Reaching out, further and further

This month marks the end of NTiYN as a research project, and the beginning of this work as a practice for life. Over on the Fuel website is a page of useful stuff that we’re hoping to share with as many people as possible: an evaluation booklet which discusses the ways in which the project was successful and not so much; the essay of historical precedences that I keep banging on about (sorry! It’s full of others’ good thinking and I’d love people to read it); and handbooks related to the two chief discoveries of the project, with suggestions for how to run theatre clubs and how to work with local engagement specialists.

The Theatre Club handbook I’m super proud of (and no, I didn’t write it!): ever since Lily Einhorn invited me to start hosting one as part of the participation project at the Young Vic in London, it’s been a mystery to me why every theatre in the country doesn’t offer one as part of its events programme. All it involves is opening up a space for audiences to talk about theatre shows without the people who made them present: it doesn’t have to replace the Q&A, in fact it’s best when the two are complementary. But it invites people to speak and be heard who often feel excluded from what looks like a theatre clique, through worry that they don’t have the right language or haven’t understood something. At Theatre Club, it’s brilliant when people don’t understand something, because often that’s when individual interpretations based on particular experiences begin to emerge. The best part of being involved in NTiYN for me has been watching people start up theatre clubs of their own, and through that forging social groups that get people going to the theatre more, in buildings they might not have visited before, and to see work they might not have taken a chance on, especially if they were likely to be attending alone. It’s through such groups that theatre can become less an occasional outing and more the fabric of life.

The people who have been instrumental in inspiring those groups to begin are the Local Engagement Specialists: people who live and work in the vicinity of the theatres to which Fuel tour, who form a point of connection between Fuel/the theatre-makers, the venue and the local communities. During the course of the research project those have been paid positions; Fuel have made the decision to use what they’ve learned to shape a volunteers network, but a necessary question was raised at the NTiYN closing event in Preston last month by Charlotte Bennett, producer with RashDash who runs a similar volunteer ambassador scheme, about the ethics of asking people to do that work for free. As an aside, that closing event was fascinating in the way that it brought people from all sections of the theatre industry – from the artistic director of the Royal Exchange, Manchester to independent producers, makers, actors, students, and the enthusiastic audience members who are Fuel’s new volunteers – into a room for a shared conversation in which a genuine attempt was made to scrub away hierarchies so that all opinions were equally valid. As mentioned on the home page, I came to NTiYN via Dialogue, an organisation (although that’s not quite the right word for it – it’s more a philosophy) that aims to inspire new relationships between people who make, watch and write about theatre. As you can tell from the name, dialogue is at the heart of what we do and think about, and this was a beautiful instance of how a theatre conference could be more egalitarian and creative in its structure. (And, yet another aside, there’s a lovely review of the event here by Olivia Corbin-Phillip, one of the new Colchester volunteers.)

I want to end by talking more about the Local Engagement Specialists, but rather than pull extracts from the handbook, I’d rather let them speak for themselves. Earlier this year I spoke to Jordana Golbourn (Colchester) about her experiences within NTiYN, how it had gone well and what might have been improved. As the only Local Engagement Specialist who stayed with NTiYN for the entire three years, she has a sense of overview that all the others lack. I’d argue that her staying power is in part down to the fact that outreach is the bedrock of everything she does: a freelance theatre-maker who runs projects at the Almeida and Make Believe Arts in London, among other venues, she works particularly with young people, using theatre as a tool to explore the issues relating to their lives. She’s also one of those people who talks so much sense and kindness that she ought to be in charge of everything.

Jordana already had a relationship with the Lakeside in Colchester when she became the Local Engagement Specialist there – and that proved as much a frustration as a benefit. “In the very initial stages of the project, I think they saw the relationship less as a collaborative thing, and more: ‘Jordana’s got this one.’ That was partly to do with how stretched they are as a venue – it’s just three people – so it was a relief to them to be able to have somebody who could work on some projects, and they trusted the model to make things happen.”

What that meant, however, was that: “I didn’t feel like I was doing anything in terms of outreach. I was just another marketing head for the show.” It felt like an opportunity was being squandered: “One of the biggest things [in theatre] is trying to get people out of the rut that they’re already working in. We’re really stretched, so to think of doing things in a different way is a job in itself.” In no way was this a problem unique to the Lakeside, and Jordana says: “It speaks volumes for where we are in theatre at the moment that people have not really grasped NTiYN as an opportunity to learn and reflect on their practice, and be part of something widely, across the country, but instead grasped at it as a bit more money for a bit of extra help.”

Her commitment to the project meant that she was able to trace the shift in approach at the Lakeside, the effect of the realisation that “actually collaborating with it works better”. Partly this happened because she became more assertive about the role she was willing to play: “I was really clear in the later stage that I’m not going to do marketing, I’m not going to take over your twitter handle: that’s your responsibility.” What she saw was that NTiYN “has made a real difference. When we first started, there was a lot of blanket marketing: everything went to everybody. They are now thinking show by show, and about who can we contact for each particular show.”

Communication problems with the venue were exacerbated by communication problems with Fuel. One of those was mechanical: email, it transpires, is a rubbish tool for planning outreach projects across multiple interested parties (to which we chant in chorus: WHO KNEW?). When Jordana says, “I’ve got a lot of love for google docs now,” she laughs at herself but is also sincere. “It lays out all the activity that we wanted to do and all the contacts and it’s really clear who’s doing what. Before using google docs, you’d have an initial meeting and everyone would go off and no one had a clear idea of what anyone was going to be doing.”

But the question of responsibility, and autonomy, isn’t just functional: it’s also emotional, and that proved harder to answer. Even in the final year of NTiYN, Jordana didn’t feel entirely clear what voice she was using as a Local Engagement Specialist. “Who are we speaking on behalf of, when we’re in that role? Am I supposed to be talking on behalf of the venue, or am I employed by Fuel? Do I feel like I have the same ownership over the work as the project managers at Fuel? Do I have enough weight to say: I’m Jordana, I’m a local theatre worker and enthusiast, and these are things I think are really brilliant and I think you should come? Is it OK to change depending on who you’re talking to? Because actually, different people might want different things: when contacting some of the schools I know really well, just being Jordana works, but for other schools that I don’t know so well, to be able to say, ‘I’m from this theatre company and this is what we do’ gives a weight that you need. I still haven’t worked out whether or not that flexibility is useful.”

