The lessons of punk

Introduction from Maddy Costa: The last in the present series of pieces that I’ve commissioned for this blog comes from Hannah Nicklin, who is far and away one of the most inspiring people that I know: a theatre-maker, games designer, someone who gets involved in grassroots political campaigns, a really sharp thinker on questions of privilege and power, a poet and zine maker – I mean she pretty much does everything, and does it all brilliantly, with commitment and compassion. A few weeks ago, I noticed her having a debate on twitter with a mutual friend, taking issue with an American blog which suggested that theatre-makers could take a few touring tips from punk bands. I invited her to respond more fully in this space, and this piece is the result.

Since Hannah sent it to me at the beginning of the week, we’ve had a further conversation about it on email, with Hannah pointing out that there’s a whole other article that she could have written about the places in both (and other) art forms that are making or have made the ideas she discusses here a reality: places like the HUB in Leeds, Stoke Newington International Airport and the Bussey Building in London, the Forest Cafe in Edinburgh, the Milk Bar in Bristol. The fact that, as she continues, many of these places have been seized by developers and councils and pushed out as part of the process of gentrification raises another question: how a truly community art can avoid perpetuating inequality. I hope that she’ll be able to write that piece for this space next year. In the meantime:

By Hannah Nicklin

“Theatre Belongs to Everybody; Ideas Belong to No One.”

Chris Goode, zine given out free at the end of an early version of Keep Breathing

I am a theatre maker, I am a punk fan – I make work infused by the values and aesthetics of both of these worlds, and I have many friends at the heart of the DIY math/punk/post rock scene in the UK, as do I in the DIY end of contemporary theatre. I’ve also run events where I specifically highlighted the similarities between the two communities: Performance in the Pub in Leicester, which put on pay-what-you-can nights of DIY performance for the local DIY gig-going community. I am excited by how DIY communities can inform one another.

And yet, I am fucking fed up of people saying things like this:

“DIY bands raging against the corporate machine have been cobbling shoestring tours out of nothing but talent and grit for decades. Why can’t other independent arts groups use the same tools and structures to tour?”

That quote comes from a column published by the American website HowlRound, called How To Tour Theatre Like a Punk Band, and it’s typical of an increasing trend positioning the inventiveness that arises out of scarcity as desirable rather than necessary.

People do damage when they uncomplicatedly hold up the DIY scene as a desirable alternative to the subsidised or professional arts sector. They do damage when they point out what we can learn from people Doing It Themselves without considering the infrastructure and privileges that make even that possible, and the damage done too when the grit runs out, and the talent is worn down.

First off it’s useful for us to pin down what exactly we mean by DIY. I’m not talking about the punk/DIY aesthetic (though that might arise from the practice), but rather the do it yourself ‘DIY’ aspect of punk which is about circumventing mainstream ways of making and touring work. Daniel Yates of Exeunt magazine sums up ‘DIY’ as “small scale, culturally distinctive, alternative producers of experience”. I would agree that the root of the ethics of DIY is something born of a place and community, and which offers a distinct alternative to the monoculture that thrives on top-down structures – the mainstream music industry, or the Arts Council funded establishment – and ‘one size fits all’ models of entertainment.

However, let’s not be romantic about what that entails. Fundamentally, it’s an anti-professionalism. It’s about stepping outside of models (restrictive and antiquated though they may be) designed to provide a means of living.

I know many DIY bands who have toured internationally, some extensively, most of whom are lucky if they come away from the tour having broken even. Most of the band will be in insecure day jobs that allow them to be away for three months, they will spend the time away sharing €250 per night fees between six people, after petrol, van hire, flights, food while they’re on the road, merch outlay, all while they sleep together on sofas and mattresses, showering every couple of days, and getting by mostly on vegan chillis and beer and crisps provided by promoters. They will have made the music in their spare time. They will have got a mate to design the poster, made their own website, written their own press releases, sent the record out to reviewers, they will have booked the tour, they will drive, provide most of the equipment. They will all of them have put in £150 each for the cost of the recording, engineering, and pressing of the records they hope to sell along the way, maybe splitting the pressing cost with a DIY label if they’re lucky.

