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Slung Low’s Alan Lane: “However long we are needed: we’ll keep going.“

Alan Lane

“We didn’t change, the world did. I want the community to rise up and set fire to something,” says Alan Lane, Artistic Director of Slung Low.

Through the long and painful months of the pandemic, Lane and his team extended their remit to meet immediate local needs during the coronavirus crisis.

They have been co-ordinating the community response in Holbeck and Beeston on behalf of Leeds City Council, meaning any requests for help from the 10,000 households in the area have been passed on to them.

As well as running a foodbank from the Holbeck, picking up prescriptions, putting bins out for residents, Slung Low curated a community art exhibition on lampposts around LS11.

For Lane, and for Slung Low, everything they do is to entertain or provoke or inspire to connect directly with their community.

Still, it is all in a day’s work for Lane who has been hosting an online fortnightly gameshow called You Can Bet? He has the confidence and experience to continue to redefine what an artistic director does.

Alan Lane

Alan Lane

We are talking on the phone the day after he successfully hosted a drive-in edition on Facebook Live. “Essentially, we made 3 hours of live television in a car park. 2,000 people have now watched last night’s episode on Facebook. We were being pushed along on a wave of enthusiasm. We used a drone, we used an axe, we strapped knifes to hats. We’d run out of silly or dangerous things to do! It was great fun.”

“I want the theatres to be vital in whatever way that they want to be. What I get furious about is that not all arts organisations are using the full range of their imagination in their response to all of this. As a community of artists and arts organisations that to me feels like a real failing,” Lane says

That is crucial. Because here is the thing about Alan Lane: he is uncompromising. He has no time for platitudes.
So, when I ask him about producer Sonia Friedman’s recent article for the Telegraph citing Slung Low as a key community focussed organisation, I quickly get the impression that he is not particularly fussed.

“On the one hand it was very kind, but I don’t think Sonia Friedman would recognise me in a line-up, actually,” he says.

Does that bother him? “It can be frustrating. Obviously, I get that we do not have to all be the same,” he adds. “It does not mean that I hate commercial theatre. I value and respect that world completely. But when leaders of British theatre go on Radio 4 to save us, it does feel strange. I do think that perhaps British Theatre is too wide a term now. I don’t see it all as the same thing.”

What we are doing is trying as hard as we can and trying hard to live our values; the aspirations that we have,” he says. “In another reality we are basically a large events company, and the conversations that we must have as organisations around surviving, or not being able to survive is how are our values driving what we do and who we fund publicly. However long we are needed: we’ll keep going.”

Recently, though, Lane published a blog advocating for a fairer system and exposed some of the overwhelming factors his team faced during the ongoing community response for Leeds City Council.

Slung Low artistic director Alan Lane helps one of the volunteers deliver food parcels in Holbeck . Picture: Steve Riding

Slung Low artistic director Alan Lane helps one of the volunteers deliver food parcels in Holbeck . Picture: Steve Riding

Would he have done anything differently? “I don’t regret a moment of it, even though some of it has reduced me to tears,” Lane reflects, describing the beginning of lockdown as “very dark.”
As such, it is impossible to read Lane’s recent blog without being forced to cope with bouts of sadness and helplessness – true to form it is direct and uncompromising.
Lane knows it is long, slow, patient work. Would he, I ask, say that he was an idealist. “I don’t think I am an idealist,” he says quickly.

“I’m not winning an argument by writing my blog. I am, though, winning the patience and the labours and the value of our supporters. You can talk about it from all perspectives. What I do get furious about is that not all arts organisations are doing their best. I do not envy them, cultural leaders. God love them. But I do think we all can and should behave with a common decency.”

Slung Low HQ - The Holbeck

Slung Low HQ – The Holbeck

The theatre world must connect with those who are disaffected, and now more than ever should be facing some unpalatable truths about how the artform is perceived.

Does he think theatres will regret making content like One Man Two Guvnors available for free online during shutdown? “Essentially, we have to stop trying to fix a business model that is fucked during a crisis,” he says.

