Over 40 years I have had five major points in my life where I have invented an idea or project which I found nigh impossible to persuade anyone, with the power, to fund it. Sometimes I have banged my head repeatedly against the money tree and eventually, I have managed to make the project happen. It is painful and my head hurts.
This week I was turned down by the Arts Council for a project I have been nurturing for three years. I clearly did not manage to capture the imagination of the assessors. My need for r&d funding to bring all the research together with some artists in a room for a week was a mismatch against the needs of the funder to know exactly what the project was and who it would reach. To get the money I need to enunciate the eventual outcome better. I will take the bruise on my head like an old fighter and try again.
I spend a lot of time as a coach supporting people who are going through this process or teaching people how to do it. Maybe it is best to learn from someone who fails to achieve it successfully first time, time after time.
The other four projects are a mix, and I thought I’d share them as they are now.
The first was a discussion with the Arts Council in 1980, in the days when the process was to have detailed discussions with officers in order to get them onside. It involved plugging a UK touring gap which would have started a new strand of highly popular touring taking the best of the Welsh National Opera touring model, with the West End style repertoire, and the deep engagement which is possible with a major repertory theatre or embedded city based theatre company. It filled a gap made by the loss of a major national touring company.
I was told I was mad to even think about it. I was 22 and a passionate believer in making this project work. To this day no one has attempted the model I proposed which may mean I was am still am mad, or just very very ahead of my time. Maybe Ramps to the Moon and John Stalker’s Music and Lyrics are the nearest. But The Musical Circus Company remains untested. (Arts officers, feel free to email me – the file is on my desk still).
Next came a plan to work with sign interpreters to make it normal to sign regional productions and touring productions of many plays as well as musicals and opera. I did run an international conference and commissioned the first BSL signing of opera and musicals. This despite many people in the professional world wondering why on earth, and how on earth, can you sign musical work – and why bother !! As I left Buxton Opera House in 1992 I did secure the first tiny funding for this work – but only after 5 years without any support. But our conference did send a senior exec from the National Theatre off to find some money at the back of their sofa and start a training programme there – so tangentially we made it work.
During my time at Buxton I invented a global project to find new writers of Musical Theatre and bring them together into an International Festival. We sought support from the funding bodies, but we were politely told that if we had called it Music Theatre we could have had funding, but Musicals – No. In the end I raised £5k from the Arts Council and £175k in sponsorship so we could run the festival.
I’m always sad that I wasn’t able to persuade Buxton to let our new artistic director, Judi Dench and I work forward to the 1994 planned Festival of Musicals. With the help of Cameron Mackintosh and Paul Gregg we took the idea to Oxford, but we couldn’t get the Arts Council and local authorities to play ball. I still miss never seeing the George Stiles and Anthony Drewe commission for Jude to sing in a hot air balloon with a jazz combo in the next balloon, opening the festival as they floated out of a college into the skies. In the end a further key backer pulled out and my co-organiser and I had to shut up shop, write our letters of redundancy and move on. Wow we cried over that one.
10 years later I had the pleasure to work with Cardiff City Council and the BBC to shape the early structure for another Festival. This time supported by all parties and going on, under Joanna Benjamin, to run for 6 years. I am sure it was always a funding struggle, but at least it was happening.
Then came 15 years of trying to persuade the Arts Council that the development of new writers of musical theatre should be a part of their funding strategy. No No No for so long. Then by inviting the USA’s National Endowment for the Arts to come to the UK to give a keynote speech, we managed to get the key ACE decision makers in a room and within just few years Musical Theatre was an artform in their portfolio deserving attention. In that time I was turned down three times for an application for project funding, despite the massive championing by the key officers for the work we wanted to do. In the end we won through. Now there are National Portfolio Organisations dedicated to the work, and they are doing very fast catch up.
And then my fourth crazy idea was a massive Olympic project which excited everyone I spoke too including the head of the Olympic arts festival. It involved poets and composers from 197 countries – think the Globe’s Hamlet but with a tiny new commission in each country. It also developed from a precursor to the UK wide Macmillan coffee morning which I had created in the 80s. StoryMusic had some great champions and I spent 2 years trying to get to have a real meet to make it happen in time for 2012. In the end it was passed from the head office to a regional office to a local organizer, who just couldn’t see how she could help. She passed it back up the chain supporting the idea and saying it needed national and strategic championing. It is presumably somewhere in the system still. I still love the idea and know that we could pull it off. [Anyone involved in Olympics 2024 or beyond, do get in touch]
And so today. Another rejection letter for a passion project which needs support from funders to get the r&d happening. I will use a bit of the small inheritance I got from my mother, together with two donations from members of my family and a birthday fundraiser, to fund the four actors and the rehearsal space so that we can move one step forward with Revelation – The More Show. I’ve been working with over 100 people all unpaid for the last 3 years who have given their expertise to help make this project happen. I clearly need to find a better way to describe it to get under the skin of the Arts Council. My producer, two skilled fund application writing advisors, and I thought we had made the case. We haven’t…yet.
In the old days it would have been possible, and almost required, to have a meeting with an artform officer who really understands the artform around which we are working. Having said that each time I seem to come up with a new idea there just isn’t one artform officer who will be perfectly placed to “get it”. Now the form is assessed by someone who may or may not resonate with the work. In this case Revelation is exploring “How do we choose to reveal our bodies through life, performance, and art?” I was hoping to go into a funded r&d week to answer exactly the two questions ACE challenged me on – exactly what is in the show/happening, and exactly how will you reach the audience when you eventually make the show. Along with everything else we will do this unfunded week and see whether we can answer some of those questions.
My forehead hurts today as I have banged my head yet again at the money tree trunk. I have a tight chest and a sense of sadness because, more than any other project, Revelation feels important for wellness, creativity and personal storytelling. Maybe it is too complex to get independent support from the Arts Council. We will try one more time. Hopefully I will write a better pitch within the allotted word count, and we will inspire one officer somewhere to be a champion.
My immense thanks three other artists and the producer who have given up so much time to be given a donation towards their costs; to the donors who’s money will now be used rather than held as match funding; and to the 100+ people who have sent me cheering notes to strengthen my resolve to try again. Maybe there is a naturist sitting under another money tree enjoying the sunshine and wondering how to make a difference in the world – do get in touch.