Episode #169 Be Kind, Be Useful, Create Giants in the Sky: transforming community with Alan Lane of Slung Low
How can we bring hope and agency and a sense of awe and wonder back into a world that feels perpetually on the verge of breakdown? Alan Lane and the team at the Slung Low theatre company are embedded in the culture and creativity of one of the most deprived areas in the nation – and are utterly committed to bringing magic into their world.
The Accidental Gods podcast exists to set the conditions for emergence into a new system: to bring a critical mass of us to a place where emergence into a new system is a rewarding reality. To get there, we bring to you some of the many astonishingly creative, compassionate, switched-on people who are working at the leading edge of change.
Alan Lane is one of these people. He’s the artistic director of the theatre company Slung Low, which in turn is one of the most innovative theatre companies in the UK, if not in the world. Absolutely embedded in the neighbourhood in which they work, Slung Low are committed to their core principles of ‘Be Kind, Be Useful, Everyone gets to do what they want. Nobody gets to tell anyone else what they can’t do.’ (within obvious limits – as you’ll hear).
Alan is also the author of the book The Club on the Edge of Town which is subtitled ‘A Pandemic Memoir’ but is so, so much more – this is the story of how Slung Low arose, how it came to be entered in the oldest Working Mens’ Club in England (unable to change the name), and ultimately became a Food Bank during the pandemic. It’s the story of standing in the rain, of keeping promises, of integrity and grit and sheer bloody-minded tenacity. Most of all, it’s a story of how a small group of committed people made a huge difference to the lives of their neighbours and community. It is also the story of the culture clash that you’ll hear more about in the podcast, and that led, ultimately, to Slung Low moving elsewhere in Leeds.
Since then, their transformation to being part of the team that put on the utterly magical opening event of the Leeds Year of Culture 2023, where the city’s most famous pop star spoke to a god – is the stuff of legend.
In their new world, their core purpose is to make Awe and Wonder happen – and they are doing it with commitment, integrity, enthusiasm and raw inspiration.
In this episode, Alan tells the story that led from standing in the rain in Nottinghill to creating technical magic on a stage in Leeds. We explore the power of story to change people’s lives and the value of commitment to the things we believe in. We dig deep into Alan’s absolute moral imperatives and his compassion for the people around him, people he values, people he teaches to value themselves in a world that, in his words, ‘teaches us we’re cogs in a machine and we’re scum’ is heartbreakingly wonderful. Truly, if the whole world was inspired as Leeds is being inspired, we’d be in a different place. (And the god that rose out of the river was a world first: made with drones, everyone said it was impossible. And Alan and the team made it happen anyway. How good of a metaphor is that for what we have to do now in our emerging new system?)
Alan Lane is Artistic Director of Slung Low directing most of their work over the last decade including projects with the Barbican, the RSC, The Almeida, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Liverpool Everyman, Sheffield Theatres, Singapore Arts Festival and the Lowry. Slung Low make large scale people’s theatre work on stages, trains, castles, swimming pools, fishing boats and town centres.
In 2017 Slung Low headlined Hull UK City of Culture 2017 with Flood by James Phillips: a 4 Part epic performed online, live and on the BBC. Over half a million people saw a part of Flood. It won a Royal Televisual Award Yorkshire for innovation in drama.
In 2019 the company took over management of the oldest working men’s club in Britain, The Holbeck in South Leeds. Initially, they ran this venue as a Pay What You Decide creative and community space, but during lockdown, they transformed into one of the only non-means-tested Food Banks in the country. Their work there was transformative and Alan wrote the book The Club on the Edge of Town out of their experiences there.
Late last year, the company moved venues to a warehouse next to their favourite primary school and began to help organise the astonishing, miraculous, technologically outstanding (and magically wonderful) opening event to Leeds Year of Culture 2023, which culminated in Corrine Bailey Rae talking to a god in front of a rugby stadium filled with 10,000 artists.
Manda: This week, I am so delighted to bring you one of my newer heroes. Alan Lane is the artistic director of the theatre company Slung Low, which in turn is one of the most innovative theatre companies in the country, if not the world. Absolutely embedded in the neighbourhood in which they work, Slung Low are committed to their core principle of be kind, be useful. Everyone gets to do what they want and nobody gets to tell anybody else what they can’t do. Within reason, as you’ll hear. Alan is also the author of the book The Club on the Edge of Town, which is subtitled A Pandemic Memoir, but is so much more than this. It’s the story of how Slung Low became a food bank during the pandemic. Of the principles that underlay it and of the difference it made to people’s lives.
Manda: It’s one of those books that I bought ten copies of, genuinely, to hand out to everybody I could think of who might possibly read it over Christmas and New Year last year. If you haven’t read it already, definitely put this on your reading list. It’s one of the most inspiring of the books that I’ve read recently, but it’s also really hard hitting as to the nature of what privilege is and how those of us who have it, can use it in ways that can make a difference in the world. And that’s what Alan does. They’re no longer at the club on the edge of town, but Slung Low was part of the team that put together the amazingly magical opening event of the Leeds Year of Culture 2023. When the city’s most famous pop star spoke to a God that rose out of the river. So this is what Slung Low does. They make awe and wonder happen. And they do it with commitment and integrity and enthusiasm and raw inspiration, that I believe really comes across in this conversation. So people of the podcast, please do welcome Alan Lane, creative director of Slung Low Theatre Company.
Alan: Alan, welcome to the Accidental Gods podcast. It is such a pleasure to invite you to come and talk to us in the midst of everything that you are doing. And you have probably the busiest, most applied, most engaged life of anyone that I’ve ever spoken to. So what is most alive for you in your world at the moment?
lan: At the moment. It’s really nice to be here, by the way. At the moment we are moving into our second space, so we now run two theatre spaces, one of which is called the Warehouse in Holbeck, which is a big warehouse space and has two stages in it. We’ve got that ready and we opened it about a week ago with an orchestra piece, which was great, and we were full and that was really great to have classical music here. And then we have a second space, which is called Slung Low at Temple, which is a space for other artists, really. It’s offices and making spaces for younger artists. Probably not young anymore, it has to be said, but younger artists
Manda: Younger than us.
lan: Younger. Yeah, definitely. And then an outdoor performance space. So I literally came from the guys that were just – we have a double decker bus that’s a classroom and we were shampooing that and doing stuff. So we’re sort of nesting. Feels like that’s where we are. It feels like we’re building new… Actually, nesting is a bit passive for what we’re doing. We’re building new homes, we’re building the base ready for what comes next, I think that’s definitely the case.
Manda: I’m watching birds nesting around here and it’s quite an active process. Let’s take a few steps back because The Club on the Edge of Town is one of the most transformative books of last year. It was absolutely on my must read list for 2022. But you were in the club at the edge of town there, and now you’re not. So can we fill in everybody a little bit on an edited highlight history of Slung Low? Actually, I have an idea. Let’s go back to the story of standing in the rain, because that’s how you open the book and it is utterly iconic of who you are and how you are. And you are not yet at the club at the edge of town then. So I realised it’s not where your life is at this moment, But just for a moment, let’s step back into standing in the rain, what that was and how it became your motto.
