Time for Unrest

This morning i sat around a table with 8 women, and 2 men - all in their 60’s.

This isn’t my usual Saturday.

We met to discuss Unrest - a film and VR project raising awareness for CFS & ME - two very undefined illnesses, which act to group the umbrella conditions effecting millions of people globally.

Don’t say i didnt warm you, that film is a tear jerker. It follows the articulate Jennifer Brea and her incredibly supportive husband through their journey into this illness, one which leaves millions of people worldwide, bed ridden and life ridden.

My best friend of over 20years is a sufferer, eight years in bed and no signs of the tide turning yet.

And that is why we met, to talk about the film, how it made us feel and think what we could do to help. The ME/CFS community is large and disparate. It feels like no one really knows what to do to make change because no one knows how to treat this. Which makes it easy for the government to ignore the many charities, action groups and families like ours.

So what does this have to do with the Arts?

Unrest came out in mid 2017 and to date it has created an award winning VR, got nominated for an Oscar and is now free to view for those who have Netflix. Out of no where, it feels like this film has offered so much; a shared language for talking about ME,  an insight into how sufferers feel on a daily basis and a tool to share with wider friendship groups. It has genuinely spread the word. its  a really good film, a well considered and exciting piece of art.  The VR goes further - an experimental immersive film you watch from a real bed over 7mins

The Unrest team are clever, the occupy the ground between art, activism and humanity. They get to be proud of what they made and at the same time, offer needy people a lifeline.

Now thats the power of art. 

Unrest

Unrest

Do we really need one view of the ideal British Theatre? A response to David Hare

A response to David Hare’s article My Ideal Theatre printed in the Guardian on 30th Dec 2017

On reading David Hare’s article My Ideal Theatre I wanted to begin 2018 in the spirit of debate.

I am a fan of David Hare’s work – from the Absence of War to the Blue Room – David has left a legacy of powerful and important plays, among his other writings. This article however, is not helpful. In a climate of cuts to the arts and the start of active diversification by commissioning venues, we need positive, realistic visions not outdated rose tinting from times gone by...

Specific points on touring and appropriate pay for writers (and arguably everyone in the Arts?) are salient and should be acted on. now. However, a fair amount of this article left me feeling there is still a divide in the arts between the white male Oxbridge gang and well, everyone else.

Policy in the arts and audiences

No one likes bureaucracy in what should be a hub of creativity however, endless admin should not be confused with positive moves to diversify our stages and stories. Having worked closely with the Teams who experienced the fall out from both Exhibit B at the Barbican and the banning of the UK Jewish Film Festival at the Tricycle, it is clear our artistic leaders and audiences aren’t necessarily agreeing on what work should be made and who should be making it.  For example, time and time again I hear white male artistic directors ask ‘ but where is the female talent? Its just not there...’. Diverse talent is everywhere and those in control of commissioning money are only now starting to take what is a perceived risk on these artists as a result of more stringent encouragement from policy makers and funders. You are kidding yourself, Mr Hare, if you think we will get to where we want to be without the help of both the stick and the carrot. As I sit in the audience of lets say,  a Boy Blue show at the Barbican, I am reminded of just how white the audiences are across our major playhouses on all the other nights of the year. Since both Exhibit B and the UKJFF incidents, I have noticed positive change – more diverse production teams and better supported work from diverse artists. But there is still a long way to go. Casting stock white talent in modern repeats of old Shakespearean tales is not enough for many audiences out there. We need to be more dynamic.

Staffing

I have worked across 3 major arts organisations in London and in my experience most theatres provide staff with the opportunity to see both the work of their theatre and that of their competitors.  Internal write up of other venue’s work is often shared with staff and from my experience, discussing the wider ecology of work across the 'scene' is one of the highlights of working in theatres. Sometimes it may not be economically viable for everyone in a large venue to see the work. This that is a different thing from not wanting to go.

Worryingly, your article seems to confuse passion for the work (which I see endlessly across the arts) with a desire to have a life outside of it. Your ideal Playhouse - one in which a lead artist outlines his vision and staff support it with 100% of gusto - is a vision that will burn theatre out. Whilst I am sure most large venues like the National Theatre could make cuts in favour of larger creative budgets, it is a dangerous, unsustainable vision when theatre runs on passion alone. Women have worked so hard to achieve flexible working across the Arts to allow those with family, childcare and health needs to participate. What about our young people whom often work evenings alongside low paid internships in the Arts? Or the cleaner working two jobs? These are passionate people with real lives who make theatre happen just as much as those at the top and who on many occasions, make greater sacrifices to do so. We need Playhouses that can produce world-class art without relying on terminally underpaying and overworking to achieve it.

