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Fin’s Speech at “The D Word” 11 May 2015 – Recipe for change: How to diversify new British theatre

By Fin Kennedy, co-Artistic Director, Tamasha

Tamasha is a national touring theatre company which puts the voices of established and emerging culturally diverse artists centre stage. 2015 is out 25 anniversary; we’ve been building new audiences and developing new artists across the UK during that time.

I’m going to focus on the text-based new writing sector, and diversity within a BAME context, because those are the worlds I know best – plus I only have 15 mins.

So, how to diversify new British theatre?

In answering this question, we need to first examine the existing infrastructure of new play development, and in particular the key ‘choke points’ in a new play’s journey from concept to production. By choke points I mean the points in the system where a key decision is made about that creative idea’s future, and whether it continues its journey to the next stage on the road to being presented in front of a live audience, or falls by the wayside, never to see the light of day. The points where a creative project can be killed off – however inadvertently – by the decisions of one or two people.

My expertise in this area, by the way, is not only as a professional playwright of 15 years standing, but as a professional playwright who, I realised with some resignation the other day, as I filed yet another rejection letter, has written as many plays which have never been produced as ones which have. And let’s be clear here, plays which remain unproduced do not, in my view, exist – even if they were commissioned and the writer got paid. Theatre lives and breathes in the auditorium; the page is just a blueprint for that event. Unproduced scripts are like the ghosts of unborn children. The smile across the dancefloor which forever goes unnoticed.

I also have the dubious distinction of having had a play rejected by every theatre in London – which then went on to win a big award. That play, How To Disappear Completely and Never Be Found, is now my best known work, and produced around the world. It’s also one of the most performed plays in the UK by students, amateurs and fringe groups, and in terms of popularity at least seems well on its way to becoming a mini modern classic of existential angst. Yet choke point after choke point meant it almost never saw the light of day. This back story led one critic at the play’s world premiere to wonder ‘how much other gold dust falls between the cracks of British theatre’. I myself have often wondered that if I – a middle class, resourceful, white male graduate – found it this hard to have a playwriting career, how many others without my cultural capital, industry nouse and sheer, over-inflated sense of importance also fell by the wayside before they got anywhere near a professional stage?

So, let’s start at the start. A playwright has an idea for a play.

No, it doesn’t start there. In that imagining, a playwright already exists to have an idea at all. How does one become a playwright? This is a question which preoccupied me for years when I was starting out. I’d done a Drama degree, but it wasn’t as if you opened the jobs page in a newspaper and saw ‘Playwrights wanted’ ads. The whole process is a lot more mysterious than that.

I’d argue the journey begins as early as primary school – with family expectations and encouragement to take part in creative arts activities at all. Choke point number 1. Not much we can do about that, you might say. But actually, if parents from under-represented communities more routinely see themselves reflected on stage they might be more likely to encourage their kids to take part in an activity which actively appears to welcome and reflect them. (A brief aside – someone on Tamasha’s Board is quite senior within the BBC. He told me which BBC department gets the most diverse job applicants. Any guesses? It is News. Why? Because they most routinely put black and brown faces on screen. It really is that simple – but if we get it right, this quickly becomes a virtuous circle.)

But we’re jumping ahead – we’re still in school. The past five years of government meddling – free schools and academies, the English baccalaureate, a relentless focus on league tables, measurable outcomes and economic applications for learning as the sole arbiter of its worth have all served to seriously downgrade arts subjects in British schools. Choke point number 2. Not much we can do about that either – or is there? Several industry-led campaigns from What Next (www.whatnextculture.co.uk), to My Theatre Matters (www.mytheatrematters.com) , to my own In Battalions campaign (www.finkennedy.co.uk/in-battalions) have had some success in moving this issue up the political agenda. The dust is still settling from last week’s election, making this a good time to collectively keep up the pressure. It starts with writing to your MP.

So you’ve got a young person’s interest and attention, you’ve got their school to champion and value the act of making theatre – backed by a government which values the arts – so we’re already in a slight fantasy land. But in any case the next choke point is that diverse young person’s exposure to learning the craft of playwriting. Choke point number 3. Playwriting is first and foremost the act of deciding whose lives are worth putting a frame around. This is why I think if we’re serious about diversifying theatre we need to put our efforts into two key areas: diversifying playwrights and diversifying producers (I’ll come onto producers later). But these are the two key roles who make fundamental decisions about what ends up on our stages.

