A curious sensation to come back from a few days out of the loop and find all manner of unexpected ghastliness piled up in the in-tray. Here are three things that deserve your attention, if they don't already have it.
1. If you're reading this blog on purpose -- and who knows?, perhaps you are -- you probably already know about the big talking point in British theatre this last week: namely, the sudden emergence of the threat of imminent closure to Battersea Arts Centre. Reviewing its commitments in the light of what they say is an unmanageable shortfall, Wandsworth Council, which administers the borough in which BAC is situated, is proposing completely cutting its funding to the venue, and at the same time starting to charge commercial rent (instead of the peppercorn rent previously levied) and maintenance costs. Altogether this amounts to BAC taking a hit of around £370,000 -- around a third of its current budget. The venue already operates close to the edge and would not be able to absorb such a massive hike in its outgoings. What this all adds up to is BAC facing having to shut down from April.
The chorus of shocked and baffled anger that has greeted the news among theatre professionals in London and further afield -- and, gratifyingly, among audiences and Wandsworth residents too -- is in itself at least heartening, though it may in a way be almost counterproductive. The council's beef is that, while they are broadly in favour of BAC, they now see it as being a regional and national player rather than simply a local one -- which is quite accurate -- and therefore feel that as a funding body with a specifically local remit they have no business being required to support it to the degree that they currently do. It's rather a blinkered view even on its own terms, given the amount of money and visitors and prestige that BAC conducts into the borough; it's also to some degree inconsistent with the facts, which are that BAC makes an exceptionally strong offering to local residents (especially by comparison with other similar scale venues elsewhere) -- stronger I think since David Jubb took up the directorship (he being mindful, I suspect, of the seeds of just this conflict, which were certainly apparent three years ago); and furthermore that the proportion of local residents in its day-to-day audience is also unusually strong. Nonetheless, I dare say this nationwide outcry only bolsters Wandsworth's reluctance to pick up so much of the tab out of its local shop for local people coffers.
For myself, there is -- not a difficulty, exactly, but a tremor of disturbance here, in that I cannot claim to be a front-and-centre fan of BAC; quite the reverse, in some ways. Not that I dispute for a second the summary of the venue's influence and significance from which Lyn Gardner launches her Guardian blog entry on the topic. In fact really it's because of that position that I worry about BAC: its influence is not necessarily disproportionate to its turnover of creative material but I think there are huge problems with the view it takes on how it can best support artists, and the models and languages that it favours have been taken up in many other places, indeed have come to define the working culture to a surprising extent, with many other venues and producers and funding bodies seeking to emulate what they see as an impressive series of successes. For some artists, certainly, their relationship with BAC is a blissfully happy marriage; for many others there are real difficulties. My perspective was certainly changed substantially by my experience of running a much smaller venue that, to a degree, fed emerging artists quite frequently into the BAC machine. It's interesting to read my old pal Mervyn Millar's description of how "BAC takes artists who are lost and confused artists and sends them out curious and demanding": I have to say I quite frequently saw them do precisely the reverse. Furthermore I'm extremely sceptical about the scratch culture that has emerged from and become synonymous with the organization. They were also often eager to take sole or dominant credit for work which did not in fact originate with them, and to collude with lazy and admiring critics in creating the impression that nothing worth knowing about emerged in any other way than through their auspices: which I suppose I must admit I find, not least, a bit personally insulting, since I've worked at BAC only once, several years ago, for two days, and it was one of the more miserable experiences of my professional life: I do realize it's a bit shallow to read it through my personal experience, but there are plenty like me. I don't necessarily decry the company's efforts to bolster its brand by inflating its authority, Wizard of Oz style; what's more symptomatic is that the brand is, to my mind, too bulked out with factors of scale, and with value-neutral indicators like 'innovation' and a totally meaningless and deceptive rhetoric around 'risk'.
