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 At the moment the language used is that the principle of open access is “outdated” and maintains the “status quo” (whatever that means), but I think I can see where this is going.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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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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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

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

Odds and sods: January 2019

It’s going to be a short odds and sods this month. Usually by the end of January things have been picking up a bit, but this time round it’s been relatively uneventful, even with news from December to catch up on. So let’s get this over and done with.

Stuff that happened in January

To be honest, much of the news from January is a continuation of developing stories from previous months, so don’t expect any earth-shattering revelations here. There are, however, some changes on the cards that have now been confirmed.

Conrad Nelson moves on

So let’s start with the news I wasn’t expecting this time last year. It was around this time last year that Conrad Nelson was appointed artistic director and joint CEO for 12 months. He (or at least one of him or his wife & indispensable collaborator Deborah McAndrew) was the obvious choice at the time, and I’d assumed that after this 12-month period, it was most likely he’d stay as artistic director and someone else would become a permanent CEO. Then this was all thrown into question when a job advert came out for a new Artistic Director – would Conrad Nelson apply for this? Attempts to track down an answer one way or the other proved inconclusive. I was still leaning towards betting he would apply and Northern Broadsides was merely doing open applications to be fair, but I finally have an answer. It was only an incidental mention in a What’s On article for Yorkshire, but it’s official: he’s not. Continue reading

My questions for Manchester Art Gallery

All right, Manchester Art Gallery, seems like you want a discussion after all. I’ll give you a chance.

For anyone unfamiliar with my current bugbear, so far this year I’ve been mostly complaining about Manchester Art Gallery and their stupid stunt to remove a beloved by the people of Manchester, in order to – so they claim – start a conversation. I am amongst the large majority of respondents who opposed to it. I wrote at length about my issues here; I won’t go over this again, but the TLDR version is that, at best, the Gallery staff showed no interest in any views different to their own, and, at worst, this was testing the water to see how far they could go with culture policing. But that’s old news now. What riled me more was their behaviour after they made (were forced into?) the decision to restore the painting. After thanking everyone for Contributing To The Debate™, they spent a month behaving like nothing had happened, then proceeded to do a series of interviews and articles that pretty much dismissed all the opposition as online abuse. Most suspiciously, they promised release information shortly about a panel debate that would invite speakers with a range of views. Three months later, with not a peep from the gallery about this, suspicion grew they decided asking other people for their opinions was a mistake and they hoped they could drop the debate quietly without anyone noticing.

But wait. On the 17th May, Manchester Art Gallery had their debate after all. The kept their promise. Well, some of it. Releasing information about the debate three months after it was originally announcing isn’t exactly a time-frame I’d call “shortly”. As for the wide range of views – not a chance. The panel was Alistair Hudson, the director of the gallery, and Clare Gannaway, the curator who championed the removal. They wanted to include a third panellist, Ellen Mara De Wachter, who wrote a, shall I say, “interesting” takes on this stunt, rebranding what most of us consider to be cultural authoritarism as “curatorial activism“, but she had to cancel. Regardless, this is a far cry from their original commitment to invite “inviting speakers with a broad spectrum of opinions”, and it didn’t exactly fill me with confidence that they believe in open debate.

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Why you should worry about the Hylas takedown

Waterhouse Hylas painting obscured by Mary Whitehouse saying

COMMENT: The high-profile removal of a popular painting has backfired very badly. But this should be a wake-up call over a new emerging threat to artistic freedom.

Grief, what were they thinking? If you witnessed the unfolding public reaction to removal of a much-loved painting from a northern gallery, a thought of that nature probably crossed your mind. Manchester Art Gallery says it’s delighted that they provoked such depth and breadth of feeling amongst the public, but when the vast majority of comments outright opposed the removal – with various unflattering remarks regarding the gallery’s management – it’s clear they’re in full-on damage control. And to anyone with the slightest grasp of public opinion, it was pretty obvious what would happen, especially when your reasons for doing it smack of moralising. It was completely unavoidable, and it’s an unmitigated disaster.

Or is it? Some people suspect – given the level of idiocy required to not realise how badly this would go down – that this was their plan all along. Perhaps it was all a publicity stunt. After all, a lot more people know about this painting now than before. And it might have been, but I can think of two other possibilities as to their true motives. One possible motive is a little more concerning than a publicity stunt, and the other one is a lot more concerning. Continue reading

Odds and sods: September 2016

Okay, this is going to be a shorter list than usual, maybe because everyone has a breather after the Edinburgh Fringe. But that’s okay because I have a shedload of reviews to catch up on myself, so the sooner I can zip through this, the better.

Stuff that happened in September:

As I said, limited theatre stuff, but a couple of things elsewhere in the arts world that grabbed my interest. Starting with the theatre stuff …

Alphabetti Theatre

Typewriter at Alphabetti TheatreThis could have been Setepmber’s big news in the north-east, and not in a good way. Happily, something that could have been a disaster now looks to be swiftly averted.

It was a “Save Alphabetti Theatre” crowdfunder that came out of nowhere. In spite of a very successful first 18 months, it was announced out of the blue (well, nearly out of the blue – the fact that the event at which is was announced was called a “fundraiser” was an early hint) that Alphabetti was facing closure if it didn’t get more money. A Kickstarter fund was launched with a £2,500 target, but luckily for Alphabetti, they’ve earned themselves a lot of supporters, because they raised £6,300 (and, interestingly, a lot of backers come from outside the north-east). Together with a whip-round at the original fundraiser that made it £7,100. The Kickstater was only one part of the fund-raising, and the overall target was more like £10,000. It’s not a hard and fast figure – this doesn’t mean that £9,999 means closure but £10,001 means Alphabetti forver – but that’s roughly what they need to clear their debts. But with organisations up and down the country wanting to chip in – another sign of how good a job Alphabetti’s done building its reputation – it looks like this target will be reached. Continue reading

How to cope with being offended – a handy guide

Lionel Shriver
Lionel Shriver. Completely unrelated to this questionnaire. Especially Q10.

One of things that makes the Edinburgh Fringe so successful, especially the comedy, is the convention that anything goes. Television comedy often shies away from more cutting edge stuff, fearful of all the complaints they’ll get. At the fringe, you get the chance to see something bolder. However, one side-effect of this anything-goes mentality is that you might take exception to something somebody says. This happens on television too, but it’s more likely to happen in the fringe environment. Which begs the question – how can you possibly cope with someone offending you this way?

Painful though it is for some people to contemplate, the Fringe organisers are dominated by people who cannot, or will not, instruct people to not say anything that might upset someone’s delicate sensibilities. But fear not. Inspired by this wonderful flowchart by the legendary John Robertson of The Dark Room fame (and adapted with his kind permission), this extended list of questions should cover any situation that may arise in any kind of comedy, be it stand-up, sitcom, satire or any other form you can imagine.

(And, okay, this list doesn’t cover every situation and shouldn’t be taken 100% literally, but you get the idea. I suspect the people who’d benefit the most from this list are the people who are most likely to miss the point, but I can try.)

No prizes for spotting the references to real events. I may well add to this list as future incidents arise, but this will do for now. Are you ready, here we go …

(UPDATE: I’ve expanded the list in light of recent events. I suspect I may be doing this quite a lot.)

Q1: Are you offended?

No: Get on with your life.
Yes: Go to Q2.

Q2: Do you know why you’re offended?

No: Get on with your life.
Yes: Go to Q3. Continue reading