Financial uncertainty: how can we now share our experience with the rest of the world (and what should we charge)? 

Convener(s): Alyn Gwyndaf

Participants: Pamela, Nick, Lucy Ellinson, Janet H, Sarah S, Mufrida Nager, Mandy Fenton, Gisele Edwards, Louise Jeffreys, Roma Meah, Josh Neich

Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

That starting premise was that, as performers, we have developed ways of dealing with the financial uncertainty that faces us, but which is a novelty for many other people, and that we might have knowledge that we can share. It was suggested that ‘new’ was better than ‘novelty’ (which seemed to imply a positive connotation). Also the question of whether we could offer broader wisdom than the purely financial.

One suggestion was that performers are very flexible about getting what they need, partly from pragmatism, but partly also because they can be more adaptable, without a personal need to attach to a fixed work role, but able to ‘be’ whatever a particular job demands. However, this also raises the question of whether one would go with ‘I am an actor’ or ‘I work as an actor’ descriptions, and that many actors (in the former sense) might very much (need to) identify with this work-related sense of self.

George Monbiot (not present in the discussion) had spoken of a sense of isolation in times of trouble, but that generally this was rarely unique, and most things had happened before in history. In the context of history, we are not alone. There might be accounts, diaries etc of how artists in the past have dealt with their own financial troubles.

Another approach – attempting to articulate a financial coping strategy – was, on the income side, being clear about the baseline amount needed for survival and ensuring that was in the bank each month. Earning what one needs (having determined that), as opposed to the salaried approach of spending what one earns. On the outgoing side, knowing how to live frugally, to reduce consumption, repair things that are broken, darn socks etc. There was the suggestion that there might be addictive associations, whether enjoying spending regardless of means, or becoming too attached to a survival mentality to allow greater aspirations.

Turning the question around, there was also the issue of the theatricality of the financial system, of a stock market driven largely by rumour, hearsay and reputation, and largely lacking in a substantive basis.

It was suggested that the poor might be less affected by recession, since they’ve always had to live on a low income. However, at the same time, it was more likely the shopworkers in Woolworth’s who would end up on the dole, rather than the management. 

Within business, training and roleplay evidence was that there was already a change in the ways in which workers were doing things, in both professional and personal conduct, such as the ways in which they related to each other. 

This raised the question that, while businesses might have organised training, for those not working there were no institutions through which we might communicate whatever wisdom we have to share. For those out of work, the only common organisation was the dole office. The irony was noted that while forum theatre had originated from the theatre of the oppressed, it was now being used for business training.

There was a concern that, while businesses might survive the recession, they would be likely to return to their previous ways of working. However, we have the opportunity in theatre to take this opportunity to find new ways of working, ticketing, reaching audiences, set production etc. There was the question of whether theatre is yet being hit by recession, and it was thought unlikely, except possible the West End, but that it was likely to come.

On the cultural agenda, one concern was that we have achieved a society in which money is seen as the main measure of a person’s value, that money=status and that poverty is morally wrong. Is it therefore possible that we can put the very questioning of this assumption on the agenda? Part of that argument might be that being poor is inherently more green, so there seems something bizarre about trying to revive the economy by encouraging consumption when last year’s main concern was the future of the planet. However, the reality was that although people might buy specially-made canvas bags to do their bit, the likelihood of sacrificing a holiday was low, and that less money was an effective way of making individuals less resource-hungry. It was also noticeable that the recession has seen a decline in ‘de-clutter your life’ TV, rather acknowledging that the ability to replace things was a demonstration of financial confidence or aspiration. 

In terms of actually performing, discussion addressed how this might change, what could be new forms of theatre space, and how this tied up with any commercial basis. If performance in an open public space charged for tickets, it would have to be licensed, but would this still be the case if there were no charge, or would it simply be an act of public assembly? There were suggestions that there might be obstruction issues, and that there might be some legal definition of music (rhythmic sounds?) that could restrict performance.

Basic question of do we want to spend our time getting this message across to people. If we do, the most open audiences might be in schools etc. However, there might be a problem that less regard is given to ‘low-status’ theatre, such as for children or those with no money to spend on it.

One suggestion was that there might be scope for a Devoted & Disgruntled on the credit crunch (possibly one of the monthly sessions), opening up topics such as resource-sharing etc. Or something organised by the Arts Council, who could provide facilities and the machinery of facilitation. There was no evidence yet of financial impact on the Arts Council, although it was likely to come.

Historically, organisations such as Unity Theatre and Equity had sought to tackle political issues, although this had become unfashionable after Margaret Thatcher.

As an exemplar of survival in financial straits, theatre was a great example of making something out of nothing, and a good demonstration of resourcefulness.

There are increasingly many empty buildings and derelict areas, which could provide useful bases or performance spaces for theatre companies, allowing themselves to locate directly within communities affected by financial crisis. This was a direct opposite to the idea that an established theatre might be a cultural centrepoint and lead to increasing property prices in its vicinity.

Despite current evidence, it was interesting to note that the Screen on the Hill had recently increased its ticket prices in order to survive and had actually increased its audience. This related to the idea that one might charge for advice, and the notion that people paying for something would value it more, as well as a demonstration of professional self-respect.

A more general question was that of the nature of the theatrical experience, whether it specifically involved communal gathering, or whether it could be replicated for people at home. It was unbelievable that so few people actually see theatre, and this might provide a means of hooking them into it, much like chef Allegra Mc??? Does, running restaurants and publishing books, but also providing demonstrations on Facebook, allowing people to gain from what she’s got to offer (though arguably also a cunning marketing ploy). Partly this goes to priorities, is our focus on what we want to communicate, by whatever means necessary, or is what we want to communicate always inherently about asserting the value of theatre?

We need to be aware of the increasing tendency of people to retreat into their homes as they cut their spending, as it might offer cheaper alternatives to theatre, cinema or bars. Some theatres were aiming to provide a ‘home-like’ bar environment with sofas etc, which had become very successful, but it was also notable that the Arcola doesn’t, possibly suggested bar design as a way of community/market positioning by theatres.

An interesting lesson might be learnt from the music business. Apparently live gigs are seeing a big increase in attendances, arguably because greater availability of music online has increased interest. There is also an argument that recorded music revenues have decline, so the main earner is live performance, so bands have to perform more to earn the money (though this does of course assume that the audience demand is there).

There may be a bestseller to be had with the title ‘How to be Skint’.

You heard it here first.