They will have had complete creative control. They will have reached communities that are de-centred, locally grown, alternative, culturally distinctive, and they will highly likely be involved in sustaining the one they call home; putting on shows, dealing with punters complaining tickets cost £8 these days. They will have stories to tell. They will have made best friends, met lovers, they will have screamed words and sounds that they mean into a crowd of ecstatic heat and sticky-shoed joyous beloved fellow humans.

Both of these things are true.

‘Why’ articles such as the one from HowlRound argue: ‘can’t we go it alone?’ And in glorifying the outcome they miss the point that ‘alone’ isn’t desirable, it is necessary. To pretend otherwise is to valourise the suffering instead of the fight. The fight is beautiful and alive, but if we are to embrace the energy of the amateur, we need to do so carefully, lest we argue for the abolition of profession. Professionalism is, in and of itself, simply a way society has of saying: ‘this is worth something’. Currently, the most recognised way of doing that is to pay someone money. There are many other currencies at work in our life (as Bill Sharpe points out in this incredibly useful study on Patterns of Health and Wealth in the arts); DIY practices tend to work with fewer monetary ones, and have alternative currencies at their heart. However, short of overthrowing capitalism (something for the three-year plan, not the six-month one), the way to learn from DIY practices is to understand the full complement of currency, not to simply exchange one set of currencies (and related problems) for another.

So, let us instead talk about what the profession means, how it works, how it can be reshaped by amateur artist and community rather than top-down policy. While also understanding that the reality of the amateur is also a kind of privileged position within our current society. To be able to make while also living requires a level of personal, financial and social security, an infrastructure of goodwill, and a powerful creative confidence, which is most typically available to (and safe for) young white men. Anything else is a fight, tooth and nail. It’s a fight that produces alive, breathless, beautiful art – but at a cost.

Bristol-based performance duo Action Hero talk about how their consciously DIY approach to making performance produces aesthetic and formal qualities which reshape their relationship to their audience in a way they find politically important:

“[…] seeing what happens when an audience sees you genuinely trying to make something empowers the artist and the audience in a way that we think is actually quite political and I think similar to the ideologies of DIY music.”

But they also say that:

“All that said, we could never have made anything we’ve made without funding support from the Arts Council and massive amounts of support from subsidised organisations such as [In Between Time] or Theatre Bristol. […] theatre is less commodifiable.”

I invite you to imagine all of the music we have lost that was never made. Never made because women with children couldn’t pay for childcare while they went on tour; because a trans person felt uncomfortable travelling cheaply and sleeping on strangers’ floors; because it had to be made weekly in two-hour rented practice rooms and not quietly and thoroughly throughout six months of full-time living breathing thinking; because the confidence to believe you had a story worth telling was something you’ve never seen in fellow people of colour.

Public subsidy and its infrastructure offer the opportunity for everyone to stick with making for longer; it offers training and learning time. Theatre also has industry bodies and members’ organisations like Equity, the ITC, a-n, that actually work for their members’ interests: they set living wages and shape suggested contracts. Subsidy allows the non-commercial sector to exist without eventually destroying the artists who give their time to make it.

We should not be arguing for ways to survive without subsidy and infrastructure, we should be arguing for better subsidy, better infrastructure. Studying what it is about the mixed bills, shared venues, the relationship with fans rather than the attention of an audience, the ability to add a new show at a day’s notice to a touring schedule, etc, that DIY practices make possible and exciting.

