What can theatre do to be more useful? It feels an important question to be asking in the wake of a general election result that has left many working in the arts despairing.
Just as the 2016 referendum result took many in theatre by surprise, so liberal-leaning theatre people are expressing bafflement as to how those living in constituencies that for generations have been Labour strongholds could vote Conservative, the party that has been the architect of austerity.
This is the very same theatre community that vowed – with loud mea culpas – that it would listen harder and better to those who lived outside London and the big cities after the 2016 referendum. Have we really learned so little in the past three years?
Perhaps we have been so busy worrying how theatre might survive after Brexit, how it can cope without money from Creative Europe and the injection talent and labour of immigrants that we have paid too little heed to those whose lives are rendered invisible to our arts bubble.
Maybe what theatre needs to do is look around and see how it might be more useful to many, many more people and in many different ways. Maybe this is the time theatre should think less about making things that are beautiful (although of course beauty has its place in an ugly world) and more about how it can truly use all of its privilege, its considerable resources and its public spaces for the good of everyone, not just the few who buy tickets or who self-select to get involved in participatory work. Open up the empty foyers for the homeless; give out free tea and sandwiches to the hungry rather than just trying to flog posh burgers to those who have paid for a ticket.
Many of course are already doing that. I spent the weekend before last at Battersea Arts Centre hearing about the work of the Agency, which uses the methodology created by Brazilian theatre practitioner Marcus Faustini to develop young people as leaders and instigators of socially engaged projects and businesses within their own communities.
Heart of Glass in Merseyside, Slung Low in Holbeck in Leeds and Company Three in Islington all show how the arts can be harnessed to make change in local communities with projects designed to last for years and introduce deep-rooted transformation. This is theatre being useful, seeing its role not just to make or programme cracking productions but also putting its creative skills to real use within the community. There is art in doing that with care, love and open ears.
‘More artists are talking of the necessity to help make change’
It is hard not to feel down about the election result. But one of the things I’ve been cheered by when doing interviews with theatremakers over the past year is the increasing number who don’t just talk about wanting to make aesthetically beautiful art, but also talk about the necessity of the artist to help make change.
Emily Lim, the director behind the National Theatre’s community engagement programme Public Acts, told me about being most interested in understanding how “theatre can be a force for social change and do good in a world that feels increasingly divided and ripped apart by social injustice and isolation”.
She is not alone. Sam Butler and David Harradine of Fevered Sleep recently spoke movingly about how their youthful ambition to make beautiful, aesthetic performance art has evolved into work of all kinds – work that is much more participatory, much more useful. Only now do they feel they have earned the right to be called artists.
“When we started to let people in and work on questions about the problems we face in the world, that is when I really started to accept myself in the role of artist,” Butler told me. “Because I feel now that what I’m doing is of use. It feels that as a company we are not just trying to make something beautiful but something that makes change for people.”
Harradine, who comes from a working-class rural background and whose family often profess bafflement at what an artist actually does, has found that “ironically, the very thing that has allowed me to feel confident and glad about being an artist is letting go of just wanting to make artworks and embracing the fact that we are making art that does something with people. Not to people or for them but with them. I can talk about that with my family,” he says.
At this moment in time, when the sting of the election result is still raw, maybe the question everyone who calls themselves an artist, all who work in theatre and every building and company must ask is this: how can we be more useful? In the potentially dark days and years ahead, what better role could theatre have?
Lyn Gardner is associate editor of The Stage. Read her latest column every Monday at: thestage.co.uk/columns/gardner