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.

Sparking desire

by Maddy Costa

It’s been a good couple of weeks for reflections on how more people might be encouraged to come to the theatre. Playwright David Eldridge revived his blog with a rumbustious argument for “a vigorous new theatre which can reach out to a wide audience”. He confesses to a growing anxiety that: “new theatre is becoming too inward-looking, focused disproportionately on formal experiment and innovation, and collapsing the boundaries between traditional theatre and play-making, and live art.” He believes most people are put off by that kind of work; most people “want to go the theatre when they think they’re going to have ‘a good night out’.” And, he states, theatre-makers can best give them that by: “making an audience laugh and cry and catching them in a drama, and telling story and exploring ideas through dramatic action”.

A few days later, Matt Trueman wrote a column for What’s On Stage, reflecting on David’s blog alongside a couple of surveys of audience numbers and demographics. While agreeing with David to a point, Matt argues: “Accessibility is more than a matter of plain comprehensibility.” Attention needs to be paid to the culture beyond the show itself: as Matt puts it, people come not only because they anticipate a good night out, but when they “have the resources and the desire to get out to see these shows”. It matters not only what the work itself is like but where it’s programmed, how much it costs, how people hear about it, and what residues remain.

These are all questions Fuel are addressing through New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood. In developing the local engagement specialist model they’ve been looking at how word-of-mouth and personal invitations encourage more people in to the theatre, employing people who live and work in each community to make contact with local groups who might feel a particular sense of connection to a show. They’ve been looking at how touring work might be tailored to reflect a specific community, giving additional R&D time to Tortoise in a Nutshell to remake their show Feral for Margate and Poole. With Phenomenal People, staged in a gallery space in Colchester, and The Red Chair, programmed into a community hall in Malvern, Fuel are beginning to look at how they might attract audiences by staging their work outside of theatre buildings (which they do as a matter of course in Preston, programming their work into a pub, the New Continental). And, through the Theatre Clubs that I host for them, they’ve been looking at how post-show conversations might give audiences a chance to digest what they’ve seen in a fun, informal, social way that encourages them to come back and see more.

These shifts in Fuel’s relationship with audiences are vital because a lot of the work they produce is experimental, innovative and collapses the boundaries between theatre and live art – that is, precisely the stuff that David represents as elitist and off-putting. But NTiYN refuses to see this work as inaccessible to a wider audience. It says it doesn’t matter if you’re a schoolchild or a retired schoolteacher, if you earn £5,000 a year or £50,000: whatever your background, this work could be for you. It says that this work, like more traditional theatre, has the capacity to make you laugh and cry and think, it just does so in different ways. Above all, it concerns itself not with a generalised “wider audience” but a series of communities, each one made up of individuals, each one with their own resources and desires.

Working on NTiYN has encouraged me to look past the big picture to a panoply of small ones. When Matt talks about theatre shows as “social interventions that should leave a mark”, I think about Kathryn Beaumont working with groups of women in the Stockton area: women who didn’t make it along to Phenomenal People so won’t show up in its audience figures, but had a heartful time together thanks to its existence. I think about the conversation I had with two teenagers at Phenomenal People in Colchester, explaining the UK political system to them. Two years after this happened, I still think about the two teenage lads in Poole who were given free tickets to see a show by Inua Ellams, and afterwards sought him out to shake his hand, they’d loved it so much. For both of them, it was the first time they’d set foot in a theatre. It matters to me that it might have been their last, but at the same time, it doesn’t matter at all.

Theatre-maker Hannah Nicklin had similar stories in mind when responding to Matt’s piece through a series of tweets. She reflected on her own work in “community-based storytelling participative theatre” – work she doesn’t even call “theatre” when talking about it with prospective or actual participants, because: “it’s an unuseful word”. This work doesn’t show up in the kind of audience surveys that Matt made reference to, because it’s usually free or “pay what you decide”, and its profile is even lower because it doesn’t get reviewed: as Hannah puts it, “I wouldn’t invite a critic to it as that’s not who it’s for”. (I always feel a bit sad when “critics” are considered a separate species of human.) This work happens off the radar – yet it’s vital to the UK theatre scene, being the very definition of a social intervention that leaves a positive mark.

