We caught up with WGGB member, playwright and artistic director Fin Kennedy about the new direction he hopes his In Battalions campaign will take, and an event being hosted by Improbable Theatre and the MA Dramatic Writing at Drama Centre London, Central Saint Martins, on Wednesday 17 June 2015
Is it correct that the In Battalions campaign was inspired by a chance conversation with Culture Minister Ed Vaizey at a House of Commons event that you attended as a member of WGGB in December 2012? And can you tell us a bit more about that?
Yes, it’s true. The event was the Performers’ Alliance All-Party Parliamentary Group Reception, an annual pre-Christmas event co-hosted by the Writers’ Guild, Equity and the Musicians’ Union. Union members are free to circulate and raise whatever issues they like with MPs and peers and I was actually there to lobby about the damage the English Baccalaureate was doing to arts subjects in schools. But when I got talking to Ed Vaizey he said to me, apropos of nothing, “Arts Council cuts are having no effect” on the development of new work for the stage. I knew from my own experience that this was not true, but because the cuts we were discussing were so recent there was no evidence to back up my anecdotal observations, so I set out to gather some. An article I wrote on my blog about this went viral and I found myself inundated with offers of help from across the theatre industry. Companies and artists nationwide all wanted to send me their evidence of how the cuts were affecting them. I was lucky enough to be put in touch with a PhD research student at Oxford University, Helen Campbell Pickford, who helped me structure a questionnaire to process this data and from which we could extract statistics. The 20,000-word report we published together in 2013 (still available free online) was able to confidently state, for example, that two-thirds of theatres surveyed had had to cancel one or more shows since April 2012 for funding reasons, with similar numbers curtailing writer development, schools outreach, youth theatres, free script reading and playwriting workshops – all of which pull up the ladder for the next generation.
Were you surprised by the success of the campaign and what do you count as the most important victories?
For a personal project undertaken unpaid and in my own time it certainly took on a momentum beyond anything I expected. The report has been downloaded over 20,000 times, was covered in the broadsheet press and even had questions tabled in Parliament. I think I struck a bit of a nerve at the right time and became something of a lightning rod for a lot of anger and frustration in the theatre industry about the cuts and government myopia to their effects. Helen’s involvement as a professional researcher was crucial in lending the project weight, plus I did have some help from some high-profile people in the theatre industry, such as playwrights David Edgar, David Eldridge, Michael Frayn, Tom Stoppard, Caryl Churchill and actress Helen Mirren, who signed an open letter at one point calling on the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to take the study seriously. But probably our biggest success was when Ed Vaizey stood up at the same event one year later and credited the In Battalions campaign with having been an influence on the Chancellor George Osborne’s decision to grant a tax break to new plays and regional touring, announced in the 2014 Autumn Statement. I think in truth Ed Vaizey was being a bit politically opportune there – the discussions about tax breaks for theatre were underway before In Battalions came along – but the campaign was one voice of many which was in the right place at the right time to help bring it about.
Who will be attending the event on 17 June and what are you hoping to achieve?
The event on 17 June is entitled ‘How should the theatre sector engage with the new government?’ It is hosted by Improbable Theatre and supported by MA Dramatic Writing at Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martins (CSM). It’s part of Improbable’s long-running ‘Devoted and Disgruntled’ series (D&D), which debates issues within the arts. D&D events use Open Space technology to facilitate delegate-led discussion groups, so there is no agenda, no speakers, no panels or breakout rooms, just the title and the (hopefully) 150 or so people who come along to debate this between themselves all day. We need to cover our costs so there is an admission charge but all D&D’s events are non-profit. Tickets can be booked online.
Tell us more about In Battalions’ involvement with Central Saint Martins’ MA Dramatic Writing course and their New Writing Platform series?
I’ve been a visiting tutor on the MA Dramatic Writing at Drama Centre London at Central Saint Martins (CSM) since its inception two years ago. It’s a new course which is highly industry-focused so it uses working practitioners like me from across theatre, TV and radio to set the students practical, real-world tasks within units of work. Other tutors include founder of BBC Academy John Yorke, literary manager of Soho Theatre Nina Steiger and playwright Stephen Jeffreys. In year one of the programme I worked with the students to present the inaugural ‘In Battalions Festival’ – a chance for the theatre industry to come together for a day in what had otherwise been an online campaign. The D&D event next week is an evolution of that and deliberately builds in far more time for delegate-led debate compared to last year. The New Writing Platforms are regular public events curated by students and tutors from CSM’s MA Dramatic Writing course, which anyone can attend. This year I have continued my involvement, only this time in my new capacity as Artistic Director of touring theatre company Tamasha. I’ve been working with the students to research and develop Taxi Tales, a new site-specific community project which Tamasha is trialling, in which writers work with minicab drivers to develop monologues for the drivers to perform to customers in their cabs.
Devoted and Disgruntled uses Open Space technology to allow the group to determine the topics and flow of the discussion, and to take action on urgent issues. Could you tell us a bit more about their approach and why this is important for In Battalions?
