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March 03, 2015

Warwick Commission Report

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I spent part of last Tuesday evening reading the University of Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value report Enriching Britain: Culture, Creativity and Growth. It is an impressive piece of work that attempts to see ‘how Britain can secure greater value from its cultural and creative assets’. The commissioners are high profile, senior figures in the world of culture, most of whom have a gong, chaired by Vikki Heywood. The mix of commissioners feels very England and London-centric, but this is probably required just to get taken seriously in government. The University’s own involvement features prominent individuals from the Business School and Cultural Policy, not least, Assoc. Prof. Ele Belfiore. In summary, the report suggest we aim to provide improved wellbeing and economic growth by giving everyone access to culture through education, participation or as a cultural consumer, at a local and regional level and through digital space. The words that jump out at me are ‘all’ and ‘everyone’, suggesting that anybody should be able to access culture and that, when they do, everybody in the country benefits by feeling better and being better off. The language of the report is more carefully chosen than mine and doubtless layered with nuance which I can’t convey.

The report sets up the idea of an Ecosystem of Cultural and Creative Industries, stressing the interdependence of the different disciplines; film and TV rely on theatre for experienced practitioners; all sectors rely on cultural education to provide an engaged, young workforce with a sufficiently broad frame of reference. The ecosystem idea focuses on growth, but fails to acknowledge that death and decay are a typical part of a sustainable ecosystem. Diane Ragsdale provided an interesting take of this in her 2012 speech to Audiences NI Holding up the Arts: Can we sustain what we’ve created? Should we? What the Warwick Commission report does well is to establish a set of five ‘goals for growth and enrichment’, each followed by a series of recommendations. I’ve summarised these at the bottom of the page. These offer something useful which I have been grappling with for a while; a means to assess cultural sustainability. I don’t mean a complex system of metrics to measure the worth of companies; I’d even avoid using the word ‘value’, as I presuppose that anyone bothering to read this accepts the inherent value of Culture. What I mean is to consider arts groups in the light of the report and just see how they’re doing.

I think of the arts organisations I work with as a consultant, those in Northern Ireland which I’m researching and the others I know of socially, through my wife’s work or my son’s activities. I read the report sitting in the bar at Chickenshed in north London while the boy was rehearsing for the spring show, Changing Stages. Chickenshed is definitely contributing to cultural education and can certainly be considered as ‘diverse to the core’. Granted there is a hefty showing of the middle-classes among the students and their families, but every social and ethnic background and ability is welcomed without question. Among the companies I’ve been researching in Northern Ireland, I think immediately of Big Telly and the Creative Shops Project, establishing sustainable, locally generated work in a few of the many empty shops around the Province. This initiative is innovating for growth, is everyday arts, making culture personal and is unquestionably local. Similarly, Cahoots NI in their recent and forthcoming children’s theatre projects in Belfast’s Castle Court Shopping Centre, tell of the many families exposed to theatre for the first time through their work. ‘We thought theatre wasn’t for the likes of us’, is the kind of thing Cahoots is hearing from the people who’ve seen their shows.

I think also of The Grimsey Review and the work of Bill Grimsey and his team to promote the reinvention of the high street. This fits with the work of Big Telly and Cahoots NI, and is the kind of thing that joined-up policy making should be considering alongside culture. Grimsey’s ideas are all about community and certainly local, but his idea of The Networked High Street is comparable with the reports recommendation to create a digital public space. The latter links to the idea of the Third Place, Professor Ray Oldenburg’s assertion of the importance of informal, public space to society and the individual; this may be in the real world but increasingly exists online in social media and massively multiplayer online games.

I’ve really only scratched the surface of the report and I’m sure there is some really useful tetimony to be found on the Warwick Commission Webite, but it’s certainly made me think. I look forward to fruitful collaborations born out of it and I do hope we get some of the joined-up policy making sought in goal 1.

Five goals for growth and enrichment

Goal 1: A Cultural and Creative Ecosystem generating stronger cultural wellbeing and economic growth and opportunity for all citizens and communities.


  • Joined-up policy making
  • Scaling investment
  • Innovating for growth

Goal 2: Production and consumption of culture and creativity should be enjoyed by the whole population and deliver the entitlement of all to a rich cultural and expressive life.


  • Building and measuring participation
  • Diverse to the core
  • Celebrating everyday arts and cultural participation
  • Making culture personal

Goal 3: A world-class creative and cultural education for all to ensure the wellbeing and creativity of the population as well as the future success of the Cultural and Creative Industries Ecosystem.


  • Consolidating our cultural and creative education
  • Addressing children’s creative aspirations
  • Underpinning graduate and skills pathways

Goal 4: A thriving digital cultural sphere that is open and available to all.


