Writing Advice | Mark Ravenhill pod | Meet-up London | ESG Critique
Super podcast with Mark Ravenhill
If you read / listen to only one thing this week, it's my Mark Ravenhill conversation. The newsletter this week focusing on three items: (1) my conversations with Mark Ravenhill on theatre and his excellent writing advice tips and (2) the Tariq Fancy essay critiquing ESG investment practices and his NGO focused on short learning bites, Rumie. And,
(3a) But my main contribution in Q4 is the Sep 10 UnConference so, if it’s for you, do come.
I am co-hosting a Sustainability UnConference - now Sep 10 (with Chatham House Sustainability Accelerator). Improbable Theatre are leading the OpenSpace format. Let me know if you want to come - and if you are interested in sustainabilty you should come! It's now on waitlist, but if you are keen and have reason I can manage an invite. I’m co-hosting the Sustainability Unconference now on Sep 10.
I have podcasts coming up with Jonathan Wolff (philosopher), Jason Mitchell (poet, sustainability investor), Clare Montagu (former hospice COO and minister special adviser). Let me know if you have questions.
Mark is tweeting out super insightful advice on writing plays and theatre. They range from micro interventions like the ending words of dialogue to wider thoughts in the structure of entrance/exits.
I’ve collected the first 65 or so far here. They are really good food for thought for theatre makers, or all writers really.
If you are here for the arts and writing this is super thoughtful info...
“a new character entering should be like someone stepping in to a dingy - everyone in the dingy has to reposition themselves to find a new balance or they’ll capsize. The action of the scene is the negotiation of that repositioning. Same for an exit.”
“there’s a three part structure : establish, intensify, subvert. This can be used to shape of everything from a gesture or sentence through to the structure of a play. Eg 1. They ice the cake 2. They furiously ice the cake 3. They throw the cake out the window”
Further on Mark... I also have a wide ranging podcast with Mark which tackles his broad thinking about theatre, arts and culture.
Mark articulates why representation now for all kinds of stories that would fly under the rainbow flag is important and sketches out his vision as co-artistic director. We discuss the differences between German and British theatre cultures. The surprising lack of influence from visual art on British theatre (compared to eg German theatre or many other kinds of theatre).
The satisfaction of bringing a popular story, like David Walliams’ Boy in the Dress to a wider (out of London) audience. We chat about how representative (or not) theatre is, touching on working class and outside-of-London audiences, if right wing playwrights are missing considering the British people keep returning right-leaning governments; and how, of course, the landscape of public views and opinion is much more complicated than that.
The importance of listening in a world where many people are defending their right to speak (and many of those defenders having never been without that right to speak) - making space to listen to other voices.
Mark’s curiosity and love of life-long learning and what ballet has taught him. The differences and similarities in how he approached his recent biographical work about his mother, father and himself.
We play over-rated/under-rated and Mark rates:
Speaking in verse all day
Dressing up or outside in techniques
Chekhov and non-English theatre
(Only one of these is overrated)
We discuss the importance of Keith Johnston’s book "Improv" (note my podcast with Lee Simpson also discuss Keith’s work) and how Mark has used the exercises in the book.
I ask Mark, what question theatre should be asking today.
Mark finishes with advice to creatives on not being swayed too much by others (well-intentioned or not) advice.
Arts people can probably skim this next bit, but it’s a thoughtful, controversial counter point to ESG investing from Tariq Fancy (ex-Blackrock). His overall essay is here and there’s been coverage in the FT by Robert Armstrong. I had lunch with Tariq a while ago - and in fact the chi-chi, high-end pseudo-Peruvian restaurant we ate at is perhaps some metaphor for where parts of the financial services ecosystem might have gone awry.
I’ve not seen the counter-counterpoints articulated well or in-depth anywhere as yet, so I might have to sketch those out at some time in details, but I’m busy with the Unconference and everything else at the moment. In brief, I would say there are at least 5 mechanisms of change that ESG thinkers posit, of which “the cost of capital” argument in equities is considered the weakest by some (unlike Armstrong who claims it is the strongest). [This is because divestment in equities - if it works is socio-political signal not a cost of capital impact, as opposed to primary debt financing.Many critique this view, see previous blogs with Cary Krosinsky, Alex Edmans + many others] I make any claims what my own personal weighting is on these ideas but I sketch them out below.
ESG Transparency impacts management decisions makes real world impact, changes cost of capital. See eg Christian Leuz et al. work.
ESG engagement impacts management decisions, makes real world impact and improves company performance. Active Ownership or Activism. See the work of Elroy Dimson et al.