So how do we educate that generation in the skills of this trade? Yes, many theatres run young writers’ schemes – many of them very good. But is a working-class Bangladeshi girl from East London going to trek across town on her own to take part in a Royal Court group? I’ve tried to make her, and she won’t. Multiple barriers exist around independent access to these offers, everything from no independent culture of theatregoing through to concerns around safety and appropriateness – and even access to transport. Choke point number 4. These need to be tackled via an ongoing dialogue with parents and young people, but the simplest solution for now is to take the offer to them – run our new writers’ schemes in schools. Many of us already do, but it can be piecemeal and ad hoc. The single best way to welcome new, diverse young voices into our profession is to open that doorway and keep it open. A model of long-term commitment to one or two key schools, strategically chosen, rather than a scattergun approach doing one-off workshops all over the country. Going back year on year to win trust and build relationships, augmenting playwriting courses with ticket offers, masterclasses, platform discussions and careers days.

Easier said than done and of course there are funding implications. But this is in and of itself another choke point – number 5.

Sajid Javid, the last Conservative Culture Secretary, was the first to put an emphasis on diversity in the arts. This is to be welcomed. The unfortunate irony was that Mr Javid came at the tail end of a government which had consistently slashed support for the Arts Council, including the single biggest cut for a generation, the direct result of which was the closure of access points for new talent as terrified theatres contracted around their main stages to save costs. If there is one argument for the reinstatement of arts funding in the next parliament, it is about keeping the doors open to a plurality of voices by having the resources to undertake the necessary long–term R and D this requires. My own In Battalions research showed theatres across the UK curtailing education work, closing youth theatres, cancelling open access workshops and writers’ residencies through which outreach might be undertaken – all as a direct result of funding cuts to Arts Council England. If Mr Javid means what he says, I hope he will be making our case, whatever department he ends up in.

So a diverse young person has had some cultural education, they’ve attended some workshops and written something, they’re ready to go and hungry for some feedback. Finally we get to theatres themselves. Those which still have literary departments are increasingly reconsidering how best to spend their ever-more-limited resources in the service of finding new plays to produce. Even in less austere times the ratio of unsolicited scripts being picked up for production was so tiny as to barely make it worth anyone’s while. I’ve been a script reader, and the pay is low, if indeed it is paid at all. I was a pushy, middle-class 21-year old, on a panel with others from very similar backgrounds. Yet I was the first and often only point of contact many new writers ever had with that theatre. Diversity and remuneration for script readers is choke point number 6.

But let’s say you impress our bratty script reader and get asked in for a meeting. What then? If the theatre in question still runs such pre-austerity luxuries as workshops, play readings and attachment schemes, our writer is expected to demonstrate knowledge of this opaque ladder of opportunity and pitch his or her ideas accordingly – with articulacy, passion and persuasion – striking just the right balance of ambition and humility. Imagine doing that while trembling with fear, and a sense of unworthiness. Pitching your work – and indeed yourself (a.k.a. social and cultural capital) is choke point number 7.

But let’s say one of those opportunities comes your way, perhaps an attachment, perhaps a seed commission – and our writer starts getting paid (a bit) to write. What then? Then begins the long road (years) of ‘development’ – seed commissions, meetings, competition entries, shorts nights, attending the right press nights and writers’ groups – all while holding down a non-arts day job while writing in the evenings and at weekends. The holy grail is to start to tip this balance – to consistently make enough from the writing to go down to 4 days a week temping, then 3, then 2 – until the promised land of Full-Time Playwright finally arrives – and all within a narrow window within which our writer can afford to take a few risks, before kids and mortgages make such risks irresponsible. I never reached that point in 15 years. Writing plays to commission has only ever been, at best, one third of my annual income. Choke point number 8.

But let’s say our writer’s play proceeds to full commission – at Writers’ Guild rates – Hallelujah! What then? Drafts, dramaturgy, meetings, notes, rewrites, deadlines, more drafts, more dramaturgy, more meetings, more notes, more rewrites. This is when a commissioned play is most vulnerable. A difference of vision. A cultural misunderstanding. Subjective taste masquerading as objective dramaturgy. All it takes is a whisper – ‘Not for us’ – and the whole thing vanishes in a puff of smoke. Choke point number 9.

But let’s say it doesn’t. Let’s say our diverse new playwright makes it through these hurdles and her play arrives at the fabled Programming Meeting – sometimes known as going ‘onto the grid’ – like a medieval torture method, or the gut-churning denouement to a reality TV show. It is here that the theatre’s Artistic Director, the literary manager and assorted Associates – all subject to the same cultural, educational and economic filtering processes within their own careers – make a final decision on whether or not to put not-inconsiderable resources into producing this diverse new play. One of the key decisions here (other than ‘Is it any good?’) is ‘Does it have an audience?’ But imagine you are the first of your kind. The question ‘Does this have an audience?’ requires a certain leap of faith. And any artistic director will tell you how long it takes to build up audiences for diverse new work. Choke point number 10.

So we’ve made it to production, and a celebratory drink on press night looking back at the past few years. There is one final choke point. Once a diverse new play gets staged, the critical reception it receives is a key factor in that production’s success, and indeed in whether it manages to prove itself, to prove the question mark around audiences, which in turn dictates whether other, similarly diverse work will get commissioned and produced in future. No-one is asking critics to be over-generous to diverse new plays out of the goodness of their hearts, but the diversity of those critics themselves is a whole other issue – though sadly not one we have time to go into here. Choke point number 11.

