INTERVIEW – MELISSA DUNNE AND KATIE MCCULLOUGH
By Adam Smith
Cut Off is a cycle of short plays about the government’s cut in Arts Council funding and is now showing at the Tristan Bates Theatre until 11 December. Adam Smith caught up with Melissa Dunne, the cycle’s curator, and playwright Katie McCullough to hear how Cut Off came to be.
What was the genesis of Cut Off?
MD: In July, I had a play that I was trying to produce – but it was difficult. I’ve never been too concerned about the lack of money in theatre. I’ve always taken it as par for the course. I had seen a play that I wanted to produce to an extent that I hadn’t wanted to previously. I was confronted by how actually to do that.
So the idea for Cut Off came from that problem – as a joke in the pub. I said, ‘I’m going to have a gala where I’ll get a bunch of people to write plays about the fact that there’s not enough money to make theatre’. The idea sat with me for a couple of weeks and I realised that it’s not the worst idea I’ve ever had.
And then how did Cut Off come in to being?
MD: I had an ongoing dialogue with the people who work on the programme at Theatre 503 and they had a few spare days. So we ran Cut Off there for a few days in the middle of September. It came about incredibly fast. What was really important was that everyone came together as a community of artists to articulate something. There’s no person involved who’s dumb enough to believe that people will die because of the arts cuts, but it’s about the point.
Which writer did you get on board first?
MD: Sarah Grochala, an Amnesty Award-winning writer and overtly political playwright. I’d worked with her before and had seen a lot of her work. When I mentioned this idea to her, it really spoke to her. But I had a number of other writers in my back pocket too.
Katie, how did you come on board?
KM: I’m an extra addition to this version. I saw the Theatre 503 production and was extremely impressed by the quality of work produced in such a short period of time and with a lack of money. Melissa and I had worked together a month previously on something smaller and she asked me to write a play for this.
How would you describe the tone of the cycle?
KM: What’s interesting about this show is that it contains a number of different opinions – it’s not the same message that you’re going to hear six times in a row. We talk about cuts in general, not just those to the arts – and don’t just say that arts are great. We’re not going to bag that drum – if people are coming to the theatre then they’re here already.
To what extent is this type of short play gala an art form of our cheaper and leaner times?
MD: It’s already been around for a good few years. Logistically it’s definitely not cheaper or leaner. But shorts force artists to up their game. They put the focus on the quality of direction as well as the writing.
KM: It’s a very collaborative form. In the case of Cut Off, the writers, actors, directors and producers are ‘all in this together’ [a phase that has become a catchphrase of the coalition government].
Katie, what are the important factors a writer must consider when penning a short?
Someone asked me the other day if it’s easier to write a short play than a full-length play. I told them that it’s harder. It has to have texture and be full bodied. It’s not just 15 minutes and then the end. Just because it’s short doesn’t mean it lacks anything – it can have just as much depth as a longer piece. It’s about layers, you can grab and hook an audience without having to have them wade through a full play.
What are your opinions of the arts cuts?
MD: Everyone’s going to have to come together and help each other out. Even buildings that have had their funding cut are going to be there to help emerging artists. We’ve been fortunate because some organisations have donated rehearsal space to us for Cut Off. A lot of bigger organisations are saying that they’ll have to accept their responsibility to help emerging artists – that they’ll have to be proactive about it.
KM: The cuts make theatres more aware of how they spend their money. At the same time, they’re capitalising on ways to get audience in. In general, most theatres, that is, at the higher end of the fringe and the more renowned theatres, need to stop chasing easy money and continue creating challenging art. Ticking boxes is great because you get money in but then you end up with this very murky mediocre standard of theatre.
Theatres should not be scared. Cuts should make commissioners more hungry – they should say, ‘we don’t have enough money but we won’t cut back on the standard of art, we will push it’. Theatre should be perpetually exciting.
Tell us about your contribution to Cut Off?
KM: It’s called Food for Thought. I’ve taken an obscure allegory of three theatre commissioners sitting in a restaurant where the writer is asked to pitch scripts. It’s about the commissioning world now, the lack of funding – and how to approach it. I’ve approached this topic as a new writer at the beginning of my career. It’s from my own experience, but is also from what I see happening. I’ve kept it tongue in cheek, satirical and broad enough not to name names.
Did you do much extra research?
KM: I found an Arts Council spreadsheet of regularly funded organisations which makes for really interesting reading. I plucked three figures from that and used them in the play without names. This is not about attacking specific people but the way that commissioners approach theatre based on how much they get. The report was really interesting to look at because it reveals the breakdown of the regions and form (publishing, music, theatre). There are some quite phenomenal amounts. So you can see that they make this certain production with that amount of money.
MD: I’ve seen the figures too. I was surprised by a couple of the people on it, especially how much they’d been given in contrast to what I know to be their remit.