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 The National Autistic Society, which this theatre company had worked with, then went on to say it had withdrawn support.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

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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

https://pbs.twimg.com/profile_images/1080429309746184194/jpVagHOG_400x400.jpgSo 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.

Continue reading

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

Why I don’t believe Penguin’s side of the story

Righty-ho. This is something I’ve been working on and off for about two months, and I’ve kept having to defer this as more urgent news, reviews and previews took precedence. As you will see, it’s taken quite a bit of work going back finding primary sources, scrutinising them, and then writing about what I found. But here it is at last: a follow-up to “On the Ladybird vs Elia spat” that I wrote back in January, concerning the needless row between an independent author and Penguin Random House over a parody of the Ladybird books, and subsequent arguments over who stole whose idea. At the time, I tried to avoid coming off the fence too strongly, because I wanted to make to point that it’s good to build on each other’s ideas, and – oddly enough –  I tried to suggest it was time to put the dispute behind them. But here’s where it ends. This is where I take sides and lay into Penguin.

Teal Deer sign
Warning! Very long post ahead!

The reason I’m compelled to take sides is the attitude from a small but vocal number of people taking the line that Penguin is entirely blameless and it’s completely Miriam Elia’s fault. What’s more, the comments were a mixture of rude, aggressive, patronising, and – I suspect – attempts to intimidate people like me into deleting anything that might make Penguin look bad. So I had to go back and double-check the web pages where I got originally got my information from. And from there, I checked the primary sources cited. I thought I might come to some middle-of-the-road conclusion – perhaps Penguin merely mishandled things and allowed a misunderstanding to get out of hand, but I guessed wrongly. The evidence I’ve found overwhelmingly backs what Elia and others have been saying all along, and the claims made for Penguin stand up very poorly.

One important thing to say first is that this post does not cover every single point made in defence of Penguin – I could say more about this, but I want to concentrate on the big whoppers. Even so, this is going to be a long one, because sweeping statements are short and easy to make, and long and laborious to debunk. But read this you should, because this is quite possibly a large corporation abusing its position to try to silence artists they don’t like with legal threats they aren’t entitled to make. And that is something everyone in the arts world should worry about. Continue reading