Posted by: stelladuffy | July 1, 2014

the Arts Council, the NPOs, and all those empty spaces …

I know many arts companies who are relieved today. I know some who are full of fire and determined anyway. I know some who are sad and/or angry (and determined anyway). I know some who weren’t in it, didn’t want to be in it, and don’t care personally, but do feel both happiness and sorrow for their friends and colleagues. And I know people at ACE, and in the NHS, and in Education, who are working bloody hard to make it work from a Treasury that doesn’t want to make it work. A Treasury that has bought into, and wants us to buy into, a belief in lack, in austerity, in not-enough-to-go-around.

Personally, I’m all for old-school redistribution of wealth and a bottom-up not top-down organisation of the sharing of that wealth. However, until the revolution that is truly of the people occurs (the one that never happened yet, anywhere), there are some things we can do. Some things we can do to support each other. One of those things is about our assets. And for many companies, their biggest asset is land and space.

I know loads of people have shared this piece – and oh how I wish there was a name attributed to it, how I wish we knew the writer and that they felt able to put their name to their beliefs, but I’m sharing it here again anyway, on ACE’s NPO Day because points 1, 2 and 3 are SO Fun Palaces that I’m keen to share it here, especially because I know everyone reading this blog isn’t an artist or consumer of arts.

I especially care about Number 1. Stop spending a fortune on buildings.
We have LOADS of buildings, let’s use them better, share them better. Whenever I have budgeted to make a show, the cost of rehearsal/making space has been one of the biggest costs we need to find. For many new/emerging artists it’s one of the most prohibitive. Free or cheaper rehearsal/making space for companies & individual artists who don’t have funding/regular support would make such a difference. Free or cheaper performance/gallery space would be astonishing.
And there are so many hours that so many buildings are empty!

Public buildings like schools, hospitals, GP surgeries, galleries (oh those empty under-used gallery spaces!), ACE offices … the amount of evening rehearsals we could hold in the breast (cancer) clinic I attend that only opens daytimes, the meetings/work we could do out of office hours in every ACE office (and pretty much every government building) in the country, the spacious room that is my GP’s surgery waiting area that could be put to good use out of surgery hours, the school rooms and school halls empty in the weekends, the churches and synagogues and mosques and temples, the publishers board rooms!! SO MUCH SPACE!

I don’t know any artist who works 9-5 or 10-6 and Monday-Friday. I know loads of offices and office workers who do, schools that are 8am-5/6pm, places of worship that have wide empty spaces half of the week.
I know we have said it time and again and I know it always seems to fall on deaf ears, but we DO have space. Tons of it.
The theatres with empty rooms need to be giving them for free to artists who need them, for sure.
The theatre spaces that aren’t open at the weekend, them too. (Purni Morell, when she was at the National Theatre Studio, was astonishing in giving us two Saturdays, free, at the NTS, to begin the 30+ people, aged 17-69, co-creation of Chaosbaby. It was a new idea for them to open on a Saturday and, as we were a bunch of artists interested in co-creating, it cost them nothing but the time of the brilliant Slav on the desk. Nb – Slav is a photographer, you know almost everyone with a day job does something as well as their day job, right? Not always something arty, often something sporty, something community. The Voluntary Arts Network know all about that. MakeBelieve Arts were also utterly instrumental in creating the Chaosbaby work.)
The companies with offices need to let others know that their office can be used in the evening. Need to BELIEVE that their office can be used in the evening, the weekend, the empty-rehearsal-room-because-it’s-get-in-week time, that bit between Christmas and New Year … the time when many other artists are also, still, working.

But it’s not just down to theatres, is it? (Although, because we are often vocal and because some of our rank have a public face, it sometimes feels as if it is. The arts are so much wider than ‘just’ theatre.)