The State and funding

For those of us who are self-employed, freelance or creating our own work, State funding is vital and visibly diminishing.  There is a real risk that if reduced further, our culture and society will suffer.  And yet, I worry about a vision which  totally shuts us off from mixed funding models, which from my understanding have kept the Arts going since the Greeks. Commercial and Individual philanthropy is often more flexible and innovative than the Arts Council, something I experienced when working on a VR Gallery supported by Lexus before the Arts Council even had recognised VR as an art form. Individual donors can often give quicker support for smaller projects and venues, as the two Joe’s proved with their inspirational fundraising journey for Good Chance Theatre. Where Arts Council and other funders require endless monitoring and evaluation for their subsidy, other income streams can be more fluid and supportive of the actual Art itself Development Teams have become large - perhaps this needs addressing - but it is a mistake to think that if the State alone funded the arts, these Teams would disappear. In fact,  they would likely grow in the face of all the forms the State would need. We need a better defined financial future for the Arts, from our Government, which includes well financed partners and secures the continued development of our profitable sector.

Education

Having produced participation projects across most London borough’s at one time or another, it feels like we have started to reach a good balance between offering space and training within our theatres and reaching out beyond our theatre doors to those who don’t even know we exists. The current apprenticeship programmes are working however many of those young people who secure them are motivated and supported.  Nothing wrong with that but what of those who are intimidated by the thought of it? There are many brilliant companies and venues – The Roundhouse, Tamasha, Commonwealth and Punchdrunk - who inspire the next generation of theatre makers, designers, musicians and artists outside of formal arts spaces with an understanding that demystifying and democratising goes beyond the theatre walls.

Effect

I am and always have been a producer and audience member who seeks out cross art-form work.  From Akram Khan to Katie Mitchell, I listen, learn and enjoy most when more than one of my senses is stimulated. Receiving Art in the form of the written word alone can be a cold  experience, especially for those of us with forms of dyslexia, dyspraxia and disabilities. We want more than a peppering of music as a side dish to animate our stages and the presumption that this is ‘sucking up’ or lesser is truly a sign of an old fashioned interpretation of the stage. Who should determine that the work of Coney or 1927 should not be in our theatres? Scripts can work in beautiful partnership with other art forms and as we digitalise, younger audiences will expect this more and more. This is not to undo the work of the Pen. It is a request to put a end to this belief in a hierarchy of art forms. Good work is good work and audiences and their hard earned cash will help separate out the good from the bad.

And this is my wider point; hierarchy. It’s fantastic that a national newspaper continues to champion the arts and publish content which explores what the Arts means to our society.  That said, I was amused by the irony of David Hare defining a young leadership for his ideal view of his Playhouse and yet the Guardian has commissioned (albeit a legend) a 70year old white male to share his reflections on what the landscape of British Theatre should be. As a self-employed female producer trying to champion non conventional artistic experiences, this article feels like (another) opportunity to support a traditionalist manifesto. Others will disagree with me on this, and that’s fine. What is clear is we need to recognise the smorgasbord that now makes up ‘the Arts’ across age, wealth, class, gender and identity lines. I would have loved to hear from Inua Ellams, James Graham, Kate McGrath and Sharon Watson -  what do they think it should be?

David and The Guardian; your work is vital, but this outlook is not. Talk to those working on the ground day in day out, trying to make what we found when we started in this craft, even better.

VR. Whats that all about then?

Raindance Film Festival began 25 years ago, bringing audiences fresh talent sitting outside the mainstream. 25 years later, and pioneering the VR awards as part of their 2017 Festival, Raindance continue to re-define new talent, mediums and trends. Having produced the VR Arcade for Raindance and Lexus, for 2 consecutive years at Hospital Club,  and seen a lot of top notch content, I am left wondering what VR (360, AR, and all the other R’s) mean to the live theatre, music and arts sectors -  and their audiences?

At the moment? Not much.

Commercial VR in medicine, gaming and even estate agency is out there and thriving, showing its core audiences what they can’t see any other way. Millions of doctors are being trained in complex operations, kids are going deeper into fighter games and the wealthy can acquire a new luxury property without having to leave the one they are currently in. Film and documentary is catching up, with cutting edge artists moving on from their handmade cameras to create quality work that is emotive, life changing and easy to watch if you have the right headset. The VR/AR community is a vibrant, collaborative and risk taking one.

And yet, the live arts are trailing behind, with a unique problem. How do we reinvent something that we already do pretty well? We have made surround arts experiences for centuries. With the acoustics in churches, all-consuming musical experiences are nothing new. Theatre in the round is as old as the Greeks and with the hunger for more interactive experiences, care of Punchdrunk and their ilk, interactive audience journeys are ‘done’. So how do the live arts embrace and create with this new art form?

I have seen five key pieces of work braving the transition.