Open Space is a simple but brilliant format which allows anyone attending the day to announce and host a discussion group on any subject within the day’s umbrella theme. Everyone else is free to move between these groups all day long and contribute in whatever way they wish. It is a very organic model for groups of people with shared interests but different ideas to come together and discuss those ideas at length. It makes for a very creative space in which partnerships can form and new projects coalesce. Apparently Stella Duffy’s Fun Palaces movement was born out of a D&D. I’m looking forward to seeing what emerges from our discussion ‘How should the theatre sector engage with the new government?’ It could be the start of several new campaigns along the lines of the original In Battalions, or even something completely different. All the discussions during the day are noted and logged on a bank of computers and available on the D&D website for anyone to browse after the day itself.
Do you think this is an issue which goes deeper than debates about why and how to fund new British theatre?
Yes I do. The debate about why and how to fund new British theatre is of course important but I think it’s symptomatic of a wider debate about the role of the state in 21st-century British society. UK arts and culture is not the only sector to find itself in the sights of this government – and with a Tory majority government that fight to justify the value we offer in return for our state investment is set to intensify. The reasons are ideological. Under the Coalition Government and this new Tory one we are witnessing a historic rolling back of the state – ‘Thatcherism 2.0’ if you like. It is fundamentally changing the nature of our society and country, everything from the NHS to schools, local councils, social care, prisons, defence, Europe – you name it. The UK Government is basically disinvesting from UK PLC, which is crazy if you think about it. The arts sector has so far been very reasonable in this debate, diligently undertaking economic impact studies and other such reports in response to Government requests for evidence of our value. But I think with the new Parliament the nature of that debate has now got to shift. We urgently need to find a way to get the Government to engage (in good faith) with what this is really about – the values system motivating cuts to the public sphere. UK culture has more than proven that it is a staggeringly good value public investment – yet still all the talk is of more cuts. This isn’t about the evidence – if it was then state investment in our sector would be increasing not decreasing – so it’s time to get more political. The gloves are off now, so I think it’s time to have that ideological conversation about our differences. I could be wrong about how effective that will be, but it’s one of the questions I’d like to discuss with the rest of the theatre industry at next Wednesday’s event.
Can you tell us a bit about the new direction you hope In Battalions will be taking in response to the new government?
I’m interested in whether we can have that good faith ideological conversation with this government, as described above. There is of course a question about how far that can be a research-led report in the way the previous In Battalions studies have been. It may be that In Battalions has to evolve into something else. However, I am interested in seeing if we can find a consortium of partners to help fund and research the effects of cuts on access to the profession and diversity on our stages – both in terms of those making the work and which worlds we are seeing represented. My hunch is that both are narrowing and that we’re seeing British theatre becoming made by, for and about an upper middle-class white elite based around the South East of England. If so then that’s not good for the art form and I’d like to see if it might be possible to generate some real research around it. That said, I am a full-time artistic director now not a freelance playwright anymore, so I can only really be involved in something like that in a very light-touch way. So the door is open for others who might want to take the In Battalions mantle on for the next five years – and I’m hoping some volunteers might emerge from next Wednesday’s event.
You are a long-time member of WGGB. Could you tell us why you are a member, and why other playwrights/writers should join?
I’ve been a proud member of the Writers’ Guild for about six years and I have got a lot out of it. I joined because I believe in writers – and all workers in fact – getting together to stand up for their rights. Once you join there are all sorts of ways to get involved. I was a member of the Guild’s Theatre Committee for a few years until my current workload prevented it and it was through that that In Battalions came about. I was also involved in helping write the Working Playwright pamphlets and in securing new terms with ITC and UK Theatre in the last but one round of negotiations. I also helped advise on the ‘Plays of Innocence and Experience’ project, an annual playwrights’ development programme which took place in collaboration with RADA. The Guild also helped support my own playwrights-in-schools scheme ‘Schoolwrights’. It is more important than ever that writers join the Guild. The next five years are going to be stormy to say the least and together we really are stronger. I’d especially encourage younger writers to join. Once you’re in there are all kinds of opportunities to get new initiatives off the ground and shape the nature of the debate within our sector.
Who can attend the event on 17 June, and who would you like to encourage to come along?
Anyone can come on 17 June. It will particularly appeal to those in the new theatre writing sector such as playwrights, actors, dramaturgs, theatre directors, producers and literary managers – but equally those in the non-text-based sectors who devise work for the stage. The original In Battalions report (and Ed Vaizey’s remarks) were about ‘the new’ rather than plays or playwrights specifically. I’d also hope the event attracts some interest from beyond the theatre industry – those working in other art forms and media will, I’m sure, have similar concerns about the next five years and I think we’ll be stronger for coming together to share ideas and experiences. I do a lot of work in schools and with young people so I’d hope for a reasonable contingent of drama teachers, as schools are critical in nurturing the next generation of artists and audiences. And if any politicians or lobbyists want to come along they’d be welcome too. This is the start of a conversation which I hope will rumble on for the next five years.
Fin Kennedy is Artistic Director of Tamasha.
Photo of Westminster: Shutterstock.com/olavs