Remembering January, Part 3: A New Economic Model for Arts Funding

As mentioned in my last Remembering January post, last month I took part in a three-day workshop to examine the transition from feudalism to early capitalism through the lens of early modern drama (Shakespeare and contemporaries). This was of interest in itself, but also, potentially, a way into thinking about about the boundaries and nature of capitalism today, about what our argument with capitalism is, and how capitalism might be superseded by something else. Paul Mason calls this “post-capitalism”; I’m going to go with that too for the time being. Since this was a workshop with a group of people working in theatre, we discussed how theatre can represent or a play a part in post-capitalism – what is a post-capitalist theatre?

As I also mentioned previously, at the beginning of January, I found out that the the funding application for the show I’m currently working on, Britain’s Got Tenants had not been successful. Since then, we’ve also had a funding application for Don’t Panic! It’s Challenge Anneka rejected. This has prompted thoughts about how to fund my work, and about funding for the arts in general.

The following started as a response to an idea that was proposed at the end of the post-capitalism workshop: that a new model for funding the arts could be to attract corporate sponsorship to:
– build a technologically better-equipped theatre
– the company would put their name on the building
– audience members, would “plug into” it in some way and the corporate partner could have access to certain types of data about the audience (this might be of value to them)
(This was the idea, in very broad brushstrokes)

The following should be read more in the spirit of a “provocation” than a fully thought-out plan which I think is ready to be implemented

The network – that’s the new technology. The theatre building itself needn’t be “hi-tech”.  People already have the technology in their pockets. What more is the theatre building going to provide?

The reason we were able to do the Post-Capitalism workshop is because the Young Vic has a well-administrated network and a heated room that was given to us free of charge. I am able to organize a fortnightly improvisation and theatre games night in the same way: I have an idea I want to try out – the Young Vic organizes a room for me and sends out an email to however many hundred directors on the network, people who are interested get back to me, we get some work done together. From the perspective of a “maker”, the YV directors’ network is an invaluable resource for facilitating work which wouldn’t otherwise be happening.

Rather than spend money on a theatre building (however hi-tech), we should invest in a network, network administrators, and places to live and work for artists (more on this below)

The national theatre network

If the idea is to get a big tech company to offer sponsorship in exchange for access to data, I don’t believe a building, however well technologically equipped, is a particularly attractive proposition. Even if you have, say, 1,000 audience members a night, and they’re all “plugged into” the building in some way, you’re still only gathering limited amounts of data for people living in a relatively circumscribed geographic area. However, if you have a national network which theatre-makers, venues and audiences are all logged into, advertising shows, booking shows, giving feedback on shows, you’re generating a lot of data. That data is potentially valuable, because it is not limited to people’s online browsing or shopping habits, it gives you information about how people from all over the country, from all different backgrounds, etc. go out into the “real world” to have a good time.

[I need to run this idea past people who actually know what makes data valuable]

To an extent, these networks already exist. The Young Vic has its network, the National Theatre of Wales is essentially a network, I think (although I don’t know much about it, so someone correct me if I’m wrong), there are any number of rural touring networks…

The national network will integrate all of these into a single network which will perform all of their current functions: facilitating collaboration between artists, booking tours, developing audiences, etc.
BUT it also goes one further: ultimately it will enable audiences to invite shows / art exhibitions / concerts to an arts centre / theatre / community hall near them directly. A show / concert / exhibition will have a page with a description, reviews, pictures, video, ratings and comments from other audiences who have seen it. If enough people in a given area want to see a show, it gets booked.
People all over the country will be able to order art (performances, concerts, exhibitions) online, like ordering takeaway off Just Eat, except it will be free!
(more on how the “free” bit works below, but first, accountability)

The network has the potential to solve the problem of accountability – it allows us to be directly accountable to one another

The problem of accountability is about how we justify giving public money to artists. At the moment we have reporting, targets, feedback forms etc. As anyone who’s applied for Arts Council funding knows, this creates a burden of admin which can be seriously inhibiting to small organizations. It also creates a burden for the Arts Council: a disproportionate amount of their time and energy is spent dividing up an ever-shrinking pot of money. Let’s get rid of the pot of money, cut out the layer of bureaucracy that goes with it, and use the people who work for the Arts Council in a more productive way (in more of a “producer / facilitator” role, for example). We no longer need to be accountable to a bureaucracy because we are directly accountable to the audience (they will leave feedback on our page after the show; they will decide to book the show, or not) and the audience and venue are accountable to the artist in the same way. The principle that we are directly accountable to one another is how trust is built online, for both commercial services (Uber, Air B’n’B, etc.) or non-commercial ones (couch-surfing, Wikipedia, etc.). I don’t see why it shouldn’t work for the arts as well: there are no commissioners or gate-keepers, just artists, audience, facilitators and administrators.

The new economic model

The new economic model is that artists work for free. It’s already happening. Imagine trying to raise the money for the three-day workshop we just did if you had to pay everyone union rates [about 15 people took part in the workshop]. This raises the problem of how the artists survive. Some options:
– only wealthy are able to work in theatre: an exacerbated version of what we have at the moment (nobody wants this)
– we pay all the artists involved in the scheme (ultimately thousands of them) a union wage. This is potentially prohibitively expensive and, for me, not an appealing option for two other related reasons:

  • We introduce a relationship of exchange where none is needed or wanted. The artist’s work has a value which cannot be measured in financial terms. So let’s not try.
  • If we’re talking about a post-capitalist theatre, we need the artists to buy into a post-capitalist philosophy, and a union wage works strongly against this

(this is a little elliptical – I’m happy to expand if people are interested. The important point is that this is a model based on gifting, not on quantifiable exchange)

– the reason union wages are necessarily high is that much of them end up straight in the pockets of landlords charging over-inflated rents or banks charging interest on mortgages. Instead of spending our sponsorship money on rent and theatre buildings, let’s spend it on homes, food, basic amenities and transport for artists (this is all we need and it won’t cost much!). Let’s build the homes somewhere cheap (not London or the South East of England). Let’s set them up as a co-operative structure where tenancies are secure and it is not possible to make a profit out of increases in land value (the homes cannot be sold for profit). Artists will also need:
– laptops and mobile phones
– work / rehearsal space (this should be straightforward too: there are lots of empty spaces, especially outside of London).
– materials with which to make art (again, this is generally quite a small proportion of any budget for an arts project – wages take up most of it). A lot of materials could be donated.
– network administrators
– When artists tour they will be hosted and fed by local friends of the venues (I’ve done this – it can work really well and it means that your hosts are automatically more invested in the show). The model is built on the principle of gifting rather than exchange.

Artists will still need some cash to interact with the rest of the world. Venues will not be charged a fee to book shows, but there could be a Pay What You Decide ticket system on the night, and the proceeds from this would be divided up equally between all artists in the network. Alternatively, we could allow artists to do paid work one or two days a week.

Corporate sponsorship

As mentioned above, corporate sponsorship doesn’t go towards a building or paying union wages, it goes towards:
– building, maintaining and administrating the network
– free homes for theatre-makers built in cheap places and co-operatively owned.
– basic food / transport / amenities for artists
– mobile phones and laptops
– materials for art (this probably needs to be defined a bit better so it can be costed properly)
– rehearsal space and performance space
While some people might feel queasy about a model which gives a big corporation access to personal data:
a) it’s already happened
and b) there’s something intuitively very appealing about Paul’s idea of post-capitalism growing within the husk of capitalist structures. I realize that’s not a very rigorous argument – open to discussion.
For me the big question is: would the data generated by such a network be valuable enough to a corporation for them to cover the above costs…?

Form

Clearly, it’s going to be difficult to make West End musicals or big-budget operas using this model. However, it feels to me like a good structure for creating contemporary, popular theatre: theatre which could only have been made now (think of all the shows which look like they could have been made at any point over the last sixty years) and which has a wide appeal.

We do not need to invent new forms for the age of the internet, they are already being invented. Just as, over the past 60 years, the language of film and TV has seeped into the theatre, over the past 5 years so has the language of the internet. A lot of the most interesting contemporary theatre I have seen recently has created an experience which has much in common with being online. A few “strands”, off the top of my head:
– the “performance / live art / theatre-lecture” types. They can make shows with their mobile phone and their laptop (venues will provide a video projector and screen). Their online presence is an extension of their work. They have co-opted the language of the internet into their theatrical vocabulary: they create a new type of public / private space (the boundary between their own lives and their art is fluid), they have found theatrical transpositions for “links” and “browsing”, they use film and pictures and videos and anything that you can do with a mobile phone, a laptop, a projector and a screen
– the large-scale outdoor spectacular.  A particularly interesting example, for me, is Slung Low in Leeds. Their base is about as a low-tech a base as you can imagine, but their work harnesses the potential of networked individuals through large-scale outdoor community shows which the audience will film on their mobile devices and share with friends. Around 150 people from the local community are participants in the show – their family, friends neighbours want to come along and see them.
– Interactive theatre: playing at being a capitalist in World Factory or playing in the city with Coney, etc.
Some of these use mobile devices directly, others have adopted, transposed or subverted the codes of the networked individual.

As for the classics, I suspect the model will mean they have to be re-written in quite a radical way, which might turn them into popular works again…

 

 

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iou1 / The Tenant of Wildfell Hall

I’ve been reading Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall (An-Ting is working on an adaptation of it with her company; I went to see a work-in-progress showing of it at the Royal Academy of music). The following bit put me in mind of the iou1 project (it reminded me of the potency and significance of insisting on paying for something):

‘Then you won’t take the book?’ I asked, more mildly than I had yet spoken.
‘I will gladly take it, if you will let me pay for it.’ I told her the exact price, and the cost of the carriage besides, in as calm a tone as I could command – for, in fact, I was ready to weep with disappointment and vexation.
She produced her purse, and coolly counted out the money, but hesitated to put it into my hand. Attentively regarding me, in a tone of soothing softness, she observed, – ‘You think yourself insulted, Mr Markham – I wish I could make you understand that – that I – ‘
‘I do understand you, perfectly,’ I said. ‘You think that if you were to accept that trifle from me now, I should presume upon it hereafter; but you are mistaken:- if you will only oblige me by taking it, believe me, I shall build no hopes upon it, and consider this no precedent for future favours:- and it is nonsense to talk about putting yourself under obligations to me when you must know that in such a case the obligation is entirely on my side, – the favour on yours.’
‘Well, then, I’ll take you at your word,’ she answered, with a most angelic smile, returning the odious money to her purse – ‘but remember!’
‘I will remember – what I have said; – but do not you punish my presumption by withdrawing your friendship entirely from me, – or expect me to atone for it by being more distant than before,’ said I, extending my hand to take leave, for I was too much excited to remain.

 

Remembering January, Part 2: On Bondage

January saw a return to The Merchant of Venice, which I’ve written about previously. I was reading it in preparation for a workshop led by Zoe Svendsen and Paul Mason. Their idea was to build a database of economic data mapping the transition from late feudalism to early mercantile capitalism in early modern drama (Shakespeare and contemporaries). For example, does a given character lend money? do they charge interest? do they own boats? do they own land? do they have the same name as their land? etc. I chose to work on TMOVTimon of Athens, and Romeo and Juliet, which was an opportunity for a close re-reading of all of them, but especially The Merchant of Venice.

Bond / bound / bind appears 44 times in TMOV, mostly in reference to the bond between Shylock and Antonio, but also:
“love’s bonds” Salarino to Gratiano, 2.6.7
“Fast bind, fast find” Shylock, 2.5.52
“I am not bound to please thee with my answers” Shylock to Bassanio 4.1.64
“Antonio, gratify this gentleman, / For, in my mind, you are much bound to him” Duke to Antonio, 4.1.401
“This is the man, this is Antonio / To whom I am so infinitely bound” Bassanio to Portia 5.1.135
“You should in all sense be much bound to him / For, as I hear, he was much bound for you” Portia to Bassanio, 5.1.136
And, of course, there’s the bond of marriage (although the expression is never explicitly used in Merchant, it appears elsewhere in Shakespeare, e.g. “within the bond of marriage” Julius Caesar, II.i)

Perhaps this is the reason I keep returning to TMOV – Shakespeare asks (at a time of transition on a scale which is hard to comprehend), what is holding society together? There are plenty of bonds in the play, not just the contract which ties Antonio to Shylock: bonds of friendship and marriage, of allegiance to fathers, the law, the state, religion. All of these are becoming financialized. In a society where relationships are increasingly seen through the prism of financial exchange, what becomes of trust, loyalty, duty, empathy, love…? Maybe this is why the Merchant of Venice seems to hang together so awkwardly – it is about a society which hangs together awkwardly, a society bound by financial transactions, but also deeply uneasy with the possibility that this is all that might bind them. Sound familiar?

I was reminded of Shylock’s “merry bond” yesterday when listening to an old episode of Thompson’s Live, Chris Goode and Co’s podcast. In a conversation about the difficulties of characterizing the activity of making theatre, or music, or writing poetry as “work”, Andrea Brady riffs on the idea of “bondage”, i.e. formal writing constraints. She explains how her first year university students talk about poetry as “a window onto the soul”, a sphere of unconstrained freedom. Historically, however, poetry has always involved strict formal constraints. What those constraints might be today is an open question; Chris Goode suggests we turn to our artistic practice, to our “work”, to find out what they might be.

The bond, then, is not just what ties us together; it is also a restraint (sometimes a useful one, in the context of creative activity). It occurred to me that this was something that Will was picking at during Games Night last Tuesday – when does the bond (the rule) stifle us, and when does pushing back against it, overcoming it, or subverting it release creative energy? When no rule is specified, what conventions and hierarchies do we fall back on? All questions, of course, which we can meaningfully ask outside of the rehearsal room too.

Last year, I had an epiphany when reading David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5,000 years and decided to start a project to redefine my relationship with money. That’s still going on, by the way, I just need to take it to the next stage (giving myself some deadlines would be useful). It came back to me when I met up with a couple of American friends who were passing through London; they spoke about the next financial crash taking root in the mountain of student debt (students graduating with $150,000 of debt, stagnant wages, student debt being packaged and sold on by financial institutions in the same way that sub-prime mortgages were). I wondered if student debt has become a contemporary, structural form of debt bondage (obviously, unreconstructed debt bondage or slavery still exists, but not on an institutional level in the West). By taking on that level of debt as a young person you are committing to a certain type of job (a certain type of economy), even if you hate it and don’t believe it has any value other than financial value. Maybe this is why crappy jobs which don’t need to be done still exist.

Through the merry bond, Shylock and Antonio are able to live out a fantasy which is excluded by their respective positions in Venetian society. Antonio has fantasies of submission and Shylock fantasizes domination. Antonio is not allowed to be submissive – he is a pillar of Venetian society, a successful merchant, an aristocrat and a Christian; Shylock is not allowed to dominate – he is a Jew. The bond gives them the freedom to “be themselves”.

At the beginning of January, Sophie and I found out that the Arts Council had rejected our application for funding for Britain’s Got Tenants – a disappointment (for obvious reasons) and a relief (after almost half a year of preparing the application and waiting for it to be processed, we finally found out where were at). We’d already been offered a week’s rehearsal space and a slot to show a work-in-progress performance at The Albany, so we decided to go ahead and make something without any money. We’ve invited a load of people to see it: friends, housing campaigners, people I’ve interviewed over the past year, theatre producers and directors. This is a constraint, of sorts. Hopefully it will make us very creative. More, better deadlines, now!

In the next Remembering January instalment, I will talk about whether public funding for the arts, in its current form, is a useful form of bondage.

Remembering January, Part 1: Musarc

Plenty to process from January.

In January, I started to build on my involvement with the choir Musarc, which started in December of last year. Toby sings with Musarc, and had asked if I would help out with some shadow puppetry / projections which he wanted to work into a piece by Howard Skempton at their Christmas concert at St George’s in Bloomsbury.

Toby singing
Toby, far left. Photo by Yiannis Katsaris

The score for the piece in question, The Flight of Song, “includes an opening section with a graphic score by Trevor Skempton, which embellishes Longfellow’s poems with words by Blake, Browning, Coleridge, Milton, Shelley, Shakespeare and others” (from the concert programme). We printed out this “grapic score” and made it into a mobile.

mobile
The mobile made with bits of bamboo held together with string and gaffa tape. The shapes are printed from the “graphic score” of Skempton’s piece. Photo by Yiannis Katsaris.

The mobile was back-lit, projecting shadows onto the wall behind the choir:

shadows on the wall
Photo by Yiannis Katsaris.

We used different types of screen to create plays of light and shadow:

vertical shadows
Photo by Yiannis Katsaris.

It was a lovely concert:

whole church
Photo by Yiannis Katsaris.

Afterwards, Joseph, who runs the choir, told me they were planning some workshops in 2016 with choreographers / theatre directors / movement specialists to experiment with performance and staging. This led to me running a short session with the choir in January which focused on ensemble movement and moments of individuality.

Photos by Yiannis Katsaris.

It’s the first time I’ve led a movement workshop with a choir; it was a lot of fun! They’re already very good at doing things together, which is what you tend to spend lots of time on when you’re building an acting ensemble. Because they’re already so strong as a group, it’s interesting to try to find the individual moments of play, and introduce the idea that when things don’t going to plan, it’s an opportunity: that is where drama and “liveness” happens, in the reactions to the unexpected. Looking forwards to working with them again.

 

Games night at the Young Vic

A different atmosphere last night at Games Night from last time. More of a centred energy (still lots of laughs). We played

  • Giving a present to other people in the group
  • “Provocations”: walking around the room, making eye contact, deciding whether to jump, do a double high-five or balance back to back
  • Levels (also known as “chaos” or “the impossible game”)
  • Name tag
  • Negative hairdresser: an improvisation game which involves deliberately blocking and then feeding more information to your partner
  • Coming up with a sound and a movement, passing it to the next person in the circle, they transform it and pass it on

And then Will did a half an hour on boundaries and trust. Themes that emerged:

  • how to use games / exercises to steer performers away from routines
  • when are the rules useful and when do they stifle play?
  • using simple movements to break down moments, get out of our heads, to be precise

 

The Hollywood Public Service Announcement

steve-carell-big-short
Steve Carrell puts on a toupee to do some acting

Watching The Big Short, I wondered whether a new genre is emerging – the insanely high-budget public service announcement (PSA) delivered by A-list celebrities. Other examples include 99 Homes and, from a little longer ago, Green Zone and Body of Lies.

The Big Short  and 99 Homes are more successful than the other two because they know what they are. Body of Lies is trying less hard to be a PSA, and is a better film for it; Green Zone is trying pretty hard, but doesn’t know it (a bit like The Newsroom, come to think of it). Plus, let’s face it, Matt Damon is no Leonardo DiCaprio (albeit at one time we thought he might be).

I’m calling these films public service announcements because their primary aim is to disseminate a message which their producers believe to be in the public interest. The Big Short does this explicitly, through direct address to camera while Green Zone does it awkwardly through clumsy sections of dialogue between Matt Damon and the journalist character played by Amy Ryan. It’s basically Matt Damon indulging his fantasy of being able to travel back in time to show the US media that he could have done a better job of investigating the WMD claims than they did. And The Big Short falls down when it stops being a PSA and the actors try to do *acting*. Like the whole brother-suicide storyline for the Steve Carrell character which is basically an excuse for him to do *acting* (like he did in Foxcatcher). He’s much better when he’s playing an angry version of Michael Scott telling us facts about the 2007-2008 financial crisis.

By the way, calling these films PSAs isn’t a criticism in itself. A lot of my own work could be described in broadly those terms. Cos sometimes there’s stuff that people ought to know and somebody’s got to tell it to them. The trouble is, what are we supposed to do with the information that the financial sector screwed up and that it’s happening all over again? PSAs can be effective – campaigns against drink driving, undercooked meat, sharing STDs – but that’s because they make it clear what you can do to effect change once the announcement is over (not drink and drive, cook meat properly, wear a condom). What am I supposed to *do* when I leave the cinema after seeing The Big Short. sure, I can write a pissy blog post, but then what? (and most people won’t even do that).

christian bale
Christian Bale likes to use fake teeth to do acting