Operating from a row of railway arches in Holbeck, an under-resourced district of Leeds, Slung Low is a multi-strand theatre company making outdoors work, presented where possible for free. As an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation it’s about to have its annual public subsidy raised from £100,000 to £180,000; in an average year its turnover under the lower NPO arrangement was in the region of £285,000, with additional funds received from a mixture of commissions and fundraising. The company has five full- and part-time staff, led by artistic director Alan Lane, and two advisory boards, one comprising members of the Holbeck community.
Mission: making theatre immediate, relevant and useful
Alan Lane dismisses the early years of Slung Low, from roughly 2001-8, as “woeful”, characterised by attempts to make conventional theatre that invited people “to behave exactly the same way as an audience member did 100 years ago”. The turning point came with a phase of making “vampire shows in car parks”, the resulting shift in the relationship with audiences inspiring a wholesale re-evaluation of the company’s ethos and ethics.
Another pivotal change occurred in 2010 when Slung Low acquired the HUB (Holbeck Underground Ballroom): five railway arches fitted out as rehearsal and performance spaces, with a small allotment outside. Rather than keep these resources to itself, Slung Low shares them liberally across the local community, the local theatre community, and the national theatre community, in pursuit of its mission to disassociate theatre from “Simon Callow, red fabric and £3.50 ice creams at the interval”. As Lane says: “Theatre should be immediate and sexy and political and relevant – it should be the most exciting thing anyone can do with their time.”
Working in opposition
Slung Low divides this overall mission into three intertwining strands, each operating on a principle of accessibility that is directly opposed to market economics:
1: Giving resources for free
Everything Slung Low has been able to acquire through public funding – from the HUB to vans to other equipment – it makes “immediately sharable” through a renting system, with everything available free of charge.
2: Welcoming the community
It is vital to Slung Low that the HUB is “a space where people who wouldn’t normally go to the theatre can go to the theatre and see things that they wouldn’t, couldn’t, imagine seeing”. This is achieved by being embedded in a neglected community outside Leeds city centre, offering all tickets on a pay-what-you-decide basis, making tea and coffee free and charging only £1 for beer. The programme is “what you would expect from an alternative studio anywhere in the country”, supplemented by festivals and family events.
3: Working in public space
Extending this desire to reach people who “wouldn’t necessarily think of themselves as theatre-goers”, Lane describes Slung Low’s performed work as “adventures that sit in the middle of public spaces, and that talk about that place and the concerns of those people”. In 2017 that took the form of Flood, commissioned by Hull UK City of Culture and staged in a disused dock, which spoke to anxieties related to Brexit politics and the local implications of global climate change. Previous years have seen Slung Low recruit a community cast of 137 for a retelling of Camelot in Sheffield, create a fairy camp in Stratford-upon-Avon to raise environmental questions, and stage a retelling of Moby Dick in Leeds, with all tickets distributed for free and in person at supermarket car parks across the city.
For Lane, inaccessibility – whether that’s defined as box office fees, lack of diversity in casting, or failure to think about the needs of differently abled people – is “a cruelty” that amounts to “organisational bullying”. He has Slung Low’s activities held to account by two boards: a community advisory board “made up of local residents, local artists, the local primary school teacher”, and “an all-female advisory board who reflect as full a diversity as is possible”. The unifying thread is a resistance of “the status quo: its’s so powerful that if you are neutral the status quo will drive you”.
A question of ethics
The refusal of theatre’s capitalist superstructure is reflected in Slung Low’s own structure, where all employees, Lane included, are paid the same company wage of £500 per week (in line with “the average wage of the nation”, it’s imminently rising to £540 per week), with accommodation, food and transport provided in addition where required. Working from the standpoint that “money is moral”, Lane finds it unacceptable that, for instance, a nurse might earn less than the public relations manager of a theatre – or that the producer of a theatre piece will earn more than its performer. But he also recognises a flaw in his own system: in attempting to treat everyone equally, he creates inequitable outcomes, whereby young people without financial commitments are paid the same as older people with dependents.
More positively, he believes that working “beyond the market” fosters transparency and accountability to the public purse. And he dismisses any attempt by organisations who don’t share these values and ethos to pay less than the “going price” when he/Slung Low work to commission, insisting instead on full market rates, with the surplus being used by the company to support community activities at the HUB.
The challenge of community
Lane recognises much of how Slung Low operates in the writing of John McGrath (A Good Night Out) and Ann Jellicoe (Community Plays: How to Put Them On). This is what encourages him to say: “We’re not cutting edge, but we are challenging” – and that challenge lies in how Slung Low thinks of itself as a community. Lane operates all shows himself; the company producer has a safety-boat licence and the designer is a dab hand with a forklift truck. When the company are performing, everyone involved in the production shares at least one meal together each day and sometimes all three.
“We’re not cutting edge, but we are challenging”
That goes against what Lane describes as the “managerialisation of the arts”. He argues for a wholesale change across the industry, so that theatres are “not spending any more money than you’ve got coming in”, lowering prices – not just of tickets but in the cafe – and developing a sense of “proper mission”, in particular in relation to their local communities. This is the fourth – still nascent, perhaps – strand of Slung Low’s mission: “using the privilege of being able to operate beyond the market to come up with new models and forms of thought. The long-term goal is to try and convince everyone else that they could do that too.”
Lane is aware that the theatre landscape in Leeds will change in the next few years, with redevelopment at West Yorkshire Playhouse including a new studio space: “If they programme the studio with the sort of work that we programme, we’ll stop programming that work, because it won’t be useful for us to do it.” He says this acknowledging concern for the “45% of our audience that comes from Holbeck”, who wouldn’t necessarily travel to the Playhouse to see the same performances.
In terms of Slung Low’s own theatre work, he hopes to have the opportunity to create a mystery play for his home city, but to do so in a way that is “cruelty free”, and as such unlikely to be in relationship with the major cultural players in Leeds.
The vision for the college is based on “those classic 19th-century working men’s clubs, the Women’s Institute, and models of civic education that have nothing to do with the work force or the impact on GDP. That question has limited our thinking for far too long.”
But his main ambition for the company is to focus the commitment to usefulness on “education: trying to shift cultural education, in our tiny way, beyond the market”. Plans for 2018 include transforming the HUB into “a cultural community college that is free at the point of use and pay what you decide”. He wants to offer evening and weekend classes in everything from Irish dancing to cooking to telescopes, and is receiving support from the former head of interactive learning at private education company Pearson’s – who was, by chance, a co-founder of Slung Low – in making this happen. The vision for the college is based on “those classic 19th-century working men’s clubs, the Women’s Institute, and models of civic education that have nothing to do with the work force or the impact on GDP. That question has limited our thinking for far too long.”
Photo: Sam Allard