Interview with David Lockwood @BikeShedTheatre

David Lockwood
David Lockwood

David Lockwood is the Artistic Director of the The Bike Shed Theatre, a small theatre in Exeter, with a fantastic bar that serves crisp cocktails surrounded by retro furniture including an array of characterful lamps. The adjoining, cave like theatre smells of damp, and has a concrete floor and brick walls that looked fantastic when lit by Gary Bowman, our lighting designer on ‘The Disappearance of Sadie Jones’. We really enjoyed our residency at the Bike Shed, had fantastic audiences, and took David up on the offer to hang out in the bar after each performance to chat with them. I certainly learned a lot about the piece  through those conversations. Before leaving the South West for the Midlands, I had a chat with David about his work at the Bike Shed. We started, as is unfortunately typical these days, by talking about funding cuts:

D: Somerset cut the arts funding directly, but they are supporting artists when it brings some revenue back, when it supports people. The problem is how far in advance you look at it. To nurture a community you’ve got to look at ten years or longer, and you can’t get funding for that. The Arts Council are very hands off, it seems to me. They’ll fund organisations and there may be things in the funding agreement about supporting local infrastructure but it rarely seems to happen.

H: How can the Arts Council be hands on in terms of making sure local artists are being supported without adding to bureaucracy?

D: It depends on where things get cheated, because you can say you’re supporting artists while not actually supporting artists. We’re co-producing a Christmas show with the Wardrobe Ensemble. And the idea behind it is that there will be three members of the Wardrobe Ensemble and three local performers, local makers. The challenge we have, is how much do we bend those rules? Do we work with someone who trained here but doesn’t live here…? We bent rules before, when we had funding, and I really regret it now as it meant there was no incentive for people to be staying here. However, we cast the best people who were available to us. So I’m effectively saying to the director – it might not be as good, but it will be beneficial to this place in the longer term. I don’t know – why should I be doing that? It seems a bit strange that us, a very small organisation, are doing that when other companies that are more established could be doing it.

H: Are you saying that the local artists aren’t as good?

D: If you’re a local based actor you won’t be as good because you won’t be working so often, you won’t be practicing. So how do you get those local actors to get better? You give them opportunities, and that’s through a wide range of things, it doesn’t necessarily mean full productions. We’ve had lots of conversations about continual professional development. We have an initiative called ‘In Your Space’.  Part of it is about artists being able to test ideas in a safe space – another part is to be practicing, flexing the muscles, so that when a job does come up they’re in a better position to be able to do it, which benefits everyone…us, certainly, and it should also benefit the artists. There are other cities that manage to solve the problem, it’s not London and then ‘the regions’ – It’ll be interesting to see how you find Birmingham…Bristol has certainly found a way.

H: Birmingham seems better, from what I’ve seen so far. But still, I heard young artists complaining about the lack of support. They were on various development schemes. In the end you’ve got to be proactive. There are two things I needed that I couldn’t find in Plymouth – rehearsal space, and people to work with.

D: Space is a biggy – and the opportunity to make some money from it. Pretty much always when you’re making work for yourself you expect to do it for less than if someone else was employing you and I think that’s right, but at the moment it seems as though there is so little available if you want to be making work and we are part of that problem. We’re trying to find a way of being able to give people money for them to go into a free space they can use.

H: What I’ve noticed is that when space is offered in the South West, it tends to be offered with about a month’s notice and on the terms of the organisation – perhaps once a week 2 hours on a Wednesday, for instance. So whenever I’ve seen free space being offered, unless I’m working on my own, I’m unable to take it because I have to plan projects in advance. If you’re paying actors and getting funding, you don’t have that flexibility. I’ve found that ‘support’ is often offered on the terms of the organisation rather than on the terms of the artist.

D: Which is absurd really, we’ve sort of got things a bit wrong haven’t we, in terms of what takes priority…? Did you read Mark Ravenhill’s speech in Edinburgh?

H: Yes, I’ve been thinking about that.

