Three Meetings with Janet Archer
Tragic , my version of the Hamlet story, is developed over two years, working with three of the last year of acting students I teach. The first production funding application to Creative Scotland is rejected because ‘it isn’t advanced enough’. After a struggle with emails going back and forward the officer suggests we meet. It turns out we don’t have enough gigs. We had about eight at that point. We have 13 when we re-apply. In both applications we argue for a very young actor because the stakes leap upwards if Hamlet is younger. We also argue our student actors long term saturation in the project more than makes up for their lack of experience. Even so they will have graduated by the time of the tour. However the second application is also rejected with feedback from a different officer: ‘The inexperience of the actor would be less likely to ensure the quality’ of the project. I can’t believe what I am reading. Aside from the lazy refusal to take on our arguments, for a very experienced officer to actually put this in writing is a monumental gaffe. We immediately write to Janet Archer, the head of Creative Scotland, and ask her to back her officers words. She chooses to bat the email back to her officer. The officer writes back to us justifying – more by assertion than argument – her feedback. She also rephrases it. But there is no fundamental difference. We write to Janet again – including both quotes – and saying I have been commissioned to write an article in which I will argue that Creative Scotland are challenging the readiness of Royal Conservatoire of Scotland graduates. Janet replies herself – in double quick time – saying she ‘assures me she takes my criticism very seriously and that is why she is inviting me to her office to meet her in person.’ I am counselled by friends into not reading too much into this unfortunate choice of words. It is probably no more than a well-meaning attempt to flatter me by making me feel welcomed. It is nevertheless an unexpectedly gauche thing for the head of a publicity sensitive quango to put into writing.
Several weeks later I turn up at Creative Scotland’s airy Princes St offices for my first meeting with Janet Archer. She comes out to greet me at reception and welcomes me into her office with unintrusive warmth and grace. Kenneth Fowler, her Head of Communications (Press Officer) joins us. They make an attractive pairing with Janet’s gentle inquisitiveness and Kenneth Fowler’s quick attentive clear-headed intellect. They are engaged in a charm offensive to stop me going to the press, but it is understated and does not impede their welcome. My preparation, their approach and the spacious offices bring on calm elation in me. I am able to speak affably throughout the meeting. And I see pleasure and relief appear in Janet Archer’s face at how I am conducting myself . She grows in confidence as the meeting goes on. This is such a strong impression it makes me wonder – seriously – if she has been briefed to expect a ranting West Coast working class bruiser.
Very early on Janet observes that I had just been given a grant of £15000 to research two history plays. Perhaps she intends to demonstrate that her organisation is not hostile to me. Although I do not challenge her on this it does not wash because its not the organisation as a whole that are historically hostile. It’s the drama department. The research grant is recommended by a different part of Creative Scotland. Subsequently a theatre company commissions one of the writing projects that emerge from the research but the drama officers at Creative Scotland do not recommend green-lighting the other. This makes me wonder – not for the first time – exactly where Creative Scotland are on joined up thinking. Go ahead and spend months researching your plays, just don’t expect to get to write them. This latter decision comes after the meeting so I am not able to throw the research grant ball back at Janet.
I make various challenges about Creative Scotland and the old Scottish Arts Council’s record. I am critical of Creative Scotland feedback. I do not say what I think good feedback is. (It does not occur to me at that point that Creative Scotland might not know what good feedback is. The puzzle is why they seem to avoid ever giving it.) Then comes my first big surprise. Kenneth says they know there is a lot wrong with the feedback at Creative Scotland. Janet says that she is sending her officers on a feedback course. I am also very critical of their application forms – particularly the criteria – not linked to specific questions and all couched in barely penetrable jargon. Janet’s answer to this is her new Open Project funding strand, which is soon going to be introduced. She claims it is also going to address some of the points I have raised. So far so good.
