Yesterday I attended Northern Stage, Pilot Theatre and Arts Council England’s event for people working in the arts, Stronger Together. The premise of this conference (I use this term loosely because if one thing was attempted it was a breaking away from the conventional conference model) was to bring together arts-based workers, be they actual theatre makers, producers or from organisations, to explore the notion of collaboration. The arts as a whole are a collaborative medium at the best of times. Rarely do you have a show built solely from the vision of one person; they are usually collectively strived for from a team. After the tightening of belts from funding cuts, and in some cases a lack of support altogether, the notion of collaborating amongst the creative sector is even more important now than it ever has been.
We are stronger when we work together. There is safety in numbers.
It would be fair to state that I had no preconceived ideas about what Stronger Together could offer for me, and the two companies I was representing (one of which being AYT). Thinking back now, I’m surprised that the word collaboration has not automatically sprung to mind when describing the work that we do on AYT. Together, collectively, we bring about a united voice from young people. Our team has now expanded beyond 50, who all work to push AYT, help to shift and shape our messages and are clearly working in a collaborative manner. We’re a collective, we’re (to steal a phrase from the Bristol satellite of the conference) a shoal of fish working together.
Yet the collaborations proposed at Stronger Together were of larger scale, between venues and companies, artists and funders, individuals and audience. Whether it was discussing how a company partners with a major business for securing its ACE funding, or getting a show of 200 participants to work in a city at night, they were inspirational and often ‘punching above the weight’ of the provocateurs themselves. Despite this inspirational discussion, it begs the question: what about us smaller folk, the less developed – early in the process of forming something in the first place, let alone collaborating largescale where money becomes a central pivot? How do you collaborate on a much smaller scale? How do you begin collaboration? How can we truly be stronger together when we’re just starting on our journey?
If the truth be told, I left Stronger Together with a slightly heavy heart, a daunting journey ahead to be doing more, opening up the process to allow collaboration and to essential step up to what was needed from me (and thus AYT). Inspirational? Yes. Hard work and a long journey ahead? Even more so.
Going back momentarily, part of the joy of Stronger Together was its integration of Open Space technology allowing participants to call questions they wanted to explore in sessions. I attended two which felt appropriate, one on ‘Collaboration for Beginners’ and the second on ‘Younger and Older. How do you get collaboration between organisations and emerging artists?’
The former of these discussions attempted to explore collaboration: how does someone who has never collaborated go about doing so? Is it an organic process, or can it be provoked. What are the steps, the process, the methods in collaboration? To be fair there are no real set rules, but there is in essence a series of suggestions which ring true. They are as follows:
1. Knowing what you want, and having the balls to follow through with it.
2. Not what you know but who you know. Use your current contacts to form collaborative contacts/partners.
3. What do you bring to the table, what does the other bring to the table? What are the agendas?
4. Don’t let funding restrict you, it should liberate you.
5. Collaboration can fail.
6. See this as a marrying of two organisations, a relationship. There has to be give and take to realise the formula that works.
Collaboration is a subtle thing, it’s like dancing in the dark with an unknown partner. You’ve got to figure out the moves and the rhythm before you produce a world class routine. It takes time, and takes nurturing. Yet there is also something encouraging about the excitement and potential of experimental and ambitious work that seeks to raise the bar. Why limit yourself? As Alan Lane of Slung Low rightly proclaimed, the impossible is not impossible… it’s just not imagined.
At the latter open space session on Younger and Older joining to allow emerging artists the partner organisations to springboard them, there was a challenging and disheartening discussion. There is an overwhelming demand for young artists, companies and organisations, either fresh out of university or in the early process, who need support. Venues willing to collaborate with young companies, offering advice and resources, are vital. There is much talk within the new structure of the National Portfolio Organisations, especially the larger organisations, having to assist their smaller counterparts, those that are not part of the funding system. This assistance has already been seen in the National Theatre supporting Greenwich Theatre’s box office system, but what of our graduates and further down the line grass roots theatre creators?
Part of the problem is a lack of a space to engage others, to network, collaborate, share and offer advice, to assist each other. After all, some of the basic collaboration is through advice swapping. This is essentially where AYT has a certain need to step up to the table to offer itself to fill a gap.
I have, for a long time, been slowly developing the nature of AYT, the vision for a website that has essentially untapped potential. We already reach a certain demographic of university students and graduates and offer a platform for discussion on this crucial development period in their careers in the arts. Yet it is clear that we at AYT have to provide more, and bridge the gap between organisation and start-up. We must be the middle point, the catalyst and mixing pot that is needed after the university bubble bursts.
This does not come easily. Andy Fields and Deborah Pearson of Forest Fringe spoke during a panel discussion on collaboration, especially on the moment when you have to realise the requirement of the work you are doing, the point where it becomes apparent that this is more than just a moment – it is a journey, one of need for you but especially a need for others. How do you respond to that moment? You just go for it, you aim high and achieve higher. To rise up and embrace it – throw yourself full speed into it, and hope that somehow you land on your feet.
I’m aware of my time for stepping up with AYT and delivering the requirement, the demand for more. I’m aware, and we will deliver, yet this journey is still unknown. I – we – are working on it. However difficult it will be.
So, collaboration, being stronger together. No one said it would be easy, there isn’t a rule book, and the support is there, if you know where to look for it. I may leave Newcastle with a certain weight resting on my shoulders but I also leave knowing that collaboration is just around the corner. It’s through discussions on Twitter, or email, it’s the connections we make with organisations who want to engage with young audience, it’s the very nature of me writing this blog now – it’s all collaborative, and it all goes into the mixing pot.