Thursday, July 16, 2020

Individualism - a discussion of my lockdown delights

The Favourite
I finally managed to watch The Favourite as part of my lockdown cultural binge.  It's very entertaining, of course, and contains an appropriate dose of lèse-majesté - but I found myself disturbed by the way it viewed politics, which brought it far closer to more conventional costume dramas than it was perhaps intended to be. The underlying premise of the film was that whoever happened to be Queen Anne's current "favourite" (for which read female lover), held the reins of power and determined policy.  Wars, it appeared, could be started or ended in the Queen's bed.  I don't doubt that this may have been literally true, or that similar individual quirks and choices continue to influence us today. It does make a difference that Trump watches TV all day and Johnson has a very brief concentration span. But to think of politics solely in personal terms is to buy into the myth of the individual "great man" (or woman) at the expense of the more complex social, economic, technological and cultural forces which mould all of us, the "great" included. Perhaps the "great" more than anyone.

Another lockdown delight has been The Mirror and the Light - the last part of Hilary Mantel's trilogy of novels about Thomas Cromwell. Here again, I found that the concentration on the minutiae of the political process, the workings of faction in the Tudor court, placed an undue and artificial emphasis on the role of the individual in the shaping of history. It would be very easy to read the book, indeed the whole trilogy, with a sense of Cromwell as an entirely pragmatic figure, driven solely by the workings of realpolitik, caught up in the minutiae of family feuds and dynastic faction. But Cromwell surely had his ideological side. He was clearly sympathetic to Lutheranism at a time when that was a dangerous doctrine in England, and his adherence to Protestant thought was not only an opportunity to his enemies: it was also one of the things that made them his enemies in  the first place. Hilary Mantel certainly acknowledges Cromwell's Protestant leanings, though she demonstrates them largely through his concern for the fate of William Tyndale - an individual again, rather than the doctrine he proclaimed. There is a certain irony in this, given that Luther's emphasis on the individual, on personal salvation and a one-to-one relationship with God, is at the root of our culture's obsession with individual personality, status and achievement. Without Luther, I suspect our writers, film-makers and dramatists would be placing far less emphasis on the "great man" theory of history.

What hardly features at all in the Mantel book, but which could be regarded as Cromwell's greatest achievement, is his use of Parliament, and statute, to enact what G.R. Elton called his "Revolution in Government". It was Cromwell who established that statute was the supreme form of law, and so conceived the unique and bizarre notion of a shared form of sovereignty, that of "the King in Parliament". There is a tension at the heart of this idea - a tension between the role of the individual monarch, the "great man", and the wider social and political landscape represented by Parliament. That tension remains unresolved in our constitution, and it accounts for the chaos of the Brexit process, which was above all a prolonged clash between the quasi-monarchical Executive, exercising the Royal prerogative through the Prime Minister, and the elected representatives of the people. Lockdown joy number three was John Bercow's frank autobiography Unspeakable, in which he manages to combine an account of his passionate defence of Parliament as an institution with a totally personality-focussed view of the political process. Bercow's position is paradoxical, but then so is the central tenet of the British constitution.

