This article is written by our Associate Artists, Zoe Roberts of Kill The Beast
Having been in both capacities as an arts administrator for The Lowry (inside) and independent artist (outside), Zoe shares her experience of what it means to negotiate the relationship between venues and independent artist – while non-linear and sometimes complicated, is infinitely more valuable.
Imagine if James Bond also had to spend one day a week doing Moneypenny’s maternity cover (she finally stopped mooning over James, congrats Penny). Most of the time he’s out there living life on the edge – a lone wolf, a maverick who thinks of nothing except getting the job done – but then he has to pop into the office on Fridays to file some reports, do a bit of research in the library, or perhaps even partake in training up the next generation of agents. Sure, it’s a bit of a recalibration, and it can be confusing swapping agendas for a day at a time, but what it does buy is a healthy dose of perspective. Maybe filling in those health and safety forms will make him safer on his next mission; maybe his experience in the field makes him ideally placed to help train up his successors; maybe I’ve stretched this metaphor to breaking point by now. The point is, I may not be a secret agent, or even a Moneypenny, but I’m a theatre-maker godDAMMIT, and isn’t that pretty much just as important?
OK, no, you’re correct, it’s absolutely not. But the metaphor was a fun way in, right?!
My name’s Zoe Roberts, and I produce and make work with my theatre company Kill the Beast, who have been lucky enough to be Lowry Associate Artists for the past seven years. And yes, in this scenario, you can go ahead and think of me as James Bond – he’s out there dodging bullets like I’m out there dodging pension plans and sick pay, in the dangerous and exciting world of freelancing. Since 2015, I’ve also enjoyed a part-time position within the artist development team at the Lowry, producing its Studio Members, Artist Network and Class Of schemes, all of which offer free training opportunities for artists in the Greater Manchester area. I’d worked for theatres before in an administrative capacity, before going freelance full time, so I had some experience of how venues operate, but this was the first time that my roles as an artist and as an arts administrator had truly overlapped – the relationship between myself and the venue was no longer a simple linear one of supported artist and supported venue, but became deeper, more complicated and infinitely more valuable.
One of the biggest issues I come across working within the industry – both as an artist and producer, and within talent development – is a gap in the understanding between artists and venues in terms of exactly how the other party operates. We often communicate without considering fully the issue from the other person’s perspective, and that can lead to difficulties. It’s human nature really; putting yourself in someone else’s shoes is an active thing, you have to remember to do it, but when you can, it will make you a gentler negotiator and strengthen your relationships. It sounds very basic, but artists and companies often have very little sense of what a programmer’s, for example, day-to-day looks like. The frustrations and sensitivities around trying to communicate with a venue to get your show booked can be lessened somewhat when you have a true sense of the other person’s workload, inbox, or the myriad of other responsibilities these underpaid, overburdened people are usually juggling. On the flip side, I think it’s even rarer that venue staff have any idea what trying to earn a living from making and selling work is like – how we often can’t manage the focus and precision that full time employees can, because we’re grasshoppering between a multitude of commitments, locations and roles, for example. Working within The Lowry means I have a constant reminder about the processes and priorities of the venue, so it’s trained me to adjust how I work to try and allow for that. Any bridging of the gap we can do, any little twigs of transparency and openness we can shove into the sand on our side of the canyon, the closer we’ll get to meeting in the middle. There you go – not all metaphors have to be about secret agents in this article.
I think it’s also really useful for The Lowry to have one of their supported artists working regularly in the Programming Department, as it means I’m there to be a sounding board when the staff want or need to run something by an artist. This has been particularly helpful when considering wider artist development strategy – ‘how would you feel about A, B and C as an offer of support?’…’well I love the idea of A and B, but as for C, I think donating emotional support mice to artists is just a bit odd’, for example – but also when digging down into the details of event planning, considering application formats, and all kinds of other things. Of course, there’s a certain level of responsibility that comes along with that. I’m always well aware that I am not representative of all artists or all companies or all producers, and I certainly don’t pretend to be; we’re a glorious grab bag of personality types, working styles and priorities, but it feels more helpful to run an idea by someone who could be considered the target audience, then a venue deciding without consultation what they think would be best. Also, in the most basic sense, my physical presence in the building, as part of the staff, is I think a constant, useful reminder of the people the venue supports, and the reason why so many of them work as hard as they do – to support actual, real-life, living, breathing, sweating human artists. I have a nice loud voice and a lot of hair. I’m noticeable, I’m contributing and, really importantly, I’m part of the team.
Of course, it’s not all golden and sunny, and it’s worth giving time and space to consider when working within the venue which also supports you can give rise to difficulties. I love that working at The Lowry has led to a number of close personal relationships with the people I work with; I respect them, I care about them, and I value their opinions a huge deal. But close relationships can make things a little more complicated, especially in an industry built on and run by people who love what they do, way more than they’d love a six figure salary and a yacht in the Med. Everyone cares so much, which means that ours, more than most others, can be an emotional business. I’ve turned down artist opportunities offered to my company by the venue before – for valid reasons – and at the time led to me feeling like I was being very ungrateful; I felt I’d disappointed my mentors, which is pretty painful. If I didn’t work alongside these people every week, there would have been more distance in the decision-making and I would have perhaps been a little more emotionally protected. And on the more practical, less emotional side, there are still occasions when occupying a nether-space between staff and supported artist can be tricky. Recently one of my companies was in (very friendly) negotiation with The Lowry with regards to a financial agreement. On this occasion our interests were being represented by the agent of one of my company members, which meant that we as individuals could step back from that negotiation, which I was incredibly grateful for. It’s hard enough to stand up for your own interests just in general, and it would have been even harder doing so in a negotiation with people who I consider colleagues and friends – I have a foot in each camp and therefore wouldn’t ever really be able to fully take one position or the other. That extra bit of understanding and connection which working in the building brings me is more often than not very valuable, but simultaneously the complexities it brings need to be acknowledged in order to avoid muddied waters. Communication and transparency will always be benefits in this industry, but it’s about knowing when to embrace the nether-space and use it to affect positive change, and when to retreat to the appropriate corner. Sometimes James Bond just needs to be James Bond, you know?
None of this is to say that my particular blend of employee and Associate Artist is the perfect one; rather, it’s to say that I think it’s a model of artist-venue relationship worth exploring further. The merits of an artist working (and therefore belonging) within their venue in my opinion far outweigh the complications, and the relationship between the two is only strengthened by the understanding it brings on both sides. Anything we can do to chip away at the walls which may stand between those two parties is going to benefit us individually and the sector as a whole, so I suppose you can consider this an invitation to everyone to have a go at knocking a brick or two down. For venues, consider how your supported artists can support, advocate or even work for you in ways which are deeper and more productive than your established models. Find ways to pull them into the fabric of the building and its workforce; make them truly belong. And for the artists out there: don’t be content for venues to set the boundaries of your relationships with them. Think about what you can offer a venue, not just what they can offer you. Don’t be a satellite or a face in a brochure; get in that building, get to know its people, and let that badge of venue endorsement also be an invitation to be a part of their team. Maybe if we keep chipping away at the wall, we’ll one day completely reinvent the relationships between venues and artists; maybe one day there won’t be a wall at all and we’ll have morphed into something completely different and more powerful. We’ll realise that we’re not James Bond and MI5 after all; we’re explorers, we’re adventurers, we’re NASA dammit, and we’re all here together trying to figure out how to help people escape this overheated little planet of ours for a few hours at a time and let them escape to the Moon.
See you on the Moon, everyone.