Sunday, 23 November 2008

Oh My God! I think I've opened the BROWN door...

Here's an article I wrote for the Theatre Bristol website. It's a personal perspective on something that's been nagging at me for ages. Thanks to for suggesting I spend the time articulating it.

Last week I went to a meeting led by Sustained Theatre, ostensibly to discuss setting up 'regional hubs' for practitioners from "The Sector".

You get what I mean by "The Sector", right?

Apparently, I'm part of "The Sector" because I work in theatre and I have brown skin. Well actually, because I have brown skin. The theatre bit is a given because that is the whole of what Sustained Theatre are dealing with.

Recently, I've been asked to participate in a whole load of "cultural diversity" thinking/action/research. To be honest, I'm not even sure if "cultural diversity" is the correct phrase any longer. Terminology and definition is always a massive stumbling block in this area. It is never clearly resolved, as demonstrated by Sustained Theatre settling on the phrase "The Sector" - a label that is ALWAYS going to sound weak because it needs clarifying every time you use it. If I tell someone that I'm part of The Sector, I can guarantee that they will not assume that I'm a black person who works in theatre. No. They'll probably think I'm part of some sort of cult.

Hold on, I don't even know if I'm allowed to call myself "black". I'm of Sri Lankan descent, so maybe I should call myself "brown", or "Asian"?

Usually I say "I live in Bristol, but originally I'm from the north".

But that's specific to me, it's not the condition of my ethnicity. The thing is, my ethnicity does not in itself tell you an awful lot about me. And the problem with 'cultural diversity in the arts' debates is that they tend to want to identify 'our' professional needs as a group banded together through ethnicity. And in my experience, that doesn't greatly chime with my professional needs as an individual.

The bigger problem with this approach is that it defines itself outside of other discussions. Integrating with broader, non-ethnic-specific debates (about artist or audience development, for example) is not always considered from the outset, or indeed, at all. Many of the 'Sector needs' identified in a report like Whose Theatre...? are the needs of ALL artists working outside of traditional theatre. If I take Live Art as an example, there are similar problems: around audience development, a lack of understanding of the range of work covered by the notion of 'Live Art', artists' technical skills and training, a lack of published archive, and how work is supported or not by venues (Ekow Eshun's closure of the Live Art programme at the ICA being a case in point).

It seems to me that much research into the needs of "The Sector" starts from an assumption of lack. Perhaps it's a fair assumption that, if diverse ethnicity is under-represented in theatre, then it must be due to something missing, somewhere. But by starting from this position, and by conducting the research outside of the broader context, there is a real danger of duplicating support that is already on offer and thereby setting up an (unintentional) apartheid between support for black artists and support for all other artists. For example, if an aim is to get more black and asian artists' work distributed internationally, then shouldn't the goal be to get more of these artists included in existing, respected platforms such as the British Council showcase at Edinburgh Festival? Is there a danger that by focussing on a diversity-specific showcase like deciBel, we are tacitly stating that we don't need the British Council showcase to consider work by diverse artists?

If ethnically diverse artists are not accessing professional development support that is already on offer, does that mean we should automatically seek to set up alternative support structures for black artists, rather than find ways to help them access the support that's already available?

I'm sure deciBel and the British Council talk to each other, but that's a big assumption on my part as there's no visible partnership on the deciBel website. And without seeing a visible link between diversity-specific support and mainstream support, are we reinforcing the idea that diverse artists cannot access that mainstream and that the mainstream is not interested in them? Bristol no longer has a dedicated Black arts venue, but over the last couple of years, I've personally seen performance work by a huge range of ethnically diverse artists: Yara El-Sherbini, Roza Ilgen, Qasim Riza Shaheen, Hetain Patel, Shi Ker, Harminder Singh Judge, Folake Shoga, Jiva Parthipan, Marcus Young, Edson Burton, Mem Morrison, Leiza McLeod... Most of this list comes from Arnolfini's live art programme, but it also features work I've seen at the Tobacco Factory and Mayfest. These are all high profile professional programmes, but I wonder how many black and asian theatre professionals simply do not look to these programmes because they assume they're not interested in diverse artists or audiences?

