Monday, November 17, 2008

The Producer's Travels

Penny was in China for much of last week - liaising with SDAC and SYT, as well as the Shanghai Festival, the British Council and the Mayor of London's representatives in Shanghai. It all sounds to have gone pretty well - although as ever with China, final commitments are difficult to come by. But Ruihong is on board for February, which is really important, and SDAC has made a pretty sizable commitment with hosting the workshop, so I feel pretty optimistic that this will move forward into performances in time.

On Friday, she was in Brussels - meeting our lovely EU liaison Katerina, and trying to work out just how the financial reporting works. I'm so glad that I've got Penny on this project - managing the unfathomable!

Meanwhile, I've been busy around the Origins Festival (again). The British Museum are now interested, and Visiting Arts are intending to host a Producers' Breakfast (very useful for the "added value" element for overseas funders). It's all building - and I feel incredibly nervous about it.... not least because the next three weeks I'm running a project at Central and can't give much time to this. And, of course, I'll be away through February.

The DVDs of the Tahoe Dream turn up - and I enjoy reliving bits of the summer. Oddly, a little extract from the show has turned up on You Tube. If you watch it, bear in mind the camera is following Art George, and not necessarily the centre of the action! But it's nice to see the Washoe contribution out there online.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Cultural Diversity and Internationalism

I was at the Commonwealth HQ last week, for a long and very involved discussion of the 2005 UNESCO convention on Cultural Diversity. It's a very interesting and useful document - partly because it enshrines cultural rights alongside those other rights which are normally considered more basic, and partly because it serves as a manifesto against cultural imperialism and in favour of intercultural dialogue. The meeting was all about trying to give it some force nationally and internationally. Far more Francophone countries have ratified it than Anglophone ones: the usual story, of course. Oddly enough, the UK has ratified it, which means it is the law of the land.... but Valerie Synmoie, who is Head of Diversity for the Arts Council in London was there, and hadn't heard anything about it! The ratification process actually consists of the document sitting in Parliament for a while, and - if no MP objects to it - it just goes through. What, I wonder, is the use of law if nobody actually realises it's there?

Over the weekend, I saw a film called This is Our Country Too at the British Museum. It's part of the BFM Festival - the work of a fantastic young director called Ishmahil Blagrove Jnr., and his group RiceNPeas. Follow the link, and you'll see how close I find this work to our own in its concerns. This is Our Country Too is a documentary about Australian Aboriginals, and is the fullest account of the contemporary position that I've seen. It manages to be both passionate and balanced - you get Kevin Rudd's apology, and you get images of the poverty-stricken communities.

Penny is in China at the moment, setting up the structures for February. Good news today is that Ruihong will be in the workshop then. And, to add to my happy morning, we've also heard that we have US Embassy funding towards Origins.

Friday, November 07, 2008

The Obama Presidency

At last. America seems to have elected a leader of vision, intelligence, honesty and morality; a leader whose personal history can serve to unite, rather than divide, communities within America and across the world; a leader whose very name is a symbol of what the 21st century has to be about, a symbol of Truth and Reconciliation – Barack Hussein Obama.

Of course, the election of this man is only a beginning. An astonishing pioneering first is not the same thing as a paradigm shift, and the election of a black President will not overturn American racism overnight. He may (perish the thought) be assassinated – there have already been two foiled conspiracies to do this, and it was striking that, on election night itself, the world saw the poignant image of this lean man standing alone between two panes of bullet-proof glass. I know all about the deadly intents of the radical right in the USA, having myself been the subject of death threats for casting a black performer as Juliet. I imagine that the racists would rate that capital crime as less serious than that of being the first black President.

Obama’s campaign against Hillary Clinton was largely focussed on foreign policy, and on his opposition to the Iraq war. I’m sure that this, together with his great charisma and oratorical abilities, was what won him the nomination within a Democratic party, and also won him so much worldwide support. But it’s worth noting that in the campaign against John McCain, Obama shifted his battle-ground significantly, and made comparatively few references to the war or the Middle East. Some of what he did say, particularly about Afghanistan and Pakistan, sounded distinctly hawkish. It may be that the shift in constituency from the Democratic Party to a wider American public led him to alter the emphasis of this policy – so we’ll have to see what actually happens once he takes office.

America, after all, is complex in terms of the role of government. In many ways, it distrusts government, or “state interference”. Bill Clinton, who also had the potential to be a great reforming President, was stymied by the power of the corporations, particularly the vested interests of the drug companies with regard to health policy. On the other hand, Obama arrives at the moment in history when global capitalism is at its weakest point, when the banks have gone cap in hand to the Federal Reserve, and in now in thrall to the state, in what amounts to a socialist model. So perhaps he really can push through a reforming agenda against the might of these amoral giants.

Here’s hoping.

Monday, November 03, 2008

Theatre Assessment

The Arts Council has been running a consultation process called Theatre Assessment. I thought I should submit something! It's all done anonymously, but as in the past, I don't mind people knowing what I said, so here are my thoughts on the blog....

Looking at the last five years :

 what have been the major developments and changes in theatre? Have they improved or worsened the situation?

