Interview: Slung Low’s Alan Lane
Published in The Stage, 20.12.2012
Alan Lane is bracing himself for bad news. It’s been 18 months since his company Slung Low were granted National Portfolio status with annual funding to the tune of approximately £100,000. Now they’re “facing the likelihood of a cut in our grant mid-term. Money that we thought was guaranteed could be reduced.”
Thanks to Danny Boyle and Nicholas Hytner, we’ve heard a lot in recent months about the imperilled situation facing regional theatre, but it’s companies like Slung Low, based in West Yorkshire, that will actually bear the consequences of any such future cut. “We were one of the lucky ones. We didn’t get funding before. Now we do. It allows us a certain amount of security for three years, but I don’t think we’ve seen the full extent of the cuts.”
Despite that, he’s not primarily concerned for himself. “If I had to chose – and thank God I don’t – between Slung Low continuing to be funded or my local theatre, I swear to God I’d chose the West Yorkshire Playhouse – even though we’ve never done a full-scale project there and it’s often infuriated me with its programming. You can’t measure how vital the West Yorkshire Playhouse is to Leeds or the Everyman to Liverpool. Without them, there’s nothing.”
Lane is a born campaigner with a charisma spun from passion and plain-speaking pragmatism. Most of all, he practices what he preaches. In 2010, Slung Low opened the Holbeck Underground Ballroom, a series of five interconnected railway arches affectionately known as the Hub. “We have rehearsal space, office space and a vast array of equipment. If you have need of it and you’re making alternative performance in the region – and that’s for you to define – then you can have access to those resources whether you have money or not.”
The same goes for the company’s transit van, which is insured for anyone over 25 to drive. “That’s a tiny thing, but without it, a number of shows wouldn’t have toured last year.”
The key word is community; an attitude that stems from Slung Low’s beginnings as a “loosely floating collective” of up to 33 artists. Their work was self-consciously experimental, inspired by Forced Entertainment. “We were bloody awful at it,” says Lane, characteristically to the point. After five years, they decided to put the audience first. “If a piece of theatre is going to have any impact whatsoever, the most important thing is that the audience can access it.”
After an unproductive few years in Sheffield, they eventually found support from Iain Bloomfield at Bradford’s Theatre at the Mill and, when Lane became Ian Brown’s assistant at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in 2005, relocated to Leeds.
Both shifts paid dividends and soon afterwards, Slung Low won the Oxford Samuel Beckett Award with Helium, a fragmented journey for one person at a time. In one container, you were sat next to an 8 year-old watching an illusionist in a theatre; in the next, alongside in adult self in an RAF Lancaster bomber over Germany in World War Two.
It was, says Lane, the making of the company. “That award allowed us to think bigger in terms of the impact we have on an audience. Whereas before we’d take over a warehouse, now our show’s happen over an 18 mile radius. Everything has grown. That’s the fun: the kids in a toyshop feeling.”
Since then, they have made entrances on speedboats, lined the rooftops of Manchester with snipers and pulled actors up the side of a building in Hull. Three years ago, they sent audiences on a vampire hunt in the Barbican’s underground car park. Up next is an interactive adventure for children, also at the Barbican, called 59 Minutes to Save Christmas. These are not, it’s fair to say, bog-standard theatrical experiences. Slung Low aim high.
“I like it when audiences are fond of a piece,” he explains, “but I prefer it when they think they’ll never ever forget it. We’re driven by the urge to make things that no one will ever forget.”
However, even a man once dubbed ‘a theatrical huckster’ by one national newspaper can’t fathom the government’s proposals for philanthropy. We talk the day after the DCMS published a report advocating the withdrawal of funding to companies without a strategy for raising legacy giving. “We a two-man band – one man, one woman and a yellow transit van,” he says disbelievingly, “The idea that we’re going to draw in any estate funding whatsoever is ludricous.”
Being based in the regions allows Slung Low the possibilities to think big, but it does limit media attention. Today Lane’s is no less incensed by that morning’s Today Programme report, claiming the Arts Council has failed to live up to its own mantra, Great Art for Everyone. “It felt like [Will Gompetz, the BBC’s arts editor] was passing judgement on a whole body of work that he’d never experienced. I don’t care that I’m never in the Telegraph. I care if you tell me my audience weren’t enjoying it.
“If Great Art for Everyone hasn’t worked, it’s not the public’s fault. Our audiences are amazing. They’re genuinely delighted by work that any theatre critic would call experimental. They turn up, they pay for tickets and they cheer at the end. It’s extraordinary. The other day someone said, ‘I can’t believe you did this here.’ With audiences like that, why would I go anywhere else?”
Photograph: Simon Warner