I am tired of the sound of my own voice

Presentation at Federation of Scottish Theatre Meeting, Edinburgh,7 December 2016

I am tired of the sound of my own voice.

I am tired of having to point out that women make up 52% of the population and are therefore not a minority.

I am tired of saying what I have been saying since the days of the Labour Party’s campaign, Women in the Arts in 1980s: this is not only about jobs and equality but also about how who we are and how we see ourselves. It’s about feminism.

I am tired of being told that the fight is over when we see one woman being appointed in a key leadership role. Like everyone else I welcome Jackie Wylie’s appointment on many levels, but it is still the case that women lead only a minority of our theatres.

I am tired of hearing about the first second, third and even fourth waves of feminism. I have frequently used the aphorism, ‘feminism is like housework: you have to re-visit it every 10 years’. But it is not true. Coming as I do from a long line of Lanarkshire housewives, I know that housework is a daily task – as is feminism.

I am tired of being told that the issue is not about gender – so ‘last millennium’ – but the issue of the day is ethnic diversity, or it’s about disability or age – as if there is some kind of hierarchy of protected characteristics and black women, old women or women with disabilities can be ignored because of their gender.

I am tired of being talked to about gay rights when what is meant is male gay rights. As a lesbian I find this a tad patronising.

I am tired of being reminded that gender is not a binary concept when what this actually means is that women, not men, can be ignored again because we now rightly acknowledge that gender is more complex than previously understood.

I am tired of seeing shows which are not only written by men with a majority male cast – common in ‘classics from the canon’ – but are directed by men and the whole creative team is male (director, designer, lighting designer, composer, sound designer etc). I am so tired of this that I have resolved not to go to any more productions that do not include women in the creative team – even if the tickets are free. You know who you are.

I am tired of being told that ‘we only want the best talent for the job’. I acknowledge there is always a need for support for development programmes across the arts, but please don’t tell me that we have a problem for women in theatre. There is plenty of talent out there.

I am tired of being lectured to about the irrelevance of data when what is implied is a fear of data that might tell a critical story. In the report on creative roles in theatre Where are the Women we made it very clear that data are a starting point – not the whole story. Here’s what the data tell us:

In 2014/15, in 24 Scottish publically funded theatres covering 1,698 roles:

  • 39% of creative roles across all categories went to women.
  • 38% of theatre companies had women in artistic leadership roles.
  • 4 out of 24 theatre companies were artistically led solely by women.
  • Women were cast in 46% of the 811 roles.
  • Women made up 47% of directors of shows.
  • Women wrote 39% of the plays.
  • 29% of set and costume designers and 6% of lighting designers were women.
  • Women made up 11% of composers, musical directors and sound designers.

It tells us that in some roles – acting, directing and writing the % of women is around 40% and suggests it would not take much to push to 50:50 – and that is down to you — theatre companies themselves. It tells us that, in contrast, in set and costume design, music and sound the figures are dire and – here’s just one suggestion- perhaps we need a programme of development with colleges and universities or a series of funded apprenticeships.

What is does not tells us is if 2014/15 was an unusual year – we only get that through a regular gathering of data.

Nor does it tell us who got the bigger acting roles – men or women; if the assistant directors included in the director category were truly there to assist in the directing or just make the tea. This research does not tell us how big the commissions were for women – although I can tell from other research that the longer the show and ergo the bigger the commission, the more likely it is to go to a man.

I am tired of asserting that data are an important starting point. Don’t take my word for it:

‘If our aim is to reflect the country we live in, we do need numbers in order to measure our progress against that. But it has to be an absolutely robust and authentic part of everything we do.’ Rufus Norris

The report also does not tell us which theatre companies achieved or were close to achieving gender balance. But I will tell you now that the Traverse, Dundee Rep, A Play, A Pie and A Pint and of course Stellar Quines were amongst some of the top performers in achieving gender balance- all run solely or jointly by a woman that year.

I am tired of the suggestion that programming a diversity of work across a season somehow removes the creativity required to run a theatre company and reduces it to tick box. I have talked to artistic directors who have been clear how a process of looking at balance across the season opens up possibilities. But here is Rufus Norris again on the record.

‘We are changing the way we programme at the NT so that diversity is actively considered at the start of the creative process. And in that case it can be helpful to look at, say, the number of female writers – it gives you the lay of the land, the shape of a season, in quite a stark way. But this isn’t about trying to make everyone aspire to a certain kind of work or checkboxes; it is about enabling those from all different disciplines, backgrounds and experiences to tell the stories they want to tell.’

I tired of pointing out how research into women in theatre was done voluntarily by those working in theatre who were keen to help. Imagine a young playwright in front of the fire wearing her Christmas pyjamas counting (and checking) figures from 6 plays produced by one of our funded theatre – that’s what this project was about and if she can do it- so can you. How hard is it?

Time to move from warm words to action; time to move from being told what to do and to take up a leadership role.

Collect data, analyze, contextualize, publish and work on making it all better.

Because I am tired of sitting in meetings where I am told that you won’t cooperate with data gathering when I know that is not true. What you resent is gathering data and other impact information, doing fine reports only to have this work at best ignored and at worst not even read.

You are also tired, as I am, filling in pointless feedback forms or surveys which tell us nothing or worse still are used to concoct an overblown claim for the arts which fits just nicely into this post-truth world.

I am so tired of going through these arguments in my head and asking again and again is what I am suggesting so outlandish?

I am tired of being nice when I want to be the young woman in Julia Taudivin’s Blow Off, stuff my bra full of dynamite, strut up, say, Princes Street and blow myself up from the top floor of a glass fronted building in the middle of the night. Not an act of terrorism but a howl of anguish and despair at patriarchy and our acceptance of the unacceptable.

I am tired of being told I am obsessive, or eccentric when what I am is fucking angry.

I am tired of the sound of my own voice.

