Stan's Cafe on work-in-progress

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Public work-in-progress showings are a blight on the contemporary theatre landscape, they rarely help artists, regularly confuse audiences and serve principally as a political slight of hand to divert attention from the parlous state of touring theatre in the UK. Here’s how it goes.

I believe that when you open a show you should have busted every gut you have in order to make it as good as you can for that opening night audience. Inevitably seeing your new show with an audience watching it helps clarify your thinking and will prompt tweaks and changes. Occasionally there will be problematic scenes or sections in shows that resisted all efforts to fix them and are a bit cobbled together for the opening night. These will continue to be worked on after the opening night. This is why companies with decent long runs will advertise preview performances to which reviewers are not invited and for which ticket prices are reduced. You know that if you are attending a preview performance the theatre gem may not be as polished as it will eventually be, but you have paid a little less and you know your performance will have the full attention of the whole creative team, including actors wired on early days adrenaline.

Work-in-progress showings are different, they are not even trying to be finished and their degree of ‘not finished’ can varied wildly; this is where my problems with the concept start. The work-in-progress gives the artists the ultimate get-out clause, they can’t be held to account because the thing they present is not finished. At the same time the audience can’t know how close the show is supposed to be to being finished. Rather like a docudrama in which it’s difficult to distinguish the ‘docu’ from the ‘drama’, so in the work-in-progress it’s difficult to split what’s the ‘work’ and what’s the ‘progress’. What are the elements that the artist is committed to and material is there as a temporary measure to hold things together? It’s unsatisfactory from every angle.

There is an argument that audiences like works-in-progress as they give them an ‘insight into the work’, presumably in the same way sketches by Da Vinci are beautiful in themselves and then when seen in relation to finished paintings help us appreciate the formal choices taken by the great master. Frankly we’re deluded if we believe this, audiences would much prefer seeing great work finished.

There is another argument that works-in-progress help an artist develop their art. There may a modicum of truth in this. We like to make shows in two blocks of time with a decent gap in between. This allows us to play with ideas, mull them over, maybe build a set or gather key props and then make the finished show. We feel no desire to share the first bit of working with an audience, maybe some people do.

The notion that an audience will provide valuable feedback at a work in progress isn’t my experience. I think this suggestion is overhyped and it’s a form of fake consultation. Historically we’ve had to do two work-in-progress showings both for contractual reasons and on both occasions the audience feedback was well off the mark. Naturally audience like the superficial material we’d used to hold the presentation together and they didn’t rate the material we knew would become the real heart of the show. This isn’t a sleight on those audiences the superficial stuff did a job for a brief sketch show but you would want an hour of it and the knotty, complicated material would only display its riches after more work and when shown on a larger canvas. It’s not the audience’s job to see these things it’s ours, why are we asking them to do our job for us?

There is the suggestion that works-in-progress help develop new talent but I think this is misleading and that in truth works-in-progress can damage new talent. Having a good idea requires a certain skill, which is demonstrable in a work-in-progress; developing and extending that good idea, weaving it together with other good ideas and resolving the relationships between these good extended ideas in order to make a full-length show requires a set of skills beyond those demonstrable in a work-in-progress. Given we have already seen that audiences may well respond best to the less interesting but more superficially rewarding material in a work-in-progress it is easy to imagine new artists paying more heed to this feedback than is good for their work.

Sketches may have their place when limbering up but artists only really learn the powerful lessons by taking works to completion and then starting another piece of work and taking that to completion. What helps develop new talent is making finished shows. The work-in-progress culture stands in the way of artists finishing shows in part because it encourages making shows via artificial ‘stages of development’. You may get showcasing opportunities or support a 15 minute version and have to clear some bar in order to gain support to make a 30 minute version and if you qualify with that you may then be invited to make your full version. This is crazy, it’s like asking a writer to produce a short story then turn that into a novella and then turn that into a novel. They are different forms.

So if work-in-progress showings are such a dreadful idea why to they appear to be so popular?

I think politically it suits lots of institutions to encourage the work-in-progress approach for lots of reasons all centred around the fact that touring theatre is getting increasingly difficult, there are loads of companies that want to do it and the sums don’t add up.