I am critical of the competence of officers when they are justifying decisions to artists, often giving away the bogus rationale behind decisions, which an elementary reading of the application forms they are supposed to have assessed rigourously, would disqualify. All the anecdotes I furnish are about officers who are still employed by the quango. (I do not name them.) Neither Kenneth or Janet respond to this. Having spent most of the meeting making general points about Creative Scotland’s ways of working I am grateful when Janet asks me what I hope to achieve for myself. This makes stating my personal aim easy. So I ask if the decision about Tragic can be reversed. Having been warned that they will do anything to avoid this I was taken aback by the prompt arrival of surprise number two when Kenneth says: ‘That’s perfectly possible. Its just a matter of checking to see if all the processes have been carried out correctly. ‘
Towards the end I suggest that some applicants should be given interviews to help Creative Scotland make decisions about what projects would go forward. My reasoning is that on many occasions officers make decisions on the basis of having not understood the application. This is almost inevitable given the multiple ambiguities of the English language. Janet is implacably opposed to this. She says it isn’t practical. I keep narrowing down the kinds of applicants that should be interviewed to counter her notion of impracticality. Finally she says that she knows dancers would not be able to cope with being interviewed. To this I say ‘These things cut both ways, Janet. What about all the people who would rather be interviewed than fill out an application form?’ It surprises me she has no answer to this . She has left an open goal for anyone who wants to mock artists as fragile flowers who cant cope with being interviewed when they are applying for a large amount of public money, while interviews are ok for the rest of the population with their zero hours contracts and minimum wage jobs.
At another point Janet hands me a hot off the press pocket sized leaflet. She beams with pride about it. It’s a kind of prospectus for where she wants to take the organisation. Even at a glance I can see that its a vacuous puff leaflet full of windy aspirations, written in a mix of flowery self-aggrandizing phraseology and bureaucratic arts jargon. This amounts to my main internal crisis in the meeting as I try to usher it into my bag as quickly as possible so that I might conceal my real feelings about it. In truth I don’t want to conceal my real feelings just from Janet. I also want to conceal them from myself. In trying to be optimistic about the meeting and its potential outcomes this leaflet is the biggest single spoiler.
Janet departs a bit before Kenneth. At this point he confides in me that the officer who recommends the research grant is very dedicated and hard-working. I realise he is making a kind of entre nous bonding gesture. He is indirectly criticising the officers who had rejected funding my production work. This is a form of emotional blackmail which roughly might translate as ‘Don’t be hard on Janet – she has to deal with much you don’t know about.’ I say to him at this point that I do not want to be an enemy of Creative Scotland. I am very happy to help it become a more effective organisation. He says my desire to be constructive came over abundantly in the meeting.
Three months later the Tragic decision is reversed.
The senior officers who check through the application let rip. They apologise – in writing – for ‘very poor service’ and which is ‘well below the standards they expect of themselves’ and insist that the argument for a younger actor for artistic reasons and the preparedness of the graduate actors is very well articulated. This is a victory of sorts. But how many other projects would have had their rejection reversed if the senior officers had been brought into play and properly scrutinised the junior officers work? Or is it just a coincidence that the very decision we happen to challenge and threaten to make public is the only one that could be deemed incompetent? Unfortunately the reversed decision comes so late it puts us all under extraordinary pressure. The main victims of the late decision were our publicity campaign, which began far too late and our casting plans where we lost our original actors. The casual approach of junior officers finalising the deal and getting funds to us suggests that Creative Scotland is out of touch with the reality of putting on a show. That is the kindest interpretation we could think to put on their behaviour.
In January of this year we apply for another autumn tour. A double bill of (one new and one nearly new) plays called THE INTERNET COMEDIES. It is a very well planned tour reaching every geographical part of Mainland Scotland except the South east Borders. With a week in the North East, a week in the West Highlands, a week in Glasgow, and 2 weeks in the Central Belt and South West. 23 performances in 19 venues, with never less than four gigs a week. This is our first go at Janet Archer’s new Open Project. On first sigh t the form seems like a big improvement. The first questions are much clearer and the guidelines are specific to each question. But about half way through the questions slide back into impenetrable language. The guidelines become as opaque as the questions. You could be forgiven for thinking they ran out of time to get the form adequately finished and instead of putting the new regime back a couple of months they ploughed on.
