Fringe Focus: The So-and-So Arts Club

For today’s Fringe Focus I caught up with the indefatigable Sarah Berger, of the members’ organisation and support network for creatives The So-and-So Arts Club (based in Hammersmith). We spoke last month as theatres were beginning to reopen and make plans for autumn seasons and shows in 2021.

My thanks to Sarah. As the club is still without any emergency funding, they can be supported via their website.

Sarah Berger, founder of the So-and-So Arts Club
Sarah Berger, founder of the So-and-So Arts Club

How has lockdown been for you?

We (myself, and the other person who was running the organization with me) were not employees. So, we couldn’t be furloughed. We were self-employed. He had to leave because I couldn’t pay him. I wasn’t paid for eight months before that.

The thing that is the most telling is the fact that I’ve run the So-and-So Arts Club for eight years. And during that time, I’ve probably provided paid work for about a thousand people through raising money, by running buildings and all the rest of it.

Fundamentally, I’m an actor, you know, that’s what I am. I’ve produced six festivals, rep seasons of new writing over 80 rehearsed readings where everybody was paid to do it. A lot of those plays were picked up and taken on.

People like me who champion freelancers find ourselves doubly bereft.

Sarah Berger on support for freelancers.

When I applied to the Arts Council for help we didn’t get it. I looked into applying to bring some proper money in, but that is aimed at big organizations who have teams of people, right? They give you five days to fill in something, and its 40 pages or so.

I think that people like me who have championed freelancers for years putting myself and my own career on the line find ourselves doubly bereft. We suffer just as all other freelancers do, but also we can’t even do what it is that we do in order to try and help people to help themselves.

I’m well aware of the fact that I’m one of many, many, many people who find themselves in this situation, but it has been hard, and continues to be hard because, you know, I still have to pay rent bills and everything. And there’s no income.

Do you think more could have been done to help companies in crisis?

There is something that could have been done and its sort of like a devolution of power. Of course it’s important that we protect the crown jewels. But the people who keep this industry going, who are freelancers and have not been furloughed, they’re the people who fill those buildings with creative product and we’ve just been hung out to dry.

One of the problems in perspective that is so prevalent at the moment is the fact that we are a workforce. We are, this is our job. We dedicated time, money, and lives to producing a product, which is actually a money spinner with all of the attendant stuff that goes around it.

So, it’s not just us. And also, you know, we’re part of the gig economy and the gig economy is stuffed. And I think that shoring up all of the great institutions without being able to pay any of the people within them isn’t right.

You can get money for research and development all the time, but you don’t get money to pay people, to actually do a job, which the audience will see. I mean, to my mind, there’s something fundamentally wrong with that equation.

You don’t get money to pay people … there’s something fundamentally wrong with that.

Sarah Berger on funding.

I have been proud of the fact that I’ve managed to get a lot of things done and always tried to pay people while being self-sufficient. When something like this happens and you can’t do that, then I think it’s terrible to be penalized for that fact because you don’t play the game.

You have Oliver Dowden saying, I want all theatres open by November. That’s lovely. How are you planning to do that with no money, no insurance, no subsidy? We can’t just walk in next Wednesday and turn the lights on and do something.

What happens if one of your people get sick and you have to pull the whole thing and lose all your money? What happens about the fact that it doesn’t financially work to have 30% of an audience, even in a big space? It’s what about the extra staff that’s required? What about the COVID measures?

I did a budget for what I thought it would take to make my little space COVID secure and it’s north of £5,000. I’d have to go and clean it myself every day, which I’ll do if that’s what it takes. I think that it’s a complete lack of comprehension about what being part of the gig economy as a freelancer actually means.

Even artistic directors of theatres don’t understand that. I understand it because I’m an actor and this is my 40th year in show business. I know of what I speak sort of thing. But I think that the government assumes that we’re somehow getting away with something you know. Everybody else getting furlough. Thanks for absolutely, you know, nothing.

And I think that there’s been a backlash of people going well, who do you think you are? You’re just prancing around. And I wish they would stop. I heard on Radio Four this morning, somebody saying, well, can’t amateur groups get going. You’re going to ignore however many thousands of people it is whose entire livelihood depends on this to talk about people for whom it is a hobby?

I’m very frustrated and I’m uncertain as to whether the club and the venue is going to survive this actually. I’ve done everything in my power to try and figure a way through. People are saying things like don’t want to do this now with you because you can’t guarantee me a date. I’m not going to lie to them and say we’ll do it on a particular date.

None of us know what’s going to happen. We can’t plan anything. We’re frantically paddling, keeping our head above water.