So looking back at this journey of a play from inception to production, it’s clear we’re talking about root and branch reform of almost every stage of new play production – from exposure to arts and culture in childhood, to coming into contact with professional opportunities during key life stages, to the decisions of funders we never meet, the make up of script readers, literary managers, artistic directors, dramaturgs and even critics – all decide a diverse new play’s ultimate fate.
Where to start in terms of reform?

Well, what about with writers doing it for themselves? I’ve long been of the view that the traditional commissioning model of new play production renders writers – of all backgrounds – almost wholly passive. I’m not a writer who has been fortunate enough to have one or two companies get behind me early on in my career and produce play after play after play. That used to annoy me. Looking back, I realise it made me a better artist. It made me more resourceful, less passive, less reliant on one theatre and its house style, or the largesse of one or two powerful individuals. Most importantly, it forced me to look outside the theatre industry as I struggled to sustain a career – and this led me into schools, and what was to become a ten year association with one school in particular, Mulberry School for Girls in Tower Hamlets, in the heart of East London’s Bangladeshi community. That relationship not only stimulated the creativity of that host community through the workshops and courses I ran, but also stretched and developed me as an artist, as I acquired a methodology to write with, for and about diverse communities far removed from my own, and to do so with integrity, authenticity and legitimacy. Ten years on, that work has led (directly and indirectly) to the founding of three new theatre companies – two in a school and one in a social services department – four trips to Edinburgh, a Scotsman Fringe First, a festival at Southwark Playhouse, the building of a new 150-seat studio theatre on an East London school campus and seven published plays for young people, with diverse large casts, which schools across the country now regularly perform.

This experience turned me into my own producer – and ultimately an artistic director. It is an experience I now seek to pass on to a new generation of writers. In my current job running Tamasha, I am proud to say these are by and large BAME writers, and a majority young women (some are in the audience today). I’d like to leave you with a few new initiatives we are trialling which I hope might take some of my accidental learning into a new, more strategic phase.
There are four real projects and two fantasy ones.

Tamasha Playwrights is currently an unfunded pilot though very much real – a new in-house playwright-led collective which meets in our offices after work. Not only do we examine the craft of playwriting itself, but also how the industry works; with visits from producers and literary managers, sessions on fundraising, budgeting and how to get their own projects off the ground. The idea is to put these playwrights in the creative driving seat, to become their own producers, reclaiming the power from the long and labyrinthine road of literary departments and opaque producing infrastructures. We’re also training them in how to sustain a playwriting career between commissions. This autumn we will be launching Tamasha Playwrights as an agency of diverse playwrights-for-hire, available for schools workshops, teacher training and bespoke young people’s commissions for colleges or youth theatres. Every year we will refresh this group, and add to the agency a new crop of diverse playwriting role models.

Schoolwrights is an even larger initiative which Tamasha piloted when I was Associate Artist as far back as 2010. As the UK’s first centrally-managed and quality-controlled playwrights-in-schools training scheme, Schoolwrights lasts a whole school year and draws up to 6 local schools together into a network of placement organisations for playwriting residencies, in which diverse, emerging playwrights co-create new plays with inner city young people, for performance in professional venues in productions directed by their teachers. Schoolwrights isn’t cheap, but it is potentially game-changing. Parity of esteem runs throughout – everyone learns from everyone else. We are currently fundraising for a three-year amount to run Schoolwrights both in London and regionally from 2016-19.

Tamasha’s third real project is Taxi Tales, a site specific community project on which one of our star playwrights, Ishy Din is leading. Ishy is a Middlesbrough minicab driver turned playwright, whose career Tamasha launched in 2012 with a national tour of Snookered. Ishy is now in hot demand, developing several theatre commissions as well as TV and film. But he’s always wanted to bring it all back home, and this year, with our help, he has – with a project which involves working with real minicab drivers in Middlesbrough to develop monologues for the drivers to perform to customers in their cabs. There’ll be a London show, and workshops about the process, on Friday 10 July – ask me afterwards for more details.

Our final real-world project comes from my long-time collaborators Mulberry School, who this year founded an Alumni Theatre Company – an ‘old girls network’ of former students making new work, run entirely by and for the Bangladeshi young women of the area. This entirely spontaneous, grass roots initiative has sprung up after twenty-five years of extra-curricular creative arts work, with which I have been involved for the last ten. Its existence excited me hugely because it is a sign that the work is taking root in the community, which suggests it is becoming locally-owned and therefore, hopefully, permanent. Tamasha has agreed to professionally mentor the Alumni Theatre Company, making our expertise and connections available to them on demand as they grow. It is a straightforward thing for any professional theatre company to make a little of salaried staff time available in this way, and I would encourage them to do so where opportunities such as this emerge.

