Developing an independent theatre scene
How does a revolution start? Is restlessness and a desire to challenge the status quo enough to inspire people into action? And how is momentum maintained and built upon?
In 2013, Plymouth bid to be the 2017 City of Culture. As we all know now, the bid was unsuccessful as Hull won the honour – and deservedly so, with a strong bid and a real sense that the city was working together to celebrate its heritage and current cultural offer – and Plymouth returned to its status as a city with ‘potential’. But a big concern from myself and many of my peers working independently in the arts within the city was that there seemed to be a lack of consultation of those of use striving to make work here.
Plymouth as a city has much to celebrate culturally – from venues such as Theatre Royal Plymouth, Barbican Theatre and the National Marine Aquarium to the ever-growing Plymouth University and Plymouth College of Art, via organisations such as RiO, Plymouth Music Zone and Plymouth Dance, there are plenty of things on offer to those who either live in or visit the city. But there is a distinct lack of visible artists helping to shape the offer and develop it even further; whilst events such as the Hidden City and PL:ay Festivals have taken place over previous years, they have tended to be one-offs. The city looks a lot towards the larger organisations, whilst the independents often stand on the outside looking in; this in turn creates a sense that it is difficult to be supported in making work if you don’t have an ‘in’, and subsequently contributes to the cultural drain where many talented individuals leave the city in order to create work in a more conducive environment. Just this year poet and playwright Hannah Silva left the city to move to Birmingham, and past years have seen many others make the move seemingly for the sake of their careers – and yes, this includes myself (before my return in late 2012).
This in itself is not a criticism of the organisations within the city, as they do offer support and professional development opportunities as far as possible – in particular, Barbican Theatre’s Flourish programme, Plymouth University’s Scratch Nights and Theatre Royal Plymouth’s recently-opened Lab space have given emerging artists and companies opportunities to present work at various stages of development – but there is a limit to what they can support both in terms of resources and time. There is also an apparent problem in how to support those moving beyond the ’emerging’ stage of their career – what of the mid-career and older artists? And what of those wishing to work in less traditional forms? In my time back in Plymouth I have stumbled across various pockets of independent artists meeting together to discuss working in the city, but these groups have either tended to be hidden away or more a place to let off steam than to enact change; compared to many other cities I’ve lived and worked in, the independent arts sector in Plymouth is something of a cultural hinterland.
In the latter part of 2013, something began to happen. A group of independent theatre makers got together and began to talk about what the problems were, and how things could change. Having produced Theatre Uncut Plymouth for the second consecutive year – and having witnessed the work of New Model Theatre (and in particular their BETA scratch nights) – it became apparent that there is a desire in the city for an independent, joined-up theatre/culture scene to gain a voice and try to influence what is being presented in the city. An impromptu meet-up in a pub to discuss this resulted in about twenty independent artists meeting up with less than 24 hours’ notice – and the discussions began in earnest. The #plymouththeatrescene was born.
One of the most striking things about the evening to me was the sense that many of the younger attendees found it difficult to truly identify as independent theatre-makers – without the validation of an existing scene they could create work in, there was a sense that they were either striving towards further training or employment, or that their work was seen as secondary to their ‘day job’. Contributing greatly to this was an issue which has been discussed at great length in recent months – not being paid, or at best, being hugely underpaid, for their work as artists by venues and organisations; a factor which reinforces the idea that they are not ‘professional’ and are ‘playing at theatre’ rather than being valued as they should be. Whereas some people are able to dismiss the notion of pay being a determining factor of their professional status, a city dominated by organisations employing either full-time staff of regular freelancers has inadvertently created a notion that not working in one of those capacities mean you’re not really a proper artist – and this lack of confidence contributes to a sense that Plymouth is not the place to develop a career as a freelance artist.
This mind-set is definitely one I can sympathise with; as someone who has long wished to work in a freelance capacity, I definitely felt during my earlier times in Plymouth that it was necessary to move elsewhere to really establish and test myself – and, like many others, London was the place for me to do that. I had my first real experience of producing through the Barbican Theatre, but I felt that going to drama school and training would really open more doors – and in many ways it did. However, the biggest thing I learned both from my training and working in London was the power of networking and being confident in my abilities; confidently telling people that I was a producer, rather than saying I wanted to be a producer, arguably did my career more good than anything I learned during my training. There were obviously far more opportunities for me to work and hone my skills through being in London, but without that confidence I developed it wouldn’t have meant much. Returning to Plymouth with this confidence has meant that I have continued to produce work both in the city and beyond without the apprehension I may have felt before. Of course, there’s still a need to back up your words with quality work – but the confidence and drive at least affords me the opportunity to be given a chance.
Within those of us active in the #plymouththeatrescene group, there are a mix of ages and experiences; from those who are currently studying to those with years of experience behind them, we are all united by a common purpose – to create an active and supportive scene. Those of us more experienced are able to share what we’ve learned during our careers with the younger members, and in return they bring a new energy and can challenge us about what we’ve come to understand theatre as being. The risk in these situations is that a hierarchy begins to emerge, and an Orwellian “all animals are equal, but some are more equal than others” mentality begins to take shape, and we need to be conscious of this; we all have a responsibility to each other to point out should this happen, or else we risk undoing all of our hard work by denying ourselves the openness we believe is important in developing an independent scene.
What’s both scary and exciting is that we don’t know where this will take us, and what it will lead to. We have referenced places like Exeter, Bristol and Manchester as examples of seemingly successfully-developed independent scenes, but we need to be careful not to simply try to mimic what is happening in these cities; to truly be an independent scene, we need to ensure that we are creating the work we want to make. What is successful in one place, or for one group, won’t necessarily be for another – we have a chance to start telling the influential decision-makers in Plymouth what people want to make and see, rather than allowing our work to be influenced by what we currently see being presented across the city. We both need to try and develop artists and audiences, and so we need to keep talking and listening to people across the city from all backgrounds. If there is one scene perhaps we could look to learn from, it may well be the DIY music scene – rather than wait for people to give us a chance, we should make work and offer it to the people. To use the famously-misquoted Field of Dreams line – “If you build it, they will come”.
Although creating structures can be risky when trying to create something which lends itself to being dynamic and reactive, we do need to try and identify some ways of making this momentum last; inevitably without some people continuing to drive things forward, this runs the risk of vanishing into the ether. So, there are a small group of us talking about how to keep things going – finding ways to get people together, identifying short and long-term goals and so-forth. The hope is that, with a little push, the momentum within the group carries forward and things really begin to take shape – and as a more structured approach begins to form, we begin to have our voices heard within the city. We want to engage with as many people in the city as possible who want to have a say in the work being created within the city – and across disciplines, not just within theatre – so we are always up for chatting.
Making this happen and really building a successful independent theatre scene in Plymouth will undoubtedly not be easy, and in the beginning stages at least feels like Sisyphus forever pushing his boulder uphill – when a cultural landscape such as Plymouth’s has been dominated for so long by organisations, it seems implausible to think a group of well-intentioned individuals can really change things. But that isn’t going to stop us from trying. There’s a real sense that, if this is going to happen, it’s going to be now; revolutionary acts often rely on luck and an almost perfect combination of conditions before change really starts to happen – from Gavrilo Princip’s fateful gunshots in 1914 triggering the First World War, to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the subsequent end of the Cold War era, there are identifiable moments which contributed to drastic change. Combine that with a group of people converging who want to see change, and you have a tipping point.
We don’t have an identifiable tipping point as such, but we do have a tool in our arsenal that has played a part in revolutions such as the Arab Spring – the power of social media as a means to unite people. We’re using the hashtag #plymouththeatrescene on Twitter to keep conversation and ideas flowing, so feel free to use it and talk to us – and of course, talking to us in person is no bad thing. Twitter as a platform to discuss this allows the conversations to develop fluidly in a transparent way, so you’re more than welcome to chat with us there – eventually we’ll move beyond Twitter as our chosen medium, but revolution takes time. And if you have any words of wisdom about how to sustain this momentum, then share them with us – be it from your own experiences, or a sense of what really needs to be said, then we’re keen to hear your thoughts.