And so with all of those complications in mind, let’s learn from DIY. Let’s urgently revise:

– The means of production (and who can access them)
– The places of presentation (and who can access them)
– The communities that join maker and audience (and who can access them)

Theatre still operates, for the most part, on a distribution system that is hundreds of years old. Big, old, dedicated buildings, weighed down by running and staffing costs. It’s time to leave these, or use them differently. And for people in the subsidised sector to start working beyond simply borrowing rhetoric from other art forms. Let’s ask DIY communities how we make spaces for everyone to make, how we co-build places people go to, and what a community looks like that envelops us all. The Arts Council should be begging the DIY Space for London community to talk to them – and also giving them money.

Campaigning for a basic income wouldn’t be a bad start (and long-term solution). But also, let’s talk about systems of programming and collectives of resources and spaces that together can offer more than one form of making, development and touring. Funding streams that embrace radical failure. The end to the necessity for match funding. Honest discussions with audiences and fans about what art costs us to make together – money and soul. Spaces and resources that are ingredients for things we can’t even imagine. Building bridges to people who would never begin to think that they had a story to tell, or the ability to tell it. The end to art-form divisions so we can connect with DIY videogames, DIY fashion, DIY architecture and zine making. The end of the obfuscation of value at the heart of upfront fixed ticket prices.

Give away the means of production.
Open up the places of presentation.
Art belongs to everybody, no one.

Hannah Nicklin is a theatre maker, writer, game designer, and academic. She has written a PhD about how theatre-influenced games and games-influenced theatre can destroy capitalism (mostly). Hannah is most interested in DIY, community storytelling, tools that break systems, and the spaces between ‘what is’ and ‘what if’ where new thinking happens. She makes theatre and games in public and community settings, and has worked on games and interactive work with organisations such as the RSC, Slung Low, Invisible Flock, Hide & Seek, Coney, the V&A, the Wellcome Trust, the Space, Gamecity, Videobrains, Rock Paper Shotgun, and on housing estates, on the internet, in swimming pools, on the streets of cities, and rural market towns.

Join the dots

At the end of January I tagged along with Fuel co-directors Louise Blackwell and Kate McGrath on a trip to Manchester, where they were speaking at a conference organised by another London-based touring company, Paines Plough. The conference was titled The Future of Small-Scale Touring and I’m pretty sure it’s the first event of its kind I’ve been to; if not, then I’ve blocked all memory of the others, no doubt because, as I (re)discovered at this one, I’m fundamentally unsuited to all-day conferences that consist of panels of people delivering a relay of speeches from an authoritative position on a stage, followed by brief, fractious Q&A sessions and barely interrupted by 30-minute coffee breaks (35 minutes for lunch). That’s quite a severe representation of the day; for a fuller and more sympathetic account, Lyn Gardner’s two blogs responding to the event, one suggesting a fairer system of arts funding, the other wondering why people in the theatre industry don’t talk to audiences more, are terrific. And there’s a very useful round-up on A Younger Theatre.

At the end of January 2013, I attended a very different theatre conference, Devoted and Disgruntled, at which participants mutually propose topics of conversation on the day then take part in the sessions that most interest and inspire them, and joined in a lively debate on touring. Again, there’s an excellent account of that discussion on the D&D website by a producer of small-scale tours called Gloria Lindh, who thrillingly disrupted the Paines Plough event when, in a pique of irritation, she asked whether small-scale touring under the present system – the same touring system that has operated in the UK for decades – benefits anyone at all, or whether everyone should just stop.

I’ve thought about that D&D session often over the past year, because New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood works to resolve or at least address many of the problems it raised: the need for more face-to-face communication between makers, producers, venues and audiences; the need to engage with a community, rather than rock up for a night then disappear; the need to work not just in theatres but outside them, engaging with places that might, for some in the community, hold more meaning than the local arts centre. At other times I’ve thought about that session because some really sparky ideas came up in it – to do with screening trailers for upcoming theatre shows, either in the foyer spaces or on a pull-down screen in the auditorium; or setting up a support act system, like you get at a music gig, with, for instance, a young local theatre company presenting 15 minutes of their work (maybe as a scratch) before the main show starts – ideas which I’m yet to see anyone attempt.