For the first seven years of Stan’s Cafe we made one new studio theatre show each year and toured it (a bit). With fewer touring opportunities and still loads of us mad keen on making theatre we’re faced with the challenge of an oversupply of theatre unless we choke off supply. How do we choke off supply? Slow them down, if they make shows in three steps taking three years that’s supply cut by a third. Works-in-progress aren’t expected to tour, which is great news as touring gigs are almost impossible to find. Works-in-progress aren’t expected to have great audiences because they are niche so that gets us all off another hook and we can charge low ticket prices to lure audiences in because the work isn’t finished. Works-in-progress allow venues with very limited resources to be seen to support lots of companies with small fees or in-kind support. In short this method of working allows everyone to keep very busy not producing very much which is useful because demand is so slack.

Obviously I’m not criticising companies for being part of a work-in-progress sharing, it’s often the only support or outlet available for them, their only chance to be seen, to sell their ideas and show what they can do.

Please don’t think that I believe the people promoting the work-in-progress culture are evil or even conniving, I know loads of them, they are lovely, they are highly motivated and committed to the future of theatre, they are doing what they think is the best thing in a bad situation. Sometimes they could be more transparent about the state of the work being shown and sometimes they need be reminded about fair pricing for audiences and fair rewards for the artists but I don’t think anyone’s out to rip anyone else off. These are rational answers to a tough question – what to do about theatre?

Before I put forward some answers it would be good to bat away a number of the accusations of hypocrisy that must be closing in on me already.

Accusation – you’ve done works-in-progress.As mentioned above Stan’s Cafe have shared two public works in progress – on both occasions we wanted to shift the timing of a funded project and as this was moving it into the ‘next’ financial year we were obliged to show something in ‘this’ financial year, the work-in-progress did that job.

Accusation – you said you learnt stuff from the Good and True work-in-progress.Yes we were so terrified of showing an unfinished piece we made it as funny as we could so people wouldn’t hate us, it turned out we liked the show being funny so we kept it that way. However, we didn’t learn this from Question and Answer audience feedback, we learnt it from their laughter. The Be Proud of Me work-in-progress taught us nothing.

Accusation – I’ve see you at Pilot Night.Yes, I have and do occasionally attend Pilot Night the West Midlands based work-in-progress showcase and yes, I do enjoy it. There is value in seeing lots of companies in a short space of time, but I would much rather see finished shows made by these same companies.

Accusation – you’re going to be a judge for BE Festival 2017.Yes, this year I am going to be a judge for BE Festival and this does make me complicit in some ‘stages-of-development’ machine, so I am about to become a hypocrite but I’m not one yet. I’m going to have to see if as a judge I’m asked to assess the shows I see or what the shows I see could be or even what the longer versions of the shows would have been if I hadn’t seen a cut down version of them – there could be lots of rows.

Accusation – you didn’t mention Come Together and you did that at a Pilot Night. Ah, now that’s where you show your total ignorance and lack of research. Stan’s Cafe did perform Come Together at Pilot Night but this wasn’t a work-in-progress and we weren’t seeking anyone’s feedback or validation, it was a finished show 10′ 30″ long.

Accusation – that’s not very long for a show!I admit it is 90 seconds shorter than The Voyage but it’s a full 6 minutes longer than It’s Your Film so there.

Accusation – you’ve promoted at least two work-in-progress series, one with mac and one with the RSC.

Wrong again, but thank you for bringing this up because this leads me to my suggestion for a solution. Let’s do away with works-in-progress and let’s just make work. If we can only afford for that work to be 20 minutes long and not tour then so be it, let’s do that but let’s make it finished.

Evidence of us putting other people’s money where our mouths are can indeed be found at mac and the RSC. With mac we helped commission and promote 8 productions for The HeXpermient these each had to be completed 20 minute long shows, they were billed as finished pieces, cheap and cheerful. With the RSC last year we helped commission 4 new finished productions each 40 minutes long for performance on the terrace outside the RST also cheap and cheerful.

My final argument for a more punk approach of making finished shows very fast and cheap before moving on rather than grinding out a piece progressively over an age comes from the back catalogue of Talking Birds. I remember in the mid 90s travelling over to Coventry to see at least two shows they’d made very, very fast and very cheaply. Now they were finished but only just and held together by raw nerve and energy – these remain not just my favourite Talking Birds shows but among of my fondest theatre memories – thank goodness they busted every gut they had to make these shows as good as they could be for the opening night with no excuses.

James Yarker, May 30 2017