International Women’s Day – the women who help and inspire me

March 8, 2017 by

With so many talented, inspiring, excellent women in the world (we are half the population after all) its a rather daunting task to make some kind of shortlist. But in honour of International Women’s Day I’m going to give it a go, focusing on those women who help and inspire me personally in the course of my work.

The Other Way Works is and always has been female led (by me – Katie Day, and also at the start with the wonderful Jane Packman as well). Starting out as a didactic feminist outfit, we continue to create work collaboratively and often focus on telling the stories of marginalised female characters (see the overly sheltered daughter ‘Debs’ in Avon Calling, and the Polish hotel chambermaid ‘Lena’ in Black Tonic).

So, here are the excellent women …

Janice, Jess & Rachel from Women & Theatre
Generous in every way, these brilliant women are always on hand around the office with advice ranging from budgets to company governance to childcare tips. W&T has been working at the coal face of theatre in community settings for over 30 years, with energy, positivity and a good helping of humour. I’m very grateful to them for taking me under their wing.

Alison Gagen
Alison Gagen has been working in the theatre team at Arts Council England West Midlands’ office for as long as I’ve been working professionally, which is extraordinary in this sector where people move roles every five minutes. She’s a committed, hard working, strategic advocate for the region’s theatre sector, and I’ve greatly benefited from the knowledge and experience she’s amassed over the years. As The Other Way Works’ primary funder since its inception, my relationship with Arts Council England is key. In today’s stripped-back Arts Council I feel so lucky to be able to meet up and chat face to face with Alison, someone who knows me and my work, and whose opinion I always trust.

Karen Newman
As Director of BOM (Birmingham Open Media) Karen is a relative newcomer to my network. My respect for her attitude to artists and her facilitative approach led me to apply for a BOM fellowship, which I was recently awarded. This means that I am currently a 2017 BOM Fellow, able to participate in the BOM community of practicing makers across arts, science and technology. It should be an interesting year!

Delia Garratt
Delia is Director of Cultural Engagement at the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust and has been Chair of The Other Way Works’ Board of Directors since 2012. Joining just at the time that I went off on maternity leave, she has seen the Company through many phases, including our recent move to become a registered charity. I hugely value her time, encouragement, willingness to listen to yet another one of my crazy ideas, and her commitment to keeping the Company moving forwards. I wish her all the best in her own upcoming maternity leave, and look forward to her re-joining us at board meetings later this year.

Clare Reddington
It was a privilege to work with and learn from Clare when I took up a one year placement in 2009 to work in her (then) small team at Watershed Bristol to produce the UK wide Theatre Sandbox development scheme.
Openness, passion, a sense of fun, curiosity, and good old fashioned hard work has seen Clare promoted to Creative Director at Watershed and expand her teams and projects in new and always exciting areas. She’s very inspirational to me in the way that she leads, and the role she plays in the male-dominated tech sector.

Katherine Maxwell Rose and Louise Platt
Katherine and Lou are founder members of The Other Way Works, and much of the Company’s work has been made in collaboration with one or other of these wonderful pair. There have been so many valuable and creative times working on projects but two favourite moments are: Travelling across land and sea over 3 days to Greece with Katherine to work on design and shoot the film content for Black Tonic in early 2008; and re-creating Lou’s most treasured memory for her as a 30 second immersive physical and audio experience during our R&D retreat for the Afterlife project in 2014. They both have their own successful creative practices these days as editor/budding novelist and dramatherapist, but I always cherish the times when we can get together to create.

My Mum
Working as a university lecturer all her working life showed me that, as a woman and a mother, it’s not just possible, but normal to do a job that you love and that keeps challenging you.
I’m also hugely grateful for her incredible childcare support in recent years, without which many of my work commitments would not have been possible.

And lastly it feels important to credit those from the ‘invisible’ female workforce that facilitate my own ability to work: Virginia my daughter’s childminder; and Simone who cleans our house every fortnight.

Do follow International Women’s Day’s hashtag #BeBoldForChange today and lets all stand together for equality for women here in the UK, and across the world.

Is the use of digital technology by the theatre and cultural sector really declining? A (ranty) response to the 2015 Digital Culture 2015 Report

December 18, 2015 by

Nesta, AHRC & Arts Council England have just released the findings from this year’s survey into Digital Culture.

Download it here:
http://artsdigitalrnd.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/12/Digital-Culture-2015-Final.pdf

The Stage (https://www.thestage.co.uk/news/2015/digital-technology-in-decline-in-theatre-sector-claims-report/) have jumped straight in the claim that digital technology is in decline in the theatre sector. But what does this actually mean?

I’ve completed the previous two years of surveys on behalf of The Other Way Works, but this year the request languished in my inbox unopened. So much of the content is focused on ‘digital’ systems and marketing, with narrow and oddly specific questions on particular areas. I didn’t feel that the data I would be contributing would be reflecting our work and relationship with technology in the way I think is important or interesting.