Beware false prophets

The front-page splash on Saturday’s Herald was about impending cuts to public expenditure and the possible impact this could have on the arts in Scotland. Richard Findlay, Chair of Creative Scotland is raising the alarm and warning the Scottish Government and the arts world about the devastating affect these cut will have. Findlay and Creative Scotland should be congratulated for taking a lead in influencing the government and advocating for the arts.

The justification for arts funding is familiar and in summary is a. the arts don’t cost very much as a proportion of public expenditure; b. the sector employs lots of people for that money; c. their turnover runs to billions; d. the arts are good for our economy.   Given that one of the key priorities of the Scottish Government is economic growth, it is understandable why Creative Scotland is making the economic case.

However I would argue that it is not the arts’ strongest suit. First the numbers are a bit slippery. Findlay asserts that Creative Scotland supports 118 regularly funded organisations (although later in the article this figure becomes 121) and these organisations employ a total of 8,000 people. This averages 68 people per organisation. Even a cursory knowledge of the arts in Scotland suggests this is inflated- presumably by including freelance and contract artists- who are not employees and not on 12 month full time contracts. Perhaps more concerning is the conflation ‘arts and creative industries’- where 71,000 people work and these businesses turnover £5.75 billion. What the article does not say is that the creative industries include areas such as advertising, architecture, computer games, radio and TV, heritage, software/electronic publishing- all of which fall outside Creative Scotland’s remit[1]– indeed most businesses in these areas are not supported by the cultural budget at all. Perhaps it is unfair to be picky about figures quoted in a short article, but if the argument is to be made on numbers the numbers have to be clear and consistent. [2]

Second, while the arts have got a role to play in Scotland’s economy, it is hardly their raison d’être. Their role in tourism and image making is pretty clear – see the Edinburgh festivals — and Ministers regard the arts as being important in supporting Scotland’s image abroad. It is not unusual for the arts to be part of the soft diplomacy of a country, region or city. However outside these areas, arts organisations supported by Creative Scotland do not in and of themselves generate a large economic return. If people of Glasgow, for example, are spending their money in the theatre, they are not spending it in other wealth generating areas.

As we move closer to the big reckoning we are going to hear more of this. If not the case for economic impact, it will be the impact on health and education. Like the economy, the arts have a role to play in those areas too. There are examples of engagement in the arts affecting mood in those suffering from depression, or providing a therapeutic support for those with Alzheimer’s or well-designed hospitals aiding healing process. However there is a lack of robust evidence that the arts are good for your health and well-being. There is also an argument to be made in the role of the arts in schools being stimulation to learning concentration and confidence. But there are other activities and actions that can aid health and well-being or raise educational standards.   The Big Noise in Raploch has had an enormous affect on the youngsters participating in music-making. Elsewhere in Stirling a primary school has used sport and exercise to improve the health as well as the concentration of its pupils. Both these projects are excellent and in their own way support the development of the next generation. The arts do not have the monopoly on good ideas and effective interventions.

So while arts organisations should be demonstrating how they are contributing to local economic development or linking with schools, or working with people with disabilities or combatting isolation of the elderly, or supporting the refugee community as they learn about life in Scotland, the case for arts funding will not be won by claiming that the arts can solve society’s ills nor that they can be instruments in socio-economic development.[3]

So where should the arts be staking their claim? In entertainment, enlightenment and provocation; by exploring ‘who we are and how we carry ourselves’[4]. In 2000, I co-authored an article that examined the place of the arts at the start of devolution. We said about the place of the arts in the pre-devolution era[5]:

‘The impression is that in the dark days of 1980s and 1990s, when the devolution cause was nurtured in Scotland by a growing band of Scottish politicians, community leaders, churchmen and trade unionists, it was Scotland’s cultural community that kept the flame alight and warmed the spirits. It was the poet who articulated our national identity as both nostalgic and radical; it was the film maker who presented Scotland in all its beauty and quirky nature to the wider world; it was the singer who told of Scotland’s industrial devastation at the hands of an uncaring Westminster government; it was the fine artist who made us look at ourselves and our cities in a new ‘cool’ way. In these ways Scotland’s artists defined us for ourselves and re-defined our place in the world as a nation capable of at least being able to run our own domestic affairs.’

If the arts had a role in the 1980s and 1990s in how we saw ourselves, they moved nearer to centre stage last year during the referendum campaign– not only with campaigning, although some did- but in exploring ideas of cultural and civic identity and imagining a better Scotland regardless of the constitutional position.  Artists challenged ideas and images of the place we occupy in the world today. Or, to put it another way:

‘Fostering our sense of belonging by supporting and promoting cultural and creative opportunities, events, festivals and the celebration of key dates in the Scottish calendar.’ -from The Scottish Government’s National Outcomes

After the Charlie Hebdo atrocities, sales of the books of Voltaire, Montesquieu and other authors of the French enlightenment soared, in reaction to an attack on free speech. The recent attacks in Paris have led to another literary phenomenon – this time copies of Paris est une fête have sold out. Known better by its English title, A Moveable Feast, it is a memoir by Hemingway of his time in Paris in the 1920s. It is being read today as an assertion of Parisian identity and French values. The author says in his introduction:

‘If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as a fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.’

Surely this is the place of the arts and the role of the artist – to throw a light on ‘the fact’?  It’s not about the economy.

 

[1] http://www.creativescotland.com/resources/our-publications/plans-and-strategy-documents/creative-industries-strategy-2015-17 (p24)

[2] Mark Brown wrote a letter to the Cabinet Secretary, Fiona Hyslop criticizing Creative Scotland’s Creative Industries strategy. Re-printed in the Sunday Herald 15 November 2015 https://scottishstage.wordpress.com

[3] This is not just an issue for us in Scotland. Last month I was at a gathering of the European Cultural Parliament where there was a great deal of discussion about the current crisis facing Europe with the arrival of thousands of migrants (this was pre Paris). That was until a Greek delegate pointed out that culture could not prevent the deaths in the Mediterranean and Aegean nor could it solve the problem refugees landing in Lesbos or Lampedusa. There is a humanitarian crisis that demands a humanitarian solution. The arts cannot intervene where we have no real role.

