A response to Desire Lines from a grassroots theatremaker. Looooong.

It’s taken me a while to gather my thoughts and decide how best to write about Desire Lines.

 

For those of you who, by dint of not being attentive Edinburgh arts folk, have not heard of Desire Lines, it is this: http://www.desirelines.scot. It’s a project started by a handful of people working in the arts in Edinburgh to provide a way for artists to communicate with the Council and with each other. The first meeting took place on Monday 8 December at Summerhall.

 

First things first: It was a remarkably positive event. Like many people, I was concerned that we might spend the evening unproductively bashing the Council, or that it would be a tedious few hours of listening to people from large organisations droning about key stakeholders and service provision and so on. These things did not happen. While there were plenty of people with a great deal to say about licensing issues and the Council’s apparent preference for focusing on the Festivals rather than Edinburgh’s year-round cultural life, the artists expressing their views did it vehemently, not aggressively.

 

I was a bit disappointed that we never directly got to grips with the event’s title question, “What makes Edinburgh a culturally successful city?” or the implied sub-question – is Edinburgh a culturally successful city? How do we define cultural success? Is the city successful because it has lots of Festivals? Because Edinburgh started the trend for Fringe Festivals, or attracts high-profile international companies to the International Festival? Or is Edinburgh successful because the arts form an important part of the lives of ordinary people (by which I mean non-tourists and non-artists) living here?

 

The latter question seemed to be on the minds of the people in the room. Unsurprisingly, artists want to share their work, and not just because it’s financially beneficial. When you make something and you care about it deeply, you want other people to care about it too. You want to touch people’s lives, brighten their day, get them to think or whatever else your work sets out to achieve. And you don’t want to be limited to August or to the specific audience that goes to the Festivals.

 

Or at least, that’s the case for me. Judging by the voices in the room, I’m not alone. The perception that the arts in Edinburgh are only for some rarefied crowd of champagne-sippers (not that all Festival-goers fall into that category, of course, but I’m using the prevailing stereotype) is inaccurate, and there are plenty of the city’s artists who would be happy to break it down.

 

With that in mind, it was great to see grassroots figures being invited to speak. Morvern Cunningham, Caitlin Skinner and Olaf Furniss all work wonders to keep the city alive with music, theatre, visual art and film all year round, and often outwith the city centre. It’s a pity that they didn’t get to speak until the end, by which time the event was overrunning (which was inevitable considering the massive scope of the conversation) and the representatives from Edinburgh Council had long since gone home. I would suggest that at future Desire Lines events, it would be worth letting the artists speak early on. Responding to what the people with the money say is what we do all the time – this could be one of the exceptions.

 

It might also be nice to see Desire Lines challenging the format of their own events. The setup was pretty standard – a raised platform for the chair and speakers, with everyone else in attendance sitting in the audience, waiting for the roving mic if they wanted to speak. Having worked in the Dissection Room I know that it’s a tricky space, especially when you have such a large number of people to accommodate, but I can’t help feeling that there must be a way to set things up less formally. Something like an Open Space format might be interesting, making things feel more laid-back and perhaps more equal. That’s not to say that the current structure didn’t work well – but I’m always keen to see people experiment and find egalitarian ways of doing things.

 

 

Ever since the event I’ve been thinking about the state of grassroots theatre in Edinburgh. I mean, I do that all the time, of course – but I’ve been trying to work out how to explain the particular challenges facing the grassroots scene in Edinburgh just now and how that impacts on less experimental work.

 

The main challenge that we face is a lack of infrastructure. How many small theatres can you think of in Edinburgh? Less than 100 seats? There’s the Netherbow with 99. There’s Discover 21 with 35. There are some spaces in Summerhall. Traverse 2 can be a 99-seater depending on its configuration, but it’s been a long time since the Trav was a little experimental theatre rather than a major player in the British theatre scene.

 

There are other spaces that can be theatres if you’re willing to equip them. If you’re willing to bring in lights, sound equipment, possibly seats and drapes, and get the place licensed, anywhere can be a theatre! We learned that from August, right?

 

But that’s the trouble. If you’re a small company making experimental theatre on tiny budgets, the cost of hiring all your equipment, transporting it and paying for the extra time you need in a venue to set everything up can be prohibitive. Grassroots companies are often self-funding, supported by the artists’ day jobs. Every extra cost incurred takes us a step further away from breaking even, let alone making a profit or actually getting paid for our work.

 

That was one of the main reasons for setting up D21. Edinburgh seemed to need a small space with seats, lights and licenses in place, where all a company has to do is turn up and concentrate on its work, and where the costs are clear and as low as we can make them.

 

Over the past year we’ve found that several groups and individuals have made work in D21 that they might not have made if they had been faced with the expense and inconvenience of creating a working performance space. We’ve launched Collider, a project designed to introduce theatremakers to potential collaborators through mini-productions, and 21@21, a residency offering three weeks of free studio time to experimental theatremakers. Creating our own permanent (or at least semi-permanent, thanks to licensing and short leases) space has been expensive, but considerably less expensive than building a temporary space for every project.

