Conspiracy by Barrel Organ. Photo: Richard Davenport
This year’s Artists to Watch are Barrel Organ Theatre, YESYESNONO, Rachael Young and Harry Clayton-Wright, a group making diverse work across the theatre, live art, performance art and movement spectrum. All of the artists make the point that definitions of genre and scale are tricky, not always clear cut, and ever changing.
YESYESNONO is artist Sam Ward and producer Rhian Davies, and they make work that is “at the more experimental end of the theatre ecology,” Ward tells me. “If you look at the artists who influence us, people like Gobsquad, Forced Entertainment, Sleepwalk Collective, they are more on that side of things. We’re definitely interested in being more on the live art side of theatre. But I feel like every show I make changes completely where we sit.”
Harry Clayton-Wright's show, Sex Education, is "an autobiographical theatre piece about how we learn about sex and how it shapes us in life, specifically in regards to the way our parents teach us about sex. I wanted to do the Fringe to see what would happen and where I fit. It’s an explicit show but it’s also accessible and funny, which I’m very proud of. So I think it straddles those lines. Ask me again where it fits into a wider ecology in a couple months when the dust has settled?"
Barrell Organ as a company are more theatre oriented. Director Dan Hutton says: “We’re a company which makes plays – we create text in a devised way, we collaboratively work on a text that ends up being written by one person. That’s the way we’ve made all of our other shows and is the way we will continue to make work. We make small ‘p’ political work which speaks to contemporary themes about culture and politics, and which foregrounds the personal or the emotional experience within that and tries to understand the link between a personal politics and a larger politics.
"We're interested in the relationship between form and content"
“We’re interested in the relationship between form and content, and the way in which form can reflect the thing that we’re talking about. We’ve found that we fit into an odd space between a couple of worlds where we’re not fully devised or clowning, we’re not new writing. There’s something at the cross section of all of those things that’s our work. Because we’re a collective of 12 people, the work we make is in the middle of a Venn diagram of different tastes and approaches. That means our work is quite specific and particular to us – although it’s also ever changing.”
For artist Rachael Young, her work “is inherently interdisciplinary, maybe it has something to do with how I have to navigate the world; I often feel like I have to shift my identify depending on my context. Maybe it’s also about setting myself challenges, always searching for new ways to push my practice forward and discover different ways to explore the world we live in. OUT has won awards before for dance, but I didn’t set out to make a dance piece. I simply set out to try working with a new set of parameters – to use my body and stay clear of verbal language. It felt like what I wanted to say needed to be expressed through the body.”
Different though the work may be, all of these artists are all grappling with some of the same challenges. For many emerging or early-career artists, there are questions of scale. How do you move from making work for a 50 seat venue to one with 150 or 400 seats?
Harry Clayton-Wright in Sex Education. Photo: Greg Bailey
“We would still consider ourselves emerging,” says Ward, “in that we’re making small scale work. We’re yet to have a commission – I think that’s an important benchmark. We’re making work with support in kind from theatres and Arts Council England. However, we’ve not yet had upfront money from a theatre who want us to make a show for them for a longer run than a couple of days.
“It’s a really knotty conversation that we’re having at the moment as a company, about next steps. I think part of it has to come not only from the opportunities that we chase or are presented to us, but also the kind of work that we make. The Accident Did Not Take Place, the show we’ve taken to the Edinburgh Fringe this year, which is my favourite show we’ve made, is not the kind of show that can go and do three weeks in a London venue. It’s just not.
“We’re having a conversation about our next show. If we’re going to make a show that is still a YESYESNONO show, but we could realistically see doing a longer run, what would it look like? We’re having conversations with theatres who are interested in commissioning our next piece, and who would then want to have a hand in making it more accessible to mainstream audiences. At first that felt a bit weird, but actually, I would quite like to have someone offering to think about how to make my work more accessible. Otherwise I get really stuck in my own head.”
"We'd love to be making the work that we want to make at various different scales"
For Barrel Organ, bigger is not necessarily better, but there are similar questions about the scale of work and the length of the run. Hutton explains: ”Longterm, we’d love to be making the work that we want to make at various different scales. And yes, that means moving up to midscale work, which we’re currently working towards. But that’s not to say that in a few years we won’t do a solo show. We’re keen to make sure that we’re fluid, and not just get to the stage where we’re like, right, this is it, we’re a mid-scale company and we’ve got to make all our shows at that scale, or that everything has to be bigger than the thing before.
