Devoted and Disgruntled 19

‘What are we going to do about theatre and the performing arts?’

I called a session entitled

‘How would we lead and make theatre if we believed that lives depended on it?’

Lots of lovely, thoughtful, open people joined the conversation - I’m sorry I didn’t get everyone’s names so I haven’t used any here. Thanks everyone for coming and sharing.

Feel free to add anything to this report if you were there, and there was a specific request to share emails so all of us up for that please email me at [email protected] and I’ll set up a little group. Maybe it will be called ‘if lives depended on it’

Immediate responses to my provocation included;

One person talked about following the fire energy, about wanting to find artistic spaces that are free. (Creatively free)

One remembered some time ago an ACE relationship manager telling her to ‘try to care less’ so she would be less disappointed by ups and downs. Essentially advising her ‘Don’t be so invested’. This horrified her and many of us and became an interesting route into the conversation.

We talked about how most of us did believe theatre was vitally important in people’s lives.

I explained that my intention was to try and imagine what would happen if we didn’t have to persuade or explain repeatedly that what we did mattered, we knew it did, and we really believed it mattered very much. I talked about how - given how many war zones there are in the world and how vividly aware of them we currently are - I am reminded that in times of crisis most people know that story, telling our story, comes not at all far behind after a shortlist of things we need to survive like food, shelter, access to medical support. That in fact – I suggested – most of us know that it is a means of survival. Not on its own, but it is very hard to survive if you can’t make sense of your experience, and if you can it becomes a little more possible. Most of the group were in agreement with this, but claiming or stating its importance was sometimes difficult.

We talked about how it can seem grand or feel awkward to own that theatre we make or have made has or has had a transformational impact. Especially when other elements required for survival were so hard. For example when poverty and/or marginalisation is making life so difficult it can be hard to say out loud that theatre or telling stories really matters. Even though we know it does.

We talked quite a lot about self-care and how depleted some of us felt, and how you couldn’t keep trying to make urgent, transformative theatre if you weren’t able to look after yourself. About how in that sense lives do not depend on ‘it’ and how important it is to say we can’t go on if we really can’t, and to prioritise replenishing energy. All of which is made harder by very scarce resources and challenging funding structures.

Expectations and a bottomless commitment to an artistic objective can be hugely problematic. Someone described this as ‘Living the wrong way round’ where you’re doing yourself harm by trying to meet a near impossible objective instead of being inspired and energised by an idea or a project.

We noted how story, and creative education are not seen as assets by this and recent governments so instead it is a burden, or a luxury or a risk to be managed

One artistic leader with a building noted that devoting yourself to ‘solving’ a single issue or ‘reaching’ one particular group can feel a bit narrow, even a bit desperate as we try to prove our worth, rather than serving a diverse community in a whole heap of ways including activism alongside creating space for possibility. It can feel like stifling creativity.

A shared view was that Let’s Create doesn’t invite us to think deeply or responsively. It can feel as though we are being asked to sort out a (social) mess which was not of our making and which cannot be solved by creative practice alone.

We discussed the recent advice to NPOs which gave the impression ACE didn’t want artists saying anything political including in our work – and the point was made that artistic work is inherently political as it seeks to imagine new realities, to critique the status quo. We talked about ACE probably not intending to censor in the way it had appeared but to offer advice on managing risk. But the fact artists immediately assumed it was designed to silence them spoke of a fearful, embattled culture.

This led to a conversation about whether ACE are now in a relationship of risk manager with the artists and organisations they fund (rather than investor, or collaborator, or advocate, or champion). And how infantilising these relationships have become. Parent-child, not adult-adult. And in turn how fearful artists and precarious organisations are of damaging the relationship by, for example speaking the truth about what is possible, realistic, desirable. One person used the phrase ‘pleasing the teacher’ to describe the relationship which provoked me to reflect on how infantilising Let’s Create or its consequences have become in such straightened times. We talked about Boards, in some cases, also being frightened of ‘letting the Arts Council down’ and encouraging organisations to keep going with projects that have become impossible or unsafe because match funding hasn’t been achieved or human beings are too fragile, or partners (e.g touring venues) cannot afford what they’ve promised.