ESG signalling impacts both the “overton window” and/or the “median voter” allowing policy makers to enact more sustainable policies. (While carbon tax is the major counter to this, you actually have many other major green/ESG policies that arguably would not have happened without ESG influence either with a median voter theory or via elite policy making within the overton window depending on what framework for the political economy you put weight on).
Where ESG is mainstream, it is not called ESG. eg success of Orsted, Neste, Moderna, many healthcare companies who saves lives, some tech companies etc. and is a primary driver of what investors look for.
ESG is a shorthand for all the extra-financial capitals eg natural, human, social, intellectual, relational etc. And by explicitly trying to value, asses and measure them it influences management to do the same; where analysed correctly and ahead of the “market” can also lead to superior returns, in theory.
ESG as a direct impact on future sales or cash flows of a business eg lower carbon transport, EVs etc..
Positive ESG proxy voting improves share prices and company outcomes see work of eg Caroline Flammer.
Armstrong/Fancy posit that there is “green washing” - no doubt there is in that every industry overstates some of what it does - the phenomenon of “corporate puff” is well known. And one large asset manager is under investigation. (I would say from where I've interacted within firms, I've typically only seen hard-working authentic thinkers and doers)
And many thinkers have critiques along this line along with ESG incrementalism. Eg see the work of Raj Thamotheram who has often critcised people like me (?!).
The major critique, that a focus on ESG at a company/investor level detracts from ESG at a government level, is hard to prove one way or the other with the evidence available and some would argue might be overstated.
Obviously carbon policy is a big lacuna and it’s probably a political economy problem in that sense (see above on median voter and Overton window) and I might at some point dive deeper into why/how policy might be made. Noting that major elements required are: Measurement, carbon pricing, standards, innovations, culture change (as I’ve noted in Thinking Bigly - come and see the show one day to find out more!).
But there are other elements of ESG that one could take as successes. Eg if you look at healthcare and you look at eg HIV drug access, this improved from nothing when the drugs were first invented to a programme where poor people and poor countries had access. (Although not without controversy and you can argue how much help investors were...) This saved potentially millions of lives. We can see this in overall life expectancy trends.
While there still are many critiques of eg pharmaceutical companies, I do not see many software or hardware companies giving away their (patented) products for free and saving lives.
I think you can credibly argue that ESG factors played a part in the coming together of the pharma industry with many other players in the early 2000s to save significant numbers of lives. And that this was no distraction from wider policy. (Though you could argue that wider policy and litigation etc. play a significant role in moving pharma companies positions).
Or, another way.
Does asking a company to have a responsible tax policy detract from efforts to influence government tax policy?
Does asking a company to treat its workforce well detract from efforts to influence labour policy (or eg min. wage debates)?
Does asking a company to report its extra-financial and financial assets propose detract from efforts to change audit reform?
There is a further critique from John Plender here, on bonus culture and Net Zero. Do read the whole Tariq Fancy piece. It’s important to understand the many valid criticisms here. Armstrong summarises (although I am not sure these are the very best arguments) as:
Argument one. The only really coherent case for ESG investing changing the world is that it raises the cost of capital for “bad” companies
Argument two. If ESG investing did provide higher returns — as the industry both explicitly and implicitly promises — then profit-seeking investment managers would be doing all the work for us
Argument three. There is no good reason to think that the investment horizon of companies and investors should approximate the timescales of the big collective problems we face.
Argument four. The core mechanism of ESG investing is divestment, but when an investor sells a security in the secondary market, another buys.
Argument five. Giving people the dumb idea that shifting their savings from one investment fund to another is going to help materially with, say, climate change creates a dangerous distraction.
Argument six. Green bonds open the way for a neat little capital arbitrage by companies and governments.
Argument seven. To really change the relative financial calculus for “bad” versus “good” companies, ESG funds would have to be orders of magnitude bigger than they are now.
Argument eight. Corporations, and the whole legal and social apparatus in which they sit, were built around the idea that companies exist to maximise shareholder wealth. Assuming this ecosystem can fix "wicked problems" is bonkers.
(I didn't address this above, but hey no one has a good solution to wicked problems.... or do they? Thinking Bigly....)
Argument nine. Do you really want financial industry bigwigs making choices about how to solve our biggest social problems?
Finally, Fancy is raising money for his non-profit Rumie that uses bite sized learning and is hoping to help people in Afghanistan. "Looking for a way to empower girls in Afghanistan to continue their education? The situation in Afghanistan is heartbreaking: years of progress in girls’ and womens’ education and empowerment is at risk of going backwards in a country where the average age is 18 and nearly two-thirds are under the age of 25.