The summary suggests that “digital technology has become seemingly less important to certain aspects of arts and cultural organisations’ work”. They may well have a point, but I wonder how much this is just a case of much of today’s administration and marketing work just being ‘digital’ by default and not considered to be in a special category anymore worthy of particular note?

Surely its no longer news to talk about the fact that your arts organisation has a Twitter account, a Facebook page, a Website, sends eflyers, e-newsletters, emails, uses Skype or Hangouts, cloud-based databases, uploads content to video & audio streaming sites. Isn’t that just the way that individuals and organisations operate these days? This isn’t ‘digital’ anymore, its just work. And its definitely not ‘digital innovation’. When there’s a free, consumer service, that as individuals we use on a daily basis for communication and leisure, just using it to help you run your arts organisation isn’t really worthy of note.

The Stage’s claim that Digital Technology is in decline in the theatre sector specifically highlights the stat that ‘only’ 8% of theatres live-stream their performances. So what? That’s just one (albeit one overly focused on by the funders, see The Space & Nesta R&D fund) use of digital technology. And a pretty dull one at that. I think its disappointing or maybe even embarrassing to judge a live artform’s engagement with digital technology with so much focus on this metric.

The report quotes representatives from some of the funders pointing fingers at the sector for ‘stepping back’ from investing in digital technologies. This seems a bit rich to me. The focus of investment in specific areas by organisations is surely heavily influenced by the funders own priorities and the funding streams they create. And it is these that are perhaps exacerbating the problem.

Nesta/AHRC/ACE’s Digital R&D fund decided to make large grants to a few to act as ‘examples’ for the rest of the sector to follow. The responsibility to succeed and the fact that larger more ‘reliable’ organisations were selected meant that the levels of possible ‘innovation’ within these restrictions were questionable. The money flowed to the few rather than the many. And to buildings more than to independent producing theatre companies, making the future even more unevenly distributed. And don’t get me started on The Space (in fact you can hear me making my points to the panel on the video of the 2nd Q&A session at their recent information seminar – https://www.youtube.com/watch?list=PLrRq4FeMUe-fYjtA7we1rI9ms-3ymR1EP&v=Pe1sCXHEGj0 at 11:50 in).

Their own metrics paint a picture of their pet funds’ failures to seed digital innovation in the wider cultural sector.
And on the bright side? Well maybe there is one…

The potential positive outcome of this report could be that it makes the case for the funders to be able to make more money available for digital experimentation, ideally with a focus on the independent sector and to creative exploration within the artform itself rather than in the marketing of it. And to make more, smaller grants to allow a much larger number of organisations to get involved, try things out, make more things, make better things, to engage experimentally with digital technologies as new tools with which to create their work – essentially to innovate in this area.

‘The Rooms’ Sitting Room Session – When to say no to an idea

November 16, 2015 by

I was asked to speak about our REACT-funded project for 5 minutes as part of the Sitting Room Sessions at the Private View of REACT’s excellent ‘The Rooms’ festival in early November 2015.

Here is the text of the talk (minus the live asides of course, which made it a bit less dry!):

“I’m going to leave it actually.

Yes, its a great idea.
Yes, it seems there would be a market for it. The Funeral industry would be the most obvious place to start.
Yes, no-ones doing it yet, well they’ve started trying in a way, but their attempts are pretty poor quality, most people would agree with that.
Yes, I think there would be quite a lot of avenues to pursue in terms of start-up support and finance.

So, yes, I thought of it, I looked into the feasibility of it, I’ve got ideas about how it could work, what it could look like, who the partners and customers might be. I’ve even worked with people to explore exactly how we could produce it.

But I’m going to leave it there. I’m not going to take it forward.

These aren’t words I use a lot.
In fact, it took me a while to make the decision.
At first it definitely felt like a failure.
But now I know it was the best decision.
A positive exit from the project.
Better to say a considered no, than struggle on with something against your better judgement out of some kind of misplaced sense of duty, until it grinds to a bitter and messy halt. (a bit of melodrama there… did I mention I’m a theatre maker…)

In the Spring of 2014, with REACT Feasibility funding, I undertook research into the feasibility of building a software engine that automatically creates a video life story from an individual’s social media content. The project was called Protagonist.

Protagonist was an attempt to make sense of our vast stashes of personal data online in a human, emotional, narrative way. Using their own social media content, we wanted to create a short film memoir of an individual – with the output feeling meaningful and personalised. And we wanted to see if we could create this using an automated process.

Our ambition was that the Protagonist service would be a commercial, stand-alone, direct-to-consumer product.

I found that the construction of narrative from online data poses an extremely complex computing problem. Who knew?! Well I didn’t. As someone from an arts background its sometimes tricky to guess which seemingly impossible problems can be solved relatively simply by technology (or already have been) and which are actually basically impossible.