The current structures we have involve us spending hundreds of million of pounds of public money on the arts in this country, and it still has to charge ticket prices that are beyond the reach for much of the nation. That’s not a sustainable, useful or kind structure. It never was. There are people in this country who cannot afford a pound for a ticket. I know these people exist because I am delivering food to them. They are a part of a wide community who are locked out of an arts provision that we’ve all already paid for through our taxes. It has a cruelty to it,” says Lane.

When I interviewed Lane in 2019 we talked about a fairer system of arts funding and the challenges of making work in an uncertain time.

The Slung Low Team

The Slung Low Team

With Brexit round the corner and the nation coming to terms with a new normal post-coronavirus, where do we go from here?

“I am interested in what people do, not what they say, he says. “Every time that we are faced with this problem the answer is to do the thing itself.”

He continues. “So, If we are truly serious about disabled creatives, working class artists, artists of colour or young people, then we are going to have to do better and adapt, and fully embrace change that is ahead of us.”

Lane and Slung Low leave their mark on the people of Holbeck, with profound and personal, political acts, as well as continue to reveal a unique readiness to respond to these extraordinary times. Their message is one of humanity. It is a reminder that we are always stronger together than apart.

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How will theatres evolve in this brave new world?

The West End

The West End

Carousel at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre? I had forgotten there was another revival, to be honest.

Selladoor Worldwide announcing it will suspend its 2020 touring productions – shifting the majority of shows to 2021. Couldn’t care less.

Edinburgh Fringe? Thrilled the city’s residents are getting a break from the annual invasion of tourists.

But a survey by U.K. Theatres estimated that almost three-quarters of theatres and producers say they face financial collapse without extra government assistance – with more than 1,000 theatres around the country face insolvency.

That one stopped me in my tracks with a “say it ain’t so?”

A significant number of the theatre world’s staff will be made redundant unless we receive additional financial support from the government.

Producer Sonia Friedman has described the sector as being “on the brink of total collapse” and “obliteration”. Several theatres have already folded, including Southampton’s Nuffield Theatre and Leicester Haymarket.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said that he has spoken to Andrew Lloyd Webber about using the experiences from his South Korean production of Phantom of the Opera, which is currently playing to 1,600 people to restart the West End. Dowden also said that ‘drive in opera’ streaming shows to ‘outdoor spaces’ were also ideas that could be pursued.

Playwright James Graham recently appeared on BBC One’s Question Time, making the case for urgent Government support to ensure theatre and its workforce survive the months of closure ahead.

Graham eloquently said that a government support package should not be viewed as a bailout “because it really is an investment”, he went on to stress that theatre will be among the last to restart operations.

The Covid crisis has been a bigger shock to all businesses than the 9/11 terror attacks and the 2008 global financial crisis; what has taken place is a phenomenon known in the insurance industry as an act of God, a rare natural catastrophe that could have happened at any point.

The harsh reality is that public sector debt is on course to hit £2trillion by Christmas, the equivalent of an entire year of British economic output in normal times.

People will lose their jobs and some theatre buildings will close their doors for good.

Ministers have refused to extend bespoke support to the industry, although they are eligible for emergency loans, Arts Council England emergency support grants and the government furlough scheme

The sector faces an uncertain future. But it is waiting for the green light to reopen when restrictions are lifted; social distancing means theatres are no longer viable businesses.

‪According to figures from the Office For National Statistics, the arts and entertainment sector contributes £2.8bn a year to the Treasury whilst providing 363,700 jobs.

These statistics are overused and out of date, though. We need a new approach.

One Man, Two Guvnors has been streamed 2 million times as part of National Theatre at Home

One Man, Two Guvnors has been streamed 2 million times as part of National Theatre at Home

Reopening theatres is not just an economic necessity. Financially, the costs should and could logically be met over the very long-term, contained in a unique account and financed by bonds with a 40-60 year maturity that spread the load sufficiently to allow the theatre world to survive and thrive.

‪But what will the future look like and how will theatre itself survive and adapt ahead of the looming recession?

The cultural sector is more badly positioned than any other in terms of cash in hand. It is also less likely to make a quick recovery. Arts and cultural organisations have lost up to 95 percent of their income that is largely reliant on ticket and bar sales.

We must hope that we cherish anew how essential live theatre and participation is, with all the emotions, wellbeing, and interactions that it cultivates.