Milo Rau's Lenin: Ursina Lardi in the title role
There was a brilliant counterpoint to the individualist, "great man" approach to history in Milo Rau's Lenin, which was streamed by the Berlin Schaubühne a few weeks ago. This series of streamed productions has been the greatest lockdown delight for me: a truly great theatre, rooted in ensemble practice, sharing some of its treasures, with Rau's productions a particular revelation. In Lenin, he explores the last days of the revolutionary leader, in a production that slowly creates the image of that leader as we know him. The fact that it is an image is crucial - "Lenin" (which wasn't even the man's name) is a constructed cultural figure, an artificial creation which was required by the political process, just as all "great men", even communists, are not actually themselves, and are not actually individuals but an amalgam of historical influences. By casting a woman (the remarkable Ursina Lardi) as Lenin, Rau places the character as far as possible from the known construction.  In the early scenes, Lardi is overtly herself, blonde-haired and naked. Only slowly, and in full view, is she moved  through costume, make-up and performance towards the expected image of Lenin, which is finally realised in the form of a black and white film, shot live in front of us and projected above the stage, spoken in Russian with subtitles in the audience's own language. So "Lenin" comes to be seen as a cultural construction, as the play enacts the process of his making. This way of understanding history as performance, shaped like and by theatre, made perfect sense to me.
Lenin at the Schaubühne - the film and the stage
These different ways of understanding history, politics and society have been playing out in front of us during the Covid-19 crisis. On one side, we have seen individualist, populist leaders like Johnson, Trump and Bolsonaro putting their faith in the potential of ventilators, vaccine researchers, phone apps and ingested disinfectant to deal with the virus: on the other side, we have seen more community-oriented approaches that prioritise preventative measures like early lockdowns and widespread testing. As James Meek wrote in the London Review of Books:
The divide between communal health advocates and tech fixers represents a deeper choice: between actions that aim to help an individual, so may indirectly help everyone, and actions that aim to help everyone, so may indirectly help the individual. Lockdown requires each individual to accept personal constraints for the sake of the community, even when they are not themselves ill. In theory, the tech fix can be for everyone, too, but because it is a thing to be obtained, rather than a constraint to abide by, it comes trailing issues of priority, price, privilege, exclusivity: what device, what pill, what treatment, what test can I get for myself, my family, my friends, to protect them?
This is not a simple left-right division: community health approaches can be imposed by totalitarian regimes like China as well as more benign states like Aotearoa / New Zealand. But the stark contrast between these approaches, both in terms of the ideology behind them and the numbers of deaths resulting, suggests that this is going to be an ever more important way of viewing political conflicts and decisions.

Culture it seems, far from leading the way, needs to catch up.  It may well be that one reason why countries like the US and the UK have handled Covid so shockingly badly is their ongoing culture of individualism, their "great man" approach to history and politics, their sense of an elective dictatorship somehow being a democracy. The countries that have avoided our horrific death tolls have been less fixated on success, technology and "greatness", more interested in mutuality, participation and community. Aotearoa / New Zealand has even dared to suggest that wellbeing, rather than growth, should be the driving force in its economy. So, as we absorb the shock of the pandemic and move forward, spending the Chancellor's "rescue package" and rebuilding theatre both as an economic sector and as an art form; my hope is for a new approach to cultural work that is not centred on success, stardom and leadership but on the ensemble, on the drama of difference, on equality and on productive exchange. There have been many calls for a more diverse and inclusive theatre recently, and of course that's important, but it will only be genuinely beneficial if it goes beyond replacing white faces with black ones in exactly the same jobs. The culture we must strive for has to be institutionally different, anti-hierarchical, egalitarian and communitarian, not individualistic. We need to recognise that theatre, like society, is something that is communally created.

I know this sounds like an odd thing for an Artistic Director to say. But, as Ariane Mnouchkine has frequently pointed out, in collective work the director's distinction is not one of status but of function. That's a better way to understand Thomas Cromwell, Lenin and the essential changes we have to make for a better future.

Wednesday, July 08, 2020

Supporting the Arts and Cultural Sectors

Every picture tells a story.  This is a photo opportunity for the Chancellor and the Culture Secretary, the men in suits who have just announced the £1.5bn rescue package for culture, posing at the Globe Theatre.  In the background, on the edge of the stage, is Artistic Director Michelle Terry.  She looks as if she's not quite sure whether she's meant to be in the picture or not.

Prior to the announcement, the DCMS Parliamentary Committee asked for written evidence on the impact Covid-19 was having on the sector.  Some examples of this evidence was published online.  Ours was not - so we're publishing it here.  The evidence, written by our Chair Dr. Alastair Niven with Artistic Director Michael Walling, was prepared well before the rescue package was announced, and before the deadline for the UK to request an extension to the Brexit transition period.

