Originally written for Exeunt.
“It’s been completely miserable.” Such was playwright David Edgar’s wry assessment of the Victoria & Albert Museum’s three day conference on the state of funding for theatre and performance, examining everything from Arts Council subsidy to the ubiquitous rise of crowd-funding. It is not, on the face of it, a rosy picture. Even in the so-called “golden years” of state subsidy during the New Labour era, substantial investment did not yield new audiences – a predicament that is unlikely to improve now that budgets are being brutally slashed – while the alternatives of sponsorship and philanthropy are attended by a whole plethora of ethical concerns.
There is, however, cause for discussion, and perhaps even a faint glimmer of optimism. To borrow a hackneyed proverb, necessity is the mother of invention; if nothing else, the current crisis is proving to be a stimulating catalyst for new and creative ways of thinking. WhatSubsidy, Patronage & Sponsorship has made clear, at least across the sessions on the day I attended, is a need for new, non-monetary ways of thinking about the value of theatre, a need to ask the awkward questions, a need to engage with and question the inter-linked nature of Arts Council policy and artistic trends, and a need to break through the false binaries that hamper theatre in this country.
Many discussions inevitably revolved around money, or more often than not lack of it. Yet there was also an undercurrent of resistance, a tug away from the imposition of economic measures on an art form that is essentially ephemeral and as such proves more robust against the efforts of commodification than, for instance, the visual arts. As one attendee pointed out during the concluding plenary, the theatre community needs to refocus its efforts on engaging people to value theatre, and not just attempting to persuade governments of its price tag.
Shifting away from the present gloom, the 1970s provided a compelling historical hook on which to hang the difficulties faced at this current juncture. This was a decade which similarly experienced financial crisis, mass unemployment and a Royal Jubilee, but one in which theatrical culture was characterised by a burgeoning alternative movement made up of the likes of Inter-Action, whose founder and former director were among the day’s speakers.
As well as playing with performative experiments in living, this generation of artists questioned the ways in which theatre is assigned value, from the eschewing of box office culture by the Almost Free Theatre to theatremakers’ reminiscences of planning tours around signing on for the dole, delicately captured in Susan Croft’s Unfinished Histories project. One thing that these artists spoke about strikingly in Croft’s recordings was their passionate work ethic – a work ethic outside of and not recognised by the dominant structures of capitalism.
This prompted unspoken questions about the valuing of artists today, a tender and topical subject. Bitter disputes continue to circle the widespread use of unpaid performers by projects such as You Me Bum Bum Train, disputes that often raise valid and urgent questions, but that in their admirable mission to defend the right of artists to be paid often ignore the equal right of artists to refuse payment. If the only artistic endeavours we allow are those that reimburse their participants, not only are we eliminating certain passionate but penniless pockets of innovation; we also rob artists of the option to reject monetary exchanges and pursue a definition of art that sits firmly outside of the capitalist figuring of labour.
This idea of being outside, of being alternative, is one that continued to resurface throughout the conference. But while creeping around the edges of otherwise underexplored issues and ideas represents one of theatre’s great strengths, there was also a warning against accepting marginality. Robert Hewison’s data-chewing key note speech aired some bleak if perhaps unsurprising figures, revealing that more than 60% of the adult population in this country does not engage at all with theatre and performance. While audience sizes should not necessarily be the driving motivation of artists – creativity needs, as Peter Brook would argue, a few empty seats – Hewison’s point was that the theatre community must confront the uncomfortable questions that will be asked of it if it is to formulate answers.
One proposed answer, as already touched upon, is to engage directly with that 60%. Hewison’s interrogation of survey evidence also revealed that while the typical theatregoer profile ticks many of the expected boxes – well educated, white, middle-class – it is in fact an elusive concept of identity that drives engagement with theatre and performance more than any demographic factor. For people who regularly attend the theatre, that theatre both speaks to them and says something about them. Such a component of identity cannot be easily engendered by marketing campaigns or ticket price initiatives; it was argued that instead social interaction could be the key to producing this engagement.
London Bubble Theatre Company’s Jonathan Petherbridge put it nicely when he analogised the theatre as a restaurant. For all that the chefs might proclaim the deliciousness of their food, it will always seem not to be to some people’s taste, but once you invite people to cook, their engagement rockets. This engagement need not necessarily be with the entire creative process, but it was put forward by several different voices at the conference that theatre as an art form needs to be more sociable and to reach out to new audiences, whether this involves working directly with local communities or simply taking the work where it can be seen.
The conference also trudged back over well covered ground in the very British division between “new writing” and “new work” that continues to dominate current conversations and was in this context seen as a division that is holding back progress – a “poisonous binary”, as David Edgar emphatically put it. There was even an attempt during the final open discussion to move away from these familiar debates, with the playwrights on the panel themselves expressing exasperation with this seemingly evergreen topic.
This binary, however, is one that has been perpetuated by an odd, mutually influencing relationship between Arts Council policy and the dominant creative output of this country’s theatre, as explained by Edgar in referring to the split that occurred between text and performance based work during the new writing heyday of the 1990s. Now we have too many writers and a skewed perception of authorship, neither of which is a small problem and both of which contribute to the wider problems faced by theatre today.
So what, if anything, can we conclude? It was generally agreed that subsidy is still important, but playwright David Eldridge hit the heart of the issue succinctly when he said that “artists need to be willing to bite the hand that feeds them in a heartbeat” – whether that be the hand of the Arts Council, private philanthropy or corporate sponsorship.
There was also a feeling that to move forward we have to smash down barriers; barriers between text-based and performance-based work, between the falsely oppositional concepts of the avant-garde and the popular, between artists and audiences. And whatever we might need to smash to get there, we need to find ways to make sure that those artists are still there, occupying the liminal spaces, feeling at the edges of society, finding room in which to play.