[4] From the speech of the First Minister Donald Dewar MP, MSP at the opening of the Scottish Parliament, 1 July 1999.

[5] Cultural policy and Scotland: a response to the National Cultural Strategy, co-authored with Adrienne Scullion, Scottish Affairs 39 (spring, 2002): 131-48.

 

 

Women’s Cultural Heritage Day 19 September

Midi-Minuit du Matrimoine – Women’s Cultural Heritage Marathon

A major event to celebrate the first ever International Women’s Cultural Heritage Day – La journée internationale du matrimoine – is being held
on 19 September 2015 in the Place du Palais-Royal in Paris, from Noon to Midnight, to raise the profile of creative women in the past and their work.

If you would like to contribute to showcasing a female author, composer, singer, choreographer, filmmaker, etc. who is no longer living (through a slam, reading, performance, dance, music, poetry, architecture, drama, visual arts, philosophy), send us your proposal.

Together let’s turn the spotlight on the hidden [female] face of our cultural heritage!

For proposals and all information about the event, contact:

midiminuitdumatrimoine@gmail.com

This event is supported by

Mouvement HF for gender equality in the arts and culture, Osez le Féminisme!, Genre et Ville, la CLEF (Coordination française pour le Lobby Européen des Femmes), le LEF (Lobby Européen des Femmes), Le Deuxième Regard, le collectif Georgette Sand, Prenons La Une, les Voix Rebelles, le comité Métallos, La Barbe, le Réseau Féministe Ruptures, la Maison des Femmes de Montreuil, Clasicas Y MODERNAS (Espagne), Projecte Vaca (Espagne), Mujeres en las artes visuales (Espagne) & 50/50 le magazine de l’égalité femmes/hommes, etc.
On Facebook : https://www.facebook.com/midiminuitdumatrimoine?fref=ts

#MidiMinuitduMatrimoine

Diversity on Boards

Creative Scotland has advertised for board member(s) and a discussion has been taking place on FaceBook about whether or not board members should be paid and how they should be selected.  Several suggestions have been made about how to reform the process.  Here are some thoughts:

What is the problem to which we are seeking a solution? Is it that the board of Creative Scotland (CS) is not diverse enough (helps if you are male, over 50, live in Edinburgh, work in the finance sector, and are a keen attender at arts events during the festival but never actually worked in an arts organisation)? Is it that the barrier to greater engagement by artists and others from the sector is due to lack of remuneration or is it lack of confidence or even lack of experience?

My own view is that the rules/process for appointing board members are already in place to ensure diversity. It’s just that they are not being applied particularly rigorously. Since Nolan (Lord not the sisters), public appointments DO have to go through a process- call it a job application, a tender or even response to a potential commission. It’s all about saying who you are and what you can bring. The problem is that the way in which the rules are applied appears not to be very rigorous. And my suspicion is that in part this comes down to leadership – political leadership even. When it comes to Govt appointments—like the Chair of CS- too often in my view the civil servants encourage the ‘safe option’. On the other hand an overtly political appointment is to be deplored too. Bet there were lots of retiring Tory MPs getting appointed to paid quango chair positions in the last few months. As ever we have a chance for it to be better here. Before our FM went off to win hearts and minds in rUK, she made a very important point about diversity on boards (and I think it is in the SNP manifesto). So maybe some hope as CS follows the political lead.

However this debate started with the advert for board members – not the Chair and but these are also public appointments managed by the civil service.   Is it really the case that artists are not putting themselves forward because they would not be paid? Assuming all reasonable expenses are met – including child care- is attending 6 meetings a year a real issue for practising artists in terms of time? If it is, then yes let’s ask CS to consider setting a ‘loss of earnings’ amount and/or meet actual loss of earnings if they can be demonstrated. Can’t imagine that would break the bank. And in my experience folk who are earning will claim out of pocket expenses but not cheat – and those ‘too-rich-to- work’ will not claim because they see it as part of their civic duty.

Of course being a board member of CS should go beyond this and you should attend events/shows/exhibition locally but again most who work in the arts do this anyway (I assume either comps offered or tickets reimbursed).

The other option is to look and see what other organisation pay their board members but here we are getting in some cases into the several hundred £s a day attendance and to be honest I for one would prefer to see the money go into making work. This is OUR sector and to an extent we should take responsibility for it and work within its limits and capacity. Like academics who do not get any more money for peer reviewing articles or attending long meetings to decide who will get the research money, there is an element of doing it for the good of the sector and the standard of the work (don’t get me wrong, I know academics are paid a salary but this work is over and above teaching, research and admin- and believe me they moan about those areas but rarely about peer-review work).

Is it the case that artists are not applying to be board members? Do they think it is not for the likes of us? Given the current advert is specifically about members with finance experience, I suspect they are right to think that. But more broadly, do they feel they are not sufficiently skilled? Is that down to how the adverts are framed or is is more to do with not wanting to sit through boring meetings? Or, heaven forfend, have they witnessed boards of arts organisations demonstrate a complete lack of diligence and skill, and want to be no part of a board as a result?

So I suppose I am saying if we want more diverse membership on CS board, there needs to be a clear message saying ‘artists welcome’; a reasonable loss of earnings amount offered for freelancers; out of pocket expenses reimbursed. We should encourage this engagement as part of a broader desire to see good decisions and good work. Over an above this, we need to really start taking seriously the role of boards cross all arts organisations. I have seen some shockers – and some good ones- but mainly the former. Good well-functioning boards are good ‘feeding grounds’ for larger bodies like CS- and also good for the sector.