Onslaught of speakers aside, part of my frustration with the Paines Plough event was based in the feeling that different sections of the theatre industry keep repeating the same conversation, but not joining forces in a way that might effect change. Listening to Matt Fenton, the brilliant director of Contact Manchester, note the overlap between The Future of Small-Scale Touring and Getting It Out There, a symposium held in Lancaster in May 2012 on, yes, “the future of touring for contemporary theatre and Live Art”, I heard that frustration articulated from the stage.

But change is slow and incremental, and isn’t helped by people like me griping with impatience. What feels exciting about NTiYN is the extent to which it is operating within an industry pushing, separately but together, towards the same shifts in practice. I’ve written on this blog before about Bryony Kimmings’ contribution to the collection of texts documenting Getting It Out There, in which she talks winningly of how she spends time in the pub in the places where she tours, knowing that this personal contact with people has the potential to encourage non-habitual theatre-goers to see her work; and of the debate entitled I’ll Show You Mine which she instigated, and which is bringing together disparate independent producers to rethink the relationship between theatre buildings and the people they programme. Through NTiYN (and my own project, Dialogue), I’ve made contact with the house network, which is dedicated to connecting isolated theatre directors and programmers across southern England with each other and with their local communities, and I’m striking up a relationship with the Collaborative Touring Network, the new approach to feeding the national theatre ecology cooked up by Battersea Arts Centre. Also through NTiYN, I’ve become much more aware of the awe-inspiring work of Annabel Turpin at ARC in Stockton-on-Tees: at both the 2013 D&D session and the Paines Plough conference, theatre-makers talked gratefully of her “meet the programmer” events, which break down the walls between artists and venues; and I’ve talked on this blog and to pretty much anyone who will listen to me about the sundry thoughtful ways in which she conspires to get the people who visit her building but not necessarily her theatre auditorium talking to the artists she programmes, encouraging the conversation that can first animate interest in the work and then enrich an engagement with it.

Sadly, within the context of the Future of Small-Scale Touring conference, NTiYN somewhat came across as a project Fuel are able to do because they are a National Portfolio Organisation, funded by Arts Council England and the Strategic Touring programme, of benefit to Fuel alone. It’s important to see beyond that. All the speakers with whom I felt the strongest connection at the Paines Plough conference reflected, whether subtly or directly, on one crucial point: the future of touring, of theatre, relies not simply on getting people’s bums on seats, but on developing proper, reciprocal relationships with their brains. On inviting people to talk about what they see, to participate at some point in the process of making work, maybe even – as Matt Fenton is admirably trying to do at Contact – get involved in venue programming decisions. On recognising that a lot of theatre happens in the same ways that it’s happened for a century and more, ways that aren’t always but can be outdated, distancing, paternalistic and elitist – and that need replacing with new models of activity that are more thoughtful, personal and transparent. On understanding that people who are enticed to take a risk on Fuel’s work – and then (my favourite part of NTiYN) talk about what they saw, how it made them feel, what it did or didn’t mean to them – might later be willing to take a risk on Paines Plough’s work, on Little Mighty’s work, on Action Hero‘s work, on non zero one‘s work, and so on and so on and so on.

It’s telling that the only specifically designated NTiYN show in Fuel’s January to April season, Daniel Bye’s Story Hunt, is one rooted in conversation with the local community (and that the redoubtable Annabel Turpin co-commissioned and produced its original incarnation). As NTiYN moves into its next phase, following up on the Artists’ Missions whose stories fill another page of this blog, and commissioning work that responds to specific localities and communities, that strand of its activity will become more and more prominent. But NTiYN is bigger than a research project, bigger than a set of shows. Increasingly, it is the way Fuel wants to operate as a company. And by having me tagging along, in a blurry place at once peripheral and integrated, they have someone always at hand who’s keen to join the dots, within the industry and among audiences alike.

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.