Work as if you live in the early days of a better nation

Recommending: Growing your own vegetables

Gift Giving

Between bouts of bronchitis coughing, I’ve started reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift which is according to the blurb “a brilliantly argued defence of the importance of creativity in our increasingly money-orientated society”.

Hyde argues that “a work of art is a gift, not a commodity” or, it works in two economies “a market economy” and “a gift economy”.

Art can survive without the market (cave paintings?) but where there is no gift there is no art.

The art that matters to us – moves the heart, or revives the soul, or delights the senses, or offers courage for the living – that art work is received by us, as a gift is received. Even if we have paid a fee at the door, when we are touched by a work of art something comes to us which has nothing to do with the price…

…our sense of harmony can hear the harmonies Mozart heard. We may not have the power to profess our gifts as the artist does, and yet we come to recognise, and in a sense to receive, the endowments of our being through the agency of his creation.”

His book goes on to explore this often through anthropological studies.

He only briefly mentions a few downfalls of gifts: gifts that leave an oppressive sense of obligation, gifts that manipulate or humiliate, the tragedy of the commons (look this up if you haven’t heard of, it’s a good theoretical explanation for why we deplete the seas, for instance)…

This conjures two thoughts in my mind.

Why do characters give what they give in plays? They almost always are trying to do something with their gift, they want something or they are trying to manipulate… if we see someone giving something – we know there is meaning behind it. Occasionally, we know the meaning but the character does not, a form of irony. Some times it is symbolical. Rarely is a major gift meaningless and if it is, often, we are disappointed.

The other thought is this sense of obligation. There was someone I liked a lot once. She told me gift giving for Maoris was reciprocal, if you gave there was a circle so you would give back. For a wonderful period of time, it was a circle of joy. Wild flowers unexpectedly sprinkled in a room begat jelly babies hanging from a door frame begat surprises in your post box but then the weight of life cracked the circle.

I didn’t properly notice (my Dad was dying, so it was a reasonable excuse) and thus the weight of my gifts created an unwanted and unhappy sense of obligation. Or even an unwanted sense of memory.

I think this is one reason ex-lovers find it hard to give each other simple things. All their exchanges are weighted with memory and symbols. The same for story.

American writers’ punchup

There’s a good ol’ barney sparked by Neil Labute.

Labute throws a good left hook. Calling writers pussies for not tackling the greater world around them. Audiences as wimps too.
George Hunka takes the hit and throws a one-two combination back citing several American counter examples.

They then trade a few blows on the blog (do check it out) before scaling back the blows as they both probably fight on the same side.

But. Then. Into the ring. Naomi “upper cut” Wallace. With kick ass power she reels off a list of deeply engaged writing, enthusiastic audiences of The People Speak Project and claims Labute is myopic.

But NL is out of the ring and simply awaits a Wallace play back in the USA. He wants to be shown how it’s done.
I’ve got to scurry away outta the audience and finish writing my play (and several more) before I’m worthy to get in the ring with these bruisers.

Compare & contrast: Dance / Theatre

I found the review of I am Falling at the Gate by Lyn Gardner, Guardian theatre critic, laid side by side to Luke Jennings’ review, Guardian dance critic, insightful as to the different qualities each look for / are looking for:

Both good reviews -

Lyn Gardner writes:

“…Occasionally, the movement only seems illustrative, but text, motion, lighting and sound often seem to be engaged in their own jostling psychological dance, in which past and present shimmer and merge on a liberating journey into the light…”

Luke Jennings writes:

“…the choreography, by Anna Williams, has the strong, clean lines of Scandinavian furniture, and its locking embraces are straightforwardly expressive of the parents’ mutual love. When the piece moves into more elegiac territory, however, Williams can’t find the language…”

Ben Yeoh writes (!):

“…An intimate form. However, whereas Bausch tends to be absurd, occasionally disjointed, more sudden, less steady in tempo – I am Falling is more continuous, more narrative, simpler, starker, more intimate….”

