“We cannot conceive of matter being formed of nothing, since things require a seed to start from.”
So said a poet, playwright and actor (answers on a postcard but no prizes for guessing correctly). And wise words they were, not least because there are two important lessons here. The quote reminds us that nothing comes from nothing, you need to set the wheel in motion and then keep it moving. And, yes, you need something to create this fathomable matter, but you don’t need much. In fact you need next to nothing. All you need is an idea.
Another man who knows how to create something with next to nothing is the brains behind the annual 24:7 theatre festival. More than a decade ago, David Slack was performing in the Scottish capital and drew inspiration from this experience to bring the most exciting elements of the Edinburgh Fringe to Manchester. So, in 2004 with no financial aid, the first 24:7 festival came to the city. Back then, zero funding plus seven days equalled 1,600 audience members. Quite an achievement.
Then, as the festival celebrated its 10th birthday last year, it learned that its regular funding was being withdrawn. It was a substantial blow. But, true to form, this hasn’t held Slack and his colleagues back. Yes, this year’s 24:7 is scaled down, featuring five plays rather than the usual ten, and takes place over three days rather than the usual seven, but it’s still going and is still committed to new writing and new talent.
I caught up with Slack to find out how this year’s event, The 24:7 Big Weekend, is taking shape and to find out, given the circumstances, whether he’s excited or nervous.
“I’m always excited,” he says. “There’s a strange thrill because we never know what we’ve got until the shows go up or if we’ve even got a festival until each show has it first performance. But that’s what I love about live performance, with theatre anything can happen at anytime.”
The festival has followed a number of formats but has always retained its central premise: to provide a platform for emerging artists who collaborate to create a collection of performances which are then performed during 24:7’s run.
Slack says: “In previous years we have ran it for seven days, it then went up to nine. But this year is the shortest event we’ve ever done, and it’s just a weekend.”
As one of the actors from last year’s festival and an avid follower of 24:7, I was devastated to hear about the loss of its Arts Council funding. I know first-hand how passionate Slack and his team are and how keen they are to help every contributor and continue to support and grow arts in the North. Losing funding must have been discouraging?
“It was in the way that we won’t be continuing with the same format because we don’t have a building or full time staff, but it has meant we can get more involved with the writers and get to know them better, same with the directors. It is now time we moved on to something else.”
Manchester boasts one of the most thriving and eclectic independent theatre scenes in the country (fringe isn’t PC anymore) and yet performance spaces are hard to come by, even more so rehearsal space. Surely this has had an impact on 24:7’s Big Weekend?
“The battle to get shows on is just that! The climate is changing quite rapidly and things are tightening up. There’s very little space in the city centre, and finding a space for a week is difficult.”
As an old manager of mine used to say, don’t come with a problem, come with a solution. Despite difficulties on numerous levels, Slack has had to be creative and roll with the punches. Usually set in one location, this year’s events offer a variety of styles and venues, with the majority based at Manchester University’s Martin Harris Centre.
The event includes four main plays, a family friendly site-specific piece at Manchester Museum, a series of monologues with a guided tour, rehearsed readings from a collaborative project between a Manchester-based writer and an Australian-based musician as well a series of workshops – all crammed into one weekend.
Slack says: “We will find new ways to put things on, and 24:7 will carry on developing writers, directors, and actors. We have an association with it now.”
The sadness I felt when hearing of the festival’s funding cuts dissipates as I continue to talk to Slack, and I feel reassured that this isn’t the end. He tells me: “Our brand has enough strength now that we could do a project every two to three months.”
So what of the funding?
“You need to show you’re worth investing in by doing something.”
By Kate Morris
Photos of David Slack by Chris Payne
The 24:7 Big Weekend takes place from 24-26 July, 2015 in Manchester. For more details, follow his link: www.247theatrefestival.co.uk/whats-on