Independent Theatre Consultancy
And so to the last entry for my third complete year of working for myself.
What an odd year, starting full of optimism, working with new clients, going out to see shows, concerts, gigs and exhibitions regularly, and visiting friends across Europe. What a contrast to the end of the year; although we've just come out of lockdown and are able to see our friends in small numbers and go into town, the theatres, galleries and cinemas are still closed and many people in our sector, including me, are very worried about the future of the arts in the UK. Rumours are rife about impending redundancies in our leading regional theatres and at our national institutions.
At the beginning of June I reflected that without a healthy sector to work within, those of us who work freelance within the sector find our position more and more precarious. There is a strong possibility that highly-skilled people will leave the sector, taking their skills with them, reducing our ability to make the highest-quality art and therefore jeopardising something that, as a nation, we have been extremely good at.
I remain optimistic and I'm still working and being offered work. Year Four starts tomorrow morning...
The government have announced a 'rescue package' for the cultural industries of 1.57 billion pounds. At the moment there is scant information about how this will be distributed, when it will be made available, and who will benefit from it. I do hope that this information is released soon - many of the larger organisations, such as the major producing theatres are already talking about making huge numbers of their staff redundant.
Officially today marks the end of the Double-Ender R&D project, which should now be fully evaluated and the completed assessment of the work shared with Arts Council England. Needless to say none of this has happened. As we end our 14th week of being locked down we began work on the project today instead.
So, this afternoon we did our first read-through of both monologues: Joshua Val Martin and Jez Dolan shared their work with us via Zoom in the virtual presence of Dramaturg/Director Josh Coates, Musical Director Josh Dawson and our Marketing Consultant Sue Fletcher. It really went very well and we now know what order we'll eventually present the two pieces in (Josh first, Jez second), and we realised that we have employed far too many Joshes on this project!
It's also heartening to know that our three venues for the R&D project have all confirmed that they are still interested in presenting the work; we expect we'll go into proper rehearsals after Christmas.
Today I’ve been asked to introduce a discussion on freelancing during the current extraordinary circumstances by What Next?. I though it wise to summarise what I do for a living in a couple of paragraphs before going on to discuss the wider issue.
I’ve worked for myself for three years now and I’ve engaged in a wide range of projects. My bread and butter work is a mixture of business planning and fundraising for my clients. This has been reasonably successful, and I’ve developed some deep and long-term relationships with several arts organisations. I’ve also offered practical support to a number of emerging artists and companies.
Going freelance has also given me the opportunity to get my creative juices flowing again; last year I produced and toured Let Me Look At You for Starving Artists – the queer theatre company set up in 1983 in Honolulu by performer/director Mark Pinkosh, and this year I’m producing Double-Ender a new piece by playwright Joshua Val Martin and visual artist Jez Dolan for our own company Initiative Arts. I’ve also been commissioned to work as a lighting designer and even worked as a voice artist. On the whole, my work has been varied, interesting and its been a joy to travel down the freelance road.
As with many freelancers I set a daily rate and negotiate both this and the duration of any project with a potential client. Over the past three years, a piece of work has ranged from a contract for – say 30 days – right down to a one-hour interaction with students at university. It’s a bit hand-to-mouth – the wolf is sometimes at the door, sometimes it’s at the end of the road at the Metro station, sometimes it’s sitting at the foot of the bed. My husband is a visual artist and is also self-employed; his income is even more precarious, and we don’t really have much in the way of savings. We usually just about get by.
During the pandemic so far, I’ve been relatively lucky. The majority of the work I undertake involves me working from home and I was fortunate to secure a significant piece of work in March.
Double-Ender was awarded project funding by Arts Council England the Friday before lockdown and so our company now has some money in the bank. Although our creative team is currently working to deliver a rehearsal script, all the performances of the piece have been cancelled or postponed. We’ll have a read though of our work to date at the end of this month after which Double-Ender goes into the deep freeze until our partner venues know when they will be able to re-open, or we decide what to do next with the play.
As a registered self-employed person who has submitted tax returns, I’ve also qualified for state aid under the Self-Employed Income Support Scheme (SEISS). My current position therefore is supported.
However, I am aware that I am one of the lucky ones. I know of people whose work has dried up overnight and whose once busy diaries are now completely empty. Some people have fallen through the cracks in the state support system; I know of a director who left their full-time job within the last year in order to once more work again as a freelancer. She now has no work, nor is she eligible for relief as a self-employed person, as she hasn’t made the appropriate tax return yet. Someone else reports that they have formed their own business recently, and consequently have not been eligible for either furloughing or relief as self-employed. Visual Artists face similar problems, with the cancellation or postponement of gallery and museum exhibitions with no certainty of their work now being seen. There is a definite feeling that the world of cultural production is seizing up or slowing down precipitously.
