Real Plays

TiE and corporate jobs were great because they brought in the money! The client would contact us, brief us as to what they wanted, we’d agree a fee, create the piece, perform and then get paid. Marvellous!

But, like theatricals everywhere, what we really wanted to do was plays. The trouble with doing plays, however, was—and is—that, unless you get funding or co-produce with an organisation that had funding (and enough to spare to be able to involve you!), income is somewhat uncertain (understatement).

We did do panto, of course, but that was slightly different in that we worked for an entertainments agency in the working men’s clubs which they supplied with acts so we were paid, although as individuals and not as a company. But otherwise, every play we did was a risk and was done on a profit share basis. In other words, all profits after costs had been paid were shared equally between the company members.

We wanted (doesn’t everybody?) to do new writing by local writers. I was working on a play called Loony! which we workshopped with a view to going to a full production and at the same time I asked Newcastle-based novelist and short story writer (who actually came from Oxford but had lived in the NE for a long time) Chaz Brenchley if he would like to write a play for us.

He would, he finished before me and the company (including me) fell in love with A Cold Coming. This was the play we wanted to do! I approach South Tyneside Council to see if we could rehearse and perform at the Library Theatre (in the basement of South Shields’ Central Library) and yes, we could. We could rehearse for free as much as we wanted but we would have to pay for the after-hours staffing for the performances.

I went on the borrow! A local youth theatre was prepared to loan us their portable lighting rig and their regular operator would rig, plot and operate for us for what was little more than expenses. The Customs House would sell tickets for a small (and it was small!) commission, we had a couple of volunteers to act as box office staff and ushers, and so we were ready to go.

It worked. We knew we had an excellent play, and audiences—including the reviewer from the Shields Gazette—agreed. One stalwart of the local amateur dramatic scene, known for her dislike of anything that involved sex (and this was a play about a gay man dying of AIDS) and ever willing to cry “Foul!” at the merest suggestion of a four-letter word, said she’d enjoyed it and was even ready to concede that “that word” was acceptable in its context here!

Ray Spencer said to me, “if you decide to take it on tour, I’ll have it at the Customs House.”

So we had a chat about it and Chaz and I went to see Arts Council. They were really encouraging and helped an awful lot—this was 2007, before all funding decision-making was moved from Newcastle to Manchester and Newcastle staff stopped talking to artists—so we applied and got a touring grant.

We toured to the Customs House as well as small venues in Sunderland, Stockton and Dipton. And we were properly paid, Equity rates and everything! Oh bliss!

As for Loony!, we never did it. It was written at a time when I’d been turning out loads of TiE and corporate stuff and it has all the hallmarks of that kind of theatre. I keep coming back to it but I reckon it needs a fundamental rewrite and I can’t seem to free myself from the original—13 years later and still stuck in that groove!

From then on, it was co-productions and / or profit share all the way. The problem was—and I was aware of this at the time—that I am not, nor have I ever been, an administrator or a producer and as for writing funding applications, there may be someone worse than me somewhere in the UK but you’ll have a hell of a job finding him / her!

The last Arts Council funding application I made was in 2015, for a community production in association with the Customs House. It would have had a cast of 20+, aged from under 10 to over 70, plus a band of young musicians under an experienced MD, and was about the VE night celebrations in South Shields in 1945. It was based on the experiences of local people and was to have been performed, not in a theatre but in a venue which had been a dancehall in the '40s, and audience and performers would sit at tables around the dance floor. Application rejected, said Arts Council, because there was “insufficient community involvement”.

Don’t you love Arts Council England?

So I gave up even thinking about seeking funding.

But we did produce Shakespeare (To Wit: To Woo and By the Pricking of My Thumbs) and new writing (Arctic Convoy, about which more later), whether on our own or in association with other organisations, but I have to say it was a financial struggle. On the other hand, the support of the actors who worked with us, not knowing what or even if they would be paid because they wanted to be part of what we were doing, was wonderful.