D: I loved it. I’ve spent the best part of the last four months writing a business plan so I felt pretty stupid!

But it is really interesting to think we are trying to replicate other models and ways of doing things. So in theatre organisations, the priorities are in administrative areas, and the art keeps on suffering. I’m sure we’ve had this conversation before, about the cuts in 2012 and how much easier it was to cut creative projects than to cut salaries, which seems to me blindingly obvious. The problem is that the result is massive structures with no flesh on them. It makes it difficult to make the argument for the arts, especially if you’re always looking for economic return. Things like development space cost a fortune. ‘In Your Space’ is a playing space for talented artists who may never make work that makes a single penny. That’s a really unattractive point to make if we’re trying to frame everything within the economic argument.

H: It’s true, when it comes to the kind of work that we’re talking about, there is no economic argument – that’s why I thought Ravenhill’s speech was great, but problematic, because if you argue that the arts could be braver without funding, or perhaps were braver without funding, then it gets close to saying ‘we’re better off with less money’. He wasn’t saying that, but it came close. 

D: He’s making a different argument – what if we didn’t? I love that idea – what if this was a blip and what did we do before we had the money?

H: But I also worry about that idea – ‘what if we didn’t have any money?’ I don’t think it would mean that we would get a lot of brave work, and people making work they want to make because they don’t have to report to any organisation or theatre. It’s pretty hard to make brave theatre in the evenings after day’s non-creative work trying to pay the bills. 

I think funding does allow artists to take risks. I’ve never felt that the Arts Council has any kind of artistic agenda or is in any way preventing me from making the work I want to make, in fact it’s the opposite. I like the model of being able to apply to the Arts Council to do the project I want to do, and shaping it entirely myself. Whereas if I was being commissioned by a theatre I wouldn’t be able to shape the project, the structure, in my own way…

D: Which basically means we should all operate as small businesses, and go directly to the funders.

H: Yes.

D: I worry in terms of the next funding cuts in 2015 that there will be a lot of organisations that are cut from the national portfolio and they will then apply to Grants for the Arts with their huge infrastructure costs. It’s a challenge for us, even as a small organisation. Our infrastructure costs are constantly growing because we started out with lots of people working for favours and you can’t sustain that after three years. We could probably all say we would like more funding for arts, it would encourage more art to happened, more people to experience it and that would be wonderful, I’m just not entirely sure that’s true. I’m not sure if there is that little money floating around in the arts. It seems to me that certain organisations have a lot of money – this is probably one of the bits you’ll have to cut…

H: It’s a question of who gets the money

D: Absolutely, and if it gets swallowed into the administration costs of an organisation that isn’t making any art, that seems to me to be bonkers. We would never ask for money for stuff that wasn’t going to help us to be creative and show work. It would be odd to do that. Of course what we’ve done, as you know, is we’ve outsourced that to companies who talk to the funders directly, with varying degrees of success.

It might be frustrating that you’re turning artists into artists/producers, but at least it means, it’s your idea, otherwise, even if we tried not to we probably would start having an artistic agenda.

H: Do you have a certain number of South West companies you want to support/program or you look at every company on merit?

D: We don’t prioritise South West companies within our residencies…we had four…five…last year…of fourteen…

H: …which is a lot

D: It is actually, thinking about it. I guess it’s easier for South West companies to do a residency here than for others. But in terms of residencies it’s all by merit. Actually there were probably more…I always forget about Bristol being in the South West…

H: We all do…

D: Yes, so do they. I think it would be nice to feel as though there is a community of artists and audiences based around here. But I think there’s as much of a connection for a company like Third Man who will be returning here for the third time in the Autumn, as Theatre Rush who are Exeter based.

H: It’s certainly nice to return to venues and feel you are building a relationship with the audience and the people at the venue.

D: Do you have that? Do you have venues nationally that you have that relationship with?