 

So why aren’t more people doing this? First, it is expensive, and exhausting. Dave (my co-founder) and I work bloody hard to cover the theatre’s costs, as well as to run the theatre itself. That’s essentially two full-time jobs each. It doesn’t allow for a lot of free time or spare cash. It means cheap groceries and holidays not taken. It meant that I kept the cost of my entire wedding well below what most brides pay for the dress alone. It means that I try hard not to think about the things I could have and could be doing with that money. It’s not a sacrifice that everyone is prepared to make, and I completely understand why. But to pursue funding just now would mean clarifying and quantifying what we’re doing in a way that would not be beneficial at this point. For now, at least, we need the freedom that comes with self-funding. That will eventually change – but D21 can’t become the thing it needs to be without going through this early, free-flowing experimental stage, so for the present we grit our teeth and accept the lack of time and money.

 

Second, it’s terrifying. I wake up anxious most mornings, worried that there will be costs we won’t be able to meet or that we’ll do something wrong and get into trouble. I dread that we’ll make a mistake with licensing or the lease, that someone will have an accident in the space and my risk assessment will be found wanting and my Public Liability Insurance won’t pay out. Getting things wrong in any of those areas could result in fines or damages totalling tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, maybe millions of pounds. And guess what? I don’t have tens of thousands of pounds. Thanks to my dead parents I do have a flat, but I really don’t want to find myself in a position where I have to sell my flat and destroy what security my husband and I have – just because I wanted to do some experimental theatre and facilitate other people doing it too. Life was certainly a lot easier and less risky when I first started out and just did monthly rehearsed readings requiring nothing but a room with some chairs in it.

 

Dragging this post back to Desire Lines, is there anything Edinburgh City Council could do to make this situation easier? Well, yes. Licensing could be a lot less restrictive and less expensive. There could be another category of theatre license, one that applies to groups that aren’t amateur or charities, but which aren’t commercial or subsidised professional work – specifically for grassroots work.

 

Year-round licenses could be cheaper, or a discount could be offered to small companies making work in Edinburgh year-round if the Council still wants to be able to charge incomes through the nose for the Festivals.

 

Empty spaces (of which there are many in the city centre) could be made available at peppercorn rents for use as rehearsal and workshop spaces, in exchange for a certain amount of maintenance. This has worked in other cities, as Rachel McCrum mentioned at Desire Lines.

 

The Council could also settle once and for all the matter of Public Entertainment Licenses, which they have chosen not to enforce for the present but which could be brought into force at any time. Nobody wants to be the first artists to be caught out by these and hit with a £20k (if I recall correctly) fine.

 

Basically, anything that allows Edinburgh’s local theatremakers a little of the freedom usually granted during August would help. But why should the Council do these things?

 

Well, assuming Edinburgh wants to be a culturally successful city, mainstream arts need to be influenced by a steady stream of new and exciting ideas. The more freedom you give the grassroots, the more potential there is for interesting and avant-garde work. You won’t find the avant-garde at the Lyceum, for instance – nor should you. That’s not what it’s for. What you see at the Lyceum is work that is influenced by the avant-garde of previous generations. New ideas, whether new writing, new ways of staging, new relationships with audiences, what have you, filter gradually through to the mainstream and prevent theatre as a whole from stagnating. You don’t support the grassroots for the benefit of mainstream theatre in five years’ time, but in twenty or fifty years’ time. A hundred years’ time, maybe. It’s long-term thinking.

 

Of course, this doesn’t have to be done on a local basis. Edinburgh’s mainstream theatre could just draw on the influence of Glasgow and London instead. They’ve both got strong grassroots scenes, right? But if Edinburgh is simply an importer of new ideas, if Edinburgh does not generate and export them, then can it really justify claiming to be a culturally successful city?

 

The healthier Edinburgh’s grassroots theatre scene is, the healthier its mainstream theatre will be, the healthier the art forms that share borders with theatre will be, and the healthier the city as a whole will be, economically and artistically. Why wouldn’t we want to be known as a city that produces exciting, innovative theatre in more than just a couple of venues? Why wouldn’t we want visitors to be attracted to Edinburgh by its theatre scene all year round – not in the same numbers that we see during August, but a fraction of that, bringing with them a commensurate fraction of the money Edinburgh makes in August? Why wouldn’t we want interesting experimental artists to stay here rather than move away, or even to choose to move to Edinburgh as a city that will welcome and support them? Why wouldn’t we want to nurture a diverse, vibrant grassroots that attracts theatremakers from different cultures, political beliefs and socio-economic backgrounds, allowing for a cross-fertilisation of ideas?

 

It wouldn’t take much for the Council to make Edinburgh a far more welcoming place for grassroots theatre artists. A little loosening of the licensing, a little more focus on the year-round scene rather than just August.

 

Hopefully it will come. It looks like the charge is being led by the live music scene, fighting for the survival of small and mid-size venues. Events like Desire Lines give those of us in grassroots theatre a chance to add our voices to theirs, since our interests align in many ways. Anything that brings the Council and Edinburgh’s artists together in discussion has the potential to be massively beneficial to the city as a whole.

 

I’m excited to see where future Desire Lines events will take us…

About jenbitespeople

Edinburgh-based writer, dramaturg and director. Here you'll find posts about my work, mental health, arts politics and whatever else happens to catch my attention. View all posts by jenbitespeople

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