Is Street Theatre A Pile of Rubbish?

Convener(s): Paschale Straiton


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Summary of discussion, conclusions and/or recommendations:

There is a perception of street theatre as the poor relative of ‘proper theatre’ that happens in buildings: how much is there a prejudice within the industry?

There has been an increased focus within the Arts Council of England on street theatre, including a street arts strategy, designated officers in ACE (e.g. Chenine Bhathena in London – who has now left, will she be replaced?) and at local council level (e.g. Bristol). So, there has been an increase in funding of festivals and companies, leading to more innovative work…

However, there still seems to be widespread ignorance of what street theatre can offer (now classified by ACE under the umbrella of ‘outdoor arts’). The stereotype of ‘the living statue’ remains a pervasive image, for many theatre practitioners as well as the wide public. You have to be lucky enough to live in places that have regular, creatively produced events or that host strategic projects to see the ‘good stuff’ – e.g. Winchester, Manchester, Stockton on Tees or towns along the Severn River that benefit from the Severn Project.

Do we need to be able to differentiate between street entertainment and street theatre, between the ‘eye candy’ of stilt walking performers and attempts to make ‘Brecht on the street’, recognizing that there is value in and a place for both.

There is great, practical value of working on the street: you can reach a wide demographic, people that don’t usually go to the theatre; you can draw better wages from street arts festival bookings than from small-mid scale theatre touring (the former can be used to fund the latter); the sector encourages new emerging artists, working cross-art form, to produce work that gets to wide ranging audiences; empowers performers to be pro-active rather than waiting for the agent to call; festival bookers are often more accessible than theatre programmers as they are quite simply there, on the street; street theatre work can sometimes spin off into other contexts – e.g. corporate entertainment market, or it can be one of a number of contexts in which a company works – e.g. Theatre Venture uses street theatre events to show small pieces of work.

The Without Walls Consortium is really looking to invite artists from outside the sector in, through commissioning, with a special emphasis on artists with disabilities and from diverse cultural backgrounds. However, there is a need to continue to support the artists that have been struggling within the sector, now that money is beginning to trickle down. Also there is a hope that producers will support companies based in the UK in the lead up to the Olympics.

Like there is a tendency within the theatre industry to rely too heavily on ACE funding, there is a similar tendency for street theatre companies/practitioners to rely on the festival circuit. Perhaps we need to branch out of this, try to establish relationships with theatre buildings, other types of festival, engage with hospitals, museums, other public buildings and organizations, which will broaden our visibility and (hopefully) raise our profile within the industry as a whole.

It seems very important that there should be an increased critical evaluation of the ‘outdoor arts’ sector. It is very, very rare for outdoor performance to be reviewed by the press (– no wonder people don’t know about it!). Lyn Gardner has become interested in festivals and companies in the last couple of years and is beginning to cover this type of work, but she is a rare individual. Perhaps we need to try to establish more formal processes of feedback within NASA (National Association of Street Artists) or a similar organisation, or develop ideas of a similar nature.

Performance on the street is by its very nature democratic. Many companies and performers have no formal training, come from a musical, circus or activist background. We need to continue to celebrate this anarchic, provocative, raw, dangerous spirit while engaging with quality control, continuing to learn and develop. There is clearly an underlying tension between wanting to be accepted as a sector that is rich in ideas, skills and output, while wanting to retain a sense of being underground and unconventional.

Outdoor arts has an amazing potential and one that is beginning to be recognized by authorities. Wonderful encounters can happen between strangers, communities can come together in powerful, shared moments. We need to make sure that money is being spent responsibly and that festivals are developed in the most helpful ways. For example, Stockton International Riverside Festival is a wonderful event, which brings together high caliber artists from all over the world. But, how has the festival impacted upon the community, which is profoundly depressed? Is it a big, expensive, spangly party?

It’s important for outdoor artists to come to events like this, to remind people that we are here and that we’ve got some great (if sometimes smelly) things to say.