Same place, same time, one year later

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!

Dusty Feet picture

Dusty Feet on the path

We’ve been getting really stuck into the Dusty Feet project in the last couple of weeks. Visits to museums and the History Centre in Chippenham have thrown up all sorts of really exciting objects, and we’ve been planning the workshops in which people can participate.

We’ve been getting together the things we need for embroidering handkerchiefs — and we need to learn a bit about this ourselves — plus planning the work with a local school preparing to stamp bread! You can come in to get some of the baked breads yourself on 19th and 26th July – at Salisbury Library from 10am-1pm.

It’s a complex project, but we’re really excited about the various strands of it and looking forward to it all coming together at Salisbury Library’s exhibition from 17 July.

Meanwhile, dates for the embroidery workshops (all 10am-1pm at Salisbury Library) are:

  • 23 May
  • 3 June
  • 7 June

It’s a great chance to meet people, have a cup of tea while embroidering and hear about the project from the lead artists. Just turn up and ask the library staff about joining in on the day!

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Developing Manpower

We’ve just spent a week at The Point Eastleigh, working in the Creation Space to begin the process of shaping our various ideas about Manpower into a performance. And we’re really pleased. Alister built (and dismantled, several times) a shed. Kat discovered men she didn’t know. We browsed magazines and we drilled. There’s hours and hours of video.

The most important outcome is that we’re on track: there’s a thing which we’re slowly chiselling away at, a piece we’re sculpting from the block of our ideas. It has its own form, something a bit unusual, something unexpected. But that’s part of the fun of making: each idea leads to unexpected consequences. Those discoveries keep the process alive, because it’s at the same time going to plan. Previews start in September and we can’t wait to get on with the next stage of rehearsals.

Manpower is commissioned by ICIA University of Bath with Salisbury Arts Centre and supported by the Kevin Spacey Foundation, The Point Eastleigh, Bristol Old Vic Ferment and BAC.

Near Gone image by Alma Haser

Near Gone summer

Our biggest work so far, Near Gone, is a  gripping story of survival, told with passionate dancing, pounding gypsy music and tremendous honesty. Winner of the inaugural Suitcase Prize as part of Pulse Ipswich, it’s been on tour since last October, and audiences are telling us they love it!

“immensely powerful and life-enhancing”Photo by Tamsin Drury

You can see Near Gone this summer at:

  • 30 May, New Wolsey Ipswich, 01473 295 900
  • 12 June, Performance Mix Festival, here, New York
  • 1-23 August (odd dates only) at Summerhall, Edinburgh

Our visit to New York is supported by caravan. Our appearance in Edinburgh is supported by Arts Council England and Escalator East to Edinburgh.

We hope to see you soon!

“Brilliant, original, energetic and beautiful.”

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IETM Montpellier

We’d been warned. Warned about what IETM wouldn’t be like. Warned about what not to do there. But we didn’t know, as we boarded the Eurostar and then the TGV across France, what it would be like – or whether we’d like it!

We did. We really did. We’ve had a few great days of conversations about things trans-. About the boundaries of gender and sex, about the importance of national boundaries, about change and momentum. We’ve met programmers, promoters and people who enable work of all kinds to be made. We’ve had some great food and wine (it was the south of France, after all), seen some great performance and mused on the question of what it’s all for.

Kat and fire in Montpellier

Perhaps, though, that’s the point. Not knowing what it’s for. We’re normally so immersed in our everyday tasks, in making, producing and sharing work, that we don’t get the chance to step back and see the bigger picture. Find out what other people are up to – not just one other artist, but as a reflection on what thinking is going on, discovering who else is interested in similar things in other corners of Europe, and not feel there has to be an outcome.

There’s something really generous in the idea of industry professionals coming together for a meeting at which they just talk about ideas — with no agenda to fix, to buy or sell, to make this or that project happen. In the long-term, there may be partnerships which arise, but for now, we’re just really glad to be part of the conversations, to let them fertilise our own thinking — and as we take the train home, we’re already really looking forward to the next IETM.

Photo by Tamsin Drury

Touring: our spring

Touring Near Gone in the way we have – with some pretty long gaps between the dates – has prompted a lot of reflection.

Obviously, it’s economically more sensible to organise gigs next to each other, to block out a couple of weeks and show the piece and then move on. But it’s not very practical for us to tell venues that there’s only one date they can have. When we speak to programmers, they sometimes take a couple of months to reach a decision, and by then the dates that might originally have suited have changed anyway. So we’ve got gaps.

And each time we pitch up with our flowers, and re-immerse ourselves in the piece, we find it’s still fresh and real. We find ourselves performing roles very close to ourselves, and we’re interested in holding those roles and the audience, interested in the responses we elicit that night. We really enjoy sharing the work with audiences, and they’ve been enjoying it back.

But questions about the sustainability of work keep coming up. There are well-established artists struggling to make ends meet despite really dense touring schedules and great audiences. There’s no sense of a future where that issue is resolved. We don’t have the security of the fees that traditional theatre models paid writers, directors, designers and performers — and something’s going to have to change.

Photo by Alma Haser

Journeying On…

It’s great when a work has a long life, and this is one we really enjoy revisiting because it sparks such interesting conversations with our audience. A Journey of a Home has been to Wales twice in the past year, as well as playing ‘at home’ in Eastleigh.

It’s a one-on-one audio walk which sets off from a booth where anyone can stop by and share their own journeys with us — or read those others have left. Based on the story of a young woman’s first voyage from her homeland, it has proved very popular around the country and was selected for the World Stage Design showcase in Cardiff last year.