These are perennial problems faced by freelancers: outsiders who are invited to behave like insiders, but without the privileges that might entail. And yet, in the context of NTiYN, it resulted in moments when barriers were put up between the Local Engagement Specialists and the touring theatre-makers that were not helpful for people attempting to do outreach work on those shows. Jordana recalls a research trip to a dress rehearsal in which the Local Engagement Specialists “didn’t get introduced to the artist or the production team”, creating a sense of distance between themselves and the makers. On another occasion, she didn’t find out that a performer in a show she had been working on grew up near Colchester until his parents came along to the theatre club: “That’s something we should have known and could have tapped into.” Earlier this year I spoke to Annabel Turpin, chief executive of the ARC in Stockton, and she discussed similar issues around communication, sharing of information and access to the artists. This has been one of the biggest learning points for Fuel: the realisation that sometimes they do form an unconscious barrier between artists, venues and communities.

The issue as Jordana sees it is in an industry-wide failure to really consider the question of responsibility when it comes to outreach and engagement. She remembers seeing a tweet by Alan Lane of Slung Low, distributing a photograph of one of the community actors in a show he was directing, Camelot, “going around the local community with posters, posing in the barbershop, having conversations. I thought: why is it only in community and amateur theatre where artists take this massive responsibility for promoting their work? Why is it only in those circumstances that people feel that it’s a proud thing to go out and tell people about it?” If she had her way, outreach wouldn’t be “someone else’s responsibility” but a collective endeavour – and the culture would be so much stronger for it.

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And the lessons of am-dram

By Maddy Costa

In the introduction to my essay looking at some historical precedences to NTiYN, I mentioned a few things that I had to leave out for the sake of stopping the pamphlet from turning into a small book. Most of them have now appeared on this blog, in the series of full(ish) transcripts of interviews with Vicky Featherstone, Stella Duffy, Anna Reading and Nicola Shaughnessy. Only one subject remains, and that’s amateur theatre – and my failure to include it in that series is basically typical of a “professional” theatre person’s approach to am-dram. We know it’s there, we believe it’s a good thing, but we ignore it in favour of the work being made by “professional” artists.

“It should not be necessary to preface a book about an amateur theatre company with an explanation of its nature and purpose. Unfortunately, the arts world has become mired in ways of writing about its practice that are as misconceived as they are unproductive. Ever-increasing pressure to ‘prove’ worth in a public culture that struggles to distinguish value from price has produced a narrow emphasis on evaluation among those who distribute and depend on public subsidy.” So wrote the formidably brilliant Francois Matarasso in the opening pages of Where We Dream, the first of his Regular Marvels projects looking at “alternative ways of understanding people’s experience of art”. Where We Dream focuses on the West Bromwich Opera Society: a company that sells tickets in the thousands, has a loyal local following, and regularly takes risks in what it chooses to programme – and all this, as Matarasso points out, in an area of the country that, according to government statistics, has “low engagement in the arts”. The same sense of hierarchy that keeps WBOS little-known and under-celebrated in the wider arts ecology also works to the detriment of making theatre (especially contemporary theatre, like that Fuel produces) feel or look accessible to all.

Two of the academics I spoke to for the NTiYN precedences essay held up amateur theatre as a potentially useful model for rethinking audience engagement. Nadine Holdsworth, professor of theatre and performance at University of Warwick, is currently collaborating on a funded research project looking at “the classic am-dram groups”, in particular “how they work with their audiences”. She suggests that the am-dram audience come less for the “actual product” and more for “the community gathering”: whether that means supporting a friend or family member in the cast, supporting the venue that is staging the event, or simply coming along to support the idea of theatre happening at all. As a result, theatre-going is “a more social activity than it is in the professional realm”, and more “celebratory” to boot.

Helen Freshwater, reader in theatre and performance at Newcastle University, and author of the terrific book Theatre & Audience, which (among other things) contemplates the lack of documentation of audience experience, and what that means for our understanding of theatre and its potential impacts, is similarly enthused by the “different models” of amateur theatre. Here, she says, “the company becomes the community: it’s not an expression of another community, it is the community itself”. Anxieties commonly expressed as barriers to theatre are eliminated and swapped for “an excess of engagement”: “any of the concerns you might have about going along and feeling completely isolated for the whole evening, and then leaving at the end not having spoken to anyone, are completely swept away”, along with the notion of “buying a certain quality of experience”, to be replaced by “a relationship between audiences and makers that can be so invested and so intimate that it completely transforms the experience”.

My relationship with theatre didn’t begin properly until I was in my early 20s, so even as a student I didn’t see much amateur work. However, I’ve been thinking about this post at the same time as Christmas productions have been happening at my children’s school, and something clicked for me watching my six-year-old son and his classmates perform their show. It began with the story of the Great Fire of London, told through documentation of a trip to Pudding Lane and the Monument, video of them setting fire to a cardboard Tudor city, songs and storytelling and (be still my heart) a ballet vignette in which several children dressed in red and orange flickered and leapt like flames – and then, in the middle, was rudely disrupted by characters from Roald Dahl’s The Twits, which the kids had loved too much to leave out, and so they presented the nasty couple arguing with each other, eating worms and then, in a triumph of stagecraft, being chased off the stage by a gaggle of little monkeys bouncing off an indoors trampoline. If my local community can watch an amateur show that smashes narrative and form with such aplomb, what’s stopping them going to the nearby Battersea Arts Centre, or Young Vic, to watch “professional” theatre-makers do the same?

The answer, of course, is that they don’t feel the same emotional attachment to these places as I do: many of them don’t even know they exist. This is in no way intended to denigrate the outreach work at either of those buildings – particularly the Young Vic, whose Two Boroughs participation project (co-led by Lily Einhorn) has taught me almost all of what little I know about audience engagement. It’s my echo of a call made by Lyn Gardner in the Guardian a couple of years ago, for amateur and professional theatre to work together better.

A rethink is needed from critics here, too. One of my favourite pieces ever written about theatre is this one by Megan Vaughan, on the experience of attending an am-dram show, because it captures beautifully the overwhelming love I feel really often going to the theatre – a love that has little outlet, except in occasional posts on my blog. In her most recent column for the Stage, Megan urged readers to go to a local panto:

“And I mean local. Pure amdram. None of that ACE-funded shit. I want you go to a panto where the dame is also a quantity surveyor and interval drinks are served from the Girl Guides’ tea urn. Then I want you to applaud. Applaud until your hands bleed. I want you to put a fiver in the charity tin, go home, get pissed, kiss your loved ones goodnight and sleep soundly.”

and reading it, I wanted to cheer. Amateur theatre doesn’t need the approval of critics: but we do need to create a new narrative that includes it, acknowledges what it does triumphantly, and celebrates the relationships it makes possible.

