Theatre in Wales

Theatre, dance and performance reviews

First Theatre Book I Wish I’d Never Read

Theatre Director Book

Max Stafford-Clark , Nick Hern Books , February 19, 2014
Theatre Director Book by Max Stafford-Clark Cognitive dissonance. These are the emotions of discomfort that are engendered when the mind has to reconcile things that are impossibly incompatible. “Journal of the Plague Year” is in the main, but not wholly, a record, unedited, of letters between Max Stafford-Clark and his Relationship Manager at Arts Council of England, a pseudonomised “Frank Endwright.” As in all dialogue the communication between Director and Official contains elements that are overt and some that are implicit. That which goes unspoken is invariably the more revealing. “Journal of the Plague Year” is a distressing book, a unique instance of a book on theatre that I sincerely wish had never come my way.

A position to declare; I have never met an Officer or employee of the Arts Council of England (ACE), never read a position paper or strategy document, the 2008 McMaster Report excepted. To my knowledge ACE has never reached those levels of toxicity which Scotland’s abusive money-men created with its makers of theatre. A yearning towards Germany is a constant among the recipients of arts funding. From the view of a spectator, a visit to London in July is to encounter a culture of efflorescent surfeit. Across the wealthiest parts of Europe the theatres are padlocked all summer; everyone is on salaried holiday. The garden in Britain from the audience’s perspective really does feel glorious.

The author entered my life around the time of Thomas Kilroy’s transposition of Chekhov to a decaying Irish estate, an instance of theatrical daring where genuine illumination accompanied innovation. Ron Hutchison’s “The Rat in the Skull” told me more about Ulster than any television or film treatment. It was a subject followed a quarter century on with the richly detailed “the Big Fellah” (reviewed on this site 13th November 2010). On that last occasion the Director, with the all too familiar signs of a stroke patient, took to the stage afterwards to host indefatigably, albeit with Blanche McIntytre’s support, a question and answer session with his audience.

“Testing the Echo”, (reviewed here 17 June 2008), has the heading “Contender for Best Play of the Year.” For theatre-goers who do not get to London, Out of Joint’s tours are the best of new plays, all the more reason for the disappointment that Funder and Director between them in 2012 felt obliged to abandon the company’s strategic mission.

The journal in good hands is a fascinating form. Simon Gray’s 1982 “An Unnatural Pursuit”, following a piece of theatre-making from auditions to critics, is a classic. I wrote last year about a re-reading of Richard Eyre’s now twenty-year old “National Service” filled with detail and emotion. Here the Director’s opening line of the Preface is a disclaimer that is not a journal at all. Indeed, he cites the estimable publisher who tells his author that he is writing three books. Formally, the book comprises occasional chunks of biography, commentary on the tour of “Our Country’s Good” and the letters. Four appendices add the company’s budget, a letter from Polly Teale, some post-it notes audience on feedback and a reprint of some two- year old newspaper bloggery. The bloggery had a feel of familiarity; upon checking I found that I had pitched in at the time, to the effect of declaring the inanity of its premise.

ACE’s “Frank Endwright” is author of thirteen letters. It is in this reader’s view a bad precedent set by Arts Council of England. The Duty of Care has now become a curious instrument, invoked by the powerful to cast a cloak of darkness over suspensions and dismissals. But a staff member may expect that his letters to a client company not be made public property. If they are to be more than a bit of chit chat, then the integrity and then the quality of those letters will deteriorate. On the evidence of these letters they have been a dubious expense of organisational time and money in any case.

This relationship between Director and “Relationship Manager” may be representative or it may be particular. The audience member cannot know. It is polite, respectful, but not close. In its distance it comes over as very English, very men. Director is a public school man and it shows. I would not mind betting that Frank is one also. Frank attends a rehearsal and finds it “interesting and informative as always.” He follows up with a bizarre line to the effect that “Firstly, though, I would like to thank you for continuing to engage with us.” This baby language between patron and client reads bizarrely. Arts funding is not exactly an open market.

Frank gives the impression he is far from any executive role. He has to wait for policy on “cold spots” to emerge from others. “Until I’ve seen that guidance, I’m loath to make suggestions and comments.” When a suggestion of a Richard Bean script comes with a cast of nineteen- clearly unfeasible for the time- he dodges any comment at all and passes it on to a colleague. His managerial assistance to the Director on the evidence of these selected letters can be stated as being null.