What are the key points about how the So-and-So began and how it works?

The reason I set it up was to do with the lack of control and inequality in our industry and trying to create first of all, a community where people felt they belonged to something they weren’t alone. They were part of a bigger thing. It’s also much easier to get things done if there are a thousand of you.

It was also to give people back some sense of being in control of their own destiny to some degree, so that they could help themselves with the backup of a whole community of people. And that I’m proud to say, has been achieved over the period of the last eight years. I started by accident and it sort of took off like a rocket because it was needed.

I can say it’s the least kind of exploitative thing because it’s run by us and for us. One of the reasons that I’m still fighting the fight now is because I feel that in a moment like this, mavericks like me and the So-and-So Arts Club are more necessary than they ever were – because who is going to champion us?

I’m trying to find a way that we can get something up and on. And to make some money with the kind of helping hand and support of not just me in the space, but my contacts within the industry and generating something of quality, which can be charged to be watched.

I’d like to be a beacon to say we’re still fighting your corner.

Sarah Berger, on the So-and-So Arts Club.

And then the money goes back to those people who’ve decided to try and be part of it. That’s been the overall ethos of the company. We’ve had a thousand members at any given time for eight years, which is not bad going. People come and go, people go and then they re-join. It’s one of those things that you get what you put into it. Once they do that, I can actually see the penny drop and then they become champions of it. They realise this is beneficial. That’s a relief in an industry that pits people against each other all the time.

It’s great to have something where people genuinely promote each other’s work and try and help out and generate opportunity. People have formed their own companies. All sorts of things have happened. When I first started it, I made a little speech saying my dream is that in three years’ time, there’ll be loads of people who’ve done all sorts of things that I won’t even know about. And that has happened, which I’m proud of.

For five years, it was just me, there is no team. Then I had my lovely Dave who I met because he was an assistant director when I took one of the plays I’d developed (The Long Road South, by Paul Minx) and directed a production of it in 2016 at the King’s Head with Imogen Stubbs and Michael Brandon in it. And he was with me until COVID and now it’s me on my own again.

You really need a team of people because it’s a bit much for one person to try and run a building, do all the admin, organize all the readings, operate the Capsule Festival. I’ve launched crowdfunding for the first time ever.

I’ve never done it before, and I’ve been very carefully trying to put it together and I’ve got all sorts of rewards: I’ve tried to make it fun. It’s not aimed at actors but at those who might be able to help. [This fundraiser met its initial target this month].

That is to raise money, to finish the building and help mothball it so that we’re ready to go in April. If we can survive till then we’ll be all right, because a lot of places are not going to. I’d like to be a bit of a beacon to say, we’re still here fighting your corner. There’s going to be affordable space. We’ll give you all the backup we can and all the rest of it, but we’ve got to put our safety belt on first.

Logo for Capsule Festival
Logo for Capsule Festival

Have you been able to carry on doing the club readings doing lockdown?

We’ve done three readings during this lockdown period. I’m about to organize another one. What I think we will do initially is once we are back into the building in late September I will say, do you want to all meet and rehearsed a reading socially distantly in the space and then we’ll stream it. I think that’s how we’ll have to do it for everybody’s safety and your audiences. They have always been free to audiences, and everybody taking part gets £40. It’s a paid job, a chance for writers to hear their work being read, and the quality is high.

A lot of those plays have gone on to be picked up or developed, or we’ve developed some people, other people have done other plays and so on. That’s never been a kind of money spinner. It’s offering something of value to the members, while at the same time people can come and watch them. Get something interesting and entertaining and engage with new work and new faces.

The other thing that was important about it is that it was trying to get directors, either very established directors or new directors, not just to work with the same people all the time. They had to cast it from the club, and we have a policy that anybody who wants to be seen will be seen, even if I think, well, you’re not really right for this. It gives people a chance to practice and also to meet somebody new.

How’s the planning going for the Capsule Festival?

We have had 150 submissions of plays, which in a short period of time is rather good and 70 short films. I’ve got some pretty extraordinary people who are going to be on the panel for both of those two things. The standard is really good – but we can only do four.

I’m quite excited about it because we’re experimenting with a kind of hybrid of how to do something with this idea of doing 3d filming. We will be slightly more interactive and rehearsing in one place. It gets us out of Zoom because I find Zoom pretty challenging as an actor and a director: you need the contact. That’s the fun bit, being creative and making work happen and fostering talent is a pleasure that doesn’t feel like work. Fighting to get some new fire doors is not much fun.

