Read. Read again. Act.

by Maddy Costa

It’s become horribly habitual that a post on this blog starts with an apology from me that nothing new has been posted in weeks. Two months is a really long time in the rapid-fire world of twitter and buzzfeed and rolling news and constant updates. But that’s the nature of working with a company that tours, and does so seasonally: sometimes Fuel are the focus of my attention, sometimes they’re not. Sometimes Fuel are in your neighbourhood, sometimes they’re not. What does it mean, in the rapid-fire world of the internet and click-on-demand, to maintain relationships across time and distance? To remember, and hold a thought, and pick up where we left off?

If I’d written this in early January as I was supposed to, the blog posts I want to link to would have been fresh and current. Published on consecutive days at the end of December, they feel strangely old. And yet, the ideas in them are vital to the vision I have for what British theatre culture could be, and what I believe New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood is working towards. A culture in which people don’t feel intimidated by contemporary theatre, or feel like it’s a club to which they’re not invited, or feel that it’s something they’re supposed to have particular expertise or education to “understand”. A culture in which theatre isn’t valued for the amount of money it prises out of people’s pockets and directs back into government coffers, but for the effect it has on how people see themselves and each other, how they understand human behaviours, how they vision they own futures, how they accommodate their pasts. A culture in which theatre isn’t a weird kind of cinema where you’re not allowed to eat popcorn or whisper to your friend, but the place communities go to share a moment in time, see each other, and understand each other better.

For instance, in the first post, writer/theatre-maker/Fun Palaces agitator Stella Duffy told the story of her nephew, an electrician who happened to be working within the contract team renovating a London theatre, who almost never goes to theatre because, like so many people, he’s never given the impression that it’s for him. Stella wrote:

“this is OUR fault, it must be, we keep saying we want to include everyone – the Arts Council has arts for all as one of its five core goals, and we’re just not getting there. Arts for all should not be able to be a box ticked-off by a school visit, or one example of community outreach, TRUE arts for all really would mean a sparky working on a building site that is a part of one of our arts institutions feels welcome in that space, is welcomed in that space, is welcomed and wants to stay on, after a long day’s work, because he feels that the space has something to share with him.”

The following day, Alan Lane, co-artistic director of a Leeds-based company called Slung Low, had this to say on the subject of ticket prices, and the introduction of Pay What You Decide – in which audiences are invited to choose for themselves what they want to give at the end of a performance – as a financial model:

“I want a [theatre] system that is available and open to all at the point of performance, regardless of financial situation. If one of the costs of that is a director standing up at the end of the show and saying, Thanks for coming, did you enjoy it? Can you pay for it please? then sign me up. That’s not refusing to deal with money. The truly naive idea is that increasing ticket prices and a relentless focus on philanthropic income doesn’t effect how our theatres behave, and what they do. The truly naive idea is that increasing ticket prices and a relentless focus on philanthropic income doesn’t effect what our theatres are for.

Why is the idea of our cultural leaders spending an increasingly large amount of time charming rich people already standard operating procedure, conventional wisdom but the thought of our cultural leaders talking directly to the audience about financially valuing our work laughable? The complicated question of who our theatres are for is wrapped up in this.”

I remember lots of people reading these posts and being really enthusiastic and supportive of the arguments, but I wonder: how many have re-read them? Acted on them? Is an argument on a blog something people read in five minutes on the bus to work, or over a snatched coffee, or in the final stretch of a lunch break, a genuine inspiration and call to arms, or just another bit of noise in a day of scouting the internet? Or is all this writing seeping through the industry, and actually effecting some change?

Sometimes I feel hopeful: for instance, looking at the ARC in Stockton, one of the NTiYN venues, which rarely uses NtiYN’s resources because it’s already doing much of the community-based work that the project proposes. This season, every theatre ticket at ARC is Pay What You Decide. I feel hopeful whenever I re-read the Albany Theatre’s rejection of the Theatre Charter published last summer. I feel hopeful reading the piece on the Guardian website today by the artistic director of the Point in Eastleigh, which recognises that there’s a world of difference in theatre between financial resilience (which tends to be emphasised) and emotional resilience (which tends to be overlooked). Sometimes, however, I despair that the arts-for-all manifestos articulated by the likes of Stella and Alan aren’t common practice already, the fundamental way that theatre operates. They’re things other people read, not what they do.

The third December blog was by Mary Halton, a radio producer by day who has only recently found the confidence to begin writing about theatre. Mary can thank by name the people who gave her the confidence not just to go to the theatre but to express what it makes her think and feel. And she thinks the job of giving that confidence isn’t just down to big institutions (be they theatres or schools), but to all of us individually. For instance:

“We need to stop just telling people about theatre. It’s not that people ‘should’ go, like they ‘should’ eat their greens. We don’t just need to eulogise and market at people, we need to bring them along. Each and every one of us can do this. Bring someone into a space, make them feel like it’s somewhere they are entitled to be, and they’re allowed to love, hate or feel entirely like they didn’t understand what they saw there. …

I’m thinking especially about critics here. I’m thoroughly and completely guilty of bringing a] other critics and b] friends who could and would buy a ticket to the performance as my +1s to press nights. [But:] Imagine if each and every one of us took a friend/colleague/relative who doesn’t normally go to theatre as our +1 to everything for a month. A year. The rest of our careers.”

That challenge has really stuck with me, and the more I think about it, the more I find myself thinking about the ways in which critics are implicated in the skewed economics of theatre. People writing online mostly do so for free: the way we are paid is by being given free tickets. That helps perpetuate an idea of theatre as product, commodity, a financial object. Lately, though, I’ve started to wonder: on the days that I’m being paid to write about theatre, what might happen if, instead of accepting free tickets, I agreed to pay for them, on condition that the theatre gave the two complimentary tickets to the electrician working behind the scenes, or the shop-owner two doors down, or the woman who organises the local book group who thinks theatre isn’t for her? How many people could be welcomed into theatres by that method?

It’s possible to do a lot of talking about theatre and reading about theatre – I know, I’m at it constantly. But I want to see, physically see, more doing. I want to see more people in the theatre industry not just reading Alan’s or Stella’s blogs once but reading them again and again, then acting on them. I want to see more critics not just talking the talk but walking the walk. Maybe this is a feeling sharpened by this being the final year of NTiYN as a research project, and so the transition year for putting the research into everyday practice. It’s a slow process, but Fuel are committed to changing how they work: not just how they tour their own work, but how they talk to audiences, meet communities, and support other theatre-makers and producers. Are you?