Thursday 22 April 2010

"Like You in Another Place"

We're coming to the end of the second week of practical work on What I Heard About The World in Sheffield (with a brief visit to Glasgow halfway through).

We appear to have made a durational work by accident. The 'Research Map' we ran at Forest Fringe Microfestival at The Arches last weekend nicely transferred the research set up in the workspace to a performance situation, and produced a lot of great stories. Over 6 1/2 hours of mapping the world alphabetically using post-it notes we got from Afghanistan to Italy.

All photos, What I Heard About The World (Research Map) at Forest Fringe Microfestival, Glasgow, by Gillian Lees

We are resisting the temptation to transfer exactly the same process to the PAZZ Festival next week, as we want to try out some other material, too, but we will take elements of it with us. Whilst we think the story-drawing / two-word titles and country post-it notes process we were working with is strong, it feels like this is exploring potential material for the 'theatre' version of the show, rather than defining the mechanism or form of it. We don't think a simple country & story list will sustain a 75min theatre piece. We are keen, though, to try a 12 or 14 hour version of the Research Map over the summer, to try and plan out the whole world in one sitting.

For me the live-drawing is nice, and since Glasgow we've been working with projected drawing and mapping which formally develops work we were doing with The Lad Lit Project and on our Mixtape piece Songmap (of which more, soon). Unsurprisingly, we are asking ourselves what the relationship of the three performers (Jorge Andrade, Chris Thorpe and myself) is, between ourselves and between us and the audience.

Some of the material we'll be trying out at PAZZ next week will be about our own relationships with maps, mapping, fakes, replicas, other countries and the world, as well as sharing and gathering more stories.

This fortnight of work has include two inspiring conversations with members of the team at the University of Sheffield. A few notes from those meetings:
"You can't be emotionally engaged with your subject matter the whole time."

Maps to help you "think about human beings as being 'like you in another place'."

The number of countries in the world is like bones in the body: about 200 and they fuse as you get older.

We are better at abstract thinking than our grandparents - but not as good at planting potatoes. There has been an almost biological change in the audience.

There are 6.8 Billion people in the world. How much space do they need? Not much to stand in. The entire human race could stand on the Isle of Wight, holding hands. How much space do they need to work in? When they closed down the pits in Welsh mining villages, those communities we’re always going to die. Because there was no way of employing that many people above ground, without building a skyscraper the size of the mines that had been closed.

Maps have been described as collections of white lies. A map gives you an understanding - not the understanding.

If someone is happy there is the assumption that they don't need/deserve economic justice.

So our challenge now, as we prepare to head to Oldenburg to present our work as part of Pazz In Progress, is to pull a few strands out of what we've been working on so far to make a (fairly) cohesive selection of material that explores the issues we want, whilst being open enough to encourage discussion and contribution from the audience.


There are more pictures of Forest Fringe Microfestival at The Arches on our Flickr pages and on the Doubtlesshouse website.

Friday 9 April 2010

The VAT Question

At the State of the Arts conference back in January I asked Ben Bradshaw, Secretary of State for Culture, and Liz Forgan, Chair of Arts Council England, if they (their organisations, I suppose) knew how much VAT the arts contributed to the national coffers, in comparison to the amount of subsidy the arts receive as a whole. I wasn't expecting them to have the figure to hand, obviously, and I knew that it could only be a best guess figure on the VAT, because where do you draw the line...? But I was hoping that they would either know that the figures were known, or that they would think that it would be useful to know these figures.

I was following up from a pertinent question that Jon Spooner of Unlimited Theatre had just asked them, which was: how can we, the creative community, help them to make the case that the Department of Culture, Media and Sport should have its budget maintained at its current level, what ever the outcome of the next election? (Jeremy Hunt, Shadow Culture Secretary was at the event, too). With that in mind, I thought having this information in the public domain might help our case.

Ben Bradshaw took my contact details and promised to get back to me, and I wrote to him after the conference to more fully explain my question. The DCMS Public Engagement & Recognition Unit contacted me this week with the information that is available. So thanks to Ben and to the DCMS staff who researched this. It's not the whole picture, but it is instructive.

I had written to Ben:
My question came from a more specific point I had heard about VAT on theatre tickets, as that is more easy to quantify. A well known theatre director, whose name I now forget, unfortunately, quoted figures in an interview a few years ago, that suggested that VAT on all theatre tickets – so including non-subsidised theatre – actually equals or exceeds the subsidy that the Arts Council has to give to theatre companies. I emailed the Arts Council then to enquire after the figures, but they didn’t have the numbers.

One of the points of raising this, of course, is that the subsidised arts drive and feed into the ‘commercial’ arts. Many of the artists who work in commercial theatre shows, on TV and in film, will also work in the funded theatre sector. The two are inextricably linked.

When this is broadened to the arts as a whole, the effect would be harder to quantify, but that’s because it is more complex. The arts drive, or at least support, the content of all forms of broadcast. How much VAT is raised from the sale of TV, video and stereo equipment? A proportion of that is arguably attributable to the artistic content available for them. How much VAT comes from pre-theatre menus in restaurants. Is VAT paid on art works sold at auction?

