(Originally posted at Exeunt.)
It took Stewart Lee’s article in the Guardian to remind me that it’s not always like this. A blissfully straightforward tech with an army of brilliant technicians and regular visits from the artistic director bearing cake. Tickets flying off the shelves – I sold more in advance of this Fringe than I’ve sold by the end of some others. Even the flat seems to be in full working order. It’s bloody weird.
Northern Stage have done us proud. You could almost forget this is an Edinburgh venue – even though when I turned up for my tech in space two, they were still building space one. There’s a real sense of pride in the venue, in a venue programmed with a meaningful sense of something the artists have in common beyond their ability to pay to hire the space. That this is nothing more than geographical coincidence might make it appear a thin commonality at best. Not so. There’s a common set of experiences and values born of making work at a distance from the capital. Northern Stage have recognised the particular challenges of that distance and built a programme around it.
And they’ve taken the risk. None of us have had to pay anything beyond what it costs to get to Edinburgh and actually do the show. Northern Stage have arranged everything: press, marketing, box office, even accommodation. If I weren’t on at 11.30am, I’d think this was a venue on the touring circuit, not the Edinburgh Festival Fringe.
My first instinct is that it makes a pleasant change this way round: theatremakers from the north getting the support, rather than everything happening for them in that London. As Annie Rigby, director of the brilliant Best in the World, said at Northern Stage’s venue launch last month, it can be hard for theatre-makers so far from the capital to get the national attention their work deserves. When something at a London Fringe theatre will get reviewed in every national paper, and something at a major northern venue will be lucky to get reviewed in one, what chance have emerging artists got? So huge credit to Northern Stage for bringing so many of us to a genuinely national festival and making us feel at home.
My first instinct, though, is wrong. In fact, it’s easier for theatremakers to emerge outside of London. I’ve always been bewildered by the drift of artists to the Big Smoke after graduation, towards doubled living costs and quadrupled competition. Having lived (for family reasons) in London for eighteen months, I’m even more bewildered. What possible advantage accrues to emerging artists by being somewhere so huge, expensive and impersonal? Venues like Northern Stage have always made it easier for artists to develop work and careers.
But you can be a major artist within your region, yet virtually unknown beyond it. Gary Kitching’s show Me and Mr C is a highlight of the Northern Stage programme, but I bet you’d never heard of him before unless you live in the North East. Likewise Unfolding Theatre’s Best in the World.
So what Northern Stage are doing makes a phenomenal contribution to the regional theatre ecology. Non-London-based theatremakers have always been enabled by local support to emerge just so far. Then they often remain stuck, half-butterfly, half-chrysalis, unable to take that next step. Initiatives like Northern Stage at St Stephen’s help stem the talent drain to London, where the talent often remains just as stuck, too busy filing empty documents or pulling four-pound pints to get around to making that breakthrough show.
And it would be a mistake to say that the work is united only by its having been made in the North of England. Only one or two of the shows are centrally about their point of origin – there’s nothing parochial about What I Heard About the World or Best in the World, for example. And they’re just the ones whose titles make that most obvious.
Which isn’t to say that the work isn’t rooted in its regionality in other, more complex ways. My show The Price of Everything isn’t about Middlesbrough, but the second half of the show is a story set there. The show is about what we value and how we measure that value, but its roots are my roots; my work emerges from a troubled relationship with a hometown I love and loathe, even when that’s not the work’s subject.
Only by going back to our socio-cultural roots, I might be suggesting, can we discover and perhaps change the behavioural loops in which we are collectively stuck. I also think that change – real, radical change – tends to develop in parts of society that are considered marginal. The peasants’ revolt, the Jarrow march, the miners’ strike – all started some way from the capital. The imaginary utopia I hallucinate in the second half of The Price of Everything, it seems to me, just couldn’t grow anywhere the powers-that-be were really paying attention.
In myriad ways, the other work at Northern Stage at St Stephen’s also seems to me to be marinated in its distance from the cultural centre. Best in the World isn’t about Gateshead, where Unfolding Theatre are based. But whereas Martin Amis, the iconic metropolitan, uses darts in London Fields to signify a sort of disgusting otherness, Best in the World uses the sport to signify a potential even the most ordinary among us has for greatness. “If you believe in democracy, you believe in darts.” The show is studded with sporting (and other) greats from the North East and Scotland.
Meanwhile, What I Heard About the World takes as its very premise a distance from the many places in the world about which we think we know something. It uncovers the sort of marginalia for other countries and cultures that work about Sheffield might be seen as by London. Its makers’ situation away from the centre of events, and from the centre of where such knowledge is produced, seems encoded into its thinking.
I’m pleased that discussion of the work at this venue has focused on its quality, rather than its regionality. It may be the chip on my shoulder speaking, but I bet that if the work had been less successful, its regionality would have been more widely discussed. So let’s take a moment to remember that all of these terrific shows are the work of northern artists, and that’s not a coincidence. Their northern-ness is part of what makes them good.
Cinema isn't live, which is why this was such fun.
