Keeping honest

Image courtesy of Yan Wang,

Guest blog by Iain Bloomfield

Ok, so last week it was suggested to me that I am commissioning ‘mates’, or at least that there was a perception that that was what I was doing. As I, in the course of my job, distribute both public money and possibly more importantly, opportunity, that is a pretty hard thing to hear. It is, however, worth listening to (as a perception) and asking some pretty hard questions: both of myself and the premise behind the question. At a guess, as the squeeze on the public purse cuts ever deeper into actual spending, the questions about the choices we make on what to spend the money on and further questions regarding equity are likely to get ever more pressing.

I am Artistic Director of Theatre in the Mill, I am in the very fortunate position of both spending public money and making choices about how to spend it. These are not decisions I take lightly, I work from a place of passion, of belief, from a desire to leave the world a better place than I found it in some little way.

The Theatre in the Mill is concerned with finding ways to support performance makers make new, original, challenging work. We offer opportunities to play with form and content, to show new work and to participate in an on-going, ever changing ‘discussion’ with peers and audiences about that work.

It wasn’t always thus. I inherited a fairly standard small scale touring venue, albeit one with a long and distinguished history in supporting new writing, culminating in my predecessor establishing a rather brilliant new writing festival and developing partnerships with both West Yorkshire Playhouse and the BBC Writers Room in doing so. In addition we were the early home of the ‘Asian Theatre School’ which morphed into Freedom Studios. It was a great venue.

However, by 2003, Bradford was into its decline. The riots of 2001 had severely knocked our collective confidence, and the creation of a ‘drinking quarter’ between The Alhambra and the skating rink seemed to be draining custom from the rest of the city centre and seemed (at least through these eyes) to have given rise to anti-social behaviour. In addition, Theatre in the Mill was not only ‘up the hill’ but hidden at the back of the University, the demographic of our student body was changing, young people were being taken to the theatre less and less on school trips – it increasingly wasn’t something that was a habit. I’d also had a, fairly uncomfortable, stint being in charge of The Alhambra Studio and left that with a firm belief that things had to be done differently. That isn’t a dig at Bradford Theatres, it was something I felt about the industry as a whole.

I was also, as primarily a director and creator (as opposed to writer) of new work and was therefore very alive to the fact that lots of new work is not writer driven and where was the support for that work and its development?

So, all of the above factors were live ones for me and what we have now is both a response to them and to the on going discussion with artists and audiences. The description, above, about who we are and what we do also, crucially, didn’t arrive fully formed – we’ve been down all sorts of blind alleys and ‘not-quite-rights’ to get to where we are now. We have, quite literally, been making it up as we go along, testing things out, seeing what is valued and what is not, using the venue as a test bed of what exactly the possibilities of interaction between venue, artist and audience can be. I am very proud of that and of the success of our various alumni, as it were, they are, to me, an indicator that we are getting at least some of this right.

I don’t think for a minute we’ve got it all right yet: I am more than aware that we have severe capacity ‘issues’ that will need resolving, that the demand from both artists and audiences for a greater sense of community/involvement/engagement is still to be properly achieved, that access to the thinking is as important as access to the product and we haven’t got that right yet. However, we’ve got enough of it right for me to be considered ‘an expert in my field’, that the curation of choice has been a meaningful one.

How, on the whole, have I selected people? By talking to them: about what they are thinking, what they think theatre is and isn’t or could be.

Have I always seen their work previously? No, not in all cases but I’ll have heard of it and will know people who have seen it.

Am I expressing my own taste/beliefs through commissions etc? Yes, but I don’t always ‘like’ what I commission. I just believe it should be made.

So that’s where we are at, but to deal with the ‘mates’ issue: I tend to not socialise that much (beyond work situations) with the arts world, my friends tend to be academics, teachers and the like and I’ve always been like that from University onwards. I have difficulties with groups who all think the same and I believe that’s helped me seek out the left field and, I hope, the ground-breakers. So far so comfortable on the immediate issue.

Until I spoke to Jon Spooner of Unlimited Theatre outside West Yorkshire Playhouse on Friday of last week about this issue. Jon said, “Well we’re mates, I hope, even if we don’t do Sunday lunch together”.


I had been working away from that definition, was being defensive on the basis of ‘mate’/ ‘not mate’.

We were standing outside talking during the Devoted and Disgruntled Roadshow (a touring discussion about the health or otherwise of British Theatre that attracted well over 150 representatives of venues, artists and audiences to the Playhouse) in the light about me having tweeted the question two days before. Further, there was a huge and very clearly articulated desire for a mutually supportive community around the making of performance at D&DR (and, further, having access to the likes of me) across the board. In short, being ‘mates’ was exactly what was wanted. It has since been suggested to me that if I wasn’t ‘mates’ with people I wouldn’t be doing my job properly, wouldn’t be creating a supportive and open arena in which artists can give of their best, wouldn’t have a knowledge of the theatre scene.