Working with a number of local leaders including Pashtana Durrani, whose formidable strength shines through in this BBC interview, Rumie began developing free digital learning tools for smartphones and tablets in Afghanistan in 2017. With a mobile phone it’s possible to learn safely from anywhere. Find more on Rumie here.
We talk about types of clowning and why the clown always says ‘yes’; the challenges of older women roles in the entertainment industry and discuss the differences between US comedy and British comedy
We chat about the importance of faith to Sally and what the aphorism - there being two routes to God (love and suffering) - means. We talk about embracing uncertainty, being curious and open minded and the practice of prayer.
The disability community is important to us. We both have children with disabilities. We talk in detail about how that impacts us, how the mainstream world interacts with the disabled and, despite the challenges, how to have fulfilled lives - how we’ve been taught to live in the moment.
Sally ends with advice for fledgling creatives and expectant mothers.
Ollie make guest star experience telling us the best thing about having Down’s.
...if you don't live in the moment and if you don't sort of take it in, the story you tell yourself about what's happening can be much too bleak because of these big awful events. So, Ollie can be good 99% of a day and then that 1% just will be so bad that you remember the day as being the day when the MacBook was put in the bath. Whereas actually he was really good up to that point. I remember, he went to a special needs school which is a disaster because he got expelled from the mainstream, that's another conversation for another day. He just hated it, really hated it and smashed up the classroom and having gone in much more able, too able for the school, came out with the most support of anyone that most difficult child.
You've got to do what your teachers say Ollie, got to do what they say and he said, I do - sometimes....
…And he rips all his clothes up, that's the thing I can't really cope with. I can cope with it. I am coping with it but I just have this. When part of you has given up and died. The part of me that's given up and died is like that, I’m never going to have a pension, I’m going to be working forever because Ollie rips up pants and he's in men's pants and he rip. He'll wear them once and then rip them up. I don't know where to get really cheap pants. …
Offer: Oxbridge | University interview practice. If you are or know someone who will be interviewing at Oxbridge (or equivalent level interview), and particularly if their school does not offer mock interviews, or you might otherwise consider yourself at an opportunity disadvantage. I am open to a few slots to offer a mock interview.
(I have been to Cambridge and Harvard. I have a science-based degree, but also write plays. I know the UK system and to some extent the US, liberal arts system too). I can NOT help if you are applying to Harvard this year (as I may interview for Harvard this cycle).
Typically, I will offer 10 mins, basics, 30-40 mins interview, 20-30 mins de-brief and I’ll need basic information sent in advance. My capacity given the interview schedule coming up is 5 or so, in the next 2- 4 weeks. I may not be able to take all enquiries if this proves popular.
➼Possibly scary but also revealing: NASA sea level projection scenario tool.
➼There’s a whole set of people doing two jobs at once in the pandemic by scheduling video calls very carefully!
➼I’m co-hosting the Sustainability Unconference now on Sep 10
➼Catherine Howarth, podcast on activism (with me)
➼Tassos Stevens, podcast on theatre (with me)
➼My latest thoughts on COVID
➼Cal Newport on making work more effective
In this interview Cal makes the case that constant messaging is detroying people's productivity amongst other stresses at work. Provacative and if true could be huge gains from different ways of working. Long-time readers know I am sympathetic to this.
➼US has forced China to boost domestic chip technology (Dan Wang)
If Wang is right, this is a pivotal second order long-term impact of US sanctions. It will force Chinese companies to rely on and invest in domestic chip tech and other tech which they currently use US for. On a 20 year view I think Dan has a 60% chance of being right... which is actually a moderate disaster for US power.
➼New American University thinking (Eghbal)
On what a more inclusive (and successful) university model might look like in practise.
→Story of plinky, how I found my podcast jingle
→Effective Altruism grant funding. Good source of funding for a potentially large variety of impactful projects.
➼Catherine Howarth, podcast on activism
➼Tassos Stevens, podcast on theatre
➳Lee Simpson is a master improv performer and theatre director. I had a lovely conversation with him which left me dwelling on many things.
➳I chat with Rebecca Giggs on her new book looking at humanity through the lens of the whale. There is video and a transcript. Self-recommending.
➳Leopold Aschenbrenner podcast on university at 15 and existential risk.
➳C Thi Nguyen on games philosophy
➳Matt Clancy on innovation
Thanks for reading. Feel free to forward this letter to anyone you think might be interested in signing up.
Archive and repeat words below. Stay well, Stay safe, Ben