Alan: So we used to have a project which was a silver Airstream caravan that was called the Knowledge Emporium, which was a sweet shop with a difference. And the difference was it didn’t take money, it traded sweets for knowledge. And if you went into this suite, you would meet us. We were wearing sort of candy striped waistcoats and bowling shoes, and we would say, Write something in our great big book of knowledge and help yourself to sweets. And then at the end of our residency in a place, one or two weeks, we would then read that knowledge back to the people who would come and gather and we’d play games and make food and stuff. The first time we ever did this was in Portobello Market, right down the bottom of the market in Notting Hill for a theatre called The Gate. And when we arrived there, no one would talk to me at all. They would come nowhere near me. And when finally I got hold of this woman who ran a laundrette and said, Why? Like there’s free sweets? She was incensed because she knew that we were coming to steal her stories, like Richard Curtis had in the past.
Manda: Right. It had happened before.
Alan: Which. Yeah, which is if you if you know that area at all down the bottom of Notting Hill, it’s a million miles away from the sort of Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts or whoever it is sort of world. It’s not the Notting Hill we say when we say the Notting Hill set. It’s not luxuriously middle class. It’s much more challenging than that. And she was furious with me because I was obviously a part of this world. Which is hysterical if you know anything about me, you know that I am also a million miles away from Richard Curtis; but I’m just some buffoon in a bow tie, stood outside this silver caravan. And I said, Well, the deal was we were going to stand here and trade sweets for knowledge, so I’m just going to get on with doing that. And then it starts to rain. And it rained like the end of the world. It rained for hours and it came down so hard. And it occurred to me, because we spent a lot of time making this really nice caravan, and this project, I thought it would kind of be one of those few projects you do where no one could be angry with you, because you’re just giving away sweets. It turns out lots of people can be angry with you, even when you’re just giving away sweets. So I just stood. Because I kind of thought, well, the deal was that we were going to do this. And I never at any point said, Well, I’m going to do it whilst the sun’s shining. And so I stood and I stood and I stood and I stood there for a really long time. And I got unbelievably wet. I mean really like comically wet.
Alan: The clothes were falling off me. And finally she kind of came out, this woman from the laundrette, with an umbrella and said, What are you doing? And I was like, Well, I’m doing exactly what I said I was doing; I’m standing out here trading sweets. Don’t be stupid. I was like, I’m just literally keeping my word. I never said I wouldn’t stand in the rain. And so she gave me the umbrella, and there was kind of a resolution of sorts. Two weeks later, actually, when we left, we’d got to know all the local businesses. And if they didn’t like us, they certainly didn’t hate us any more; they’d written in the book and they came to see the show. And so Standing in the rain became this sort of shorthand for if we make a promise, we have to fulfil that promise. And one of the promises we made was that our job would be to to make sure that the people of Holbeck, the most amazing place in the world. Holbeck is an inner city, South Leeds ward. It was the heart of the Industrial Revolution for about two and a half seconds. It’s full of brilliant people, but it’s also been whacked by every single economic, social, financial development in the last hundred years. Like post-war decline smacked it, Thatcher smacked it, the departure of industry smacked it, COVID smacked it, austerity smacked it, and now the hostile environment is absolutely jumping up and down on what’s left of it. And so it’s that place. It has the single worst health outcomes of any ward in England.
Manda: Before we get there, can we get to how you got from Portobello Road to Holbeck? And just before we get to that, can we just round the standing in the rain story off? So the lady who sounds like she’s the matriarch of the area gave you an umbrella so you could huddle underneath it in your clown suit. And then you got some good stories? Did the project in the end garner amazing stuff and give people a sense of worth, which I guess is what you were trying to do?
Alan: Yeah, I mean, that project went for years. That project was the kind of single most successful popular thing we did. Because it turns out that people really like sweets and they really like being told that they know something. They really like being told that they’re important. And actually the showings, I mean, we did that for four years or something like that. It played to 50, 60 towns or cities over those years. And wherever it went, it was popular because it didn’t cost anything, because it gave you free sweets and because then it took what you knew and it elevated it to something worth declaring in public. Which of course me and you know, it was always worth declaring a public in the first place. We just don’t. So that project was really successful for us. But all the time we were doing that project, we were still based in Holbeck, we were still based in this place. And we had five railway arches. Yeah, we’ve been here for 12 years.
Manda: You’re originally from London, are you not?
Alan: No, no, I’m a forces brat. So I grew up in army bases and RAF bases around the world. I’ve lived in Yorkshire since I was 18, but if you ask any Yorkshiremen, they will make it clear that that doesn’t count in any way.
Manda: That doesn’t count.
Alan: Yeah, absolutely. So we’ve been in Holbeck for 12 years and we moved there originally because it was the cheapest place to get a large space like that. We got five railway arches, right at the very edges of town near the city centre, and we shared that space with other theatre companies. And during that time we didn’t know anything about Holbeck, until we discovered things about Holbeck and we came to love it. For all the reasons I just explained. That it is the place that history drops in once in a while to leave its mark and then it clears off, leaving everyone to kind of deal with the damage. It became our community. And our commitment, our new long term thing that we would stand in the rain for, was that we would endeavour to give the people of Holbeck the best cultural life they could possibly imagine. And there’s lots of ways in which we try and do that, and many of them co-curated and many of them not. But one of the ways was we moved into the oldest working men’s club in Britain, four and a bit years ago now.
Manda: What was wrong with the railway arches? Because that sounds rather chic and lovely, railway arches. Is that my middle class projection of it being chic?
Alan: No, it wasn’t. It was never chic and lovely. But it was really good and it was cheap and it was big. And then two things happened: one of which was Network Rail sold every single railway arch in the country to a hedge fund. And what you’ve seen in London is the new landlords have raised the rent by 400, 500, 600%. So a lot of the kind of small scale, low cost industries that were in there, so family mechanics and things like that. Things that have been got rid of, because eventually they’re going to be turned into the new place for Wagamamas and what have you. And that didn’t happen in Leeds, but we were suspicious that it might and it probably would, except Covid happened, and that put the kibosh on lots of things. But the other thing that happened was that venue, The Hub it was called, was always in The Guardian was always being talked about by the arts people, and lots of people would come. But in order to get there from Holbeck proper, you have to walk through like a wasteland, like a place where really the only things that happened are violence and crime. And no matter how nice we tried to make it, people would arrive and they would come and they’d be like, Oh, can you not afford heating? And we’d be like, It’s a railway arch. We absolutely cannot afford heating. And so what was seen as rather chic and lovely by some people who had cultural capital, who understood that you give up a bit of say, comfort, in order to have something a bit more interesting. That wasn’t true of the people of Holbeck because they were like, Well, if you our theatre, how come you’re crap? Like the work was good, but why can’t we have nice ice creams? And you were like, oh. And so that’s a really useful and perfectly valid challenge, is you understand the alternative only once you’ve grown comfortable with the mainstream and they’d never been offered the mainstream.