And finally, the fantasies. The first is actually inspired by Mulberry’s Alumni company. If I had all the money in the world, I would build ‘Tamasha 2’ – a shadow national touring company, fully operational alongside ours, with shared offices and entirely staffed with new, diverse theatre artists at the starts of their careers, all of them on a salary for a year, and mentored by a core member of Tamasha staff. There would be a shadow Artistic Director, shadow Exec Director, shadow Marketing and Comms, producing, finance, development – all working together to create their own touring production, perhaps thematically linked to ours, and touring alongside it in a double bill. The costs would be high of course, but a sustained investment of this kind would be an apprenticeship like no other, and meaningfully train and launch five or six professional theatre careers, every year, for as long as it ran.

Perhaps more realistic in the current climate is the final dream: an Introduction to Producing course for diverse young people. In my first Artistic Director job, I’ve been on a steep learning curve this past 18 months, getting on top of co-producing agreements, box office guarantees, tour booking, fundraising and all the other assorted but often invisible back office functions of a theatre company which are as critical to making the work as the work itself. Whenever I learn anything new like this my experience in schools starts to channel my Inner Teacher to ask: How could I teach this to someone else in an eight-week scheme of work?

Yes, some similar-ish schemes exist, I’m thinking of the National’s Step Change programme or the Society of London Theatre’s Stage One initiative – but none are BAME-specific, and none aimed at an age group young enough to still be considering which career is for them. An Introduction to Theatre Producing module aimed at 16-18 year olds is surely not impossible to envisage, or even for an exam board to take on. With its mixture of arts and economics it could form part of not only a Drama A-level or BTEC but also Business Studies, Economics or even Maths too.

If you feel this is worth a further conversation, come and find me. It is something I would love for Tamasha to help set up.
I’ll leave it there, but for one final Thank You to our hosts Nitrobeat and the Unicorn. If this becomes an annual event, I hope to be back to deliver and update. I also hope that it won’t be too long before we move on from talking about the D-Word to the E-Word: Equality.
Thank you.

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Actors’ Masterclass with Iqbal Khan

Last week we held a two day Acting Masterclass, led by Iqbal, on approaching complex language in plays, ranging from Shakespeare to Contemporary Texts. He looked at how actors can find this complex voice in texts which tackle big ideas.

‘What a thoroughly enjoyable, engaging and inspiring two days. Iqbal has an infectious passion for language and a way of letting everyone access the text with ease, with a focus on conveying the true meaning of a thought or idea. As someone who thought I’d never crack verse speaking, I now feel liberated and confident to explore the words on a page and not only to find understanding but also to express the ideas in a speech in a way that doesn’t alienate an audience but let’s them in. I feel that this will hugely impact my on stage delivery and can’t wait to put my new skills to work. Bravo!’
Vineeta Rishi

‘Iqbal is fantastic: out of all the workshops I’ve done, working with him has been by far the most enjoyable, challenging, and helpful. His talent, acumen, and teaching ability is exceptional: I can think of few ways to better hone my craft.’
Shamir Dawood

‘Working with Iqbal was exactly what I needed; he created a very honest atmosphere from the get-go and asked each one of us to tell him what our fears were when working with complex text. And that led to me feeling more comfortable with exploration of the text. Iqbal challenges you to not be lazy with text as an actor, he works in an extremely detailed manner and breaks down the text with you, but then allows you to run with it yourself. It was a wonderful boost for me as an actor and I feel so much more confident now going into an audition with a complex speech ready to perform.’
Dhiren Gadhia

‘Iqbal Khan’s Masterclass, was nothing short of extraordinary. Iqbal introduced a new way of approaching complex text, spending time on each of us, addressing our personal needs. He created a safe environment for us to not only be creative, but also ask frank questions about text, the industry and life as an actor. Personally, I learnt much which I can incorporate into my work, whether it be working on a play or prepping for an audition. Also, it was good to be introduced to new vocal exercises, which, although were challenging, if I should continue to practice, will help me no end.’
Bhella Candenti

‘A thoroughly helpful, encouraging and inspiring 2 days. Iqbal spent detailed time with every participant, working with them individually. We were given a useable toolkit to open up and share complicated ideas and language. There was a strong focus on sharing – with the audience and with your co-actor in a scene. We explored different emphasis within sentences/verse lines to find the clearest way to share an idea. This was an excerise to encourage understanding.