The expectation of work in the future is muted. Cultural freelancers across many art forms tend to be commissioned or employed to undertake work by established cultural organisations. Organisations are uncertain about what the future holds in store and many are facing an existential crisis – indeed it is ironic to thinks that those cultural producers who successfully diversified their income portfolio ‘weaning’ themselves off public subsidy by enhancing their ability to earn money, or attract philanthropy, are potentially the most threatened by the current crisis. It is clear that some really significant cultural organisations are unlikely to survive; these organisations are our employers.
The threat to employers is therefore mirrored in the freelance sector – our order books have either dried up completely or threaten to do so. I’ve got enough work to keep me busy at the moment, but I have no idea what the autumn and winter will bring. I had a conversation with another member of this What Next? chapter a week or so ago who said, ‘you should be alright; people will be crying out for your skills as lockdown recedes’. My worry is that the work that I do might now be classed as an unaffordable luxury. I simply don’t know what the future will bring and I’m finding it difficult to even begin to plan what happens next.
Many arts organisations are responding magnificently! I know of small organisations who are topping up the 80% furlough wages up to the full wage, despite having little financial room for manoeuvre themselves. My own experience has been that my clients have offered to front-load my fee schedule in order to offer me a financial buffer.
Most recently we have seen the open letter from Spare Tyre, Contact, HOME and 67 other organisations offering solidarity with freelance workers, calling for the retention and extension of the SEISS, looking for and commissioning new ways to work, and offering to pay fees to freelancers who join a national task force. This task force will strengthen the influence of the self-employed theatre and performance community – leadership that is very, very welcome.
I believe that the sector will eventually recover. It will be changed, and the current crisis will be a catalyst in that change – and I trust that it is a change for the better. I also fervently hope that the recovery comes soon enough to prevent a wholesale exodus of skilled freelancers from our sector.
My work with Manchester International Festival has gotten far more complicated! I had imagined convening meetings at MIF's base with up to 5-10 people to discuss the requirements of The Factory in detail, aiming to come to a consensus. What is likely to happen is that I'm going to meet people singly on 'Teams', discuss their views and facilitate the exchange of information across MIF's personnel. Most of these people I have never met in the flesh - it's going to take a little longer than I thought...
I'm also having to meet my Arts Emergency Mentee, Josh virtually. I was hoping that we'd spend some time going to see shows and discussing what they were like. I can't see this happening for some time.
I now know what Zoom does and how to talk to somebody on Teams...
There is a new virus that has come out of China in the months since January, which is easy to catch, and fatal to a minority of people. If it were unchecked it is reckoned that as many as a quarter of a million people may die from it. As a result we have just entered Lockdown - we can only leave our homes for an hour's exercise a day and most businesses have shut up shop, including theatres, restaurants and cinemas. People are saying that we'll not be able to leave our homes for some time, initially we're being told to stay at home for the next three weeks.
We've found out two things about our production of Double-Ender today - first the good news: We have been awarded money from Arts Council England to make the piece and take it to three local venues over the next three months and a research and development project.
Secondly - all three venues have now postponed our working with them indefinitely because of the viral outbreak - the virus is called COVID-19. This is very confusing and we'll now need to re-appraise the project...
An interesting meeting today with Fiona Gasper of Manchester International Festival on what should be a very interesting project. I've been asked to put together, with MIF staff, a comprehensive and costed list of all the Fixtures, Furniture and Equipment for The Factory, Manchester's new performance veune which should open its doors in Summer 2022. The next step is to set up a series of meetings with groups of interested people at MIF's building over the next few weeks.
The Factory is currently rising out of the ground on the old Granada Studios site in central Manchester. The main performance space is 30m wide, 60m long, and 6 stories tall! It's going to really change the theatre and performance ecology of the city.
A day working with Joshua Val Martin, Jez Dolan and Lee Baxter on making what Jez called our "Begging Video" to support our fundraising work for our prospective R&D project Double-Ender. We've applied for support from Arts Council England and, if we get the go-ahead this will lead to public performances of a new piece between March and May this year.
A day working with Horse and Bamboo at The Boo scoping a new project that will hopefully lead to significant improvement and development of the building. There is a great opportunity here to make a much-loved arts centre superb.