Incidentally, that “fiver in the tin” reminds me of how Slung Low’s Hub works. It’s a venue that presents “professional” theatre to a loyal local community, invites them to pay what they decide at the end, gives them cheap drinks and often food as well: a venue, in other words, that merges the best of both worlds to perfection. There’s a lot that professional theatre can learn from amateur – and the total rethink of values it requires might benefit not just the industry, but the society that holds it as well.

The lessons of punk

Introduction from Maddy Costa: The last in the present series of pieces that I’ve commissioned for this blog comes from Hannah Nicklin, who is far and away one of the most inspiring people that I know: a theatre-maker, games designer, someone who gets involved in grassroots political campaigns, a really sharp thinker on questions of privilege and power, a poet and zine maker – I mean she pretty much does everything, and does it all brilliantly, with commitment and compassion. A few weeks ago, I noticed her having a debate on twitter with a mutual friend, taking issue with an American blog which suggested that theatre-makers could take a few touring tips from punk bands. I invited her to respond more fully in this space, and this piece is the result.

Since Hannah sent it to me at the beginning of the week, we’ve had a further conversation about it on email, with Hannah pointing out that there’s a whole other article that she could have written about the places in both (and other) art forms that are making or have made the ideas she discusses here a reality: places like the HUB in Leeds, Stoke Newington International Airport and the Bussey Building in London, the Forest Cafe in Edinburgh, the Milk Bar in Bristol. The fact that, as she continues, many of these places have been seized by developers and councils and pushed out as part of the process of gentrification raises another question: how a truly community art can avoid perpetuating inequality. I hope that she’ll be able to write that piece for this space next year. In the meantime:

By Hannah Nicklin

“Theatre Belongs to Everybody; Ideas Belong to No One.”

Chris Goode, zine given out free at the end of an early version of Keep Breathing

I am a theatre maker, I am a punk fan – I make work infused by the values and aesthetics of both of these worlds, and I have many friends at the heart of the DIY math/punk/post rock scene in the UK, as do I in the DIY end of contemporary theatre. I’ve also run events where I specifically highlighted the similarities between the two communities: Performance in the Pub in Leicester, which put on pay-what-you-can nights of DIY performance for the local DIY gig-going community. I am excited by how DIY communities can inform one another.

And yet, I am fucking fed up of people saying things like this:

“DIY bands raging against the corporate machine have been cobbling shoestring tours out of nothing but talent and grit for decades. Why can’t other independent arts groups use the same tools and structures to tour?”

That quote comes from a column published by the American website HowlRound, called How To Tour Theatre Like a Punk Band, and it’s typical of an increasing trend positioning the inventiveness that arises out of scarcity as desirable rather than necessary.

People do damage when they uncomplicatedly hold up the DIY scene as a desirable alternative to the subsidised or professional arts sector. They do damage when they point out what we can learn from people Doing It Themselves without considering the infrastructure and privileges that make even that possible, and the damage done too when the grit runs out, and the talent is worn down.

First off it’s useful for us to pin down what exactly we mean by DIY. I’m not talking about the punk/DIY aesthetic (though that might arise from the practice), but rather the do it yourself ‘DIY’ aspect of punk which is about circumventing mainstream ways of making and touring work. Daniel Yates of Exeunt magazine sums up ‘DIY’ as “small scale, culturally distinctive, alternative producers of experience”. I would agree that the root of the ethics of DIY is something born of a place and community, and which offers a distinct alternative to the monoculture that thrives on top-down structures – the mainstream music industry, or the Arts Council funded establishment – and ‘one size fits all’ models of entertainment.

However, let’s not be romantic about what that entails. Fundamentally, it’s an anti-professionalism. It’s about stepping outside of models (restrictive and antiquated though they may be) designed to provide a means of living.

I know many DIY bands who have toured internationally, some extensively, most of whom are lucky if they come away from the tour having broken even. Most of the band will be in insecure day jobs that allow them to be away for three months, they will spend the time away sharing €250 per night fees between six people, after petrol, van hire, flights, food while they’re on the road, merch outlay, all while they sleep together on sofas and mattresses, showering every couple of days, and getting by mostly on vegan chillis and beer and crisps provided by promoters. They will have made the music in their spare time. They will have got a mate to design the poster, made their own website, written their own press releases, sent the record out to reviewers, they will have booked the tour, they will drive, provide most of the equipment. They will all of them have put in £150 each for the cost of the recording, engineering, and pressing of the records they hope to sell along the way, maybe splitting the pressing cost with a DIY label if they’re lucky.

They will have had complete creative control. They will have reached communities that are de-centred, locally grown, alternative, culturally distinctive, and they will highly likely be involved in sustaining the one they call home; putting on shows, dealing with punters complaining tickets cost £8 these days. They will have stories to tell. They will have made best friends, met lovers, they will have screamed words and sounds that they mean into a crowd of ecstatic heat and sticky-shoed joyous beloved fellow humans.

Both of these things are true.

‘Why’ articles such as the one from HowlRound argue: ‘can’t we go it alone?’ And in glorifying the outcome they miss the point that ‘alone’ isn’t desirable, it is necessary. To pretend otherwise is to valourise the suffering instead of the fight. The fight is beautiful and alive, but if we are to embrace the energy of the amateur, we need to do so carefully, lest we argue for the abolition of profession. Professionalism is, in and of itself, simply a way society has of saying: ‘this is worth something’. Currently, the most recognised way of doing that is to pay someone money. There are many other currencies at work in our life (as Bill Sharpe points out in this incredibly useful study on Patterns of Health and Wealth in the arts); DIY practices tend to work with fewer monetary ones, and have alternative currencies at their heart. However, short of overthrowing capitalism (something for the three-year plan, not the six-month one), the way to learn from DIY practices is to understand the full complement of currency, not to simply exchange one set of currencies (and related problems) for another.

So, let us instead talk about what the profession means, how it works, how it can be reshaped by amateur artist and community rather than top-down policy. While also understanding that the reality of the amateur is also a kind of privileged position within our current society. To be able to make while also living requires a level of personal, financial and social security, an infrastructure of goodwill, and a powerful creative confidence, which is most typically available to (and safe for) young white men. Anything else is a fight, tooth and nail. It’s a fight that produces alive, breathless, beautiful art – but at a cost.

Bristol-based performance duo Action Hero talk about how their consciously DIY approach to making performance produces aesthetic and formal qualities which reshape their relationship to their audience in a way they find politically important:

“[…] seeing what happens when an audience sees you genuinely trying to make something empowers the artist and the audience in a way that we think is actually quite political and I think similar to the ideologies of DIY music.”

But they also say that:

“All that said, we could never have made anything we’ve made without funding support from the Arts Council and massive amounts of support from subsidised organisations such as [In Between Time] or Theatre Bristol. […] theatre is less commodifiable.”

