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.

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