The flowers are ordered and the train tickets booked for Ipswich. It’s exciting to be coming back to Pulse after a year — it’s where Near Gone started to gather some momentum, where we learned from the audience response that we were onto something.
And, of course, where we won the Suitcase Prize. It’s been a busy year since, as we finished the show and took it on tour and started working on a new piece. We’ve met lots of people, and spoken to many of them about the prize. Ed and Paul from China Plate told us when we were applying last year that they’d created the Suitcase Prize as a way to highlight sustainable theatre. Lots of our conversations have got us onto the question of what exactly that might be.
There’s environmental sustainability. One of the prize rules is that you have to get to Pulse using public transport – the idea was to find shows that didn’t need a van to tour. So we’ve had lots of discussions about travel, and often they’ve come back to audience and how they get to the theatre. Not just the question of whether they drove. But about how far from them a theatre might be. It’s much better for two of us to visit them near where they live than for them to travel to a big city. If the place they live still has a theatre.
We’ve spoken to people about heating their theatres, and the cost of keeping a building that’s empty much of the time. We’ve talked to technicians about the benefits of using LED lamps. We’ve wondered where all the green is, too: so many theatres are fantastic creative spaces set in uninspiring environments with no living plants at all (maybe, living in the countryside, we notice it more than some). We’ve talked about how to reduce the environmental impact of a theatre. When your building is a converted church with huge windows in thick stone walls, you’re restricted in what you can do, but it’s made us think about the footprint of our work, and that’s a really good thing.
There’s another kind of sustainability, though, that Ed and Paul were thinking about, a kind that’s been creeping up the agenda over the past year. The sustainability of artists’ careers is just as hard to tackle as those stone buildings. There have been growing campaigns to focus on the brilliant arts this country produces – BAC’s David Jubb has launched the Food For Thought campaign, which is just part of the work What Next has been doing around the country.
It’s no accident that culture is getting more profile around the European elections. A brief look abroad shows how much more aware of the value of culture some of our neighbours are (we went to IETM in Montpellier and were really struck by how effectively this crosses economic hardships too). The European context gives culture a boost as something that’s much more than a business success for export and tourism.
But it’s the artists who have been rising in visibility. Struck by a blogpost Bryony Kimmings wrote last year, artists and arts managers have started talking about a very real problem. A whole #illshowyoumine movement has been spawned, asking some of the same questions the prize raises. How do we make a living as artists? What’s happening to touring performance? How do we get paid for all the different aspects of our work when we’re producing, writing, directing, designing and performing it all ourselves?
Arts Council England has done a good job of supporting a variety of arts organisations from local arts centres and rural touring schemes right up to the National Theatre. It’s made sure their staff are paid fairly, trained appropriately and by doing that it creates an ecology in which there are great careers in arts management – in selecting and marketing work, in providing the facilities to present it. But there’s nothing like the same opportunity for the artists themselves, who are often (particularly when making devised or solo work) the worst paid people involved. Is that right?
So we won the prize, and we’re still touring the show, and making a new one, and getting ready for an exhibition. We’re really busy. And that makes sustainability matter more.
Sustainability is important if you don’t want artists to feel the need to move into something else so they can start a family, or move into their own home. Sustainability is important if you value diversity in the arts. Sustainability is important to artists thinking about how to plan rehearsals and tours, how to design performances, where to place their work. Sustainability means making sure there’s a future for live performance: for coming together and sharing a space in which something, anything, can happen.
Here’s to passing the suitcase to this year’s winner. To more of those exciting, challenging conversations spreading around the country. And to innovative, engaging live performance!