I invite you to imagine all of the music we have lost that was never made. Never made because women with children couldn’t pay for childcare while they went on tour; because a trans person felt uncomfortable travelling cheaply and sleeping on strangers’ floors; because it had to be made weekly in two-hour rented practice rooms and not quietly and thoroughly throughout six months of full-time living breathing thinking; because the confidence to believe you had a story worth telling was something you’ve never seen in fellow people of colour.

Public subsidy and its infrastructure offer the opportunity for everyone to stick with making for longer; it offers training and learning time. Theatre also has industry bodies and members’ organisations like Equity, the ITC, a-n, that actually work for their members’ interests: they set living wages and shape suggested contracts. Subsidy allows the non-commercial sector to exist without eventually destroying the artists who give their time to make it.

We should not be arguing for ways to survive without subsidy and infrastructure, we should be arguing for better subsidy, better infrastructure. Studying what it is about the mixed bills, shared venues, the relationship with fans rather than the attention of an audience, the ability to add a new show at a day’s notice to a touring schedule, etc, that DIY practices make possible and exciting.

And so with all of those complications in mind, let’s learn from DIY. Let’s urgently revise:

– The means of production (and who can access them)
– The places of presentation (and who can access them)
– The communities that join maker and audience (and who can access them)

Theatre still operates, for the most part, on a distribution system that is hundreds of years old. Big, old, dedicated buildings, weighed down by running and staffing costs. It’s time to leave these, or use them differently. And for people in the subsidised sector to start working beyond simply borrowing rhetoric from other art forms. Let’s ask DIY communities how we make spaces for everyone to make, how we co-build places people go to, and what a community looks like that envelops us all. The Arts Council should be begging the DIY Space for London community to talk to them – and also giving them money.

Campaigning for a basic income wouldn’t be a bad start (and long-term solution). But also, let’s talk about systems of programming and collectives of resources and spaces that together can offer more than one form of making, development and touring. Funding streams that embrace radical failure. The end to the necessity for match funding. Honest discussions with audiences and fans about what art costs us to make together – money and soul. Spaces and resources that are ingredients for things we can’t even imagine. Building bridges to people who would never begin to think that they had a story to tell, or the ability to tell it. The end to art-form divisions so we can connect with DIY videogames, DIY fashion, DIY architecture and zine making. The end of the obfuscation of value at the heart of upfront fixed ticket prices.

Give away the means of production.
Open up the places of presentation.
Art belongs to everybody, no one.

Hannah Nicklin is a theatre maker, writer, game designer, and academic. She has written a PhD about how theatre-influenced games and games-influenced theatre can destroy capitalism (mostly). Hannah is most interested in DIY, community storytelling, tools that break systems, and the spaces between ‘what is’ and ‘what if’ where new thinking happens. She makes theatre and games in public and community settings, and has worked on games and interactive work with organisations such as the RSC, Slung Low, Invisible Flock, Hide & Seek, Coney, the V&A, the Wellcome Trust, the Space, Gamecity, Videobrains, Rock Paper Shotgun, and on housing estates, on the internet, in swimming pools, on the streets of cities, and rural market towns.
@hannahnicklin

The science of experience

The fourth post in this series opening out from my essay looking at some historical precedences to NTiYN is unusual, in that it’s not really a conversation, more a session of close listening. My meeting with Nicola Shaughnessy, professor of performance at the University of Kent and director of the Research Centre for Cognition, Kinesthetics and Performance, began with a 10-minute preamble from me talking particularly about the post-show Theatre Club audience conversations I’ve been doing with Fuel and elsewhere. And then she started to tell me about her work, and I was too engrossed to interrupt.

I haven’t published everything she said for the simple and lazy reason that transcribing is one of my least favourite aspects of my job; in particular what’s missing is detail about Nicola’s current research, using neuroscience as a framework, on the ways in which people with autism and Alzheimer’s respond to theatre – and the surprising similarities between those responses. That editing has required me to juggle her words around quite a lot, in an attempt to make this both as expansive and compact as possible. What I’ve focused on is her response to the notion of audience discussion, and her historical perspective – the theatre salon – because that is the material I couldn’t fit into the essay.

Over to Nicola:

One thing that struck me as you were talking about theatre clubs – about the wine and crisps on the table, and the book club – is that when I was writing about women and modernism, I got very interested in the concept of salon theatre. This goes back to some of my earliest experiences in terms of why I got interested in theatre in the first place. My PhD thesis looked at Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Plath, and the corpus of neglected or hidden plays: I was interested in why these three celebrated prose or poetry writers were drawn to theatre and a dialogic medium as a means to explore particular issues behind the scenes. Stein’s plays were ultimately discovered and made popular through the work of Robert Wilson, but she wrote, I think, 101 operas and plays and they’re considered unperformable by a lot of people. The play of Plath’s I was particularly interested in, Diary of a Ouija Board, is all about her relationship with Ted Hughes; with Woolf it was her sexuality, her relationship with Vita Sackville-West. The theoretical approach I used was psychoanalysis: I ended up psychoanalysing the texts, because to a certain extent I was arguing that the drama was the repressed finding expression through theatre.

The theatre salon was a sort of private theatricals, it’s a very interesting modernist culture. In the salons you’d sit as a community and watch a piece: often they’d be very experimental, sometimes it would be more like performance poetry – and of course, because they were private events, it was quite poor theatre, or often it might be a rehearsed reading. The issue with them is class: the salons were very much associated with the coffee houses and a culture for very rich privileged artists – I sometimes think, of course you’re a fantastic writer Virginia Woolf, you never had to go to work, you were just moneyed, wouldn’t that be nice. Although what is interesting, it was an artist community, and they weren’t necessarily rich, some of them were incredibly poor, but they were artists, and it would often be visual artists mixing with writers, mixed communities of practitioners, people were dabbling in different things and might be capable of both.

I think the talking about theatre, the after of the experience, what it means to you, is incredibly important and something that has been neglected or lost. Or actually, because of the way that theatre studies has become a subject, and when you go to the theatre in schools, especially if you’re studying drama, you then write the essay after, we’re turning people into critics that have to think and talk about theatre in a certain way, and judgements are made through that process. Certainly I find that there’s a fear of not being capable of articulating that experience or not making the appropriate judgements. People say this about book groups as well: when I talked about starting a book club, people said, I couldn’t possibly come to a book club with you because you’re already a critic and you speak the language. So there’s this kind of fear of not being capable of the intellectual endeavour, when actually it should just be a conversation. And it is very difficult to find the right language to talk about something that is experiential. That’s another reason why I like theatre, because it is an experience, it’s an experience that we share with other people, and I’m really interested in the affect that theatre and performance has on audiences, and all different kinds of audiences, how we talk about that audience perspective and how we evaluate it. I think that has been a neglected area.