Lack of Asian work / Labute

Michael Billington claimsThe rich mixture of work coming from British writers of African-Caribbean origin is not matched by those with Asian roots” in this GU blogpost. I wish he had come to see my YELLOW GENTLEMEN but hey that’s probably just me.

Neil Labute makes a call to write bravely about “important matters” and how US theatre may be losing its way.

“…my literary heroes – Harold Pinter, Edward Bond, David Hare, Howard Brenton, Caryl Churchill and Howard Barker. These playwrights, all of them British, not only spoke to me, but shook the very ground I walked on, the ideals I believed in…

…Theatre is not dying. We hear this every so often and have self-important conferences to defend this or that. Theatre is a resilient little shit of an art form that will go on long after any of us are around to worry about it. But it can get stuck, and I believe American theatre is currently in danger of this. I include myself…

…We are small writers in America these days, writing tiny plays about tiny ideas with two to four characters, so that we get produced and nobody loses any money. American playwrights have been workshopped and “staged-readinged” to death, and we are now a fearful bunch who add sitcom lines to our dramas and tie things up at the end so that folks can walk out of theatres smiling….

…Maybe every writer has a political play hidden away in a drawer somewhere, but my guess is that we’ve stopped writing them. Pilot scripts are a lot shorter and easier to hustle.Let’s face it, most writers are pussies. We sit back and watch the world go by, writing down the things we find funny or sad while trying to make a buck off it….

..audience… Let us know that if we are brave enough to write about the stuff that matters, then you’ll come and watch. I may never fight a battle, or run for office, or help an old lady across the street – but when I sit down and put pen to paper, I can promise to write about a subject of some importance, and to do so with honesty and courage. The time for fear and complacency is past. Bravery needs to make a comeback on both sides of the footlights, and fast.”

McMaster report: Supporting Excellence in the Arts

Sir Brain McMaster was asked by the Secretary of State:

• How the system of public sector support for the arts can encourage excellence, risk-taking and innovation;
• How artistic excellence can encourage wider and deeper engagement with the arts by audiences;
• How to establish a light touch and non-bureaucratic method to judge the quality of the arts in the future.

He has just published his report, which I think all arts boards and practioners interested in public funding (and of course the public funders who I am sure will read it) should read it. It is not without several controversies and I am undecided about many of the recommendations but it is a n excellent starting point for the debate.

Here are McMaster’s recommendations from the report and a link to Michael Billington’s comments:

… innovation and risk-taking be at the centre of the funding and assessment framework for every organisation, large or small.

… funding bodies and arts organisations prioritise excellent, diverse work that truly grows out of and represents the Britain of the 21st Century

… funding bodies and arts organisations act as the guardians of artists’ freedom of expression, and provide the appropriate support to deal with what can be a hostile reaction to their work.

… the Arts Council, the British Council and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport work together to investigate and implement an international strategy that stimulates greater international exchange, brings the best of world culture here and takes the best of our culture to the world.

… the board of every cultural organisation contains at least two artists and/or practitioners.

I recommend the setting up of a Knowledge Bank which could be called upon by boards to feed into and support the appointment process and to advise on potential candidates.

… all funding bodies have and take up the right to be involved in the appointment processes of the organisations they fund.

… cultural organisations be proactive in meeting the extra demand for their work that the ‘cultural offer’ will generate. They must ensure that the activity that makes up this offer is of the highest standard, reflecting the diversity and internationalism I highlight in this report.

… the cost of mentoring for senior appointments should be a standard feature of any recruitment budget.

…since cultural organisations have a vested interest in and responsibility for supporting and developing talent, they should be providing free or discounted tickets to aspiring practitioners.

… funding bodies explore the potential for international co-operation that allows young practitioners to see more work abroad.

… funding bodies, organisations and practitioners prioritise opportunities for continuing professional development throughout careers.

… practitioners take responsibility for the cultural ecology and actively engage with the development of their peers and the next generation.

