Money and time and time and money

Over the past few days a vital conversation has been initiated by the performance/theatre-maker Bryony Kimmings on the difficulty of negotiating a tour as an artist. More specifically, her difficulty not just earning a living wage but communicating to venues/programmers what that entails in her particular case. Her blog post on the subject makes fascinating reading, because people are rarely so honest about money, and because people rarely talk openly about the things that frustrate, anger or hinder them in their working lives, essentially because they fear never being able to work again if they do.

Her sense that theatre operates by a false economy prompted another performance/theatre-maker, and also producer, Andy Field, to write a blog in reply, recommending potential solutions to what he crystallises as a problem of transparency. “Some of the fundamental conflicts and suspicions that arise between artists and those organisations that support and present their work could be immediately improved if we found ways to hard wire a greater degree of transparency into the relationships between them,” he argues.

I’ve been gripped by the debate because so much of my life over the past couple of years has been dedicated to encouraging and supporting that transparency, whether as critic-in-residence of Chris Goode and Company, as a co-collaborator in Dialogue, as a writer-in-residence responding to In Between Time, or as a critical friend travelling alongside Fuel/NTiYN. Increasingly what interests me is the process of making theatre: not just what happens in a rehearsal room, but everything that happens outside the room that has an affect on the audience’s relationship with that work. The more I talk to the people who fill those outside-the-room roles, particularly producers and programmers, the more important I think it is for their voices to be heard publicly. But they’re nervous: of course they are, transparency and accountability are terrifying. I thought it was interesting that David Jubb, artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre, chipped into the Kimmings/Field debate on Twitter with a link to this document on his theatre’s website, which sets out in some detail how BAC apportions money to programming and producing work. Dialogue has had two residency periods at BAC, and I’ve been struck both times by the willingness of its senior production team to share with us its internal working practices. I’m excited by the prospect that – as in so many things – where BAC leads, other institutions will follow.

Andy’s blog suggests as a route to transparency that we talk more openly about money: who earns what, who pays what. This idea appeals to me a lot, if only because it would do so much to combat assumptions about arts funding. Imagine how differently we might feel about the National Theatre’s disproportionate subsidy allocation if we knew how much was spent on developing work in the NT Studio that feeds out across the industry. But I also agree with Paul Burns, director of programming and production at DanceXchange, who points out in the comments below Andy’s blog: “It’s difficult to compare both fees and costs without a wider context”. I can corroborate this from my own bizarre pay structure, in which the money I earn bears no relation whatsoever to the work I do. I’m not paid for my work with Chris Goode and Company (but might be one day), nor for anything but the occasional project with Dialogue (eg, our recent residency at the Bush in London). I was paid for the In Between Time residency and associated publication, but that fee in no way reflected the number of hours I spent at the festival and writing afterwards. I’m paid for this work with Fuel, and feel constantly amazed and gratified not only for that privilege, but the opportunity to think out loud, and even agitate, under the organisation’s banner without stricture from anyone at Fuel. All of this is subsidised by my more conventional writing for the Guardian, and even that is made possible by the fact that I’m married to someone who doesn’t work in the arts.

One of the pieces I keep meaning to write for the Argument section of this blog is a reflection on a discussion about touring that took place as part of Devoted and Disgruntled 2013. What that conversation made clear is that the frustrations Bryony articulates – about money, lack of communication, false assumptions – are felt by artists across the country, makers and producers alike. Over the next couple of months, there are several opportunities to discuss these further, and work collaboratively towards some kind of solution. Action Hero have begun a doodle poll to find a date to discuss Bryony’s specific concerns, that’s here. Devoted and Disgruntled 2014 takes place 25-27 January in London, tickets for that can be booked here. And the touring theatre company Paines Plough are organising a one-day seminar on the future of small-scale touring, taking place in Manchester on January 30. I plan to be at all of them, and hope to see you there. Oh, and do scroll down to the comments beneath the Paines Plough blog post on the seminar: you’ll spot a certain Bryony Kimmings offering her services as a speaker. Paid, of course.