Capsule is a slightly moveable feast. I’m trying to pick a variety of plays that will feature all different ages and so on. And that brings with its logistical problems in terms of safety. My plan is to try and get stuff going by November, with two weeks rehearsal, two days of filming.

I’ve read some plays that have moved me to tears. I don’t want anything that’s overtly to do with COVID though. There are things that, where there are sort of wonderful parallels and parables, if you like. And that’s really, really interesting. It’s interesting looking at things, thinking how would you stage this given that you can’t have contact. I think that’s there’s room to be creative within that. What we do is we turn that into a creative possibility as opposed to trying to do it the old way and bemoaning the fact that we can’t.

What do you think of the digital theatre explosion of the past few months?

I haven’t been watching because partly because I’ve been in France with no internet, so I haven’t been able to, and also I was so busy firefighting. I mean obviously I’ve been involved in a couple of things myself, but I haven’t really I haven’t really had the time or the headspace to be honest, I’ll watch a bit more now, but I am not a huge fan personally. Certainly not Zoom stuff. I know people have been incredibly inventive and clever. And I salute anybody who tries to do anything because it’s hard. I take my hat off to them.

And I think that you know, the other problem that we have with all of that is that the big companies, for example, can afford to put things out for free. And that isn’t sustainable because we still need to earn a living. I tried to watch a bit of One Man Two Guvnors, and I lasted about six minutes, I think, because I just thought this is a theatre piece and I don’t want to watch it, because it wasn’t designed for that specifically.

When I was out directing Macbeth in Kyrgyzstan at the State theatre, I saw Benedict Cumberbatch doing the Frankenstein. That was quite filmic actually. And it was so bizarre sitting in a cinema, surrounded by Kyrgyz people who were watching this National Theatre production.

So that kind of worked, but in terms of sitting in my own sitting room, watching something, I think film is film, and theatre is theatre, but I’m open to the idea. And that’s partly what we’re experimenting with Capsule. Trying to combine the two elements with something that’s tailor made for the situation rather than archival recording of something.

It isn’t sustainable to continue to make things available for free.

Sarah Berger, on digital theatre.

I think it’s wonderful that creative people are creative and that we do survive, and we fight back and we, we try and find a way round it. And there will be, as you say, benefits of that, there’ll be things that that there’ll be creative innovation that we will be able to take on. But it is also true that there’s a lot of trying to just sort of shore things up.

The big thing is how do we charge for online stuff when people are used to watching for nothing. That’s the big hurdle and we can’t keep providing things for nothing because we like everybody else have to eat and that, you know. Look what it did to the music industry.

What do you think about the “new normal” as it applies to theatre?

I don’t think it will go back to exactly how it was, because I actually think that that was dying before this ever happened. I think change was coming and had to come. And I think that there’s exacerbated it and kind of thrown all the pieces into the air, what that’s actually really going to look like. I don’t know. I mean, I think there are a lot of voices calling for the kind of change where finances are more evenly spread across the whole sector in different parts of the country. Whether that happens or not, who knows?

What the role of theatre is has got to be re-examined as it does every hundred years or so. But I do think there will be theatre because I think it’s such a basic human need to tell and hear stories in a live situation. I think we will find a way our way back to a slightly different landscape version of that.

We have to rethink how we make ourselves relevant to new audiences.

Sarah Berger on the future of theatre.

The last few years before I started So-and-So I was doing a lot of touring and you learn about the state of theatre by standing on those stages across the country and then Scotland and Wales and Jersey and all the rest of it. The demographic of an aging audience who is dying out who is used to a certain kind of theatre and so on. This is very cruelly highlighted that because that audience can’t come, they’ll be the last people who’d be able to safely come back.

After watching the demise of rep and the big wobble of regional theatre, I think we were the canaries in the mind anyway at that point. We have to rethink how we make ourselves relevant and engage with a new audience because otherwise we won’t survive.

Already people have had to leave the business and they’ll never return. I was thinking about this the other day and I was thinking about, you know, the whole thing with actresses about if I leave, when I have children and then try and go back, what’s going to happen. And the answer is you’re going to have an extremely hard time. You know, those of us old pit ponies, who’ve clung onto the rock face consistently, it’s hard enough for us. This is not a business that you could take time away from and come back to. It just isn’t because it’s moved on and there’s another generation.

I’m so sorry for the young in this, I’m incredibly grateful that I’ve had 40 years and I had done pretty much everything I wanted to do. And I’ve had a great time doing it. And those poor people at the beginning of it all, you haven’t even been able to get started. I mean, that’s another reason why I sort of feel, I can’t give in the moment because we’ve got to help them.

We’ve got to send the lift back down and try and help them start.

Image credits: Sarah Berger