A slight break from the usual programming on my YouTube channel as I take the time to talk through the current strike action by UCU over the forced changes to the terms of the USS pension scheme, explain why I’m supporting my senior colleagues in their fight against this non-sensical decision and suggest how students can support the strikes.
Keep up to date with what’s going on with these strikes and show your support on Twitter by searching for #USSstrikes
After explaining a few times to family members and friends what exactly I’m getting up to with my life at the moment, I was keen to put together a short vlog which explained what a PhD (both as product and process) is for the uninitiated.
(What is a PhD Anyway? What does PhD Student life look like? | https://youtu.be/CpqFgR86plk)
This week, I headed up to Birmingham to catch Bristol Old Vic’s production of Pink Mist by Owen Sheers on its UK Tour.
As always, here something of a performance analysis of the play. If you have been watching and enjoying my YouTube videos then please do feel free to send over any feedback you may have and, of course, do subscribe!
(Performance Analysis: Pink Mist by Owen Sheers (Bristol Old Vic) at Birmingham Rep | https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dmPb4KnbSDE&feature=youtu.be)
I tried a little experiment for my vlog this week, capturing a week in my life as I try to add more words to my thesis document, head to research centre meetings and rehearsals for a couple of shows I’m working on.
(PhD Student | Week in the Life | Vlog #5: https://youtu.be/8Xp-2PV3TS8)
There were a number of reasons I chose to focus my PhD on representations of regional English cities in contemporary theatre.
Primarily, as a regional theatre maker myself, I have often felt that being based in the provinces has both supported and restricted my career. On the one hand, if I a piece of my work is put on in Plymouth, its fairly unlikely Rufus Norris is going to walk through the door and suggest it does a couple of week in the Cottesloe.
But by the same measure I am certain that, had I been based in a city with far more theatre artists working in it, many of the things I have been able to make happen with the support of Arts Council England and other organisations in Plymouth would either already have been happening already or at the very least I would have faced far more competition to leverage the resources needed for those projects.
Although it hadn’t crossed my mind at the time — it seemed only natural when writing the pieces — I also have something of a track record in making work which engages with either what we might call the “regional experience”.
When I wrote Parliament Town (2014), I was certainly driven by a desire to contemplate what the city of Plymouth means or at least meant to a specific character at that time.
While the narratives relayed by the City Museum — and I’m not holding out much hope that this might change when the new History Centre is built — is one of sea-faring colonisers and military lives, I was keen to highlight the cities many flirtations with English radicalism.
Not only was the city a hold-out for Parliamentarianism during the English Revolution — the main focus of Parliament Town — it was also the place from which the Tolpuddle Martyrs were cast off to Australia and the site of their return as well as more recently the birthplace and first constituency of Michael Foot.
Simon Stephens says of his play Port (2013), set in Stockport, that ‘suggesting that lives of people living in Manchester then, are worthy of drama, was a political gesture’ (National Theatre, 2015).
There is a tendency in our storytelling to assume that anything of note will always take place in one metropolis or other, that if a butterfly flaps its wings in London the breeze will be felt in Birmingham but that the breeze generated by a Brummie butterfly will dissipate somewhere along the proposed path of HS2.
Theatre is a necessarily local act, taking place in a specific place at a specific time and, so it seems to me, has an ability to address the politics and weight of space in a very direct way.
Much of the academic literature that exists on these issues focusses heavily on site-specific work. And yet to suggest that narratives employing regional locales can only be relevant to those with an existing relationship— be it work, residence or touristic—with that place seems only to feed into the neuroses of regional textual inferiority.
As such, I have decided to focus exclusively on auditorium-based work, that which can be lifted from Birmingham and placed into a theatre in Leeds, Hull or Exeter so as to express a story founded in one city to another.
A Line-Up of Regional Theatre in 2017
My last few days, then, have been spent navigating — with various degrees of ease *cough* ATG *cough* — the websites of England’s regional civic theatres in order to seek out productions which seek, in a direct or subtle way, to engage with a specific regional English city.
What has been particularly interesting is how all or nothing the approach of regional theatres to such a pursuit is.
Hull Truck, for example, will mount the third instalment in its ‘Hull Trilogy’ in July 2016, Mighty Atoms. Alongside this two of their community productions Defiance and Our Mutual Friend also have a direct relationship with the city.
Liverpool Royal Court’s 2017 programme also features a number of locally-rooted productions including a Christmas show Scouse of the Rising Sun and, later in the year The Royal and YNWA.
Nottingham Playhouse, in February will offer up Touched, set in the city during the 100 days between peace in Europe and Japan at the close of the Second World War.
And Bristol Old Vic boasts two productions in their upcoming season, Junkyard and Pink Mist, both of which are set at least partially within the theatre’s own jurisdiction.
It is worth pointing out that this is only a selection of the work I have come across, there are a number of notable examples which I have left out mainly for reasons of space. Due to the focus of my research, I was also not searching for work set in towns, though in many cases the difference between town and city is little more than descriptive terminology.
