On Tuesday 2nd November, I attended a University of Manchester research symposium entitled Making theatre in the midst of austerity. As somebody not currently employed in the arts, I’ve struggled to find ways of thinking about the event, and with how to write a blog about my experience of the day. I can’t tell you exactly what I’ll now do differently in my theatre practice, as I’m not a practitioner; nor can I share insights about how researchers can work more closely with theatre-makers. What I took away from the symposium was a little bit different. I’m still thinking through all the connected fragments I remember most clearly:
I’m listening to the opening keynote speakers. They are John, a ‘default male’ who is taking over leadership of a high-end theatre festival, and Reece. Reece and his family have invested all their savings in his talent, his voice, his future, because otherwise he couldn’t be working in the arts. Both speeches are inspiring, but when the speakers take questions, they’re all for John. We don’t ask questions about Reece’s story, because we’ve heard it so many times before. It shouldn’t be a fact of life, but somehow it is.
In the morning session, I hear about an annual circus parade and firework display that engages young people in a remote area of Scotland. The speaker mentions some of the interacting factors in work like this – theatre as community development; the role of commissioning bodies, local government, sponsors; the need to evaluate the work according to predefined outcomes, to prove its impact. Having to focus so intently on specific outcomes can negatively affect the work. The project is sponsored by oil giant Shell, says the researcher. The corporation is a major employer in the area. I wonder how much the managers at Shell who commissioned the circus project knew, or cared, about the crisscrossing threads of economic disadvantage, theatrical practice and community development. Do they know that there is a whole research discipline based around how, why, and how well these projects work? Do they understand? Could they be made to understand?
Reece tells us that an early mentor’s advice to him was “know your worth; know your value”. Nobody would ask a car manufacturer or a dentist to work for free, “just for the love of it”. Theatre-makers should be appropriately paid for their work, its value recognised. Someone tweets that Joan Littlewood once said she would take money from the devil himself in order to make her work. Meanwhile other speakers tell us to survive austerity by “doing more with less” – to make work that’s “full of holes” for an audience or participant to fill with their imagination. This sounds a bit like a theatrical “big society” to me, and another attendee asks, isn’t that just reinforcing the idea that we don’t need or deserve funding? But it’s more complex than that. Everything is more complex.
Apparently bouncy castles were first popularised by radical socialist theatre-makers in 1970s London. One woman’s presentation is about how she organised an outdoor May Day performance where “George Osborne” was tied to a maypole and heckled by onlookers. The Royal Exchange talked to the homeless people sleeping on its steps each night and started a drama group at the day centre they used. An academic argues that shows like Les Misérables and the recent Scuttlers are mere “spectacles of poverty”, so immersive that they allow audiences to fetishise deprivation rather than interrogating its causes. I had never really thought about the difference before.
Stella Duffy is a firecracker of a speaker and gives a keynote about truly open theatrical practice – not just “arts for all”, but arts by and with all as well. She wants arts professionals and scientists to work together more, to ask more questions about the world together. She wants to dispense with the myth of talent – we can’t know who is and isn’t talented while there isn’t a level playing-field for people to develop their skills. She wants to change the unstable condition of the “precariat”, freelance arts workers like herself who have no financial security, and don’t want to share ideas for fear that someone will steal their funding. I want to listen to her forever, or maybe just listen to her for a little bit longer and then start getting up and doing things.
I don’t work in the arts. But I’m inspired, and I want to do something.