Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Arts in the Recession: Creating a Scene

Times are hard and the public purse is empty. Arts organisations that have previously relied on subsidy to stay afloat might find they have to throw away their water wings and swim for their lives. We on The Blah Blah Blah Show are planning to do our bit by publicising much of what's happening on the local scene and the best of the great beyond. But when I was searching for inspiration for the first of my series on arts in the recession, I didn't have to look far - across the Phonic desk, in fact, to my co-host.

I didn't see her at first. While I survey distant lands, Rachel McCarthy is, shall we say, more grounded. But in under a year of activity, she's made quite a bang on the local poetry scene and now she's getting national recognition, the Poetry Society recently naming Exeter's Stanza the most active group nationwide. How has she done it and what can others learn from her example?

It's not that Exeter was doing badly when she arrived. My first introduction to the world of poetry activists was at a small press festival in the Phoenix Arts Centre in the early nineties when magazine editors and publishers gathered together from all over the country, swapped their publications and even sold a few items to wandering poets or unsuspecting members of the public. We have the monthly Uncut series at the Phoenix's Black Box that combines guest poet and open mic and - in various incarnations - has been going for a couple of decades now. The Language Club in Plymouth runs to a similar format, and a carload or two often makes the trip between Devon's two cities. The Wondermentalist performance poetry cabaret was born in Totnes but now holds regular events in Exeter. Tall Lighthouse still hold occasional readings in the Picturehouse while Andy Brown's creative writing MA at the university means we get regular visiting writers of international repute. The Poetry School holds regular courses and workshops at various Exeter venues while several huddles of poets meet at each other's houses to share their work and wine. Exeter is also the home of Shearsman Books, one of our country's most innovative poetry publishers, with an international reputation and list. And poets got to Phonic FM before us - check out Waves With Words every Wednesday morning and hear their interview with Rachel on youtube.

But there was room for a little one, and some of us began to notice a fresh face among the us ageing hacks, offering her card and hustling for email addresses. Now this was unusual behaviour for a poet. We generally like to serve an apprenticeship before daring to open our mouths, let alone taking on the organiser role. But email and the internet has given us new opportunities to gather together like minds - setup a website and mailing list and you're away. They haven't replaced the leaflet and poster, but they've probably had more impact. And while the press and radio - especially alternative local community radio, of course - have their place, it's targetting the likely suspects that has most impact, that and word-of-mouth.

Of course, you have to have something worth marketing, otherwise you'll just get added to spam lists, soon forgotten. Excite got going with a launch event featuring Greta Stoddart reading from 'Salvation Jane', then shortlisted for the Costa Prize. Choosing the Devon and Exeter Institution as a venue didn't just add credibility to the enterprise, it has real atmosphere, its walls lined with leather bound volumes, its armchairs - and some of their occupants - stuffed with horsehair.

There are three things we don't talk about on The Blah Blah Blah Show - politics, religion and money. So I don't know all the secrets of the Excite treasury. But Rachel is a canny northerner - and former bookie - so I'm prepared to take a few bets. If you offer a performer a set fee, you've got to be prepared to make a loss. Now losing grant money is one thing, but shelling out from your own pocket is quite another. So if you offer a performer a cut of the takings, the risk is split with the added bonus that they are encouraged to promote the event, not just you. Given Rachel has put on a series of more-or-less monthly readings, I'm guessing the percentage approach is one she's adopted. While we're on finances, you've got to get the ticket price right for the night, in the fiver to tenner range depending on the box office appeal of your guest. The good ones will sell a few books to boost their earnings. Open mic is a blessing and a curse - think open audition for the poetry X factor - but probably a necessity for all but the best known main readers - they don't just turn-up, they even pay and often bring a friend or two. Besides, it's how even well known performers cut their teeth and sometimes try out new material.

I'm all for added incentives. Wine, for example. If there's no bar, certain poetry lovers will reconvene at the nearest pub, their devotion to alcohol even greater than their love of the spoken and written word. Certain venues have their own alcohol facilities, of course. Speak to them nicely and they might agree to give you a room for nothing on the understanding your punters will be theirs. Poets and poetry fans are heavy drinkers, that's what you need to tell them. And being other-worldly sorts, none of them drive. But for unlicensed venues, you'll have to provide the booze with the ticket price, a donations jar placed accusingly nearby. And truth is, for every wino there's a couple of water drinkers and all those two-for-the-price-of-one offers on cheap plonk help while they're still legal.

Rachel has been especially innovative when it comes to matching venues to events. That weather girl cheek has got her a long way. If one of her friends has a space big enough for an audience, she's probably filled it by now, and if she's not asked you yet, she'll be calling soon. Whether she crosses their palms with silver, I've no idea, but shops and galleries depend on footfall and getting known so why not offer to get a crowd through their door in return for a rent-free room. The Paragon Gallery has hosted both readings and workshop nights. Her partner in crime Piran Bishop has been persuaded to open up his studio in the recent team-up with Overstep Books. And she's held regular open mike nights at Otto Retro - everything is on sale including the chairs you sit on, and the glasses your drink is served in - the most recent being a Liv Torc book launch reviewed elsewhere on this blog.

The Excite brand is already branching out. Blogs have their place, and Rachel is a blogger in her own right. Its first poetry competition was recently won by David E. Butler. And then there's The Blah Blah Blah Show, of course, the first radio arts magazine to be presented by a one host under five years old and the other under five foot tall...

No comments:

Post a Comment