authorities, it was only a matter of time before someone higher up took the view that people who are offended don’t have to watch it. I wasn’t expecting things to come to a head so close to home, but in hindsight, it’s not too much of a surprise it happened in Middlesbrough – and not just because this is his home town. I will come on to this reason later.

So here we go again. As this raises questions about censorship and this is an anti-censorship blog, it’s time for me to give my thoughts. I don’t respond to every story that’s a censorship issue, but the main reason for this one – apart from the fact it’s happened on my doorstep – is that this shines a spotlight on two practices that normally have no scrutiny: one is how arts venue managers choose to programme at publicly-owned facilities; the other is how and when people higher up intervene in the running of these venues. And on this one occasion where we get an insight into what happens behind closed doors, it’s worrying for a lot of reasons. Continue reading

My Lumiere 2019 wish list

I’ve been meaning to write this for several months, but now I’d better get a move on. Next month the programme for Lumiere is revealed, and as this is a 10th anniversary Lumiere, they are going to give this a special theme I’m unofficially naming “Lumiere’s greatest hits”. There will be a few new installations coming, but most of them will be some of the most popular installations over the last five biannual festivals. In which case, here’s a good opportunity to give my own wish list for my dream Lumiere line-up.

Here’s the rules of this game. These installations are all personal favourites of mine, but I have taken into account popularity amongst other people too. I have, however, set myself a rule that it must be possible to put these all into one festival. I loved most of the centrepiece installations in the Market Place, for example, but the Market Place can only have one centrepiece at a time. Very occasionally, I will take the liberty of advocating moving an installation, but that is strictly reserved for cases where there’s two installations in the same place and I can’t bear to let either go.

Footnote: I’ve found out through my channels that one of these on the list is coming, but I won’t say which one because I respect embargoes. But it was already on my wish list before I knew it was coming.

Are you ready? Then here we go:

The best of Durham that I want back

Crown of Light (2009-2013)

Some people said that this installation was overused after coming back for a third appearance – but it would surely be unthinkable to leave out this iconic projection over the first three festivals. The images of the Lindisfarne Gospels projected over Durham Cathedral was the definitive image of Lumiere, and without this I doubt the festival would have catapulted the festival to national fame. As well as the images, the music used for the project – existing music though it may have been – was perfect for the setting. Nothing says Lumiere more than Crown of Light – surely surely surely this has to be in the 10th anniversary lineup. Continue reading