Home thoughts from the Eastern Cape

I'm in South Africa at the moment, in the Eastern Cape. I am visiting Isiseko Senkonjane, the Swallows Foundation South Africa, in two roles: as chair of the Swallows Foundation UK, the UK charity which administers one end of the Swallows Partnership, between the Eastern Cape and North East England (a partnership at a political level as well as between artists and cultural organisations, rather than 'simply' cultural) and as poet/literary type looking at the development of what they call 'word arts' around the Grahamstown Festival.

This afternoon I was introduced to a group of creative writing students as a dramaturg from Live Theatre, which I'm very much not. (I have been helping the team at Live get ready to launch, next month, a ground-breaking on-line playwriting course, developed by the new writing team from a highly successful 'real world' original,
Beaplaywright.com, which is where the impression came from I suspect. And I'm of course more than happy to be associated with Live Theatre - though all the real Live people are this week opening Lee Hall's The Pitmen Painters in New York City.) After a moment's panic I was able to smoothly move on to talking about writer development in the North East, perceptions of British writing (Sarah Kane and Mark Ravenhill the newest writers the group were aware of) and the commonalities of making your way as a writer in places far from the centres of cultural and other capital, without resorting to inflicting my own poems on the poor young things. (That comes later in the week.)

I will try and capture in a few blogs towards the end of my stay here some of the experience, but have already been struck by two conversations about the similarities and dis-similarities with attitudes to artsfunding and survival as an artist.

Last night I had dinner with two young managers at Port Elizabeth Opera House, the city's main theatre. (I'd met their boss earlier in the day at the Swallows SA board meeting.) Somehow, with a grant of around £50,000 a year, the team there run a theatre with a staff of 16, doing outreach and development work as well, although not as much as they would like. How is this done, I asked? Well, it's not through philanthropy alone, but by really 'sweating the assets' - in their case primarily the building. This also opens up the Opera House to a much wider range of communities. (Last time I visited the Opera House, in 2007, it was rammed for a hiphop gig by local township youth.) That's not to say it's easy, or smooth, and there are no doubt compromises and difficult choices, but by looking at what they have and who both wants and needs it, the team there seem to be adapting something rare, despite losing funding massively some years ago, as a result not of government but general cultural politics. (As I understood it anyway.)

Then this evening I was talking to the artistic director of
Ubom, an Eastern Cape Drama Company, who described a very typical picture of survival through hard work and quality, recognisable to small companies the world over, no doubt. This included developing product for particular markets, such as schools, on particular subjects, such as climate change. But all in ways which enabled imaginative work and, crucially, paid full-time employment for the team - in itself a significant statement in a part of the country where full-time artist is not seen as an option for employment. (Every single student in the group I'd spoken to earlier saw themselves leaving Grahamstown as soon as they'd graduated, and heading for the bigger cities like Johannesburg, Cape Town or Durban.) This company did have some National Arts Council funding, of around £25,000.

Conclusions for the UK artsfunding response, then? Make a little go even further than you think. Don't think of buildings as liabilities but as real tools for making, showing, creating and earning. (I know there are strains of thought that arts buildings are 'very 20th century', but I think that is itself a luxurious and oddly purist attitude to take, even when I'm not in South Africa.) Use what you've got, because you've probably got more than you think. Don't wait for others to help you. Don't be too pure. More probably, over time.

And more from Eastern Cape as I go along, and get access to broadband. Maybe even some photos and videos, we'll see.