“Our current show Conspiracy is definitely bigger than the things we’ve made before, and has had a creative team in a way we’ve not had before. Things like Untapped [an award scheme run by New Diorama Theatre and Underbelly to support three companies to do a full run at the Fringe] have really helped us to think slightly bigger, and we’re getting longer runs. These things feel important as stepping stones, even if the work isn’t necessarily bigger. We want to build our audience, so that when we do make that step to make that larger show, we’ve got an audience for it.”
For Clayton-Wright, the labels come slightly easier: "I definitely see my solo work as early career. Sex Education is my first theatre show and I knew I had to do Edinburgh to show people what my solo work looked like. Having said that, I’ve been involved in international touring cabaret productions for five years where I’ve performed as part of an ensemble, so through that I feel like I’ve gotten to grips with this industry and how it operates through that experience. But I was aware that it was time to take the leap and commit to pushing and continuing to make more of my own work. I’m both new and old at the very same time."
Making work at the Fringe can be difficult in its own right because of the sheer volume of shows that co-exist in Edinburgh in August. Ward muses: “ I don’t actually know how well suited this show is to the festival setting, a setting where your audiences are seeing lots of shows in one day. It doesn’t give people space to process. I know when I watch a show I get the most out of it when I have the space to be contemplative afterwards, to decompress and to let it drift over me. There are definitely other shows I’ve seen here that I wish I could see just in a theatre as a standalone. I’m not getting everything I want to get from it because of the setting we’re in.”
"I’m exhausted. I’ve never done my shows for such a long run"
Even with support (Barrel Organ are the winners of the Untapped Award, YESYESNONO are a Pleasance Edinburgh Associate, all of these companies are British Council Artists to Watch), it can be a long slog – a marathon, a Young puts it. She describes the Fringe so far as “a complete and utter whirlwind”, but says that she’s got things out of doing the full run that she wasn’t expecting. “I’m exhausted. I’ve never done my shows for such a long run and it’s been interesting to see what happens to your body and your mind. But it’s been amazing, I'm thinking about all the stuff I’ve done since I got here, and there’s been some really great support for the work. My expectations have been surpassed in that way, but the Fringe still feels like a marathon, you have to hold your nerve and keep going.
“It’s really interesting because OUT has been the sort of underdog of my shows. I made it a while ago, before I made NIGHTCLUBBING. When people get it, they really get it and really enjoy it. Seeing that has been really exciting. People have said they haven’t seen anything like it before. It asks a lot of people, it’s entertaining but it requires audiences to do some thinking. People have been reflective and really got on board with that. I never anticipated the response that it’s had.”
Tiredness aside, as we approach the end of the Fringe, all of these artists are thinking about their next steps. What are the biggest barriers facing them as they try to make new, bigger, more ambitious work?
"Finance," says Clayton-Wright. "I’ve self-produced this run at the Fringe and have lived at home for six months to be able to afford to do this. It’s an expensive exercise and it’s not an accessible model. In terms of the next steps, I think honest conversations, regulations and an increase in support to encourage and foster artists who wouldn’t be able to be seen here at the Fringe otherwise."
Rachael Young's OUT
“I think it’s about sustainability,” says Young. “I want to be able to make more ambitious work and work with new collaborators, but that all requires more infrastructure and support. In the past it’s just been me and a producer, but now I’m thinking about how I make work and whether I can work more with partner organisations, to share some of the load. There are lots of schemes out there for emerging artists but not so many for early-mid career artists, so it’s about finding the support to realise potential projects and to make the kind of work I want to make.”
Hutton agrees with the point about sustainability: “The difficulty for a company like us is that we’re constantly working hand-to-mouth. There’s always an Arts Council application for the next thing and the next thing. You’re constantly thinking in six-week or 12-week blocks. I think we need something where companies of our kind of scale, who’ve made some shows and established that they’re making good work, can apply for pots of cash. Not at the same scale as a National Portfolio Organisation (NPO), and without the logistical asks that come with a NPO status. Perhaps £20k or £30k a year to support your baseline costs. Something like that would be completely life changing for us.”
Ward agrees, and adds that venues, which often hold the power in these relationships, have to trust artists: “There’s definitely an issue around trust, but I think it goes both ways; a lot of artists don’t feel that venues trust them, but also, a lot of artists don’t trust venues. It works both ways. Sometimes you see a show by a company where they’ve just emerged with one show and got a massive commission off the back of it. You see the second show and think, whoa, they’ve been given too much too quickly and they’re doing too much too soon.”
There’s a lot to think about for these artists as they finish their Fringe runs and think about next steps, but with the conversations that have been started, there are exciting things to come. Watch this space.