Saturday, 13 February 2016

Staring into the abyss

David: This might come as a bit of a shock, but in about six or seven weeks’ time our money completely runs out. We’ll be skint. We won’t be bankrupt, we won’t have debts, but we’ll have zero, absolute zero.

Jon: We’re staring into the abyss

David: Yeah, it’s quite a scary kind of prospect, you know, and it takes us right back to when we made the commitment to go to Derry in 1994. There was a period there of five years where we jumped into that abyss, and the two of us ended up living in an office space with all our possessions, illegally, we weren’t meant to be sleeping there…

Jon: Showering in the sink.

David: A Belfast sink in Belfast. In fact two Belfast sinks. I would heat up the kettle and then add cold water to it and then stand in the two sinks, one foot in each sink, and pour it over my head. God help me if anyone had come in. I was just a sort of naked soapy man in the most grimy toilet ever. It was horrible.

Jon: Yes, but it all fed into the show, I suppose. It was all put into Say Nothing. The caretaker, anyway. Frank. ‘I’ve been having some complaints! I know what you’re doing. You’re sleeping here.’ ‘No we’re not. It’s not a bed, it’s a stage set.’

David: Yes, so coming back to that, we’re thinking how did we survive then? And we have to work without designers, without technicians, we have to operate ourselves, we have to find a way, for example, with this show we would have to be able to build that set ourselves, and we don’t really have those skills, but we would develop them. Then we would have to learn Q-lab, and have the operating board outside the door where Jon is, pressing the ‘go’ button as well as acting his socks off…It’s like it’s going to that point, and you think that way we would be able to make a show that could go out at a rate that people could pay and still turn a little bit of surplus. Touring fees, if you’re doing well, are 800 to 1200 pounds per gig, to pay everyone properly it’s 1500 per gig, so you’re in this desperate need always for subsidy and then of course the gigs don’t come in the neat little zone that the Arts Council want…so we’ve got ahead of us now a few possibilities, Bridport and Kent, then possibly Bristol Mayfest then possibly the NRTF then possibly Edinburgh, which we have to think very carefully about, whether we can afford to risk that amount of money (that we don’t have), and then possibly an autumn tour….so you’ve got this horizon of bitty gigs that would all lose money, so you’re thinking what have we got in reserve?

Jon: Nothing.

David: Who could possibly fund us through that?

Jon: Nobody.

Chris: And just to be clear about the context in which this is happening. Presumably this directly relates to you losing NPO status last Spring.

David: Yes, the sequence there went after years of project money we were invited to be a Regularly Funded Organisation and that succeeded and we had six years of bliss, actually. And in the RFO phase you were allowed to apply for project money on top. So we had a lovely time.  We had the security of being able to pay ourselves a monthly retainer – the amount of which has remained the same up until this March. It didn’t ever increase. It just diminished in value. Then the NPO possibility came along and we were able to go up to this higher level of core subsidy of 100,000. But you were not allowed to apply for projects and that’s where it really started to go wrong. Our own staff were saying ‘You’re more of a project company than an organisation’ and I just felt there was a lack of imagination about the way we were using the funding, that we should have been more creative about that and they were actually saying to us ‘Don’t reapply for NPO.’ But we were saying ‘No, no, no. We are able to. We must. We cannot just say no we don’t want 100,000 a year.' So with the reluctant support of our own team we put in a new NPO application and failed. But the Arts Council were very apologetic, saying ‘Oh don’t worry, we’ll look after you, you can come to us for project money now, and you can get as much from that, if not more, and it will be better for you.’ So we put together a project application which was equivalent to what we’d been getting for NPO, and failed, and were told can you please resubmit for a smaller amount. And we said ‘Well, the tour’s in eight week’s time' and they said ‘Well, it has to be for under 15,000.’ So we went very quickly from being on 100,000 subsidy to being on 15,000. And luckily we’d been building up a reserve and were in a state where we thought we can now take a gamble and employ someone for a year.

Jon: Yes, and raise money, basically.

David: But the money’s not out there. The Arts Council want you to continue applying for these small things so that they can drip feed you and keep you alive, along with all these other artists who are being drip fed and kept alive, in the hope that on some distant horizon someone like Jeremy Corbyn will come in and start funding you properly again. So it’s very, very fragile, our existence and yes that gamble didn’t work, so we’re now faced with this prospect of zero money in March. And basically having to do the administration again ourselves. That’s a huge depressing lump of feeling, that you’ve been hit with and I don’t really know how we’re going to ride it out.

Chris: Sure.

David: I said to Jon the other day ‘Should we just hibernate?’ Try and squirrel ourselves away for a decade and re-emerge and see what happens. But I guess we’ll slither on. I can’t afford to slither on like I used to. I have dependants now. So then the pressure to get outside work increases and that of course requires commitments and Jon’s thinking like that too. In other words, veer towards hibernation. But it may be that we’re forced into hibernation because of this problem of having to work at Tesco or something. We’re not the most senior independent theatre artists that are still going, but you just think this ‘career’ is not a viable one. It eats up young companies coming out of college, full of enthusiasm, still subsidised by their loans and mums and dads, then they die off, fall out with each other…but there’s this supply of that, so the scene sort of struggles on, relying on these self-subsidised shows. We’ve attempted to get up into the middle scale by doing things like that two-hander version of The Importance of Being Earnest, and actually that turned less surplus than the remnants of our maverick style, which was Ideas Men, the last made for nothing piece…So that’s where the company’s at. Personally then, what effect is that having on us?

Chris: It’s such an extraordinary situation that a company like you should be facing that abyss, again at this point. And having to as yourselves whether it’s at all viable to go back to a way of working that…is there anything in that model that appeals to you?  

David: It’s ultimate, utter freedom. If you don’t have to answer to anybody, if you can just get out there and do a gig in a venue without having to report about it, you’ve got such freedom and it’s just joyous, you know. I’ve talked too much. Maybe Jon, you should say how you’re feeling, in your body.

Jon: In my body? Well, I’m getting a bit cold.