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Lost and found in Landscape II

“I told him I was going to see something called Landscape II and he said: what’s it about? I said I didn’t know. So he asked what Landscape I was like.”
“But there isn’t a Landscape I, is there?”
“No. But I guess if you’ve seen Ice Age it tells you what Ice Age 2 will be like.”

Melanie Wilson’s Landscape II is a demanding piece of theatre, for performer and audience alike. Wilson sets herself a fiendish technical challenge: as well as narrating the text, which interweaves the lives of three women who exist in different geographical and historical time zones, she operates the sound and backdrop images from a computer and mixing desk in front of her, fingers moving busily throughout, again as though working a loom. It’s up to her audiences to see the patterns in this material for themselves. The first time I saw it, I spent as much time concentrating on concentrating as I did watching. Reading the reviews, I discovered I wasn’t alone. Here’s a bit of Andrew Haydon’s:

I found the beginning pretty hard going. … The piece starts quietly, slowly: incredibly still. And, while the words, images and sound are beautiful, they’re also incredibly slow and fractured. I felt like my body and mind were operating at the wrong speed; like I really needed to have slowed down before entering. On top of this, I was conscious of Thinking Too Hard. Because of the fractures, and the space between the words, I felt like I was both overthinking everything I was hearing and at the same time not quite managing to piece everything together, and missing some of what was being said because I was too lost in my own mind listening to my overthinking – all the while thinking, this is really beautifully done, why aren’t I following it better?

Dan Hutton’s review conveys how long it takes to digest:

Throughout, you find yourself floating within the gaps, trying to grasp at what’s ‘real’, but just as something seems to be sliding into focus, it’s pulled away and you’re in the dark again. … It’s only now, two days after I saw Landscape II, that this has all actually begun to crystallise in my psyche. In the moments after the piece ends, you’re left raw and confused. But as your brain wanders elsewhere in the following hours, things start to become clearer, and images drift into view. It’s by no means a piece which immediately satisfies; its scope is far wider and all-encompassing than that.

And Matt Trueman’s tells you how typical this is of Melanie’s work:

To attend a Melanie Wilson piece is to drift. Such is the quality of her voice – quilted and hypnotic – that it’s simply not possible to stay present throughout. You start to float out of your chair and off, up and away, into another headspace altogether; one where ideas begin to unfurl while the piece continues in the background, infusing extra ideas into an ongoing thought process. Her work is only ever perceived as a blur.

I saw Landscape II twice, and both times I spoke to people who were frustrated, even furious, with the piece: they found it confusing, impossible to follow, and because of that felt it was pretentious and self-indulgent. I also spoke to people who were enthralled by it, excited by its storytelling and dazzled by its intricate artistry. These conversations happened because of post-show events Fuel had organised at NTiYN venues: the first was a Salon at the Lighthouse in Poole, an informal Q&A session with Melanie followed by a general chat; the second was a Theatre Club at the Lakeside in Colchester, an even more informal discussion at which no one involved in making the show was present. The differences between these two events was fascinating, and taught me a lot about how people talk about theatre, and talk to its makers, and how difficult it is to articulate the questions that might help you get to grips with a complex piece of art.

At least, I found it difficult formulating those questions. In Poole I was leading a post-show discussion with a theatre-maker for the first time, and I have a lot to learn about how to do it – especially in a situation like this one, where I felt neither sure nor secure of what I’d seen. There were moments when the conversation flagged because I was nervous about jumping in and dominating the event; there were things Melanie said that afterwards I wish I’d pushed her on; and although I interview people often, it’s rarely with an audience – that was surprisingly nerve-racking. So although it was a long conversation, and lots of useful things were discussed, it felt dry and awkward to me, perhaps to others, too.

We talked quite a lot about Melanie’s work as a sound artist: that’s where her theatre begins. Every piece she makes is a development of what she can do with sound, so for instance Landscape II introduces film, which she’d never worked with before; next she’s working in opera. A particularly interesting strand of the conversation – and I so wish I’d delved into this more – involved Melanie’s desire to challenge her audience, and her readiness for her work to be divisive. I find that brave, because you can’t take such risks and be complacent, and because it’s desperately uncomfortable trying to perform amid the creaking sounds of disengaged, fidgety people shifting in their seats; but I also feel for the people who pay money to see such work and spend a portion of their evening feeling bewildered. Is this a discussion it’s possible to have straight after a show has finished? I think Melanie would have been up for it – but I shied away.