 

For readers in the rest of the UK

Here is a link to an article I wrote in the run up to the Scottish referendum in September 2014 on the role the arts and artists were playing in the debate.  This article was published in Arts Professional on 17 July 2014.

I was also asked to do a similar piece for Stratagem, a consultancy based in Northern Ireland as part of a wide series of articles on Scotland and the referendum for an audience in Northern Ireland and the Republic.

 

 

Flagging national flagship: the role of the politician

On the face of it, there is little connection between the Théâtre National de Nice and Scottish Opera but while their raison d’etre and repertoire may diverge (as the French might say), there are interesting parallels in current stooshies which are affecting both.

First, Scottish Opera which has been plunged into crisis by the swift departure of its Musical Director Emmanuel Joel-Hornak after only 58 days.  It is supposed this came about when Joel-Hornak discovered he did not enjoy the artistic freedom he assumed was due to a musical director of an opera company and found himself restricted by a powerful general manager.  I say ‘supposed’ because there has been a refusal from Joel-Hornak and Scottish Opera to make any comment beyond the announcement. Considering the level of public money that is given to the company every year, this silence has raised eyebrows.

Whatever the problem, what is not in doubt is that both the board of Scottish Opera and crucially the Scottish Government has responsibility to sort this out.  As an organisation directly funded by the Government the Cabinet Secretary has to take this one on herself.  This is not, as a Scottish Government spokesperson claimed,  ‘operational matters for Scottish Opera.’ The cancellation through illness of an appearance of a soloist is an operational matter.  The resignation of the musical director because of artistic differences, is an artistic crisis.

So where does the link come with the Théâtre National de Nice?  The French Ministry of Culture recently agreed a new set of regulations for those running national institutions (of which this theatre is one).  In essence, no one is permitted to do more than three terms of office as artistic leader of these institutions.  Interesting idea that presumably has been introduced to ensure regular refreshing of the artistic approach and has the effect of allowing younger, different leadership.  Whatever the motivation, the fact is that Daniel Benoin at Nice has been in charge for four terms (twelve years) and it is time to move on.  However he has a powerful ally in the Mayor of Nice who has been involved in a stand off (describe in the French press as ‘arm-wrestling’) with the Ministry of Culture insisting that Benoin continue and rejecting any suggestion that a new director be appointed.

This resulted in a letter being sent from Aurelie Filippetti, Minster of Culture that stated her case in no uncertain terms.  For those who read French, I re-produce in the original.  It’s a corker:

Dans l’éventualité où vous confirmeriez votre souhait de ne pas respecter les règles propres aux centres dramatiques nationaux, je vous informe que je serai amenée à étudier concrètement la possibilité de retirer le label de Centre Dramatique National au Théâtre National de Nice, et, de procéder au désengagement financier de l’État.

In essence:  follow the rules or I will strip from you the title of a national centre and I will cut your state money.

So what’s the parallel with Scottish Opera?  It is this:  the Scottish Government, and specifically the Cabinet Secretary has the power and the responsibility to intervene.  For the most part, direct state funding of the national companies, galleries and museums brings with it positive headlines and a warm glow to Ministers.  This is the other side – the crisis when political leadership is necessary.  There is no shortage of advice around (and some very good historical material: Scottish Opera has been the subject of consultancies and reports every few years over the last few decades) but whatever is decided, there has to be some evidence that the Government, working with the board, is getting to grips with the problems that currently beset the company.

And a final word on Nice.  The new artistic director, due to take over 1 January 2014, is the French-born British actor and director, Irina Brook, who, incidentally fulfils another of Filipetti’s commitments – to increase the number of women in charge of French cultural institutions.

 

 

WARNING: Research can be bad for your health

I want to draw your attention to a new piece of research commissioned by the Scottish government which offers definitive evidence for the first time that cultural engagement is having a positive impact on the nation’s health and life satisfaction.  Janet Archer, CEO, Creative Scotland, in an address to FST/ITC Reception, 20 August 2013, Edinburgh.

I was there, unhealthily sipping my wine, when I heard Janet Archer mention this new piece research in her speech and immediately my interest was piqued.   When I was Director Centre for Cultural Policy Research (CCPR), at the University of Glasgow, we were commissioned by the (then) Scottish Executive to find the evidence of the link between arts and sports participation and quality of life and well-being.  From this we were asked to develop indicators which could be used to evaluate the effectiveness of a culture or sport intervention. Susan Galloway at CCPR reviewed the extensive literature on well-being and quality of life and we worked with Professor David Bell, an economist from Stirling University who examined the economic literature on subjective well-being.

Quality of Life and Well-being: Measuring the Benefits of Culture and Sport: Literature Review and Think-piece was published by the Scottish Executive in 2006.   In this we concluded:

‘The central issue for cultural social impact research remains the lack of both empirical evidence, and the lack of a theoretical basis with which to support the claims about the impact of cultural participation.’ (p.42)

In summary, we found that there is no evidence of a link between participation in the arts and sport and quality of life and well-being.  This does not mean that there is not one, but there is no evidence.  Moreover there are challenges in researching this area –mainly around issues of definition. What exactly is quality of life and well-being?  We concluded:

‘What this review tells us, however, is that, in the wider policy literature relating to quality of life and well-being, there is no clear definition of terms and that, the absence of such, leads to a lack of clarity in the policy focus. This, in turn, leads to a ‘back to front’ approach to enhancing quality of life and well-being in communities and for individuals: what can be measured is measured, and what is measured drives the policy. The development of new ways of measuring tends to focus on the quantitative with qualitative measures focusing on satisfaction surveys. Anything even attempting a comprehensive approach to measuring the impact on quality of life can lead to unwieldy data sets. ‘(p. 145)

This is a chunky piece of research and my summary does not do it full justice but essentially it flagged up for researchers and policy makers questions which need to be addressed when looking at the relationship between arts and sport and quality of life and well-being.  So when I heard about this new research I was intrigued to find out how they had tackled the problem of definition, methodological questions around qualitative and quantitative approaches, the issue of large datasets and what evidence was being presented.