The most exciting work came through when the idea was being discovered in the moment, with the audience – putting yourself in an honest, vulnerable and therefore, exciting position and allowing the audience to discover and understand the text with you. Equally, we were encouraged to trust the language as well as focusing on being understood and in this way, organic, genuine emotion emerged. This helped us avoid generalised washes of anger, sadness etc. We put characters to the test: what do they want from this conversation, play that and see what happens, using the language as your tool to get it. Listen and pick up on words your partner has just said – how do they further the argument or test the relationship? The most unique and unexpected things could then happen because we were connected, open and our imaginations were free. For me, one of the most important discoveries was that anxiety can shut down your voice and shut down your imagination and you become an actor that the audience starts to worry about and not really listen to. When anxiety is out of the way, you have gotten out of your own way and you can then be the actor you really are.’
Suzanne Ahmet

‘The two day Acting Masterclass Workshop with Iqbal khan left me buzzing. I since have been unable to remove my nose from the spines of classic texts. The workshop was exactly what I needed – a boost of confidence to show me I already have the ability to attack and play with Shakespeare, Ibsen etc but also Iqbal seems to inject this passion into you that makes you, quite simply, excited to attack and play with these classic texts, or even all texts. It was just fantastic, I learnt so much and Iqbal was just wonderful to work with.’
Naomi Stafford

‘Iqbal’s masterclass was truly inspiring. He stripped away the mix of pretension and anxiety that can come with classical texts and gave us a range of tools with which to tackle the complex language. He worked with us as individuals as well as in groups and this one-to-one work was detailed, evocative and game changing. It was also very useful to watch others transform their work under his, frankly, magical touch! He tore down presumptuous and florid performing and taught us how to communicate a meaning with sincerity. It was absolutely brilliant, I’d go again’
Kerry Gooderson

‘The two days with Iqbal were pretty amazing. We worked on monologues and scenes from classical texts. I really enjoyed Iqbal’s approach to the work – to find the truth and the thoughts in the text. The text is the key. We explored a few different ways of tackling scenes, basically coming up with different ways of living it. It’s inspiring working with someone like Iqbal, who strives to bring out the best in everyone- knowing that actors work well when they’re comfortable. His style is organic and without pomp. The work is the work. Overall, the two days were incredibly enjoyable and fulfilling- what you normally expect from a Tamasha workshop.’
Ali Zaidi

‘As always the master class on Text with Iqbal was brilliant and hugely fun. Having worked with him previously I was  keen to ensure I had the chance again and it was well worth it of course. His skill and patience in conveying the subtleties of language from an actors perspective is precise and relevant to each actor’s needs. His depth of knowledge is vast and it was good to explore both classic and contemporary text. His charm and humour put you at ease instantly. A great two days. Thank you Tamasha!’
Llila Vis

‘The 2 day workshop with Iqbal Khan was an interesting insight into the use of heightened language and rhetoric in classical text. The work carried out was detailed and catered to each individual performer clearly highlighting our strengths and weakness’. A worthwhile refresher if you’ve been away from classical texts.’
Kiran Sonia Sawar


Tamasha’s Scratch Producer, Amy Clamp, attends our BBC Creative Skillset Pop-Up

Now more than ever, as a theatre Producer, I have to think about selling my work and my ideas whether that is to a venue, audience member or investor. With the industry increasingly saturated with theatre makers – and with it becoming more and more difficult to receive public funding – this idea of ‘selling your ideas’ feels like something many emerging artists may need to start doing in order to get their work seen.

It was for this reason that Tamasha Theatre Company, for whom I work part time, decided to host the BBC Creative Skillset Pop-Up workshop. The day aimed to provide practical skills to know how and when to find, refine, pitch or ditch an idea. As a company Tamasha are keen to support and encourage self producing artists and so the skills highlighted and practically explored in the BBC workshop will likely be very useful when applied to their own work.

I have been working with Tamasha Theatre Company as their TDA (Tamasha Developing Artists) Scratch Producer since March this year and so attended the BBC workshop to see if it could assist my work as a Theatre Producer in London.

To give you a little background, Tamasha was formed in the 80s with the aim of championing British-Asian artists and stories, and helping them make the crossover into the theatrical mainstream.  They have since been at the forefront of placing the voices of emerging and established artists from culturally diverse backgrounds centre-stage. Here at Tamasha, my role involves producing the company’s quarterly scratch nights. The position was one for an ‘emerging Producer’ with the aim of giving a young theatre maker a chance to work as part of an established theatre company. The position has been so fantastic for me, expanding my skills and knowledge, and allowing me to learn from those around me whilst having complete artistic control over the events themselves.

Tamasha was the perfect location for the BBC Creative Skillset Pop-Up as we have a catalogue of almost 2000 developing artists; these include actors, directors, film makers, producers, writers, designers and more. Since Fin Kennedy has come on board as Tamasha’s new Co-Artistic Director, this is a part of the company that is continuing to expand. Fin is really keen on helping, supporting and advising emerging artists on how to produce their own work and it is workshops like this that help enable artists to understand a bit more about how to do this.