… DCMS and the Arts Council work with HM Treasury towards a new scheme for the ten organisations with the most innovative ambition to receive ten year funding to further that ambition.

… funding bodies actively identify innovative ways for new talent to be identified and funded.

… to overcome the endemic ‘it’s not for me’ syndrome and building on the success of free admission to museums and galleries, for one week admission prices are removed from publicly funded organisations.

… practitioners communicating about their work be the primary tool of any programme of audience engagement.

… cultural organisations stop exploiting the tendency of many audiences to accept a superficial experience and foster a relationship founded on innovative, exciting and challenging work.

… the Public Service Broadcasting review examines the extent of the cultural provision provided by public service broadcasters.

… a new way forward be found that reclaims a strategic approach to touring, while exploiting the regional structures created by the Arts Council’s reorganisation.

… the touring of exhibitions is encouraged and implemented strategically.

… the funding bodies, jointly with representatives of cultural organisations, develop good-practice guidelines for self-assessment. These should focus primarily on the excellence of the art and commitment to innovation and risk-taking.

… to complement the culture of self-assessment, funding bodies institute a system of peer review. I suggest all regularly funded organisations should be reviewed by peers on a cyclical basis and that the process is managed by the funding body.

… funder intervention where organisations are failing, setting fixed conditions for funding or, in extremis, its removal entirely, and that this be acknowledged in funding agreements.

… funding decisions made by all funding bodies (DCMS, Arts Council, MLA) are based on professional judgements of what is and what is not excellent.

Picture Man / David Eldridge

Until next Sunday only

Neil decides he has been pushed too far by the uncaring and often callous behaviour he sees around him. But when he begins to intervene in incidents by taking pictures on his mobile phone, it has disastrous consequences.

Listen on R3 play back

Neil …… Martin Freeman
Janine …… Heather Craney
Hussein …… Emil Marwa
George …… Peter Marinker
Man on Tube …… Jake Harders
Polish Prostitute …… Ania Sowinkski
Freddie …… Bailey Pepper
Teenage Boy …… Joseph Tremain


I was a very young Scrabble fiend. I played competitive Scrabble when I was 7 to 10 years old and I still remember the indignation on a best of 3, scoring totals +/- wins, when my nearest rival pulled some unbelievable tiles to surpass me. I still have my second place trophy. Sad.

I just finished reading Word Freak by Stephen Fatsis and that has re-inspired me to play, particularly on Facebook. And I’m glad to know I didn’t grow up into the majority of characters in the world of competitive Scrabble. Or did I?

In any case, I believe with out this Scrabble interlude I probably would not have the same relantionship to words and writing as I do today.

Arts Council / British Coucil / Restructuring

Andy Field makes some interesting arguments for keeping the Arts Council.

There are many worth while companies being hit in this round and I am supporting the Bush amongst others. Having been through a similar mill with Talawa, I somewhat understand the fear, anger and disbelief at the process.

Andy seems to be making the point that there is a fixed pool of money, from which not everyone will get enough and that some older companies may have to make way for newer companies. Perhaps, not that controversial an assertion. Further, everyone seems to agrees the ACE process could be a lot better: transparency, communication, more peer review etc.

On the other hand, if you do take the logical extreme. ACE is doing a bad job therefore we the government / ACE board should “restructure it” –> what would the new structure look like?

Proposals please.

However, the British Council with different but perhaps aligned priorities has already restructured. This is what is proposed:

“After earlier in 2007 disbanding its advisory panels in the Arts, which were made up of volunteers, the executive board of the British Council has [in Dec 2007] decided to to get rid of its departments of film, drama, dance, literature, design, and the visual arts and instead organise its cultural staff into panels with the titles Progressive Facilitation, Market Intelligence Network, Knowledge Transfer Function and Modern Pioneer.”

That’s right

-Progressive Facilitation

-Market Intelligence Network

-Knowledge Transfer Function

-Modern Pioneer

What would people make of an ACE which would have to decide upon those functional lines?