This new piece of research, published by the Scottish Government, Healthy Attendance? The Impact of Cultural Engagement and Sports Participation on Health and Satisfaction with Life in Scotland uses the Scottish Household Survey as its data source.  Since 2009 this survey has contained questions on cultural and sports participation and on life satisfaction and self-assessed health.  The researchers analysed data from both of these to reach the conclusion that,  ‘those who participate in culture and sport or attend cultural places or events are more likely to report that their health is good and they are satisfied with their life than those who do not participate.’ (p. 5)

In our research in 2006 we said something similar:

‘In as much as culture and sport is seen to have a role in enhancing quality of life […] it appears consistently […] as one of the indicators and descriptors used in domains encompassing subjective well-being, expressed as satisfaction with life as a whole, and social inclusion/social well-being/social relationships.’  (p.137)

So in the area of ‘subjective well-being’ we too found a link. We go on:

‘This is perhaps not unexpected as it is often assumed that participation in culture and sport has a positive impact on aspects of quality of life as it relates to social inclusion. The academic literature suggests, at best, an association rather than a causal link between these. ‘(my italics) (p. 155)  And finally we are more blunt, ‘While the evidence suggests an association between cultural and sports participation and an improved quality of life, there is no evidence of a causal relationship between the two.’ (p. 155)

But then neither does this latest research claim cultural participation or attendance is the cause of good health.  Specifically they state: ‘Being cross-sectional, this study cannot determine causal relationships.’ (p. 17).  Throughout the researchers are careful to point to an association between participation and attendance in culture and sport- not that one leads to another.

What does this mean?

First, this is not the ‘definitive evidence’ policy-makers claim. We might look for associations between other activity and health benefits – for example being part of a religious group, being a volunteer in a hospital or working with refugees, having an allotment – and a myriad of other activities which are part of our social capital. Making a claim for a casual link between the health of our nation and engagement in culture is, frankly, spin.  Echoing this point, Tiffany Jenkins in the Scotsman pointed out that some art might have the opposite effect and ‘culture was not the solution to our health problems’.

And surely we have moved beyond this attempt to account for cultural spend because of non-cultural outcomes?  After all what was the Talbot Rice Gallery speech by Fiona Hyslop all about if it wasn’t underlining the importance of the arts and heritage to ‘our heart, our soul, our essence’?

But the real lesson from this research is to be found there in the Introduction:

‘Sports participation and cultural engagement levels are highest in the highest household income groups in Scotland and decline to be lowest in the lowest household income groups. Similarly, adult participation in cultural and sporting activities varies by area deprivation, with participation increasing as area deprivation decreases.’ (p. 7)

What that tells us is that not only does high deprivation bring with it poor health (which we already know from epidemiological studies in Scotland), but it also brings a reduced participation in arts and sport.  Surely this is all the evidence we need to know that more work has to be done to bridge the gap between those who have all and those who have none?  Let’s move away from making exaggerated claims for the benefit of cultural participation and attendance and focus on what really matters – creating greater access to all for all.

 

 

 

 

 

Stands Scotland where it did? : Work in progress

Paper presented at the Theatre and Performance Research Association (TaPRA) conference at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland, Glasgow on 4 September 2013, with fine assistance from actor Stuart Hepburn1.

If Scotland had a Facebook profile then its relationship status would be ‘it’s complicated’.

First there is our relationship with England and our role within the UK:  when it suits, you can hear the girning and moaning about being oppressed while our history shows us to have been a willing partner in imperial ventures; or what about Scotland’s role in the recent financial crisis when the banks which bore its name nearly brought the economic systems crashing? Then there are our close ties in family, language and culture while constantly banging on about being different.

Scotland also has a complicated relationship with the rest of the world – striving to be a kind of celtic Borgen with a modest yet influential role while all the time basking in the glory of being part of one of the world’s most powerful nations; presenting a profile which is modern, enlightened, inventive, a land of discovery –while marching along 6th Avenue once a year in tartan hoping to attract those tourist dollars to the shores.

But Scotland’s most tricky relationship is with itself.

There are many examples of Scottish art which have dealt with the binary nature of Scottish identity – the rural v urban, Highlander v Lowlander, Jacobite v Hanovarian, poor v rich, newcomer v native, catholic v protestant, romantic v rationalist, enlightenment v fundamentalism but I have chosen a piece of 19th century fiction and a piece of theatre it inspired to illustrate the artist’s response to Scotland and to its split personality.

It is possible that even in this well read audience many of you will not have read nor even heard of James Hogg’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner. Or to give it its full title: The Private Memoirs and Confessions of a Justified Sinner: Written by Himself: With a detail of curious traditionary facts and other evidence by the editor.  Unlike the great classic Scottish novelists Walter Scott and Robert Louis Stevenson, Hogg and his work are relatively unknown.  A contemporary of Scott, he too lived in the Scottish Borders where he worked as a shepherd, educated himself and went on to write both poetry and novels.

Published anonymously in 1824, Confessions was presented as if it were a found document dating from early in the previous century.   It is offered to the public with a long introduction by its unnamed editor. It purports to be the memoirs of Robert Wringhim from the Scottish Borders, who falls under the influence of a stranger Gil-Martin. Wringham believes in predestination– a Calvinist doctrine in which a place in heaven is secured regardless of actions in life.  He commits several crimes including the murder of his brother, and descends into madness but not before confessing all in the document that is ‘discovered’ after his death.

The central part of the book is the confession preceded by a long introduction by the editor and the story of Wringham’s decline and fall is in effect, told twice in sometimes contradictory terms. The final section is an explanation by the editor of how the confession was discovered. Throughout the book, Gil- Martin, the stranger, exerts greater and greater influence over Wringham and appears to be able to change shape and identity.  It is left to the reader to decide whether Gil-Martin is the devil, a figment of the protagonist’s imagination or in fact a representation of his spilt personality.

