Sunday, December 16, 2007


Forgive me, dear hearts, I'm short on time and low on energy today, but there are a few things worth commenting on. So. Business first, pleasure after.

Well, for many in British theatre this weekend, the bleak midwinter has arrived a little early. If you've dropped in at some of the other theatre blogs in the past couple of days you'll know that the National Student Drama Festival has had its Arts Council grant withdrawn and faces imminent collapse. I'm not an NSDF veteran myself, but the amazingly large number of artists and commentators of my acquaintance whose experiences of the festival have been of profound formative and continuing significance (continuing not least through networks of fealty that seem to persist with remarkable longevity) itself bespeaks the importance of the organization, and even as an outsider it's easy to see, though impossible to believe, the crassness of the Arts Council's assessment of what NSDF delivers. To suggest that the festival in some way duplicates existing provision within the further and higher education sectors is such a clunking error of judgement that it sails way past risible and lands on the distant shores of fatuity. If you haven't already, sign the petition before you read any further: the timescale for mounting a forceful appeal is pretty limited and deserves an avalanche of support. (There are a lot of slightly jumbly metaphors in the foregoing which I'm afraid you'll just have to forgive.)

None of what I'm about to say detracts a nanowhit from the above: but, the attention of my blog-pals on the NSDF crisis might inadvertently present a slightly distorted sense of the context in which that particular situation is unfolding. To put it simply, the NSDF is just one of 194 regularly-funded organizations across England who have been notified in the past few days that their Arts Council grants are to be withdrawn in the new financial year from April 2008. That figure represents slightly less than a fifth of all theatre organizations who currently receive regular funding. The cuts are essentially redistributive, rather than penny-pinching: the majority of organizations have received increases in line with inflation and over 200 get above-inflation uplifts. When the full picture emerges, therefore, it may conceivably feel less dismal. But particularly in the absence of any active and transparent summary statement from the Arts Council itself (the 'news' section of the ACE web site this weekend remains choked with candy-ass puff press releases, though for all I know there may be legal reasons why it can't centrally announce these decisions), bad news travels much faster on the grapevine than good, and the last couple of days have been spent dreading phonecalls and conversations on the topic for fear of what's next to emerge.

As it stands this Sunday afternoon, I'm aware of a number of London venues that, pending whatever appeals and campaigns are activated between now and January 15th, will be badly hit and are likely to be wiped out. These include the Drill Hall, Oval House and Chisenhale Dance Space, with all of whom I have, or have had, artistic relationships in the past few years. Further afield (from here), another threatened organization is the Manchester-based festival Queerupnorth, for whom I was expecting (and am still very much hoping) to deliver a new show in 2009. I'm focusing on these personal connexions because inevitably that's the news that I've been likeliest to hear, but presumably I'm not an especial jinx and therefore very many theatre-makers across England are nursing similar worries this weekend in relation to whole clutches of organizations that have supported their work and are suddenly under explicit threat.

It's much too early, obviously, to draw any conclusions about the state of play, other than the sense of being under siege this weekend, which is of course hardly unprecedented for artists who lived through the 80s but is at any rate a novel gloom for me, and gives rise, if not to sober analysis (which won't be possible for another day or two, I guess when the full picture finally emerges -- I'd keep an eye on Lyn Gardner at the Guardian theatre blog), then to a number of paranoid intuitions.

Principal among which, for me just now, is that we are quite abruptly presented with the prospect of arguably the three most important centres for the development of new queer theatre in this country being wiped out at a stroke. To borrow, not inappropriately, from Wilde, to lose one base for queer performance may be regarded as unfortunate; to lose three at once starts to look like a concerted attack. I'm not for a moment suggesting institutionalised homophobia, but I do wonder whether in a sense Mark Ravenhill's idiotic "pink pen" piece is in retrospect a harbinger of a broader cultural tendency. Could there really be at large a belief that ten years of broadly progressive legislation on the gay and lesbian equality agenda has caused the focus of representable LGBT "issues" to dissipate and the "distinctiveness" of gay theatre (a word that repeatedly crops up in these Arts Council assessments) likewise to be diffused, such that targeted support for such work (and the "voices" it supposedly makes space for) is finally redundant? It hardly bears thinking about, but I can't help supposing it's possible. One interesting consequence of which would be the need for the incredibly (and wonderfully) slippery and increasingly vital notion of queerness as distinct from sexual orientation to be foregrounded in an essentially mainstream political debate about arts funding.