  • Creating a digital public space
  • Accelerating digital R&D

Goal 5: A vibrant creative life at local and regional levels that reflects and enriches community expressions of identity, creativity and culture across the UK.


  • Fostering local creative growth
  • Promoting regional equity

December 20, 2013

It's Behind You!

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It's nearly Christmas, so last week I had my old hat on, that of theatre lighting designer, and it should come as no surprise that the show in question was panto. Flo White and the Seven Dawgs is an urban retelling of Snow White written by my supremely talented brother in law Robin Kingsland and produced by Pineapple Arts, a street dance and musical theatre training company for people from five to, well any age, which is loosely connected to Pineapple Dance studios.

I don't do a lot of Lx design anymore, though it used to be at least half my work, so it's fun to get behind a lighting desk again. As a theatre consultant it's important to get one’s hands dirty from to time in an actual working venue as it reminds me why we bother doing our job. This is because I am blessed by doing shows in some terrible venues; venues where no theatre consultant has ever set foot. Well not every theatre is quite that bad. I've lit a few street dance events in Stratford Circus lately, a decent TPC courtyard theatre from the early noughties, nicely laid out and well equipped, though it could of with a spot of loving more than a decade after opening. Some of them, however, are real doozies which should remain nameless, to protect the innocent.

Last week’s venue will get a name check; the Dugdale Centre near my home in Enfield. The Dugdale is part of Thomas Hardy House which houses Enfield Council’s local studies library and archive, and is named after Florence Dugdale, a native of the borough and second wife of the author. The performance space, I hesitate to call it a theatre, seems to have been an after thought squeezed into the corner of the ground floor. It is a flexible multipurpose space about 15m x 15m with retractable seating units which is, sadly, too low at about 4m to the grid. The space lacks clear theatre design with no sound light lobbies, no get-in apart from double width emergency door and limited dressing room and storage facilities.

But, it can and does work, and what makes it work is something present in every theatre, good or bad; people. Theatre people are an astonishing bunch who, Occam-like, find the simplest solution to any set of problems. This is rarely based on anything other than experience and intuition. These instincts rarely fail theatre folk providing us with inventive answers to problems of staging, auditorium layout, lighting positions, quick change rooms etc. There is nothing unusual about this either, it’s necessary on a show by show basis in the best of theatres and most of have worked in found spaces or site specific shows where the challenges are often greater.

In the Dugdale, noting the room is excessively wide and low, the guys bought additional decks and seats sufficient to create a thrust arrangement by adding three rows of eight seats to each side of the stage. This arrangement is not suited to everything, but it does work rather well and is how we staged Flo White. It certainly increases the audiences involvement with the performance and encourages that sense of shared experience so important in theatre. therein lies a key point; to truly understand and appreciate a theatre space you have to sit in it and see a show, preferably more than once. A theatre space has to be experienced physically and emotionally as well as intellectually.

The challenge for me in the coming years of PhD research is to narrow the gap between these three areas. To learn more about auditorium layout and established geometric systems and be able to examine on paper the relationships within the space, but also to take the emotional and physical experiences and write about them in a meaningful way both qualitatively and quantitatively.

And the show? Well, Flo has triumphed over Belladona Bianco and found true love with Muddles (not the Prince in this one) and the audiences of schools and families have loved it. Well done Pineapple Arts and thanks for allowing me along for the ride!

Flo White at the Dugdale Enfield

October 25, 2013

Theatre in Slovenia

Last week I had the privilege of visiting Nova Gorica in Slovenia to carry out background research for a study. Our client (I was visiting with my day job as consultant with Theatre Projects Consultants) is the mayor of this new city on the Italian border. He is an energetic and elegant man of forty with a vision to unite the cultures of his city with its Italian counterpart, the much older Gorizia, just next door. The border exists more in peoples minds than in reality as, both being EU states, there is no need for a checkpoint. Many folk live and work on opposite sides of the border and choose which country to shop in dependent on local prices.

It seems harder, however, to persuade people to travel a few hundered metres for arts events. Consequently, there is a Slovenian cultural centre in Nova Gorica (Slovenia) and two Slovenian cultural centres across the border in Italian Gorizia, just a few kilometres away. Nova Gorica also has one of the three Slovenian National Theatres opened in the 90s to mark the Slovenian culture in the west of the country. The other two are in the capital, Ljubljana and the eastern city of Maribor. Given that Nova Gorica has a population of 30,000, there is a lot going on in the area.

Now my interest, both professional and academic, is performance spaces and last week I saw some very unremarkable examples. What this reminds me is that theatre spaces are created by people for people who create performances for other people. I may have seen some terrible theatres, but I met some really wonderful people making interesting work despite it all. It will be fun to help them create a new venue.


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