  1. Immediate impact of Covid-19 on the sector
The challenge   
The arts define the wellbeing of a society.  They are not an add on luxury, something to decorate society once other, more basic matters have been dealt with - they are themselves basic.  The current crisis does not make our cultural life something that should be put on hold until things are “back to normal”.  We have to recognise that we are undergoing a fundamental change in the way we live - we have to imagine a different future.  It will be from the cultural sector that the essential new ideas emerge.
This is why we have been disappointed by government responses so far to the Covid-19 crisis as it relates to the arts and culture.  Every part of the sector - theatres, galleries, cinemas, concert halls, opera houses and studios, as well as makers of art, performers, directors and technicians – have been left fearful of the uncertainty they face, in a perilous financial situation, and feeling deeply undervalued.  
Because the arts and culture are not just another economic sector, but are central to future thinking, to health and wellbeing, to education and development, it would be quite wrong to respond to the way Covid-19 has impacted them as if loss of earned income were the only concern.  Cultural revival has to be a priority for a healthy emergence from the crisis.  That is why we urge the DCMS to rise to its historic challenge and re-think the way in which arts and culture are seen by government.  Arts and culture are not business any more than health and education are business.  These sectors of our society require the political support that will make them universally accessible and effective as barometers of wellbeing in the Covid era and beyond.
The sectors immediate response. 
The arts sector, and especially theatres and other places of entertainment, were the first to close under the Covid restrictions.  Most gave their last performance on Saturday 14 March, and since then they have been physically dormant.  
Theatre organisations have, however, been astonishingly and immediately pro-active and inventive in their response to the constraints brought about by Covid-19.  Streamings of past theatre productions have brought colour and humanity into the homes where almost the whole population has been confined.  Some National Theatre productions have been viewed by over a million people.  Even a smaller company such as Border Crossings has attracted audiences running in to the thousands, including international audiences who could not have seen the live original.  At a time of great suffering, it is vital to point to this positive effect, for our standing abroad has been greatly enhanced by widening around the world knowledge of what our arts sector achieves. 
Border Crossings   
Border Crossings is a theatre company founded in 1995.  Its mission, as its name implies, is to cross frontiers – not only political frontiers, though much of its work is collaborative with partners from around the world – but also the borders between cultures and art forms.  We aim to lead in intercultural dialogue between artists, audiences and communities, working principally in theatre, but also through exhibitions, film, dance and music. We regularly curate high level debates and discussions about the contribution of theatre and the arts to global civilisation (including online during the lockdown).
Every second year Border Crossings arranges a unique festival, ORIGINS, which brings to the UK cultural work of all kinds created by Indigenous peoples in other countries: for example, by Indigenous Australians, Native peoples of the Americas, Inuit and Maori.   
Our most recent theatre production is a play called THE GREAT EXPERIMENT, which is about indentured labour migrations after the abolition of slavery.  It toured intimate but adventurous spaces such as the Cutty Sark and Tara Arts.  This production made an extraordinary impact on local audiences, many of whom were originally from communities historically moulded by the circumstances being enacted on stage.  It has now been viewed globally online.  There is no theatre company registered in the UK as committed as Border Crossings to international connections.
The devastating impact of Covid-19 upon our ability to plan.   
Because of Covid-19 we have had to take tough decisions.  Next years ORIGINS festival is in the balance.  It is risky to plan a large scale event that depends on international travel and the gathering of indoor audiences.  The festivals partnerships, carefully constructed over many years with national organisations such as the British Museum and the Southbank Centre, are necessarily suspended.  Similarly, our mission to send our work overseas and to co-produce plays in other countries, as we have always done, is currently paused. Our intention to take THE GREAT EXPERIMENT to Mauritius, where it is partly set, cannot be furthered until quarantine restrictions are lifted both there and in Britain.
Turning to digital dissemination, as we have done so effectively since the start of the Covid-19 crisis, may enhance our international standing, but it does nothing for our income, and it is not supported by our funders.  We are literally earning nothing during this period.
Funding threats.   