The research that I do now draws upon cognitive neuroscience and affect theory: the two are in tune with each other but theoretically they’re in opposite camps, so I’m trying to bring them into dialogue. Neuroscience can be a really useful tool: it provides a means for writing about audience experience, it gives the language and rigour to be able to talk about emotion and empathy and attention. It’s always interested me that theatre has survived cinema because the cinema is in some respects more sophisticated than theatre, so why has theatre continued to thrive? For me it is about the physicality of theatre, it’s the liveness, being aware that you are experiencing something in the moment, with other people, having a relationship with something on stage that is live and that can never be reproduced. In that moment in the theatre you are experiencing the past, the present and the future simultaneously and that’s a very complex process. It means that you’re actually experiencing a kind of grieving for something that can never be reproduced: you have it and it’s fantastic and you’re never going to get it back, and it means that it’s very, very precious. The best theatre puts you in touch with something that can only be allied to the sublime, and creates what Woolf calls “moments of being” – but there’s a sense that it’s a solitary experience, because your experience will be different from mine.

I’ve come full circle thinking about this, because I very much used to argue against the immersive experience: I teach contemporary performance and I started out teaching students about acting in quotation marks, we leave the concept of pretence behind, and you stay aware of yourself as an audience member. But when I discovered the neuroscience I said to my students: it’s OK to have emotion in theatre, theatre is there as an emotional experience. What theatre offers is a safe and controlled environment in which to have a very intense experience and that’s because we know it’s not real: there is a safety, there is a contract we sign up to that we’re going to go in and anything can happen and it will be an experience.

I think the idea of having an opportunity to talk about theatre afterwards is good but I would say not just talking: what I would look for in the after-show experience would be a variety of things that you could do. I’m imagining an environment where, instead of there just being wine and crisp on the tables, there are doodling opportunities, and an opportunity to reflect quietly. Theatre is very odd, it’s very collective and solitary, and the after-show thing is about not trying to generate some kind of uniformity of experience but having a means of honouring that solitude as well as then extending that into sharing. So you’ve got to find a way in which you can have both within the same experience and you can move between the two, so that after-show experience becomes part of the whole experience. It could be that you buy different tickets, but I like the idea of the thing being there as an opportunity for anyone to walk into that wants to.

Old buildings, new foundations

The third post in this short series of conversations looking at some historical precedences to NTiYN is with Vicky Featherstone: theatre-maker and artistic director of the Royal Court in London, although the bulk of our conversation was about the National Theatre of Scotland. Funnily enough, before she became artistic director of NTS, Vicky ran Paines Plough, a producing company that tours new plays, and yet in the entire time we spent together I didn’t think to ask her how she approached questions of audience engagement within that context – despite the fact that Paines Plough are now beginning their own Strategic Touring funded project, taking the Roundabout venue to Barnsley,Margate, Lincoln, Kendal, Cornwall, Stoke-on-Trent and Salford, where they hope to forge strong and lasting relationships.

M: What was the starting point for National Theatre of Scotland?

V: For me, it wasn’t at all about starting something new, but it felt very new for national theatres, in terms of how I’d observed national theatres behaving. When I think about a national theatre, it’s always about a big spectacle on big stages, that aims to impress and that we should be daunted by and admire, that we respect and go, they’re sort of heroes. I knew that in setting up the National Theatre of Scotland that was totally, totally, for so many reasons the wrong approach: just because personally I hate that anyway (she says, sitting at the Royal Court), it’s not what I believe theatre is, but also when I was at university – I went to Manchester university and in my second week someone gave me John McGrath’s book A Good Night Out and it completely transformed the way I thought about theatre. I hadn’t known anything about that before: I’d grown up in London, I’d gone to see shows at the Young Vic, at the National, so I hadn’t got to know about this kind of communication, this kind of theatre, it felt really right.

When I went to Scotland, I went thinking about that, and I went thinking what that was, and when I imagined how a national theatre would be effective in Scotland, I didn’t imagine it in terms of what would we put into theatres, I imagined it geographically. I thought: what is the geographic demographic of Scotland, how do I need to speak to those different people in different ways, and where are the places and what are the ways to do that? Of course, one of the ways to do that is [with] the communities that come around village halls or around those centres that they use for multi-purpose. That really excited me: I’m always obsessed with the fact that the architecture of a theatre can really define its brand, if you like, and actually that can be problematic; often when you run a building you’re having to persuade people that you’re not your architecture, so I was really excited about the fact that we could get people to come to spaces where they had a multitude of preconceptions about what the space was for, whether it was their school hall or car park or whatever. And within that programming, saying there are some things that feel totally right and have genuine integrity to be put into that conventional theatre architecture, because they were written for that, there is an audience for that and we want to do it.

And then the question for for me was: how do the audience then own that piece of theatre when it comes to them? How does it feel like it’s a piece of theatre which can do all the things that we want, like challenge and provoke, all those words that we use easily around theatre, but also mean something to them? I thought a lot about class in this: there’s a really interesting thing about class, often contemporary theatre (whatever that means) can feel even more class-alienating because of its – how would you describe it? – its intellectual endeavour or artistic context, than a piece of theatre which you have to pay £100 a ticket for in the West End. That really challenged me.

So for me what was really exciting was actually going back to story, which is something that I felt my conversations and the work that I did had kind of rejected. Story unifies people, whereas a fractured narrative or form doesn’t unify people, and if you are going to be taking work to people, they can have a difference of opinion but they need to be unified in some theatrical moments – and often some of my most amazing experiences in theatre, the audience have been totally not unified, and that’s exciting as well. So all of that was a really interesting thing, about what are the forms that you use that unify people.

Then there was this thing, which was so simple, about the ceilidh, and the other things that happen in those spaces. When I went to Scotland there was quite a lot of negativity towards traditional form, in music and storytelling, because it was felt that it had become old-fashioned: it felt a bit low down on the pecking order of what everyone wanted international theatre to look like. When I went to Scotland, people thought about [the 7:84 show] The Cheviot, The stag and the Black Black Oil nostalgically, but had rejected it, and suddenly it’s now part of the story again. It’s because we need those things, we need community and we need things to hold on to, and those things give us that sense of community.