I'm not saying that there are no issues specific to non-white theatre professionals (there certainly are - particularly around recognising theatre as a profession and accessing training), but perhaps there needs to be some better assessment of where these issues relate to issues for theatre more broadly, so we can see where the real gaps in support are?

Friday, 7 November 2008

President Obama

This result has to be noted. I mean, check out the size of this crowd!

Even for those weeks on end, when the polls and the pundits were saying it was a dead cert, I just couldn't bring myself to take it for granted that America would elect a black president.

I'm still thrilled by it. It does genuinely feel like something has changed in the world. A massive border has shifted. Aspirations are now not just based on theoretical possibility or 'what if' - this is tangible, actual precedent.

The crowds, the speech, the sheer fact of it is genuinely very inspiring and very moving. I remember the excitement and optimism that came over us when Labour got into government in 1997 - that was amazing. Obama's election is like that, but ten times over and for the whole world.

It will certainly be a moment to hark back to. I think Britain is still a long way from having a non-white Prime Minister. I don't think it's a question of racism so much as one of identity and how we own our Britishness and our entitlement and responsibility towards it. It will be interesting though, to see if Obama's election inspires Black people in this country to truly believe they could aim for Downing Street.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Producer thoughts

So, as I've been mentioning, I got to get official as a film producer earlier this year, working with a professional cast and crew, and even a little budget. All my dreams on VHS is now complete, and the DVDs are being burned. I can't wait for people to see it. I really want to know what people think - both those that were involved, and people who know nothing about it. It sure is a handsome film, with fabulously watchable performances. And I think it's very funny - not a boom-cha gag-fest, but proper 'smile on your face' funny. There's no 'boy loses balloon in playground' dourness about this film. Don't get me wrong, I see PLENTY of flaws in it too, but I'm so far removed from the immediate impact of it now, that I need a few people to remind me what it's like. Fingers crossed, we'll get the DVDs by the end of next week and can start getting them out to everyone.

In the meantime, I've been thinking about the similarities and differences between producing films and producing live art and performance. Funnily enough, I think they're surprisingly similar; it's just the industry contexts have some huge differences. But fundamentally, you work to a project, and each project is different - so even if you answer the questions differently (because of differing contexts, industries, ideas) the basic questions you have to ask are pretty much the same.

Incidentally, when I Google image searched the word "producer", this is the third image that showed up:

Here are some things I've noticed about Producing, culled from 8 years of doing it professionally, more years of talking to people about it and in anticipation of many more years of learning about it:

There's no pattern to making it work. You have to work to each specific project according to its own specific needs.

It's all about collaboration; and collaboration requires effort, trust and respect. Everyone tends to work above and beyond the call of duty - but never take it for granted and always be grateful. Clarify people's roles and responsibilities - never assume that something will just get done. Whether that means making the argument, writing the copy, cashflowing the production, making the coffee, selling the tickets... Either do it yourself, or make sure someone else knows it's their responsibility.

It's about knowing when and where to compromise or not - understanding the role that individual elements play in creating the bigger whole - that includes concept, people, and budgets. Being an artist (and I count producing in that) is all about making decisions.

A good producer spends a lot of time absorbing other people's stress. Producing is not just about fundraising. It's about understanding the creative needs of the project and making sure the artist, writer, director, whoever, is as freed up as possible to focus on doing their job as best as possible - rather than worrying about how they're going to feed the company, or whether they've said the wrong thing to the wrong technician.

Producing is not just about fundraising, but you do have to spend a lot of your time fundraising
. It's hard work, but it's not always boring.

You're responsible for making the project real in the big bad world. That means thinking about the audience.

Choose your projects carefully
- because each one leads to the next. And also because it's bloody hard work, and if you don't know why you're doing it, it's not likely to work out well, nor are you likely to learn anything from it.

Be prepared to fail and keep failing better. Aim high and you'll never be mediocre, even if you crash and burn spectacularly. Never anticipate success or do things 'just because you ought to' - that way lies hubris and mediocrity.

Making good work happen is brilliant. I actually mean that.