Theatre in Conflict?

It’s June. It is cloudy. The rain falls relentlessly. The mood throughout the country is sombre and the dread of yet another generation defining vote looms over us. So, it’s no surprise that at times like this we look back, through rose tinted glasses, to better times. My happy place? Well, unsurprisingly it is memories of being in the rehearsal room, at an audition or performing as a child. These were times of utter escapism; freedom from any politics (personal or otherwise), a place without judgement and without limits. They were the times when I felt truly safe. So why is it now, that these bastions of creative freedom no longer feel entirely safe? Well, of course, I don’t know the answer but I have noticed some big changes to the way theatres, arts educators and performers think about themselves and the wider creative community (I resist calling it an industry).

The biggest change is an ideological one. Arts and culture in the UK are currently held hostage by Neoliberalism. It has engulfed every aspect of western life, and theatres are just another casualty. The proverbial highwayman seeing an opportunity to cash in on a soft industry (argh, damn I used the ‘I’ word!). Public funding cuts to the arts have made a significant impact to the behaviours of arts organisations, theatre companies and practitioners, many of whom no longer see the artistic community as one big collaborative collective working together, but as competition. Artistic Directors are replaced with more business minded producers or managers. Theatres become target driven havens of accountability, where the need for increasing audience numbers and profit is so essential – how else can the board judge success objectively after all? – that artistic endeavour has fallen to the wayside. Audiences have become commodities. Theatres looking jealously at one another, competing for market share, doing anything they can to attract audiences to them rather than their competitor, looking for easy wins, quick fixes. Nobody wants to risk their job by not meeting targets now, do they?

The problem with seeing audience as a commodity of course, is that we dehumanise them. Theatre speaks to the human spirit, it holds a mirror to society and asks them to feel, think and question. If we begin however, by creating or programming work that we think audiences will pay good money to come and see, then we run the risk of creating work that is bland, that doesn’t speak to its audience beyond superficial entertainment. The same can be seen in public funding policy for the arts. Such a strong focus has been placed on making a clear and measurable impact on segmented social groups, that funding applications have become carbon copied outreach and engagement projects. Public funding outside of London is scarce, with an average of only 20% of ACE funding making it outside of London over the past 5 years. The National Theatre alone, received £17.6 million in ACE funding in 2014/2015 but how much of this money is invested in projects with a national reach? Beyond the recent introduction of the NTLive streaming service, very little indeed. With so much funding soaked up by London big theatre, it’s no wonder then the rest of the country has been left scrapping for the leftovers, and fighting one another for survival.

The paradox within the arts however is that when one arts organisation succeeds within a community, so too do the rest. If one theatre produces a run of excellent performances, attracting new audiences and reinvigorating loyal theatre goers, all local theatre benefits. Conversely, a bad experience can have an adverse effect on audience attendance. So, surely it makes more sense to work together, to help each-other create excellent work and promote high quality theatre and arts wherever we see them within our local community? Equally, we need to challenge poor practice, and champion high standards. I don’t mean to say that any company or individual should place themselves as an authority above others (again, this leads only to conflict) but instead, to be open to equitable discussion, with a view to supporting and developing the local artistic community as a whole.

I hope that in Swindon we can start to see a more positive and collaborative artistic community. One, which challenges others to do better but, does so from a position of friendship, rather than placing themselves above others. We will only achieve this if we break loose of the need to compare and compete. We need to place artistic quality, risk taking and inclusivity at the forefront of our practice, and encourage others.

Let’s praise the good work we see around us every day, and challenge each other to make more high-quality theatre, until audiences are knocking doors down demanding more.

We don’t need heroes.

Good art is never selfish.

We are stronger together.

Insert your own cliché here.

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