Jane Gauntlett and In My Shoes is a series of work that places the audience at the heart of a personal experience, accompanied with set and sometimes an actor, to help you ‘immerse’. Doom, which opened at Sheffield Doc Fest, is at the live art end of the spectrum: there is blood, animal heads, spirituality, sex and for me, total confusion between a live and ‘real’ world. Cirque de Soleil’s VR work is an essential film, bringing to life the unique world of their shows. There are then the promos: ENB and others using VR and 360 to help audiences ‘experience’ their rehearsal rooms and productions (try before you buy).

For me, it’s the fourth that lands. Curious Directive’s Frogman is a theatre piece that uses VR to take audiences through two timelines, uniting the narratives and providing an experience you haven’t seen before. It makes sense and adds something unique to the experience of theatre.

So it is starting, it is happening. But three factors continue to hamper these creatives.

Cash – obviously. The quality of Curious Directive and Jane Gauntett’s filming is grainy, there is no other word for it. And it does matter. When you start to see other work in VR – Docs, animation and film – you are immersed into narrative and technical quality that has a serious impact. This places great strain on our theatre who might not have been filmmakers to begin with. The Arts Council have now started to fund VR experiences (where they don’t fund film) so maybe this will start to change opportunities for experimentation but no doubt this will be slow progress, based on individual artists and projects carving out the time to play.

Thirdly, there are no connected systems that allow audiences to interact with each other, during their audience-ship. Outside of some expensive kit and gaming systems, VR is a solo experience. And so, at present, whatever the setting, it still feels like watching a film rather than benefitting from that unique experience of an audience communally hearing, responding and seeing something at the same time.

But maybe none of this actually matters.

It is really quite hard to watch VR for more than about 20 minutes. And that’s when it’s really good. Our minds get too full from the total technical immersion in sound, light and story. I hope it stays this way, for fear of the damage we are already doing to our youth through the over-use of technology. AR – the stuff you do with your phone – seems to be the underdog that might lead the way and this is definitely an enhancement tool, rather than the show in itself. So however good AR and VR get, it still feels like something the Arts can incorporate into what they already do well, rather than replace it.

But I do think there are key things from this new wave we can be incorporating. This young sector thrives on innovation, sharing of kit and ‘bigging up’ peers. It feels a positive sector to be a part of. With dwindling resources and attempts to make the arts more accessible, more people than ever want to make work, with less resources to support it. And at times, well, it sort of makes us a bit competitive, dare I say mean? Not words anyone would associate with creativity. The VR industry also incorporates a range of nationalities and cultures, and some stellar women are leading the way. It’s a meritocracy – something else the arts knows it needs. And so whilst we might not need the art in VR, the wider arts sector might want to think about how it can adopt the crucial, forward thinking elements that are making it.

Top players in VR

Nexus – with their work with the Gruffallo & Obama, these guys do participation on a biiiig scale

Marsmellow Lazer Feast – need I say more?

Darren Emerson – VR City is making some beautiful work for brands and himself

Jennifer Brea and Unrest – using VR for what it should be used for, empathy and imagination combined.

Guardian VR team6 x 9 solitary confinement is some of the best documentary making I have ever seen in under 10mins

Chris Milk – check out his Ted Talk to find out more

Beginners Guide to the Kit

Google and Samsung headsets come in for around £100 and are compatible with most of the films you might want to see. Oculus, the main player in VR content distribution, have produced the Rift which goes further in terms of quality of experience - and cost at more like £400.  HTC Vive is the provider for more complex, interactive experiences and feels like its useful for those who know what they are doing, coming in at £600. Worth noting, Playstation is about the mid way point in terms of price – at £350 – and leading the way for Gamers.

BLOG EDITOR      Caroline White

3 Shows I Wish I Had Produced At Edinburgh 17

3 shows i wish i had produced at the Ed Festival

Our Carnal Hearts by Rachel Mars, supported by some of the most impressive women working across the Arts in London at the moment.
Its a journey through Rachel’s mind, and ours. set to beautiful and cynical music (yes, imran both) and i wanted to watch it all over the minute it finished. It played with form whilst ensuring i knew what was going on and it was strong and feminist without talking about feminism.

Woke by Aphhia Campbell
Longest standing ovation of a fringe show i have ever seen and totally deserved. Her voice alone is worth the ticket price and then she wacks on top a whole provocation of what it means to be a black female protestor within the black movement, now and then.

The Shape of Pain, written by Chris Thorpe and directed (shall we say made?) by Rachel Bagshaw
I saw early drafts of this and the journey the piece, and Rachel, have been on to achieve the show is a real reminder that good work takes time, support and in this case, some really accurate self reflection as an artist. The story felt both personal and informative to me, and i don't live with permanent pain. And there in lay its power, i guess at times we all have our struggles and we don't talk about it, unless your leg is in a cast. Again, such strong theatre made by women who should be making work everywhere.