H: Not really – maybe Queen’s Theatre in Barnstaple…Alan Dodd is very risk taking and supportive about my work, he’s really great. I wanted to take Sadie Jones to the same venues I took Opposition to, and I had glowing letters of recommendation from those venues in the G4A application. But a couple didn’t want it in the end…I suppose because it’s a very different piece…Each piece of work has to find the right fit in terms of venues….But personally I would like to have a relationship of trust, where people know my work is going to be good, and even if they’ve only seen a work in progress and it’s not there yet, or if they don’t know how to sell the idea, I’d like them to trust me. That’s the long-term hope at least, but it will take time.

D: I say this regularly – if we’ve had a company and we think they’re brilliant – we’ll have their second show and even if their second show is awful we’ll still have their third show and I think that’s important…second album syndrome seems to be fairly common but the third will often be better than the first…. The challenge is the audience and how they respond to that. Someone from the Arts Council said if they have a bad time in the theatre it will put them off for a long time, whereas if they have a bad time watching a film they will go back to the cinema. I hope we don’t have that in quite the same way here. Because the experience is enjoyable…But with a lot of theatres, it’s stressful…there’s a bell…I get stressed going back after the interval…then you can’t get in …the hope here is that it’s all a little bit calmer…if someone asks to go to the toilet at 31 minutes past says we’ll say yes…other theatres might say yes but you’ll miss the first 20 minutes…

H: What have been the key decisions that you’ve had to make?

D: The biggest decision was to open the place in the beginning – that was really hard. First of all we were going to be here for three weeks, then four months, even though sums didn’t add up, and that worked, amazingly. It was a big decision to expand into the adjacent cellar after four months…I slightly regret it in some ways, the place wouldn’t exist if we hadn’t done it but it’s been really hard. We set ourselves a lot of challenges because of how we went about things in the early stages.

There’s joy in the idea – let’s just do it, go for it, but the reality…my mother said, and mothers are always right, she said, are you not running a little fast? We stumbled and fell and got back up, we’re still here, just about.

The programming decision was big one, changing the way we do things, from in house companies or bringing in companies for up to a week, to doing residencies. During the residencies companies tend to make new work in the day time and show existing work in the evenings. They can use the space in different ways. Sometimes we help set up workshops in schools, sometimes paid for by the schools, sometimes by the council. If we were to apply for all the funding that artists who show work here have got we’d be applying for over 100,00 a year, which we’d never get. And I think that’s probably right.

H: If you had money, Arts Council or private funding, what would you do with it?

D: From an artistic point of view what I’m interested in doing is feeding the development of work. It would be good to put money into New Blood, which we do as a finale at the end of the year. It started out being a writer’s response, now it’s an artist response thing. If we could make that opportunity a lucrative one it would raise the interest and the standard and it would be better…a better national calling card for Exeter/Devon based artists. Also we’d like to put money into productions or co-productions and their development.

There is the challenge of how to fund the residencies. I love the residencies but often we fudge what they are, they’re all different but realistically what makes the most sense for us is to have longer runs. So if we could have said to you, we want Disappearance of Sadie Jones for four weeks and if we’d invested a certain amount in it so it was a Bike Shed co-production – that would have worked really well for us. I’d be more interested in doing that than funding more of the residencies per year and deciding which those are. I’d rather make residencies into co-productions.

H: We really liked using the space for final rehearsals with Sadie Jones. But I know that when we were in the earlier stages of working, when we were at Beaford Arts, I couldn’t have considered showing something else in the evenings, the making is so tiring, so all consuming, brain consuming…I could barely make a phone call to someone else in the evening… so I suppose it depends on what stage you are at in the process…

D: …and what sort of work you make…

H:… and how you make work.

D: It’s an interesting point, it means we close ourselves off to companies like Nabakov, and Paines Plough, because it’s not the way they work, but it would be lovely if they could come here.

H: You used to work with playwrights, how are you seeing that now? The standard model with playwrights is to hope someone will come in and direct and develop work with them, playwrights don’t often apply to Grants for the Arts to produce their own work.

D: No, but they go for them to write them though don’t they? It’s bizarre, totally bizarre.