It is part-psychological thriller, part-crime novel, set in Scotland with accurate geographical references but at the same time inhabits a gothic world of horror and fantasy. It deals with madness, the supernatural and religious intolerance and is considered to be the inspiration for Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

The principal actions of the novel take place, as I said, in the very early 18th century around the time of the Union in 1707.  It can be read as a metaphor for Scotland itself and its struggle to resolve the schism in its own identity.  Perhaps it is for this reason it has provided the basis for film, opera and theatre adaptations—few which have been realised and of those, not all successful.

Earlier this year, Untitled Projects, in collaboration with the National Theatre of Scotland, undertook the task of meticulously re-creating an earlier attempt at staging the work by the late Paul Bright, a theatre-maker working here at the end of the 20th century and who died in Paris in his 40s.  Under the title Paul Bright’s Confessions of a Justified Sinner, this production takes the form of a carefully researched and re-created archive, and an illustrated talk by the actor George Anton, one of Bright’s collaborators, with archive footage and contemporary filmed interviews with people who knew or worked with Bright— Tim Crouch, Annie Griffen, Giles Havergal, Katie Mitchell, Alison Peebles and Di Robson.

It tells the story of Bright’s attempts to stage the work in various site specific and theatre settings including an episode on Arthur’s seat in Edinburgh and Traquair House in the Scottish Borders as well as a disastrous production at the Edinburgh International Festival.

The critical response to this re-creation was overwhelmingly positive:  beautifully written by Pamela Carter, exquisitely realised by Stewart Laing, and passionately performed by George Anton.  However what did concern some of the critics was the idea that they were part of a hoax – a new take on the unreliable narrator. It was not what it seemed and did it, in the end, cheat?   For Paul Bright never existed.

The production is an exploration of the complexities of the split personality presented in extreme terms. And above all it is the way the artist lies to get at the truth.

To quote George Anton in the play:

‘I knew I wanted to be an actor from about the age of eight. I remember it very clearly … watching a film with my dad… a Truffaut film … ‘the 400 blows’. I remember very clearly watching this scene where this boy was lying to a person in authority … and I had this sort of revelation … this kid’s lying and getting away with it … I get it, he’s acting, that’s what acting is … lying and getting away with it. Imagine being able to do that for a job?’

And here he is quoting Paul Bright:

‘what is the artist if not a shaman … a seer … how else will I alter states if I can’t alter my own state and release what is buried within me … the real, the truth’.

As Scotland again faces up to an uncertain constitutional future which turns a spotlight on its inherent contradictions, here is one response to the current debate on independence and cultural identity – a play about a play that never existed based on a discovered and edited narrative which purports to be a true story, and which was itself a hoax.

Paul Bright’s Confessions is also about how theatre is made and how it works. Specifically how it can destroy those who believe in their own genius and indestructability.  It is, to quote the brief for this talk, ‘the re-creating of mental and imaginary landscapes of theatre and performance-making’.  But it is also about how theatre was made in the 1980s and exposes the differences between the pre and post devolution theatre in Scotland.

Katie Mitchell, English theatre director, in the interview for Paul Bright’s Confessions says:

‘It was difficult in the late ‘80s starting out as a director … it was the latter stages of Thatcher’s regime and we all felt very much on the outside and at that time the mainstream was pitted against the fringe. I think we all felt that maybe at that time there was a possibility to make a change to create a different mainstream culture. I think we thought that was a fight we hoped to win, but most of my generation didn’t get near to fighting that fight and definitely we lost.’

Wow, ‘we lost’.  Just to be absolutely clear this quote from Mitchell is in the context of a piece of fiction but this position is echoed by others working in English theatre.

Mark Ravenhill in the inaugural speech for the Edinburgh Fringe last month asserts that artists in general and theatre in particular, bought into the Blair agenda of the late 1990s and early 21st century because, in part, the money flowed to the arts, and in part because the artists, like the much of the rest of society, wanted to believe it really was a new dawn and the third way was possible. He implies the arts community sold out by adopting and accepting the new cultural lexicon of ‘business plans and strategic thinking’.

No doubt that there was a growing target culture in the way in which the arts were viewed; that the importance of the creative industries became a cornerstone of Whitehall policy; that the role of the artist in social inclusion and urban regeneration became part of the way in which the arts were discussed and supported. But what I would question is, did this start with Blair or is this not simply a continuation of the policy of the Thatcher/Major years?

Ravenhill’s conclusion is that anger drives theatre and the arts are at their most powerful when in opposition to government (as they were under Thatcher) and asserts, ‘ thank god we’ve got a government in Westminster we can properly hate and wholeheartedly attack’.

How does this play in Scotland in policy terms?

Agreed that the politics of the 1980s and 1990s provided the same oppositional position for theatre in Scotland but, I contend, with a very different outcome. In a paper in 1990, I argued that the then growing confidence of artists was because of, not in spite of Thatcherism and Scottish artists were drawing inspiration from being in opposition to what was happening in the political sphere. 2.

A decade or so later, in a paper I co-authored with Adrienne Scullion in 2003, we reflected that one reaction to a hostile Westminster government was for artists to ‘refocuse[d] their attentions on work for and in Scotland, looking to the past with new application, creating texts of linguistic and visual specificity, reassessing the cultural influences that make Scotland’.  This could well be a description of Paul Bright’s Confessions.

We also argued, that the arts in Scotland were open to influences from beyond –driven to some extent with the increasing access to international work and concluded that, ‘both dynamics were about bypassing London, or at least finding ways of working beyond the ‘them and us’ identities that the Thatcher government engendered in Scotland.’