Theatre is now available to anyone who wants it – pretty much. If you have an internet connection you can currently see the best of British theatre in comfort with a drink your hand, thanks to the National Theatre at Home streaming service. Nearly 20% of adults are now watching theatre, dance or music during lockdown.

Perhaps the British theatre world will become more open spaces. Fun Palaces, an idea originally put forward by Joan Littlewood supports and promotes the creativity of everyone, not just artists.
Slung Low HQ - the U.Ks oldest working men’s club

Slung Low HQ – the U.Ks oldest working men’s club

Smartest and most interesting of the lot, however, is Slung Low have been operating out of a Working Men’s Club in a deprived area of Leeds. They have been co-ordinating emergency food parcel deliveries to vulnerable people in their community during the pandemic.

In a fascinating blog Slung Low’s artistic director Alan Lane advocates for a fairer system and exposes the insurmountable reality of co-ordinating the community response for Leeds City Council. The reasons the company deserves to be put on a pedestal are the extraordinary efforts and the fact they have, completely to my satisfaction, risen to the occasion.

Progress, people.
As well as that, Slung Low launched an open-air art gallery, continue to stream community classes, hosted a crisis game show weekly and collected people’s prescriptions. Lane and his team of 90 volunteers’ dedication to the local people of Holbeck, as well as their breath-taking solutions to challenges make them one of the great cultural organisations of the modern era.

They should be the blueprint that every publicly funded theatre aims to emulate.

We need to embrace the possibilities that change brings, not hope that the theatre world will get back to normal.

Perhaps with the new, collective knowledge, gained from weeks of isolation, our theatres and arts centres will be truly valued, trusted and, crucially, understood, even more by the communities that they sit in.

This once in a lifetime event gives us a once in a lifetime chance – the question is will we take the chance and seize the opportunities that they bring?

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Wild Conference: How Slung Low Rewrote The Rules

Over 400 people attended Slung Low’s game-changing Wild Conference at Temple Newsam, Leeds last week. The two day event was billed as ‘a new kind of national arts conference’ and was commissioned by Arts Council England.

Delegates were promised ‘a free-thinking, mind-shifting couple of days. A chance to step out of the regular rhythm of their lives and see things from a fresh perspective.’

It was that indeed.

Photo Credit: Malcolm Johnson

Wild Conference was, in short, the most perfectly fascinating and inspiring conference that I have ever attended. It starts with the fact that Slung Low put authentic diversity at the heart of their thinking and ethos; everything was rooted in proper and equal relationships, not just transactions. A dialogue. True equality.

Delegates decided how much to pay for a ticket and only after they had received further information about speakers and a schedule were people required to commit to making a payment. Interestingly, average admission was somewhere between £60-65 a person. (This included those that paid £0, guests and young people).

To a degree, this was reflected in who was present and represented on the day – in contrast, when I go to a conference I am often surrounded by a cohort of the usual suspects: white, able-bodied, middle class, middle of the road men and women – not here. This was also a result of the assorted speakers with a vast range of disciplines – from sport to farming and academia to activism. Contributors were invited to stimulate discussion and empower delegates to be the changemakers in their own areas of the industry and respective organisations.

 Nicky Miles and Daryl Beeton

Nicky Miles and Daryl Beeton Photo Credit: Malcolm Johnson

This was a wonderful, bonkers, occasionally life-affirming example of the necessity to rebalance the damning contrast between funding for London and the rest of the country. Many of the earnest discussions centred around access, continuing political uncertainty and representation as major concerns, with many artists and practitioners beleaguered by years of cuts to subsidy, and in recent years, brexhaustion. But there was hope in the humanity of proceedings.

All events could be heard anywhere across the site via multi-channel headphones; discussions were recorded and will be available online as an archive.

On day one, theatremakers Nicky Miles and Daryl Beeton both spoke candidly about life beyond Paralympics 2012. We are seeing real progress in the number of non-white artistic directors. For many disabled artists, that kind of shifting landscape moment and the smashing of the UK’s cultural glass ceiling still seems a long way off. There’s still a lot of work to be done.

Miles and Beeton raised concerns that those with disabilities still face extreme prejudice and marginalisation, with many finding it difficult to participate in cultural activities and opportunities.