Dance Theatre / I am Falling

In the UK, I do not think we have a culture of dance theatre. We have dance. Some of it has narrative. We have theatre. Some of it has dance and is physical.

Dance theatre suggests that in this form neither the dance nor the theatre have primacy. A balance.

When I hear dance theatre, I think of Tanztheater and I think of Wuppertal and Pina Bausch. I think it is perhaps a German form most of all, I guess you could say it is a cousin to expressionist dance.

I understand the language of modern dance poorly but can glimpse and be moved by them. So, really a few performances of Pina Bausch is all I have to draw upon in the world of dance theatre.

The Gate’s I am Falling (Carrie Cracknell directing, Anna Williams as choreographer and Garance Marneur as designer) has echoes of Bausch to me. An intimate form. However, whereas Bausch tends to be absurd, occasionally disjointed, more sudden, less steady in tempo – I am Falling is more continuous, more narrative, simpler, starker, more intimate.

The story is simple: the life, death and love of two parents seen partially from the point of view of the child who can not quite penetrate his parents relationship. The effort to find a dance form to tell that story adds layers of complexity and visceral feeling.

The dance and theatre are not equal at all times. Some times the dance dominates, some times the narrative. Occasionally, for me, I found the dance so mesmorising that I lost the threads of the story. Perhaps that means the dancing was ultimately more compelling. I’m not sure.

I did long for more micro-moments of stillness. The movements were like a constant stream and my mind would have liked a few more places where I could appreciate the tableux but that’ just me and perhaps the tapestery would have been weaker for it. I also wanted to see more feet. Perhaps, that’s just a fetish but dancers feet tell their own story and between audiences’ heads I lost that tale of feet.

It is an intense and intimate 40 minutes and if you go in with a mind to understand how dance and theatre can intertwine in their own pas de deux and be absorbed by it, you’ll like it. If you only like straightforward theatre and dance drives you crazy, this may not be for you. But go and see it anyway, it might be good for your soul.

PS Pina Bausch is coming to Sadler’s Wells this year and performing herself. Catch it while you can! This clip of Café Müller (seen also in Almovodar’s Talk to Her) is one of the most moving dance pieces I have seen.

Edward Bond interview

Interview between Michael Billington and Edward Bond. 

Bond has been an influential playwright for many writers. I’ve not seen much of his work (as he is nor performed in the UK that much – more in Paris it seems) but read quite a bit and I think he is quite important.

“…There is a division in the Greeks,” says Bond, “between the social problem and the self problem that we have to resolve. You can’t have Orestes and Oedipus in the same play. You can’t have Antigone and Medea in the same play. One also has to recognise that, although the Greeks created the first western democracy, it was a democracy founded on slavery. But while acknowledging the power of the Greek dramatists, what we have to do is find a way of integrating the individual dilemma with the social problem. Even Shakespeare, for all his greatness, can’t always do that. You argue that Hamlet’s private dilemma is related to his political status as a usurped heir to the throne. But Shakespeare can only solve that by treating Hamlet as a sacrificial victim and bringing on Fortinbras. Today there are divisions in our own society, which is based on a kind of consumer totalitarianism. But we have to resolve them through the logic of imagination. In the end, that’s why I write.”

What is sad is that Bond’s attempts to deal with the big issues of our time go largely unseen in Britain. Paris has become his working home, where the Theatre National de la Colline is staging a five-play cycle addressing what Bond calls “the search for human freedom”…

  • About me

    I'm a playwright and investment analyst. I have a broad range of interests: food, gardening, innovation & intellectual property, sustainability, architecture & design, writing and the arts. I sit on the board of Talawa Theatre Company and advise a CIS investment trust on socially responsible investments.

  • Recent Work

    Recent plays include, for theatre: Nakamitsu, Yellow Gentlemen, Lost in Peru, Lemon Love. For radio: Places in Between (R4), Patent Breaking Life Saving (WS).

  • Nakamitsu

  • Yellow Gentlemen