Unlike TV and film, in the theatre industry (at least the subsidised area of it anyway) we aren’t ever asked to pitch an idea in front of a room full of executives. Generally productions leave the ground by the artists involved building strong relationships with venues and applying for money from the Arts Council or other such funding bodies. During the BBC Creative Skillset course we were taught to describe our vision for our work, thinking of it as a pitch, and this was actually very helpful. It is sometimes easy to forget that, even when you are extremely passionate about something and think your idea is the best thing since sliced bread, that isn’t necessarily enough to make the person you’re speaking to feel the same. Somehow you need to get that person as excited as you are, and to do that you must sell them your idea.

Over the past couple of years I have moved from the role of Production Manager to Producer. It has been quite an adjustment; from being the practical problem solver to a creative collaborator and leader. As a Theatre Producer it is necessary for me to think of ideas, develop and implement them, whilst providing and maintaining an environment in which my creative team can do the same. The Creative Pop Up helped me to think about which areas of this process hold my strengths and which areas I might want to find support with. Realisations such as this are vital in order to form a team that supports one another and also allows one another to flourish.

With conversations and exercises on leading creative teams, generating ideas and designing a pitch, I came out of the workshop feeling inspired and able to think about my work in a different light. I will definitely be carrying my learning forward and recommend anyone who produces, or is thinking of producing their own work to go along to one of these workshops.

To find out what Tamasha are up to, or how to become one of our TDAs then please visit our website – www.tamasha.org.uk

For more information on the BBC / Creative Skillset Pop Ups follow this link – www.bbcacademy.com/module/50494982

Blog by Tamasha’s Scratch Producer, Amy Clamp.


Fin Kennedy’s Westminster Media Forum Speech June 2014

The In Battalions report, published by Tamasha co-Artistic Director and playwright Fin Kennedy and researcher Helen Campbell Pickford in 2013, received widespread coverage and formed a significant part of the recent debate about arts funding cuts, in particular around theatres’ capacity to take risks on developing new plays and playwrights in an age of austerity. Below is a transcript of Fin Kennedy’s Westminster Media Forum speech on how we assess the cost versus the value of the arts, in order for the sector to better make its case to politicians and the public.

“I’ve been asked to speak today because last year I wrote a report entitled In Battalions, about the effect of cuts to the Arts Council on the British theatre industry’s capacity to develop new plays. The results made for grim reading. The report is available online so I won’t repeat its findings here. Instead I would like to address a philosophical point which I feel often gets overlooked in this debate, and that is about the difference between the cost of the arts to the public purse and the value the arts generate for public life.

There is a prevailing ideology you come across when this debate comes up. Phillip Pullman calls it ‘free market fundamentalism’. I prefer the softer term ‘market value’, because it is not a wholly illogical or unreasonable position. But it essentially states that if any play cannot attract enough paying theatregoers to cover its costs then it should be allowed to go to the wall. Let the market decide.

I’m in my first year of a new job – as Co-Artistic Director of a small-scale touring theatre company, Tamasha – and I’d like to offer a few reflections on this.

Small scale theatre tends to confound the market value principle, and here’s why.

A 90 minute new play with 3-5 actors will always play in what we call a studio or black box theatre – small auditoria of around 150 seats. So far, so cheap you might think.

But if you’re going to do things properly – which is what being a professional artist is all about – then costs begin long before show opens. Commissioning a playwright and developing the script is the first step – and can often take place years ahead of first night.

Once the show is cast there are the actors and other professionals such as the director, designer, company manager and stage manager. Then there are material costs, back office costs, producing costs, admin support, publicity – and if the show is required to tour, travel, accommodation and per diems.

All this means that even a modest four-hander play, with three weeks’ rehearsal, a three week run in London and four weeks’ touring can easily cost upwards of £100,000. Given what one can charge for shows of this scale – and even if the show does roaring business (a big if) it will make back on box office perhaps half what it cost – at best.

Small scale theatre is essentially economically unviable. It cannot exist without some kind of subsidy.

But the question we should be asking of such shows is not ‘Did it make money?’ but ‘Did it create value?’ – a far more amorphous concept, and one at which our sector is notoriously bad at successfully making its case.

I’d like to demonstrate the difference between cost and value with a brief example from my own company’s recent output.

My Name is… is a three-hander verbatim play written by my colleague Sudha Bhuchar. The play has just closed in London and Glasgow, where it received a clutch of rave reviews and in Scotland standing ovations. The play tells the real-life story of Molly Campbell, a mixed race Scottish-Pakistani girl who, in 2006, was reported as having been kidnapped by her father and forcibly taken to Pakistan. The truth turned out to be a lot more complicated.

My Name is… tells this family’s story in its own words. It has been a huge success, with audiences in tears, TV and radio interest, and a national tour booked for September and October. Even so, it will not make more money than it cost.

The value in a show like this is manifold. It tells the truth behind a story located along an important cultural fault line which exists in our society. It gives visibility to often-misunderstood or vilified minority groups. It creates understanding in audiences of other cultures with which many share their cities.

