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Lyn Gardner: Slung Low shows how we must embrace the shock of the new

Slung Low's Alan Lane Slung Low's Alan Lane
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Like many people, I find change hard. But I know that whenever change has been forced on me, it has turned out for the better. I’ve enjoyed doing things differently and it has brought new opportunities, relationships, a different way of looking at the world and enhanced creativity. So why don’t I go around actively embracing change and making it happen?

Theatre company Slung Low forms community arts college

Some people and companies do. Last week Alan Lane of Slung Low announced that the theatre company is opening a cultural community college in Holbeck in Leeds. It will be a place to learn free of charge and will offer what the participants want to learn (from South Indian dancing to stargazing), taught by the best teachers available.

Lane’s reasons for launching the project are twofold: “It’s our continued mission to attempt to be as useful as possible with public money in as many imaginative ways as we can,” he said, adding: “You are what you do. That’s as true for organisations as it is for individuals. And I want Slung Low to be a thing that tries to imagine better versions of reality than this current shit show.”

Slung Low is one of many companies and buildings from Battersea Arts Centre to Derby Theatre that are rethinking the role of artists and arts institutions. More need to do the same. In his blog, Lane talks about being interviewed for a job in a theatre and suggesting the soon-to-be-closed local library could be housed in the building’s big empty foyer. That didn’t go down well. The chair of the board responded by saying: “That’s not what we are for.”

Really? As Lane says: “If it’s not the job of subsidised arts organisations then I don’t know whose it might be. If not us, then who?” Increasingly our most visionary theatre leaders in the subsidised sector are coming to understand that putting on theatre is only part of their mission (maybe quite a small one), and the commercial sector does that pretty well.

But the attitudes expressed by that board member remain far too widespread. It’s easier not to change, and when we talk about innovation in the arts and making change, I wonder about the genuine appetite for it. Might we secretly collude to keep things the same as they have always been because change is scary? That the current structures suit us, and we don’t want to cede or give up what we have got – the position and the privileges that come with it?

In an industry with ever more artists and all too few opportunities, the default position often ends up being competition rather than collaboration. A competitive state of mind sees everyone else as the enemy, who may get ahead of you if you lend a helping hand.

Are we institutionalised to the point where we cannot think of new ways of working together? With artists and audiences that do not look or sound like us, or communities that we only ever try to reach when pots of funding are handed out or when a box needs ticking?

Change is hard. In the past few months I’ve spoken to several people running buildings who have expressed frustration that it can be so hard to change the culture of a building, particularly when so few working there are directly connected to the art being made.

Yes, everyone in the arts is overworked and underpaid but, in the effort to prop up the way things have always been done, there is very little innovation and thinking about how they might be done differently. There is some change, but it’s often small steps rather than giant leaps, and often it’s forced, not sought.

It’s a mistake, because those arts organisations that are totally rethinking their role in a 21st-century landscape and a contracting funding climate are the ones that will survive. Those that embrace the technological, social and political disruptions as a challenge and an opportunity will reinvent themselves and the role of a funded theatre organisation.

In this new world, it is madness to keep operating in the way you always have

In this new world, it is madness to keep operating in the way you always have. That world is disappearing and the dinosaurs will disappear with it.

As Lane says: “We’ve spent 10 years scrapping to keep the status quo, fighting off cuts and disrespect from our conservative paymasters.” Where has that really got us? The time has come not just to respond to change but to instigate it and rethink who we are, what we do and how we may use public money in a way that doesn’t just offer “great art for everyone” but the greatest benefit for everybody.

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