We are determined we are not going to be faulted because of confusions over the form. So we spend 90 minutes talking to two helpline officers. One question in particular is very troublesome. It asks for our plans for ‘engagement with audiences’. In a theatre context everyone I know agrees you would normally interpret this as the show. Theatre IS engagement with audiences. So why are they bothering to ask? And why do they want 500 words? The second helpline officer explains it is one of the questions that ‘don’t apply much to theatre’. He says we might say something about ‘signed performances for the deaf’. We suggest they could save companies some stress by saying on the form: THIS QUESTION IS NOT PRIMARILY FOR THEATRE. He agrees. At the end of the session the officer thanks us and says our questioning of the form has amounted to by far the best and most extensive feedback they have had from any company. He also says this is useful because the form is a bit of a ‘work in progress.’ Three months later the application comes back rejected because we have ‘not gone into enough detail about our plans for engagement with audiences.’ In other words it is rejected because of the wrong information that Creative Scotland provide for us.
Shortly before this rejection I have my second meeting with Kenneth Fowler. I want to challenge him about the drama officers consistent rejection of all production related applications going back many years into the days of the Scottish Arts Council. The exact percentage isnt hard to calculate. That is because it is a 100% rejection rate. I want Kenneth to offer some kind of rationale about how this is possible. He denies there is any kind of prejudice in the building but does not provide any evidence of any kind, let alone counter the startling statistics I quote to him.
On the possibility that all our applications are poor things in themselves I also want to know how could we do better given the consistent failure of Creative Scotland feedback to provide anything remotely resembling practical advice. (Bearing in mind that feedback is useful information that can be acted on.) I show him an example. This is for Tragic, which following its tour last autumn we applied to the Made In Scotland funding strand. (Made In Scotland is for taking Scottish work to the fringe with the international market in mind.)This is not strictly speaking Creative Scotland’s baby. The funding comes directly from the Government. However it is administered by Creative Scotland officers, it is advertised on their website and they are charged with providing feedback. Here is what the rejection letter says.
‘The panel discussed the international potential of this piece at some considerable length but ultimately, and within a highly competitive process, felt there were other applications which would take greater advantage of the particular context of the Made in Scotland showcase and given the profile of international presenters which attend the Fringe.’
This is not feedback. There is no actual feedback anywhere in this letter. The criteria for the Made In Scotland funding strand is so bereft of meaning or content it is difficult not to feel some sympathy for the judging panel. (They are not Creative Scotland employees.) However the Creative Scotland officer had – in this instance – the answer at hand but chose not to employ it. She acknowledges that the panellists discussed the project ‘at some considerable length’ but chooses not to provide any meaningful information from this discussion. (The same officer did exactly the same two years previously with another Made In Scotland application.) This particular officer has never provided anything remotely resembling meaningful feedback. When challenged she will often throw up a bluster storm. For example she once wrote: ‘the problem with answering your queries is the assumptions that underlie them.’ This of course begs the question if the officer is capable of the subtlety of thought which allows her to know what an underlying assumption is why is she blind to the possibility that her sense of what our underlying assumptions are stem from her own underlying assumptions. Nevertheless when you ask her what she thinks your underlying assumptions are – or when you ask her pretty much anything – she goes into her other favourite response: she does not reply. When I show this letter to Kenneth Fowler he agrees it is entirely useless and he says he understands our frustration. Running through my criticisms of the officer concerned he says that I have grounds to make an official complaint against her. I decide against doing this because I am moving to a point where I am sick of all involvement with Creative Scotland and I do not want to add more complications to my own life and more fuel to their burgeoning bureaucracy. He also says that Janet Archer is very open to meeting again and that I should take this – and my other points – up with her. So I arrange another meeting with the lady and – fair dos to her – she agrees. But in the meantime the decision about the Internet Comedies shows up and that becomes the most pressing issue and the key point for my second meeting with Janet Archer. I am less well organised this time. I have not really worked out my over-riding aims as I had the first time. Organisation takes energy and belief. I am running out of both. In the second meeting I encounter a very different Janet Archer. The warmth of the first meeting has evaporated. Her chilliness communicates itself to me immediately. I don’t know whether she is scared or hostile or just doesn’t want to be there. But it is clear she is not happy.