Performing in the show has been a stepping stone for all three of its actors, for one it was her professional debut and another has been nominated for an award.

The show was accompanied by workshops in inner city schools, exploring what it means to have a dual heritage in 21st century Britain.

In Scotland, Asian audience members urged me to remount the show for a longer Scottish tour because of the social and cultural community understanding such a show can create.

This makes it sound worthy – it wasn’t. It was funny and warm and heartfelt and human – and desperately sad.

But perhaps most movingly, the real Molly Campbell and her mother came to see it. They loved it. They came back – several times. They brought extended family. After the third time they had seen it, Molly herself said, “It was like going back in time and looking at us all … I got to see my mum and dad falling in love … I was just a little girl who was stuck but not knowing she was stuck and having to choose. I was scared in the beginning that people would blame me for what happened but watching myself being so innocent it’s finally hit me that I don’t have to carry that guilt anymore.”

If there is a price you can put on that, I have no idea what it might be.

My Name is… took five years to create. The project is a quintessential argument for public investment in the arts – ‘market value’ would never have come up with this show. Don’t get me wrong, now that it is a hit, Tamasha are doing everything in our power to exploit its success. It may, one day, break even. But it will never make a profit. Does this mean it is without value?

I’d like to close with a quote from Lorne Campbell, in a recent think piece for the Guardian about whether an obsession with value for money is trumping concerns of artistic quality.

“Perhaps this is the role of the cultural organisation now?” Cambpell writes, “To be the buffer between the market system we operate in and the non-market place that must be created if we are to begin to dream a new more equitable way for us to be as a society?”

So, I would repeat again: the question we should be asking of our publicly-supported theatre is not – or not only – ‘How much did it cost?’ but ‘How much value did it generate?’ for British society.

Thank you.”


‘My Name is…’ Rehearsal week 2, Composer/Sound designer Arun Ghosh on creating the soundscape and music.

Arun discusses what inspires him to create music and sound for live theatre, how he became involved in ‘My Name is…’ and the challenges of scoring verbatim theatre.


‘My Name is…’ Rehearsal week 2, Assistant Director Diyan Zora: The Art of Storytelling

Rehearsal photos by Katherine Leedale

Week 2 of rehearsals for My Name is… has flown by. The art of storytelling has dominated the room. Our play is compiled from interviews with three people, Molly Campbell, her mother Louise, and her father Sajad. Each tells their story, describing events past and present and revealing the ‘truth’ behind the headlines.

How do the actors tell those stories? Do they relive them on stage, re-enacting a time gone by, or do they reference them as distant memories? There seems to be a whole spectrum of possibilities, which suits our rehearsal room perfectly. Philip’s process is all about uncovering the actor’s imagination. The extensive text and character work we did in the first week is being put to good use. Philip asks the actors to rehearse moments in the play with varying ‘points of concentration’. For example, there is a scene where a character’s objective is to tell the interviewer that they were ‘the victim’. The point of concentration might be the space around them, or the interviewer, or the weather… it can be anything, any given circumstance that might colour a situation.

Exploring all these backdrops changes the scene completely. It adds nuance and makes the scene more engaging, but most of all, it reveals just how many options the actors have. Watching so much spontaneity and play has made for an incredibly exciting rehearsal room, and I can’t wait to see what happens next.

Tickets for My Name is… are on sale now! Opens 30 April at Arcola Theatre: more here

Rehearsal photos by Katherine Leedale


Writing Masterclass with Ella Hickson

ella hickson

Kat Roberts – participant

“It is a very difficult thing to cultivate an atmosphere where strangers feel comfortable enough to not present a version of themselves, but to simply be and create. But that is what Ella Hickson achieves instantly and seemingly effortlessly on her two day Masterclass. I have written more, thought about writing more and considered myself more of a writer in the week following the course than I ever have before. How? How has she done this to me? Actually, in retrospect it’s quite simple. Ella Hickson searches for honesty in everything; in her themes, in her characters, in herself and by extension, in the people attending her Masterclass. She invites you to do a very simple thing: to be honest. What’s the thing inside you can’t let go of? But what is it really? Let’s interrogate this feeling. What’s the question of your play? Is that active? Will that work dramatically? No? then what will? I don’ know… let’s talk about it… not later… now. Let’s talk about it here and now so you can leave and get on with your play. Here’s some writing exercises – Do I use them? Not really. Let’s do one. You didn’t do what I said, you did something else. But what you came up with was just as interesting. Why did you cross out that line though? Because you felt you should? Let’s get away from ‘should’. That feeling that you can’t do it, that you’re not good enough, it doesn’t go away. “Find your hook, and let yourself off it”. Thanks Ella Hickson and my fellow participants.