A Community Speaking to Itself
What also struck was that many theatres’ excursions into their surrounding streets was often carried out exclusively in community work. While it makes sense that, in engaging local people, a focus on narratives of local significance might add social value to the undertaking, it also says something that a similar stance is less likely to be taken in a professional production.
I would hope it would be entirely cynical to pursue a line of thinking that suggests a large-scale, populist, locally-based production with a volunteer cast likely to provide a fair bit of free publicity and advocacy for the show might be as good for a theatre bottom line as for the social cohesion of the local community.
And, while any separation between professional and amateur work in terms of the performance text itself would be false and elitist, it is clear that a professional production is more likely to have a life beyond that within its own city boundaries and thus has a larger chance of being able to share that narrative further.
Finally, does it not reveal the value a theatre sees in the communal identity of its location that some will hire the likes of Vicky McClure to star in a telling of a local narrative or commission Jack Thorne or Bryony Lavery to interpret it for the stage while others will channel such professional talents to work which lacks such site-specific baggage?
I am really looking forward to gallivanting across the country to catch some of the work which is engaging in the representation of regional civic communities. My endeavours over the past few days have thrown up a long list of really exciting productions.
If anyone knows of any work taking place over the next couple of years which does engage in regional English cities that I might have missed, it would be great to hear about.
My PhD focusses on representations of regional English cities in contemporary theatre. As such, the main strand of my research is textual, looking at how dramatists and devisors alike have filtered the regional English city — both as space and communal identity — in order to present it on stage.
To discuss such artistic practices in a vaccuum, though, would be somewhat naïve. As Harvie forwards
creative and artistic practice is never realised in a hypothetical “blue-skies thinking” bubble where anything is possible. Instead, it happens in a real world riddled with both material and ideological constraints. (2005: 16)
Any analysis of contemporary theatre practice, therefore, necessitates an exploration of the context into which such work is made.
Over the past couple of weeks, then, I have been doing some deep digging into some of the challenges and opportunities facing regional artists in today’s British theatre industry.
I was keen that, as well as drawing on existing literature and discussion surrounding such issues, I also tried to look at some — slightly more objective — data.
At first, I was hoping to get my hands on the figures behind the recent Arts Council England report Analysis of Theatre in England (BOP Consulting, 2016) but, currently, that has not been possible.
Therefore, I decided to focus on a data set I knew I could get my hands on. Though the information available was partial — and I had to build much of it up myself — I reasoned that the importance of the Edinburgh Festival Fringe to the UK theatre ecology meant that it could serve as something of a thermometer to test out how the volume of work taking place outside London.
The past few years has seen the emergence of a number of programmes which have sought to use the Edinburgh Fringe as a fulcrum to lift some of the dominance of what is an overwhelmingly London-centric industry. Programmes such as Northern Stage @ Summerhall and Escalator East to Edinburgh have used the pulling power of Edinburgh to showcase artists from their respective regions.
Thinking of it further, this became increasingly interesting to me, that with all the words that have been put to paper about the London-centric nature of the British theatre industry that much of the touring ecology revolves around three weeks not even just outside of the capital but north of the border itself.
Steve Marmion, artistic director of the Soho Theatre, characterises the Fringe as
the industry equivalent of a big expo, or one of those fairs where they get six months’ business done in one day […] we saw more than 400 shows [in Edinburgh] last year. And across a year we might see 1,000 shows. That gives you an idea of how much coverage is focused in one window. (in Wicker, 2016)
That such a high-profile recieving venue — and, for what its worth, a London one — carries out over 40% of its annual scouting at the Fringe perhaps suggests that London itself is not as important as we might imagine.
So, I decided to do some research. Proper research. With an Excel spreadsheet and everything. To see how the Edinburgh Fringe — which came into existence primarily as a reaction to the metropolitan artistic elitism of the concurrent Edinburgh International Festival — lives up to those initial ideals.
Handily for me, the Fringe Society website allows one to filter productions by a number of variables and pull them from the site as a spreadsheet. Even better, it designates the United Kingdom not as a whole but as its four constituent nations.
As my main focus here was on theatre productions travelling up from England, all data is restricted to the theatre section of the programme and to English-originating companies.
It’s worth saying also that, as all information is self-entered by Fringe participants, it is prone to some error. Where I have spotted this, I have aimed to correct but that is not to say some erronious data did not slip through.
The data on cast sizes has been retrieved from a mixture of company websites and information available on Broadway Baby’s show listings. Again, where I have spotted this to be erroneous, I have edited and this points to the possibility of further errors in the data.
In a number of places I have separated data relating to professional shows from that relating to amateur, student and school productions. My reason for doing so is that I am interested here in how the make-up of the Edinburgh Fringe impacts upon the UK’s touring ecology as a whole and companies which self-identify as professional are, naturally, those who are most likely to be thinking of giving their productions a touring life beyond the Fringe.