The new conversation that I’ve been having at the Royal Court about that, is that in the late 90s and early 2000s we lived in such a time of horrific stability and plenty that theatre-makers felt like they wanted to smash that up, which is where I think we all became obsessed with breaking the form and pushing it and not knowing whether we wanted to break it. I feel we’re in a moment of shift, which was already happening in Scotland with what we were doing, which is: because everything is so fucked up – I mean this is really simplistic – I think we are craving a unity of feeling when we’re all together. Chris Goode talks about this amazingly. We used to not care, we used to think it was all right if the audience didn’t go with us because we felt what we were doing was our art, and now we feel that’s wilful and awful if we don’t take the audience with us. So for me this is all about the kind of work that you make: it takes the audience with you in order that you can then have a conversation with them at the end about it, so they haven’t been rejected and they haven’t been made angry by the act of the theatre itself. That still happens, but I feel I’ve really stopped, I don’t want the audience to be made angry by the act of a piece of theatre that they see: they can be really made angry by the ideas, but I need them to feel some kind of unity.

M: One of the basic things that keeps coming up in conversations about why people don’t go to the theatre is a sense that they shouldn’t have to come to it: it should come to them – and you were doing that.

V: Exactly, and also finding the right place for the right piece of theatre, that really excited me. It’s about context. In London, the context is often London itself, which is a massive thing, and it’s a thrilling thing, but it’s not quite enough, because London is much more varied than that. Whereas in Scotland I really was able to question and then think about the context that each piece of theatre grew from or was in, which was exactly that thing about taking it to people. And of course when you start having those conversations with the artists: someone like David Greig creating Prudencia Hart is a really good example, that was a piece that took four years to develop and it used such traditional forms of Scottish storytelling, theatre, music, all these things which 10 years before, five years before, were really unfashionable and would have been rejected – you get theatre-makers of that ability really giving a shit about that kind of storytelling and you put those things together and you end up with something that is an extraordinary piece of theatre for anybody, whatever your theatre-going history is. That’s when it becomes incredibly exciting.

I think the best work that we made while I was there were the pieces of work that felt unbelievable unique to us at that moment in time, that no one else could have done. There was a piece of work I did, it never quite hit, called Long Gone Lonesome, about a guy called Thomas Fraser: he’d lived on Shetland, he’d been a fisherman, and he’d been quite rejected by his community, but he was an amazing musician, he bought a reel-to-reel and recorded himself using all these weird techniques singing blues songs. He then died, his grandson found all the tapes and sent them to Nashville, they thought he was an American blues original – and he’d never left Shetland. So I made show about his life story with a group of traditional musicians from Orkney who’d also never really left Orkney, that ended with ceilidh, and the circuit of where we went to with that, going into those communities and the people that came, was really one of most amazing experiences of my life, because the people who are making the piece, you could see that even though they were articulating about someone else, it was also their story. The audience really reached out to that.

In our first and second years we created, we called it the Ensemble, this village hall touring circuit: for me it’s always really dangerous to say that a community is one community, because it’s not, so we split it in age, we took an ensemble and we took three pieces of work, we took a piece of work for adults, a piece of work for young people and a piece of work for children, into those village halls. What we were trying to do was have a conversation across all those different aspects of the community: I don’t mean post-show talks, but conversations with those different groups. It was really important to me, that if we’d gone somewhere, we’d really made an effort to engage with the variety of people. The other thing about young people that’s really interesting, in those communities, whatever they are, in my first year I met with a big group of young people in Aberdeenshire, in a rural community, and they said the big problem they have is everyone thinks they want to see work about being a teenager in a rural community. They’re like, please, we love hip-hop as much as anyone who lives in New York. It’s such an obvious thing to say but I really felt that people patronise them with theme and idea. So that was a massive part of what we were doing as well, was saying we should be trying to be as radical as we would be with anyone, or as up to date, or whatever, we shouldn’t patronise people with theme.

M: How deliberate were you about making conversations happen, especially in village halls – how long would they be open afterwards?

V: Well of course the whole thing about that is the social occasion. What’s really interesting about the economics of that, is that if a village hall was paying for you to go, they would also have the bar open from an hour and a half beforehand, people would turn up for drinks and to socialise, then there would be the show, and the bar would stay open afterwards and people could stay and socialise and talk about it. There’s a really interesting dual thing which is that having a piece of theatre there would mean they would also earn their money from the social side of what the space was doing, that was a really important factor. So often the reason conversations don’t go on in conventional theatres is because we can’t afford to keep the bar staff on – and it’s really interesting when you go into a more held community, where the ecosystem is much more symbiotic, and the environment enables that to happen. Therefore it’s been a good night out for everyone: for the people who run the bar, the village hall, for the theatre-makers, for the audience. I know I’m talking specifically rurally, but there’s so much to do with these structures: there was so much work that we took into council-run buildings and that so played against any of those conversations. When we took Black Watch on tour, it would often play in sports centres and the audience absolutely wanted to stay and talk afterwards, and the council’s security guards would chuck everyone out into a car park. That used to really upset me.

M: Touring these communities, did you have a sense that you were building on something existing, or building new foundations?

V: I think it depends: in the more imaginative rural communities we were definitely building on a row of bricks, but in the towns where the struggle to live was much harder or different in a way, it felt we were often starting from scratch, and that was quite a challenge. The big thing for us was trying not to parachute in with a show and not come back: it was about how much do we build and what do we do and how do we create long-term, meaningful relationships with these communities. The big thing I brought to the Royal Court from that is that we don’t do Theatre Local any more: that was the thing we did in Peckham, the Royal Court would take up residency in the Bussey Building for two to three months, really good work, it was such a great idea – but the problem I had was it was literally about the work, there were lots of workshops, and then it would go. The projects we’re now doing – there’s one in Tottenham, and one in Pimlico because it’s our neighbour and we’ve never had a relationship with them – are three-year projects, full-time, and about finding artists, ambassadors to engage with, about community, about this whole thing, without knowing what the outcome will be. We make lots of interventions, lots of different bits of things happening, and at some point we’ll make a big piece of theatre with those communities, whatever that is. That’s the big thing I’ve brought back: it has to be really long-term and it has to be constant, there have to be people there who are prepared to completely connect.

The projects we used to do in Scotland were called Transform, we did 16 of them while I was there: we’d spend a year in each community, funded by Scottish Power –

M: Was a year enough time?

V: No, but a year was all we could do because it was too expensive. In London it’s easy to do three years, we can go to Tottenham all the time, we can go four times a week, but it was too expensive at that point to do more. But it wasn’t a year and then we left: we would really prioritise going back, touring back to those places, we built up those relationships.

I think one of the reasons why in this country it feels really hard to build those foundations currently is – well, Elizabeth Freestone from Pentabus would say it’s NT Live. Because what’s happened is that she rings up a village hall and says, would you like my new show, and they say we can’t, we’re having x for less money than your theatre show – and it’ll sell out. I think that’s become a real issue in terms of the lack of live [experience], we’re training people out of it, in terms of what theatre is, and in terms of discussion and conversation with the audience. [Live theatre is] asking something of these audiences, as well as giving something we’re asking something of them, if people get trained out of that, that’s really hard.

As part of everything we’re doing in Tottenham, the Bernie Grant Centre said they’d like a piece of theatre, so we took Liberian Girl: 85% of the audience had never been to the theatre before, and what we realised after the first night is that they had to stay around to have a conversation. There was a real hunger to discuss it and think about it and meet the actors to talk about what it was like, and we had to respond.

I’m really fascinated by the class thing at the moment, because the point about a good night out is about working class theatre in terms of form, in terms of communicating with the audience. The work can challenge an audience but it would not work if it intimidated them or overcrushed them, so it’s a really fascinating thing about do you end up watering the art down in order for it to feel accessible to the people that you need to have the conversation with or not? I don’t know, I think it’s a really challenging thing. If defiantly not, are you up your own arse or going to the wrong people?

M: How much did you have to shift mindset coming to the Royal Court?

V: To begin with I found it really, really hard. I really questioned what I had gained for what I’d lost, in terms of the scale of the questions that I was able to ask and apply and affect. And then I thought, actually, it’s incredibly focusing to be able to be very singular, to really, really trust in the writer, and be able to ask: what is the voice of that artist and what do they need to do that. And that is an intellectual question, and the question in Scotland – although they were intellectual questions, there was actually more of a context of philosophical questions we were asking all the time. It’s really thrilling to be able to ask that singular question. And the thing that I’ve definitely brought is that we have the right to ask that question singularly, and we can’t expect that everyone will want to know the answer, but we also have a role to encourage people – a shit expression I’ve used is democratic intellectualism, which is shit, but I use it, it’s a thing about, we mustn’t be scared to be intellectual. Because we are in Britain, and what we need is to encourage people not to be scared to ask those questions.

The sacred art of joining in

This is the second in a short series of backstage pieces connected to a project I did for Fuel looking at some historical precedences to NTiYN: ways in which theatre-makers, venues, and their staff, have approached the questions of audience engagement since, roughly, the 1930s. In this post, I talk to Stella Duffy: writer, theatre-maker and Fun Palace co-director. I went to her interested in a less academic, more storytelling take on Joan Littlewood’s work; I left with goosebumps and surging admiration for Stella’s passion and dedication to social change.

M: I feel like all the words for “inclusion” have been co-opted.

S: Joining in still works really well, people aren’t using joining in. Would you like to join in? Come and join in. I’ve been saying join in a lot, because join in doesn’t say start a new thing, it doesn’t say do my thing, it says: do your thing. I think there’s a thing about saying to people: we don’t have the answer, you have your local answer, here’s what we’re doing, and where’s the crossover? I have fully expected people to be snobby, don’t you come here and tell me this, chip on shoulder, but all they have done is say thank you for coming out of London, thank you for leaving London, how brilliant. It doesn’t matter how brilliant they are and how much great stuff they’re already doing, they still say thank you for coming to us.

M: What’s your sense of how Joan Littlewood went about this?

S: [Theatre Workshop] were doing working men’s clubs: this is the thing we’ve forgotten. In the 30s, when she and Ewan MacColl – Jimmy Miller – were blacklisted by the BBC, they were doing working men’s clubs. We always had a tradition of that and for all I know it’s a peculiarly British tradition: there must be other European versions, but the version that we have, that Saturday night out, maybe there’s a show on, you go down to the club, that’s a very British tradition and a small-town tradition. Even here, in Brixton, there was everything here but there were still working men’s clubs. My mum and dad used to go to the pulp and paper-mill workers’ club because that’s what my mum and dad were, that was their club. It was a cheaper pub, that’s all, but they had shows, and it was often by them, by the local people for the local people.

Joan’s work pre- and post-war was trying to get people to be more political, and they did the club circuit. They would sit and chat and get pissed and go home with people – that’s what we’re not doing, we’re not shagging them enough. Seriously, they used to get in people’s lives because they weren’t so different to them.

M: Apart from the nutshell idea of the Fun Palace, what in her work do you feel you’re building on?

S: I don’t feel we’re building on the arts as we know it at all. It’s become more and more clear to me we’re building on communities not arts, and if I never see another play in a theatre where I have to sit down and be quiet, that’s fine with me. I still like those plays, but it would be very hard for me to book a ticket for something where I have to sit down and shut up, not because I’m so fucking loud but because I might want to tweet about it while it’s happening, I might want to go “oh my god that amazing thing just happened”, and that should be OK. Maybe it needs to be OK in a certain area of the theatre so other people don’t get annoyed, maybe it needs to be OK on certain nights – relaxed nights, call them what you will. I really don’t like the term relaxed, I think it’s a bit hippy, a bit in community – my mum, were she alive, would not know what that meant. We can find a better word.

I think what’s happened for us, as people came back to us about making a Fun Palace, is [the realisation that] it’s communities, not artists or arts people. That’s what we’re about, and that requires us to be even less arrogant, because of course everywhere’s a fucking community and it doesn’t need us to come in and tell it it’s a community. However, what we have are some tools that we believe in, that maybe they haven’t had access to or don’t know about, or aren’t interested in, and those tools are theatre and dance and music and science discussions and the geography of where your family originally come from. There’s a Maori phrase, to introduce yourself the first things you would say would be your mountain and your river, if we were being traditional we would use those first. And that’s about community, because community says I’m where I am now, but I’m also where I’m from.

I’ve been working in the arts for over 30 years, I’m passionate about it, but I’m passionate about it as a way to join people up, as a way to talk to other people, joining up and joining in. I didn’t know that when we started. I look back at Joan’s work and Joan’s writing and that was there but I don’t think they knew that very clearly either. They also didn’t make the Fun Palace, and they were trying to make one building, which would have only served one group of people, and they did have a bit of an instrumentalist 1960s approach: this is good for people so people should be able to do it. We’re not saying it’s good for people, we’re saying it’s fun for people, and do it however the fuck you want it. If fun for you is a silent Fun Palace, please go for it; if fun for you is a Fun Palace that has no arts in it at all, go for it, how amazing; if fun for you has games forbidden, go for it. But it’s definitely about your answer is as good as mine: everything we have to contribute is of value, let’s find out what that is.