And echoing this in a piece just last month in the Scotsman, political commentator and critic Joyce McMillan pointed out that in the 80s and 90s ‘Scotland’s artists, writers and musicians did most of their heavy lifting – in terms of reimagining a post-modern Scottish identity that would be inclusive, creative, and infinitely open to changing accounts of itself.’

So out of being in opposition came a re-visiting of Scotland’s distinctive cultural identity—and no suggestion that ‘we lost’.

Devolution in 1999 was the driver for that change. It unleashed an energy in creation of work and brought the political and artistic worlds closer together in dialogue if not in agreement.  They were part of a shared future:  ‘This is about more than our politics and our laws.  This is about who we are, how we carry ourselves’, said Donald Dewar (Labour) First Minster at the opening of the Scottish Parliament.

A recent speech by Fiona Hyslop, Cabinet Secretary for Culture in the (SNP) Scottish Government put clear tartan water between her and Maria Miller, Secretary of State for culture in England:

‘We do not measure the worth of culture and heritage solely in pounds and pence – we value culture and heritage precisely because they are so much more, because they are our heart, our soul, our essence.’

So what have these fine words 14 years apart delivered for theatre in Scotland? And what is theatre delivering for Scotland?

Government funding to the arts and heritage has been but cut but not slashed nor threatened completely as it has south of the border or elsewhere in Europe. Can we argue, however that theatre is telling the truth to politicians? Is this a community which has acquiesced to government control and is tick boxing its way to more money?

Scotland has not escaped the ideas so derided by Ravenhill.  Creative Scotland, the relatively new body created from a merger of the Scottish Arts Council and Scottish Screen, has faced a barrage of criticism from the arts community about how it speaks about and to the arts and artists.  So much so that battle between the agency and the arts community (known locally as #CSstooshie) led to the departure of its chief executive and a senior member of his team and a commitment from the board to re-visit its policies and its language.

But what is happening on the ground, in theatre itself?

One of the first cultural interventions of the Scottish Government post devolution was to establish a national theatre.  The vision from the theatre community was ‘The Scottish Parliament and a National Theatre for Scotland reflect[ing] each other in the enterprise of a truly democratic civic society.’3.  So moving from being oppositional to being reflective. This civic role for theatre, I would argue underpins not only NTS itself but also the theatre community more widely.  It sees itself as part of the new Scotland with a voice in its future.

Last year I led a review of theatre in Scotland for Creative Scotland and one of the most striking conclusions is the importance of new work – mainly but not exclusively new writing – to the theatre landscape here.  We undertook and analysis of repertoire sampled over three decades. This sample showed that not only has there been an increase in the number of shows produced but that the largest increase is in new writing from Scotland.  This in part can be ascribed to the development of lunchtime theatre in Glasgow at Oran Mor’s A Play, A Pie and A Pint seasons but not exclusively.

There has been a surge in new work, and a flagship company which has accepted and delivered on its role to present to audiences across Scotland a huge range of work –much of this in collaboration with the theatres and companies which lobbied for its creation in the first place.

But what is theatre saying and where stands Scottish theatre on the question of the day? Yes or no? And here we do come to work in progress.

The question was raised during this year’s Edinburgh Festival, where is the Scottish independence play?  Echoing Joyce McMillan’s comment earlier, the reaction from some Scottish playwrights is, ‘I wrote it five years ago’

McMillan also argues that Scottish playwrights and theatre makers are just as concerned with ‘extreme political violence and our response to it, or the rise of right-wing politics in Europe, or the growth of a pervasive sadistic porn culture on the internet, [which] are not at least as important and urgent as Scottish independence’.

As for 2014 and the referendum itself, NTS has risen to the challenge and commissioned work which will deal directly with the arguments from both sides. However the other chatter from the festival was the outgoing Director Jonathan Mills’s infelicitous comment that there will be no events specifically dealing with the referendum in 2014 and the festival will be a politics free zone. Presumably the Commonwealth and the First World War – which will be festival themes — don’t count as being political.  Or perhaps as journalist Lesley Riddoch has pointed out, these are British political themes and count in a different way.

‘It’s very hard to think about any dramatist who has not had a point of view on the politics of the country in which they work.’ riposted Alasdair Gray, novelist and author of Lanark. Gray has form in this debate. Earlier this year he published an article which talked about ‘settlers’ and ‘colonists’ in Scotland – the former being folk who choose to move and settle here (implication good) and the latter those who choose to further their career by coming here for a few years and then moving away again (implication bad).  The problem with Gray’s analysis is that the language is inflammatory and verging on racist, and the examples are often shot through with inaccuracies.  More recently James McMillan, composer took a view at the opposite extreme and made some unfortunate remarks accusing artists in the Yes campaign of ‘fascistic mob mentality’.

However the debate generally amongst artists has not been as ill-tempered and these voices might be regarded as outliers in the debate.  Generally Scottish theatre makers’ involvement, while passionate,  is more measured- sometimes even nuanced.  The majority are in the Yes camp, but it is not all one way, and there are many who support a No vote—fearing nationalism and arguing for the route to internationalism, preferably of the Marxist variety.  However, the mental and imaginary landscapes of theatre are not yet the place in which they have explored the issue directly and instead have taken to blogging and other forms of social media.

Here is an imagined landscape, created by the playwright David Greig on a blogging site Bella Caledonia:

Leaving the Castle

There is girl. She’s seventeen. She and her three siblings have lived all their life inside an old castle. It’s a vast rambling pile with hundreds of rooms, once it was the fortress of powerful landowner but it’s long ago fallen into disrepair. The kitchens have been abandoned, the rooms are riddled with damp, the floorboards rotten. The roof has mostly fallen in and the windows are shuttered. The girl and her brothers camp now in the old ballroom where they burn the furniture to keep warm. There, they are attended to by old retainers in faded liveries who serve bad food on silver plates. Every day the retainers demand the siblings enact the old rituals of chivalry that were established when the house was first built. They bow and curtsey, they swear allegiance, they practice sword fighting, they call each other Lord and Baron and Knight. Meanwhile, in the attic of the west tower the old king, demented and sick, bangs on tin cans and shouts out to the empty fields about his power and his glory.

