The German playwright Friedrich Schiller spoke of theatre as being a moral institution, one that could act as the conscience of society. Theatre can be a place where freedom of speech flourishes and where taboos can be broken.
Unlike their counterparts in Turkey or Russia, theatre artists in the UK seldom have to worry about being arrested for their art. They can say what they like – within the law – without fearing jail. The worst they risk is having Quentin Letts proclaim they should have their funding withdrawn immediately.
Theatres do not have to bow to censorship, although that is not to say they don’t sometimes prostrate themselves through fear, or the desire to protect revenues, or a complete lack of cultural understanding.
The cancellations of both Gurpreet Kaur Bhatti’s Behzti, after protests by Sikhs outside Birmingham Rep in 2004, and the National Youth Theatre’s cancellation of 2015’s Homegrown, a play about the radicalisation of young Muslims, are proof that theatre can often be cowardly in the face of protest or for fear of falling foul of government anti-terrorism strategies such as Prevent.
Nonetheless, unlike Elizabethan playwrights, contemporary British theatremakers are not gagged on the stage. Shakespeare was not so lucky. Richard III and other plays were not just shaped by the histories handed down, but also by expediency. By painting Richard in the worst possible light Shakespeare was playing to Tudor sensibilities – it was Elizabeth I’s grandfather, Henry VII, who defeated Richard at the Battle of Bosworth Field. Contemporary British theatre is far more free to talk truth to power.
So, that’s all hunky dory, isn’t it. Well actually, no it’s not. Arts Professional’s recent Freedom of Expression report spoke to 500 artists across different sectors including theatre and the results do not make for pretty reading.
Some spoke of the inappropriate use of non-disclosure agreements (that tool so beloved by Harvey Weinstein) to gag people about workplace cultures, there were stories of bullying and harassment (something The Stage has frequently highlighted) and a climate of fear in some places that made people unwilling to voice any disagreement in the workplace.
British contemporary theatre may be talking truth to power on its stages, but according to the survey it is not talking truth to power when it comes to funders. A total of 70% of respondents said they would not criticise a funder for fear of jeopardising future funding and 40% said they had actually come under pressure from funders not to speak out when certain issues arose.
We all know of stories about incidents that have occurred across the sector, the artistic directors who act like bullies, the person who runs off with the money and is never brought to justice, the gropers and harassers who quietly disappear from their jobs. This is slowly changing, but not fast enough.
Several times a month I have conversations with those who make theatre or work in theatre where they tell me things off the record and beg not to be identified. It reminds me of the early days of the Guardian theatre blog when it became a forum in which those who made theatre could debate issues around the way theatres were run, who got what opportunities and where, what institutions did well and what they didn’t.
It made a small contribution to opening theatre up to more prolonged scrutiny, but as time went by some of those who participated, even those who were already well established and getting work in high-profile spaces, started to withdraw, often telling me privately that they had experienced pressure from the theatres where they worked to stop talking in a public forum about how buildings operated.
If those who are already established feel under pressure to never open their mouths and criticise, what of those at the early stages of a career for whom every crumb that drops from the table and every half-open door is something they don’t want to jeopardise? In such circumstances, artists put up with behaviours that would not be tolerated in other professions. And they learn constantly to self-censor in their relationships with those who hold power over them, whether programmers or funders.
Some months ago I was talking to someone who pointed out that artists and producers spend a lot of time twisting the project they want to make to suit the demands of funders. Often that means making sure applications tell funders – not just Arts Council England, but trusts and foundations too – what it is they want to hear rather than the truth. Once a grant is secured, nobody is going to bite the hand that feeds them. “Working in the arts,” said this person, “has made me really good at lying and not saying what I really think.” It may be a cynical view, but the Freedom of Expression survey suggests there’s some hard truth in it.
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner