Fin Kennedy: Calling all Theatre-Makers! An extraordinary challenge from Culture Minister Ed Vaizey

Fin Kennedy photoAs an award-winning playwright, university tutor and writer-in-residence at an East London school, Fin Kennedy has a keen interest in the future of British theatre and the new writing that will lie at the heart of it. In this piece, he explains how a remarkable conversation with Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has spurred him into action to protect that future.

Earlier this week, I attended the Performers’ Alliance Parliamentary reception, co-hosted by Equity, the Musician’s Union and The Writers’ Guild. It’s an annual event in the Terrace Pavilion in Parliament, and a chance for actors, musicians and writers to meet MPs and discuss any issues of concern. The Culture Minister and Shadow Culture Minister both come along and make speeches (Ed Vaizey and Dan Jarvis respectively) as do representatives from each union. MPs with an interest in culture also attend, like Ben Bradshaw, former Labour Culture Secretary and now member of the Culture Select Committee.

I was there to lobby about proposed changes to the English Baccalaureate, which regular readers will know I’ve been banging on about for ages. But as it turned out, something else came up as a more immediate challenge to those of us involved in new play development.

As the speeches ended and the mingling began, my Guild colleague – theatre, TV, radio and computer games writer Andy Walsh – bravely took on bullish Culture Minister Ed Vaizey. Andy decided to use the opportunity to take Vaizey to task over recent Arts Council cuts to theatre companies, and how those were impacting the development of new plays.

Vaizey’s response was extraordinary. After hiding behind the principle that the Arts Council was an arm’s-length body, and the government is not responsible for its decisions (which wasn’t what we were suggesting) he went on to assert in no uncertain terms that the cuts the Arts Council had imposed were in any case having no effect whatsoever on the British theatre industry. On the contrary, he said, new theatre writing was thriving – he cited in particular Soho Theatre‘s expansion into a third auditorium, and the Bush Theatre.

Andy and I were dumbfounded. I tried to explain to Vaizey that in tough times theatres contract around their main stages and protect their core work. What gets cut is the complex web of development which backs up the main stage work, such as writer attachment schemes and schools work. I cited Hampstead Theatre‘s recent decision to cut their entire education department, including their phenomenally successful Heat and Light youth theatre. In the short-term, of course such work isn’t essential to what takes place on the main stage. But in the medium and long-term, it absolutely is. Where else will the new talent come from?

The fact is that 25 theatre companies or venues have suffered 100% cuts to their Arts Council grants, along with 5 writer development organisations. Further big cuts have fallen on some of our finest playwriting powerhouses, including the Almeida (39%), Soho Theatre (17.6%) and Out of Joint (27.9%). Smaller new writing companies who are busy nurturing the next generation, often in inner city or regional areas, have also been targeted – these include Red Ladder (39.6%), Theatre Centre (22.3%) and Talawa (21.9%). Even those who got off relatively lightly, like the Bush, Tamasha, BAC, ATC, Clean Break, Cardboard Citizens, Hampstead, the Tricycle, the Orange Tree, Bristol Old Vic and Salisbury Playhouse still suffered an 11% cut.

But Vaizey stuck to his guns: none of this was having any effect at all. And then he set us an extraordinary challenge. If we could provide evidence of our claims that Arts Council cuts were affecting new play development in the UK, he promised to read whatever we sent him. Moreover, if there was evidence that new play development was being adversely affected, he would bring it up on our behalf with the Arts Council.

At first, I couldn’t decide whether Vaizey was being disingenuous or merely ignorant of how our sector worked. On reflection, I think it was probably the latter. The long tail of development which lies behind any new play is of course invisible to the public, Vaizey included. It’s pretty specialist knowledge to understand how plays travel the long road from inspiration to opening night. That tail might be one, two, even three years long – sometimes far longer. Jez Butterworth is on record as saying Jerusalem was seven years in the making.

This is a fragile ecology which only those working within it truly understand. What you see performing on the nation’s stages on any given night is like gazing up at the stars – it is a vision from the past. Those productions were first seeded years ago, long before the current round of cuts. Indeed, you could even say that much of what’s playing right now is the final fruit from a pre-financial crash era of new play development. It would be an understandable mistake for a layperson to take a look around at Soho, the Bush, even the West End and say: new plays are thriving, what’s the problem?

The answer is that the problem will be in two, three or seven years hence.

So I think we have to take Vaizey at his word here and, in good faith, to pick up the gauntlet he has thrown down. It is an opportunity not only to explain to him, but to the wider taxpaying public, precisely how new play development works, and how the cuts taking place now are hacking away at the roots of our future output.

So I’ve decided to take up Vaizey’s challenge – but I’m going to need your help.

In the next month, I will be writing to theatre companies around the country to ask how the cuts which were made in April are affecting new play development. This might take many forms, for example:

  • Producing fewer new plays overall
  • Programming plays by household name writers rather than those less well-known
  • Having fewer writers on attachment or in-residence
  • Offering fewer full commissions
  • Cutting back on literary department staff
  • Cutting back on education or youth work
  • Reassigning dramaturgical functions to associate directors rather than literary staff
  • Programming musicals, comedy or revivals in slots where new plays would once have played
  • Going dark for a few weeks
  • Putting plays on for shorter runs
  • Winding up writers’ groups or other developmental schemes
  • Limiting actor workshop time on new plays in development
  • Having to give notes to writers primarily driven by cost – such as smaller cast size
  • Offering fewer playwriting workshops to beginners, or to the general public

I would emphasise that this categorically isn’t about ‘naming and shaming’, or suggesting anyone isn’t doing their job well. Rather, it is about celebrating our fantastic expertise, while lamenting its inevitable curtailment. Evidence can be submitted anonymously, if desired (though I would suggest it is more powerful to someone like Vaizey if theatres are prepared to go public). I would hope that, en masse, we can demonstrate a wider trend here which goes beyond individual theatres – that we’re all in the same boat, struggling to continue what we do best under reduced circumstances, but that something, somewhere has to give. This is about explaining where, how and why those tough decisions have to be taken – and the likely knock on effect. When we look around us in three years’ time, will it still be possible to say “new writing is thriving, what’s the problem?”

As luck would have it, this week the Guardian’s Lyn Gardner published a timely piece entitled Do theatres have to close down before government acts on the arts? In it, she references an earlier piece by the Independent’s David Lister, pointing out that theatres need to get better at evidencing their claims of the damage they are suffering.

Well, now’s our chance.

I got in touch with Lyn about Vaizey’s challenge and she got straight back to me. She has agreed to publish on the Guardian Theatre blog an article, or even a series of articles, looking at the results of my research.

To be honest, I’m a bit anxious. It’s a lot of work and I’m going to have to do it in my own time, unpaid, squeezing it in around other work. But I’m serious about doing it. And I would be immensely grateful for your help.

Do you run a theatre company or literary department? Would you be prepared – anonymously or otherwise – to contribute specific examples of how the cuts are materially affecting your new play development?

Or are you a writer or director? Have you had a commission rescinded, a tour postponed, an education package cancelled? Or, do you have good relations with an artistic director or literary manager who you could ask, on my behalf, about contributing to this research?

Perhaps you work outside London, or predominantly in youth or community settings. Is provision for the development of new talent where you are drying up?

In all cases, I would love to hear from you. Email me privately on finkennedy@yahoo.co.uk

This is it, theatre-makers. A challenge to each and every one of us. It’s time to put up or shut up.

[Fin Kennedy’s plays are published by Nick Hern Books. This piece has been reproduced from the author’s own blog, which can be found here; many thanks to Fin for his kind permission.]

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Thomasina Unsworth: ‘peeling off the labels’ – why I wrote Becoming an Actor

Photo of Thomasina Unsworth Thomasina Unsworth teaches at Rose Bruford College, one of the UK’s leading drama schools. In this blog piece, she explains her frustrations at the labelling of students, and how that inspired her to write her enlightening new book.

My youngest daughter came home from school the other day in a miserable state. During swimming lessons her class had been divided into three groups: Jellyfish, Dolphins and Sharks. The Jellyfish, a shivering clutch of four sub-standard swimmers, were left in the shallow end to learn the basics, while the other children bobbed and ducked in the deeper water, superior species. Afterwards all the talk was of Jellyfish, Dolphins and Sharks. My daughter, hair still dripping from the pool, dripped too with shame.

Why do we have to label our children? What good does it do to attach titles to things? The jellyfish tank is my absolute favourite exhibit in the London Aquarium. The water glows pink and blue and one can be mesmerised by the slow clenching and unclenching of frondy tentacles. However, to a child who is battling for self-esteem and a place in the group, being labelled as a jellyfish may not seem so appealing.

Labels stick. Labels define. I spend my days teaching people who come wearing their labels to classes. ‘I’m slow’; ‘I don’t feel things intensely’; ‘I’m an extrovert’; ‘I’m a clown’; ‘I’m a bit mad’; ‘I’m a good girl’; ‘I’m a troublemaker’. The list is endless, but in that roll call of behavioural attributes my students lay out their perceived inadequacies and in doing so they shore up their limitations. How can they be open to an exercise when they know that they ‘over-think things’? How can they relate to that character when they know that they ‘would never behave that way themselves’? Get rid of the label and you liberate the student.

I am fed up of an education system that increasingly marginalises the arts. The arts feed imagination. They allow one to go beyond oneself, and do not concern themselves with the reductive policy of nailing things down in order to be neatly labelled. I am fed up of league tables and target ladders and numbers that tell someone how they are doing rather than words. I am fed up that in actor training we are now expected to grade our students, to attach a number to a name so that that person leaves thinking that they are worth 52% as an actor. What good does this do? It is a nonsense, a damaging nonsense.

An actor is not just a jellyfish.

I see the damage more and more in those I teach. They are fearful of getting things wrong. They care more for a number than a comment. They arrive ossified by their past experiences of school. Over the years I have noticed that the actors I train are, by and large, becoming increasingly result-orientated. Doing it ‘right’ is valued more highly than the simple experience of engaging in the ideas and exploring the possibilities. They have become attached to their labels, they are confused by open-ended questions, they want to know exactly what they should do to be good next time, as if actor training can be reduced to a set of equations: N+1=great acting.

Training to be an actor can be a bewildering time, even without this set of obstacles. When I went to college I felt unprepared, and I wished that I had been better informed. I arrived with lots of preconceptions about what the experience would be and was confused initially by how different the reality of the training was in comparison to my fantasy version of it. Had I been better informed I think I might have got a lot more out of my training. With this in mind, I set out to write a book that would help any aspiring actors to negotiate the obstacles – both those that face you at drama school, and those you will encounter in your first year as a professional actor.

The resulting book, Becoming an Actor, is intended as a handbook to accompany your training. It also contains a lot of exercises that will be useful not only for acting students, but also for teachers. I wanted to offer both actors and teachers a simple set of exercises together with the thinking behind them, uncomplicated by jargon or constrained by dogma. Training to become an actor is a valuable, important process, worth engaging with for its own sake. I hope the book will encourage actors to value their life experiences, and to hold on to what interests and fuels them, throughout those potentially dark days of unemployment.

The exercises in Becoming An Actor are varied. I do not believe that there is only one way of doing things, and hopefully actors and teachers will be able to be selective as they go through them. There is a great deal of emphasis put on working to release the actor from self-consciousness. Practitioners such as Meisner, Bella Merlin and of course Stanislavsky crop up regularly. However, Becoming An Actor also looks at ways of exploring extensions of, and departures from naturalism. The second half of the book concerns itself with auditioning and professional preparation and life beyond drama school. I hope that all this will provide the reader with a straightforward guide that asks them to engage in ideas before looking for results. I hope that it is both practical and thought provoking.

Becoming an Actor, £10.99

Becoming an Actor, £10.99

Above all, I hope that this book goes some way towards freeing those actors from the labels that have been attached to them, so that they can be as fluid and flexible in their responses as the movement of those frondy tentacles attached to the body of that jellyfish.

NHB are thrilled to publish Thomasina Unsworth’s Becoming an Actor. To order your copy with 20% off click here – no voucher code required.

For more information on Rose Bruford College, click here.