Being local, being chatty, being excellent

by Maddy Costa

For the final planned post in this small run of pieces about relationships between theatre (buildings) and audiences, I want to take a moment to look back on some writing on the theme that’s been published elsewhere. Ever since Stella Duffy posted it on the Fun Palaces blog at the start of June, I’ve been thinking about her call to redefine “excellence” in the arts. She questions the idea that art is “excellent” in and of itself: for one thing, by whose taste is this innate quality being judged? You only have to look at the UK’s pool of theatre critics – which has begun changing in terms of age, but is still mostly white and middle-class – to see in microcosm a problem of homogeneity among the decision-makers, money-handlers, praise-givers and gate-keepers of art. Turning her attention to audiences, Duffy asks if art can really be deemed excellent, if large numbers of people feel intimidated by it, feel that it’s not inviting them or that they have no connection with it. Rejecting elitism, she calls for a new consideration of excellence: of participation and engagement, not just for a few people, but for many.

On the Guardian blog later in June, Lyn Gardner argued for a similar change in the value system: from theatre as a product presented to communities to theatre as a social activity that all sorts of people come together to make. Reporting from the Devoted & Disgruntled/In Battalions open discussion on how theatre might better liaise with a Tory government, Gardner pointed out that the key to increased support for arts funding lies in conversation with the general public – “including those many millions who think the arts is not for them”. More theatres should have participation programmes like that at the Young Vic in London, so beautifully described by Lily Einhorn in her guest post which began this series; and those that do have them should get better about making their activities public.

Also on the Guardian blog, at the beginning of July, Sarah Brigham detailed the many ways in which artist development and audience development at Derby Theatre, where she is artistic director, aren’t separate activities but interrelated. Both are fed by a focus on the local community: giving opportunities including “residencies, scratch nights, masterclasses and business support” to emergent artists and companies, which in turn encourages them to pay attention to the main-house programme that might previously have seemed irrelevant to them. There’s a lot in this thinking that aligns with the approach of Annabel Turpin at ARC in Stockton, discussed in the interview with her earlier this week.

Returning to the beginning of June, I was very struck by extracts from a speech delivered by Sarah Frankcom, artistic director of the Royal Exchange, Manchester, at a Sleepover event at her theatre designed to inspire new conversations between the building and its audiences. Frankcom already has a number of informal chats with different audience members, but said: “As lovely and affecting as these encounters are, they are random and hidden and really just a collection of anecdotes. I am hungry for a more grown-up dialogue, a space where I can understand more about what you think theatre is about and what this building in the heart of Manchester is for.” In his review of the Sleepover, critic Andrew Haydon (who has recently moved to Manchester) noted with admiration: “There was something particularly special about the relationship that the Royal Exchange seemed to have with its audience and the care and respect with which it treated them.” Clearly, Frankcom is already doing something right. And I know I’m biased, but I’m really heartened by the inclusion, in the theatre’s upcoming Flare festival programme, of “Talk Back” events: discussion sessions in which artists and audiences gather to talk about the previous night’s performance. They sound just like the theatre clubs I host. As far as I can tell, Talk Back isn’t integral to the Royal Exchange programme yet – but if Frankcom wants more “grown-up dialogue” to happen at her theatre, that seems to me as good a way to have it as any.

I began by saying this was the final planned post in this series: actually, I’d love to carry it on – if only I knew who with. As Lily Einhorn pointed out on twitter earlier this week, work like hers at the Young Vic is “probably going on in pockets across the UK. It all tends to be so secret.” I’d like to find ways to make it less hidden: so if you’re at a venue and focused on community collaboration and conversation, please get in touch with me via maddy[at]welcometodialogue[dot]com. Thanks!

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