Manda: Yeah. Okay. And so oldest working men’s club in England turns up. And how did that become available? Because it’s not the kind of place where you would imagine a fairly right on theatre company would end up.
Alan: Well it workingmen’s clubs for those of your listeners who aren’t in in Britain, are community held pubs basically. But they started in the Victorian Times and they were places like The Holbeck where they were places for education, entertainment and they didn’t have bars. But they would be owned by members who would pay a fee, like a dues every year. And then that would be their place to go and relax. When they started, they were entirely for men and given that it was 1900 in Leeds, entirely for white men. So there’s a challenge and a problem in their origin story. But they were places beyond the market, they didn’t make profit, they were owned by the community and they were for entertainment and they were for education. So what we might now call culture. And then during the 20th century, they had financial problems because working men are paid less and also there’s cinema and television and all sorts of things start to happen. And so they put bars in so that when you bought beer, the profits then went to run the club. And definitely post-war there is a kind of, wow, someone’s managed to make the inherent problem of alcoholism in the working man, they’ve managed to find a positive out of that.
Alan: Which is if these blokes are going to go and kill themselves with booze anyway, we might as well sell them the booze from a community owned point of view, because then we can send all the kids on holiday for two weeks in the summer, which is what used to happen. So again, there’s lots of challenge in that. There’s lots that’s problematic. However you do what you can and they did what they could. So by the time we arrive, all clubs and pubs generally, but especially clubs, are on the decline because of the smoking ban, because people don’t go to the pubs anymore. And so this place owed a lot of money and it was being run by volunteers who were, it’s fair to say, most of them elderly or older, and they’d been doing it for a long time. Barrel work and toilets and they’d done a really good job. They’d done a really good job and they’d managed to get to the point where they weren’t losing money anymore, but they weren’t making any money and they weren’t paying anyone.
Manda: And they had a lot of debt and debt racks up without doing anything to it. Yeah. Okay. Capitalism working as intended.
Alan: Yeah, absolutely. And also because the market can’t sustain a pub in Holbeck. Your people are too poor, they are too Muslim. They are too come from a culture that don’t have drinking, to be able to make your living selling beer and using the profits to do anything else. So it’s just a really bad idea. So we were in there, we were hosting a kid’s show and they have this amazing performance space. It’s a 250 seater cabaret space above three lounges, with a bar and a flat. So there’s an awful lot of capacity and capability there. And we were rehearsing in their events room that they didn’t do anything with anymore, because it took too much time and no one really had the energy. And they’d left their bank accounts out and our producer Joanna kind of noticed it and put two and two together and said, Well, we could move in. And this is a deal we offered them: We’re going to move in and we’re going to pay all your debts off, and then we’re going to come in as managers and guarantee you against loss.
Manda: So how did you pay off the debt? As I remember from the book, there was something about you’d gone round the north of England going, We don’t want the government grants until the people here have actually got proper stuff. And then you thought, Actually, here’s a useful use for the grant. Do I remember that right? Because £80,000 is a lot of money to suddenly come up with.
Alan: It’s a lot of money. So there’s a thing called theatre tax relief, which is what the Conservatives would rather fund the arts with. So if me and you are rich people and we decide that we are going to make Peter Pan the musical with someone off the telly, the government will give us in cash 20% of everything that we spend. The bottom line is we will get 20% of it until first night. So all the money we spend in R&D, all the money we spend in rehearsals, all the money we spend building sets, everything else, we’re getting 20% in cash back. That’s not a write off against tax. That’s actual money.
Manda: And then if it makes no money, if it in fact only has one night, you’ve still got that money.
Alan: It’s a way of funding the arts in which Andrew Lloyd Webber gets more money than your favourite local community theatre company. And that’s not great because actually what we probably want, because subsidy isn’t about priming the pumps, it’s not about market correction. It’s about understanding that culture sits beyond the market and we will collect our common wealth and then we will divvy it up, so the flattening effect of the market does not happen in our cultural life. Really basically, if you need £25 to go and watch Hairspray in the city centre, then in a city like Leeds, which is the kind of one of the more successful cities, at least a third of the population are not going to be able to afford to do that. So right from the start, and specifically for us; through that wall is Ingram Road Primary School, 450 amazing kids who live incredibly precarious lives in large part because of capitalism, in large part because of the hostile environment, who would not have access to any genuine cultural life beyond very slim pickings, if it was not for public subsidy of the arts. So if you then come along and say, actually guys I’ve thought of an even better way, where you spend the money and we’ll give you 20% cash back, that’s not great. It’s not great. It’s a particularly conservative party thing to do to arts funding.
Alan: So I had gone around and said what I just said, but in slightly more colourful and vibrant language, for quite some time. And then we went and we did a big show for the whole of 2017, that had a part of it went on to the BBC at 9:00 on Saturday. And we spent nearly £1,000,000, it’s a lot of money, on the show. Which was seen by half a million people, it was incredibly successful. People enjoyed it. It was a four and a half hour blank verse epic, about immigration. On a floating stage on water with 250 people in it, that split apart, burst into flames, disappeared. And then the final act was a naval battle between 11 different boats, all powered by members of the community that threw grenades and splashed each other. So you can see where the money went.
Alan: But in any case, we did this thing and it was great. Everyone loved it, it was brilliant. And then Joanna, the producer, pointed out to me that we were owed £80,000 worth of theatre tax relief. And I obviously said, Well, we can’t take that because I’ve been gobbing off for the last two years we don’t believe in it. And almost on the same day it became clear that the club owed £80,000 of debt, to breweries basically. It’s too long to go into, but breweries are really good at racking up debts against pubs, because it then binds them into never being able to buy anyone else’s beer, because the price of beer actually depends on who you are, depends on how much you pay. So then they can increase the price of beer, it’s capitalism doing its thing, right? So there’s this moment where we’re going to get the tax relief of 80 grand and the club owes 80 grand.
Manda: Marriage made in heaven.Alan: Yeah. So that’s the offer we make to the club. We’re going to pay off all your debts. We’re going to move in as managers. We don’t get paid for that. We’re going to run the place. You write down what you want to stay the same. So they picked opening hours, the price of beer couldn’t be raised without a vote by the members. And then the rest of what you don’t sort of protect, we’re going to turn into a pay what you decide arts and community centre. And then finally, the last thing is we’ll guarantee you against loss. So you’ve not made any money, you’re not going to make any money. But when we get to the end of the year, we’ll pay off your debts always. And then that way you’re never going to fall into debt again. And then we can stay here.
Manda: Wow. What an offer. Okay, so they ripped your hand off, which is perfectly reasonable.
Alan: Sort of. But yes, they did. Most of them were like, yes! I mean, the alternative was us or closure.
Manda: And still having a lot of debt. So you got in and you did astonishing stuff and you had as your principle three founding values. Do you want to tell us about those and then tell the good things; how they were applied and moving into COVID, particularly what you did with those?
Alan: Yeah, I mean, we were at the club for four years and we had four amazing years. We were really proud of them. We talked about really basic values that my son can understand, when running the club. Because like I say, we’re in a culture war. So they need to be simple, because you’re only ever going to get to talk for 10 seconds before someone start shouting. And the first word was be useful, and the second was be kind. And then the third was Everybody gets what they want, but nobody gets to stop other people getting what they want. And this is the crux of it; which is if you need to use the room upstairs you’re welcome. You can have the room and it’s going to be on a pay what you decide basis. So it’s basically free. But the idea that you can say as a member ‘but I don’t want Africans to use it’ is just absolutely like no. If you want your Nana’s 70th birthday as an example of something we did quite a lot of, on the Friday, I will be there and I will make sure everything’s working and the gang will make sure that the systems are on and we will hoover up after you. But when there’s a queer cabaret in the next night, I don’t want to hear from you about how it’s disgusting or anything else.
Alan: I simply don’t. As long as you were willing to obey the kind of basic social norms, you were welcome. The bar was set really low for basic social norms: basically, don’t be a Nazi. literally we had some Nazis, we had to throw them out. They were really upset. And I said, You’re a Nazi. And they said, But you said everyone was welcome. I was like, Except Nazis. You’re the one group! They were so upset. They were like, But, but…and I’m like, No dudes, you are the epitome of not letting other people have what they want, right? That if your values and your standards are such that it stops other people getting their basic human rights, then I’m not interested in you being upstairs in my space, get out! And they were like, Freedom of speech, man. I thought you said… Yes, for everyone but Nazis there’s freedom of speech. And we did. People who hated me would stand up in our space and be rude about me, and I’d be like, Yeah, that’s actually allowed. Until you start chatting absolute nonsense about white supremacy and then you can just get out before I lose my temper.
Manda: White male, straight supremacy. Yeah. Because I remember you telling me that you had the only LGBT Muslim women’s football team up there, which is amazing. I remember you saying they weren’t very good at football, but they won all the fights in the car park. And me thinking, is that a good thing?
Alan: But this is really the heart of cultural democracy. So someone came to us and wanted to start a football team and they wanted it to be entirely accessible; So we paid for childcare, we paid for travel, we paid for kit. And what that meant was the women’s team quite quickly became an asylum seeker, immigrant team. Women from all over the world, sorry, who ended up in Leeds, played football together. And they often were not very good at football, but they were really, really ferocious. And all of that is challenging, right? You’re like, hang on a minute, if the bloke’s football team started beating everyone up in the car park, we’d have a big problem. But these are nuanced and difficult questions. Like I always end up on the side of this is a group of women who have bonded so well that they’re willing to protect each other. So I was like, do you know what? Not my problem. They’re grown women, if they want to scrap, they can do. They’re brilliant. They’re called Holbeck Moor FC.
Manda: They still exist?
Alan: Yeah, they still exist. It was really good, but in the club we had these rules which meant that basically we said yes to everyone. And the most important thing as a theatre company was that we told everyone about these rules. So we did leaflet drops and PR campaigns and all sorts. So everyone got to know that if you had an event that needed a space, then you could have it at our place. And that meant that everybody came. So the Ghanaian weddings and the Nigerian funerals and the Irish Holy Communions and the queer cabarets and the rehearsals and the band nights. We kind of had everyone and we didn’t programme, we didn’t curate, we just said yes, with so little exception. Nazis, we said no. And what was really exciting about that was everything worked within its own conditions. So someone would come in and say, I want to do a band night because my mates bike got nicked and I want to raise the money to get a new bike. And we’d be like, Yeah, okay, that’s great. And the bands would not be necessarily what, me and you, and it wouldn’t particularly be well organised and it would start an hour late and it would come down an hour late and all of that. And people loved it. People genuinely had a good time and that was true of nearly everything that we were doing. That for its own community it was really successful. The only things that didn’t work is when people felt like they had to do something. So fundraisers for political parties always went down really badly, because no one really wanted to turn up to them. People just felt like they had to have… I think that’s a great lesson for theatre.
Alan: And then alongside all of this use, we put stuff on. So we had big cabarets, drag queens, magicians, opera companies. Every week a new play would come touring in. And then every kind of six weeks we’d do a big cabaret or a big kind of community event and everything was Pay what you Decide. And they were incredibly popular.
Manda: How many of you are there, Alan? Because you’re already there hoovering up after the band that’s been an hour late and everybody else who’s been dropping their fag ends on the carpet, I imagine, while they’re drinking beer downstairs.
Manda: And you’re putting on all of these shows. How big is slung low and how do you find your energy? How do you recharge yourself?
Alan: There’s four of us, and that’s a really good question. And I think increasingly post-COVID, that’s a really good question for us. I think if the other three were here, they would all answer this very differently. They’re all motivated in a completely different way. How I charge myself is that I know that we have £500 million worth of money to spend on public art and publicly subsidised theatre in this country, and we don’t spend it in a way that is in any way conducive to changing the world for the better. And it makes me angry. That’s based on the assumption that the kids of Ingram Road Primary School, the kids of Holbeck, wouldn’t know what to do with it if they had it now. I have lived a life that absolutely proves that not to be the case. That actually if you if you trust them; we have a group of young primary school kids who curate and commission for us, spend proper cash, thousands of pounds every year and they do a brilliant job. And the injustice of how we spend our public arts money is so profoundly cruel as to be unbearable, except for to do something about it. And so the injustice that Holbeck didn’t have a public space that everybody could use was too much to bear. And that fuelled us for at least two years I’d say, the absolute fury of that.
Manda: Until COVID, until the pandemic hit. Tell us a little bit, because I want to move on to what you’re doing now, which sounds even more exciting. But tell us just a little bit about what happened during the pandemic and how you shifted the theatre company.
Alan: So COVID hit and we had to shut the club because nearly all the people who drank in our club were old and they would have immediately died. They were so angry when we shut the club, they left lots of very offensive voicemails telling us we’d betrayed them. But in any case, shut we did. And then we put a letter out to our nearest 200 households that said that, like we knew everyone was scared, but we were still there. We were young enough to kind of not be terrified and we had a van and we had money. And if they needed help, they should get in touch. And they did. They needed their dogs walking and prescriptions picking up and groceries and all sorts of other stuff. And then the council got in touch and said, Could we do that for our whole ward? Which is about seven and a half thousand households.
Manda: And there’s four of you?
Alan: Yeah. At the time there were five of us, but yes. And so we did that for a year and a half. And so if you were in trouble in South Leeds, you would ring the council and you’d be put through to us and then we would go and do your stuff. And we changed beds and we moved wheelie bins and we did the things that your family and friends might do for you, except for your family and friends weren’t allowed to. And then really quickly, we became a food bank. Really quickly, it became clear that there was a loud and obvious and demonstrable need for free food in our community. And all of this moved pretty quickly. And it’s fair to say that large parts of this new responsibility from the council was unfunded. So they were saying like, Can you do this? And here’s four quid. And we were like, Cool, it’s going to cost a lot. And they were like, We haven’t got lots. And so it became really clear to us that that’s fine. It was a moral obligation.