Out of Joint has a particular element to its operations, and costs, in that the company incurs high rehearsal and development time. Frank might offer benchmark comment, as to how other companies compare. What the Director receives is advice that “the business plan needs to be effective- at, amongst other things, marshalling resources, expending them and generating income.” To this reader it comes over as, “You’re on your own. You won’t get any help from me.” If the R-M is so little prepared to enter a relationship, with grit and substance to it, the reader is left wondering what all this travel cost is really for.

A relationship is created by two sides. It may well be that the distance between the capital-allocating institution and the recipient should be formal and distant. But if that is so it should be consistent. Frank’s matey tone jars. Frank is clearly a nice man, recommending as he does Youtube videos that have been recommended him by his three year old.

Out of Joint has been the creator of marvellous work. But the letters leave three primary impressions. First, it conveys the impression that the company has a pliant board- interestingly the website makes no reference of the board at all. It is an unwise Chair that sanctions a fifty thousand pound personal loan to its Director. Even if not ultra vires, which it probably is, and may well imperil charitable status it does not look good at all.

This first aspect of the company reinforces the second impression, that the decision-making is narrow. An idea is hatched to charge for attending rehearsals. Predictably, and entirely understandably, the actors detest it. In fact the book happily reports an actor’s stating that the Director did not even have the grace of consulting his cast. The practice subverts the rehearsal process.

Secondly, a large amount of company effort is devoted to promoting the Director’s spouse as a writer. Maybe the promotion of friends and family is so widespread that no-one now notices- see the 2015 election candidate for Rossendale. Director rejects the comments of Michael Billington on a work of his wife’s, which are similar to those of Frank. He makes small comment on Timberlake Wertenbaker’s reasonable objection that she has had no play commissioned since 1995. She should perhaps have stuck to her guns and declined the rights to the too reliable “Our Country’s Good.” Either way the promotion of family interest is fine in a family company but it is hardly surprising that ACE may take a view. Again the invisibility of the board speaks blaringly. Whiter-than-white governance is not just a moral stance but is a wise political stance too.

Director sends long letters to Frank with amounts of detail, like the proceeds from the sale of books at an event, that cannot be part of ACE’s reporting requirements. It reads as though these two organisations have never established the nature of the relationship. In fact Director gives small idea that he has any real knowledge of his funder. Early on he organises the distribution and collection of feedback cards to be then surprised that ACE has no interest in reading them, which elicits more testy comment.

His company is one of seven hundred recipients. ACE is an organisation with five hundred staff and hundreds of millions of pounds running through it. Like all organisations it has a capital-allocation activity. Fin Kennedy has done the hard work of sifting the whole lot and reported on the shift against the playwright. In a zero-sum climate or worse that means You Me Bum Bum-ery can only grow at the expense of others’ shrinking. In this settlement it has meant the likes of Out of Joint and Shared Experience.

Operationally Out of Joint appears to have missed a trick. The many partners and collaborators include the RSC, Bristol Old Vic and National Theatre of Wales on “Wearing the Raven”, a dramatisation about Gareth Thomas. But this assistance is all non-monetised. Instead of passing through the accounts for record as a donation account it is all left floating.

There is rage expressed at the size of ACE’s reserves. They are entered as a balance sheet item of £114m. Director gives the impression that he believes this to be a pile of hoarded cash. It is just a book entry that balances ACE’s ownership of a substantial art collection. The collection, running to over seven and a half thousand items, has a valuation of £114m. Judging from the waffley response by Frank it appears he too is equally clueless. For the record it takes about ninety seconds to verify this on ACE’s public documents. .

There are moments of interest, memories of a Royal Court production that sold just five tickets at one performance. Even Juliet Stevenson and Jim Broadbent were young unknowns once. Aberystwyth is a constant cause for worry- but it all comes good in the end with a thousand tickets sold.

There is scope for a hard-grind coalface journal of what it takes to make and tour theatre. There is a place for a powerful aesthetic polemic in defence of drama, as a moral crucible against a theatre of chainsaws, stilts and arsing about. It is not that either. A memoir would be fascinating, but the small chunks of biography fit with awkwardness. This is a sad and disheartening book in which neither side comes out well. On the one hand a large organisation where niceness seems to be its primary cultural manifestation. On the other hand a driven creative organisation lacking executive balance, proportion and self-knowledge.

But a funding regime is judged by its fruits. I suspect it is akin to the old adage about democracy. The process is filled with holes and flaws but works better than any alternative. The Adam Smith Institute and the Institute of Economic Affairs will lap this book up in reinforcement of their every prejudice.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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