Odds and sods: March 2022

For the first time in three years, odds and sods makes it to March without a catastrophic event rendering it redundant. To recap how this works, March is normally my last monthly update until June. In April and May, I turn my focus to Brighton Fringe, and any notable events that take place over this time tend to get mentioned in the coverage. That established, let’s get going.

Stuff that happened in March:

It’s been a slow news month. The biggest news was the first major production of The Laurels, which effectively amounted to its launch. You can follow that link for my account of how this got here and what this means for the future, but their debut production was impressive. Other than that, developments have been thin on the ground and I’ve been scraping the bottom of the barrel. But here’s what’s been going on.

Edinburgh Fringe and employment

With the Edinburgh Fringe set this year to return to something comparable to pre-Covid times, concerns have been raising about the return of bad practices. A few weeks ago, I was worried this was turning into a pretext to campaign for the removal of open access – that would be a huge step backwards. (Fortunately, the festival Fringe Society shows no sign of budging there.) However, the battle lines seem to have been drawn around employment practices, in particular the use of volunteers. It’s difficult to piece together reliable conclusions based on the info we have, but one of the bigger worries is that the volunteer adverts posted by C Venues – who were pilloried three years ago for allegedly treating staff the worst – suggested more of the same. In response, Shona McCarthy has made this statement about employment conditions.

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Introducing The Laurels (feat. Gerry and Sewell)

Interior of The Laurels

Skip to review of Gerry and Sewell.

North-east theatre news (and indeed news everywhere) in 2020 and 2021 has been dominated by theatres closing and reopening again, but whilst all this has been going on, something quite significant has been happening in the background. For the first time since the emergence of Alphabetti Theatre last decade, Tyneside has a new theatre. They’ve got going with the odd performance at the start of the year, but now we have their first major in-house production: Gerry and Sewell, a new adaptation of The Season Ticket aka Purely Belter. And with me invited to the press launch, it’s time to check out this latest offering.

The story so far …

First of all, a catch-up. The Laurels is part of Theatre N16. Canny sleuths amongst you might realise that N16 is a London postcode district, and might speculate that the origin of this theatre was round about Stamford Hill, and you’d be right. I even checked out Theatre N16 once myself with the surprisingly good and delightfully surrealistic Three Unrelated Short Plays. That, however, was not in N16 but SW12, because they had to move. As Alphabetti Theatre had also learned the hard way with The Dog and Parrot: landlords are cocks. Small theatres, that depend so heavily on the goodwill of landlords allowing them to use spaces for mutual benefit, are vulnerable to new owners booting them out on a whim. But whilst cockish landlords are a nuisance in the north-east, in London the problem is endemic. Even the most highly respected fringe theatres can get turfed out when the lease runs out and the owner think they can make a little more money with another business instead.

I’ve said this before, but I really do think we need a proper discussion on this. Small theatres like Alphabetti and The Laurels and The Bunker can try different things and give opportunities to new artists that larger theatres who own their buildings simply don’t have the versatility to do. But all this good work is being hampered by endless worries over holding on to premises if you’re lucky, managing moves if you’re not. But what can you do to stop it? If you simply prohibit landlords from taking away a space used by an active theatre company, nobody’s going to agree to let out the spaces to them in the first place. I’m starting to think we need a more radical solution: perhaps a lease retention scheme, where landlords get a bonus payment for continuing to let premises to performances spaces. If we’re not sure where the money should come from, maybe the big theatres can chip in – after all, they benefit from the talent nurtured and risks explored by the small venues. A lot of details to work out, but something needs to be done. And we can start by acknowledging what a big problem this is.

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Odds and sods: February 2022

Right, what happened in February. Oh yes. That.

But apart from That, this also happened.

Stuff that happened in February

So far the first time since 2019, we have preparations underway for all the main fringes. Last year was cause for celebration when, against all odds and so much stacked against them, the two biggest fringes put on great comeback festivals. Now, however, it seems we’re into the hangover. Oh dear, here’s what’s been going on.

Brighton Fringe loses The Warren

E2u1hO0XoAQQfM2How could this possibly go so wrong? Brighton Fringe 2021 was, by all accounts, a roaring success, with custom for both ticket sales and ancillary income (i.e. drinking) vastly outperforming every expectation. But then, last October, signs emerged that perhaps all was not well after all, specifically with The Warren. Complaints started emerging online from performers and staff about not being paid that year, both from the Fringe and the subsequent Warren on the Beach (although some are going further and claiming the problem goes back years). It did seem strange that such difficulties were happening after such a lucrative summer, but apparently it’s perfectly possible for this to happen simply because of inadequate financial management. The absence of anyone from The Warren at registration launch also seemed strange. Then the news died down and the registration for Brighton Fringe approached and I assumed that The Warren must have got a grip on events and settled it quietly.

And then, days before announcement of the full programme, the bombshell was announced by Brighton Fringe: The Warren will not take part in 2022 whilst it sorts out its finances. The announcement came from Brighton fringe rather than the venue, but it sounds like they’ve admitted they screwed up. The problem with the timing is a lot of artists were already programmed to perform there. There is currently a scramble to find alternatives, but off-hand it doesn’t look like there’s enough spare capacity at the other venues to absorb this. At the time of writing, Brighton Fringe doesn’t seem to be budging on its 7th March deadline to get in the printed daily guide. It also dashes the (previously quite high) hopes that Brighton Fringe would be back to full strength for 2022.

