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'Is There Any Talent Out There?'

Updated: Jul 28, 2021




If content really is king, where are the heirs apparent?


More specifically, with our theatres and music venues ‘backed up’ for a year or more with product that has built up over the pandemic, what are the prospects for any new up-and-coming writers and performers breaking through in the next twelve to twenty-four months?


It may well be the case that, with all the physical venues being rammed for the foreseeable future, ‘yet-to-emerge’ and ‘catching-uppers’ will need to move into the streaming space as the more established (and contracted) artists vacate that space to move back into the real world.


Alternatively, perhaps there will be a sudden blossoming of ‘sub-prime’ alternative venues where new work can be showcased? Every week I go to watch great unsigned music acts performed in dedicated spots such as markets and shopping precincts. Could similar platforms be found for drama and dance? It is one thing to listen to a couple of numbers and stroll on, but there would need to be substantially more infrastructure in place in order to host a three act play. But how much exactly? This is not idle ‘Luvvy’ speculation. Let’s consider the plight of physical retail that has rapidly accelerated during the pandemic, with shoppers increasingly moving online. Could retail centres claw back footfall by making their malls and precincts destinations with free or sponsored performances of new works in dedicated areas with temporary (retractable) seating? And perhaps convince John Lewis that creativity is not just for Christmas? Hotels will also be seeing huge amounts of unused capacity, with corporate travel in free-fall for the foreseeable (although whether the hotel chains’ revenue managers will actually foresee this …remains to be seen). A hotel’s marginal costs are pretty much limited to simply the cost of cleaning an occupied room, so low-budget, small-scale performances, promoted through low-cost channels and social media (potentially streaming the material live to ensure extra reach) could well result in incremental accommodation business in addition to higher in-visit revenues from F & B sales. Needless to say, for all the newly-utilized spaces there would need to be stringent Health and Safety policies in place of course. And ideally they should be a cut above Local Licensing Regulations, which may vary substantially depending on both the resources and culture of the licensing authority. And much thought, and some resources, would need to be allocated to the darker arts that can almost mystically transform a performance into an event. Because we can assume that, as with mainstream theatre, not all attendees (and probably not even the majority of attendees) will be drawn by the show in and of itself. So once a safe and economic space has been secured and staffed, enhanced and promoted, everything will be in place, no? Have I forgotten anything? (PATS CEREBRAL POCKETS). It feels like there’s something missing. That I can’t quite put my finger on…


Oh yes, that’s it… Is there any talent out there?


Or to put it another way: What would these new entrant venues, with no established supply lines need to do in order to discover and secure this high quality content? And how much is really out there anyway? Back in the mist of time I spent a Biblical seven years reading for film and television companies. During that period I discovered one great script, one great novel, and one great biography. And that was reading two or three agent-represented screenplays and books a week. But is it really that surprising? Any half century with half a dozen great writers will be hailed a ‘Golden Age.’ And how much do the underlying conditions contribute to the content? Certain periods (and places) provide engaging backdrops and readymade plot-points for characters.


The Glasgow of the ‘Hard Men.’


The post-war youth revolution of Britain in the ‘60s.


America’s perpetual wrestling match between freedom and the rule of law as successive waves of immigrants struggle to establish themselves in a new land in defiance of resident vested interests.


Indeed, will the Pandemic itself trigger a creative outpouring as the conditions expose human qualities less evident in less trying times, just as severe soil and climate conditions draw out the strongest scents and flavours from herbs, and tales of Scunthorpe self-discovery eclipse stories of Sunset Boulevard self-deception?



Where is the next National Theatre?


At the 1981 SWET Awards (they became the Oliviers in 1984) Peter Barkworth invited the audience to raise their glasses to “toast the National Theatre,” which drew a hearty round of applause. But before even the fastest and thirstiest Thesp could bring flute to lip, Peter cut in with, “Not that National Theatre, not the building on the South Bank. I mean the other National Theatre, the drama departments of the BBC and ITV that generate hundreds of hours of original new drama every year.” It was a heartfelt salute to those intrepid souls who had been tirelessly nurturing new writers (including Ian McEwan, Dennis Potter, Stephen Poliakoff, David Hare, Willy Russell, Alan Bleasdale, David Storey, Andrew Davies) and directors (including Stephen Frears, Michael Apted, Roland Joffe, Ken Loach and Mike Leigh) as well as countless numbers of up-and-coming actors and technicians …before TV pre-sales grossly inflated programme budgets and consequently greatly reduced the risk-taking on new, untried talent. Can low-budget streaming or sub-prime venues become the new National Theatre? Or will the new frontier for emerging talent be the proliferation of US-backed productions (Netflix, Disney, etc.,) produced outside the USA? This may work for our European neighbours, but will the UK’s curse of sharing a common language with America mean that there won’t be the same level of development funding here as other territories such as France, Germany and Spain where there is a ready-made market for material produced in the native tongue?