This particular area of algorithmically generated video is only just starting to be explored (with very limited success) by digital giants such as Google and Facebook.

So here’s why I’m saying no to this idea:

It would be very difficult to compete in this marketplace currently, if Google & Facebook with all their resources are struggling to make anything worth watching;
I’m a theatre maker, not a software engineer;
Life is short: I don’t want to spend at least the next 3 years setting up a software start-up, that won’t use my skills well;
I’ve got other ideas for other projects I want to make, so I’m going to use my skills and energy where they’ll be making the most impact, and get on with making those.

You can see what we’re up to at www.theotherwayworks.co.uk
I’m Katie Day, and I’m Artistic Director of The Other Way Works.
We’re a Birmingham-based theatre company making playful theatre that immerses our audiences in the story.”

Sharing our learning about crowdfunding

July 17, 2015 by

I was asked to give a presentation about how to run a successful crowdfunding campaign recently, and thought it would be a good opportunity to share some of the learning I’d accumulated through running our Black Tonic 2015 campaign earlier this year, and the research I did that fed into the campaign.

I thought I’d share a PDF of the slides here, so others could take a look too.

Successful Crowdfunding Presentation PDF

Beyond Emerging

August 14, 2013 by

I recently convened a session at the West Midlands Theatre Open Space Event called “Beyond Emerging: What opportunities are there for theatre makers who have been working for 10 years or more?”

Its something that I and others have been thinking and talking about over the last year or two. A series of things have pointed to the fact that I as a theatre maker, and the theatre company that I run (www.theotherwayworks.co.uk) are no longer ’emerging’: A waning desire to participate in ‘scratch’ platforms for little or no money; Spending less time scanning things like (the excellent) ArtsAdmin e-digest for opportunities; Ignoring training in things like ‘starting a theatre company’; a greater sense of the work we’d like to make and the ability to pull a programme and a team together to deliver it; Being too old for all those under-21/25/30 opportunities.
A rejection from a development scheme sealed the thinking when it informed us that the scheme wouldn’t be suitable for us as we had ’emerged’.

But emerged into what?

The start of ‘mid-career’? Whatever that means? It feels a bit early for that to me.

The landscape for emerging artists has changed considerably since we started out in 2003-4. When Jane Packman and I started trying to run The Other Way Works as a professional theatre company in Birmingham back then, we were pretty much the first new company of its kind in the local scene since companies like Stan’s Cafe had started out about 15 years before us. The ‘scratch’ phenomenon hadn’t really got off the ground yet, and there were no formal ’emerging artist’ development schemes for us to take advantage of.

In around 2005 we got heavily involved with the early days of Pilot – now a long-running and successful regional development platform, regularly showcasing work there, and working as co-pilots. As the years went by we were lucky enough to benefit from development programmes run by China Plate, Arts Council WM strategic projects and presentation and commissioning support from mac. In the last few years it feels like there’s been a real blossoming of programmes, training and showcasing opportunities aimed at emerging artists, both in this region and nationally. Larger organisations and regional houses have taken on board the idea that they need to invest in the next generation, and this is great news.

But what happens next? I can’t stay forever emerging, and I wouldn’t want to. I want to move to the next level with the work I make: get more ambitious; widen the scope, the market; build on good partnerships and experiment with new ones; improve production values.

Back in around 2006, looking forward to this point, we had (not unfounded) expectations of where we might ‘be’. If we kept working hard, making better work, getting successful Arts Council Grants for the Arts applications under our belt, then we could well expect to become an RFO (Regularly Funded Organisation) in 5-7 years time. Whilst never exactly the treasure chest at the end of the rainbow, RFO status would at least mean some security, provision for core costs like paying you a reliable wage, and recognition of quality or at least pedigree within the sector.

Looking around me now I see a very different scene. RFOs have become NPOs (National Portfolio Organisations), and fewer of them with much higher demands in terms of reporting and what they give back to the sector. Having (unsuccessfully) applied to be part of the National Portfolio in the last round in 2011, I wouldn’t consider doing so in the next round. There are likely to be even fewer organisations funded, and inevitably the portfolio, and the demands upon it, will be skewed towards larger, building-based companies, making it an unsuitable model for a micro-organisation like mine.

I think the expectation is that once beyond the emerging artist schemes Companies would have built sufficient relationships with venues, funders, commissioners and audiences to sustain them. This is not exactly the case in our situation. Of course we have built relationships and are lucky to have a good record of receiving funding, but theatres’ commissioning budgets are squeezed as budget cuts bite, and funding is only ever project focused which leaves inevitable gaps where I essentially have to work for free in order to keep the wheel turning. Whilst we have many friends and supporters in the industry its still incredibly difficult to get anyone to actually put up some money to commission or co-produce work. We are strong in our region (West Midlands), and have made some good contacts nationally, but we are yet to break into the international market despite some efforts over the years.

