This afternoon, I spoke at the Theatre 2016 conference, offering reflections on the session "How can we afford relevant and accessible places and spaces for theatre in our changing communities?" and some thoughts of my own.
To me, it felt like quite an adversarial session. So, for clarity, here is the text of my speech.
We’ve heard some really interesting things today from Lucy, Matt and Gavin. Stories of three very different organisations finding ways to make relevant and accessible spaces for theatre within their communities.
I think it’s most interesting to note that each of the speakers talked in some way about a sense of permeability in the walls of their organization,
Be that the open calls that have characterized the Yard’s work, the youth-focused governance structures that make Contact so unique, or the Albany’s commitment to its local community.
It would seem that the most efficient way to change a building is to change the people within it and to allow it to be transformed by every artist, audience member or participant it encounters.
In the majority of successful building based organisations, it’s that permeability that is key
It allows organisations to harness not only the potential within but also tap in to the energy, innovation, creativity and generosity that is part of the wider arts and cultural ecology.
At their best, theatre buildings are repositories for the cultural voice of their wider community. Housing brilliant, transformative artistic experiences that can be accessed by anyone. They are palaces to the philosophies we aspire to embody and one of the few remaining places where people can go to be more than just consumers.
Similarly, all of the organisations we’ve heard from today are expert at supporting local theatre makers to produce work that is unique to the concerns of their local audience.
By helping weave the unique stories of the communities they are embedded in, our very best theatre buildings become essential threads in the fabric of our wider cultural identity.
I believe that the best theatre buildings are cultural flagships whose value far transcends mere economics. They have the power to transform an area and, more importantly, the lives within it.
But let’s not pretend that all of our theatre buildings are so vital.
I’m sure that like me, many of you have encountered organisations that have ossified behind the walls of their building. Organisations that, like the proverbial oil tanker, are incapable of changing course; even to avert disaster.
And like me you’ve heard the anger and disappointment of the artists and theatre makers who make up the bedrock of our ecology whenever a new building is announced in an already over saturated urban hub. Whenever a lacklustre organisation launches a massive Capital project. Whenever their box office statement shows unexpected contras for the cost of using publicly funded facilities that should be held for the common good.
We have grown used to the conversation around theatre buildings being one of irreconcilable pressures
On the one hand, the very real necessity for buildings as stable homes for our cultural life, but on the other hand, the unavoidable knowledge that there just isn’t enough money. That for every penny we spend on bricks and mortar, there is one less to spend on sustaining the art and artists that are the beating heart of our cultural existence.
Look around us. It's telling that so few artists are able to be part of this conference because of financial constraints. And while that discussion is being had on social media, it's important to bring an awareness of that into the conversation today.
But I don’t believe that that dichotomy is intrinsic to the nature of our theatre ecology.
Perhaps we need to reject the old structures entirely. The habitual structures that exist in how we think as well as how we work.
I believe we’re unwittingly sustaining a broken system by continuing to buy into outdated hierarchies and methodologies. We need to rethink every aspect of how our building based companies function and interact with the wider theatre ecology.
I would advocate for a sector wide sea change in how we think about making, housing and supporting excellent art:
A NEW BUILDING IS RARELY THE ANSWER
Too often, we see struggling organisations pin their hopes on a new building as a solution to their financial, artistic or ideological woes. Perhaps they struggle to generate auxiliary income, or the existing space has grown decrepit through lack of care.
Yet these problems are symptomatic of structural and operational failures that, without adequate governance, will transplant wholesale into the new building and leave it once again floundering in a decade’s time.
SOMETIMES THINGS SHOULD END
We need to be better at acknowledging when a building is no longer needed. When it has fulfilled it’s remit or is no longer fit for purpose.
We must acknowledge that many of our Theatre buildings appear as impenetrable monoliths, squatting unfriendly and uncomfortable at the heart of our towns.
Let’s stop trying to save them, and instead explore how that resource might be better used supporting more accessible, nimble and innovative ways of making theatre for our communities.
And when we do invest in buildings, let’s build obsolescence into their design; acknowledge ahead of time that one day, it will no longer be what’s needed.
NOT EVERYTHING SHOULD BE SHINY
Theatre buildings should be comfortable. They should be places where we’re happy to sit for two hours watching the thing, and another two in the bar afterwards arguing about the thing!
Too often, when theatres are redeveloped or built anew, they lose the essential soul that gave their audience ownership of the space.
There’s a trend for sanitising and corporatising our artistic spaces. For making them feel like expensive business centres where appropriate dress and behaviour should be observed at all times.
I understand the attraction of a plush carpet and tastefully neutral décor but…
I don’t know about you, but that’s not somewhere I want to spend my Friday night.
If we’re serious about attracting genuinely diverse audiences to our theatres, then we need to make them comfortable, democratic, low status and welcoming spaces unburdened by the weight of social hierarchy and the expectation to behave like an extra from Downton Abbey.
DO WE NEED A TRADITIONAL THEATRE BUILDING AT ALL?
Rather than beginning with an empty space that demands to be filled, what would our theatre ecology look like if we instead took our cues from the artists and communities we seek to serve and created, borrowed, commandeered or, if necessary, built spaces accordingly?
If instead of focussing funding and resources on building based organisations, we prioritised peripatetic umbrella organisations that work with a flexible portfolio of spaces and places.
Carefully managed, that could empower them to provide all of the artist support and audience engagement work we value without being weighed down by the burdens that come with bricks and mortar.
Companies like the National Theatre of Wales and Paines Plough have already become adept at driving innovation away from the building based model.
So. Perhaps the theatre of the future will flourish in multi use spaces that serve a range of functions. Perhaps that building that is a theatre on Thursdays could be a chicken shop, library, nursery or hairdressers some other day of the week. Or perhaps it could be all those things at once to genuinely democratise the place of theatre in our society and our everyday lives.
Of course, that might change the socio political hierarchies within our industry. For some of us, it's an unnerving prospect. But rather than clinging to the past, we need to be ready to embrace that change if our ecology is to survive and flourish.
There are a lot of possibilities. Both for a future filled with brilliant, welcoming, fit for purpose theatre buildings, and for one where there are robustly successful alternatives to the building based model.
But whether we choose to invest in bricks and mortar or no, we mustn’t lose sight of the reason they exist at all:
Theatres exist to bring artists and audiences together. They’re places that allow us to come together to imagine an alternative way of being and to return to our lives changed.
If that isn’t at the heart of everything we do when we create new spaces for theatre to happen, then we have lost our way.