Throughout its history Border Crossings has been successful in raising funds from a broad range of external sources.  These, far more than box office income, have sustained our work.  Arts Council England and the National Lottery Heritage Fund have both assisted a variety of our projects.  We have been through two rounds of Catalyst work.  However, the pressure on ACE and NLHF in the immediate future will now, as a result of the Covid-19 crisis, make applications to either of them considerably more competitive than they have ever been. The main emphasis so far has been on ensuring the survival of flagship organisations, and this is understandable - but it should be coupled with a wider consultation around what kind of arts and cultural work should happen in the future, and how that may best be supported.  Already we have seen how the Arts Council and the National Lottery Heritage Fund have shut down their project grant funds and been obliged to divert their available monies and contingency reserves into emergency Covid-19 funds.   These emergencies have very often been in companies enjoying Nationalstatus, or which were in any case in so parlous a financial situation that they required bailing out, whether or not there had been a Covid-19 crisis. This has left a well-managed, modest sized, project focused company such as Border Crossings awkwardly placed in a funding no mans land, where we are neither big enough nor sufficiently unstable to be given emergency funds.  There is an irony in the fact that we did not appear to qualify for ACE emergency support (and so did not apply) because we had succeeded in building up a sensible and, in normal circumstances, sustainable level of reserves over the past few years.  The same good management that the DCMS has advocated is now making us vulnerable to the crisis, while some organisations that may already be bankrupt continue to be supported. 
Our scope is further constrained by the withdrawal of the UK from the European Union, which has been a significant source of funding for many projects run in partnership with other European countries, but which are now under immediate threat.  The planned withdrawal from Creative Europe and likely withdrawal from Erasmus + will be a major blow for us at a very difficult time.  At the very least, an extension of the transition period would help the sector to get through the Covid crisis before the next challenge posed by Brexit.
  1. Long-term Impact of Covid-19 on the sector.
The long-term effects of this crisis are likely to be financial ruin for some, reduced opportunities to be experimental and creative for all, and constant anxiety about conforming with health requirements for audiences, performers, and all involved in the creative arts.  
Financial viability.  
With smaller audiences resulting from social distancing and the massively increased competition for financial subsidies, many arts organisations face the likelihood of their demise, whatever the quality of their work or the strength of their artistic reputation.  
Health and safety.  
Health and safety issues have been taken very seriously by all arts companies in recent years, but the challenges posed by Covid-19 are unprecedented.  Spaces will need to be adapted physically, with social distancing necessitating the removal of seats, the adaptation of toilet facilities, and the segregation of audiences. 
Artists and all involved in productions will need specialist training in managing audiences, artists and technicians. 
The population as a whole.  
One fears desperately for all sections of the population if access to theatre and other arts is circumscribed or made impossible.  Older people fuel the economy and generate their wellbeing by their engagement with arts events.  Young people need to know their inheritances, to engage with imaginative new ideas and to encounter the best of human creativity if they are to develop as civilised beings.  
The Covid-19 crisis is a health crisis.  The arts sector believes passionately that health is not just predicated on controlling the spread of infectious diseases.  It is also about the mental health and wellbeing of all people in every community.  A society that makes the choice to exist without ready and open access to the arts, and to the means of creating art, is a sick society.  We must avoid moving in that direction.
  1. Lessons to be learned from current responses to Covid-19.
John Donnes famous words in the seventeenth century are perhaps the single most important lesson to be learned from the Covid-19 crisis.
                  ‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the 
                   continent, a part of the main.   If a clod be washed away by the sea, 
                   Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a 
                   manor of thy friends or of thine own were.
This is not the place to rehearse political comments on the manner in which the pandemic has been handled in the United Kingdom, nor to express views on the issue of Brexit, except in as much as our withdrawal from the European Union has cut off what has hitherto been a vital part of arts funding.  However, we can confidently assert that a global catastrophe on this scale has called for a global response.  The spread of infection has ignored state borders.  Every country has monitored the approach to the crisis taken by every other country.  Scientists and medical experts have sought to learn from each other, regardless of political differences.  Travel, migration and quarantine regulations have obliged nations to work together.  A global situation has created unprecedented global awareness.  This must be a lesson for how we all work and behave in the future.   Border Crossings has always worked collaboratively and is in a strong position to point the way to other arts companies.
Access to funds outside the UK. 
Given the limited public funds that are likely to be available to organisations like Border Crossings after the Covid-19 crisis, we implore the UK government to reconsider its position on participation in the European Educational and Cultural programmes.  This is not a political statement, but a pragmatic necessity.  It seems madness to cut ourselves off from largesse that the European Union has said can still be made available to the United Kingdom, despite our withdrawal.
