Theatre 2016: Thoughts at a distance
An edited version of this piece was first published by Exeunt on 19 May 2016.
Last week I spoke at the Theatre 2016 conference. I was part of a panel event about how to provide "relevant and accessible" spaces for theatre. Some smart, interesting people said some interesting things and then I summed up before a panel discussion.
It felt a bit weird to hold an event with a discussion component in such a traditional prosc arch theatre. It felt awkward and too hierarchical to nurture any real dialogue; an adversarial construct to the space that shaped how we spoke to each other. It felt uncomfortable to hear the whispers, from other parts of the event, of disabled delegates being made to sit outside or in separate areas because their access needs couldn't be accommodated. And it felt unpleasant, as it always does, to see so very few non-white faces.
It felt weird too, to even be part of the event. I was invited because of some opinion pieces I wrote about theatre buildings and hierarchies last year, but I'm not convinced that capital projects are of use to our ecology right now unless they offer a breathtakingly innovative way of working to facilitate genuinely permeable (metaphorical) walls between the organisation and their community.
It felt even weirder that there were so few independent artists in attendance; weird that such a big chunk of my theatre 'tribe' were excluded from the event by the high ticket prices and were left outside throwing (metaphorical) rocks on social media. I felt like a scab betraying my comrades in arms and like I was bearing the huge responsibility of trying to acknowledge that and find some common ground between those within the event and without. And as the day progressed I realised that I felt even weirder that, as an independent theatre maker myself, I wasn't being paid a fee or expenses for speaking at an event run by a commercial enterprise.
Full disclosure: I am currently under contract to the Theatres Trust, one of the event partners, to work on another project later in the year. So right now I even feel weird about writing this. I feel like I'm at risk of being a bit of a hypocrite. A bit ungrateful. A bit mealy-mouthed. Because I really want to speak freely but I also really need to pay my rent.
So I figure that by naming that weirdness, by being as frank and open as I can, I might be able to head that off at the pass.
How am I doing?
Theatre conferences are funny things. More often than not, they’re mostly just an opportunity for industry folk to get together and tell each other what they all already know. They tend to be quite tribal, with different events catering to the concerns of different subsections of the ecology. But the one thing they share is that the number of attendees in non-artistic roles almost always outweighs the number who identify primarily as artists.
It’s a long-standing complaint that the people who actually make the work that drives our industry are rarely adequately represented, and if I had a quid for every time someone has tweeted “WHERE ARE ALL THE ARTISTS? #CONFERENCEXXX”, then I could probably build my own theatre. It’s an unfortunate trend which, coupled with the ongoing disparity in pay rates between independent and salaried theatre makers, points to growing inequality in the sector that has grown exponentially in response to the austerity culture.
Theatre conferences are also, almost universally, really bloody expensive. Usually somewhere around the £200 mark for a non-concession/discounted ticket and while there are usually discounted rates for members of industry bodies, smaller companies and independent practitioners, even as a salaried employee of an NPO, I’ve always thought twice about the cost of attending. Billed as “the largest ever industry-wide conference for everyone who cares about the future of theatre in the UK”, Theatre 2016 tickets ran to around £235 for those booking with an early bird discount and reportedly up to about £400 for the less fleet of foot. So it’s unsurprising that this event attracts the majority of its delegates from the theatre tribe most able to afford the hefty price tag; those in salaried positions at larger organisations.
In a lot of ways, Theatre 2016 felt like just another theatre conference. The same people were there, having versions of the same conversations we’ve had at a host of different events for at least a decade. The thing that was different was that this time, those conversations were happening in the old-school commercial venues of the West End. It was that choice that led to the exclusion of disabled delegates, that choice that created such an adversarial shape to many of the discussions, and that choice that framed the entire event as one focused on profit above people.
In that sense, Theatre 2016 was one of the best arguments for robust arts funding that I’ve seen in a really long time. The event excluded the poorer, the disabled, the non-white, the young, the disenfranchised and the radical. Not because its organisers consciously sought to do so, but because that is what commercial market economics does. The whole thing could be billed as a durational ensemble performance offering an immersive cautionary tale meditating on the nature of the arts in a dystopian post-funding future. I’d probably buy a ticket to that piece. But not for £235.
In my speech, I talked about the need for theatre organisations in buildings to re-examine the habitual hierarchies; to find ways to democratise their spaces and be generous with their resources. I talked about how easy it is to ossify behind the walls of a building and how vital it is to acknowledge when buildings have outlived their usefulness; to embrace renewal and innovation. Earlier in the day, the ever-insightful David Lockwood from the Bike Shed in Exeter had used the metaphor of a forest fire being part of a healthy ecology to make a similar point, and I borrowed his words to drive the point home.
For me, nothing I said was new or, pardon the pun, incendiary. In my tribe, it's acknowledged that many building based organisations lack the nimble responsiveness of more peripatetic companies. I had naively thought that that understanding extended across the ecology. But here were people of different theatre tribes, with different assumptions and different experiences. For some of the delegates in the audience, my thoughts on the value of buildings were offensive, and upsetting; threatening to undermine their own decades of hard work to protect and preserve the theatres they loved. For them, there was nothing I could say that could persuade them of the need to embrace change. It was as though I was speaking a different language.
I'm used to working in contexts where innovation is almost universally regarded as a good thing; where theatre is seen as a tool to come together to think newly shaped thoughts. And while I understood that not all sectors of the ecology had the same priorities, I had assumed that we were likely to share a common language and understanding of the value of theatre and the arts.
But my experience at Theatre 2016 has me questioning that assumption. The conversations that I was part of were characterised by a lack of shared language or collective values. I was shocked to hear a participant, in the panel discussion I was part of, say that even if public subsidy were to end the commercial sector would flourish. While I rushed to point out that most theatre makers learn their craft through working in the subsidized sector, what disturbed me the most was the realization that we were much further apart than I’d thought. If we can’t all agree on the fundamental values and ethics that underpin our ecology then how can we possibly work together to help it thrive?
So, while I’d begun my visit to Theatre 2016 feeling weird because of the way it excluded so much of the sector, I left more concerned by the lack of unity within the theatre world. The problematic elements of Theatre 2016 are merely symptomatic of an ideological schism within our industry that, unchecked, threatens to undermine our ability to sustain it.