It also, isn’t, I’m afraid, a level playing field in terms of talent. I’d love to be a talented sportsman but I’m not, consequently I have to accept that my chances of the Olympics are slim. I’d like, however, to think that those who DO get to make those choices are doing so rationally, meaningfully. For sport, where the outcomes are very clear – highest, fastest, furthest etc – double, triple, quadruple the complications with the arts. If one factors into the equation that all artists will take different journeys, some need only a small input from us to get out and fly, for some it will take far, far, longer, so probably need a longer relationship with us and what we can offer.

So, my bit of ‘the industry’ believes I should be working with ‘mates’ and I am operating in a field where taste/judgement/trust/gut have to be important – I haven’t yet, seriously, heard an argument that this work is better served by a committee or by feeding data into one end of a computer and expecting something meaningful out the other end – what measures do we put in place to rationalise choice and ensure that people in my position stay ‘honest’?

Having tweeted I was very interested at the response I got from the academic community (arts academics that is) tended to revolve around peer review, or the ‘afterlife’ of shows/company’s (do they get picked up by other venues, tour etc) which is a kind of peer review in itself. Both are after the event. This I shall certainly do, will engage with that discussion and see where it takes us, it WILL be useful.

I think, however, it’s really important for us to be clear about we can and can’t do. We cannot be everything to everyone nor should we try to be. We are not a touring venue so the chances of us taking your touring show are very slim; we do not give out commissions to first time company’s; we support new, original work that we believe takes further an understanding of practice; we are only interested in artists who are interested in their audiences as a positive contributor to the making of new work; we are happy to talk to artists from anywhere – our commitment is to the health of the ‘conversation’ – the ambition/the adventure of work made in the north not to local company’s per se although we like it better that way; we only have a very limited amount of access to playtime for new company’s and will give it to those who seem like they’ll run furthest with it – the more of those I get to speak to the better.

We ARE, however, part of a much broader ecology in the region, so we will welcome a conversation with you and try to point you in a direction that will be useful for you. We will work harder (alongside a lot of other people) to join together all the dots so that the overall picture is clearer for you.
That clarity, is, I believe the key.

Unless we are totally honest as to what it is we DO want (and why we believe that that is important) so that people can be clear about what they can and cannot expect of us and further unless we measure our actions against what we have said we will do, we lay ourselves open to the possibility of accusations, rumour or doubt as to our motives, whatever our intentions.

Anyway, I’m coming out of this with the desire to be a whole lot more front of house and signposty. To that end I’ve put in place, this season and on going, ‘At the Bar With Iain Bloomfield’, each one will have a theme (and they’ll be monthly) the first one takes place on the 22nd October and will be about how we can support black and Asian theatre-makers better. Come and bend my ear, come and let me know what we need to be talking about in future, come and just let me see your face and find out a bit more about who you are. I’ll help if I can.


  1. Great post, Iain. I’m sorry I don’t get over the hills to the Mill more. I think you’ve got a cracking venue and I’m glad, for the arts, that you do what you do.

    1. Thank you Susi. I’m hugely fortunate to be surrounded by a thoughtful, talented and too often unsung team here at Theatre in the Mill. That we often don’t agree amongst ourselves, that we talk beyond the immediate is a REALLY important factor in keeping honest.

  2. A fascinating and very open hearted response to a tricky provocation. You have hit the nail on the head and from an artists perspective the honesty and lack of bureaucracy at Theatre in the Mill is totally refreshing. Great team, great programme, lovely audiences and a wonderful place to create.

  3. Hello Iain,

    This was a really interesting read. There seem to be so many discussions spilling into the world this week from DandD which I am sad I missed, however I am glad to be able to pick up conversations that are happening in its wake.

    I think we are fairly blessed in our corner of the world in that the gatekeepers to the industry, people like yourselves and other established directors, producers and distributors of money and resources are generally speaking very accessible to artists. Although so far I have never sought support from yourself / Theatre in the Mill, there are a few people that I consider to be my ‘mates’ who you have really helped. One of them once quoted (or paraphrased) you to me as having said “It is the people who keep knocking at the door who succeed”. It is something that stuck with me and contributed to my understanding of the importance of entering environments where you can build relationships and trust with the people who can help you. I suppose if some one is going to help you they have a steak in the work also. So just like it takes time and trust and understanding to build a relationship with another artist who you are collaborating with on a show, you need to do the same with the people who help you. They are people, not a meal ticket. I don’t think that is about being mates, it is about building a professional and trusting relationship.

