Complexity is Key

An edited version of this blog appeared in The Stage on 23 July 2015.

Talking to friends in New York after this year’s Brit-dominated Tony awards I was struck by how different the artistic landscape is on the other side of the pond. By American standards, our subsidised system is incomprehensibly generous; artists and theatre staff are more fairly paid, we invest in process and artist development and we have complex inter regional networks to support commissioning and touring that just don’t exist in the same way in the US.

I was in New York to oversee the transfer of a show I directed that only existed thanks to the support of Arts Council England. Politicians advocating for austerity are fond of pointing to New York’s theatre landscape as an argument for cutting public arts subsidy, but it’s a landscape undermined by widespread exploitation through low and no pay that contributes to a massive talent drain as the best and brightest slip away to make better livings in other industries. This isn’t a model we should adopt wholesale, but nonetheless there are key differences in how New Yorkers operate that we could learn from.

The biggest difference I saw is in how we talk to the audience.

Night after night during our New York run, we encountered audiences who were culturally engaged, curious, intellectually and emotionally literate and excited by artistic innovation. They hung out in the bar afterwards and analysed the play, the performances, the piece’s place in the wider cultural narrative. The host theatre’s marketing team (like others I came across in NYC) trusted in their audience’s intelligence and promoted a complex and multi faceted narrative about our show that embraced the ‘problematic’, ‘challenging’, ‘arty’ bits of what we were trying to do. This complexity was supported in turn by mainstream print criticism that manifested as robust essays wrestling with every aspect of the piece.

In lots of the marketing I see in the UK, there seems to be a resistance to and distrust of complexity. Time and again I’ve heard people talking about the need to present a simple, unchallenging marketing narrative and I’ve watched hundreds of beautiful, complex, difficult productions become reduced to a few simplistic sound bites. In some venues, that’s often coupled with a distrust of work that engages too openly with the overtly intellectual or abstract and an unwillingness to admit that sometimes, to be truly inspired, elevated and enlightened by a piece of art we have to work at it; that wrestling with meaning, aesthetic language and moral complexity can be the best bit.

These attitudes are exacerbated by the continued squeeze on UK column inches dedicated to arts journalism which makes it impossible for even the most erudite critic to engage deeply with the artistry of a piece. While the UK undoubtedly trumps the US in the breadth and brilliance of online arts journalism, the discrepancy of space given over to art in the relative papers of record can be seen as a key indicator of the value and status each society places on the arts.

The higher social status of artistic endeavor in New York has the knock on effect of encouraging philanthropy, in particular from wealthy individuals who want to be able to show off their artsy credentials to their equally wealthy friends. For a small company in London, building a network of private philanthropists can often feel like hunting unicorns. But in New York there’s a community of wealthy, culturally literate individuals who actively seek out new work to support. Not just in the big mainstream houses, but also in tiny downtown shoe boxes producing edgy, innovative and downright weird stuff.

It seems inevitable that we’re all going to be relying much more heavily on audience support and philanthropic giving in the future and for lots of companies that’s an intimidating prospect. Perhaps a first step to getting better at talking to the right people would be to get better at talking about the art. Maybe if we stopped reducing what we do to simplistic sound bites outsiders would have a greater respect and value for the arts. And ultimately, that’s good for everyone.

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