I outline my points in great detail. 1. The officer giving us the wrong information. 2 The weaknesses in the application form. 3. The officer’s comment that it was something of a ‘work in progress.’ Again and again and again in the meeting Janet says: ‘I can only apologise but you will have to re-apply. ‘ I don’t think she says it less than ten times. This is a slightly strange thing for her to say because during the actual meeting I do not mention having the decision overturned! I think this whole meeting is very painful to her. Here on her first outing with her Open Project I am showing her in great detail where she has gone wrong. Large amounts of public money are being doled out on the basis of a rushed and partially inept application form. And this is on Janet’s watch. There is nowhere for her to hide. She says very little in the meeting that actively engages with me. It is as though she has been advised to say nothing. Just take the hits from an angry bampot self-seeking artist, show you are – technically speaking – willing to listen, and give nothing away.
I also show her the feedback that I have shown Kenneth Fowler. Her response is completely different to his. The fact that I see anything wrong in it sends pain shooting across her face. She manages to say: ‘Are you saying we should be braver?’ I am rendered speechless by this. Creative Scotland are tasked with providing proper adult feedback. Not with deciding how brave they should be. Only an inward-looking blinkered self-protective organisation could even be thinking in these self-centred terms.
As to our rejected application. It turns out that ‘engagement with audiences’ means publicity. The form does not say that. The helpline officer does not know that. But during the meeting Janet Archer gives me detailed advice on publicity as if the mistake in the application is ours. It amounts to covering her ears and chanting. The contrast between the first meeting, when we are discussing a funding strand begun by a predecessor, and the second meeting, where we are discussing a funding strand established by her, couldn’t be starker. I realise she isn’t going to do the honourable thing and say: ‘This is appalling. I promise you I will get to the bottom of this. And get it sorted. I can assure you I will do everything to get this reassessed as quickly as possible and make sure that this grotesque mistake is not repeated.’ And at that point – feeling sorry for her as I did – my respect for her collapsed. She may not be that good as an operator but when push comes to shove as a moralist she is a total failure. Janet Archer, the head of Creative Scotland, with all the power at her disposal, did not do the right thing.
Janet does mention one or two things that are useful about publicity. So I go to take note of them. But she says that isn’t necessary. They will all appear in the p. a’s notes. Which would be sent to me. Her very brief notes arrive a couple of weeks later with not a single reference to publicity. So it seems that the emptiness I pick up in the later part of the meeting isn’t my imagination. She really has been saying the first thing that comes into her head.
The second application is rejected finally five weeks ago. Only one answer has been altered and yet it takes three months to make a second decision! The decision comes three weeks before rehearsal is due to begin. It arrives after most of our venues have gone to print. This highlights the hideous catch 22 in our theatre funding system. Book a tour or you are not fundable. If you are rejected you have to cancel the tour. If the decision is late – as in our case- the tour gets cancelled after the venues have scheduled and publicised the show. Creative Scotland know full well this catch 22 exists in the system. It is in their power to end it. This is actively damaging the venues relationship with the audience and the producing theatre companies relationship with the venues. It is a serious flaw in the system that Creative Scotland show no signs of taking responsibility for nor of taking steps to bring to an end.
Its worth pointing out that with the second rejection comes a note that two rejections per project are now the maximum allowed and we would not be able to re-apply. It’s highly unlikely that we would have reapplied, even if we could have persuaded upset venues to put back our visit several months. Either way nothing could make it clearer that Janet Archer’s Creative Scotland have no intention of accepting their mistakes or of climbing down from the serious moral misjudgment made by Janet Archer herself.
It is also worth noting that several of the theatre projects that Creative Scotland have funded this autumn have seven or eight performances booked spread out over several weeks, with one or two gigs in certain weeks. I draw attention to this to contrast with the assessors for the original application of Tragic two years ago saying eight venues is too few. Part of the reason myself and so many other artists in Scotland so mistrust the quango is the inconsistency in their judgments and feedback. They really are making it up as they go along, as if they live in a dreamworld in which people don’t have memories and don’t share notes with each other.
My third meeting with Janet Archer is a few days before the end of the fringe. I am strolling along George Street towards Assembly Rooms on my way to perform in my one man show. I see her first so I get to see her seeing me and her body jolt and her utter horror and her stark realisation that Edinburgh is much smaller than London. I see her eyes avert and – just as she reaches me – she turns her head sharply out towards the road. Not satisfied with this simple evasion she goes on to cast her eyes and tilt her head downwards and more or less close her eyes till she passes me. Superficially I think she is hoping against hope I havent seen her. But I think she knows perfectly well I have.
