August 14, 2013

Beyond Emerging

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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 ( 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.

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