One of the telling moments of the conference was the debate on day two, RSC Deputy Artistic Director Erica Whyman warned of the “frightening” decline of access to cultural education in state schools and highlighted the class crisis facing those from lower socio-economic backgrounds. “There is a deep possibly largely unconscious bias in our society that is to do with class which is still a difficult subject for us to talk about,” she said.

Erica Whyman

Erica Whyman Photo Credit: Malcolm Johnson

Whyman went further into the industry structures, probing the madness of May’s Britain and eventually proposing that we tax the independent schools to provide an arts education for young people.

A discussion around the site’s central camp fire followed and many voiced opinions – those who felt unheard, unrepresented and have little or no access to cultural opportunities. It was clear to me that both arts education and disability require a conference of their own.

Interestingly, Arts Council England published a draft 10-year strategy for 2020-2030 last week. Outlining the context for the new strategy, the draft states: “As we look towards 2030, the external shifts and challenges facing not only artists and cultural organisations but the wider world, are daunting.”

Photo Credit: Malcolm Johnson

A greater emphasis on ‘relevance’ in its many forms is reflected in ACE’s draft strategy its National Portfolio Organisations (NPOs) from 2020 to 2030.

Darren Henley, Chief Executive of Arts Council England was impressed with “The great bunch of people present – with all sorts of experiences and all sorts of journeys,” he said.

“What is fantastic about what Alan and the Slung Low team have done is that they have created something incredibly simple but very, very effective,” Henley said.

“It just works very well – they have clearly thought very hard about curating the speakers with lots of different insights but then also just the physical layout of the site and the way it brings people together and encourages a conversation.”

How does Wild Conference register in terms of ‘relevance’, though?  “We are an Arts Council for the whole of England and an Arts Council for everybody from every background; so, the people we work with and for. One of the smart things Slung Low have done and one of the things that’s truly exciting here, is asking the question: whose story? whose narrative? whose culture? And it has to be for everybody – whoever they are and wherever they are from.”

Photo Credit: Malcolm Johnson

Slung Low artistic director Alan Lane was satisfied with the way things went. “I think the most satisfying thing is we delivered on the promise of the thing- it looked like we envisaged, David Farley’s design did the business, it ran as smoothly as we would want it too (always nice to have a bit of grit),” Lane said.

“The interesting question now for ACE and the wider industry is if that is how they want to have they collective moments. I was incredibly proud of how hard the team worked, Slung Low gave away as much authority as we could whilst still taking responsibility for the event and the quality that our collaborators brought to the event, especially the curators, was really brilliant to see.”

Alan Lane

Alan Lane Photo Credit: James Phillips

In fact, Slung Low are leading the pack in the subsidised theatre sector by daily interrogating their community and wider civic role as seen at their working men’s club base and Cultural Community College that has taught residents in a deprived area of inner-city Leeds, how to make everything from curries to furniture to administering CPR.

Lane’s impulsive and gleeful leadership and tireless team has helped cement them as the quintessential modern cultural entity.

They are theatre’s present and future and long may they rewrite the rules.

 

Tickets for Wild Conference go on sale, delegates get the chance to pay what they decide

Alan Lane
Alan Lane

Alan Lane

On Tuesday 12 March tickets will go on sale for Wild Conference, a new kind of national arts conference that has been commissioned by Arts Council England and produced by award-winning performance company Slung Low.

 In line with Slung Low’s democratic and inclusive approach to all the company’s activities, each delegate will decide how much to pay for a ticket/place to/at Wild Conference. Operating beyond the market Slung Low’s Pay What You Decide policy is a ten-year experiment in value, worth and thinking. Those interested in attending Wild Conference are encouraged to book via the Slung Low website. Only after they have received a series of announcements and further information will delegates commit to making a payment.

 Wild Conference will take place on 4 and 5 July around a large camp fire in the grounds of Temple Newsam, Leeds. Designed to provide the space, time and inspiration to encourage new and innovative thinking in the delegates it is hoped that the event will inspire creative solutions to pressures facing the cultural sector.

 With a brief to provoke and challenge current and future leaders from arts, museums and libraries, Slung Low are devising this reimagined event to be of wide interest and useful to as many people from the sector as possible.

