By Paul Smith, artistic director
“Your beliefs become your thoughts,
Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”
― Mahatma Gandhi
On Saturday we and the other 2016 Assemble Fest companies spent some time with Iain Bloomfield, artistic director of Theatre in the Mill, Bradford. We had a really great chat about the importance of staying true to your values and the need for relationships to begin as an exchange, rather than small companies going ‘cap in hand’ to larger organisations, desperate to be loved and willing to give up any values in order to be programmed.
(NB – It is fucking hard to stop wanting everyone to love you and your work, but when you accept that it is a) impossible, b) boring and c) genuinely a distraction from making great art then I think it becomes a bit easier. Some people will like what you do, some won’t. Simple but actually quite liberating.)
Every now and then I force myself to remember that we can run Middle Child however we like. It is all too easy to forget that running your own company means you can decide on how you do everything – from the big picture stuff to the minutia of the day-to-day. It is too easy also to be fooled into thinking that you must manage your company how other people run their companies, or – worse – how other people tell you to run your own. At Middle Child we want to be better in every way; how we work internally, how we collaborate, how we open our doors to people we have never met. We want to be better at equality, at diversity, at working with new artists. We talk about all of this a lot and are becoming more and more considered with every decision we make. However, we must be better.
A key quote from Iain which stood out to me was “you are what you do, not what you say.” Whilst I’m aware of the irony of writing a blog about this quote it is a mantra which I do not think is observed enough in theatre, certainly in our experiences over the last five years.
The Problem With Middle Child
I’ll start with us. As I mentioned above we talk a lot about every decision we make; about what’s ethical, what’s ‘right’ and what’s the best way to do things whilst maintaining the belief that the work is always the most important output. It’s a noble use of time but perhaps not always the most productive if those careful words aren’t translated into bold action. Sometimes it feels easy to convince yourself a four-hour conversation about an issue is enough, whatever conclusion you reach. It isn’t. There is absolutely no excuse for companies like ours to not stick to the values we have. We have failed at this time and time again: in diversity of casting; in representation of women; in making the best decisions for our audiences rather than for our careers and egos. IT IS NOT GOOD ENOUGH and no amount of words or careful discussion can change that. To quote Michael Jackson: “If you want to make the world a better place, take a look at yourself and then make a change. Na na na na na na oooh yeah.”
Off To A Good Start
Iain’s point on Saturday was that if the values of collaborators and partners are poorly matched from the beginning of a relationship then it is doomed for failure. Subsequently, if a conversation begins with a desperate attempt to sell a product then it is hard to ever recover from that. As such, at the end of this article I will make a number of pledges for the future of our company. These pledges serve to demonstrate our core values to people outside of Middle Child and also serve as the gatekeepers of our own beliefs. They make a simple statement:“This is what we believe and what is important to us, if you don’t agree (no matter how big, rich or important you are) then perhaps we shouldn’t work together. No hard feelings xx.”
I can’t think of anyone who loses out in this scenario, only people who have more time and energy for better relationships. Let’s imagine I’m using this blog to launch my theatre version of Tinder – who of those you’ve collaborated with previously would you swipe right to again? (Metaphor may be mixed – I’ve never used Tinder, but you get my point). How many of those unfulfilling collaborations came down to a fundamental difference in values and beliefs?
The Problem With Others
Next, larger organisations. Despite the misleading subheading (damn subeditors) I’m loathe to go into too much detail about my opinion of the flaws of others but again I think it comes down to two (or two and a half) basic questions on why and how larger organisations collaborate :
1) Do you do what you say you do or do you say it to tick boxes?
I wish company development and associate programmes were less regular and more effective. It is too rare to see collaborations between suitable organisations led by a desire that both think the other is brilliant and a genuine belief that they can improve, challenge and stimulate each other.
2) Do we fit into your value system?
If not, why would you ever want to work with us? We’ll only end up annoying and frustrating you as much as you will us. I would always rather a frank conversation about our differences than a bullshit conversation about our similarities. If our differences can lead to an interesting relationship then great, if they are irreconcilable then let’s not even try to reconcile them? (Catchy).
A brief interlude here before we get to our values, but my god Paines Plough are great aren’t they? A quick browse of their website tells you that they are an organisation that genuinely care about the humans in this industry, that have extremely strong values and that have a fucking great programme of work. Companies like PP are where we aspire to be, and not just in terms of the output but in the way they do everything.
The New Diorama
Again, an interlude but I believe a worthwhile one. The work the New Diorama do to develop companies is UNBELIEVABLE. If you haven’t seen their brilliant document which outlines their approach to working with companies then please check it out. It is beyond inspiring and an example that where there’s a will there are a million ways. Add Incoming Festival into the mix as well as the risk taken on Hull companies such as The Pub Corner Poets (a risk which has paid massive dividends) and it is clear that the NDT is leagues above the general development tone set by theatres. Amazing. Their exciting recent announcements have made me realise that anything is possible, we just have to be willing to make it happen and find a way to do it.
And so to our values, but first a disclaimer: If you agree with the following, that’s brilliant. If you don’t, that’s brilliant too. But please consider them before we think about working together in any way because we will stick to them.
We are going to use the 2017 City of Culture year as a launch point for the following values and pledges.
- We believe that more must be done to attract Millennials to the theatre as without new audiences the form will die.
- We believe that new work is the most important work. No classics here.
- We believe that theatre is often too expensive.
- We believe that not enough is done to make theatre unmissable.
- We believe that theatre works best as a social event – with a reason to come early and stay late.
- We believe that women currently have a shit deal in theatre and something needs to be done about it.
- We are a Hull company, and that is vital to our work, our stories and our entire ethos.
- Music is central to our art.
- We do not believe there are enough working class stories told in theatre.
- We will never play it safe and will follow John McGrath’s advice of ‘seeking to reinvent theatre (not just what is said on stage) every time (we) make a play.’
- We will commit to annual gender equality for acting roles by 2017
- We will always offer at least one Pay What You Can night for each of our main productions
- We will commit to male and female writer equality by 2017
- We will be better at diverse casting with no excuses.
- We will create better female characters with no excuses.
- We show a commitment to employing and collaborating with Hull artists where possible – giving priority auditions to Hull performers and only looking further afield if required.
- We will always offer a select number of free tickets to residents of the Thornton Estate, where we make our work.
- Our choice of performance venue will always centre around what suits our audience best, not what furthers our careers or egos the most.
- We will try hard not to be dicks and endeavour to begin every relationship as equals. We are not superior to anyone nor are we in desperate need of anyone’s love and affection.
- Our values will define us and we rely on our actions not our words.