The girl has known nothing else. Doesn’t every child live like this? But deep down she has a slowly growing sense that something’s wrong. And then one day her unease becomes too much. She breaks the rules of the house and she opens the shutters of the ballroom window. Her eyes are dazzled briefly by the light but then they adjust and she sees: in the distance, in the valley below, a village. In the village people are going about their business, children go to school, people work, people play football, they garden…she sees and for the first time the girl realises. There is another way things can be.

So Bella, when you ask me how I’ll feel on the morning of independence my answer is this. Imagine that girl walking boldly down the long rotten corridor of the castle, imagine her stopping at the great wooden door, imagine her pushing at it and finding it open, imagine her stepping out into the fresh damp air of a spring day? That. That’s how I’ll feel.’

In summary, theatre makers in Scotland are part of the debate: issues of national identity are already there in the work, and more direct dealing with the referendum issue is yet to come.

However, I say to David and other theatre makers, the day after the referendum, regardless of the result, we will still be facing the same economic and environmental problems and issues of inequality.  And we will be a place which if not exactly torn itself apart, has inflicted on itself wounds which will be hard to heal.

So David, the real challenge for Scottish theatre makers, is imagining a Scotland in 2015 and beyond.

 

 


 

1. Brief for the paper: The panel is asked to reflect on how the practices and insights of contemporary theatre and performance might help to inform, broaden or indeed reconfigure the cultural and political discourses around possible independence in Scotland and accompanying notions of national identity. How might the mental and imaginary landscapes of theatre and performance-making offer productive ways of (re) thinking our views about self-determination, democracy and cultural production in a local, national and global context in the early 21st century.

2. Keynote Speech, Council of Regional Arts Associations Conference, 16 July 1990.

3. Federation of Scottish Theatre, Proposal for a National Theatre for Scotland (Edinburgh: FST, 2000), p. 3.

 

August in Edinburgh- some observations

(Grumpy old woman alert!)

As the Fringe and Book Festivals pack up for another year, the media are full of stories on ticket sales and overviews of the highs and lows of the arts in Edinburgh during August. There is still more to come, of course but I wanted at this point to add some highs and lows as a visitor (from Glasgow) and member of the audience in Edinburgh during the summer.  I have been coming to the festival since I was a child and, as an adult, I have been every year for more than I can remember. This year, like every other, there have been many wonderful moments which I will cherish and some (very few) I will happily forget.   But this blog is about the wider experience.

The city looks magnificent.  It always does look pretty special and the sunshine definitely helps.  But big congratulations to the staff of City of Edinburgh Council who kept the place so clean.  Given the number of flyers being thrust into my hands and those of other visitors, we should have been knee-deep in litter.  The fact we weren’t is down to the unsung heroes of Street Care and Cleaning.

This is the last year BT (before trams) and I don’t want to add to the grumbling we have heard for too long about the disruption caused by their construction – and at the same time the re-construction of both Edinburgh’s main stations. It has been an obstacle course round diggers and Heras fencing for too long. However the city has never been kind to pedestrians and the relationship between those on foot and those in vehicles is fraught.  This year I brought my bike through on the train to aid getting from one venue to another and let me tell you Edinburgh bus drivers just don’t care.  My hope, therefore is that in the brave new Tramworld, we see a better layout of roads and pavements and special lanes which can accommodate everyone.

Another infrastructure issue is access to wifi. For overseas visitors this is crucial for getting information, booking tickets, using maps to find venues on smart phones without incurring huge bills.  No point, promoters, having shiny apps if your customers can’t afford to access them. I can attest to the fact that in parts of Quartermile it is impossible to get 3g never mind wifi.  Many venues offer access but often it is not adequate for most purposes beyond email. So Edinburgh, bite the bullet and create a city centre wifi zone and be an enlightened city for the 21st century.

However wifi is just one aspect of accessing information.  Most phones need regular re-charging and a common site in the city is of folk crawling along the floor of bars and restaurants trying to find the socket used by the cleaners for their vacuums in order to plug in an i-phone –and then hovering around anxiously making sure it is not stolen.  This is one for the private sector. Install proper phone charging facilities which can be freely accessed for those buying a meal/drink/ticket.

I want to put on record my great box office moments—the Edinburgh International Book Festival which refunded my tickets I booked online by mistake; the Edinburgh International Festival which re-printed lost tickets (twice!); the Fringe box office which refunded money for a cancelled show before I even knew it was cancelled- and joy unconfined- the Fringe Booth at Glasgow Queen Street! Thanks to them and their lovely helpful staff. Less impressive was the attitude of the front of house staff in some of the temporary venues. It is likely that they were overworked, low paid and lacked training. Back-to-back shows mean we have to expect queuing and crush but so much of that can be made bearable by good customer care. If you want to see how to do it, go to the Traverse, Edinburgh International Book Festival or Summerhall which managed to cram in audiences to its rabbit- warren of venues with a smile and charm.

Summerhall, however scores less well on my final point: toilets. With the huge numbers of folk passing through venues, this becomes a real issue. Not enough, not clean, not working. Temporary venues in old buildings have a problem. They cannot address the issue with portaloos, like the big tented spaces or with lovely facilities you find in lottery funding-enhanced theatres. However Summerhall is not a temporary venue and it needs to look at its operations in this area.  But it is not just venues. How is it possible that a new restaurant facility like Peter’s Yard is allowed to get away with inadequate number of loos?  Whether you are using temporary toilets or not, they need to be cleaned — and regularly.  And ‘out of order’ signs should be a badge of shame.  Perhaps there is a lesson to learn from those who clean Edinburgh’s streets, not just during the festival period, but all year round.