What if every theatre and theatre company saw itself as a community theatre company? What if institutions handed over power to young people to tell their own stories and develop their creativity? What if youth workers were seen as being arts workers, and every community had an artist in its midst? What if producers were less fixated on product and accepted that a process by which artists work in and with communities takes place over many years? What if theatres were programmed by local people and co-creation was the norm?
These are not my ideas but are among those put forward in the first few episodes of CulturePlanB, a new podcast created by David Jubb, former artistic director of Battersea Arts Centre, and director Matthew Dunster.
Jubb’s thesis is that most of what is new, artistically adventurous and transforming in British theatre comes not out of institutions but from the independent sector and freelancers. The podcasts focus on companies and individual artists who are changing what we think the arts and theatre can be and how it might operate. Or indeed what it means to be an artist or a national portfolio organisation.
There’s Conrad Murray, who runs BAC’s Beatbox Academy, which produced the astonishing Frankenstein and changes young people’s lives every day. Then there’s Anisa Morridadi, founder of Beatfreeks, the Birmingham community of young creatives set up to break down the institutional divide between those who run the city and the young people who are inheriting it, and Rhiannon White and Evie Manning of Common Wealth, a company that works with and within working-class communities.
As the pandemic unfolds, it often feels as if much of the theatre ecology is just desperately trying to think of ways to return to normal
Jubb told me that Covid-19 focused his desire to make a podcast, as he saw a difference between “theatre and artists responding to the needs of the moment and what people and communities need, and theatre responding to the needs of the sector”. As Jubb suggests, one makes theatre “relevant and essential”, the other makes the sector “come across as a self-interested group of people navel-gazing”.
As the pandemic unfolds, it often feels as if much of the theatre ecology is just desperately trying to think of ways to return to normal. Or at least as close an approximation of normal as is possible in the circumstances. After the initial shock of dealing with the shutdown itself and the pains of un-producing shows, many went helter-skelter into posting or creating digital content without a pause for breath.
As US arts leader Nina Simon – whose book The Art of Relevance is a must-read for all interested in the future of the arts – said in an excellent post on web platform Medium: “In the race to deliver, I worry we may distract ourselves from the potential to envision and deliver true community value.”
The desire to maintain visibility is understandable, but the danger is that it delivers the same old, same old. This also applies to institutions that have committed to programming in 2021 work postponed or cancelled. The commitment to the artists involved is admirable, and the gesture comes from the best possible place, but will it really be possible just to pick up where we left off in a world so startlingly changed and where the ‘old normal’ no longer applies? Will such programmes be relevant?
We will shortly reach another crucial moment as Oliver Dowden’s funding package starts to seep into theatre. Until now, theatre has been struggling to survive, but the money – however it is apportioned – must buy time to think about what theatre might be, its role in the coming years and who it can serve. This is a key moment to ensure that Arts Council England’s Let’s Create strategy is accelerated and embedded in every institution across the land. The impact of the pandemic on theatre cannot be an excuse to delay.
While the £1.57 billion is about ensuring survival, the far bigger and more frightening question facing theatre is: what is it surviving for?
It’s important because while the Treasury’s £1.57 billion is about ensuring immediate survival, the far bigger and more frightening (but also potentially liberating) question facing theatre is: what is it surviving for? Its future health will depend on the role it can and does play in the difficult years ahead in a country hit by recession and fractured with divisions.
I know of many smaller companies who have been using ACE emergency funding to grapple with these questions in a way bigger institutions find far harder; not least because they have staff furloughed, are often fire-fighting financial ruin and are concentrating on getting their buildings open and clawing back the income streams that fund so much of the work they do.
But the danger is that without deep thinking and examining other ways of working and supporting artists and communities, those institutions will not be fit for purpose in the new world.
What the CulturePlanB podcasts do is remind us that there are dozens of companies and artists already making change and they are well placed to offer our beleaguered institutions a signpost for the future.