Secondly, it will be interesting to see whether the broader picture endorses my inchoate sense that the Arts Council may be looking to tidy up the ragged fringes of "experimentation", to gather innovative work in increasingly centralised formats. In other words, that the bigger organizations are encouraged more to invest in and visibly support new and experimental work, while grassroots organizations dealing directly with way-upstream artists at the start of their careers and the height of their weirdness are punished for not being run with the slickness and comprehensive coherence of their larger neighbours. We'll see.

That's all one can say at this point: we'll see. There's obviously going to be a lot of work to do in the next four weeks as the affected organizations prepare their appeals. In some cases, regrettably, the Arts Council's decisions are not entirely unexpected and not without some foundation, though it certainly seems to me that the more interesting response to the ongoing problems at the Drill Hall, for example, would be to help the organization refresh and reimagine itself rather than simply allow such a crucial player to fold. In other cases, those decisions are just wrong whichever way they're sliced, based as they are on fundamental misapprehension and bad analysis, and I hope you'll forgive me if I chivy for the support of Queerupnorth while others are fighting the corner of NSDF and whoever else emerges wounded from this bleakly chilly weekend.

By way of a transition from business to pleasure, with one foot in each camp as it were, may I draw your attention to the advertisement in the top right of the blog for my forthcoming appearance at the opening night of the new branch of the Klinker (which seems to be spreading faster than Starbucks, though it's probably less likely to release Joni Mitchell's next CD), this coming Thursday. I am confecting some seasonal material in honour of the occasion, which may or may not extend my current fetish for interpolating barnyard animal noises into my poetry. There will be old stuff too. It's a busy bill so there won't be a lot of me, but that leaves all the more time for you to buy me a drink.

Staying with poetry for a moment: chief among this week's unabashed pleasures has been the arrival at Schloss Thompson of Andrew Brewerton's Raag Leaves for Paresh Chakraborty, from the consistently excellent Shearsman. Raag Leaves has been on its way for a good while -- its author shared some early work from it at the first Total Writing festival at CPT back in 2003, and more recently presented it at CCCP16, where it seemed to me one of the two outstanding contributions. Brewerton is one of those exceptionally accomplished British poets such as Peter Larkin, Elizabeth James and (the US-based) Martin Corless-Smith who, rather soothingly to my mind at the end of a year that included reading Peter Barry's Poetry Wars and the sore and grudgeful response to the British Poetry Chicago Review, fall between all the imagined factions, territories and tendencies into which late modernist practice is neurotically divided and subdivided by its too-many tribalistic cartographer-participants.

Raag Leaves is a series of eight-line poems which at first sight on the page appear object-like, or one might almost say mineral- or gem-like, precise phrases bonding together and punctuated only by space (though shifting frequently in and out of italics for changes of register and provenance); they are not hard to imagine (or reconstrue) sculpturally, at some places recalling, for example, Lawrence Upton's fascinating Wire Sculptures. The language refers constantly to particular materials, both isolated in nature and encountered in conditional relation; and, in some of the book's most virtuosic passages, to colours: or, rather, to the names of colours: seeming to trace the movement both of studio artists and of natural processes and circadian rhythms. Partly his attention is on the impulse to capture and catalogue, endlessly undermined by the provisionality of language and the partiality of individual perception; what we return to all the time in these poems, not obsessively but simply by dint of the re-ordering turns of practised observation, is matter in state-change -- deliquescence, combustion... -- and equivalent transformations of human presence, the residues of voice and breath and memory. (It is a particular, and especially moving, pleasure to re-encounter embedded in this context a short series of verses, previously published separately as Cade l'uliva, in memory of the truly great Douglas Oliver.) Again and again Brewerton shows us instances of different kinds (and colours) of glass -- which has been the focus of much of his professional and academic life -- perhaps as a kind of talisman of the uncertain boundaries between solid and liquid, between movement and stillness. There's something beautiful too in the way that these poems, in various ways, tell you so much about how to read them, how to find them:

                    local colour       look
looks this way       located       looks itself
up & down       where       changed       your eye
takes you       shot       with azure       inner
colour       a sleeve of still       water       surveillance
echoes location       where       a crystal eye
well       a wheel rut       pools       and you are
taken       your gaze away

This all being so, it is wonderfully fitting to feel these poems, if one tries to speak them aloud, also melting or vaporizing or simply vanishing as they meet the air. When I observed this in Brewerton's own Cambridge reading last year, I assumed it was perhaps because the set of poems taken as a whole was still new to him and he was having to figure out momentarily his methods for exporting them into untested sounds and spaces available to collective appreciation. But I'm now certain this is a quality of the poems themselves, and suspect that they will perpetually continue to elude any possibility of definitive public reading. To this point I would suggest that Brewerton, whose reading style is almost notoriously restrained in its 'performance', is nonetheless an extremely theatrical poet, a technologist of the multiplicate and the evanescent. These poems are social entities, formed and held in the meeting of many attentions, and their texts exist as nets, as it were: the two-dimensional renderings of three-dimensional figures whose full realisation is the work of several hands.