Clearly preparation for an event as large scale and global as this pandemic can never be sufficient.  It does, however, underline the value of both forward and contingency planning, at all levels and by all types of organisations.  For a small company like Border Crossings, which punches above its weight in terms of the value of its work, this can be very frustrating because our vision often outstrips our resources.  We shall ensure that a lesson learned from the crisis is that one can never over plan or be too careful with financial management and accountability.  At the same time, we may reluctantly have to be much more constrained in what we can do than we would wish to be.  After building up a such a strong reputation and track record internationally, we regard this as little short of tragic.
Since this is a global crisis, and since it has begun during the Brexit transition period, it would be wise for the DCMS to see how cultural policy in other European nations has enabled arts and culture to be far more resilient than has been the case here.  To offer just one example, the Berliner Ensemble has planned for an autumn re-opening with 500 seats removed from its 700 seat auditorium.  It has been able to do this without an increase in ticket prices, because the German government supports theatre not on the basis of a business selling a product, but as an essential part of a healthy society and polity.  The current moment offers us the opportunity to re-think our social, cultural and political structures, learning from societies that have dealt with the Covid-19 crisis well.
  1. How the sector may evolve, with the support of DCMS.
Digital and online.
The move to digital and online work during the pandemic has both advantages and disadvantages.  The creative experimentation this has involved is good, with much more sophisticated use of monologues and of cross-screen interaction of performers being filmed in their own homes.  The screening of video recordings of past productions has widened audiences. However, a downside is that screened work is in the end no substitute for live performance and the physical coming together of audiences in a shared space.  The best streamed work leads to the response “If only I had been there to see it live”, and therefore reminds audiences of the value of live performance, rather than substituting for it.  Its use during the pandemic is a temporary stop-gap, not a long-term solution, and (as noted above) it brings in no revenue at all.  Even a “star” artist like violinist Tasmin Little has stated that 5 million streams over six months earned her £12.34.  If digital distribution is to be pursued as a preferred business model, then it necessitates a complete shift in funding models.
Social distancing.
Unless a truly effective vaccine against Covid-19 is found, it will be necessary at all public performances to protect audiences by continued social distancing.  This will have a big effect on the economies of all performing arts organisations and on exhibition spaces.  Those dependent on generating box office income rather than on subsidy will suffer acutely, perhaps fatally.  
Performers themselves will find rehearsing and playing in theatres difficult and in many cases impossible.  Any performance that requires physical contact between performers will be hard to achieve under current regulations.  We would therefore urge the DCMS to explore the arts as a priority area for continuous testing of personnel, on the lines being applied in football.  
Educational opportunities.
It may be difficult for the foreseeable future to organise school outings to plays and other arts events.  The DCMS can have a major role in ensuring that if young people cannot go to the events, then the events should come to them.  The number of trained groups specialising in theatre in education techniques should rapidly be increased.  DCMS support will be necessary for this.  
DCMS and the Department for Education should jointly devise an Arts in Schools Programme suitable for all levels in state education.  This should cover the teaching of the history of the arts as well as ensure that all children have access to seeing and performing live drama.
Cultural Renewal Taskforce.
We strongly support the idea of a Cultural Renewal Taskforce being established, under the chairmanship of the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.  This would provide evidence that the government cares about the sector and is putting its weight behind ideas to ensure its survival.  However, we would advise the DCMS to look more carefully at the composition of this group, and recognise that the Covid crisis will require major changes across the sector.  It is  surely short-sighted to confine membership of the Taskforce to those who have managed larger organisations in the pre-Covid era.  It may well be that smaller organisations, community-based artists and those working in education will have more to offer here.
  1. Conclusion.
The arts are in danger.  There has not been a comparable threat to the survival of theatre since the Puritans closed playhouses in 1642.  That period of repression lasted eighteen years.  However, on returning to the boards, plays acquired a new vitality; theatre buildings moved indoors and started using new forms of lighting and scenic engineering; female actors took on leading parts in place of boys.  A new creativity came into being, affecting writing, performing, design, and the relationship of the production to the audience.  The same may happen again when the theatres re-open after Covid-19, but it is going to be a struggle.  We believe that the DCMS can rescue the situation, but it must show imagination, foresight and flexibility.  If it does, it will be thanked in perpetuity.  If it fails to do so, then history books will write disparagingly of its inability to rise to the occasion because it was philistine when it should have been cultured, bureaucratic when it should have been civilised.  The ball is in the DCMS court.