This is the longest sustained period of Artistic Director Musical Chairs I’ve ever known and it shows no signs of slowing down. In the last week or so Damien Cruden, who’s been at York Theatre Royal since before I’d heard of York Theatre Royal, and Sarah Frankcom, who was at the absolute top of anyone’s game at Manchester Royal Exchange, have been the latest to vacate their chairs.
It’s Franckom’s departure that has drawn the most attention and that’s hardly surprising. In the five years she’s been sole artistic director she has completely transformed the organisation. When I used to make occasional trips over from Leeds to Manchester in the last decade, what I invariably saw were solid but unremarkable productions of solid twentieth century classics. There wasn’t much going on beyond the plays and no real sense that this was a theatre in Manchester. I once heard it described as the most provincial theatre in the country, on account of its behaving as though it was in very-very North London. And I once substantially embarrassed myself by badmouthing it in the Barbican foyer, sitting opposite a man who turned out to be Braham Murray.
In the last five or so years it has become a theatre deeply embedded in the life of Manchester, commissioning work that grows with the grass of the city. Its productions of classics have been radically imaginative. And how many theatres, in or out of London, would have commissioned Chris Goode’s version of Jubilee? Or Rash Dash’s Sisters? Frankcom’s own directing has been as brilliant and imaginative as her programming. Her production of Our Town is one of the best things I’ve seen in years. And beyond the plays, it has offered unprecedented levels of engagement and support to local artists in Manchester and the wider north west. Franckom is a huge act to follow.
It used to be that these periodic phases of artistic director musical chairs were simply because one or two people went at the same time and everyone else moved up one. That’s not tenable this time around. Without even mentioning London, in the last couple of years we’ve seen departures from HOME, Bolton, Plymouth, Live, Pitlochry, Oldham, Keswick, Birmingham, Sheffield and now York and the Royal Exchange. I’m sure I’ve missed some. And as far as I’m aware the only vacancy to arise because of the sitting artistic director moving somewhere else was that at Bolton. This can’t all be a coincidence. To lose two or three artistic directors in a two-year period might be regarded as unfortunate; to lose a dozen suggests something more sinister.
So what’s going on? You know the answer. It’s austerity. Though it’s been less heralded, there’ve been a similar number of Executive Directors moving on: running theatres is no longer possible in the way it was ten years ago. It’s nine years since the Coalition came to power and brought austerity with them; that’s nine years of budget freezes alongside nine years of rising costs. Philanthropy, the government’s magic wand, does not work reliably if at all outside the M25. So every year it’s been possible to do less than the year before. That’s only sustainable for so long. Occasional miracles of transformation can be performed at the better-funded regional theatres like the Royal Exchange, but these are increasingly outliers. The model is broken. Basically, everyone’s knackered.
It seems fitting that in a week where everyone’s been singing the praises of Sarah Frankcom, I’ve been thinking a lot about mentoring and support for emerging artists.
I spent Tuesday with Alex Kelly, who mentors me. I spent Wednesday with a couple of people I myself mentor. I benefit hugely from my conversations with Alex, which basically constitute me thinking aloud in the presence and with the guidance of someone who’s been round the block a few times more. We drink a lot of coffee and he asks excellent questions. If I give half as much to the people I’m mentoring, they’ll hopefully get something from the process too. But the ecosystem artists emerge into now is very different to the one that welcomed me.
I was lucky enough to start out in the early 2000s, a few years into the Labour government, when arts funding was at a forty-year peak. Without the relative ease of accessing support, I wouldn’t be here now. Artists emerging today have to work for years to start accessing funding and those from backgrounds like mine aren’t able to survive. I do what I can to help, but basically this amounts to occasional phone calls and emails of support and advice, coffee and questions, and reading endless draft arts council applications. Last year I was able to get a series of nine emerging artists into my R&D rooms (e.g.) (e.g.) and do something a bit more substantive. None of it is enough. (ALTHOUGH if you think I can be of help to you, do visit my mentoring page!)
It sometimes feels as though I spend about 40% of my income on crowdfunders to plug the gap in someone’s budget. In plenty of cases this is even when there is public funding. It can feel, in these cases, like audiences are being asked to pay three times: once in tax, once in crowdfunder, and finally at box office. I want to stress that I don’t begrudge this money spent on crowdfunders, only the system that makes it necessary and thus further disadvantages artists without rich friends and family.
Every so often someone bolsters their crowdfunder by running a marathon or a 10K to draw attention to their cause. And this gives me an idea. At this stage of my career, though I'm happy to support others, I feel embarrassed by the idea of doing a crowdfunder for a show of mine, although god knows I could often enough do with one. And I also feel embarrassed by the idea of running a marathon for sponsorship. Running marathons is what I do for fun.
But later this year I’m running this race, which is a bit longer than a marathon, and will be a genuine challenge.
So here’s my idea. I’m going to raise sponsorship by running this race. But not for one of my own projects. For a young or emerging artist. I don’t know who yet. Get in touch if it might be you. It’ll be an artist or company with one or two shows under their belt, probably socially or politically engaged, probably in the north of England. Someone who doesn’t necessarily look like me, possibly (but not necessarily) someone I’ve already been mentoring/supporting.
I’m not going to have a show of the week, run of the week, etc, this week, because I want to end on this offer. Please spread it around your networks. I’ll make some sort of announcement early next month, assuming all goes smoothly with the new baby, so if you want to be considered, please get in touch by March 30th. There’s no formal application process, but if you think your project is a good fit, please get in touch and tell me why I should run 44 miles in the mountains to help make it happen.
Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will