Making everybody count
I have come to realise that I have spent several years talking everything and everybody down. I would blame others when a show wouldn't sell. I would get frustrated when someone had thought of an idea first. I would be disappointed that only five people turned up to a workshop instead of ten. Over the last few months with the reflection that Lockdown is bringing, the Black Lives Matter movement, the struggle for equality amongst LGBTQ communites and the rise of inequality in this Country, I see a clarity about the work I do that almost came too late, but that now needs to be acted upon with urgency.
This isn't entirely self brought about. Fluid Motion, the company I founded with Ali Gill in 2010 whilst at University, is undergoing a period of organisation development, funded by Arts Council England, that gives us some time and space to reflect on the work we have created and what we want to make moving forward. It provides an opportunity to take it all in, to reflect and give a clear view of the road ahead, it provides clarity and purpose. This consultancy period has been a sort of unofficial therapy session, where I have been able to take a deep breath in and say what’s been on my mind. There was something extremely satisfying spending three hours on Zoom going through everything the company has done, all the great things we have achieved but also all the problems we have encountered along the way. It is very hard, in a small organisation such as ours, to have the time to stop and take stock. I think ten years of trying to make ends meet has made it difficult to do this. In fact this is the first year, in our whole ten year history, that I have been on an annual salary as Artistic Director. I am under no illusion though that we are in a very lucky position to be able to do any of this at all.
With this is mind I feel that it is make or break for Fluid Motion. It is now or never. We need to radically shift our ways of working and we need to start immediately. My idea of what I thought a theatre company was and what I thought it should do, was rooted in a very establishment, elitist, traditional model of theatre making. The idea that you direct a play from the historical canon or devise an adaption, then do a few schools workshops alongside and the audiences would come flooding in based on the draw of the name of the play alone. It is an outdated model that reinforces the status quo and the idea that you have to be educated and privileged to access and take part in art. I suppose that's how we operated Fluid Motion for the first four or five years of its life. It is what we thought was the only way. To be fair we were never told otherwise.
Fluid Motion brands itself as a mental health theatre company, this comes from my own as well as Ali’s lived experience of mental health problems and our belief in the power of the arts in improving wellbeing. It is a strong model that works for us, has brought us success and we have sat comfortably within this field of work for several years. However, it pains me to say it but there have been times that we have come up with projects because we have assumed we know what people want because we have lived experience. For example, creating a songwriting project for young people experiencing psychosis without asking those young people directly if it’s songs they want to create. This is problematic, you can’t run a successful organisation based on assumptions. It taints quality, undermines trust and embeds a laziness within the organisation that is hard to remove. More importantly it could be dangerous to the participants involved. Consultation and conversation would reveal any potential triggers for the young people in advance, whether that’s the set up of the room, a particular song or which staff are chosen to deliver it. If you don't have that knowledge and awareness you risk all manner of problems and potentially put the young people off any other creative activities for life.
The key to Fluid Motion’s future success is the democratisation of everything it does. We need to put people at the heart of everything we do. Not just say we do on a bit of paper or in a throwaway sentence on a mission statement. We need to actually talk to them, understand them, get to know them. We need to open up every part of our process and share the challenges along the way. I think that for far too long I have acted with a sense of entitlement, albeit unconscious, that comes from being a white, able bodied, straight man. I have assumed nothing is wrong, there is no problem here, everything is fine. I felt that I needed to hide the failures and over exaggerate the successes.
This democratic overhaul has to go beyond an annual AGM, it has to go beyond a feedback form thrust into a hand at the end of a performance. It has to be owned and created by the people that the company exists to serve and it has to be in conversation with as many people as possible. If someone feels that a piece of theatre we have programmed does not speak to them then they must be able tell us. If a student wants to sit and talk to me about how we make a performance then I need to be available to listen. If a volunteer at our festival wants to talk about how we should evaluate or where to position the refreshments tent, then they should be empowered to do so. None of it is below me and none of it should be ignored.
These people then need to be given the confidence to hold us to account. You might say ‘but your Board of Trustees do that!’ and yes you would be right to an extent, but the organisation is greater than the sum of its parts. The board is guided by the senior management team, which in turn should be led by the communities and people they work with. Everyone needs to feel like they can ask anything of the organisation, about the organisation, and know that they are valued and have been listened to. People need to be given the opportunity to tell us if something is wrong and it’s our job to ensure that process is accessible. We need to stop talking in theatrical language too, it puts people off. It’s not a good look.
Let’s go back to the establishment model of theatre making, say you are a teenager bused up to the West End to see a long running musical from the theatrical canon about some twins. The only opportunity that you get to engage with the venue that you are in and the performance you have witnessed, is through a bland, pre written and pre scripted formal Q&A with some actors and the director up on the stage that is rolled out night after night. You are made to sit and listen to this and you might if you are lucky be called upon to ask a question. If the Q&A is chaired by some benefactor or trustee of the theatre, then there is no hope. It’s another thirty minutes in your seat, just with the lights up. There is a place for these types of docussions, don't get me wrong but there can be more meaningful, more real ways of facilitating discussion after projects and performances. From now on Fluid Motion will do away with the formal Q&A and run ‘conversation cafes’ or ‘discussion drinks’ instead.
I was looking at a funding application today. I realised that we make a big thing of saying ‘we make sure the community is at the heart of what we do’ however only a very small proportion of our local community even know we exist. Who am I kidding? Fluid Motion makes important and challenging work, I can say quite honestly that we have improved people's lives, I wouldn't be writing this if I wasn't passionate and proud about what we do. However I feel ashamed that we have not completely valued the voices of the people we say we exist for until now. The Covid-19 pandemic has amplified the role of the cultural sector on improving the nation's well being. Fluid Motion makes work that is needed now more than ever. The arts are part of our national recovery. We cannot let the opportunity to make real impact pass us by. Ali and I got into theatre as teenagers because it literally saved us from destroying ourselves. Now we just need to remember that there are hundreds of other people out there ready to be asked what we can do for them.
This statement is just the beginning, it has to be put into action and I start now. We will get things wrong, it will take some time but it will come from a good place and I hope, without it sounding too cheesy, that you will join us on that journey.
Leigh Johnstone (Artistic Director)