Devoted & Disgruntled 12: What Shall We Do About Theatre and the Performing Arts Now?

Politically relevant theatre making Jon Beedell / Desperate Men

Jonathan BEEDELL - 14 January 2017




the subtitle to this ( after the short punchy title ) is
BREXIT = unworkable farce
TRUMP - fucking insane nightmare
Post truth, fake news, post-capitalism (?) post effective opposition How do we make new and effective political theatre now and for WHOM ?
( Partly inspired by an early arts school provocation when asked “Art for Whom ?. )
great session. Thanks to all who came. I shall try and capture most of it. I hope others will add missing comments and content later. This is more or less beginning by just quoting from what people actually said, with a few additions of my own.

”…It's so enormous… so many possible ways to talk about stuff.. How do you choose what to do ? and make it smaller… Too much to deal with, we can't do anything about Trump, he's too big, it's all too big.. “
Someone said … ” They were in late 80's Czechoslovakia and were at a theatre where everyone was employed as actors in a job for life , and all very clear about their [purpose ( not articulated here ? ) they had a v efficient rep system theatre full every night and all week, but returning years later it had all gone. But at the earlier time they had a shared vision and a shared purpo, but now there's so much fragmentation and we just don't have it anymore. "
We talked about change, and how there was definitley change afoot - and perhaps not all of it bad - every crisis is an opportunity etc - how very big things are changing, worldwide, internet / social media, etc etc so is there a ‘mirror’ question that Positive change could be possible ? …
there is a need for simple answers hence Trump and demagogues with simple answers, and the discontented and confused reach out to them for salvation and answers, where as, in fact, it's complexity itself we need to be embracing
That we should be inspiring the understanding of complexity and complexities and its beauty - in all its diversity and difference as an antidote to the media's pushing us to be divided and polarised.
We need to think about our purpose and our outcomes.
How to empower people through participation, involvement and ownership..
How can we make radical change - through both the micro and the macro approaches to work..
( there seems to be general consensus that engagement has to work on many levels and many contexts - but be focused on purpose and outcomes )
Activities can be small or big, but the engagement is the key..
A woman from Skipstone (?) from Newcastle… spoke eloquently about work they'd done with teenagers, disengaged, suspicious, probably leave voters - or at least from leave voting families… who they immersed in work with refugees and with each other, imaging themselves in others shoes etc, and how successful that direct engagement was in turning their attitudes around - they literally took people in from the street, passers by, press ganging people to come into their space ( please correct me if I'm =wrong about all this ) .. teenagers ending up jamming with refugees and really understanding the complexities of the realities of ‘other’.

Agit prop was talked about. Some people there with direct experience of doing it. Some asked what is Agit Prop theatre. It means Agitation Propaganda and was shorthand for a type of politically engaged theatre prevalent in the 60's and early 70's that aimed to reach people that other theatres didn't reach. Going out into the directly affected communities e.g. during the miner's strike where there was a cklear and focused issue to talk about.
There was a student who has studied the whole phenomenon and the history of Agit Prop ( hope you can add something whoever you are ! ? )
Part of what he said was that Agit Prop history showed it was not about a ‘message’ but rather “This is the situation, and this is where it could go .. ” and also important was to tell a ‘good story’

we talked about whether we were looking for a ‘unified response…’ and that maybe that is not really possible or desirable even.. ??
Amy talked of creating ‘mechanisms for open debate’, and that maybe we can construct ‘an aesthetic that enables diverse voices’, develop tactics to engender those conversations - and especially between those who have different opinions or points of view ( or perhaps even have a different ‘truth’ in their lived experience.. ) and that it is our talent and our responsibility as artists to be able to ‘hold that space’ for these things to happen…

Later we talked about right and wrong and are there different ‘truths’ - is it all relative ? ( what IS post modern relativism ? ) Most agreed that no, there ARE things that are right and things that are wrong. Racism is wrong for example. We the had ideas expressed about how some people were 'othered' by feeling they couldn't express certain things - for fear of being labelled racist, sexist, mysoginist etc… but how we have to let there be space for those expressions as well as challenging them - and surely theatre is the space in whcih to do that ( pretend land / la la land.. ) or in opening space for people to say the things they feel they're not allowed to say or express. Again, surely that what theatre is partly for - a therapeutic space in which to ‘let things out..’ and then to share and challenge and debate and find ways forward together ( ach now i feel like I'm preaching .. it all sounds so damn worthy..)
there was additional related conversation to this about people feeling unable to speak for fear of being ‘othered’ by not being what is they perceive as Politcially Correct
They need to be invited to have a conversation about the ‘bad’ / ‘wrong’ things - raising the question for them
( and for us ) Is this OK ??

We need to help audiences ‘connect the dots’.

It's the responsibility of artists to be aware of the political context of everything they do.

We have to confront and recognise and deal with ( somehow ) the fact that THE MEDIA HAVE A MASSIVE HOLD over people's thoughts and how do we deal with that. I asked if that was a call for direct action / guerilla theatre outside the daily mail offices. We all agreed pretty much that yes, it was…. and IS.

there is a constant narrative of division from the media and WE HAVE TO GO AGAINST THAT.

We have to meet ‘other’ in engaged ways.

