On March 17th, 2011, I resigned from my position as social convener on the Mermaids’ committee. I no longer wanted my name associated with the committee or the decisions it was making, allegedly on behalf of the students who elected them. The abuse and manipulation of power, and the hypocrisy of some committee members in failing to aid and assist productions was becoming all too clear.
The breaking point came when certain committee members actively encouraged their colleagues to deny funding, and thus opportunity, to a St Andrews student.
My aim in highlighting the mistakes of the current committee, to illustrate the dangers that arise when any committee believes it is immune to censure. My experience will be of interest even to students who are not involved with or have an interest in the Mermaids committee, as the issues raised in this argument are applicable to any elected committee.
For readers who are unfamiliar with this committee, The St Andrews Theatre Fund, affectionately known as Mermaids, was established to provide loans to student productions based only on financial merit; this means that we do not make artistic or personal decisions when reviewing a production proposal.
Proposals are passed when production budgets illustrate signs of responsible spending and are preferably breaking even, though a small loss is usually acceptable. This system of funding productions based on strictly financial merit exists to ensure that Mermaids will always have the means to provide funding for any student that wants to put on a show.
However, two productions this year—both produced by two senior committee members—were strangely exempted from this rule. King Lear and Peter Pan—premiering at the On The Rocks Festival—have been given grants instead of loans. Budgeted at 70%, King Lear is losing £565 of Mermaids’ money, not a small loss, but is not nearly as shocking as the £2,216 Peter Pan is set to lose. Even if 100% of the tickets were sold for each production, it would be impossible for either to break even, with Peter Pan still losing £1,731 of Mermaids’ funds.
Although opposition was raised when these budgets were proposed—recognising that these grants were unfair to all other productions, which budgeted responsibly in order to receive their loans—the committee was assured by a few senior members that there had been a vote which confirmed that there had been a previous vote to provide grants to these shows. One of my biggest regrets whilst serving on the committee was that I took their word for this and assumed I was not present for this vote.
After thoroughly researching the Mermaids minutes, I can report that there was no recorded vote or conversation found which can be used to justify those grants.
Although these grants were unjustified and favoured committee member productions, they were not the reason for my resignation. They are important because the two committee members who received these grants—and benefited more than any other student from Mermaids funding—were in the group of members who denied funding to aspiring students.
On March 13th, the 2010-2011 committee rejected a production for the first time. The applicant was proposing a self-written piece to go the Edinburgh Fringe Festival for a week this August. After reviewing the application, the two motions put forward were to reject the proposal or give the applicant seven days to re-submit a more detailed proposal. The vote was tied, 5/5, with two members absent. The deciding vote went to the current president, who voted to reject the show.
Rejecting the show meant the loss of opportunity for a writer, director and producer, and actors, to experience performing at an international arts festival. Normal Mermaids procedure gives applicants the option to come back with a more detailed proposal, but this one was rejected out-of-hand, although no specific reason was given.
The very meeting to discuss proposals for Fringe shows began under suspicious circumstances. It took place in secret at the president’s flat, without the presence of a sabbatical officer (required to approve investments over £1000). The committee faked the presence of sabbatical Phil Pass and falsely accounted for his attendance in the Mermaids’ minutes. According to the by-laws of the Students’ Association, this alone both invalidates the meeting and brings into question the ethical conduct of the committee.
But there are other reasons why the decision should be questioned.
First, members argued that the proposal did not provide sufficient information about the piece itself, set plans and production ideas. Yet the committee has never rejected a show due to lack of information; indeed, the information given for ‘production ideas’ in the proposal was equivalent in substance to Peter Pan’s original proposal, and actually gave more information than King Lear, which left its proposal space blank.
It was also argued that the show could not be passed because it was not fully written; yet one of the first shows passed by the committee (unanimously), with an investment of almost £1000, was a self-written musical for which the music was yet to be written. Furthermore, members argued that the applicant was not committed as they were aware of other possible commitments he/she had this upcoming summer. This argument was speculative, non-factual, and personal; it completely strayed from making decisions based on financial merit – no other applicant was held to the same ‘personal’ standard.
To make matters worse, despite the number of questions asked and speculative remarks made about the Fringe application, the applicant was not asked a single question about the proposal. Generally, every production is given the opportunity to explain his or her proposal, especially if that proposal is for the Edinburgh Fringe.
Furthermore, the producer of two other Fringe applications—who was also a senior member of the committee—was allowed to explain and remark on their proposals when they were being reviewed, an advantage not available to the less connected applicant, whose show was summarily rejected.
However, my biggest problem with the committee’s vote to reject the show was that in doing so, they broke the sixth article of the Mermaids constitution, which states that “Mermaids shall, whenever possible, encourage the transfer of St Andrews productions to other venues outwith St Andrews.” In my capacity this year as social convener, it was my job to make a profit from the Christmas Ball to send productions to the Fringe. The ball in fact made a record profit; and thus it was easily within the Mermaids’ means to send this rejected show to the Fringe.
Although I was deeply frustrated and confused to learn of the committee’s decision to reject this proposal, I was not yet at the point of resignation. A senior committee member and I called for an emergency meeting to re-open the vote and explain to the committee the ways in which we had violated the constitution, broken previous precedents we set for all other shows, and most importantly how we had failed in our duty as elected committee members to “promote student drama”: the first aim stated in our constitution.
Only two members, including myself, agreed to re-open the vote. One member abstained. The rest of the committee voted to keep the show rejected.
My greatest concern is that this attitude will be carried into next year’s committee, and with it the foul precedent; that it is permissible to reject a show without legitimate cause and take unfair and unaccountable advantage of one’s position for personal gain.
Fortunately, there is still a chance to correct these mistakes and ensure fair and equal treatment next year. The Mermaids’ AGM is this Thursday April 14th, 8pm in Venue 2.
Please, run. Get involved.
Remember that Mermaids exists to help, aid and support productions; it should not be constructing weak arguments to reject them; furthermore, Mermaids, just like all other sub-committees, should be held accountable by those who elect them.
Note: Kate Andrews was absent from the ‘in camera’ meeting on March 13th. However, all of her information regarding the meeting has been confirmed by multiple members of the committee and is evidenced in writing.