Last week I became possibly the world's first live trailer for a piece of theatre.
During the trailers before two separate showings of Cosmopolis at ARC in Stockton, my big face turned up to talk about Ash, which is on there in September. This would have just been a big version of a rubbish YouTube video, except that I was there live, talking to this actual audience. The couple at the back in matching his and hers glasses. The bloke in the fourth row with sunglasses on his head. The woman at the front in the loudly flowery skirt.
The audience were initially bewildered, then they enjoyed it volubly. At the end, some people waved.
I enjoyed it so much, we're doing it again next week.
I'll let you know if any of them come.
On Twitter yesterday afternoon, I asked this question:
"I'm wondering if reviewers who get a comp and write nothing should be asked to retroactively pay for their ticket. Thoughts?"
A lot of people got quite hot under the collar. One person called my 'proposal' "unethical" and said it was "basically blackmailing people into writing a review".
So for the avoidance of doubt at the outset, I am not seriously proposing we do this. It's good to know that people have got the hang of reading between the lines of my tweets, and understanding that they're seldom completely guileless. But in this case, it was. It wasn't a proposal; I genuinely simply wanted to know what people think. My apologies to all those who forcefully 'agreed' with me.
There are all sorts of reasons it isn't a good idea. It's good for critics to see a broad range of work even if they're not able to write about all of it. It might still make its way into a later feature or round-up even if you don't get a full review. I'm prepared to take the chance. And often reviews end up spiked for reasons that are, frankly, kinder to the performers. But more to the point, newspaper budgets are sufficiently stretched that I don't imagine arts editors are going to start forking out for tickets on the off-chance of a review. And expecting the critics to pay in these cases is yet another way of guaranteeing that our critics come from that small pool of people who can afford to get on.
It is nonetheless, I think, slightly absurd to suggest that expecting a critical response in return for the ticket is "unethical", even more so to suggest that it's "blackmail". It seems more likely that the initial comp (in exchange for an expected review) is blackmail than that the request for payment like everyone else (in the event of non-delivery of that review) is so. But it's such an institutionalised form of blackmail that we've forgotten it's there. Consequently, it doesn't really work.
But that brings into focus the more pertinent question: what is the nature of the contract when we give reviewers a comp? We obviously don't expect a good review, but do we have a right to expect something? We gave you the ticket because you have an audience whom you could tell about the show. If you don't tell them, should we continue to give you tickets?
In the case of The Price of Everything in Edinburgh, which is lucky enough to be selling out most days, that's a) a ticket that could have been bought by a member of the public and therefore b) £10 I have personally given you. Any critics saying they're not well-paid enough to write up everything they see could spend a moment considering that most performers in Edinburgh (and I'm not one of them, but I'm hardly making a weekly wage, let alone a packet) are losing money hand over fist. Earlier this year I finally paid off the credit card bill run up by bringing shows to Edinburgh 2003-07.
(All of which reveals that the initial spur behind my question is, really, nothing more than sour grapes. I have directly given away money as a sort of investment in potential marketing materials. It's honestly worth the risk, as it happens, and I have no real gripe with the system. And I have no real right to any frustration. The show is selling out and I've had several very nice reviews. I suppose that's part of why I feel reasonably comfortable raising the question - I don't really have anything riding on it. I'm one of the lucky ones.)
Here's the interesting and totally unsurprising thing. Overwhelmingly, artists forcefully agreed with the assumed proposal in the question and critics opposed it just as forcefully. Critics (with some exceptions) did not feel that the privilege of a free ticket left them with any obligations. They may be right. That probably is the nature of the agreement. And so the critics who responded tended to defend their (totally defensible) position, with some of the arguments I've advanced above. Meanwhile, performers shared and expressed the same sense of frustration that gave rise to the original question. So both sides have a point.
At the very least, this bespeaks a lack of clarity in the expectations underlying the relationship. How do we clear it up?
Before each performance of The Price of Everything, I have a little routine. Aside from the bit about putting on a fresh pair of socks just before the show, it involves me enumerating all the things that scare me about the pending performance. Big audience, small audience, culturati, styx: there's no audience that doesn't have the potential to be a little daunting. If it wasn't, I somehow wouldn't be doing my job properly. I have to take you seriously as people who want to have a good time or I'll be slapdash and lazy.
Then after spending a bit of time with all these anxieties, I say to myself, right. I'm going to enjoy this. And I do. Mostly, so do the audience.
Edinburgh is particularly big and scary. I've done the show about twenty times, to audiences of between forty and five hundred, to audiences packed with members of arts council staff, to an audience entirely constituted of promoters, to audiences largely composed of my extended family, to houses full and half-empty and once, memorably, to an audience of five hundred academics in a banqueting hall. Each of them, in prospect, has seemed like the toughest audience ever.
Now that's how Edinburgh seems. I started getting nervous two or three days ago, and it may last the whole month. A hardcore theatre-going crowd, national press, promoters daily. Eesh. Twenty times in a row.
But actually, you're lovely, aren't you?
I'm going to enjoy this.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will