I referenced the California street band that had been going to for four years before they realised that half the band were Republicans and half liberal Democrats …, ! But they all loved the music, brass band stuff…

and also the Yippies ( 1960's ) who snuck into a NYC department store ( Macys ) hid in the toilets, changed into Father Christmas outfits and proceeded to hand out toys to kids all over the store… kids were leaving the building with their pleased parents, clutching toys that Santa had given them, only to be stopped by store detectives who tried to take the ‘stolen’ goods back from them - ensuring a merry mayhem, and forcing Macy's to let all these kids and parents go home with their new toys ( an example of direct action done with theatrical mischief and fun )

DON'T assume that anyone is at a ‘fixed point’ - people can and do and will change.
( I guess that goes for audiences as well as individuals )
WE HJAVE TO meet in a creative way rather than start from ‘This is my viewpoint’.

Activism v Arts Activism was mentioned ( yes folks there IS a difference ) … how UK Uncut did some amazing things.. but how Theatre Uncut were a bit lame…

Someone said - it's important to say that no-one did anything ‘wrong’ on that day ( presumably the day of the referendum or the US election )

Who is making political theatre now ???

Bertrand talked about his show about Brexit… that wasn't about Brexit but more about what the EU did to Greece.. and how it tried to ‘complexify the topic’…
The woman from Skipstone mentioned the Lemon Bucket Orchestra - anarcho punk gypsy activist band…
Not many other names of groups doing political theatre now were offered.. is this a symptom of something ? ???

Student protest, revolution and performance from the 60's and on is always absorbed into the mainstream so WE NEED more creative ways to break the mould / make more impact.

More inventive ways of making theatrical direct action - use our imaginative theatrical talents for ACTIVISM
and IT'S IMPORTANT TO work with other ‘non-arts’ organisations - TO expand your reach into new audiences / hard to reach audiences/ to work with issues and tackle specific agendas from those organisations etc

There is a WEBSITE called <>
so look at that and put stuff up there !

for those in Bristol - Hamilton House ( Canteen / Gloucester Road / Stoles Croft ) is offering a free space for discussion of these practical issues of how to get doing creative direct action / activism etc…

How DO WE reach Daily Mail readers then ??

people are overwhelmed by information these days so we have to give audiences different perspectives … maybe don't make it ABOUT Brexit per se - use subterfuge, disguise it ?
be creative with FORM - micro to macro AND WITH PLACE -


Find ways to bypass the financial constraints ?

Make partnerships with other people / orgs support others in their agendas
e.g like FUEL company who work with charities ..
( I, perhaps uncharitably, suggested that that is a lot easier if you're an NPO and on salaries.. and that it's harder if you're a self employed solo or unfunded group.. )
“ It's not about the money”
Isn't that what rich people always say ?
but yes, we should support their campaigning with our talents and creative imaginations…

WE must also ARTICULATE what ‘BETTER’ looks and feels like not just have dystopian and apocalyptic futures thrown at us all the time..

Bath and North East Somerset Council announce 100% cut in arts funding.
AND Bristol City Council have cut £ 320,000 from their arts funding..

And there's NO MONEY FOR SOCIAL CARE ( because of huge austerity cuts to local councils ) whIch is why the NHS IS REALLY STRUGGLING..

oops - got diverted into politics just then.. now how did THAT happen ??

OK. That's my very rushed, virtually un-edited, un thought through, rather un-eloquent attempt to capture some of that. I hope I'll have time later to write something a bit more measured… and maybe even make a show out of it.

Thanks to all of you that came - and those that hovered, flitted by, pollinated or never turned up at all !




Becky Chapman

14 January 2017

As Jon said, If people who are engaged in making politically relevant work want a space to share we have a website that might

The format is evolving but we have capacity to upload and then promote any examples of projects, companies, ways of working that you feel are ‘Doing Things Differently’ in the arts. Resources, references and links are welcome.

Have a look and email if you would like to add to the page. Send an image too.

Becky Diverse City

Phil Cleaves

15 January 2017

I would have liked to have been there for this one. The report on The Emancipated Spectator may be of interest. We raised questions about the power/weakness of political theatre and the difference between audience and spectator. Some ideas in there for doing things differently.
Phil Cleaves

15 January 2017

I would have liked to have been there for this one. The report on The Emancipated Spectator may be of interest. We raised questions about the power/weakness of political theatre and the difference between audience and spectator. Some ideas in there for doing things differently.
Tom Nicholas

16 January 2017

It was me who talked a little bit about the history of Agit Prop and its development into the State of the Nation play.

There's an interesting interview with David Edgar where he states that:

'what was happening was that the local polytechnic and local government left were actually coming to see the show and only three or four real workers were standing at the bar at the back. We didn’t gain that mass audience and, therefore, you had to look, not at the audience that we weren’t getting, but at the audience we were getting and that audience was important' (in Megson and Reinelt, 2012: 377).

The move to the “State of the Nation” play typified by Edgar, Hare et al was to take a less didactic approach and explore an issue more wholly, looking at how a number of different political framings could develop from the same factual standpoint. Edgar's Destiny is a particularly good example of this.

Really interesting session I thought, thanks for calling it.


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