...Incidentally, the effort of trying to describe Brewerton's work as unreductively as possible reminds me... One of the real and habitual pleasures of Christmas for me (and don't worry, I'm making my own way to Pseud's Corner as I write) is the December issue of Artforum, which is always full of end-of-year retrospective lists of commendable shows and books and suchlike. Actually, that's not true, its nearly-400 pages are mostly full of adverts, but the lists are in there somewhere (and also, adverts for exhibitions are pretty interesting viewing anyway). Among the critic Amy Taubin's selection of the ten best films of the year is Gus van Sant's Paranoid Park (opening in the UK on Boxing Day, Gus-fans), of which she says: "Like the skateboarding kids who are its subject, this rapturously beautiful film is thrilling for its balance of precision and spontaneity." I agree with her, but more importantly from my point of view, she just said in five words most of what I've been trying to say about theatre all year, all the topical festoonery about liveness and specificity. She's also explained back to me in much more manageable terms why it is that I think the classic 70s Zephyr Competition Team is one of the best theatre companies of which I've ever seen documentation.

I've got a job interview coming up shortly in relation to a project that I really really want to do next year, I think it would be a great gig... So please pray for me in the hope that I remember to just say "balance of precision and spontaneity" and then shut up, rather than trying to convey my vision through a sort of hypertextual matrix of recursively embedded paragraphs that sound like someone trying to cough up the corpse of Derrida in a spangly ballgown. For instance.

Finally a quick word about Absolute Wilson, the documentary about Robert Wilson whose trailer I sort of reviewed here a while back. I'm happy to say the DVD is now out and available through the usual channels (though you might possibly need multi-region capabilities, or rather your DVD player might -- I can't tell from the packaging). Having seen it I would pretty strongly recommend it to anyone with an interest in Wilson, though that's partly a reflection of the paucity of other material available for study. There is a lot of backstory on Wilson's early years which fills in plenty of detail while leaving some nagging questions untouched -- I mean how does an architecture graduate just walk into a job working therapeutically with catatonic hospital patients? There is a certain amount of quite boring discussion of his present busy lifestyle. Really the whole thing is like a Sunday newspaper profile. But. But. There is some astonishing footage in here, much of which I had never seen before or viewed only through the snow and hail of a twelfth-generation VHS. There are massive gaps in the timeline, but plenty of attention nonetheless on Ka Mountain, A Letter for Queen Victoria, and Einstein on the Beach. I'd have liked more on the last of these, actually, but even these few clips make it look just utterly thrilling. I don't know whether to harbour misgivings or become uncontainably aeroplane-imitatingly excited about the news that Gerard Mortier, general manager designate of the New York City Opera, wants to remount Einstein in his inaugural 2009/10 season.

OK, I'm done. Except, go and see Into the Wild if you haven't already, and tell me what you think. I had mixed feelings: but I can't get it out of my head.

Next up: a Very Special Post. ...Weeeeellll, not really. But you might want to break out your Xmas party poppers a tiny bit early. ...Weeeeellll, not really.

1 comment:

Andrew Haydon said...

Beautifully put, re: NSDF. Yes, I'm acutely aware that I'm being ludicrously single-minded so far in my defence of it ahead of other similarly deserving causes. This is partially because of my close ties, and partially because I suspect others, with closer ties to other organisations will makes stronger representations on their behalves (is that a word? Never mind).

Couple of things: Yes, while the Arts Council's website presents a gallingly rosy picture for an organisation which has just set in motion its most brutal purge in fifty years, as you suggest, there is a reason that no announcement has been made: these are merely notifications of intent, and are appealable etc. There is also the issue of whether organisations chose to go public with their campaigns or decide to lobby privately against the cuts. There are a number of good reasons that threatened groups may choose to do so. I have been told, off-record, about at least two such cases that have yet to decide whether to go public. And they're shockers, too.

But, yes, the Arts Council's timing smacks of a very concerted effort to minimise fall-out from this by burying campaigns in Christmas holidays and holidaying newspaper staff.

Also, for the record, the proposed Arts Council cut won't finish NSDF. It is damaging, but we can recover. The argument is more that this is precisely the sort of thing that the Arts Council emphatically *needs* to support, and its rationale for not doing so is so flimsy that fighting it seems only sensible.

Your point about homophobia is an interesting one. Given the way the cuts will probably have been made on a region-by-region basis, I guess there's no overall sinister picture, but as you point out, it could well be taken as a depressing indicator of a "put down the pink pen" climate.