 Together with a Curation Panel of eleven artists and producers drawn from the cultural industries, Slung Low is assembling an unusually broad list of speakers and contributors. Leaders from a diverse range of disciplines – from science to sport, farming to healthcare, academia to activism – all with compelling stories to tell, will be invited to stimulate discussion, trigger new thoughts and inspire delegates to be the drivers of change in their industry.

 Alan Lane, Artistic Director, Slung Low, said: “The problems facing the cultural sector are urgent and demand our collective efforts alongside determined, inspiring leadership. Wild Conference has been designed to engage and empower those willing to lead to spend some time preparing the plans of action we need. To come together and hear from leaders in the worlds of science, politics, sport and religion, to recharge our thinking and determination.

Gathered around a big bonfire, under wide summer skies, delegates at Wild Conference can expect a free-thinking, mind-shifting couple of days. A chance to step out of the regular rhythm of their lives and see things from a fresh perspective.”

 Darren Henley, Chief Executive of Arts Council England, said: “Wild Conference will push current and future arts and cultural leaders to challenge the status quo and come up with new ideas, reinvigorating the ambitions and direction of the sector. Diversity of thought is paramount in allowing fresh perspectives to flourish, and so we are particularly excited to announce Slung Low’s Pay What You Decide Policy, which demonstrates their determination to curate a truly inclusive thought-leadership event.”

Curation Panel

Abigail Greenland: Co-Director Rash Dash.

David Cahill-Roots: an arts producer currently working for Wellcome Collection co-producing new work in performance and visual arts with partners across the country.

Emily Lim: makes theatre with communities to affect social change. She is currently a resident director at the National Theatre and an associate artist of Company Three. 

Geraldine Collinge: Director of Events and Exhibitions, RSC.

Helen Goalen: Co-Director Rash Dash.

Maddy Costa: writes about theatre and live art online in fanzines and in collaboration with others.

Natalie Ibu: Artistic Director of Tiata Fahodzi.

Nickie Miles-Wildin: independent theatre maker/director.

Rani Moorthy: writer, performer and artistic director of Rasa Productions Ltd.

Tobi Kyeremateng: the Executive Producer (Up Next) for BABYLON Festival at Bush Theatre, Producer at Apples and Snakes and founder of Black Ticket Project initiative.

Zodwa Nyoni: poet and playwright.

 

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Slung Low’s Alan Lane: ‘These are incredibly challenging times… if we are not careful, we will end up managing our own decline.’

Alan Lane

Alan Lane

‘I am the worst yoga person in the world – I’m terrible at it,’ announces Alan Lane.

(FYI Lane is currently participating in a 30-day yoga challenge).

Lane is the artistic director of the brilliant Leeds theatre company Slung Low, you might know him from his dismantling of all-comers and bearing of emotions on social media – often tongue in cheek.

Long story short, Slung Low’s signature style is spectacle: large scale, site specific & off-the-wall. They make work look as easy as breathing. It isn’t, of course.

We are talking at the end of a long day that has involved Lane stripping asbestos at Slung Low’s new home: The Holbeck Social Club.

Holbeck / Slung Low Sign

Holbeck / Slung Low

How would he describe the atmosphere of working in a social club? ‘Firstly, very comfortable, – that is mainly the nature of being in a Working Men’s club – equally if we’re open as a bar you an easily end up having a 3-hour meeting about which ales to serve. But we know this community, we’ve been a part of this community for nearly a decade now,’ Lane says.

‘We get it wrong sometimes, of course. But in occupying the club we ensured that we met with all the active members – these things take time and care. It’s the same with our shows, we see people working hard to make it work it is a huge team effort. So, we are really open about how hard this is.’

Slung Low recently unveiled a thrilling new programme of Pay What You Decide cultural classes for their second term, which starts next month and offers an array of cultural activities including Woodwork, podcasting, T’ai Chi and Mental Health First Aid.

‘When we had the idea for ‘Pay What You Decide’ classes some people thought we were mad,’ he says. ‘The first term was really successful with a decent take up and people were genuinely enthusiastic about the opportunities. It just worked.  It’s well exciting.’