Alan: We believe in public service and it was an act of public service, but we were going to do it our way. So we became what they call a non means tested self referral food bank, which means that if you ask for food, you’re going to get it. Which is different from how food banks work. You normally have to demonstrate your poverty in one way or another, and one of the ways you demonstrate your poverty is by getting an agency or an organisation to say that you are hungry enough for food. So it might be a local church or a social worker or whatever. And the problem with that is that all of that system is completely exhausted. So just trying to find someone who had the brain space to be able to meet you and say, Oh yeah, you’re hungry it’s like it doesn’t exist. So the whole system is messed up and it’s all a bit moral. It assumes a moral failing in you as opposed to a systematic outcome that was predetermined.
Manda: Right, the deserving and the undeserving poor, which seems to be a big Tory theme, the undeserving poor. It’s like, how did you even get that idea? But it still seems to be ingrained.
Alan: Yeah. And the idea that if only you had made better choices or that there were better choices available to you, it’s just so boring, it’s all just so tedious. We just went, No, I’m not having this. So we just said, if you ask for food, you’re going to get it. And as a result, we did 15,202 food parcels in 15 months, which is a lot. Which is, when you think we were getting maybe three or four official referrals a week and we were delivering 400 food parcels a week, there is a discrepancy between the official and the informal.
Manda: And the people who really needed it. And where did you get the food from? Because it doesn’t just drop out of the sky.
Alan: No, when I say we did this, we did this with an amazing army of volunteers. And so the local churches dropped off food. And there’s an amazing man called Adam Smith, who runs the junk food Project, which goes into the food supply chain and finds there is enough food, it’s just in the wrong places. So there’s food that will get thrown away and that people will have to pay to dispose of that is not being given to people. And so he goes in and gets that food and then actually he sells it. He sells it to people. But he gave it to us.
Manda: Because it was out of date?
Alan: Some of it is, but some of it was also that our supply chains are so messed up, that the tiniest of things can mean that an articulated lorry of milk is no longer needed. Well Covid wasn’t the tiniest of things, right? So there was there was airport hangars worth of food that all of a sudden didn’t have the home that it was meant for. And so we would have stuff. Genuine articulated lorries would turn up and they would be full of stuff and we would just have to get rid of it. So it wasn’t a balanced diet, but it was a varied one. So it might be a popcorn bag the size of me, I’m six foot three. And we had 500 of them. Or 10,000 frozen Burger King burgers. And you’re like, How come I meant to deal with these?
Manda: And you have to get them out before they defrost?
Alan: Yeah, that was a long day. And milk is a big one. To dispose of milk, you can’t put it down the drain, not in proper volume, because it clogs the drains up. So you have to pay to get rid of it. So on Monday that thing might be worth five grand and on Wednesday that thing might cost you four grand to get rid of. Well, that’s a lot! That’s a big swing, right. And so he’s in the middle of all of that, being a magician. And we would just sort of burst through. The council gave us some money for food as well. And then we spent all our money. We spent our money. We’d earned lots of money. We make big shows, they’re seen by lots of people. We get paid for that. And so we had money in the bank and so we spent it on food. Which I don’t regret at all. I’d like the money back…
Manda: But what happened to these people at the end of COVID? And you’re a theatre company, you can’t keep being a non means tested self referral food bank forever, partly because the other food banks are going to get cross because you’re not following the system, I kind of guess. What happened to the people who needed the food at the end?
Alan: Well, I mean, closing a food bank is much harder than setting one up. It took a lot longer. So we had months of writing, we would send letters to people saying, look, at the minute we notice that we’re delivering to you once a week; in four months time we’re going to stop. And there were schemes around affordable supermarkets and around kind of socially engaged grocers and all sorts of different things. It’s fair to say there was this big explosion of this activity citywide and specifically in our ward. And the council did invest in it. But then a lot of the organisations that were carrying on that work, were already on their knees and weren’t being funded enough. And then someone came along and went, We’ll give you 40 grand to do this. And they said Yes. And then they carried on that work, but not in the same way and not with the same energy that we had. So it’s definitely the case that people just got less food. And some of those people coped and some of those people will have made different choices. It meant they had less in their life elsewhere and some of those people would have gone hungry. There’s absolutely no denying. Shutting the food bank was really difficult for us. We left the world no worse than we found it right. We are in a period of actual decline, like our societies are getting worse. And that partly comes from mindset, it partly comes from a lack of investment and it partly comes from an absolutely terrible government.
Manda: Yeah, the system is crumbling. I think that’s a fundamental tenet of this podcast, is we’re in the middle of the system falling apart. We just need to work out how to create the new one, preferably before everybody becomes destitute, in the gap between. And you feel to me as if you’re in there. Because I think a lot of people feel we have to wait and see what the new one will look like before we can start planning for it. And my feeling is, no, we just get on doing with what is right and the new one emerges out of that. And we might not recognise it until it’s in the rear-view mirror and that’s fine. So because time is moving on, I really want to get to what you were doing at New Year and what you’re doing now. Tell us a little bit. Covid comes to an end. You closed the food bank. What happened at the Workingmen’s Club? Because at the end of the book, it’s a pandemic memoir. What happened after the end of the book?
Alan: Well, we opened the football club. So we realised that we were responsible to our community in many different ways and not just food. It has the single worst health outcomes of any ward in England. So adult activity became important to us and we got back on with running the club. And I think the problem had been that for 18 months, no one from the club, no one from the committee had come in. They tried to shut the food bank down because they thought the food bank would denigrate the reputation of the club, that people wouldn’t want to come and drink in there. And so we cracked on. You know, we went back to what we were doing. And I’ve got to be honest, we were a little confused. That there were now some people who hadn’t been around for a year and a half or two years, who were now like, Right, we’re back. And I’m like, Well, yeah, you’re back. But the world has changed quite a bit. And there were clearly tensions. And one of those tensions was around how do we greet people of colour? How do we behave around people, our guests who are different? Whether they be queer or just alternative. How do we how do we deal with them? Who does this club belong to? The membership had exploded under our management to about 450 from about 150, you know, all of a sudden there’s three times as many people.
Alan: Are we in fact servicing all of those people? Is that part of what we should be doing? How do we do it? And it became really clear that the kind of committees and the core, it has to be said of about 30 or 40 members, were like, no, it needs to go back to how it was. And I was like, well, how it was fundamentally didn’t work. And the interesting thing is, we didn’t change opening hours, we didn’t change the price of beer, we didn’t change the beer. This was part of the culture war. This was about the more nuanced question of who we for and what do we do. It was philosophical rather than practical. If it had been about, you know, the price of beer, then that would be a really easy thing to fix. But it’s not. It’s about the idea that we’d been there for… Well, I’d been a member for a decade, but I’ve been actually living in one way or another in the club for four years and still wasn’t seen as a member. No, by your own rules, members are people who pay £6 a year and I’ve paid my six quid. And we were basically working really hard, as you say, like we do lots of things. We opened the Shakespeare North Playhouse. We made shows all around the country. We were the co-directors of Leeds 2023 opening, and we’re doing that and earning lots of money and then putting all of that money into the club.
Alan: And therefore, in a very real sense, literally subsidising the beer of people who detested us and couldn’t keep the hate out of their face. And it also became really clear that whilst we were there, while we were physically in the place, everyone was welcome. That was one of our things, everyone’s welcome. But the minute we left, we would then get phone calls from the staff saying, Oh, this just happened. We had a huge problem of sexual harassment of the bar staff and it just got too much. And we were like, this isn’t going to go on. There was a moment, me and my boy, I’ve got a seven year old and my dog moved in over Christmas to run the place for a week, to keep it open between the bar staff. And by the end of day one, I was like, Oh my God, we are really hated in this building. So we got together as a team as always, and said, What are we going to do about this? So what we did was we went to the AGM, happens every year and we said to the members, You need to vote us out. Because if you don’t vote us out, obviously the agreement will continue and we’d be liable for all their debts for a start. But you can’t survive. You cannot survive without radical change. Without putting your beer prices up, without stop being rude to people. Like let’s not even talk about racism, let’s just stop being rude to people who might want to come into this club and drink and have fun.
Alan: And at first there were enough of the members who were like, No, hang on a minute, we’re on to a really good thing with you. And we were like, Absolutely not. We’re going. And if you don’t vote us out, then within the parameters of our agreement, I can do the following things and I will do them all tomorrow. And at that point, they went, All right, fine, we’ll vote you out. Because they voted us in and it was important to us that they voted us out. But I suppose I mention all of that, because it was a harder edge. The book is about us desperately trying to hold a middle ground, between lots of different groups of people and assuming, as I think is right, that when we were failing to do that, it was because we were failing to do that. That the world is complicated and actually we need to work together. The four years we had was incredibly successful. Thousands and thousands and thousands of people use that space, a place of genuine joy, a place of education and entertainment. And it did it and it was brilliant. And we transformed it and we paid off all its debts. And we did a big renovation, and it’s in really good shape.
Manda: So just briefly, before we head on to Leed’s 2023 opening and the glory of that, the energetics of this seem really interesting because it seems to me that this is where the world is at. That there are people whose sense of tribal identity feels under threat. Somebody quite bright said to me at the point when the dog died, that grief is love that has nowhere else to go and that rage is fear that has nowhere else to go. And they’re afraid because their way of life is over and they don’t have the resilience and the grit and the imagination and the flexibility to imagine a different life for themselves. Or to imagine the world as it could be. And therefore they are angry and they need to voice that anger at somebody or something. And you were their punchbag. And the fact that the thing that they had been angry about changes, they’re still angry. So they just move the goalpost to wherever the goal happens to be. Maybe this is an unfair question, but this is something I ask myself pretty much every morning. I do my shamanic ceremonies and I have a choice. I can put fear into the world or I can put compassion into the world.
Manda: And if I’m given a choice, I’ll go for the compassion and I’ll endeavour to be part of that side of what seems to me quite a polarised balance. And it’s hard, because I still get really angry with the Tories and capitalism and the system. But you’re living in it and I’m wondering, first of all, how did the energetics of that impact on you? Being hated all the time. Nicola Sturgeon, I think, one of the reasons she and Jacinda Ardern both intelligently stepped down, is that being the focus of energetic hate for a long period of time is extremely damaging. And the only people who thrive on that are the utter psychopaths like Johnson, who somehow managed to feed on hate and it makes them bigger and brighter, and that having those people in charge is an extremely dangerous thing. And having a system that elevates those people is functionally insane. But you’re not one of those people. So I’m wondering how did you cope with the energetics of it? And then have you any insight on a larger scale? How do we help these people not to be afraid and therefore raging in a system that is breaking down?
Alan: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s the really smart question. Because I think that’s in the end why we had to leave. Like, there’s four of us and we all get paid the same. And we are to all intents and purposes, equal. As in each one of us is as important as the other. But my job is to lead, which is to point a direction. And you can’t lead if you know no one will follow. And so it was absolutely clear to me that if we did not leave the club, I was going to be stood there on my own. And that is not an act of leadership, that’s an act of folly. And so it wasn’t like me saying we should leave. It was me looking into the faces of the three people I work with and saying they can’t stay. And it was probably true of me, except for there wasn’t a mirror. And in large part that’s because we were absolutely hated. And that meant that there’s no good faith. Which means that no matter what you do, it will be assumed that you have done something on purpose to annoy them. So recently there was a meeting that we hosted here and it was only a matter of seconds before people were on Facebook going, Oh, now Slung Low are doing this.
Alan: Oh my goodness. I mean, all we said was, Would you like a room? And that’s because we’re not real for them. We’re not real. We’re a cipher. We represent something. And the thing we represent, it’s not the council it’s power. It’s authority. So if you ask them, they’d say, well, he’s a posh lad. Well, I’m not, but it doesn’t matter whether I am or not, because I am to them. We’re not your standard theatre company. We are not we are not dripping with cultural capital and cultural status in the traditional sense. I don’t deny any of my privilege, I’m just saying that as a theatre directors go, I’m pretty basic and pretty practical. Whereas for them I just literally represent the kind of velvet curtain and that sort of, you know, it doesn’t matter whether I went to Oxford or Cambridge or not. I didn’t, but for them I did. You know, I am in place for them and they can very easily hate me.
Alan: And the same was true for my colleagues, especially the women, would often come in for what is just basic bullying. And if you would say to them they would pride themselves on being men of good manners. They were forever saying, we can’t do anything. I’m like, No, you can do anything you want. You just have to take the consequences. They were always trying to sell food and they didn’t have a licence for food. And I’m like, If you sell this food and someone gets sick, the club will close. And they were like, Now you’re stopping us selling food. I’m not stopping you selling food. I’m just telling you the consequences of someone getting sick. So that really helps. It really helps to understand they don’t hate you. They don’t know anything about you. They don’t hate you. I think that for as long as we could, we turn the other cheek. For as long as we could I would be like, Yeah, suck it up, suck it up. Fine, fine. We’ve got lots of cultural capital to burn, got lots of privilege to burn. And then at some point you realise that that whole process is turning you into someone you don’t want to be. And then you’ve got to stop. And then I think everyone was really surprised by how hard edged I became. They were like, What? And I’m like, Well, yeah, because now you’ve just made my friends cry, so we are going to leave and you are going to take it in the teeth and that’s life.
Manda: Yeah. And you’re with the Royal Marines Reserve. It’s not that you’re incapable of being quite grounded, I imagine, when you really need to.
Alan: I’m Royal Engineers Reserve.
Manda: Oh, I’m sorry.
Alan: No, it’s fine. Just literally a marine will appear in the window. But yeah, I mean, I’m a reservist with the Royal Engineers, and so I am capable when needs be, of planting my feet and telling people the truth. And that’s really important, because I think, you know, the two women that you cited as examples of leaders are both capable of being absolutely strong and immovable when they need to be, because that is one of the things of leadership. That doesn’t mean that should be your only mode. And I think that it’s used too often in certain circumstances. But we’d reach the end and actually at some point the responsibility was a duty of care for my team, not for them. So the energetics are really hard. I think it has absolutely changed us. We moved out five months ago, we’re still moving through the consequences of what it is to be shouted out for that long, and what it does to you and what it does to your heart and what it does to your risk taking and all of that stuff. And I have sympathy. So like I don’t come from the background that they think I do. And I absolutely know men who were promised things and they have had that promise rescinded on. With good reason. Lots of the time.
Manda: The promises were not valid, but that doesn’t matter because they mattered to them.
Alan: They were promised. They were told work, work, work a lifetime. And then you’re going to sit here in this bar at that table and you’re going to talk your shit. Now, people have come along and said it’s like you can’t say anything anymore. And my response to that is always, what is it you want to say? And they never say anything. They never do because it’s so foul. The thing that’s coming out of their mouth that they know it’s wrong. The thing that you can’t say is so bad, you won’t say it to the one person in the room who you think might disagree with you? You don’t care what I think. Why don’t you say it? You don’t say it because you know it’s despicable.
Manda: How do we change this, Alan? How do we help them to not need to say that?
Alan: You don’t. It’s done. It’s a lifetime. These men are in their sixties and seventies. But that doesn’t mean you give up.
Manda: Do we have to just wait for what they call demographic churn? Because I don’t know we’ve got that long.
Alan: No, because the argument isn’t. So I’m arguing with whoever it is, and I’m arguing that they’re going to treat the bar staff with more respect. I’m never going to change his mind, but everybody’s watching me and I have a choice. If you No, listen to me. This is a workplace. She’s a woman, you’re going to treat her with respect. And for years I did, over and over again, I had these arguments and I never got anywhere with them. But I never expected to. I’m being watched. I’m setting the standard of behaviour that I will expect. And who am I? I’m absolutely no-one. But if we all set the standard of behaviour that we’d expect, we’d end up with something different. And, and absolutely, in places like Holbeck, you get a tall poppy syndrome where the minute you put your head above the parapet, you get smacked. Well, that is one way of checking your privilege, right? Like, who do we want to go first over that? Well, that’s what God made me for. I’m bloody huge and I’m straight and male and all the things that are challenging and problematic. That’s fine. I can’t change any of those but what I can do is I can go first. I can be the one that you send to fight that guy over and over again. There is a limit to that. And the limit we literally found, the limit where it starts to eat your soul. But up until that point, that is my job. We will not change those people’s minds, but we will be watched by people.
Manda: Okay, So the greater community learns a better way of behaving and more emotional literacy, perhaps, hopefully by watching you being emotionally literate.
Manda: Okay. That’s worth banking. Right? In the time we have left, you left the club. You’ve opened these new places. Tell us about Leeds 2023 opening and then where you are now.
Alan: So the year of culture was, because we got thrown out of Europe, we were going to become the European capital of culture and then we Brexited, and that’s challenging. But Leeds decided to do it anyway, which is the most Leeds thing I’ve ever heard in my life. It was absolutely hysterical. They just declared themselves to be the non European capital of culture and it’s run by a brilliant woman called Kully Thiari, who used to be in charge of the National Theatre of Wales and and in Doncaster before that. And it’s a year of a year of culture, as you would expect if you’ve ever been to any of those, just like Hull and Coventry, there is a community programme.
Manda: Glasgow did it once in my youth.
Alan: Glasgow did it. Yeah, absolutely. And it is doing all the things that you can’t do otherwise. So Leeds is really blessed that it’s got lots of great cultural institutions, but they tend to take up the bandwidth. Whereas Leeds 2023 has come along and said, Why don’t we do all these other things that we don’t normally have time to do, which is great. And I was the co-director of the opening ceremony, which was called the Awakening, which was announced a hundred days before New Year’s Day. And it was a really simple offer, which was there was to be a great concert of readings and music from the best of the city. And the only problem was you couldn’t buy a ticket. You could only get a ticket if you submitted a piece of art to Leeds 2023, in any format and any style. And then all the tickets would be drawn by way of a ballot. Now, just by complete luck, this is a complete coincidence, the number of people who entered was the same as the number of tickets available. So everybody who entered got a ticket. And so they went along on the 7th of January to Headingley Stadium, which is a big rugby stadium. And there was this huge stage built with this runway and these big screens. Leeds hasn’t seen anything like it in one of their sporting arenas. And there began a kind of relatively traditional but rather joyful evening of readings and poems, right.
Alan: And songs that celebrated the best. But they all had a twist. So we had Tub Thumping by Chumbawamba, but instead of Pete Postlethwaite at the beginning we had Davina De Campo. Chumbawamba didn’t play but Hope and Social and the orchestra from Opera North did. So you ended up with this big swirling kind of great new rendition. We had dancers in wheelchairs and carnival dancers and eight year old kids playing I Predict a Riot by the Kaiser Chiefs that transformed into this carnival version. And the poet laureate wrote a new poem. And it was great. There were some brilliant rappers and some great poets. There’s this brilliant poet called Testament and Denmarc who did this amazing kind of tour of Leeds through this epic poem, and it was great. And Gabby Logan and Sanchez Payne were the hosts and they came out and in all the speeches, they made these big speeches about cultural democracy and co-creation and just all the good stuff. And then right at the very end, Corinne Bailey Rae, who’s the sort of multi Grammy Award winning like famous daughter of the city, came out and she sang her most famous song, which is great. And then she started her second most famous song.
Alan: And right in the middle of that, all the screens went off. Everything went off. All the sound, everything went off. And then the BBC breaking news came on and the presenter said, I’m so sorry to interrupt the concert, but we have to go now to the river Ayr. And now we’re in a helicopter above the river Ayr and there’s lights moving in the river. It’s dark, and then out of the river burst a giant brick Man. So a man made of brick and debris from the bottom of the river. And he roars and he shakes off the bricks. And he becomes a body of light. Like the Internet stood up and he shouts that he is the sleeping giant of leads. He’s the promise of the city that has been unkept. And he’d come to night to do what was necessary. And then he exploded into 1000 shards of light and the screens all went dark and the lights came up on Corinne Bailey Rae, who looked at the audience and said, Don’t worry, I knew he was coming. I knew he’d come tonight, let’s welcome him. And then above the stadium in the sky, the face of the giant appeared kind of 100 metres high, a face made up of light. And then the giant spoke to Corinne Bailey Rae and they had an argument about cultural democracy. So the giant has appeared above us in the stadium and it’s a huge face, kind of 100 metres high and he declares that he’s the promise of the city, the city hasn’t done enough to keep the kind of promises. A huge giant, the potential of so much more.
Alan: And he’s come tonight to deal with things. And Corrine Bailey Rae, God love her, in front of 10,000 people in a rugby stadium says, What are you talking about? Like, I knew you’d come tonight. I knew. Of course Leeds is a massive city, of course, with huge promise. And I know we can do more if we trust in ourselves. Why else do you think I filled the stadium full of artists? And the giant, bless him, up there is all confused and he’s like, what do you mean? She said, Well, everybody here is an artist. They all got in tonight to watch this show by making a piece of art. And the giant finds this so delightful that he starts to laugh. And as he laughs, he disintegrates into kind of hundreds of shooting stars. And the audience on the way in had been given these plastic cones, these weird plastic things, and just said, Hold on to them, you’ll know what to do. And as the giant falls from the sky, all the cones light up in the colours of the giant and Corinne Bailey Rae is like, look, look what we did on day one. Can you imagine how great it’s going to be on day 365? Here’s to Leeds 2023.
Alan: And fireworks burst into the sky. But what was amazing was we’d written that a year ago and then it happened. And I can’t tell you how many people told us it wouldn’t happen. Like the BBC actively laughed in our face when we said we were going to do this. And then it happened. Like we actually did it in front of ten thousand people and no one had ever got drones to talk to an actor and have a dialogue, like no one had ever done that before. So we pulled it off and it was brilliant. But the thing that I’d never thought about, which is just joyful, is all these people holding these plastic cones, when they lit up, they went nuts, mate. They just started cheering and jumping up and down and just being like, Yeah!! And the metaphor, the kind of long extended metaphor over 100 days just made total sense to them. And they were like, I’m the giant, I’m the giant now! And they just started dancing. Just so, so chuffed that people got it so quickly. Storytelling on that scale is really hard, because you don’t get to do it very often and when you do, you never get to see it. You only get to draft it.
Manda: And nobody had ever done it and you missed it. I mean, because you couldn’t test that, could you? You couldn’t do practice runs or everyone would see it.
Alan: It was amazing. And we had a brilliant drone company who do these things all over the world. But even they said, like, no one’s ever tried to do this before, and yet we nailed it. And God love her, I mean, Corinne Bailey Rae is an established star and for her to risk it. She had a device in her ear because it was the only way it could be timed, otherwise it didn’t work. And so that was really exciting. It went down really well. People really, really enjoyed the metaphor. It was really good.
Manda: So that was six, seven weeks ago. How is the momentum continuing? What’s happening with it?
Alan: Well, I mean, Leeds 2023 continues. I mean, the team there are brilliant. So I was just brought in for the opening and I’ll be brought in for the closing.
Manda: You’re going to have another giant? You can’t tell us, can you? We need to talk to you next year after the close.
Alan: I have no idea. Because we didn’t know whether it would work, but it did work, which was brilliant. The success of that leaves you some really good problems. So you’re like, Well, how do you follow that? It’s very different doing something at the beginning of the year when everyone is quite cynical but hopeful, to the end of the year where either they’re going to be completely over it, or they’re going to be like, Why don’t we do this every year? Which in itself is a problem, because we know that these things come from from the fact that we don’t do them every year. They’re title, aren’t they? But the year continues. I think the really good thing about Leeds 2023 is its focus on community. So each of the wards, there are 33 wards here, have their own program, have their own champion. And I think that it’s a really good example of how leadership changes the meaning and content of a thing. So there are lots of these years and they’re very different. But with colour you get both the understanding for the need of spectacle, of Ambition. That actually part of the job of the arts is to imagine other ways of being and then tell that story so loudly and largely that it can’t be denied. And so I think for an incredibly corporate and often commercial city like Leeds, to have given away all the tickets for that concert really troubled people. That then it was part of the fiction as well, really pissed them off, because they were like, Oh no, we can’t even… Because we said from the very beginning, from how we announce this to all the way to the end, is the show. So there is no such thing as a creative decision and a non creative decision, where normally people like me get ushered out of the room. No, it’s all creative. And that’s really challenging for the organisation. All of a sudden the artists had to be across the comms, the language, and they’re like, ‘No, butt out, this is my job’. Well, it actually isn’t this time, it’s our job. Let’s do it together.
Manda: Are they happy with the result in retrospect? Do they all get it now? Would they do it differently next time?
Alan: I think there’s no denying the show was incredibly successful. The press was amazing. The audience feedback was brilliant. And if anything the only problem you had was like local politicians saying, We should do this again. You’re like, It cost a fortune, don’t do it again. But I think doing things differently is really hard, right? This is the whole point of what you do. It doesn’t matter whether people are old men, you know, in the working men’s club who sat on the committee. There’s someone on the committee who joined the club before the Second World War and has been on the committee for as long as I’ve been alive.
Alan: That’s a lot. Right? And you come along and you say his big thing was he didn’t want there to be a lift because we’d never had a lift. Why do we need a lift? And I was like, Dude, you’re literally in a wheelchair. Well, I’ll get helped up the stairs. It doesn’t matter. The change is entirely positive and for the good.
Manda: And legally required.
Alan: Don’t even get me started on that. But it’s just that it’s change. They’ll fight it. And so, you know, even in people who work in the arts who you would expect to be reasonably progressive and positive and everything else, they’re still like, no, we don’t like it like this. No, stop it, stop it. So our big thing here is everything is pay what you decide, right? Which just means basically that you give it away to people who haven’t got any money and you expect other people to engage a little bit. It drives people potty. Just tell me what it’s worth! I’m like…
Manda: I know I’ve tried that. I had more emails that week from the pay what you decide. People going, but I don’t know, give me a clue. Give me an idea. This, this. What would you like?
Alan: Change is hard, right? Change is hard. Even just for us, like the whole point of us is something that’s constantly evolving. We run a food bank, we run a football club, we run a pub, we run a warehouse. We are just trying to be useful and kind within the belief that being beyond the market is a privilege. And that’s exhausting for us. You know, everyone’s like, could we not just have a couple of months where we don’t try and change the world? I’m like, Well, we could, we could, but we’ll be bored. And if we’re going to do that, then actually we get paid the average wage of the nation here. Everyone gets paid the same. If you want me to do less, I’m going to want more money. If you want me to behave like a normal artistic director of a small producing theatre company outside of London, I’m going to want more cash. I’m kept here by the fact that life is hard and challenging and satisfying, that keeps me in my seat. If you’re going to take that away from me then I want more cash.
Manda: But we’re not taking it away from you Alan. It’s amazing. And I think that given that I’ve held you in your seat for a lot longer than I had intended to, was there anything else that you would like to say to the assembled audience of the podcast? Then say it now. But that felt to me like a really good end.
Alan: Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.
Manda: Well, thank you so much for taking the time and long may leeds and Holbeck and Slung Low prosper. Thank you. So there we go. That’s it for another week. I sincerely hope the sound files all stitched together well. We had some interesting technical difficulties towards the end. This was the second recording with Alan, because the first one had even more technical difficulties, and I can’t tell you how grateful I am that he made the time. He is genuinely one of the busiest people I know, and it feels to me that everything that he does is incredibly valuable. So I am beyond grateful that we had the time to talk to him today. And I hope that his integrity, his commitment, his standing in the rain-ness has impacted you as deeply as it has impacted me. Listening to Pooran Desai last week and his sense that time really is running out, has given me a greater sense of urgency even than I had already. And then here’s Alan, who treats every day as urgent. He gets that we make the change by being the change. And it’s so inspiring. And then the question for each of us, or certainly for me and I am hoping for you, is what is it that I can do to make the most of the time that I have? To be the change that needs to happen in my community.
Manda: What can I do to be kind and be useful? So I leave you with that thought. We will be back next week with another conversation as ever.
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