Sunday, August 21, 2011

How to start up an arts company in a recession.

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Better Strangers exists by virtue of one of the main principles of entrepreneurship: if no-one else is doing what you want or need to be done, you might as well do it yourself. To the best of my awareness, Better Strangers is the only specifically feminist opera company around; it may well be the only one engaging as closely as we are (or aim to be) with feminist, LGBT, BME, class and disability issues.

As you’ll know, unless you’ve been living in a nuclear bunker under an island for the past two years, now is not exactly the most auspicious time to start up a small arts company with a social agenda. Funding for the arts in the UK has been cut - by 90%, according to placard statistics - and funding for charities and social enterprises is equally difficult to come by. And yet, here we are. I’m not going to say we’re a successful startup, having just announced that we’re postponing our first show due to funding uncertainties, but we’re here, and we’re hoping to make good on everything we’re aiming for.

I am 24 years old. This is my first attempt at managing anything, let alone helping to start up a whole company. I was under no illusions that it was going to be easy. I’m lucky to have a fantastic team behind me - Jessie, to whom inspiration seems to come as naturally as breathing; Sarah, a cool head in a heated time; Philip, who (aside from his excellent piano playing) specialises in telling us politely but firmly what is and is not a really silly idea. So, here is what I’ve learned about starting up a project like ours at a time like this.

1. Believe in the work. The only way you’re ever going to make an arts project work is if it’s something you live, eat, sleep and breathe. People - funders, audiences, whatever - will only care about what you’re doing if you do.

2. Build a solid team. As I’ve mentioned above, we’ve got some amazing people on board with Better Strangers. Make sure that your team is reliable, skilled, and having fun. Listen to your team - if they are telling you something, it is probably worth hearing.

3. Network. You know people. The people you know know more people. The odds are that you can find someone, somewhere in your extended network who can do that thing that you can’t find a provider for. Get to events; talk to people. Promote yourself. Be excited about your projects in the presence of new people. Talk about it on the Internet - it feels like shouting into the void, but someone is listening, I promise.

4. Be organised. Plan ahead. Build a schedule, keep to it, and make sure someone is responsible for keeping everyone on track. Factor in extra time for things going wrong.

4b. Be honest. If you’ve screwed up somewhere, talk it through. The sooner it comes out, the sooner it can be fixed and the easier it will be to build strategies to avoid screwing up the same way again. Do NOT play the blame game - it accomplishes nothing except pissing everybody off. A happy team is a healthy team.

5. Be realistic. I have been trying to do an awful lot of the admin and background work myself. Outside of Better Strangers, I am studying part time and working part time. The combination of these many factors has made me very ill. I have learned a hard lesson about what I can and cannot realistically do by myself. Make sure you’re aware of limits - your own, your team’s, your budget, and the scope of the project.

Are you also part of a feminist opera project? Let us know - it's always nice to have company!

Wednesday, August 3, 2011

Telling Stories Like Mine

So, after my last blog post here, “Teaching Teenagers to Sing the Heteropatriarchy”, a friend of mine said that she’d never felt the need to hear stories that centered her experience of non-heteronormative sexuality.

“Like you I have noted how much heterosexual boy-meets-girl stories don't generally apply to me. I've never really considered this an issue though, I've never felt a burning desire to see someone of my sexuality take centre stage or to tell my story. [...] I'm clearly missing something fundamental here. [...] Can you help?”

So, that got me thinking. Why do I care so much about broad representation in Opera and other stories? And why don’t some people? Why are some people interested in seeing themselves centre stage, and why are some people not interested in seeing people not like themselves centre stage?

Firstly, I think there’s something to be said for our expectations from the stories we hear being a gendered thing. See, little girls get very used to reading stories where boys are the hero; and learn to enjoy reading stories about people not like them. On the other hand, little boys get very used to reading stories about boys like them, and learn to turn their noses up and stories about anyone who might be different to them. This is certainly a well noted phenomenon across the publishing industry. Just last week I was linked to Max Barry noting the phenomenon.

Similarly, black children learn to identify with white heroes, while white children learn to expect heroes with skin colour the same as theirs. Again, last week I was linked to this on the subject.

This reinforces a cultural phenomenon, a set of power dynamics, which shows people whose experiences are close to the mainstream of a culture that their experience is normal and worth talking about. Conversely, people who’s experiences don’t reflect the mainstream of their culture, and even more so people who’s experiences contradict those of the mainstream in their culture, quickly learn that their experiences are not recognised, not seen as worthwhile - but that they should recognise and appreciate the experiences of the mainstream.

Don’t get me wrong. This is population trend stuff, not personal feelings. I seriously doubt anyone sits down and think to themselves 'I don't want to hear stories about people like me because I think straight nondisabled neurotypical white men are more interesting and important'.

But to me, this goes some way towards explaining why some people don’t find issues of representation important; perhaps even particularly people who are under-represented in a particular medium or genre. People who are under-represented don’t expect to see themselves; don’t see the need to see themselves, because they learn to identify with and value the heterosexual nondisabled white man who is standing centre stage.

It also goes some way to explaining why representation is so important. Where people are under-represented, they become invisible, even to themselves.

I think it's really important for people to hear stories about people like me - and people who are nothing like me - because I know that stories influence thinking. If people don't hear stories, they don't learn to recognise possibilities. Or perhaps those possibilities simply don’t have the same strength of emotional resonance.

For example, lots of parents are unhappy when their children come out as gay not because they're homophobic themselves but because they don't want a future for their child where that child faces homophobia and can't have a family. They are unhappy because they only have one idea about what gay people can be like - and that unhappiness turns the coming out experience into something negative for both parent and child.

Similarly, for someone like you who does not experience strong desires for romantic or sexual relationships at all, there are strong social and cultural expectations about your behaviour - that you will eventually learn some sort of life lesson or meet the right man, and then you will find that romantic relationship central to your life. People believe that in part because that's what all the stories say, from fairytales to operas to soap-operas to sci-fi and beyond. There's an expectation of heterosexual romance, a narrative framework for life, which becomes ingrained, and influence what people believe is possible and normal.

There's a self esteem issue as well. Research suggests that queer people have low self esteem partly connected to the fact that they rarely see positive images of people like them in the media. This article on LGBT suicide mentions that “society influences suicidal behavior by gay and lesbian youth [...] [by] the portrayal of homosexuals as being self-destructive.” Conversely, this article suggests that inclusive media may well be an important factor in lowering youth suicide rates amongst the gay community. Part of my day job currently is helping young LGBT people with precisely that: positive self image. My employers and their funders all recognise that a lack of positive images, positive role-models and narratives, can lead to low self esteem, negative behaviours, lack of aspirations.

In my ideal world, people would get to see stories that both reflected and challenged their experiences.

I love hearing stories about people who are different to me (I’m very used to it, after all!) But when I'm telling stories, creating stories, they will fundamentally come out of my experiences, which do not fit into the narrow confines of the kinds of stories its normal to tell anywhere in mainstream story-telling, but especially in opera.

Hence, this project. I want to create the spaces, the places and the performances which will allow people to tell all sorts of different stories, through the medium I love - the beautiful music of opera. To paraphrase Shakespeare: I do desire that we become Better Strangers....

Don't forget that our art competition is still running! Got a creative streak? Come and see what you can do with out words...