Paddling hard below the surface

I was at the quarterly meeting of the Federation of Scottish Theatre yesterday and was both inspired and worried by all that I was hearing. This is a meeting which allows all those at the front-line of creative delivery to get below the surface and share the sheer struggle of paddling upstream and keeping on course when all the currents are going against us.  I jotted down the image of the swan –a graceful glorious being masking, below the waterline, the work needed to move across the surface seemingly effortlessly.

The FST is a mix of all scales of theatremakers, dance and opera companies. In England there are three separate membership organisations. Here we blend as one.  The room was a buzz of CEOs from the different major theatres across the Country, alongside small creative companies who are touring to theatres and studios, and making work with and for the communities.

I’m mainly a sole practitioner and so I have to balance the swan-like effortlessness of showing what I do to the world, seemingly busy and focussed on a direction of travel. I balance that with the knowledge that every email, knock-back, pitch, invoice, report, blog or message is coming from my two finger typing and nearby calculator, as I sit in my little room overlooking the beach.  The internet is a wonderful thing. I don’t need to be in London’s West End or Edinburgh centre in order to work with and for organisations there. I can juggle my time supporting producers in Kuala Lumpur and Beijing still at my desk. And I’m only a few miles from the airport and so getting over to meet theatremakers in Perm and Prague is not a problem.  Next month I will be based in Sydney and still coaching and working.   I can appear busy and financially sound, whilst wondering where the next £ is coming from. I am my own graceful-swan and paddling-webs below.

For many CEOs of arts organisations they have a different challenge to balance. They need to look successful, and offer a wide-reaching and attractive programme. They need to be warm-and-welcoming, giving the impression that the houses will be full (enough) to give a great buzzy atmosphere, and that workshops will be popular enough to ensure you book in advance. The marketing and press teams at a theatre ensure the “swan” is looking wonderful.  But at the same time the finance department, the Board that the CEO must answer to, and the many potential funders have to understand a different story. They have to see the sheer energy needed to keep afloat, they have to know that the direction of travel comes at a cost of exhausting hard work for everyone. It may look like a glide to the year-end and a break-even or small surplus, but it is tough.   Donors need to know that money is needed to make everything work, but still feel that they are being asked to support a successful venture. It is a tiring balancing act.

Alongside all this there are government reviews, endless funding body re-organisations, and local authority priority shifts which need to see the essential grace of the swan, and the challenging energy sap below the surface.  Each will be pulling a creative in different directions to make work which serves new and differing communities. Funders, sponsors, and donors love to see that they are helping to make a new initiative happen, taking us in a new direction, serving a new community.  At the same time neither the solo practitioner nor the national and major bodies want to abandon what they are already doing.  This is one of the most difficult challenges I experience.  The invitation to pitch for a new fund or inspire a new player, when what you really need is support in time, talent, and treasure to do what you already do…slightly better.  The phrase “doing less better” was an important part of the discussion, in order to “survive, thrive, flourish”. There was discussion about the “integrity of long-term engagement” to avoid “losing the learning”.

Now is a time for us all to look at models of best practice, and check that we are seeking to swim in the right direction. In Europe theatremakers tend to “take a longer time to create less work which lasts longer and reaches further” whilst here the “funding is weighted towards new and innovation”.

The day was rounded off with a great presentation of a new tool which is being made available to arts organisations across Scotland. Audience Finder is a tool which my old boss Jeremy Duchene of Select Ticketing Systems and I suggested, under a different name and with the help of floppy discs, to the Arts Council/SOLT/TMA 23 years ago. They none of them could understand the simplicity of what we and Experian were suggesting.  A generation later, new people came forward under the banner of the Audience Agency and got the funding needed to create the big-data which we were suggesting back in 1995.  I am delighted the idea is now reality, but blimey I so so wish that the three men across the desk from us at the offices of the Society of London Theatre had got our very simple vision back then. Hey ho.

Over the next few years this tool will help to illuminate even more about those who participate and consume the creative work which we all make. It will show who theatres are reaching, and even more importantly it will show “who’s not in the room”.  This was part of a shared determination from all those who were in the room: To strive to make the theatres, the staff, the volunteers, the board, the artists, the creatives, and therefore the audience and participants reflective of the whole community which that venue/organisation is there to serve.  

I was surrounded by inspiring passionate creatives yesterday. The mix of scales and creative ambitions enriched the discussion. Each person learning from people they don’t know, and re-connecting to make work and ideas with people they do know.   We know the arts can do good, we know we can make a difference to people’s lives. We know that developing the next generation of creative being at school, university, in apprenticeships, and through experiencial opportunities, is the way to enrich life skills.  I will get my webbed feet paddling even harder.

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