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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.