There are masses of unused, under-utilised spaces, all over the country, many many of them paid for from the public purse.
It would be really OK to, you know … share.
It would be really OK to FILL the space, any space, to cram it full of makers and artists and participants. It would be OK to turn a GP surgery into a workshop space in the empty afternoons and evenings (yes, of course we’d clean up!) and maybe it would even be OK to have those times cross over, for health to cross over with arts, for health to cross over with the ordinary people who make arts. And for education, and policy, and law to know we are not different, that we don’t consider ourselves apart and ‘special’. To remind them we are often them. For us, the artists, to invite them in, by working alongside them so they feel more welcome. More with us, more of us, less us (artists) and them (audiences) – isn’t that what we keep saying we want? (I know it’s what I want.)
IF we are all working for the same better society, then surely we can all share what we already have?

The brilliant Ruth Pennyman invited Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop into her gorgeous home of Ormesby Hall (now a National Trust property). Her husband was dead posh, she was the radical, he the establishment, but if they could have Joan’s Theatre Workshop living and working from their home for 18 months – in 1946 and ’47! – surely we, now, can be a little more inventive with our use of the spaces, the wide and varied, the precious and falling down, the multifarious spaces we ALREADY have?
Ormesby Hall are, of course, making a Fun Palace!

Surely we can do better by working with each other instead of competing against?

We’re beginning to see very clearly that this is one of the big things the Fun Palaces Campaign is hugely about – using what we already have. Using it better, using it more widely, using it more fully. It might mean giving up a bit of ownership of course, relinquishing a bit of ‘my’ building or ‘my’ company. And it might be very worth it.

Posted by: stelladuffy | June 27, 2014

100 Fun Palaces

Tonight there are one hundred Fun Palaces.

100 Fun Palaces. This means so much.
It means you too, can have an absurd idea and it can happen.
It means I can have an absurd idea (about taking on someone else’s ‘absurd’ idea) and it can happen.
It means that people understand and believe in the politics around Radical Fun – engagement, what our Planning-Evaluation day today uncovered as ‘unearthing what is already there’, that we can trust that community arts might truly be a thing. Not a thing treated with snobbery, but a thing welcomed as engaged and part of ‘the arts’ – that our making work (as artists) is a CONTINUUM of making work, not an end in itself.
We all know this.
Those of us who make work are doing it because of this connection (mostly), many of us wouldn’t bother otherwise – it is the reach, the change, the leap that is the point. That makes it worthwhile.
100 Fun Palaces.
Absurd, amazing, right.
(As would be two, as would be two thousand.)
The far distant as important as the one up the road. The first two counting as much as the latest. People who are makers/artists engaging with actual, real community. And vice versa.
I’m shattered (6 months of cancer/surgery/healing/surgery/healing, father-in-law death, astonishing work, amazing support, fantastic understanding), hopeful, and grateful. (And so looking forward to the next 6 months!)
Thank you all, those who get in so wholeheartedly, so many of you already working at other full-time jobs (in arts and not), already making other work, and now making Fun Palaces the thing we didn’t even know it was going to be.
I don’t know what this is going to be.
Our Evaluation-Planning day today made it even more clear to me that we (all) really don’t know what this is going to be.
Thank you SO MUCH to those of you leaping in – anyway. WE will work this out. Together.

Posted by: stelladuffy | June 16, 2014

thank you – twenty years of being published

Twenty years ago today, my first book was published. Calendar Girl, Serpent’s Tail, a mere 207 pages long. It had an ISBN number, it had my name on the cover and again on the black and red striped spine.