Someone asked who her inspirations are, and she talked beautifully about Patti Smith’s forthright politics, and her art, poetry, and books combining the two. Melanie admitted that she’s thinking about producing a similar book to accompany Landscape II – which would deal with the complaint, voiced by more than one person, that the programme didn’t tell them enough about the show. One woman, who recognised the landscape in the film (made by Will Duke) from having grown up in Devon, talked in some detail about the kinds of plants that had been photographed and asked about their significance; I felt an undercurrent of general perplexity that the individual natural images seemed to have no specific import, but didn’t quite know how to unpick that. One man asked whether Melanie always makes work alone, so we talked a little about her previous piece, Autobiographer; another asked why this one is called Landscape II. It’s a perfectly valid question, because there are two landscapes in the piece, North Devon and an unidentified war zone in the Middle East, and the title might seem to suggest that the work is about one of them, or a sequel to an earlier work (as attested by the lovely conversation I’ve quoted above, between two audience members in Colchester). But it was also a question that the journalist in me, or the snob in me, recoiled from, as one that Melanie must get asked everywhere, making it boring for her to answer. To her credit, she answered it gracefully, but something still troubled me.

It was this: I spoke to the same man and his wife after Melanie had left the discussion, and confirmed that they’d both had huge issues with Landscape II. They’d found it obscure, opaque, impossible to piece together. I told the woman that it reminded me of reading poetry: I love reading poetry, but frequently feel bewildered by it, so what I get from it isn’t necessarily comprehension but a feeling, an atmosphere, something I absorb. She frowned a little and said: I don’t read poetry. There was something she and others in the room wanted to access in Landscape II, a code almost, which would tell them everything about the humans in the piece whose lives felt beyond their reach. I wish asking the question, “Why is it called Landscape II?” or “Why isn’t there more information in the programme?” could have given these people what they needed, but I don’t think it did. As the person hosting the discussion, and steering it, I had a responsibility to ask better questions – but I didn’t know what they might be, either.

The discussion in Colchester couldn’t have been more different. That was partly to do with the audience: the Lakeside is on a university campus, so there were a lot of students, and a lot of those were drama students. But age, or gender, or relationship with theatre, by no means determined response. The most enthusiastic speaker at the Theatre Club was a man in his 50s, who thought the pace, delivery, delicacy, narrative, politics, sound design, use of film, every single element that made up Landscape II and the balance between them was perfect. The least enthusiastic were two female teenagers who didn’t understand anything about the characters, found the film and music distracting, and argued that this work didn’t belong in a theatre, it should have been in a gallery. Everyone else at the Theatre Club – and at its biggest we might have had 30 people gathered – fell somewhere in the spectrum between those two poles, making this one of the liveliest conversations I’ve ever had about a show.

Without Melanie present, the audience became responsible for expanding each other’s interpretation and appreciation of the piece. That’s a wonderful shift in dynamic. Instead of asking Melanie why she wanted to use film in her work, or why she chose North Devon as her setting, we discussed the effect the film had on us. How distracted were we by it? If the close-up images of plants or rocks didn’t signify anything specific, what did we get from them being there? Susan Sontag’s writing on cinema came up, and one woman talked about our conditioning by Hollywood to receive all the imagery in a film as part of a single narrative. Landscape II, we agreed, uses film differently: not as a shorthand to speedy comprehension, but as part of a longer meditation on our place in the world and our connections to each other.

That difference between linear narrative and discursive meditation charged a lot of the conversation. Although the two teenagers were the most bamboozled, they weren’t the only people who had struggled to fit together the relationships between the three women in the piece. It’s not surprising: even trying to explain the story ties sentences up in knots. Wilson “plays” (it feels like the wrong word because she spends the entirety of Landscape II sitting behind a desk, talking in the first person, but mostly narrating from a script) a war photographer called Vivian, staying in an isolated barnhouse in North Devon; a century before, her great-great-grandmother Beatrice stayed in the same house, and Vivian gets to know her through a sheaf of diary-letters Beatrice had written and left behind. The third woman, Mina, lives somewhere in the Middle East; Vivian formed a relationship with her while on a long assignment there, but their friendship ends in violent circumstances, which Vivian is struggling to assimilate.