One leader of a small (but mighty!) NPO talked about having to take the decision not to tour nationally anymore as it was not financially viable. We asked ‘Does it matter if we tell stories that only reverberate in a hyper local context?’ and recognised that whilst a successful local project should be properly valued, and should be ‘enough’, the desire to be part of a national conversation, to have the work taken seriously by peers (e.g critically), to keep opening up opportunities for the artists and for audiences is still very strong but harder and harder to achieve.

One producer mentioned a joint initiative by mid-scale touring companies to write to a collective of Trusts and Foundations and explain how grant conditions and changes to process were making it harder and harder to successfully apply or deliver. And that it had felt very risky but been received well and thoughtfully

We talked about whether experienced independent leaders/artists could help precarious artists and companies to navigate difficult moments by a) advising them as to the real risk b) encouraging them to speak up if appropriate c) only if absolutely necessary – speaking up on their behalf or anonymising the specifics but reporting the challenge nonetheless. NB I’d be very happy to do this, and to try to create a space where a few of us could be easily accessible for advice like this.

One person had worked in Calais at the refugee camps and had seen some truths about UK border control and wanted to know how artists can feel empowered and resourced to tell the truth when governments and funding structures don’t seem to want to know. He described ‘ the commissioning class’ which seemed to me a useful and painful truth (having been part of that class for a lot of my career) and that for him they seemed to be a totally different kind of people, uninterested or disinterested in the urgent truths.

We talked a little about economic imperatives and box office targets and the realities of running some of our big buildings but none of these realities made us feel much better.

I was asked if it has really got harder and I said yes – it used to be more possible to balance really great popular programming with the less familiar, maybe more activist or more formally inventive work. Now anxieties about box office and reputation/donors make it harder to support the work that will make less money. Harder but not impossible. But the risk is that mission, especially activist, social justice driven missions will take a back seat to reputational and financial success.

One person told a beautiful story about meeting an angel who has pledged to support her and her work – just as she had reached a really low point and couldn’t see a way to keep making. We talked a little, but quite energetically about reducing our dependence on arts council, finding new ways to support the work, about a shared awareness that there isn’t enough public funding to go round and how freeing a passionate donor or investor can be.

Can we imagine businesses with dedicated profit streams for arts organisations? Taking inspiration from Tibetan monks and the way they make profit to finance reflective practice.

One of us shared a story about a Board member who is an architect and has shared their space with her small NPO (for a small rent) for many years, and who has had struggles of their own with the architectural practice shrinking and changing. When asked why they continue to support the theatre company in this generous way they said ‘you bring more world’

This led to a conversation about dreaming bigger, not always wrestling over small amounts but asking for what things cost, saying no if it can’t be done with less. Looking for new sources of private or commercial money.

A few actions/intentions;

Normalise and prioritise rest and recuperation – even if it means stopping, pausing, reforecasting.

Support and encourage each other to dream bigger and to speak truth about realistic expectations– an advocates’ network/whatsapp/website? Who’s in?

Consider pace of work. Less work done well with care. But this requires honesty with funders and solidarity to find the courage to speak up.

Can we reset the relationship with funders, especially ACE so it is adult to adult, not parent to child? What would happen of we always insisted on being treated as one of the adults in the room.

Could we create or encourage the creation of businesses that consistently share resources with the arts?

Can we consider collectively withdrawing our labour if what we have been asked to do is untenable?

And finally;

Let’s value and make time to nurture friendship and solidarity – it will actually help.
Thanks again everyone for a very nourishing conversation that has stayed with me. Times are very hard, and it was tough to hear how weary everyone is, but there was a lot of friendship and willingness to listen and support in that circle and that was definitely replenishing.