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Odds and sods: January 2022

Sorry this is late. I do have an excuse for this – the first week of February was solid for me.

Anyway, let’s catch up on what happened since November Odds and Sods.

Stuff that happened in December and January

So this big news from January was the cancellation of Vault Festival 2022. Ouch. Perhaps a bit over-optimistic to commit to this, but precedent shows that cancelling a festival this close to the launch is really bad news financially. I wrote extensively about how this happened and what this might mean. However, we start to roundup of smaller news with a side-effect of this closer to home.

Vault festival cancelled, Laurels steps in

f71722_57a65ccbc5654c7bb79054862d048a2amv2In the short term, the cancellation of the Vault festival leads to an issue over what happens to all the groups who were counting on their Vault slot as their big break. This might not be a big deal for, say, a comedian who had a Vault appearance as one date on a bigger tour, but it’s a huge blow if you were giving it all for a run at the Vault and nothing else. Well, The Laurels have made an unprecedented offer: accommodation and 100% box office income for shows wishing to transfer. And for those of you outside the north-east who have not caught up with this: The Laurels is the new project of Jamie Eastlake, who use to run Theatre N16 in London.

As far as I can tell, this is not a free-for-all: it’s an invitation to pitch. The pitch deadline has only just passed, so we’ll need to wait a little longer to see what we get. It may be difficult to separate who comes forwards from who gets chosen, but this may be or first clue of what sort of work The Laurels wants. Jamie Eastlake should be in a good position to organise this, having presumably had a lot of experience of London fringe theatre from N16 days. Keep your eyes peeled, because this could be very influential. It might be London’s loss is Whitley Bay’s gain.

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Vault Festival 2022 cancelled, Vault Festival 2023 in the balance?

With 2021 written off as “2020, the sequel” in theatre, hope were pinned on a better 2022. The last thing anyone wanted was “2020 part 3: the nightmare continues”. Now, we’re barely into the new year, and we’ve got a dose of the latter. With only three weeks before its launch, Vault 2022 has been cancelled in its entirety. Worse, this was supposed to be the big relaunch. Whilst Brighton Fringe 2020 and Edinburgh Fringe 2021 were happy to downplay expectations and carry on with the few acts who still wanted to take part, Vault chose to cancel its 2021 festival back in July 2020 with the intention of a full-scale relaunch for its 10th anniversary year.

The worst news of all, however, is the timing of this. It’s one thing to cancel a big annual event before you’ve even started, but quite another to pull the plug at the last moment. For one thing, there are dozens, maybe hundreds, of acts seeing the Vault Festival as the big break only to have it taken away from them at the last moment. That must be gutting. The bigger issue, however, is what happens to the Vault Festival itself. As Stephen Walker observed with relation to Buxton Fringe, most decisions to go ahead or cancel come when a decision has to be made on the money. It’s hard to imagine the Vault Festival could have got this close to a start date without a significant financial investment. Unless they have some very good insurance, that’s not coming back. And, unfortunately, the precedents we have to go on is not good.

But first of all, a look of how we got here.

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Odds and sods: November 2021

It’s December, and we’ve had a November which almost looks like business as usual. So let’s do a business as usual roundup of things that have been happening other than plays to review and other things that didn’t warrant entire articles. For those of you who need a refresher, November is my last Odds and Sods of the year, because December is basically pantos and not much else. Let’s dive straight in.

Stuff that happened in November

So the big thing that got me talking was the Royal Court’s ill-judged character on Elon Musk named Hershel Fink. Cue outrage from everyone who thought the Jewish-sounding name was an insinuation that Jews secretly control the world. The Royal Court admitted they got it wrong; some people think that’s the end of the matter, others aren’t so forgiving and think there’s a deeper problem with the Royal Court. I’ve gone further: I suspect this is a problem endemic to the whole of the theatre industry, with the Royal Court merely being the most obvious offender. So what was originally meant to b a couple of paragraphs here became a long-read article in its own right. You are probably not going to like what I have to say. But read it anyway.

Apart from that, this all happened:

Vault Festival returns

festivalpasssmallSo we start the round-up with the news that the Vault Festival is returning in 2022. For festival fringe fans who are new to this, the Vault Festival takes a lot of acts of the length and scale you’d expect to the Edinburgh Fringe – indeed many of the acts go to or form there – but unlike the Edinburgh Fringe, it’s curated. I believe one in six of the applicants get programmed, and realistically there’s no way Vault could run as an open festival. However, until Brighton Fringe gets going in May, this is the closest thing you’re going to get to a fringe.

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Odds and sods: October 2021

So, it’s back to business, and for old time’s, sake, I’m going back to my monthly odds and sods updates being late. I would have got it out on time, but a certain shitstorm blew up that I had to write about first. But now that this is out of the way (for a moment), let’s catch up with what else has been happening.