I was honest with the group: it had taken me two viewings of Landscape II to appreciate the subtlety of the links between the three women, and to register fully that Beatrice and Mina are connected, despite the time and land that separate them, in their understanding of the role of women in life, and in their experience of being constrained by society. And it was really enjoyable to compare notes with everyone else as to the things they had and hadn’t picked up. We asked each other: should a piece of theatre be so complex as to confound people who are probably going to see it only once? Should theatre be more clear in its storytelling, arguments and ideas? That might resolve issues for the people who felt lost, but where would it leave those who had relished the work of finding the feminist and political resonances for themselves? The question of Melanie’s background in sound design came up, setting off a vigorous debate about dynamics: some found the restraint of Melanie’s delivery drew them in, some felt repelled by it, all had an opinion. Would they have expressed those opinions if Melanie had been sitting among us, I wondered? The teenager said yes: if she thinks something, she’ll say it, and not worry what anyone thinks. (As it happens, when Landscape II played at the Theatre Royal in Margate, Melanie was faced with an audience as divisive as that in Colchester, whose negative quotient challenged her vociferously in the post-show discussion. The event was a lot livelier than the Salon I hosted in Poole, but a lot more tense, too.)

Taking part in these two discussions sharpened several questions for me. Are theatre-makers the best people to elucidate their work to audiences – and is a post-show discussion the best time and place for this to happen? How can audiences be invited to elucidate it for each other? Where does this expectation that a piece of theatre stands or falls on what happens in the moment in the room come from? I recently went to the Ashmolean in Oxford to see the (thoughtfully curated, frequently illuminating, heartily recommended) Francis Bacon/Henry Moore exhibition: it begins with large-scale photographs of the two men’s studios, and throughout contains sketches of work in progress, maquettes of sculptures, information about the historical, political and biographical context of many of the works. Why is the making of theatre shrouded in such secrecy – and might better access to the questions and notions that come up in a rehearsal room offer audiences a code to crack complex work? The people who got on badly with Landscape II struggled because it didn’t give characters, story and resolution on a plate, but required its audiences to participate in making the meal together. I remember being very struck by how Melanie begins her performance in the same space as the audience, and smiles at them conspiratorially before saying a word: my role in the room, as interpreter, felt clear. But is this subtle acknowledgement enough preparation for less regular theatregoers? What else could be given to them to draw them into Melanie’s world?

I’ve also been thinking about honesty, the levels of honesty that are possible in talking about theatre. While I’ve been wrestling with this blog post, another critic, Miriam Gillinson, has published a sizzly blog on the Blouin ArtInfo site, on how tricky but useful anger is as a response: “Sometimes it’s the clearest sign that a show is actually working,” she argues. “It shows us that we care, that we want to understand.” And yet, how useful is anger to a post-show discussion, if it fuels defensiveness and incrimination (the declaration “that wasn’t good theatre”), without shaping the questions that might help an audience care about what they’ve seen, or understand it?

The following day, Lyn Gardner published a delightful piece on the Guardian website, advocating the importance of “responding as we really feel – and saying what we really think”. Something Lyn alludes to, and Andrew Haydon develops in his astute comments below the piece, is the difference between responding to work and judging it, be that positively or negatively. This difference isn’t often taken into account when talking about theatre, particularly in a culture where theatre is rated using a star/numbering system. Plus there is a problem in culture general in talking openly about how we feel: it’s considered self-indulgent, unnecessary. There is an intellectual anxiety to overcome when work confuses us. The hierarchies of opinion embedded in our culture – the voices of theatre-makers or critics are those of authority, the audience can’t be trusted – discourage people from trusting their own responses. I fall prey to this too: the first thing I do when I walk out of a play is get on my phone and look up reviews, by Matt Trueman, Andrew Haydon, Catherine Love. How different would it be if I turned to the people around me and asked: what did you make of that?

