Monday, June 03, 2013

Trying to survive the impossible economics of theatre


Play 8:  Losing Venice (radio) 1986.


So there I was. In 1985. I’d spent 5 years on the dole. earning the occasionalm pittance as a theatre reviewer. which I’d had to declare: and had then had the whole amount deducted from my dole.

Because that’s how it is in this filthy world: the very poor are taxed at 100 per cent and it is so incredibly hard to pull yourself up from poverty.

But when I got the commission from the Traverse to write Losing Venice I stopped signing on as unemployed and felt so very proud.

I started in January 1985 and kept going until the run of the play finished in late August.

After a period of real doubt and despair (read the whole story here http://www.teatrodomundo.com/losing-venice.shtml) the play became a huge hit of the 1985 festival. 

It was invited to at least 15 international festivals, was completely sold out for every performance, and I had the feeling, even in my shell shocked state, that I really had succeeded.

But I’d run out of money.

I’d spent everything I had made from the play, and the first instalment of my next commission, and there was nothing from the royalties because the theatre was too small.

I was supposed to be writing my next commission - which was a play about Robert Burns for TAG Theatre Company - but I had nothing to live on.
So I had to go back to signing on the dole.

In my discoragement and despair I failed to write the play for TAG. And I almost stopped writing altogether.

But out of this I’d got an agent - Alan Brodie, who still represents me http://www.alanbrodie.com/ - and his boss Michael Imison was in Edinburgh, and came to see me. He’s a wise man, Michael, and someone of great authority (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_Imison). He persuaded me that he believed in me; and that it was possible to make a good living out of theatre. To make more money than you would out of telly, in fact.

I believed him. Though in actual fact none of that has yet come true.

I didn’t want my children to grow up in poverty; I figured out that it would be reasonable to earn about as much as a school teacher; and that to do that i would need to write five plays a year.

So I set about to do that. One way to manage was to do translations, which came next; and to turn theatre plays into radio plays.

So, full of hope, I submitted Losing Venice to Stuart Conn at the BBC, and it was accepted. It was beautiful on radio.

And with huge courage and energy i set about the task of making the system work for me.

I was very naive.

I didn’t understand that the problem I was up against was hard wired in to the very structure of theatre. That I was working in a labour intensive craft struggling to survive in a post industrial capital intensive economy. 

That while theatre was very good at making money for other people, it faced the hugest difficulties making money for itself. Since, unlike a normal industrial enterprise, it cannot outsource its labour to the Third World, where wages are minimal.

All of which meant that its health was dependent on an intelligent government who understood its importance and was prepared to subsidise it.

But that understanding was gone.

I knew none of this. i thought that what I needed to do was to be recognised: and that somehow my troubles were now over.

But the struggle had hardly begun.

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