Having a book published felt like a real thing, it felt solid, actual. Compared to the theatre work I was making at the time, and especially the huge amount of impro I was doing back then, it was solid, tangible, unlike theatre it was live but not live. Unlike theatre it was more than a passing moment, never to be recreated. (Though, of course, theatre is all the better for being ephemeral, that’s the point.)
And yet, book-writing was a lot like theatre, it is a lot like theatre.
Even for those of us who truly believe that making theatre is as much about process as product, the audience is always important, whether actually in the room as we make, or in our minds as we dream the performance to come.
And the reader is always in the room too, sometimes as critic, sometimes as cheerleader, but definitely there – the one for whom the piece of work is made. Sometimes if feels as if that reader is just me, (often it is just me!), often I can only write to my best ability and for what I care about. After that, is my agent, my editor, other people at my publishers, but there is also – always – the unknown reader. The readers I know and those I have no idea about. The readers I didn’t know would read me, cared about reading me, had any idea that I was a writer.

Interaction with readers has been one of the greatest unexpected gifts of my writing work. I didn’t realise this interaction would happen, and back when I was first published it happened very differently – without twitter, without facebook, without amazon, goodreads, blogs …
Some have become genuine friends, others distant acquaintances I’m always happy to hear from. Some have become people who champion all my work, any of my work, others have been very clear that they enjoy the crime novels but not the literary, or the literary but not the historical, or the stories above all, or the stories not at all. They are an intrinsic part of my writing work and I’m grateful for them.

Another unexpected gift of publishing has been publishers and agents. My two book agents (one after the other) have been, and still are, my very dear friends. Their opinions matter to me, their expertise matters to me, but their friendship has been vital. The publishing teams I have worked with have been amazing, generous, dedicated, and challenging. And I have learned so much from every editor I’ve worked with.

The booksellers and librarians have been a great gift too. People who invariably put reading, sharing reading, above everything else.

The people I have taught or shared thinking with – the mentees, the Arvon students, the impro-for-story learners, the one-off workshops – I’ve learned from them all, and from fellow teachers, in the act of teaching, of grappling to work out what exactly we are all trying to do.

But perhaps the main gift of writing has been other writers. I came to writing from a theatre community that was, twenty-odd years ago, more competitive, less inclusive, less welcoming than I feel it is now (I hope the cheerier-now is also others’ experience, if not, I urge you to find your community within theatre, find your tribe, it may take a while, but ‘your people’ will be there, it may just take you searching them out), but other writers were IMMEDIATELY welcoming, much more like the impro community.
I think I was fortunate that my first few novels were crime novels. Crime writers are great people, hugely political more often than not, warm, welcoming, encouraging, and good at parties. As, I have discovered, are most writers. And I don’t mean good at the absurd shiny cocktail party type of party you always see writers enjoying in tv/film (though maybe that too), I mean late night, long conversations, deeply engaged, sometimes breaking into show tunes, filling-the-bar parties. (Including the non-drinkers.)
And then the others … as my work changed, so did the writers I met. The literary novelists, the short story writers, the historical fiction writers, the women’s fiction writers, the thriller writers, the children’s authors, the YA authors, the fantasy writers – those who, like me, simply enjoyed writing and did it all if we could. (And who often, like me, found all these divisions that are purely about marketing, absurd. We’re all writers, that’s the thing.)
And writers are lovely. They are supportive and generous and welcoming and, above all, they care about what they do. Again, not in a tv/film (why do they ALWAYS get us wrong? you’d think we weren’t written by writers!) naff arrogant/insecure kind of way, the kind of ‘caring about writing’ that translates as pretension – but a really, truly, caring about writing, caring about sharing writing. CARING ABOUT INDIE BOOKSHOPS AND LIBRARIES!
And it’s great to be with people who care about story.

So – thank you. Thank you for 20 years of being published to Serpent’s Tail who got me started, to Sceptre who kept me going, to Virago who brought me to now, to the dozens of short story publishers who have given me the widest of options to play and stretch, to the readers and radio story listeners, to the brilliant booksellers and librarians, and to my fellow writers, my mates. Mates who have been excited for me with successes and sympathetic and generous about mistakes, who have held and shared and listened and told the stories of their own failures to make mine feel less painful. Writer friends who have praised and loved-up and been there, through cancers and deaths and losses, but also joys and pleasures and excitements. Without whom. Truly.


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