Election drama

Playwrights stay up past bedtime to produce instant political theatre.

The play's the thing: as politicians stayed up way past bedtime on 6 May, a group of playwrights were also pulling an all-nighter to script five brand new dramas. Whilst politicos struggled with squaring the circles of government by Venn diagram, the "first five plays of the new parliament" were cast, rehearsed and produced by the Supporting Wall theatre company in just 24 hours. The resulting show was Election Drama, a one-night-only, rapid response to the election, which was staged at the New Players Theatre barely 48 hours after polls closed. Truly a breathtaking feat of theatrical chutzpah.

There was a palpable party mood amongst the youngish, probably leftish spectators, even if the party had overtones of the ship's band on the deck of the Titanic. Election metaphors flew everywhere: when someone was given a seat number in a non-existent row B, it was suggested by the man next to me that she "enter into negotiations with Rows A and C".

Staged just round the corner from where the "Take Back Parliament" protest had begun only hours before, this was a rare opening for dramatists to engage directly with unfolding events -- and to take the piss out of Ukip. Would they seize the opportunity to hang a tale on a hung parliament, or would they bottle it?

In truth, aside from some last minute on-trend references, carbon dating the moment of performance, as it were, the playlets could have been written at any time over the past year. But there was no doubting the authentic rawness of the performances as the actors struggled, scripts in hand, to deliver these newly-hatched dramas. At times, it was like watching a rehearsed reading; at others, the performers managed to deliver substantially more.

Our compères for the evening were the producers Ben Monks and Will Young, and in the spirit of making it up as you go along, they were standing in for an unknown celeb who couldn't make it (praise be). In fact, they were in danger of upstaging the actors in the likeability stakes, and their "back-room boy pushed to front of stage" personae worked like a charm.

The plays themselves were a varied bunch. Most eschewed actual politicians, perhaps confirming their irrelevance in everyday affairs. As might be expected, given the exigencies of rehearsal time and brevity, the most successful were those with sensibly curtailed aims, and the sort of broad-brush strokes that an audience can grasp quickly. That said, there was at times a real flexing of ambition.

Understandably, two of the playwrights scavenged off existing texts: Rex Obano's The Wrong Party reworked The Birthday Party and reproduced the surreal Pinteresque menace pretty well. A dishevelled and stringy Brown -- looking absolutely nothing like Brown -- is browbeaten by thuggish apparatchiks, the reincarnations of Pinter's Goldberg and McCann, who wring the requisite ambiguity and threat from the word "Party". The second overt hommage was Phil Wilmott's Act IV, which was a resetting of Uncle Vanya. And although there simply wasn't time to get it in full colour, the Chekhovian mood of disconsolate lassitude was spot on. The Russian gentry are transformed into a political dynasty on its uppers, sitting amidst the remains of the night's takeaway feast.

Just as in politics, women tended to be sidelined in these plays, with the notable exception of Megan Ford's Human Interest, which took this very marginalisation as its theme. A light gloss on the political WAGs, with cursory name changes (Brown to White; Sam Cam to Shabo), it was also the vehicle for the performance of the night. Sian Robins-Grace pulled off an inspired turn as a self-seeking TV presenter, and brought the house down as she leered, simpered and winked at the camera, all pertness and no pertinence.

The other short that I thought worked well was Anders Lustgarten's Bang Up, which dealt with the definitively disenfranchised -- prisoners -- on election night. A black crack-dealer's perception of himself as a true Tory (pays no tax, is self-reliant) was first class mischief. However, the final moments, when the Afghan prisoner is deported, slightly over-stretched this neat, diagrammatic piece. The final show, Che Walker's Two Thousand and Twelve, seemed to be pulled in many directions, from Greek mythology to post-Afghanistan stress, via a bleak dystopian near-future. Despite its eye wateringly brutal language of "single slut mums" and "cage fighter daddies", it never really rose off the page.

So a patchy but passionate evening, during whiche not every word counted. Just like the election, then.

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Photo: Team Rock
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Rock solid-arity: how fans and bands helped save Team Rock's music magazines

“It was purely helping out friends in a time of need.”

A little over 25 years ago, a journalist friend let me in on the secret of publishing success. He cut his teeth in the Sixties as an editor in the Yippie underground press, wrote for Rolling Stone, Associated Press and the Chicago Sun-Times, then went on to teach at one of America’s most prestigious journalism schools.

The big secret, he had concluded, was community. No more, no less. Get to know your community and serve it well.

A quarter of a century on, it’s sometimes hard to remember what community looks like in newspapers and magazines. Carefully crafted pages have been obscured by a haze of clickbait, engineered to sucker everyone and anyone into donating a drive-by page view for ads. Community has given way to commodity.

