Down here in Plymouth we have the award winning Drum that programmes and co-produces with some of the hottest theatre companies around. And The Theatre Royal with its huge production and learning centre TR2 can offer companies time and space to rehearse and perform premieres of their work, hence we see the latest from Complicite, Frantic, Hofesh and Matthew Bourne way before anyone else. The people of the South West like their theatre, dance and musicals so you would think that amongst all this there would be a thriving freelance fraternity.
WRONG… In the decade that I have lived down here I have produced two shows that have played the Drum and I was extremely lucky to do that. I was fed up of constantly leaving my home city to make work and in 2008 I tried to do something about it. I co-produced an arts festival with the intention of using local professional writers, artists, technicians and directors, in the vain hope that once a community was established as being here, and of a standard that other cities seem to have on their doorsteps, then more opportunities would develop amongst a freelance sector and the organisations that can offer the work.
YET… five years later there are no opportunities for freelancers in this city. The Theatre Royal hoovers up any funding by the nature of its reputation, kudos and therefore, power. On top of that we have a council who seem apathetic to cultural offerings and have very little money to put into events other than those which have the reliability of regular funding behind them. In fact the job of arts officer seems to have all but disappeared from the council website, there is no visibility of any arts awards or pots of funding. Where five years ago I was able to co create something that needed substantial funding behind it, today I would be hard pressed to find match funding from this city council.
SO how do we start again and sustain a vibrant artistic community? We have lots to offer in the way of training from higher education courses at two universities and a college, to classes and workshops run by the Creative Learning department of the Theatre Royal and the Barbican Theatre – who have a long reputation for excellent work with young people. These establishments are currently offering opportunities for ’emerging’ artists but seem oblivious to the wealth of people who have emerged, plied their trade (elsewhere) and have a wide range of talent between them to offer up. And once those ’emerging’ practitioners have been well and truly primed for the creative industries, where are the opportunities for them? Yet again another generation will have to leave and go elsewhere for the jobs.
Over the last couple of years practitioners who lived down here have moved away to more vibrant cities with cultural offers for freelancers. The ones who remain here are those who have no choice but to stay because their partner’s work is here, or have other family commitments. Some have had to leave their freelance status and take up teaching work, or have left the profession altogether.
At a recent open spacer, that the council initiated after Plymouth failed to get to round two of the city of culture bid, there were plenty of suggestions to create a vibrant cultural community. Maybe its time for the large institutions to open their doors to the freelancers so that there can be a conversation about culture beyond the corridors of the main organisations and, for the council to listen to the feedback. At the end of November New Model Theatre will host the first scratch night in the new space at the Theatre Royal, the Lab. But we could be doing so much more, where are the lunchtime play readings, the experimental festivals, the work in progress. Its a myth that local actors, writers, designers etc are not as good as those from the bigger cities, but we need to share our work in order to mature as artists.