How will we recognize talent when we see it?


A good critic should be able to provide the context to unlock a piece for the uninitiated. If they also help sell a few newspapers, great. A good critic should recognize excellence and set the bar for achievement in a media. And if they are also able to schmooze a few celebs or promote their personal enthusiasm for skin then maybe that’s acceptable in small doses. But when the balance is tipped in favour of peddling, schmoozing and perusing then our media is far the poorer for it. So while we desperately need more finance to help bring on the next generation of Osbornes, Shaffers and Stoppards, we also need experienced and insightful critics to inform and encourage our appreciation of the best of what’s good and the call out the dross, even if (or especially if) a show’s cast and creatives include a rash of theatrical knights and dames).


Will audiences recognize the emerging talent?


Let’s imagine for a moment that, in the short term, the majority of attendees for these new spaces are drawn from the older age brackets. Perhaps Boomers who are still a bit reluctant to travel into Town post-Covid? Who feel more comfortable visiting the Co-Op than the Apollo, a Hilton over Hamilton? In short, the generation that bankrolled the proliferation of fringe and pub theatre in the ‘70s and ‘80s and forsook Brian Rix and Ray Cooney for Snoo Wilson and Dario Fo. Could we count on high street retail and accommodation providers to provide a welcoming environment responsive to the needs of these older attendees? You bet we could. These sectors have been successfully deploying Boomer-based strategies for decades and are streets ahead of most entertainment sectors in recognizing this most desirable (and increasingly more desirable) sector. ‘Young-and-trendy’ might look better in the foyer, but ‘More-money-than-years-left’ is much healthier for the bank account.


Who will be performing?


It was one of the mums who had made the video. A number from the end-of-term musical. Only this was the world famous BRIT School (former students include Adele, Jessie J, Amy Winehouse, Leona Lewis and Tom Holland. The grainy cell phone video contained one of the most powerful numbers in Post-War Musical Theatre. I must have seen “Bui Doi” performed a hundred times, from early rehearsals at Drury Lane to tours of UK and Ireland, and I doubt if any production in The Lane’s 300+ year history has involved audiences in such an enormous leap in time and geography, from the opulence of the English Regency to the bars and bordellos of war-torn South East Asia. It was another huge leap to see that same South East Asia recreated in Selhurst, Croydon, by a choir of teenage students. But it was mainly just a leap of geography. Because the teenager playing John delivered a performance as powerful as any I had seen previous (with the exception of the original John, the wonderful Peter Polycarpou). I have to be honest here. It was only when my daughter started attending the BRITS that I started to give much thought to thousands of dedicated souls who spend their lives training the next generations of actors, singers and dancers, choreographers and directors, lighting and sound teams, carpenters, LX and Stage Crew, wardrobe and wigs. But they do not spring fully-formed from the womb. And they certainly do not flourish in a country whose government has just announced 50% cuts to higher education budgets for music and drama. Even the most prodigious talent requires training if it is to live up to its potential. Make diamonds in the rough shine that crucial bit brighter. And it doesn’t stop at the Drama School gates. Even with a (or especially with?) an established playwright or composer’s new work you often think, how great this might have been if someone had just taken them aside and said… “Stop!” “Bring the Houselights back up when the central dilemma has been fully resolved (or exposed). Don’t diminish the power of the piece by tying up all the loose threads, or imposing some kind of pseudo-circularity. We crave symmetry in faces, not art. Who will be the ones bright enough and brave enough to say: “This is really good, but have you thought about changing this bit or that bit to make it work better?”


“The talent is there, now let’s give it a chance to live up to its potential.”


Copyright David Thomas 2021

All Rights Reserved









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