H: I suppose the way you’ve changed as an organisation means you’re not opening doors to playwrights to send in scripts for instance.

D: That’s only because we can’t make the work here, so there’s no point, it would be a waste of time. It’s a challenge, I’m really interested in writers and in working with writers but I’m interested in working with them over a long period of time. And I kind of got this sense that we’d become the place where people send their play to after they’d sent it everywhere else. They were finished, all these plays were finished. So I was going into a room with writers and giving them feedback before rehearsals, and in rehearsals I’d be trying to keep developing and of course they don’t want to do that and why should they, it’s finished, it exists…So the simple answer is we don’t work with playwrights anymore because we’re not producing anything anymore. But the reality is we are producing, but when we are it’s co-producing, making stuff in a context in which the writer becomes a part of the process rather than the leader of the process. I’m aware that is not a very nice thing for a lot of writers to hear, it pisses a lot of writers off to hear that.

H: But at least it’s honest. There are a lot of places that say they do ‘writer led development’ and it’s not ‘writer led’ at all – the writer has to fit into a process that’s designed by the theatre.

D: I’m interested in production led work. If the writer is the person who comes up with the idea and the writer is the person who wants to make it happen I’m totally up for that. I’m hoping to get the money together to do a piece that’s set in Devon and spans 100 years and explores the slippage of memory. One of the central characters has Alzheimer’s. It’s a beautiful play. That’s ‘writer led’ – it’s pretty much complete, we’d develop it with the writer.

I wrote something about this a year or so ago. About the writer sat at the back of the room being really grumpy and a bunch of actors going – you know what, we don’t need him –it was usually a him – we’ll have fun on our own, make stuff on our own. And then the writer suddenly realised that everyone was playing football somewhere else they weren’t invited anymore. Now they’re going ‘what about me’? I know that’s over simplistic….It came about from being at the Devoted & Disgruntled road show in Bristol, where there were tons of writers and all the performance makers were off in Gloucestershire at a festival, so it was fairly obvious that things weren’t joining up.

So what we’re trying to do here is find a way for the writer to be able to work as a collaborator. We’ve just had a residency from Tidy Carnage, we invited a writer from our very new Writers’ Group to work with them on developing a piece which was her idea and she worked with them and they developed it. That was exciting and interesting for her. She might now develop it further. Her eyes were really opened to that way of working by coming to see the Molino Group who were here in residency, so that’s something I’m proud of.

David Lane is going to run a workshop here in October about the Writer as Collaborator, which I think will be really beneficial for the writers that we have. We have a number of companies here like Theatre Rush, Le Navet Bete, Rhum and Clay, who don’t work with writers and yet they use text. I love those companies, I think they’re fantastic. But I do think they might benefit from having a writer in the room with them at some point.

H: Facilitating those ways of working is extremely useful for writers, it’s responding to the climate and finding a way of helping. I don’t think the model of a playwright turning up and saying – here’s my script, can you put it on – I don’t think that happens much anymore. But enabling those writers to get the tools to collaborate and to find other ways of getting those scripts on is what’s needed.

D: I think so, and I guess the challenge is…this is probably why it pisses a lot of writers off…is that it looks like it’s the director over the writer.

H: But it’s not

D: Not in our case. The companies I mentioned, they’re all performer led. There’s no directors in those companies, sometimes outside eyes but it’s still generated by them as companies.

H: Yes, but also…playwrights have a bit of a fear of ‘director led’ theatre but I think it depends on the type of work that you’re writing. You can write plays that invites a director’s vision, or that’s written in an open way, that requires collaboration.

D: Potentially, I think it’s about remembering the audience, that’s the important thing. But interpreting work is boring, compared to making work. Isn’t it?

H: I’m not sure if I do much interpreting work, I don’t know…

D: I have, and whilst it can be fascinating, to question what the writer means at particular moments, the reality is it’s more exciting to feel that you are all equal on that journey, you are all sailing off together…rather than following someone on a hike.