    That is probably a long winded way of agreeing with what you have said above about the ‘mates’ issue. However I think that it is really positive that you are asking, and also therefore probably prompting others in similar positions of responsibility to ask, the ‘is this honest’ question.

    The next ‘At the Bar With Iain Bloomfield’ probably isn’t the right one for me. But I will wait for the one that is and pop down. Thanks for taking you time on us artists.


    1. Hi Simon,

      Thanks for that. ‘Mates’ IS an odd conceptualisation but it was the one I was presented with and if that was the perception……

      Why not give the next ‘At the bar’ a go? I don’t know (and I’ve asked the panelists to lead on the discussion) but I strongly suspect that there will be themes that come out of the discussion that are true for a much wider range of makers. I’m really concerned about the whole area of ‘who gets to play’ and that really isn’t an ethnicity question.

      1. This is thought provoking stuff.

        I’m specifically picking up on Simon’s very last point – and I know you’ll tell me it’s more of an aside than an actual point! Nevertheless, as you allude Iain, it’s vital that the ‘At the Bar’ events – especially those seemingly targeting very specific communities – are attended by as wide and diverse an audience as possible. The next event, Supporting Black and Asian Theatre Makers, is already in my diary, and I’m hoping that interested parties from diverse communities will want to engage in that dialogue, not just Black and Asians artists.

        It’s worth pointing out that the themes of my work may make it difficult to separate from my ethnic and cultural identity, but that doesn’t mean I only make work for my own community. And obviously, I want to work with good creative people, irrespective of their ethnic and cultural background.

  4. Hi all.

    My comments here come largely through my experience not just as an artist but as an ex Senior ACE officer.

    It looks like you Iain, are really engaging with the ‘mates’ problem in Bradford. But, there is a bigger issue with the theatre ecology as a whole and funding cuts are giving more status to the ‘gatekeepers’ in the producing theatres and producing organisations. And who are these ‘gatekeepers’? Well, still largely the usual suspects with an unhealthy prejudice towards Oxbridge. I have seen this nepotism in action. For example, witnessing the chair of a board of a producing theatre during an Artistic Director interview bring into play the fact that a candidate’s father was an Oxford don. Really. I could give further examples, maybe not quite so blatant.

    No matter how liberal these Artistic Directors are, their days are filled with finding strategies for fending off wannabes. Time management pressures make it easier for them to reach for their Rolodex, rather than doing any genuine talent spotting. Cuts will make this situation worse, as economic barriers will prevent many theatre artists from poorer background making work and the next generation will have a higher percentage bankrolled by the Bank of Mum and Dad.

    Here’s a thought. .

    ACE to make NPO’s have a monitored policy on developing talent, which must demonstrate that it follows sound equal ops procedures. This should start with the big players. Wouldn’t it be good to make Nick Hytner produce his diary and make him accountable for the twenty million quid of public investment and find out, for example, how often he’s seen a show in a school, or by a youth theatre or, indeed, a disabled writer or director? Even if this was delegated to associates, surely he should be getting the intelligence on where the great new work is in the UK?

    All the best,


    1. Hi Danny

      Thanks for those thoughts. Without wishing to get into specifics I agree with the general drift of what you are saying.

      I’d like to question (not disagree with necessarily) one aspect, though. I’m not sure that equal ops procedures (as we currently operate them)are the way forward, they’ve been in place for an age and don’t seem to be making a huge difference to access right across the range of public service and private industry. That is not to say that some method of creating accountability around access, around who gets to ‘play’, to work, around whose stories are told is not important. It is absolutely vital.

      I am also aware that ‘old boy’ networks are rife.

      This is, in part at least, what I referred to in the post as ‘things having to be done differently’. For me it is really important to create a great big tent, if you like, in which everyone is inside – artists, audiences, us (the venue staff) – and within that tent everyone has a part to play in the making of the art through questioning – what is being made, how it is being made, by who?…. and how that reflects us all.

      I am romantic enough to believe that windmill’s are worth tilting at and what I am trying to do (as yet unrealised, we’ve got a way to go yet in making the previous paragraph a reality) at Theatre in the Mill is exactly that.

      Chris Goode was here a few months ago and talked to me about theatre being a place in which we get to both imagine and try out a different world. That is the aim here, it’s all I can do.