Alister preparing his wood

Manpower begins

It’s always exciting when we first share a new work, and Prototype at Tobacco Factory Theatres allowed us to do that late last year. The response – to some really simple action – was really encouraging.

And then we shared some more ideas at Bristol Old Vic’s Ferment. We wanted to explore several different kinds of text and several approaches to masculinity. It was a lot to pack into half an hour, maybe a bit of a tidal wave of material to throw at the audience, but we got some really useful feedback from it.

That meant that when we reached BAC for a brief residency, we were ready to start shaping some material. Despite a showing at the end of the week, most of our time was spent playing: just creating material was fantastic. It was good to be immersed in the urban grittiness of London to see men who aren’t like those where we live. By the end of the week, we’d made lots, discarded lots, and really built a sense of the shape the work could take.

Feedback from the sharing at BAC has given us plenty to think about, and a real clarity about the way forward for the work. Finally, we ended the week at South Bank Centre’s Being  A Man festival: a new initiative which discussed and showcased a real variety of masculinities: friendship, vulnerability, loyalty, power… It’s great to feel that we’re ready to move into production with a new piece, even while Near Gone is still touring: here’s to Manpower!

Near Gone review in Leamington Spa Courier

On waking up on Thursday morning, the second day of our trip to the lovely Warwick Arts Centre, we got this fab review. Read on below!

Review: hope at the end of a harrowing journey in two-language performance at Warwick Arts Centre
(Published on 16/01/2014 at 9:38 am)

Near Gone is a poetic, beautifully crafted tale of unspeakable tragedy and loss. It is told in two languages by Katherina Radeva (Bulgarian) whose words are ‘translated’ by Alister Lownie (English). The language gap is part of the experience: it symbolises the difficulty of conveying to anyone who was not intimately connected to an event the sense of cataclysmic loss that accompanies the accidental near death of a child.

This is not so much a play about character as about experience. As Katherina tells her tale in fragments, punctuated by frantic dancing to gypsy music, we are drawn into a looming sense of dread as the climax approaches. It isn’t so much a matter of suspense, but of return to a place and time when everything changed.

The stage is bare, except for hundreds of white carnations. These form the props for the event. As Katherina dances she whirls bunches around her, petals falling off her like sweat or spilled blood. Soon the stage is a carpet of flowers.

The ending will come as a surprise, and is much warmer than might have been expected. We leave the theatre with a sense of hope that such tragedies are survivable, that love and fidelity will overcome the worst of all things.

Two Destination Language believe strongly in the power of community, identity and language and in the involvement of audiences in their shows. The involvement here is in the engagement with the experience. We watch, but our emotional journey is not quite like that in a conventional performance. It feels visceral, edgy and alive.

Near Gone has already begun to gather awards. Its expression of an age-old experience is fresh and inspiring.

Nick Le Mesurier

drawing in

We’ve had a pretty good autumn. Near Gone has been getting really warm responses from the audiences on its autumn tour — people (not people who work with us, or even in the arts) have even come to see it more than once, which we think is a pretty good sign that we’re touching people. Next year we’ll be taking the piece to lots more venues, meeting more new audiences, and we’re really excited to be doing it. Near Gone feels like the best piece we’ve made, and the responses we get from audiences tell us they think so too.

Plus it’s going to be busy year. We have plans for more FLINT work, for projects with local people where we’re based in Wiltshire, and all that gives us confidence in the sustainability of our work. There isn’t much in the kitty for Christmas, but we are enjoying having clear plans, lots of work and supportive relationships with venues, artists, producers and commissioners.

That doesn’t mean everything’s peachy. As the nights draw in, and we’ve been planning for the next couple of years, it’s clear that making a living needs to be a priority. And there been lots of timely conversation on this topic, kick-started by Bryony Kimming’s blog and followed up on twitter, plus some really interesting contributions from others including Daniel Bye, Action Hero and Gavin Stride.

One of the really clear things in this is that, whatever the political positions from which we make our work, artists are working in a market. You can be clever in the way you play that, like Damien Hirst, but it’s a straightforward fact that not everyone who wants to is going to be able to make a living from art. And even those who do have to be patient, have to be reasonable in what they expect from their work, have to accept that they’ve made a choice to spend their time on art rather than something better-paid. We have to make good work that finds and engages audiences, and that involves not only developing our artistic skills through our whole careers, but also coupling the art with strong marketing, with innovative ideas for engaging with audiences, with a realism about the kinds of work which can be financially sustained.

There are lots of valid concerns though. The models for funding implicitly place artists at the bottom of the pile when we look at how people in the arts get paid – there are salaries for the programmers and the assessors at funding organisations, for the venue technicians, cleaners, marketing team, for the PR agents, for producers…and that’s entirely proper. But there isn’t really any kind of minimum working effectively for artists, especially where they aren’t making work according to the traditional theatre model. Where a couple of artists perform the roles of writer, director, designer, producer and performers (which we do), that model would often give for every one of those roles a higher fee than we get for the whole lot!

Artists are funding their UK touring from international touring, which I think ought to be giving them better fees that recognise their skill and success. We (artists, venues and funders, working together) need to find a model which works to help audiences experience the best new work being made. This isn’t about the lifestyle of artists — we support our work through a variety of teaching, engagement work, touring our own shows and making FLINT events – it’s about whether artists should be making sacrifices in order to show their work to UK audiences.

So we look forward to talking about this at D&D in January, at Paines Plough’s The Future of Small-Scale Touring and in our conversations with other artists, venues and funders. We’re feeling optimistic. 2014 looks like a great year!

collaborative performance from Katherina Radeva and Alister Lownie