Grace and Coverage
An unwise, unapologetic plea for greater respect from Artistic Directors.
This is a foolish thing to write, and perhaps a bit petulant. I might be throwing snowballs at Everest. But sometimes your anger and frustration reaches such a pitch that you need to yell. Sometimes it makes sense to agitate…
Attempting to build a career in theatre can feel like solving a series of looped and confusing equations: striving for equal values in Passion / Practicality, bowing to the first rule of creativity, Mental Health > Everything. Chief amongst these is the closed loop of logic that goes thus: "I want to make work, so I must make work happen. In order to make work happen I must have work to show. In order to have work to show, I must make work".
This loop is terminal, and only disrupted by goodwill; a producer, financier, programmer, casting director, agent [insert other], who takes the chance to see your work, apropos of nothing. People who can suddenly place you inside the loop. In theatre this is the role of the Artistic Director. They have the power to place you inside a productive cycle (until for reasons you don’t understand, you drop out again). We are forever dependent on grace. I call it grace because watching something in a venue with a less than perfect record when you’ve only a few evenings free each week is a sacrifice, however noble the cause. But at least it’s mutually beneficial. You can’t take a chance on young talent without grace, and no talent breaks through without it.
This catalyst is in short supply. In London we have scores of theatres who claim they are dedicated to new work and young artists, yet whose artistic directors don’t reply to e mails, don’t read plays and crucially, don’t see work.
Caveats - Literary Managers, Associate Directors and Education Associates are typically very good at coming to see work. But they don’t make work happen. They make workshops happen. I worked for two years as a scout for a new writing theatre. Nothing was programmed without the AD seeing it. Also, I’m not talking about Artistic Directors watching the latest production from an established artist on St Martin’s Lane, produced by Sonia Friedman, Michael Grandage or the National Theatre. I mean Artistic Directors visiting the The New Diorama, The Bunker, The Old Red Lion. I’m also not talking about AD’s benevolently sitting through the work of a recent assistant director, I mean AD's seeing the work of total strangers in small theatres to whom they owe nothing.
Last year I directed a studio show at the Young Vic as winner of the JMK Award for young directors. Three London artistic directors came to see the show over the four week run. I had invited about 25, given them all two months notice and offered free tickets. This is not written out of bitterness but sympathy; if they won’t come to a studio at the Young Vic over four weeks, what chance is there for a 3 night stint at a pub theatre? This behaviour is endemic. I once sat behind a friend during a reading of his play. The reading was part of a talent initiative at a major London Theatre. He had been on the project for a year and had spent most of that time writing this play. I watched the artistic director walk out half way through the first act, dropping his phone, (which was on), as he did so. I hoped that my friend hadn’t noticed, but he had. I could go on and on and on; plays that aren’t read for a year or more, e mails that are never replied to, cancelled meetings that are never explained. I was recently told it would take 6 months for a Literary Manager to have a conversation with their AD. It all speaks to a lack of respect between established artists and emerging talent, which is morbidly ironic. As you walk up the stairs to the Old Red Lion Theatre there are posters of old productions, featuring the names of the people involved. It's a list of the great and the good in contemporary subsidised theatre. They all started down here, waiting for grace.
The defence of the powerful is that they’re busy. It is no small task to run a theatre. I have worked with Artistic Directors for large theatres and I stood in awe of the workload. There is money to raise, emails to send and projects to manage. And for that I will play some small violins. However Artistic Directors control the schedule and work-tempo of their theatre. Most weekly schedules are arranged around them. If you want proof, just watch how the internal workings of any theatre are turned upside down when the Artistic Director goes into rehearsals - meetings move, projects are delayed, out-of-office replies abound. Artistic Directors are the organisers of their own time. Hired for their taste and their ability to curate work, they exist to see new plays and hear new voices. They are able to prioritise that mission, if they choose to. Coverage is about looking after the future life of the building. One day James Graham and Mike Bartlett will not be around. Heresy, I know.