The timing is significant. Figures reveal that children living in the most deprived areas are the most likely to lose their option to study arts subjects when the EBacc becomes compulsory.  What this means for a whole generation is grim, if you’re a young person. Slung Low are embedded in and speak directly with their community.

Critical success and an innovative approach to arts participation have seen Lane included in the annual 100-strong power list recently published by the Stage.

So different is the company’s innovative approach, I wonder how much it matters to someone like Lane. As in, he is responsible for a double decker bus that has been converted into a classroom and his idea of success doesn’t necessarily adhere to the typical structures of glory.

I congratulate Lane and ask him what it means to him.

‘Number 43! What it is, is useful to my mum and our neighbours here,’ Lane says, with a knowing laugh.

‘But seriously it is very welcome to receive coverage and recognition across the industry for work that is happening outside of London. These lists are, of course, problematic in the sense that they are always likely to exclude certain people and groups no matter how hard the creators try but it is really lovely to be included’.

There’s something wildly open about Lane, from the sincerity in his voice  to the tongue in cheek Tweeting about Michael Ball and Hull Trains. He has a fervour that you perhaps call wildly disconcerting: a certain vulnerability, too.

Anyway, as things get bigger, career-wise, does he still feel like he is in control?

He umms for a second.

‘We spend a lot of time on everything that we do,’ Lane explains. ‘We are incredibly productive and it is a big engine and team with brilliant people all across the organisation. We’ve worked really hard to be never surrendering and we are steering our own fate. How you do what you do is as important as what you do.’

Does he think the industry rewards a certain type of personality?

Lane begins. ‘I think it rewards serious types of leadership – we’re comfortable with certain types of leaders, less comfortable with those who want to question more fundamental elements of the theatre industry, not just what is on stage – it’s a bit more sophisticated now – especially the changing identity of artistic directors across prominent London theatres which is really positive. These are incredibly challenging times, though, and if we are not careful, we will end up managing our own decline.’

Recently the company produced the epic award-winning Flood by James Phillips as part of Hull UK City of Culture 2017. I ask him to tell me about that experience; geographically as well as being afforded substantial subsidy. ‘Hull is genuinely an amazing and magical place,’ Lane says, emphatically.

Man in Orange trousers - Flood

Man in Orange trousers – Flood

He continues. ‘On a personal and company level it was glorious. The investment and resources that a lot of companies never get – half a million people witnessed it – it was a rare thing. Some of that is to do with financial support, but a lot of that is to do with charismatic thoughtful courageous leadership. We were lucky with Martin Green as head of Hull 17. And we’ve been fortunate elsewhere to work for similarly inspiring leaders; Daniel Evans, Kully Thiarai, Erica Whyman. There are huge swathes of northern England that are forgotten, both culturally & politically, which is a scandal’.

As funding is wiped out on a local and national level, so too are the people trying to make it work. For Lane, it is a case of desperate times. ‘The system we have currently requires areas of the country to be abandoned and reduced to next to nothing,” he says, as exasperated as he gets. ‘We are one of the wealthiest countries in the world and the government is wrong to say that work is a route out of poverty, it isn’t for everyone; the age of austerity is a political choice. [The North East is forgotten by national government; it hasn’t even got a motorway]

What, I ask, is the most challenging aspect of making this kind of work? ‘Hard to achieve impact,’ he continues, ‘I’m 40 and it is still so vital to keep that personal artistic ambition driving on too– (a number of our principles it definitely like limited resources is what we’ve always wanted to do) Much of the freedom of the club is the community nature of it – real people using the space. The cultural sector is getting less ambitious, in terms of scale and I would say that we are making less…’

Team Slung Low- credit Joseph Priestley

Team Slung Low- credit Joseph Priestley

‘But we have so much ambition, I remember discussing an idea for a show with someone at The Barbican that involved a Land Rover charging across the stage…. It wasn’t possible to do it there. It can’t be done on stage and it needs the space and time that we’ve found in the north. The work we make might not be to everyone’s taste but it is purposely designed to fly in the face of the mundane. We make work for audiences outside of conventional theatre spaces; we are a gang,’ Lane says, with a knowing laugh.

He says he hopes he has explained himself well. I just appreciate his honesty.