In Hannah’s work, and in the touring model NTiYN is developing, theatre isn’t a product but a cultural interaction: an invitation to step out of the ordinary, to reflect on previous experience and encounter or imagine something new. And the thing Matt doesn’t really address in his column is the extent to which, at this moment in time in the UK, under this government, the value of such cultural interactions is being systematically eroded – and, along with it, the possibility that more people might have the resources or the desire to go to the theatre. At this moment in time in the UK, under this government, theatre isn’t seen as essential to education, to social debate, to a definition of citizenship, to the health of the human brain. It’s superfluous, unless it can be quantified and measured according to market values. This is what makes me anxious every time there’s talk of “wider audiences”, every time percentages are used in reference to people. I feel like the economic argument, and the terms of that debate, are winning.

Same town, different stories

by Maddy Costa

In all the years I worked on newspapers (two with the Evening Standard, six at the Guardian, another eight of freelance time), I knew I wasn’t much of a journalist. My impulse wasn’t to sniff out stories, expose the truth, uncover lies; I wanted to draw people’s attention to things, but that meant pop music and theatre: not much in the way of “hard news” there. I still want to draw attention to theatre, but my sense of myself as a story-gatherer has changed. I want to draw attention to people under the radar, to stories unheard, people unseen. It’s why I’m getting so much joy out of working on NTiYN: it takes me to places too easily dismissed.

Stockton-on-Tees is one of those places. We all know this story: a former manufacturing town now slumped without purpose or hope. Its high street blighted with dust from sluggish building sites, discount stores and dereliction. It has an arts centre, sure, but that’s five doors down from the pub where a pint costs only a pound. Addiction, prostitution, unemployment, the lot. Except. Those aren’t the only things I see when I visit Stockton. And there are other ways this story might be told. I’ve written about this on this blog before: a sense that what separates this high street from my own apparently more chi-chi high street in London is snobbery and narrative. Just because the drinks are five, eight, ten times more expensive in my local cocktail bars, doesn’t make their buyers superior to anyone else getting drunk.

I’ve wanted to tell another story about Stockton for a long time now, a story about community, a neighbourhood coming together in shared space. I was there in August last year for the Stockton International Riverside Festival, on an NTiYN job, inviting people to chat after seeing The Roof. When I first reached the High Street I was astounded: I’d never seen it so full. People of all ages, gathered between the buildings sites, spending the whole day watching outdoor performances. There was something that involved huge plastic flowers protruding from the upper windows of a shop building; a march of Mexican puppets banging drums; a silent dance piece by two men dressed as soldiers, one in a wheelchair, and a woman in a floaty silk gown. I couldn’t imagine any of those people choosing to see that dance piece if it had been staged at the ARC.

Watching The Roof in this context was blissful: so much more fun than when I’d seen it in London. The show hadn’t changed but the afternoon sunlight (in London it hadn’t started until 9pm or so), the open space (in London it was overshadowed by imposing concrete buildings), the presence of young children (despite a 12+ age recommendation), changed the atmosphere for the better. A few people walked out – it was free, they weren’t beholden – but others were clearly entertained, and I enjoyed watching two boys in particular, both aged maybe eight or at most 10, grinning, singing along to the soundtrack and copying the computer-game hero’s dance moves. I could picture them going home and re-enacting his leaps across the simulated rooftop, from sofa to rug to armchair; turning to each other in a year, two years, and saying: “Remember that thing we saw with the guy and the rubber ducks and the monsters with broccoli heads? That was COOOOL.”