I learned more about Landscape II from talking with a confused, angry, transported, politicised, engaged audience in Colchester than I did from asking Melanie Wilson decorous, careful questions about her work in Poole. That isn’t a criticism of Melanie, or her audience in Poole, it’s a recognition that audiences are being done a disservice when they’re not encouraged to respond to work with more than a thumbs-up on Twitter or a comment below a newspaper review, when their subjective interpretation of work isn’t encouraged, and when the only opportunity they’re given for conversation with theatre-makers is the fragile hour after a show has finished. Theatre needs to open up more places in which these complicated dialogues can happen – which is a lot of what the New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood project is about.

A duty of care

I’ve spent a lot of this year – not least on this blog – arguing that theatre-makers could be more considerate of the feelings they provoke in their audiences and the state in which they leave people at the end of a show. Work that deals with sensitive topics, in challenging ways, that might trigger unexpectedly strong personal reactions within its audiences, owes a duty of care to the people who have paid money to see it, which might include consciously providing safe spaces for discussion and decompression directly afterwards for anyone who needs them. To an extent, that’s been a philosophical argument: I’ve attended intense and provocative shows with strangers and witnessed first-hand how upset they were by the work, which led naturally to wondering how theatre-makers (and critics) might be able to help them process that upset. Within that philosophical framework I’ve also argued the opposite, asked whether people are actually ready, immediately post-show, to talk about their experience in public. However, I now know personally how useful that safe space for discussion and decompression can be. Here’s how:

Last night I saw Our Glass House, by the young company Common Wealth, a work about domestic abuse staged (in this segment of its tour) in a regular terraced house in a quiet backstreet in Camden, north London. It lasts only an hour, but within 15 minutes I felt as though all the veins in my chest were tied up in knots, and after 45 minutes I thought I might have to leave because of the panic clenching my lungs. There are five rooms in the house, and six people: a pregnant woman, an Indian woman, an older well-to-do woman; a black teenager, a schoolboy, and a white man who comes across as a regular Joe. Each one of them is being abused: sometimes the violence is physical, and sometimes it’s psychological, with a parent or partner belittling, controlling, exercising power, making normal life impossible. The audience move around the house, picking up bits of story here, incidents there; more than once I was rooted to the spot in a hallway or a quiet room while something awful happened elsewhere, flinching at every thump and scream.

Our Glass House is incredibly hard to watch. It’s made with scrupulous care: in demonstrating that people of all ages, classes, ethnicities and genders experience abuse; in comprehending the myriad insidious shapes abuse takes; in utilising real-life testimony with tenderness and respect. It’s not a straightforwardly verbatim piece: the text has clearly been composed/written (by Aisha Zia) and a lot of the violence is conveyed in a terrific sound score performed live by Wojtek Rusin. That aestheticising troubled me: despite the huge sign hanging outside the kitchen window declaring “YOU ARE HERE AS WITNESS”, at points I found myself wondering what we, the audience-members, were doing there, what the purpose is of experiencing through art-voyeurism a representation of domestic abuse. Particularly if you have any degree of real-life experience of domestic abuse.

By the end of the piece, I was choked, and I’m not sure I would have made it far on the long walk back to the tube before sinking to the pavement and crying uncontrollably. But instead of opening the door of the house and shooing everybody out, Common Wealth invited the audience into the sitting room for a chat, to share responses to the show and ask questions. So I sank to the carpet and listened. I listened to the work’s director, Evie Manning, talk about the abuse she had witnessed in her own family, and a woman from the audience talk about conversations she remembered having with friends, dating back 10, 20 years, that she hadn’t thought about in years, in which those people had intimated that they were experiencing abuse. I listened to discussions about how surprisingly common it is for men to experience abuse (one in six – for women it’s one in four), and how most murders that result from domestic abuse happen after an attempt at escape. I listened to Manning talk about the company’s work in the council estates and surrounding streets where the work is staged, how commonly she hears women say: yes, I know about that. And as I listened, my throat softened, my lungs unclenched, the veins in my chest untied themselves.