This is an incredibly broad question (they all are, actually), and I imagine it works better as a stimulus for debate than as a prompt for one direct response. I can only speak from a personal perspective.

Five years ago, the theatre was responding to a changing political environment. 2003 was the year in which the Iraq war began, and in which British political dissent was at its most vociferous for some time. Since theatre is a public art form, it reflected this, and became particularly visible, potent and (crucially) popular in a way we had not seen for some time. This revitalisation of theatre, which encompassed the entire range of scales from the National to the fringe, has not been sustained as many artists would have hoped. Theatre with a social or political awareness has been fragmented, with a growth in verbatim theatre, and in theatre looking at very particular issues. Work which tackles larger questions imaginatively and creatively is in short supply once again. This is partly the result of a loss of political momentum, but it is also to do with a sense that the vitality of 2003-4 was not endorsed by public bodies. We could contrast this with countries like Canada or France, where theatre that is critical of society is positively encouraged as a sign of a flourishing democracy.

 in what ways have relationships between theatre organisations and locally based companies/artists, and theatre organisations and their local communities, changed?

The Arts Council’s encouragement of audience development initiatives has definitely been fruitful, and there has been a stronger engagement with local communities. My only concern is how far this is cosmetic, and how deep it goes. Many larger organisations undertake specific initiatives which appear to engage communities, but which are in fact tangential to their main programme, which continues to focus on more conventional approaches. This is directly related to the artistic issues discussed above - the audience was at its most diverse and most articulate during the period 2003-4.

 has there been more engagement with diversity and if so, what effect has this had on theatre and on audiences?

Yes, there has. With the proviso I made in my previous answer, I would say that theatre is now very engaged with diversity - indeed, it could be said to be fulfilling its role as a social pioneer in this regard. The increased engagement with diversity has broadened audiences, and has as a result suggested a more integrated social model.

Until very recently, the stress which the Arts Council laid on culturally diverse work as being produced by BME artists and aimed at BME audiences was perhaps less helpful, since it could be seen as ghettoising the work and the audience. This issue is of particular interest to me as Artistic Director of Border Crossings, since our work (and our audience and governance) is incredibly diverse in the fullest sense of the term, even though we are not representative of, or led by, any particular ethnic minority group. Our audience figures over the last five years demonstrate clearly the potential for inter-cultural work to address a broad range of people, and to create a genuinely and fully diverse audience. It is perhaps surprising that we have not yet been considered for RFO status: and it is tempting to wonder whether this is because we do not tick boxes which have been imposed from outside.

It is very encouraging to see that the Arts Council is now looking at diversity in terms of a much broader paradigm.

 in what ways have audiences and their expectations changed?

As well as being more diverse, my sense is that audiences have become more actively engaged, and more vociferous. This is to do with the way in which theatre is seeking to de-mystify its processes, and to engage more directly with communities, and particularly with young people through education. With our own productions, the accompanying workshops tend to be very well attended, as do post-show discussions.
This is also part of a larger cultural shift, to do with the growth of more active media (e.g. the web, computer games). Audiences now regard art less passively, and theatre, as a live form, is ideally placed to capitalise on this. We at Border Crossings are interested in developing our work further in this direction.

 what effect have economic and political changes or any other external interventions had on theatre?

I am answering this question in the week of the worst economic crisis for sixty years, so it may be a bit early to tell the future! However, I would say that even before the crisis, it was getting more difficult to enter into partnerships with the private sector, which tends to regard culture, and perhaps theatre in particular, as a minority interest of little public concern (even though the figures show the exact opposite). There is a clear need to continue public investment in the form, if it is to survive - and theatre’s contribution to our economy is such that, even in blatantly capitalist terms, it really does need to survive!

As an internationally oriented company, Border Crossings is engaged with changes on a global scale. The rise of China as a major power has had a significant impact on our work, both in terms of artistic engagement, and in terms of our being able to access the opportunities offered by diplomatic initiatives. My sense is that our work is likely to develop further in these terms; engaging in dialogue with cultures which have something to offer our own, and exploring new ways of jointly inhabiting the global space. In this way, theatre can complement and develop political, commercial and diplomatic initiatives. Indeed, it can go further, since in the theatre people are able to meet as equals, whereas in other spheres there is no true equality.

It is unfortunate in this regard that the British Council should be scaling down its support for theatre, at a time when the form can deliver so much. The old model of touring "British" work overseas is outmoded, but the development of international collaboration as the future of theatre is surely something which should be supported at a political level, particularly in the run-up to 2012.

 what has been the impact of the Arts Council's Grants for the arts scheme, since it was introduced in 2003?

The scheme has certainly made it easier to apply to the Arts Council for project funding, and my experience has been that it is very well administered, and that the Arts Council has taken more care over its relations with clients and applicants since the scheme was introduced. The three-month turnaround for applications is longer than is ideal for companies.

The scheme has perhaps tended to localise the Arts Council’s concerns, since the regional offices now deal with everything, and there is little sense of overview, particularly with regard to touring and to international initiatives.

It seems to have become more difficult for companies that have received a number of project grants to develop to RFO status. There does not seem to be a structure in place which encourages the development of organisations beyond the model of working on a project by project basis, and so it becomes very difficult to sustain and nurture valuable organisations over time.