Conversely, I think under David Jubb and his current team the programming has become bolder and more searching. (A real tipping point for me was their decision to rehouse the Bohman Brothers' music events after they were displaced from their previous home at the Bonington in Vauxhall. That series has been vital to London and I admire BAC very much for taking it on. There's also a personal pleasure for me in that outcome, because I was the twisted matchmaker who pointed the splendid Patrizia Paolini in the Bohmans' direction, which I think got that particular ball rolling.) The language David sometimes uses when he's trying to describe the kind of work he doesn't like is -- I think -- deplorable, though I'm sure it wouldn't strike me as such were he not in such a culturally conspicuous position. But I do get the impression -- as, to be fair, I always have, whenever I've talked to BAC workers -- of a tight clutch of people who are all thinking hard and working hard and feel passionate about what they do. On a systematic and corporate level BAC is a cross between a selfish giant and a nude emperor: but theatre happens somewhere else entirely, at a personal level, in the movements of relation between and inside people, and at that level, there is much to commend about BAC, and plenty to enjoy and admire in a great deal of the work they present.
So: this post is not by way of a spleen-vent at a time when we should all be pulling together (which we should -- not least because the threat to BAC is by no means isolated; there is a real sense of climate change in the British arts scene right now, and this won't be the only struggle we have to engage in this year, I'm sure). It's more a wish to raise a supporting voice that is not uncritical -- which much of the cheerleading on the Guardian blog necessarily is -- but has no vested interest and would nonetheless recognize and endorse the importance of BAC's continued survival. I would a hundred times rather have a BAC with all the faults and provocations that have bugged me all along, than no such focal point for emerging theatre artists and a bloody great Wetherspoons on Lavender Hill. As one BAC insider wrote to me yesterday: "It's like with friends, you see flaws face-up because you care about them more. If this was the Royal Court, I wouldn't know where to start." (Though maybe the Court has brighter prospects under its new artistic leadership -- but that's another story.)
If you're a Wandsworth resident and you haven't yet made a noise about all this, I'd really urge you to do so. As I say, I'm not sure that objections lodged from outside the borough won't have a flip-effect: though, having said that, if, as one Councillor seems to have suggested, there is an argument for Wandsworth continuing to fund BAC in line with the proportion of its work that engages a specifically Wandsworth audience, that actually could be a manageable outcome for the venue, given the more than decent numbers BAC achieves in that regard.
A more digestible -- and inevitably more partial -- but I think extremely impressive -- account of the situation is given by David Jubb in an interview with Dominc Cavendish over at theatreVOICE. I hope it works out, I really do. Initially the shutdown of BAC was impossible to imagine; after a few days' contemplation, it's not, and the prospect is desperately scary. At every level of theatrical artistic activity in and out of London, BAC has become a vital presence.
2. While I was away, the death was announced of Alice Coltrane. Truly sad news. She was an awesome musician and, judging by her recent album Translinear Light, still had it seriously going on. It was good that she had fully emerged, in the last fifteen or twenty years of her life, from the shadow of her late husband, and a more acute critical engagement with her own work as an independent artist became belatedly possible. Odd that such an out-and-out devotional artist should be a favourite of an ungodly soul like me, but there's no denying the extraordinary centripetal force that her spiritual beliefs exerted on the distinctive modalities and decorations -- and the sheer drive -- of her work. If you're not already an Alice Coltrane listener, my favourite albums are Ptah the El Daoud (with Pharaoh Sanders and Joe Henderson), Eternity and Transcendence -- and, actually, Translinear Light. But my guess is you can probably drop in to her body of work wherever you like, and there'll be something rewarding and engrossing right in front of you. Much of her work got reissued over the last decade and you can probably pick an album up in Fopp for a fiver, or do the Amazon thing. It's beautiful, enduring stuff, and my hunch is the critical estimation of it will continue to rise for a while yet.
Incidentally, I have a feeling there's a track from Translinear Light on the playlist over at Gevorts Box. I might upload one or two more the next time I update -- which is overdue, as I still haven't made good my promise to feature a track from each of the Furtive 50 albums. I'll give you a shout when it's done.
3. More depressing than the threatened closure of BAC, more lamentable than the passing of Alice Coltrane, I have to tell you now -- and I found this out quite by accident really, idly following a thread that began with a Wikipedia visit to check (in a rather ungentlemanly way) how old Cleo Rocos actually is -- that there is a minor planet named after Enya. Not just with the same name, but literally named after her. As you know, my dears, the Controlling Thompson is no stuffed shirt (despite appearances to the contrary): I'm delighted that there's a planet Brianwilson, and there's one called Rammstein too, and I'm even prepared to accept there's one named Oldfield. But what chills grip the wretched heart on reading the sentence: "Where is (6433) Enya tonight? Customisable ephemerides are available."