It went on: Manning talked wisely, inspiringly, about the different public bodies she brings to see the show – representatives from police forces, the NHS, domestic abuse services – and how Our Glass House makes them all acknowledge how much work they need to do. She talked wisely, inspiringly, about how important it is to listen out for hints that someone might be being abused, physically or psychologically, and take action, guiding friends or family to the support they might need to extricate themselves from the situation. And she talked wisely, inspiringly, about the need to break the taboo surrounding domestic abuse, to get people talking out loud about it – just as we were doing in this post-show discussion.

The discussion lasted no more than 30 minutes, but it ensured that I left the house feeling like I understood what we had all been doing there, clearer as to theatre’s role in opening up conversations, and appreciative of every measure Common Wealth are taking to ensure that the conversation reaches beyond the usual theatre audience. Above all, I left the house grateful, that I hadn’t been thrust out into the dark lonely backstreets of Camden to deal with Our Glass House alone, but had been given a safe space to process and decompress. The experience has given me new appreciation for my own argument, a new urgency to my advocacy of care.

It’s not just us…

by Maddy Costa

The NTiYN blog, like everything else in this project, started in January as an experiment – but as its practice stretches and grows in the real world, so do ideas for how it should be reflected online. This Elsewhere section is the newest development: a space for connecting with other people who are also trying to forge stronger, more meaningful relationships with audiences. The theatre industry can look invidiously competitive sometimes, companies and buildings competing for a too-small allocation of public cash. But increasingly people are recognising the need to work together, with generosity and in a spirit of fairness, to secure theatre’s place within communities and everyday cultural life. Hence initiatives such as house, the group of producers and programmers based in the South East, developing more collaborative models for touring, or the Collaborative Touring Network established by Battersea Arts Centre to share work more creatively between London and the rest of the country.

This Elsewhere section will be used to signpost interesting blogs or events happening beyond the NTiYN project, stuff we find inspiring, provocative and exciting, that chimes with the project – or challenges it. For instance, a Guardian blog by Lyn Gardner, published last month, on the need to develop audiences alongside the stuff that they’re watching; the accompanying comments are worth reading too, not least the suggestion from Chris Goode that advocates opening up rehearsal rooms to enhance an audience’s relationship with the work. We also loved this piece published on the Guardian’s Culture Professionals Network, by John Walton of theatre company Fol Espoir, about an alternative approach to the post-show discussion: they present it as a menu of DVD-style extras, from which audiences can choose the material that appeals to them most. In The Stage, Catherine Love has written an interesting piece about a variety of other approaches to post- and pre-show discussions. As writer-in-residence at house, Catherine will be contributing regularly to the organisation’s blog – another online space to watch.

Those are the pieces we’ve picked up on so far: all contribute to the conversation Fuel are opening up with NTiYN. A conversation happening all over the country, that is slowly achieving much-needed change.

Landscape II, Lakeside, Colchester

by Emily Townsend

Melanie Wilson’s Landscape II is a striking piece of contemporary theatre: a fusion of drama and graphic arts that catapults the work into an entirely new genre. As an experienced sound artist, Wilson makes impressive use of multimedia and digital effects, combining these with an evocative script. Through a blur of letters, photographs and belongings, she carefully cements the connection between three historically distant women. An eerie soundtrack builds suspense, as secret affairs and menacing events that will transform fragile female lives are slowly exposed. Wilson embodies their endurance of distress, integrity and liberation via an abstract and digital exploration of fear.

The convoluted composition allows Landscape II to examine such delicate concerns as madness, seclusion and claustrophobia. Setting is crucial to the work: the beautiful natural “landscape” seen on film represents each character’s safety mechanism. The script is similar in this way to Charlotte Perkins-Gilman’s The Yellow Wallpaper – within which the central protagonist uses a simple room as a metaphor for her isolation from society.

This 90-minute monologue is in many respects compelling. Wilson’s intricate and peculiar way of speaking builds audience perspective and exemplifies the poignancy of the women’s intense connection. Wilson is compelling in her performance, equivocal and charismatic. The juxtaposition of historic relevance with digital ability and a new dramatic style ensures that Landscape II is a brilliantly current piece of theatre that both stuns and startles its spectators.