H: You’re making the map together…I think that what writers need to fight for is being in that room. Making work with everybody else. It’s just as exciting as writing on your own in your cupboard. It doesn’t mean you stop writing in the cupboard…

You were saying writers apply for G4A grants to write, not productions…that’s something that really holds writers back. They get paid to write it, but then where does it go?

D: At the moment we’re waiting to hear about funding for a big community production. The writing of the play has already been funded by the Arts Council. We’re now hoping that production money will come through from them. It is bonkers. If we don’t get that money that is ten thousand pounds of taxpayers’ money that is completely wasted. I can’t see where the justification for that is. And I know other writers, they’ve got these plays…it’s been written, they don’t need royalties…but no one’s interested.

H: But if they’d applied for money to produce as well as to write it in the first place then it would get made, and you learn a lot more as a writer anyway, by seeing your own work.

D: Absolutely…it’s harder, the costs go up. I can’t see the justification of doing it any other way. It’s like saying I want to paint a picture and then hiding it.

H: Well, it’s an odd one. Like the Peggy Ramsay Foundation for instance, funds playwrights…

D: Same Problem

H: It’s very much just money to write. In a way it’s supporting writers, enabling writers to keep going for two more months, but it doesn’t necessarily mean anything in terms of production. I think for the Peggy Ramsay Foundation that is their remit, it’s great…but for the Arts Council to do it as well…

D: Well I think it’s a similar problem, although it’s a charity, so it’s not public money, but I guess the idea of the Peggy Ramsay Foundation is that those plays get written, and then they get produced…

H: I think that’s the idea with the Arts Council, but with Peggy Ramsay it might partly be just to help a writer get over the next few months…

D: Maybe there is that

H: I don’t know, I just got a Peggy Ramsay Grant…

D: Good!

H: It was so odd, getting a letter, didn’t say anything about the project, just a cheque, no reports, evaluation…it’s amazing, it’s great, I was like – what?

Anyway, is there anything you’d like to talk about that you haven’t said?

D: I like writers?! – I’ll get hate mail …

One of the things I do want to talk about is how exciting Exeter is, because it’s potentially in a unique position. I may be wrong, I apologise if so, but I can’t think of another city in this position. We haven’t got a big theatre. The largest is the Northcott with 450 seats and it’s not producing work, it doesn’t have much funding, which means, while in other places you’re waiting for the money to trickle down, or when you say ‘theatre’ you think – even in Bristol…most people think you mean Bristol Hippodrome. But in Exeter people think of the smaller, quirkier places.

We can reimagine what ‘theatre’ is. People get frustrated with semantics, that it means ‘building’, but I don’t think we need to change it to ‘live performance’. I think we need to change the meaning of the word locally. Theatre happens in here, what was once a Chinese restaurant and nightclub…people come here, they drink…we’re in a really interesting place. The smaller organisations enable younger, emerging artists to shape the way audiences, and the performance community understand theatre, and that’s really exciting. I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the country that has such a blank canvass.

H: And students are starting to stay, young companies are making work, good work….is that true?

D: Not quite true. Not as true as it should be…that’s been happening for the last three years, a few students have been staying….The 2010 students started to stay

H: Yes, those are the students I taught at Exeter, in their final year…Emily Williams, Monique Luckman, Joe Selma Leava and Worklight Theatre

D: And now a lot are going. The students who graduated in 2011 are going. It’s a real shame. I’m not saying everyone should stay here forever, that would be absurd, and sometimes it’s good to leave and get experiences and come back…or just leave. It seems to me the way we will raise the performance level is by encouraging people to move to here, which is maybe a strange way of looking at it, nothing wrong for Exeter being an attractive place for people to move to. But we should also keep people here and increase abilities…

H: Finally – if companies want to bring work here…

D: They should email me. That’s easy. I like to see work, I like to see what they’re doing…I will meet any creative working in Devon, maybe a little bit beyond. We have various opportunities…right from beginnings of an idea, scratch nights, space for people to use, festivals –  From Devon with Love and Ignite allow us to open our doors and programme work across the city, so that way we can get to know a lot of companies.

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