I don’t feel that I’m alone in this. There are I know many theatre artists and companies currently in a similar boat. And I’m wondering what we as a cohort of recently ’emerged’ artists and companies can do to address the situation? Can we develop a peer network to support each other and lobby within the sector? How can we make a career of this? Can we make a strong enough case for support that will see the support of ’emerged’ artists become just as important as that of ’emerging’? There are more than just the bottom and top rungs of a ladder. How can the sector support the development of artists all the way up the ladder?

I don’t know how we can answer these questions yet, and we’re not going to get this sorted straight away. But we’ve got to start talking about it and getting it on people’s agendas if we’re going to start seeing some change.

React Future Documentary Sandbox Ideas Lab – A review

March 12, 2013 by

React Future Documentary Sandbox Ideas Lab, Bristol 4th March 2013

Last week I made the trip down to Bristol for the Future Docs Sandbox event at Watershed. It was nice to be on the other side of the fence for a change as a participant, having organised several of these events myself when I worked at Watershed in 2010 producing Theatre Sandbox, and helping to facilitate for one of the Heritage Sandbox events.

It was a mentally stimulating day, gave me lots of food for thought, and started me on my journey to applying to be part of the Sandbox if that’s what I want my next step to be.

But I mostly came to this conclusion in retrospect. During the day it felt at times like quite a struggle, sometimes a bit lacking in focus and energy, and a little frustrating. All of this was interspersed with the pleasure of catching up with old colleagues and friends though, which rather took the edge off it. Having run similar sessions myself, it made me wonder if there was much more that React could do to improve the Ideas Labs, or whether the structure was good and it was really down to us the participants to make it a great day.

Is this event for me?

I felt on the periphery of the subject, as a theatre maker with no experience or training in Documentary. I fell within the ‘creative economy partner’ camp (the other being the ‘academic partner’), but as neither a documentary film maker or a technologist whizz kid what did I have to offer?

But then I wondered if other people felt like they weren’t quite the target audience either, not tech savvy enough, or too ‘old school’ in their documentary making perhaps. The exceptions being those people who talk long and loud about how they were doing all this stuff 10 years ago anyway, but then if they already know it all then perhaps they’re not the target audience either.

From my experience of Theatre Sandbox, there are a lot of people at the events who don’t ‘get it’, or are just there to hear about what’s going on but with no intention of being involved, but there are always a handful that have a real passion for the subject, a curiosity to learn more and who gain a lot from hearing other peoples ideas and perspectives. These are the people who write the best applications and who get selected in the end.

How can all participants be empowered to feel that they could be the right people to make a ‘Future Documentary’?

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What’s the focus and where’s the energy?

Whilst there are things that organisers can do about this, I do also think that if you get a group who are low in energy, defensive or don’t engage for whatever reason then its going to be quite an uphill struggle to maintain focus and energy over a 5 hour session. Sometimes it only seems to take one or two vocal people to set the tone for a whole group, putting everyone on the defensive.

I did feel the lack of ‘Inspiring Examples’ during the day’s session. There was a session called this on the plan, but the way that bit happened (3 x one minute chats with someone you hadn’t met before) didn’t really provide me with any inspiration. I could have improved the situation for myself by doing more preparation before the event, using the well-put-together list of suggested viewing that the React team had provided. But on the day itself, there wasn’t much to help us get our creative juices flowing, and I think this may have contributed to a lack of focus for the day’s conversations. Again, I wonder if some of the other attendees hadn’t done much prep either, and perhaps working on the basis that most people hadn’t done any prep would be a better starting point for what to include during the day’s sessions.

I would also have welcomed more provocation or contribution of ideas from members of the React team during the conversation sessions (but maybe I was just unlucky that they weren’t in any of the groups I spent time in).

There were 3 sessions of around 30 minutes each for Open Space-style concurrent discussion groups. I felt that these were a little too short to really get into anything, and with people moving between groups it made it harder to get beyond initial thoughts. Energy and focus had begun to wane by the 3rd session, where only 2 or 3 (rather than an anticipated 8-10) sessions were proposed by the group. There was no feeding back to the larger group, and the lack of knowledge of what conversations had been going on in other spaces meant that I didn’t get a sense of what ideas the event had generated as a whole. I know that reporting back sessions can be truly dire, but I missed the feeling that the day was more than what I had directly participated in myself.

How can the facilitators inspire and provoke the participants, maintaining energy and focus throughout the day?

How can participants be encouraged to trust that the day will eventually deliver what they want from it if they participate fully in it?

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As I said at the start, I only realised myself on the way home in the car how much the day had given me food for thought. I talked all the way home about ideas, ways into the ideas, problems, questions.

So, thanks to everyone at React and Watershed for a lovely day.