But occasionally, there are glimpses of hope. Six months ago, TeamRock.com, built around a group of specialist music magazines including Classic Rock, Metal Hammer and Prog, went into administration.

The Christmas closure came brutally quickly. The Scottish Sun reported that stunned staff in the company’s Lanarkshire headquarters were told they had been made redundant “as a joiner changed the locks on their offices”. In total, 73 staff were laid off; nearly 30 in Scotland and more than 40 in London.

At the close of 2016, the future for the Team Rock brand and its stable of magazine titles was bleaker than a Black Sabbath album. But last month, in an extraordinary reversal of fortunes, TeamRock.com was named the most influential rock music website in the world.

Bargain-basement buy back

Just a fortnight after its shock closure, the brand was bought by former owners Future Plc. In a no-brainer deal, the Bath-based publisher re-acquired the three magazines it had sold to Team Rock’s founders in 2013. It bought back assets sold for £10m at the knockdown price of £800,000 with the bonus of TeamRock.com and Team Rock Radio. The deal rescued large parts of the Team Rock operation – but its soul was saved by the rock and metal community.

Oblivious to any discussions going on to rescue the magazines, readers, music fans and bands came together in a stunning display of loyalty. Hearing that Team Rock staff wouldn’t be getting paid their Christmas wage they took to social media to pledge their support and raised almost £90,000 for redundant staff.

Ben Ward, the organiser of the crowdfunding campaign and frontman for heavy metal band Orange Goblin said he started the appeal with no thought for the business. “It was purely helping out friends in a time of need,” he explained.

He had read all three Team Rock magazines for years, socialised with their staff and promoted his own and other bands in their pages. “To think of a world without any of those magazines – it was devastating,” he said.

The response to the campaign brought him some cheer, with members of bands such as Queen, Rush and Avenged Sevenfold all posting about it on their social media pages. He added: “The whole Christmas period, my phone just wouldn't stop beeping with notifications for another donation.”

Show of solidarity

Though the fundraiser blew up all Ward's expectations, beating his initial target by more than 400 per cent, he didn't seem completely surprised by the scale of the response.

“Heavy metal and hard rock, people that are into that sort of music, we've always been sort of looked down upon. We know it's not commercially the done thing, we know it's not the norm to walk around with long hair and tattoos and dirty leather jackets. But when you see a fellow metal head in the supermarket, you always give them an approving nod. There's a kind of solidarity.”

While favourable capitalist arithmetic has kept the presses rolling – and the online servers going – for Team Rock, it was the music community – empowered by social media – who delivered the real resurrection. With a combined Facebook following of more than 3.5million and a total social media audience of almost five million, it was no surprise TeamRock.com was soon number one in its field.

“What's brilliant about this is that it's based on what music fans share with each other,” explains editor-in-chief Scott Rowley.

TeamRock.com became the most influential rock site based on social media sharing, and came fifth in the top 100 sites across all music genres. The site above it is a hip-hop title, again featured for the strength of its community, according to Rowley. “Those people really know what they're talking about, they want very specific content, and they're not getting served it elsewhere,” he said. “When they get it, they love it and they share it and talk about it and that's their world.”

Responsiblity

Following the outpouring of support for the rock magazines, Rowley now feels a heightened sense of responsibility to do “the right thing” and steer clear of cynical decisions to get clicks or put certain bands on the cover just to sell copies. He believes future success will come down to trust. “Sometimes that feels precarious, but equally I think we're in good hands,” he explains. “We're a business, we've got to make money, but we know what smells fake and where the limits are.”

Zillah Byng-Thorne, CEO of owner Future, recognises the need to balance the realities of running a listed company with the authenticity needed to maintain trust. “What Future is interested in is the passion that underpins specialist media,” she says. “I don't really mind what your passion is, what's important is that it's a passion.”

“No one is sitting around thinking, 'I wonder what bands sound like Thin Lizzy?',” says Rowley. “We're much more a part of their lifestyle, interrupting their day to tell them someone’s just released an album or announced a tour.”

“But it doesn't have to always be about fishing for clicks,” he adds. “I remember [Classic Rock online editor] Fraser Lewry saying, 'Sometimes on social we should just be being social'.”

Being social. Listening. Contributing to the conversation. Sharing the passion. That old-fashioned notion of serving the community. It seems Ward would agree, as he offers the new owners of the magazines he helped to save some advice: “Don't make the same mistakes, investing in things that weren't really necessary from the magazine’s point of view. I'm in no position to tell anyone how to run their business, but on behalf of the rock and metal community…keep it interesting, keep it relevant.”