I understand therefore that pinning down an exact figure for VAT raised by the arts would be impossible, but it would be interesting to know roughly how it compares to the amount given to Arts Council England.
This week the DCMS responded:
You are right to highlight the important link between subsidised and commercial theatre; this is one of the strong arguments in favour of public funding for theatre, and the arts more widely. A large part of this link is in developing artists and art forms and in widening access to the arts to as many people as possible, and in encouraging excellence at all levels. Part of it is also to do with economic impact.
Which is good to hear. But I'd also like to point out here that whilst I believe this is a valid argument for the support of the subsidised arts, I don't think the fact that they are an "R&D" engine for the mainstream is their raison d'etre. I make, and go and see, small scale, "experimental", devised work for audiences of 200 or less (much less sometimes), because I value the performer - audience relationship that is achieved at that scale, in that mode - I like the eye contact, the intimacy, the immediacy. I think it is important. And that is why it should be funded.

But I know that not everyone thinks that, so I'm interested in being able to counter the 'arts should be able to support themselves if they're any good' and 'how many teachers would that pay for?' arguments.

Which makes the next part from the DCMS very interesting:
You are right to say that VAT income on theatre tickets is greater than the public subsidy theatre receives from Arts Council England. Last year, at London theatres alone, VAT on tickets generated £75m in income. Arts Council England invests just over £100m in theatre.
One way of reading this would be to say that the government doesn’t subsidise theatre, theatre more than pays for itself out of VAT alone, and makes a contribution to the nation’s coffers.

The DCMS only have figures for London theatres, and acknowledge that a further £12m of lottery money went to support theatre in 2008/09. But the DCMS also point out the wider, and better known, arguments for seeing subsidy of the arts as investment that produces a massive return.
However the economic impact of theatre and the subsidised arts is much greater than just VAT. The creative industries, including a number of subsidised sectors, account for 6.2% of the UK’s Gross Value Added (GVA), £16.6bn in exports, and 2m jobs. The subsidised arts also play a major role in attracting inbound tourism, worth £16.3bn, and we know that four million overseas visitors to Britain went to the theatre, ballet, opera or a concert. The relationship between subsidised and commercial arts is vital in maintaining the quality and access that makes the arts, culture and the creative industries so successful.
As our General Manager pointed out to me when we read that yesterday, 2m jobs are also going to channel a lot of employers and employees National Insurance back to the government.

As ever, the thinking is that the arts will have a fight on our hands to maintain the level of government funding we receive in this year's Spending Review, whatever happens on May 6th. I recognise that I have a vested interest in this as this is how I make a living, and I am extremely grateful that Third Angel is an Arts Council England Regularly Funded Organisation. So for me these figures are an important part of the argument.

Tuesday 6 April 2010

Better Words Than 'Fake'

We've been getting a great response to out call out for 'true stories of fake things' for our new show, What I Heard About The World. As well as some great stories and anecdotes, we've also had quite a few people say, 'So *what* is it you're looking for?' and '...nope, nothing comes to mind.' Which has helped to refine our brief, and to understand a little better what we're interested in at this stage.

It has confirmed my suspicion that I'm not particularly interested in deception - in fakes, in hoaxes, in cons. (I am interested in all that stuff, actually, but it's not what I think this show is about). So perhaps 'fake' isn't the right work. Checking 'fake' in a thesaurus just produces more words that imply deception, and in fact some of the other words suggested early on might be more helpful. So, how's this:
We're looking for instances where a replica, substitute, simulation or stand-in is used knowingly, in place of the real thing. An alternative, a deputy, a locum, a proxy. An understudy, even. A deliberate, or at least recognised, reliance on the inauthentic. Things that keep us one step removed from the original. Things that might, in the longer term, replace the original. My instinct tells me that this is not a good thing, but of course research so far has thrown up several examples of instances when this is a really positive thing. And of course, as ever, we are looking for ideas that support and challenge our thesis.
The other answer is that we don't *know* what we're looking for. But we'll know it when we find it. So we're also interested in the tangents and digressions that our provocation might throw up in your mind. Anything that our impetus suggests to you, we're interested to hear.

We start the next phase of practical work on What I Heard About The World next week, with two weeks work in Sheffield, including a flying visit to Glasgow, followed by a week in Oldenburg. We'll be sharing our research so far, and inviting more contributions, at the following festivals in the next few months:

Forest Fringe Micro Festival, The Arches, Glasgow, 16 & 17 April
PAZZ Performing Arts Festival, Oldenburg, 28 & 29 April
Forge Festival, Sheffield Theatres, 29 May

So please come and talk to us about the project if you can make it to any of those.

In the meantime, feel free to respond with thoughts and stories by commenting here, or emailing us at alex[at] We're also sharing some of the ideas we're sent on Twitter, @AlexanderKelly, and using the hashtag #whatiheardabouttheworld.

Thanks in advance for any contribution you make.

Finally, credit where it's due, the good news, and the schedule: What I Heard About The World, by Third Angel and mala voadora, is a co-production with Sheffield Theatres, Teatro Maria Matos and the PAZZ Performing Arts Festival, in association with Supported by the National Lottery through Arts Council England. The show will premiere in Sheffield Theatres' Studio, and then tour in Portugal, in autumn 2010. Further dates in 2011.