Theatre as the Crucible

Unlimited is an Arts Council of England National Portfolio Organisation. To be clear what that means…

Unlimited receives a significant amount of public money to research, develop, create and produce new plays, shows, “interactive experiences” mostly for live performance but increasingly with a “cross platform curiosity”. We’re interested in how we can create story worlds with characters that are able to live in and across multiple platforms – the internet, books, maybe even TV. We operate as registered charity, not for profit and while we run (very effectively) as a business (setting and working to strict budgets and deadlines) we are very lucky to not be driven by commercial, profit making objectives. The investment we receive from the public, you, allows us to create experiences that are wholly focused on the quality of that experience for the audience and, in our case at least, with an ambition to change the world, even a little bit, for the better.

Nine years ago I became a father for the first time (I have two little boys now) and my interests shifted. I wanted to do everything with and for them and so I started making work for children and families. Shows, events, games and adventures that me and my boys could enjoy together. And this desire to make the sort of work that I genuinely wanted to take my kids to was catalysed by my generally very negative experiences of what was on offer from the mainstream, commercial sector.

There is a common model of developing a massive brand on TV and then, as part of the business strategy, translating it to a live experience to (let’s be honest) simply churn more profit. No matter the pedigree and the brilliance of the creatives involved, the bottom line is the bottom line in the creative process. When my kids were very young, I took them to a live show based on one of those global brands and it was, frankly, horrible. It lacked care, wit, charm, originality and was instead crass and exploitative. The kids can sense it and the parents KNOW it. Particularly as you leave, herded inevitably through the floor to ceiling merch that lines your exit.

I’d argue that the majority of those live shows, profitable as they may appear on a balance sheet, are at least as damaging to those brands as they are beneficial. We learn to dislike them for making us feel dirty and used and for using our children to pick our pockets.

And I began to wonder… why instead aren’t more of the hundreds, thousands of brilliant artists that are making work without that commercial pressure, having their stories and characters move the other way – from the audience focused, intimate, tried and tested, world changing live experience into the mainstream, broadcast arena? Surely this would be a good thing? Seems to me it’s a resource that is currently untapped by mainstream broadcasters and could be of massive mutual benefit to both our sectors.

So in my role as a member of the Advisory Committee for the Children’s Media Conference, I’ve organised a session at this year’s event to explore how we might do some of that. I’m joined by a brilliant panel of artists and producers from the subsidised theatre sector who’ll be introducing their work and proposing ideas for how we might work together.

Shona Reppe is a wonderful maker of theatre for children and families who I first saw at the Barbican in London as the brilliantly electric Olga Volt. At last year’s Edinburgh Festival she stole a piece of my heart (and has, of yet, refused to return it) with her show The Curious Scrapbook of Josephine Bean. Shona will be speaking about her work, in particular Curious Scrapbook and pitching a version that might work for TV.

Dani Parr is Associate Director at Northampton Theatres where she has originated and directed LOADS of inspiring shows and projects for children and young people (like this one which my kids adored). Dani also programmes all the children’s work at the theatres and is programmer for this year’s TakeOff festival. Dani will be speaking as a maker but also as a programmer, offering delegates insight into how they can find/access this kind of work and meet artists making it beyond this panel session.

Since there are no examples of this type of work for children moving into broadcast (only the other way round) I’m delighted that we’ll also be joined by the very awesome Sophie Dauvois. Sophie is the editor and creator of Okido magazine – a beautifully curated and illustrated sci-art magazine for young children. Sophie will be telling the story of how she gave up her career as a scientist and started Okido with a “kitchen table” approach. Without ever expecting or intending to, Okido has now been “spotted” by CBBC and is in the process of being made into a major new series for the channel.

Bryony Kimmings is a performance artist who I first saw performing at Jackson’s Lane in north London, making a show that required her to stay drunk (under medical supervision) for a week. She made me laugh a lot and, like Shona, is powerfully, playfully, mesmerising with an audience. This year she is working with her 9 year old niece to create a credible, likeable, superstar role model. Bryony will be speaking about that project and also performing at the closing session as her alter-ego Catherine Bennett.

Hopefully some you will be able to join us and see if we can work something out.