  5. A really interesting post, Iain. It brought back a lot of memories and some mixed feelings!I think the concept of ‘mates’ is interesting -(incidentally, that seems like a real ‘boy’s’ word – I’d never talk about ‘mates’!) but still – my work in CidaCo, working 1:1 with artists and getting involved in their practices, values, dreams etc, means that I would now number a lot of them as ‘friends’ – but in running a theatre, large or samll, I didn’t. There were artists whose work interested me, engaged me,delighted me, made me curious, made me think – and those reactions were the basis of my relationship with them. One way or another, they filled my soul and I wanted to share them – and that’s why I brought them in. Looking back, I honestly think that the best work we did in any of ‘my’ theatres was always fuelled by a passionate desire to give space to extraordinary work and to expose as many people as possible to that work. Crazily, I remember Felix Cross’s life enhancing Mass Carib in Basildon where there wasn’t then a black face from one end of town to the other, but it played to packed houses every night, busloads coming through word of mouth from the East End of London, and all my staff, true Basildonians all, all coming every night to stand at the back to watch and cheer the show if they weren’t working; I remember Dead Dreams of Monochrome Men, an early offering by the inimitable DV8, causing a huge fuss with the ghastly local press and resulting in my Conservative politican Chair(yes, really!) standing up and making a public speech of appreciation of the work – and so many other fabulous pieces, incapable of being rationalised but resulting in such wonder! So I’d say stick to your guns – without knowing you, I would say that part of the reason you were appointed is part of the reason you are having such a success with Theatre in the Mill – I’d say that it’s the integrity of your vision, your values, that infuses your decisions, inspires your team and engages your audiences – I wish you continuing success –

  6. Hi Anamaria

    Thank you for those thoughts and memories, there is something astonishing about creating the conditions that allow artists to really fly. And when artists fly, audiences benefit.

  7. Firstly, what a great blog – a blog should provoke and stimulate – thanks IB!!
    The real issue has to go back to what audiences want, perceive, embrace, reject, ignore, despise. Too often as artists we are obsessed with what other artists are thinking or rather gossiping about. The D&D discussion about West Yorks Playhouse was typically a moan by artists basically saying “it’s not fair – my work isn’t on these stages” where as it should have been a discussion about whether or not WYP serves its Leeds audiences. Audiences don’t really care who is mates with who (or is it whom?). They either engage with work or spend their precious cash (nobody has disposable income in Caneron’s Britain) elsewhere. My real concern is that new and exciting work on your stage (& I wish I could get to The Mill more often) is largely being watched by other theatre makers – not punters? So as Jon says we are all mates and maybe the theatre clique extends into the auditoria. Ordinary folk are wage slaves for whom new theatre is increasingly irrelevant. Ouch.

  8. Reflecting on this post after listening to a lecture by a business leader last night. He has a key principle – he only does business with people he likes, and ultimately, that makes his business better. While liking people isn’t the same as being mates (which incidentally I don’t find a blokey term at all)it implies the same need for trust and shared vision to make any endeavor successful. The arts world is remarkably connected and networked, and the focus should be on making that network as open and as accessible as possible. That’s about talent development, but also about creating the sense of agency in both audiences and artists that allows the doors of the network to feel wide open – if we welcome promiscuity, then a proper kind of meritocracy can thrive.

  9. Hi Rod,

    Thanks for that. Suspect you are largely correct there, there is a more interesting demographic spread to our audiences than described above (it tends to be show specific though) but take your point about who, in general, attends.

    Where I disagree is to the relevence or indeed engagement when ‘ordinary folk’ get into the building. We tend to struggle more, tbh, with conventional audiences who have are bringing an expectation of what the theatrical exchange will be. I’ve done a fair bit of ‘action research’ if you like into this and we’ve got more on the way, so that’s more than gut feeling.

    I DO think we (and by we I don’t just mean here) have MASSIVE problems and here are some of my thoughts as to what they are:

    How we describe the work that goes on here. We frame the experience in terms of challenge, difficulty, innovation (I’m slapping myself on the wrist, see above) – all those words that, currently, tick funders boxes but are probably not high on the list for most people for a night out. Those definitions find their own audience whereas actually a good deal of the work here is thoroughly enjoyable, however formally innovative it is. It also speaks of experiences that are common but might need opening up a bit, as a lot of political discourse does.

    Is the work we produced reflective of a wide range of people? I don’t hold that there are working class experiences/non working class experiences but are we exploring the FULL range of experiences out there?

    How we publicise what we do. Information pretty much goes to places which define our audience. If you don’t go to those places you don’t know it’s on. If you don’t already (use?) follow us on Twitter or FB, you don’t know it’s on.

    That we, too often, create ‘social’ spaces that are coded by experience/expectation and where people are not very welcome tbh. How should one dress? Where do I but my ticket? Am I expected to sit respectfully in the dark? What happens if I get it wrong? (This from the man who clapped between movements at a concert by the Halle, it’s bloody socially awkward).

    I’m still working through all of the above. Please feel free to add yours.

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