Stuff that happened in October:

So the big thing that happened – not quite theatre news but still very relevant to north-east culture – was SSD Concerts. Previously making a name for themselves back in April by allegedly going round groping everybody, after the MD implicated in this resigned, we thought we’d heard the last of the MD, or SSD Concerts, or groping, or all three. Nope. It now looks like they thought they could lie low a few months and then just carry on like nothing had happened. The good news is they thought wrongly, and didn’t get away with it.

However, the less prominent news stories, involving people who – as far as I’m aware – don’t behave like sex cases, are:

Durham 2025

cropped-d2025-bid-logoThe excitement at the start of this month was the news that Durham has made it through to the longlist of City of Culture 2025. One important point is that it is Durham County that is bidding for this rather than just the city. This makes use of a rule change that this time round, regions can bid for the title – it need not be a specific urban area. This suits the bid, because ever since Durham County Council became a unitary authority, they’ve been promoting the culture of the county as a unit. Events such as Kynren and attractions such as Beamish are routinely alongside events and attractions in Durham city itself.

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The unwelcome return of SSD Concerts

Image of Hit the North line-up with all the withdrawn bands removed.

Right then. I spend a couple of days out of the loop getting a play ready, and when I finally start to catch up on things, I drop right into the middle of this shitstorm. I, along with most people, thought we’d heard the last of SSD Concerts and its manager Steve Davis back in April, after all the allegations of sexual harassment appeared on the Glassdoor review site. But unlike the management of Tyneside Cinema, the Vice-principal of Ballet West, Noel Clarke, and pretty much every else who resigned and disappeared for good, it now looks like Steve Davis thought he could step back into his role quietly once all the outrage had died down. And, boy, that’s backfired big-time.

And so, yet again I have to write about the subject that just refuses to die. No matter how many times these scandals erupt and people face consequences, it seems there are still people who will never learn. The only good news is that, this time, some people who I’d previously criticised for not taking action have pleasantly surprised me and earned my respect. Only some, mind.

Most of this has already been covered by people less pressed for time than me. If you’ve caught up elsewhere, you won’t find any new information here. I will, however, add a few thoughts of my own.

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Odds and sods: most of 2020 and 2021

So, who remembers the “before” times? Well, one thing I used to write on most months was “odds and sods”, rounding up the little things that have been happening in theatre that weren’t reviews or recommendations or something that required a full article. Then along came a certain event that put paid to little events happening in theatres, or indeed any kind of event.

Contrary to what it feels like for a lot of people, things haven’t ground to a complete halt for 18 months. In spite of the high-profile cancellation of Edinburgh Fringe 2020 there’s still been a lot going on with the fringe circuit to keep me busy. However, in the north-east, theatre has only really got going in the last month. But things haven’t been entirely still on regional theatre, and we’ve got some pretty significant events to catch up on. So, let’s do a catch-up.

What’s been happening between March 2020 and September 2021. Apart from Coronavirus.

There’s a been a lot to talk about relating to Coronavirus, both directly and indirectly. Most of this I’ve talked about indirectly in my live fringe coverage. I might round this up later, but here I am concentrating on what else happened. Here are some events that could just have easily taken place another time.

New artistic directors

When we left off, Lorne Campbell had just departed Northern Stage for a new challenge at the National Theatre of Wales, and the search for his successor was underway. But part-way through 2020 came the shock news that his Live Theatre counterpart Joe Douglas was also leaving. The reason I say shock is because he was doing so well. Sometimes, when an artistic director leaves unexpectedly, I later find out that some of the trustees weren’t happy with the way he or she was taking the theatre, but that looks far form the case here. His first Live Theatre play sold out and came back for another run, and the second also sold out and looked set to come back too. I will say that I did hear a few grumbles over Lorne Campbell (not that I have any reason to believe that was why he moved), but Joe Douglas was getting universal praise. Ah well. Looks like sometimes life’s demands outside of the theatre are more important.

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On Tyneside Cinema (part 1)

This article is one I hoped I would never have to write. It was almost three years ago that the scandals surrounding Harvey Weinstein broke, but that event – and even subsequent news in closer places such as the Old Vic – felt like something happening far away. Now we face the real possibility of an abuse scandal on our doorstep. The north-east arts community is up in arms about this, and things could get uglier still. As a result, it was very tempting for me to steer clear of this subject. But I have often enough criticised arts media doing too much cheerleading for major cultural venues and not enough asking on questions, so I cannot in all conscience stay silent now. The reason this has taken so long to write is because I have had to keep fact-checking a constantly-updating story and run this past people whose advice I trust – not to mention the knowledge of how sensitive this subject is – but I am now ready to speak.

If you are based in the north-east and involved in the arts, you should know what’s happened by now. For everyone else: this all began in late June when an allegation was posted on Twitter from a woman who said she’d been raped by a member of staff at the venue – and this has escalated swiftly. Now large numbers of Tyneside Cinema staff and staff have come forward with other complaints, and it is this, combined with an arguably poor response from the management, that has prompted the BFI to take action. I am reserving final judgement on the Tyneside Cinema until I see what comes out of the various investigations, but as it stands, it doesn’t look good.

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