To the Waterside Arts Centre to see the inimitable LipService's production of Stangers on a Train Set, which combines the live performance of Maggie Fox and Sue Ryding within the digital setting of a Hornby 00 model railway. Bloody marvellous!
imitating the dog, whose chair I have the honour of being, open Night of the Living Dead in Leeds tonight. It's an ambitious project combining the showing of the 1968 classic horror film by George A Romero with a real-time reconstruction of film, performed by actors working within a digital setting. How possible this is I'm about to find out....
I started work today with The Knotted Project. Based in Cumbria, TKP was formed in 2013 by East 15 Physical Theatre graduates Natalie Morrell and Simon McElligott. The Company are well recognised for their approach to socially engaged arts practice and have a superb reputation across the North West for delivering high quality learning and engagement with a unique flair. TKP regularly engage with & are supported by leading northern organisations such as The Brewery Arts Centre, The Dukes, Big Imaginations and The Lowry.
Over the course of the next few months we're going to formulate a new business plan, discuss the relationship of the company with its principal stakeholders, and formulate a new programme of work to cover the next three years from July 2020. I'm looking forward to this new collaboration.
A big, big theatrical day! We went to see Humbug at the Edge Theatre in Chorlton, presented by The Booth Centre Theatre Company - a group of performers who have experience of being homeless, directed by Janine Waters, and supported by The Booth Centre, who do remarkable work within the city. It was glorious!
And thence back to Oldham Coliseum for a second visit to see Jack and the Beanstalk - this time as host of the annual Mancunian Big Gay Panto Outing - the annual pilgrimage of the Manchester Gays to the spiritual home of Pantomime, which has been a significant element of our festivities since 2010.
Another Press Night - this time for Gypsy at the Royal Exchange. Brilliantly performed and excellent production. However, I can't help but think what an utterly loathsome woman Gypsy Rose Lee's mother was who dominated and exploited her daughter. It makes me think that this was a strange choice for the subject of a musical and consequently isn't a particularly celebratory Christmas show.
Press Night for Jack and the Beanstalk at Oldham Coliseum. An annual event which I never miss that was utterly splendid! Directorial debut as Panto director for Chris Lawson, who has just taken over as Artistic Director.
It's behind you....
Oh No It Isn't!!!!
Mentor training day today for Arts Emergency. I've signed up to work with a young man called Josh, who is currently in the first year of sixth form and who wants to become an actor when he leaves college. Arts Emergency is an award-winning mentoring charity and network. Its mission is to help marginalised young people overcome barriers to participation and success in higher education and the creative and cultural industries. Comedian Josie Long and campaigner Neil Griffiths founded Arts Emergency in 2013 as a way to do something meaningful for the young people most affected by rising tuition fees and cuts to the arts. From a grassroots project in Hackney with eight students and a handful of volunteers, Arts Emergency is now a community of 7,000 professionals from the creative and cultural industries who have pledged to pass on opportunities and support to less privileged young people. Since it registered as a charity in 2013 it has provided expert mentors, work experience and free cultural activities to over 750 young people, with the vast majority going on to higher education, apprenticeships and employment in the cultural sector.
I get to meet with Josh monthly for the next year - it's really exciting!
The lovely people at CAN are seeking to employ a Company Administrator. Community Arts North West (CAN) is a leading national organisation in the field of participatory arts, migration and social change. CAN’s work aims to create expression and visibility for the diverse people and artists based in the region through dynamic partnerships and inspirational programmes of work. CAN is a National Portfolio Organisation of Arts Council England and a Manchester City Council Cultural Partner.
The closing date for applications is Friday 8th November 2019 - and here is the link.
An excellent trip to Hope Mill Theatre tonight to see their in-house production of Mame - a musical that was last performed professionally many years ago. It was marvellous - beautifully sung, sensitively directed and acted, with some especially exuberant hoofing. I DO NOT KNOW HOW THEY MANAGED TO GET SO MANY PEOPLE COORDINATED AND LOOKING GOOD ON SUCH A SMALL STAGE!!
“Life is a banquet, and most poor suckers are starving to death!” That’s the motto of Mame Dennis, one of musical theatre’s all-time greatest heroines, in this brassy, hilarious and touching adaptation of Patrick Dennis’s bestseller, Auntie Mame, starring critically acclaimed and two-time Olivier Award-winner Tracie Bennett as Mame.
It's playing until November 9 and is well worth a visit. See the link below for details of this and the rest of their programme.
A busy cultural day! Saw Neil Tennant being interviewed by Andrew McMillan at the Royal Northern College of Music this afternoon as he promoted his new book One Hundred Lyrics and a Poem, published by Faber.
