On reading David Hare’s article My Ideal Theatre I wanted to begin 2018 in the spirit of debate.
I am a fan of David Hare’s work – from the Absence of War to the Blue Room – David has left a legacy of powerful and important plays, among his other writings. This article however, is not helpful. In a climate of cuts to the arts and the start of active diversification by commissioning venues, we need positive, realistic visions not outdated rose tinting from times gone by...
Specific points on touring and appropriate pay for writers (and arguably everyone in the Arts?) are salient and should be acted on. now. However, a fair amount of this article left me feeling there is still a divide in the arts between the white male Oxbridge gang and well, everyone else.
Policy in the arts and audiences
No one likes bureaucracy in what should be a hub of creativity however, endless admin should not be confused with positive moves to diversify our stages and stories. Having worked closely with the Teams who experienced the fall out from both Exhibit B at the Barbican and the banning of the UK Jewish Film Festival at the Tricycle, it is clear our artistic leaders and audiences aren’t necessarily agreeing on what work should be made and who should be making it. For example, time and time again I hear white male artistic directors ask ‘ but where is the female talent? Its just not there...’. Diverse talent is everywhere and those in control of commissioning money are only now starting to take what is a perceived risk on these artists as a result of more stringent encouragement from policy makers and funders. You are kidding yourself, Mr Hare, if you think we will get to where we want to be without the help of both the stick and the carrot. As I sit in the audience of lets say, a Boy Blue show at the Barbican, I am reminded of just how white the audiences are across our major playhouses on all the other nights of the year. Since both Exhibit B and the UKJFF incidents, I have noticed positive change – more diverse production teams and better supported work from diverse artists. But there is still a long way to go. Casting stock white talent in modern repeats of old Shakespearean tales is not enough for many audiences out there. We need to be more dynamic.
I have worked across 3 major arts organisations in London and in my experience most theatres provide staff with the opportunity to see both the work of their theatre and that of their competitors. Internal write up of other venue’s work is often shared with staff and from my experience, discussing the wider ecology of work across the 'scene' is one of the highlights of working in theatres. Sometimes it may not be economically viable for everyone in a large venue to see the work. This that is a different thing from not wanting to go.
Worryingly, your article seems to confuse passion for the work (which I see endlessly across the arts) with a desire to have a life outside of it. Your ideal Playhouse - one in which a lead artist outlines his vision and staff support it with 100% of gusto - is a vision that will burn theatre out. Whilst I am sure most large venues like the National Theatre could make cuts in favour of larger creative budgets, it is a dangerous, unsustainable vision when theatre runs on passion alone. Women have worked so hard to achieve flexible working across the Arts to allow those with family, childcare and health needs to participate. What about our young people whom often work evenings alongside low paid internships in the Arts? Or the cleaner working two jobs? These are passionate people with real lives who make theatre happen just as much as those at the top and who on many occasions, make greater sacrifices to do so. We need Playhouses that can produce world-class art without relying on terminally underpaying and overworking to achieve it.
The State and funding
For those of us who are self-employed, freelance or creating our own work, State funding is vital and visibly diminishing. There is a real risk that if reduced further, our culture and society will suffer. And yet, I worry about a vision which totally shuts us off from mixed funding models, which from my understanding have kept the Arts going since the Greeks. Commercial and Individual philanthropy is often more flexible and innovative than the Arts Council, something I experienced when working on a VR Gallery supported by Lexus before the Arts Council even had recognised VR as an art form. Individual donors can often give quicker support for smaller projects and venues, as the two Joe’s proved with their inspirational fundraising journey for Good Chance Theatre. Where Arts Council and other funders require endless monitoring and evaluation for their subsidy, other income streams can be more fluid and supportive of the actual Art itself Development Teams have become large - perhaps this needs addressing - but it is a mistake to think that if the State alone funded the arts, these Teams would disappear. In fact, they would likely grow in the face of all the forms the State would need. We need a better defined financial future for the Arts, from our Government, which includes well financed partners and secures the continued development of our profitable sector.
Having produced participation projects across most London borough’s at one time or another, it feels like we have started to reach a good balance between offering space and training within our theatres and reaching out beyond our theatre doors to those who don’t even know we exists. The current apprenticeship programmes are working however many of those young people who secure them are motivated and supported. Nothing wrong with that but what of those who are intimidated by the thought of it? There are many brilliant companies and venues – The Roundhouse, Tamasha, Commonwealth and Punchdrunk - who inspire the next generation of theatre makers, designers, musicians and artists outside of formal arts spaces with an understanding that demystifying and democratising goes beyond the theatre walls.
I am and always have been a producer and audience member who seeks out cross art-form work. From Akram Khan to Katie Mitchell, I listen, learn and enjoy most when more than one of my senses is stimulated. Receiving Art in the form of the written word alone can be a cold experience, especially for those of us with forms of dyslexia, dyspraxia and disabilities. We want more than a peppering of music as a side dish to animate our stages and the presumption that this is ‘sucking up’ or lesser is truly a sign of an old fashioned interpretation of the stage. Who should determine that the work of Coney or 1927 should not be in our theatres? Scripts can work in beautiful partnership with other art forms and as we digitalise, younger audiences will expect this more and more. This is not to undo the work of the Pen. It is a request to put a end to this belief in a hierarchy of art forms. Good work is good work and audiences and their hard earned cash will help separate out the good from the bad.
And this is my wider point; hierarchy. It’s fantastic that a national newspaper continues to champion the arts and publish content which explores what the Arts means to our society. That said, I was amused by the irony of David Hare defining a young leadership for his ideal view of his Playhouse and yet the Guardian has commissioned (albeit a legend) a 70year old white male to share his reflections on what the landscape of British Theatre should be. As a self-employed female producer trying to champion non conventional artistic experiences, this article feels like (another) opportunity to support a traditionalist manifesto. Others will disagree with me on this, and that’s fine. What is clear is we need to recognise the smorgasbord that now makes up ‘the Arts’ across age, wealth, class, gender and identity lines. I would have loved to hear from Inua Ellams, James Graham, Kate McGrath and Sharon Watson - what do they think it should be?
David and The Guardian; your work is vital, but this outlook is not. Talk to those working on the ground day in day out, trying to make what we found when we started in this craft, even better.