…& Disgruntled in Plymouth (and Cornwall and Devon)

My first D&D, although I’ve done the open space format thing a few times.

Theatre Royal Plymouth

Here’s a detailed description of how the D&D Roadshow works in case you want to have a better idea of what I’m talking about: Downstagewrite

So it’s basically filling a day with those kind of coffee break chats that are often the best bit of a conference. Anyone can suggest a topic. And anyone can turn up – theatre goers/dancers/writers/producers/artists/venues ….maybe a little tricky to communicate that, I asked a composer-friend if he was coming and he’d assumed it was an exclusive invite-only event.

Devoted and Disgruntledhow was it for me…

I immediately liked the title as it pretty much sums me up – utterly devoted and a bit disgruntled.

But during the day I got the sense these states were being polarised. You were either in the devoted camp (good) or in the disgruntled camp (bad). Being seen as being in the disgruntled camp felt rather uncomfortable, like you were just a moaner.

I think being both devoted and disgruntled means that you are up for debating the problems, and then up for trying to do something about them.

Do we need the provocative formal debates/speakers in order to have something to rebel against/discuss/debate during the coffee chats?

One conclusion of the day is an obvious one….Devon….whether that’s Exeter or Plymouth…is never going to be Bristol.

We just don’t have the population. So we’ll never have that kind of self-perpetuating theatre ecology that draws people in and keeps them. I still think the various theatres and organisations in Devon can do more in terms of talking to each other, trusting each other, getting together to support the few full time theatre makers who are based here, helping us develop the regional audiences for our work, providing a bit of infrastructure…and they think that too.


Will it happen? How long will it take? Why is being a supported artist a postcode lottery?

I look at what goes on in the East region  – I never would have imagined that the place I grew up – which felt so cut off and rural and boring –is now pretty much the best place in the country for a theatre maker to live.

Having said that, while growing up in Suffolk I was a member of ‘Splinters’ youth dance company at Suffolk dance, and we worked with Richard Alston, Wayne McGregor, Phoenix dance company…and I commuted once a week to the Royal College of Music junior school. On second thoughts rural Suffolk was the perfect place for an artist to grow up.  (if your arty middle class parents take you to Snape Maltings)

–Is it simply distance to London and travel costs that are the problem?

When I attended the Jerwood Aldeburgh opera writing foundation scheme last year,  it was brilliant to have time to talk with other artists – writers, directors, composers, – all of them full time practitioners, and to collaborate. That’s one of the things missing from Plymouth/Devon. Even when artists do get together we’re usually too preoccupied with the practicalities of how to make the work happen to talk about the work itself.

Which is why it’s so important to travel and spend time outside of the region. – That was one of the suggestions of the ‘Is the work being made in Devon good enough?’ session. – Maybe the artists based here don’t see enough good work. I guess that might be true for the recent graduates who have stuck around, but it’s also a little patronising. I’m a graduate from the region who stuck around. The few writers/directors/actors/theatre makers I know here have spent most of their lives making and seeing work in other places. It’s quite tricky to suggest that the work being made here isn’t good enough  – when many of the professional artists based here are not actually able to make the work they want to make at all.

Doing something about it.

There were some great things I got from the day…I met Kate Sparshatt who was very impressive and nice, and generous, and we have subsequently met up and had a useful chat about Gecko and producers and funding applications. On the topic of brilliant women –  one of the most vibrant chats was called by Natalie McGrath, ‘Women’s Voices – ? Do We Want To Hear And See Women On Our ‘Stages’ In The South West?‘ – other than Kate (Plymouth Arts Centre), and Emily Williams (Wide Awake Devon/Theatre Devon) I think the representatives of organisations/theatres in the room were all men. Robert Miles from the Brewhouse joined the debate.

There were a number of women making things happen in the room – including: Natalie McGrath (playwright), Josie Sutcliffe (director), Belinda Dillon (critic, Exeunt/Devon Life), Belinda Chapman (choreographer/director), Fiona Chivers (designer), Ruth Mitchell (actor/theatre maker), Bethany Pitts (director), Emily Williams (producer/Wide Awake Devon), Danielle Rose (producer), Cassandra Williamson (Pilot’s Thumb)

I did a little tweeting and Lyn Gardner liked the idea of coordinating with other performances in the region and sending invites to critics to come down and see a few things at once. I would have liked to have talked more about the issue of lack of theatre criticism in the region …. I turned up too late to that session – but I think a conclusion was we need to blog more – tweet and blog about everything. And #swtheatre is available. I’m going to see the latest Belgium experiment at the Drum tonight. I’ll give the hashtag a go afterwards.  (But still find it very hard to comment on/review work, especially when I don’t like it) – Had a chat with Belinda Dillon about that. – I can’t afford to make any more enemies than I already make through this blog!

Had a little brain storm with Seth Honnor about what to call things.  – He made a list, none of them are great, although ‘Grokking’ perhaps the favourite. But anything that taxi drivers don’t understand is no good. My taxi driver thought ‘theatre maker’ meant that I built theatres. Maybe we just need to call ourselves and our work by different names in different situations.

I talked to Mark at Beaford Arts and started thinking about rural touring, and pondering whether my work could be rurally toured. We have subsequently had a chat and Beaford is supporting the development phase of ‘Hunger’ with a two week residency – which also gives me a chance to explore the question about audiences for my work.

So it now it looks like making Hunger in the region is a possibility. I‘ll still be based in London for a few months from September, but even having just one thing to come back for makes my year ahead more exciting, less disgruntling – and I’m as devoted as ever.

A selection of the reports:

How can theatres and organisations prioritise and support their local theatre makers?
Is Work Being Made In Devon Good Enough?
Should We Be Happy To Work For Free – And Are We Damaging Theatre If We Do?
Theatre In Non-Theatre Space: Was Creating The Bike Shed Theatre A Waste Of Time?
Women’s Voices – ? Do We Want To Hear And See Women On Our ‘Stages’ In The South West?
How Do We Get SW Theatre Regularly Reviewed?
Half The SW Lives In The Countryside. Why Doesn’t The Sector Give Rural Work Equal Weight?
In addition to developing opportunities for artists in the South West, how do we retain, attract and develop producers and arts managers?