Then off to The Edge in the evening to see the excellent Barb Jungr performing songs from her new album Bob, Brel and Me, a compilation of songs by Bob Dylan, Jacques Brel and Barb herself. An excellent night in a really warm and intimate venue, who are themselves celebrating their new bar license, making the Edge a really cool place to hang out...
Travelled to the Belgrade Theatre to see a matinee of Stardust, an ambitious piece of musical theatre made by Phizzical Productions. I've been working with them for several months now on their future business planning and on various funding applications. It was really good to actually see the work produced by this company, who "produce dynamic and joyful artistic experiences that respond to contemporary issues and are connected to world histories", and explore work that has resonance with South Asian communities and also with queer people. Really enjoyed the show, the music and dancing were spectacular.
Today I had the pleasure of participating in the walking tour of Isherwood's Berlin around Nollendorfplatz - the area in which Christopher Isherwood lived in the early 'thirties and which providers the inspiration for the play I am a Camera, which in turn led to the creation of Cabaret.
Starting and ending at Nollendorfplatz, this two-hour tour visited the neighbourhood the British writer lived in during his time in Berlin in the last years of the Weimar Republic and where he wrote his famous Berlin diaries. The walk includes readings from his novels and diaries and takes in the sights he wrote about and the cafes, bars and clubs he frequented. There is also a lot of pictorial reference material to see; the picture to the right shows two 'ladies' on the streets of Berlin in the '30s - you may notice a similarity between them and Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon in the Billy Wilder movie Some Like it Hot; Billy was a frequent visitor to Berlin at this time.
The house in which Isherwood lived still stands and so does the site of the Eldorado - the club that is called the Kit Kat Club in his writings and is itself a major star of the movie. The Eldorado was the premier queer nightspot in Berlin in the early '30s and was frequented by Isherwood, W.H Auden, Marlene Dietrich, and surprisingly leading Nazi Ernst Röhm! There is a fascinating article about the Eldorado here, written by Brendan Nash, who leads the tour; the photos here are all from Brendan's collection...
With the change in the political environment and the suppression of the queer, the Eldorado closed its doors in 1933 and its heterosexual Jewish owners fled with their children, eventually settling in Australia. The club became the local headquarters of the Nazis. You note that they didn't even take down the nightclub's signs....
Brendan Nash - the guy who takes the tour is extremely knowledgable and very friendly. If you're ever in Berlin on a Saturday, then go! You can find him at firstname.lastname@example.org and on twitter @Cabaret_Berlin.
A fascinating day with Highlights Rural Touring today interviewing the entire staff and some board members to facilitate discussions on the future development and the possible re-structuring of the organisation. I was extremely impressed by the commitment of the team to bringing high-quality work to small communities.
I'm in Cardiff for two reasons. This afternoon I'm meeting Richard Newton to talk about us collaborating on arts projects in the future. After that I'm off to participate in a choral festival for LGBTQ choirs, Hand in Hand; we're singing in St.David's Hall on Sunday, which I'm very much looking forward to!
I'm doing some mentoring/support for a small arts centre at the moment - I'm not going to say who - and I've a session with their Chief Executive-come-Artistic Director today to look at budgets and financial management. They are referring to their up-and-coming session with me as "Double Maths with David". Odd to instil such fear in another human being...
Nothing to do with work, but what a pleasure to sing with the marvellous Sunday Boys once again. This year our summer concert was at the Fairfield Social Club, just behind Picaddilly Station in Manchester. This is a converted railway arch underneath what was the track leading to the Mayfield depot - a difficult place to find, but a spectacularly cool setting and a superb accoustic. I think we sounded very good and it is always an opportunity to entertain, but also inform a mixed audience about the queer experience - not in a heavy way, but in good comradeship and in celebration.
This is our second performance in seven days, following on from our performance at the 2019 Manchester International Festival last Sunday.
Arts Council England consultation meeting today, asking practitioners and organisations about their proposed strategy for the ten years between 2020 and 2030. This is important stuff! If you have an interest in this, then please do have a look; ACE are keen to consult as wide as possible and it is really easy to comment on their strategy on-line.
And we're off again! Today is the first day of my third year of working for myself. So what better way of spending the day than working, once again at Oldham Coliseum Theatre. Yesterday marked two years to the day since I last set foot in the offices at the Theatre - today I was back, sitting at my old desk, helping the Coliseum claim Theatre Tax Credit for the last shows that I was involved with. Funny old world.....