Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Devoted and Disgruntled Roadshow - Bristol Reflections

The Bike Shed Theatre's Artistic Director, David Lockwood, offers his reflections on one of three South West stops on the D&D Roadshow.

We trundled up the motorway from Exeter’s Bike Shed Theatre and Kaleider at the end of June for the bright artistic lights of Bristol and the Tobacco Factory Theatre. This promised land is often talked about in Devon. What can we learn? How can we be more like it? Or should we be forging our own route?

Devoted and Disgruntled is an open space event for discussion by those who love theatre and wish it was better. For a city with a thriving theatrical scene, you’d assume Bristolians love theatre. Yet at the event on the last weekend of June, half of the forty-odd people attending came from outside the city. The reason? Bristol is sorted. Surely.

This seemed to be the consensus: Bristol is used to these sorts of discussions, a lot of artists are out making work (the event unfortunately coincided with the Up To Nature festival in Gloucestershire), there is a lot of devotion and not much disgruntlement. This is one interpretation.

But I think there is another.

Playwrights were a bit thin on the ground. It was wonderful to meet Martin Lytton from Cheltenham – a member of the industrious Everyman Writers’ Lab – and to see the ever-delightful Gill Kirk from Bath. We sat together in a conversation about political theatre, which touched on the ideas of whether it was acceptable to depress people when their budgets are already being squeezed. Saturday’s conversation was dominated with questions like this, darting around the issues, aiming to tackle timely subjects, such as artists not getting paid whilst others in the arts do. This is old news for the playwright, most of whom rarely get paid for their work. 

And then Sunday came round. A discussion about balancing permanence (buildings) and creativity (companies) drifted - via starlings - to the writer as collaborator and the initial devisor in a longer process. For Shakespeare, this goes back 400 years. For Martin Lytton and Gill Kirk, it may only be a few months. The age of the writer sat at their typewriter creating a masterpiece in which a comma may not be removed seems over. The argument put forward was that this period was a blip in a longer history of greater collaboration. 

I like this idea. I like having the writer in the room when I direct their plays. I like being able to ask them questions about their work. And I value their input in the realisation of the production. But Sunday’s conversation concerned me.

I worry that some writers feel excluded from the creation of theatre these days. There may appear to be a club in which theatre-makers get together and create things whilst writers send scripts to the Bristol Old Vic, Royal Court and Soho, receiving replies saying ‘thanks but...’. So the theatre-makers go to a Devoted and Disgruntled event, whilst the writers stay at home tweaking their covering letters.

Another conversation over the weekend: do titles matter? In recent years, theatre-makers in this country have had portfolio careers. The age of expecting an actor just to act, a director to direct, seems to be drawing to a close. And maybe we should expect writers to be more part of the process and less on the outside.

The risk, of course, is a confused mush, a jack-of-all-trades industry where the skilled writer is so busy making costumes and focusing the lights that they’re not fine-tuning the dialogue. But then, Shakespeare was also an actor and part-owner of his theatre.

One of the few rules of open space is ‘whoever comes are the right people’. I had two conversations in the evening of Saturday. One was with Annette Chown (actor, blogger, playwright) and one with Shaun McCarthy (playwright). One of them was at the open space, one wasn’t. One was devoted, one was disgruntled. You can’t change things if you’re not part of the conversation. Maybe the invitation needed to be more open. And, to get the best theatre, that invitation needs to be accepted.

As I trundle back down the motorway to Exeter, mentally exhausted from the discussions, physically exhausted from Shaun McCarthy’s hospitality, I’m left with this thought. In some ways, Bristol is sorted. In others, it is not. But it has set certain things in stone which are hard to break. Exeter isn’t sorted.

To borrow from Tony Blair (sorry): “The kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux. Soon they will settle again. Before they do, let us reorder this world around us.” What should we do differently in Exeter? And how can we include writers in this process?

Exeter is hosting an open space as part of Devoted & Disgruntled’s roadshow on the 1st and 2nd September. Writers are welcome.

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