Theatre makes memories, makes fun, makes new stories. This is what I love about it. It also, given the chance, gives a community impetus. I went to SIRF around the same time as seeing a couple of shows in London that thought about this incisively. Mr Burns at the Almeida was set after some kind of energy apocalypse; survivors, strangers, gathered in makeshift shacks and consoled themselves by retelling the story of a particular episode of the Simpsons. Fast forward a few years and entire communities have formed, fuelled by amateur dramatics: there is an alternative economy in Simpsons scripts and people have found new meaning in their lives through re-enactments. Fast forward again and those re-enactments are full-scale rituals: there is a new energy charge in these lives now. Those communities survived through storytelling, thrived through storytelling. They found meaning and a way of articulating their own predicament through art.

Mr Burns anticipated the enduring value of pop culture; Idomeneus at the Gate breathed with the ancients. A Greek myth retold by German playwright Roland Schmimmelpfennig, Idomeneus is the story of a Cretan king who promises to sacrifice the first living being he encounters to the gods in return for a safe journey home from Troy; but in this version it becomes multiple stories, a chorus of narrator-characters rehearsing several possible versions of events, each one casting Idomeneus and themselves in a different light. The slipperiness of their storytelling becomes revealing, too, of how history is rewritten by successive generations, and how truth is malleable depending on the purpose to which it’s being put. If that makes it sound dry, it wasn’t: directed by Ellen McDougall, it was pacy and funny and made you gasp with its surprises. And because it was impossible to tell what the “real” story was, you in the audience watching had the opportunity to decide for yourself.

It’s in that invitation to “make” the story that theatre does so much basic democratic work. Another thing I was doing at the time of visiting SIRF was reading The View From Here, a vital paper by a group of artists based in New York who call themselves the Brooklyn Commune Project, which talks about the place art and artists have in the world and the relationships they have and might have with audiences. I reread it regularly, simply because it’s so inspiring, and communicates so brilliantly that art matters not because it generates so many millions of pounds for the economy, but because it builds in people the confidence to be socially engaged. One study it quotes emphasises that art is “a contributor to sense of place and sense of belonging, a vehicle for transfer of values and ideals, and a promoter of political dialogue”. Elsewhere it describes art, and particularly performing arts like theatre, as a “meeting place, a site for the formation of a shared communal identity as ‘the public’ … a microcosm of democratic society, where individual free expression meets public space”.

Is it far-fetched to read all of that into SIRF? Maybe. But I got a completely different sense of Stockton from going to that festival, joining that community, watching disability arts and theatre-through-headphones and flamboyant noisy street processions with them, sharing that community’s curiosity, feeling invigorated by their stamina. And I wondered: who’s telling this story? Who’s framing Stockton and its public this way?

I went back to Stockton earlier this week, again with NTiYN, to give a writing workshop at the ARC connected to The Spalding Suite. Approaching the High Street, I was surprised again: the building site was gone, replaced with wide pavements, clean shop fronts and a large curved fountain that at night shines with coloured lights, bubbling emerald, ruby and sapphire. I remembered the lovely cafe I’d been to last summer, open late into the evening and bubbling with conversation; I wandered into the shopping centre and found a too-enticing sewing stall, old-fashioned bakers, and a sense of character I’d always assumed wasn’t there. (Nothing to do with Stockton, everything to do with hatred of shopping centres.) With the building machinery packed up, the ARC is visible from the High Street; it doesn’t feel disconnected any more but a window on to the town.

I’m really excited by the possibilities of this. I’m excited by the thought that one day, the teenage boys milling around the fountain at 10pm, shouting intimidation at passers-by, might one day spend an evening sitting in the ARC, and that the show they see might be like The Spalding Suite: vivid, pulsing, full of basketball and beatboxing, fiery with the hopes of young men like them. I’m excited that the people drinking in the pound-a-pint pub might encounter Hannah Nicklin, someone who’ll encourage their stories to be heard. I’m idealistic, I know, but I think back to a blog post by Daniel Bye in which he mentions making Story Hunt in Stockton, encountering “an enormous amount of inspiring history, but … a lack of hope in the present” and dream up a future in which ARC becomes the site of regenerated civic hope. I want to keep telling the story of Stockton, because it feels important. People and places shouldn’t be abandoned or sneered at. Common humanity demands better than that.