 

Blog Post 1 - August 17: Diversity does not maketh a play....

17th July 2017 was sort of like A-Level results day for the Arts Community in the UK. Our Arts Council released it's latest batch of longer term funding for arts companies and venues and for the first time I can remember, people seemed, well, alright about it. There wasn’t the usual soap box responses and hushed conversations at the back of over priced conferences. Most people I know generally seeming pretty happy about the shift towards regional funding and support for more diverse companies at the (fairly tiny) expense of the bigger London based venues.

Done. We shall have a more diverse inclusve arts landscape from this day onwards.

Well, not quite.

Last month, I saw two very different plays – Barbershop Chronicles by Inua Ellams at the NT and Persuasion by James Jeff at the Royal Exchange in Manchester. Each featured diversity on stage and contemporary techniques in playmaking. One ended in a standing ovation, the other with an audience shuffling silently towards the exits like a huddle of bemused penguins. It left me wondering – why does one piece work and another, not?

This is the bread and butter question of the arts sector, and the one which keeps theatre makers making theatre against high levels of competition and low levels of income. In this instance, the answer felt clear; the audience. Well, more specifically, who the playmakers were making their play for. Persuasion featured a multicultural cast, contemporary music and a new translation, offering something that should have been warmly applauded. The setup gave the opportunity to shine fresh light on our society through the prism of a well-known fable. And hey, isn’t that just the fashion these days – Simon Stone’s Wild Duck, Rob Icke’s Oresteia and Yael Farber’s Crucible all did it pretty damn well. Yet, up in Manchester at Jeff James’ production, this multicultural cast and a commission for a new script were channeled through a white, male director, playing to a largely white audience. So in truth, no change. No new diet for this reliable theatre crowd.

Rather than compare the artists or venues, it could be a matter of taste. Plays and stories are subjective; I like, you don’t….and so on. But this audience didn’t even seem to like it. Which then makes the whole thing feel like a bit of a waste, for a production which likely cost more than most projects I work on, in staging alone. A formula of ‘classic text + multicultural actors doesn’t always = good. What could have been a smart social commentary became a sort of Eastenders does Jane Austen. With the likes of Austentatious (improvised Austen-themed comedy by a largely, all white gang) already nailing that work really well, this retelling seemed to have nothing new to say. That, coupled with no significant or intrinsic relevance to the multicultural cast, meant most of us itched to get to the exits and un-mute our iPhones.

Barbershop Chronicles seemed fully connected to its audience. In fact, it’s two audiences – firstly, it spoke to those born of African heritage with ties to the UK, and secondly, to those of us who have never been on that journey, and who may just want to know a bit more. Inua Ellams took in-jokes, daily observations and ‘familiar faces’ to tell a story which leveled the playing field on complex conversations around slavery, what it means to be African, British and everything in between. No one in the play, or audience, owned his story. It was bigger than Inua, any central character and any of us.

Why am I interested in exploring this distinction? It’s genuinely not to punish theatres – all commissioning theatres have hits and flops. Just like football teams (so im told…). In co-running MUJU, a Muslim Jewish Theatre company, for more than 6 years, we made work which brought Muslims and Jews together. And most of the time, it worked. Audiences who would never normally share a space (or maybe even go to the theatre) laughed side by side. Participants embarked on devised theatre processes which involved creating a shared narrative of ideas. Yet, the work wasn’t always able to bridge the gap and engage audiences outside of those two cultural groups. For a host of possible reasons; maybe the marketing wasn’t right, maybe the quality of work wasn’t there. Figuring out how to do this well remains a challenge for work focused on identity or cultural narrative, and commissioners need to find the space for mistakes to happen, before pieces hit the main stages. From the MUJU gang, Josh Azouz and Alia Bano best achieved it with Mikvah Project at The Yard and Shades at the Royal Court. Well-crafted stories of faith in urban settings were made for audiences reflected both on the stage, and those beyond it. And that is what we need to see more of.

If theatre is to move beyond a constant homage to the white, well-spoken upper echelons, we can (and must) continue to cast colour blind. However, we can’t use casting to hide what is still colourlessly white thinking, under a pretense of offering something new. Persuasion is trying to update a classic work by injecting a ‘modern’ twist. And y’know, its intention may well have been to genuinely say something. But if so, I couldn’t hear it. Updating our cherished old works isn’t inherently a bad thing, but it just feels, sometimes, a little bit lazy. Barbershop Chronicles had purpose, it had style. It knew what it was trying to say and who it wanted in the room to say it to. If the Arts are to flourish and future generations are to buy their tickets, dynamic venues now have the mandate to commission work which is modern, diverse, relevant and of quality. With many central London theatres showing unwavering dedication to supporting white male auteurs, there will always be Austin’s.

What many of us want is more Inua’s.