Ayndrilla Singharay – participant

The two days I spent with Ella Hickson and my fellow participants have been an absolute inspiration. Being new to writing plays, this masterclass was a perfect balance between the technical craft of playwrighting and the other, more personal and creative side of writing for stage. Ella was an excellent teacher. She is extremely knowledgeable, friendly, honest about her own experiences and passionate about not only theatre but helping and nurturing fellow playwrights. This is a wonderful combination of traits and made the class a wonderfully safe space in which to explore our own writing. The time was divided between practical exercises, tips for creating time and space for writing and focusing on our own projects. The masterclass has left me feeling infinitely more equipped to take my play forwards. I really hope Ella does another class in the near future, as I would certainly love to attend.

Shazea Quraishi – participant

I was fortunate to get a place on Ella Hickson’s playwrighting masterclass for Tamasha. As well as being a talented playwright, Ella is a wonderful teacher: generous, insightful, supportive… and rigorous. As well as generating discussions and exercises to free inspiration, she provided us with a tool kit to interrogate a script, scene by scene, to whip it into shape and get at its truth. Much in the way the bad cop interrogates a suspect (good cop having stepped out for some air). Although it’s uncomfortable playing bad cop to your own script, it really works. I feel better equipped to write the play I want to. I also met a great group of people who I know I will keep in touch with.

Michael Lister – participant

I’m so glad I took the chance and made the effort to take part in the New Writing Masterclass. I learned exactly the lessons I was hoping to learn and gained the encouragement I needed, so that I have been motivated to embark on a new play writing project.

Ella Hickson introduced herself with an open friendliness that immediately brought the group together. She continued this sense of honest sincerity, making revelations from her own experience in a way that encouraged everyone to express their own hopes and fears, blocks and aspirations.

She lead the class through basic ideas of structure, shape and analysis that she encouraged us to apply to our own work while at the same time acknowledging that our creative drive will come from a less cerebral place. We worked with a sense of urgency and seemed to achieve way beyond my expectation in those two days. From a starting point of a basic analysis of dramatic action Ella took us to the point of writing the first scenes of our new plays; plays which we are all committed to writing in the coming weeks.

An indication of the success of our collective Masterclass experience was our aim to all meet again to discuss our creative progress; we have agreed to meet together in April to share our newly written scenes and check these against our understanding of dramatic action. I’m looking forward to continuing the discussion.

Ellen Carr – participant

The masterclass with Ella was a great blend of developing a tool kit for us to use whatever we’re working on and discovering the questions we really want to write about – accessing the inner part of yourself where all the good stuff is hidden. I hadn’t done anything like this before, and had never really been ‘taught’ to write. I found discussing the main building blocks of dramatic narrative extremely helpful, and although a lot of the work we did on dramatic action and interrogating our homework scenes made my brain hurt (in a good way!) I now feel I have the skills to keep writing even if I do get stuck with an idea.

What I found totally invaluable in the two day masterclass was working with a group of people for whom being a writer is an actual career – even if it isn’t their career right now. Discussing the craft of writing, the industry, the various head-banging-desk issues you will face in a totally serious way provides validation to the idea of being a writer as a job which is something you very much need when you’re starting out. I now feel much more confident about my writing ambitions and ready to just work really hard to achieve them. I’m aware of the different ways I need to develop as a writer, and that I will only do this by producing work. Ella made the writing process more enjoyable and open, getting rid of any thoughts of what we ‘should’ be doing in our process.

The group on the masterclass bonded really well, and Ella helped to create a very supportive environment. We have set ourselves a deadline to share drafts of our work with each other! I’d say the masterclass was both practically useful and inspirational in equal measure – just what was needed.

Zella Compton – participant

Play Masterclass: to book or not to book, that is the question.

The word masterclass is rather scary. It implies that you think you are a cut above the majority of aspiring playwrights, but what – when you get there – if you’re not? Or worse, if you are and everyone else is not. The application was a big decision for me as I struggle to know how good I am, and not only did I have to fund it myself, I also had to take time off work.

But thank goodness that I did apply, fund and go. For every part of Ella Hickson that is genius, there is a small murky part which is tyrant – and that was the most valuable to me. The questioning, the justification expected and the raw honesty with which she made me think about every little aspect of my writing process has really opened my eyes.

The two days were so valuable in terms of putting craft around what I do, getting inspired and meeting an awesome collective of other people. Well worth the time and effort and money. Thank you!

Elena Procopiu – participant

The Ella Hickson masterclass was brilliant. Having never written much dialogue before, I now feel equipped to understand what would make a dramatic scene and therefore good dialogue. Ella’s knowledge and experience combined with her charisma and energy ensured that we did more writing in two days than I have done in the last six months and laughed a lot! Before we knew it, we had fully written scenes, done at breakneck speed with great enjoyment. The in-depth storytelling exercises were utterly essential, brilliantly structured and eye-opening. It just shows what you can do in two days!


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