Of course, the self-identifying nature of all of this data means it is prone to flaws. Alongside this, the unique material conditions of the Edinburgh Fringe mean that deriving who is — or who is not — professional is somewhat problematic. Earlier this year, Lyn Gardner forwarded the example of
the young Warwick University company Breach Theatre [who] will be out on tour soon with their Edinburgh hit The Beanfield. So are they amateurs when they are performing on home ground in Warwick and suddenly professionals when they are performing at NPO-funded buildings such as Home in Manchester or Battersea Arts Centre, London, as part of A Nation’s Theatre? (2016)
Despite this, I hold that a company that has made the decision to identify themselves as professional on submitting details for their show are those most likely to look to tour on the festivals close.
One performer and no interval
There has been much discussion over the artistic impacts of some of the material and logistical contexts of the Edinburgh Fringe. In 2008, Guardian critic Paul Arendt complained that ‘more than half the shows I saw this week were one-person plays or monologue collections’ (2008). It is safe to say that such a notion exists anecdotally across the Fringe too.
My research, however, does not bear this out to be quite the epidemic Arendt suggests.
While there are more one performer shows than any other singular cast size, such productions make up only 29% of total English theatre performances at the festival.
Its worth noting, however, that this figure includes amateur companies including school groups and university societies who — as they are usually attending the Fringe for the experience itself, rather than to gain any longevity for the work — are usually able to people their productions in a way not possible to professional performers.
The figures become slightly more interesting when we extrapolate out solely the cast sizes of professional productions.
As you can see to the left, when looking at just the data from professional shows, we see that 43% of these productions have a sole performer.
Perhaps more interesting is by how much the volume of large cast productions shrinks. Where productions with more than two performers represented 66% of all productions above, when we examine the data referring solely to professional shows, they represent only 36%.
Another complaint is articulated by Sarah Wilson of House — an organisation which exists to raise the quality of programmed touring work in the South East — who suggests that
the interval has become a rarity in contemporary theatre productions. Artists make work to an hour slot, while festival goers expect volume and will take risk on short shows, but that model doesn’t work for a single stand alone night in a provincial arts centre. (2014)
In the small- to mid-scale I’d certainly suggest that such an argument holds true and so, again, I decided to crunch the numbers; this time, not so much to see whether it was true — it seemed fairly unlikely that shows under an hour were going to be in the minority — but to try and get a grasp on the extent of this hegemony.
As we can see, shows between 46 and 60 minutes dominate at the festival, counting for 67% of the English contingent. Many venues in fact explicitly state that a show must below such a time period.
But the area which my broader research drew me to was the origins of productions at the festival.
Where do you come from?
As I mentioned above, the Edinburgh Festival Fringe began as a radically decentralising movement. When Rudolf Bing announced the programme for the first Edinburgh International Festival in 1946 it ‘included the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Bruno Walter, […] the Louis Jouvet company from Paris in Moliere and Glyndebourne productions of Le nozze di Figarro and Macbeth’ (Forbes, 1997). Alongside this, however, was not a single representation of contemporary Scottish art.
When six Scottish theatre companies — alongside two English groups — arranged their own venues and organised performances to coincide with the official programme from which they had been snubbed, then, it was a bold reaction against the metropolitan artistic elitism represented by Bing and Harvey Wood, the British Council head whom he worked alongside.
The reason I began to dug into this data in the first place, therefore, was in order to see whether the festival holds up to that founding principle. If the importance with which Marmion grants it — a notion supported by the numbers of artists who flock their each year — holds true and it is indeed a vital entry point into the British theatre industry, to what extent does it support the entry of new voices or simply reaffirm the importance of existing ones?
By using the data pulled from the Fringe Society website, I was able to further use company websites and social media pages to locate where each company travelling to the festival from England in 2016 is based.
What I found was that 47% of all productions which travelled north across the border were from London-based companies.
But this figure becomes even more startling when we remove those productions by non-professional groups.
As you can see in the chart to the left, 59% of all English productions at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe 2016 were from London-based companies.
London in fact submits 29% of all productions at the festival, nearly twice the 15% which come from inside Scotland itself.
The Edinburgh Fringe offers itself up as an anti-elitist, outsider of a festival. Yet, on examination of the data, we can see that such an image is not bourne out in reality.
Of course, the complexity of the issue is that such a dominance of London-based companies at the Edinburgh Fringe both supports the same dominance across the UK touring circuit and is supported by it.
The history of the Arts Council and — by extension — the arts in England is one of an unresolved tension between artistic excellence and artistic democracy but — even if action to rectify the inequities in funding and logistical support which overwhelmingly favour the capital was decided on — it seems that the complexities of such an issue would be hard to untangle in order to find a similar solution.
While there is clearly much positivity to be taken from programmes such as Northern Stage’s residency in the capital and projects such as Escalator East to Edinburgh, it remains to be seen whether the festival — which presents a huge opportunity for bypassing London’s gravitational pull — can ever deliver on such a promise.
BOP Consulting (2016) Analysis of Theatre in England. Manchester: Arts Council England.