Theatre is grappling with questions around who it serves, why it should be funded by the public, who benefits and how we can make theatre matter as much for those who never go as it does for those of us who do.
Against this backdrop, two announcements were made last week – they were unconnected but there are threads that bind them together. The first came from Arts Council England, and the second from Fun Palaces, which celebrates the everyday creativity of ordinary people.
First, the ACE announcement around its next 10-year strategy indicated that high-quality work or ‘excellence’ may no longer be enough to secure funding.
This may mean that while your institution’s consecutive seasons of rare Schiller dramas and David Hare revivals are aesthetically brilliant, lauded by leading broadsheet critics and adored by your priority booking members, that may no longer be a good enough reason to argue for subsidy. Because, although those seasons may be relevant to the audiences you have always served, they are clearly not relevant to a far greater swathe of people who have never stepped through your doors.
Those applying for funding will, said ACE, “need to be able to demonstrate that you are also facing all of your stakeholders and communities in a way they value”.
So, is relevance merely the new excellence? I hope it will be a great deal more. I’d recommend the very readable The Art of Relevance by Nina Simon, executive director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, who argues that those working in the arts often delude themselves that “what we do is relevant to everyone” and “so transformative, so awesome, that it doesn’t have to be connected to the thrum of daily life”.
The ACE announcement signals a sea change, and one that can’t come soon enough for those of us who have long held that “great art for everyone” has actually been great art for a small proportion of highly engaged arts-goers, as identified by the Warwick Commission.
While ‘relevance’, as a term, will have its difficulties, ACE is at last addressing the fact that since its founding it has predominantly favoured supporting the art valued by the metropolitan middle classes over much wider engagement at a grassroots level.
Now to the other announcement of interest: the brilliant news that Fun Palaces, the campaign that puts community at the heart of culture, has been awarded £1.5 million by the National Lottery Community Fund to develop its activities over the next five years.
The news coincided with the publication of some interesting data about who engages with Fun Palaces: apparently those from all backgrounds and all ages. It raises this question: Why is it that Fun Palaces has been so successful at engaging with people (450,000 to date with high levels of diversity), whereas so many theatres that are well-funded by ACE find it hard to make themselves matter to the wider population? This, of course, is where relevance comes in.
Might it have something to do with the fact that Fun Palaces takes place in the local community in places people already go – pubs, playgrounds and local libraries? Participants don’t have to find a key to get through the door in the first place, because they are in locations they are already familiar with?
Could it be because Fun Palaces doesn’t try to prescribe how, and in what way, people will engage with it, or what is great art and what isn’t, or who is allowed to make it? Might it be because it doesn’t try to lead but offers support, and partners with those who are already on the ground and know those communities well and has an ear to their concerns and needs?
The Arts Council gave Fun Palaces its initial grant in 2013 and an exceptional award of £196,600 the following year, but nothing since.
Fun Palaces co-founder Stella Duffy tells of a funding conversation with someone at ACE who said with concern: “But Stella, how are you going to guarantee the excellence of the art?” To which Duffy replied: “I’m not, I’m going to guarantee the excellence of the participation.”
Excellence of participation is exactly what Fun Palaces delivers, and perhaps ACE and theatre are belatedly waking up to the fact that participation – in its many and myriad forms – is not second best to what is too often perceived as the real business of theatres: making art for the audience that is already in the club, always appreciated what you do, and find you flatteringly relevant.
As Simon so eloquently puts it: “If your work lives in a locked room with a tiny door, with only a few keys out there in circulation to open it, few people will know. Few people will care. It doesn’t matter how powerful the experience is inside the room if most people cannot or choose not to enter.”
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner