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Javaad Alipoor: Big or small, theatres can learn a lot from each other

Javaad Alipoor, associate director at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre Javaad Alipoor, associate director at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre
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It’s easy to assume that large subsidised venues have it made, but former Sheffield Crucible associate director Javaad Alipoor says true collaboration with smaller, unfunded operations would bring benefits to all 

After spending the first five years of my career making small-scale work and doing loads of community theatre, I experienced the industry at the other end of the scale as an associate director at Sheffield Theatres.

From the outside, it’s easy to look at a big institution and imagine that things will be a lot easier once you’re on the inside with much greater resources to feed your creativity.

I cut my teeth in a part of our industry in which we make shows for less than £15,000 – sometimes much less – and self-producing is the norm. In that situation, you feel lucky to have a production or stage manager.

When I first set up my company, it was to write and direct community plays with non-actors that played in community centres and youth clubs with audiences drawn from the same place as those involved. Some projects like this are well-resourced, but mine existed without any Arts Council England funding at all. So as well as writing and directing the shows, I had to design, light and stage-manage them. In a list of things I’m really not that good at, stage-managing took the gold medal.

Our first project Hole – a story about the incompetence that resulted in a 10-year hole in Bradford city centre where a shopping centre was supposed to be – had a cast of about a dozen multi-ethnic community actors of all ages. The lead was played by a young plumber who, fortunately, was able to deal with the fact that his props were set slightly differently in each of the three performances.

‘Every venue and company in the subsidised sector pushes its resources as hard as they go’

By the time I got to Sheffield Theatres – on the Arts Council’s Changemaker programme – I had directed plays that had toured the north of England, so my days of being completely unsupported were over. But arriving at this major venue still left me flummoxed at exactly what all these people on our stage and in the production management team actually looked after. At a dress run of a show I worked on, I was briefly panicked to see a stage manager not on the book, only to realise that was the deputy stage manager’s job.

Like many, I’ve sometimes felt the frustration of smaller-scale companies at the funding imbalances between them and the big organisations, as well as the shocking imbalances between cities and locations. It was only after arriving at Sheffield’s Crucible Theatre that I realised a fundamental thing that every venue and company in the subsidised sector shares: we push our resources as hard as they go.

There are, of course, arguments over the ins and outs of individual costs, executive pay and many other issues to do with how money is spent. This is not to defend every theatre, but it is crucial to understand that everyone is trying to make the best – and often biggest – work possible, pushing it with every ounce of resource they have. We might not agree with all the risks, values and choices taken, or the politics inherent in those decisions; but every organisation is pushing itself as far as it can.

Sheffield Theatres’ One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: the production engaged diverse local communities alongside career development workshops for artists and technicians of colour. Photo: Mark Douet
Sheffield Theatres’ One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest: the production engaged diverse local communities alongside career development workshops for artists and technicians of colour. Photo: Mark Douet

This is really important when we look at the challenges facing our industry and our work as artists. Our industry stands at a crossroads; there are opportunities that haven’t existed before, new diverse audiences and artists, record box offices and ticket sales in some parts of our world. But at the same time we face considerable structural challenges.

As a sector, we need to face these problems together. And the huge diversity of scales and specialisms in our industry can be our strength, if we are honest about where we are.

Since 2015, Lottery funding has been used by ACE to cover some of the fall in central government funding and grant in aid. At the same time, there has been a decrease in the amount of Lottery funding available for smaller, independent or project-funded organisations. But we haven’t seen a change in culture in terms of how the bigger organisations share these resources.

One particularly galling example is a commissioning model through which buildings offer pots of between £1,000 and £3,000 for companies to make work. Doing the maths, it’s clear that a company cannot be paid anywhere near minimum wage (never mind Independent Theatre Council rates) for that amount of money, nor can anything like a production be put together.

Clearly, the assumption here is that the smaller organisations will top this up with further fundraising, usually from ACE, but all this does is bring more resource into the hands of the larger organisations, as they curate who that original investment is going to. This kind of power imbalance doesn’t help anyone, and poisons what could be a much more valuable way of developing each other and collaborating.

What’s interesting is that on each side of this scale divide, organisations are already good at sharing. New touring consortiums have helped to make work that can fill our mid-scale spaces, and smaller organisations routinely share audience and marketing data when touring to towns and cities they haven’t been to before.

The Believers Are But Brothers review at Summerhall, Edinburgh – ‘bold and gut-twisting’

And there is a lot we could be sharing beyond that across those scales. Especially as we approach the radical uncertainty of Brexit, organisations need to be able to trust each other and deal with the practical reality that we will sink or swim together. At every level resources are stretched. It’s just a question of being creative and clear about how we share them.

If it’s too much for an organisation to support three artists or companies, they should think about how to properly support one to production. We should think about the real value of what both sides can bring. How many producing buildings desperately need the community links and access to emerging artists and audiences that the independents enjoy? How valuable would it be for a smaller organisation’s executive or producer to spend time with a finance director or head of communication from a big venue?

To give one specific example, there are many smaller companies that have the ability to deliver local-artist development, diverse work and audiences, as well as innovative digital projects that bigger organisations need to get their hands on – not just because of their national portfolio organisation commitments. Locality, innovation and diversity are the most fundable things for private donors and trusts and foundations. At the same time there are many smaller organisations who don’t know where to begin to access trust funding, and certainly don’t have any link to philanthropists in their cities. Real collaboration would unlock something truly exciting for both.

I took a lot from my time at the Crucible. What struck me more clearly than ever is that the great theatre institutions of this country have a social and political weight that the independent sector does not possess. Part of this is to do with historical models of funding; the big venues were given support to develop fundraising and development teams, to renew buildings and to build relationships with important civic and national political players. Ultimately, this is the weight we have to find a way to share. We are, after all, in the same boat together: trying to make the best work we can, for never quite enough money.

Javaad Alipoor is a writer and director. His play The Believers Are But Brothers is touring internationally

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