The following excerpt is taken from the full interview in our print version of the magazine (Vol. 11, No. 13)
When 24:7 Theatre Festival began in 2004, the aim was to give actors and writers a carefree arena in which to experiment with new work. Now entering its 12th edition, expectations are somewhat different: due to funding cuts, its format is set to change drastically after 2015. Maria Roberts speaks to founder and executive producer, David Slack
The idea seemed simple enough. In 2002 acting graduate David Slack performed at Edinburgh Festival Fringe and returned home with bold ambitions: why couldn’t Manchester offer the same sorts of opportunities for writers and actors as Edinburgh? Slack did what most people would shy away from – he turned his idea into reality. Two years later he launched 24:7, without any
funding in place, along with former collaborator Amanda Hennessy. In its first year the festival attracted 1,600 people, last year around 4,000 tickets were sold. Now, as its Arts Council England (ACE) funding is set to run out, July 2015 will mark the festival’s final outing under its current guise.
I was lucky to be a young arts journalist in the city when 24:7 first took off. My theatre editor staged a piece in a nightclub, and I loved the informality of the setting (even if the ice machine gurgled and clunked away in the background). The following year, full of the confidence taken from my MA in creative writing, I had my own shot at putting on a production. Puffed up with the arrogance of a 20-something wannabe – I had no idea how to produce a play – I carried on undeterred. It proved to be the valuable learning curve I needed, and one that I wouldn’t have experienced if I’d been taken into the professional arms of an established producing theatre. The life experience I gained through putting on a play at 24:7 in 2005 (mainly “don’t annoy people”) remains useful to me a decade later.
For Slack, it’s the very act of hitting the ground running that has given 24:7 its reason for being. He too has had to learn on the job, constantly adapting and tweaking the format to fit the needs of a burgeoning creative community. ‘I quickly learned to respond to all sorts of feedback, assessing the benefits of what we were undertaking and seeing if there is a need for doing it again,’ he says.
Only on reflection could he see the wider benefits of his grassroots project: ‘To begin with I didn’t see the broader picture at all … I saw 24:7 as a showcase for local talent, something that would give actors confidence and experience, as most casting took place in London.’
His reasons for winding down the festival serve as a stark warning. It’s the very growth of the city of Manchester, the massive investment in its arts buildings (reported online and in IAM Vol 11, No 8), and the faith ACE has placed in these institutions to develop new talent that has put 24:7 on a precarious footing. As the city sheds its gloomy post-industrialist shackles to position itself as a thriving digital hub that’s ‘passionate about ideas’, smaller organisations with tiny budgets battle to survive.
‘Finding somewhere to work now is increasingly difficult because of the success of the city,’ Slack agrees. ‘This means that the space we were using for two years, in which we had three floors with rehearsal rooms that lots of people made use of, is no longer available because the owner wants to redevelop the building. Currently our old office is still sitting there empty and we don’t have a formal base, we work from home.’
In the long-term, the loss of 24:7 could have negative repercussions on the theatre scene, certainly in the north of England. The festival operates a refreshingly democratic model that enables true diversity. Past productions have been written by established screenwriters, featuring actors from well-known television backgrounds, but equally there’s always been room for the complete unknown. A 40-something parent and a 20-something student can happily sit together on the same bill without prejudice, and as the writers cast their own productions, there’s no singular vision of the sort you might find in a theatre – frankly put, elitism is thrown out of the window, and its the ad hoc nature of 24:7’s programming that makes the festival unique.
This year, the festival will present four shows over one Big Weekend (24-26), a huge reduction from the former seven-day festival that hosted in excess of 20 plays during its early years. If the offering is smaller, the package is neater, and the four plays – Plant (James Kerr); We Are The Multitude (Laura Harper); Madness Sweet Madness (Georgina Tremayne) and Gary: A Love Story (James Harker) – are all spectacularly quirky. There’s also a family strand, along with workshops and rehearsed readings.
The future looks uncertain, but Slack is sure 24:7 will not disappear completely. He plans to continue to bring playwrights, directors and actors together, albeit within a slightly different model, offering networking events and writers lunches. ‘Keeping in touch with people is important,’ he reflects. ‘In my opinion, there seems to be a specific need for non-aligned theatre-makers to come together. Initiatives like 24:7 are ideally placed to provide people with that opportunity.’