Why are Creative Scotland so accident prone? I think the answer is simple. They have an impossible task. They are riven by a classic conflict of interests. They are a sponsor, a policeman and an artistic director. They have to choose, support, police, judge a show’s potential before production, and judge its success afterwards. They have a vested interest, in other words, in backing up their own decisions. They make artistic decisions by application form, and treat these application forms to an exhaustive and expensive judgment process with relatively stable committees of state employees who supposedly have appropriate expertise in their area and make recommendations for the wider multi- art form panels. Its difficult to know how informed the challenges multi-art form panels make to drama officers recommendations can be. The bureaucracy has a look both ways mentality denying they are making artistic decisions while making them all the time. And they make them without direct contact with the art being funded. They say they don’t have the capacity to read scripts or turn up for viewings of extracts. But you could more easily say they don’t have the capacity to read and exhaustively pore over application forms for months at a time. They spend an extraordinary amount of time doing a task of very little value and spend no time doing a task of serious significance.
Why do Creative Scotland have so much trouble fulfilling their brief to provide meaningful feedback? We have only had anything remotely resembling proper feedback from the quango on three occasions. On all three it highlighted major flaws in the organisation’s competence. For that reason its difficult to resist the suspicion they avoid giving feedback in case it gets them into trouble. Their problem with application forms stems partly from the supposed efficiency of having one form to cover all the arts. But it also stems from bureaucratic blinkers. A detachment from how non bureaucrats interpret language. One of the disastrous by-products of Creative Scotland’s application form process is that an army of professionals whose specific skill is completing application forms has grown up to fill this gap in the market. These people do not come cheap. Their expertise is expensive but deemed worth it because they know how to over-ride the failures of the application process and the confusions of the actual forms with what they know Creative Scotland are actually seeking. Public money intended for the support of art and artists is, in effect, syphoned off into a task of no artistic value.
There is a very simple solution. Delegate the theatre project decisions to the established producing companies. Each company to make one or two decisions per year. This would allow decisions to be made by actual artistic directors, whose thinking would be disciplined by their stake in the visiting companies’ production. Decisions would be made on the basis of scripts and performed extracts not application forms, using the same skills that artistic directors have to show as part of their existing brief. Young companies starting out would have all the paraphanalia of application form hell removed at a stroke and the arduous producing work taken care of by the host company. This would allow the young artists and companies to concentrate on making the art instead of having their focus split right at the start of their careers. Creative Scotland’s brief would be to prescribe the agreement and funding for each theatre and to police the project so that the hosting company does not cheat the applicant company or individual. To prevent the same individuals or companies from being over-commissioned Creative Scotland would define limits per artist or company. Opening the decisions out to a wide variety of theatre companies, who have a wide variety of artistic policies, would potentially result in a bigger variety of decisions and avoid the danger of ‘opinion coalescence’ that tends to occur within stable groups, such as the ones that populate Creative Scotland decision making panels. This system would also cut out a huge swathe of pointless bureaucracy and potentially feed large amounts of money back into production.
It is difficult to imagine Creative Scotland relinquishing such a large part of their workload and status. Only strong government intervention can bring the tendency for a bureaucracy to conserve its own power base – against the best interests of the clients it was set up to serve – under control.
Iain Heggie is the multi award winning writer of Wholly Healthy Glasgow, Politics In The Park, American Bagpipes, Sex Comedies, Experienced Woman Gives Advice, King Of Scotland, Wiping My Mother’s Arse, the Don, Tobacco Merchants Lawyer, Queen of Lucky People, and The Tin Forest. In 2014 he wrote the King James 6th monologue for Dear Scotland at the National Portrait Gallery. He has recently completed the first Scottish version of Gorki’s masterpiece Lower Depths for National Theatre of Scotland. He is presently writing his first two-actor drama On and he has been commissioned to write a play for NTS set in 1920’s Glasgow. He is also an experienced director. Credits include Winters Tale, A Month In The Country, Sex Comedies, Three Sisters, Beauty Queen Of Leenane, The Don, The Goat, Oleanna, Lie Of The Mind and Tragic. He was a teacher of acting through improvisation at the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland between 1990 and 2011. He began the process of developing his one man show Facebooked! at the Assembly Rooms at the 2015 fringe.