That’s a long-winded way of saying I’m not sure we used to be any better at this, I think we might have a rosy, golden glow view of what it was like. Joan had to leave London in the 30s because she couldn’t get in anywhere, unless she did the very posh voice that she got all the prizes for at RADA; she couldn’t get in being herself and doing what she wanted to. And she was as elitist as they come in other ways – we all are, to a certain extent. So I’m not sure there ever was a golden age, but I think what gives me massive hope is that we have the internet: we have an opportunity to share in real time what we’re doing with each other, which we’ve never had before, and we don’t need to spend tons of money on it because we can do it on twitter and tumblr, it can be free, and the more free we make it, the more accessible it will be to everybody. And yes you need a phone or a computer, but you can borrow mine. And we didn’t use to have that.

My granddad, his parents were Irish immigrants to New Zealand, they were all really poor. He was the town’s clerk, and fireman, and a hunter, and he played the accordion at all the parties. Now that man’s a perfect bloody Fun Palace maker. When we were better at living in community, we had the person who played the music, the person who sang the songs, the person who told the stories – we had all that. We used to have a storyteller in every community, telling us back our stories; we used to be good at community, and maybe that’s a myth too, but everything I know about older Britain’s history says that we did. It’s hard-wired in us, we just don’t listen.

M: I think that’s the really deep, embedded root of NTiYN, and I don’t think we’ve articulated it. It reminds me of something that happened at the beginning of project, when Fuel staff wrote a list of questions that they wanted to ask in all the NTiYN places, and lots of them related to those ideas: what are the stories and the memories that hold this community.

S: I think there’s a problem for Fuel with the use of the word theatre. People perceive theatre to be expensive so you only go once a year, or it’s not really for me so you only do it on a school trip: theatre has come to mean that, whether we like it or not, whether we’re doing different work or not, that’s what that word means to the bulk of the population – including the people who love theatre. To the people who love theatre it means in a building, it means I shut up you show me something, it means I emote but silently – despite the fact that it comes from the Greeks and it was given to us for catharsis, so I could scream and cry if I wanted to. What we’ve done to theatre ignores the history of theatre, and it ignores that it was a sacred act. It was a sacred fucking act! It was a festival, and yes it was done by society to shut up the people, you come here on this day and you have your emotions, that way you won’t revolt next week, and yes that’s crap, but we’ve taken away the sacred, and lots of us with really good intention, because the church has screwed us up, or the synagogue or the mosque screwed us up. So we took away the sacredness of it. But this is why I did this all of last fucking year when I was having my second cancer, because my life has a mission, and my life’s mission is to make these things that have been closed to people like me, working class people like me, make them a little bit more open, and if I do it a tiny bit, that will help, even if it only helps me.

What is sacred is Carine from France and Alexander from Portugal and the other non-British nationals from the Farnham Fun Palace saying that they made a Fun Palace to be more integrated in their community, because their community hasn’t welcomed them. It’s people saying they spent £20 on their Fun Palace last year, and this year they’re doing it entirely for free because they want to only use donated and secondhand things, to be even more friendly. Sacrifice comes from sacred: what can I give? I got my equity card when I was 18, I have made and given for free to the arts for over 30 years, I have given to my community of artists, but I haven’t given to my community, I haven’t given to my neighbourhood. I give to much groovier places all the time, I give to already privileged people all the time; I happen to live in a pretty deprived area, but I don’t give to that area – I do because I do book readings for free in those places, so I do, but when I spend three years writing a novel unpaid, that’s not me giving to the world for free, that’s me giving to me for free. When I create a piece of work, I do it for free, and I think that’s fine, I don’t think anyone should pay me to do that. Why should they pay me to grow flowers in my back garden? It’s the same thing. Why should they pay me to make a cake for me? It’s the same thing.

Maybe I have to be 52 to feel this strongly, or maybe I had to have two cancers, whatever, but I’m really clear that I can give and that I want to give and that it benefits, of course it benefits me to give to where I live. It helps my community, it means I can walk down the road and say hello to people, but I had to do something for that to happen. Sorry, that came out of the problem of the word theatre, which goes back to the Greeks, and I don’t know what the alternative is, but there is a problem with the word for those of us in it and those who aren’t in it: it is a barrier and it is an over-inclusion for those who feel comfortable in it, for whom it is community. I have both, I think lots of us have both. Culture is a word we are using and that’s not an easy one either, but the British Science Association call science culture, culture is what people do when they’re asking about who we are, what humanity is, what community is.

M: Where do you get your learning from?

S: The Fun Palace makers: the people who aren’t already artists or scientists who are giving astonishingly useful feedback, as community members, about where we got it wrong, or not wrong, where we thought one thing and it turned into something else. The more I work with scientists, the easier is to say I’m wrong. A few years ago I was commissioned to write for a collection of short stories about modern science and worked with Rob Appleby, who teaches particle physics at Manchester university, and was involved in the Large Hadron Collider project at Cern. He said two things that totally stayed with me: one is that when they get stuck, they go and have a coffee, because it’s in the coffee room that solutions come – which is so Open Space. The solution doesn’t come in the let me worry about this problem, it comes in having a drink, having a chat. The other thing is that when they first turned on the Hadron Collider and it didn’t work, he said they were really happy because they said: fuck, now we know what to do. What should have felt like public humiliation, because the public wanted to humiliate them, was: oh my god how amazing, now I know what to do.

I think artists could really benefit from that, and one of the things I want to start saying is to please use Fun Palaces to get a science buddy. Buddy up with a science person, because they are practised in this methodology, they are immensely skilled in the flaws and the mistakes and the incorrect calculations being of massive value. If we can provide science buddies through Fun Palaces, I think we might make a huge difference in a longer-term ecology.

Power to the (theatre) people

This is the first in a short series of backstage pieces connected to a project I did for Fuel looking at some historical precedences to NTiYN: ways in which theatre-makers, venues, and their staff, have approached the questions of audience engagement since, roughly, the 1930s. Inevitably the interviews I did gave me more material than I could possibly use, so I’m going to post up a few of the transcripts which, while edited, contain a lot more detail than I could fit in the final essay. Called The Neighbourhood Watch, the essay is available to download on the Fuel website.

In this first post, I talk to Anna Reading: playwright, feminist and professor of culture and creative industries at King’s College London.

M: Where shall we start?

A: Probably the easiest thing initially is to talk about my work with Strip Search Theatre, which was a theatre company we founded in 1987 in York. It was part of the political scene then: I think for me the idea of a good night out is very much linked with the politics of a particular kind of theatre that I personally believe in, and lots of us then were involved in it and still are. For me, theatre goes hand in hand with thinking about what it is you want to change in society and knowing that theatre is part of an assemblage of acts: theatre will do a bit of it, the law will do a bit of it, social groups will do other bits.

The principles with Strip Search theatre were to make sure that the performers were taken care of, and that audiences were also taken care of. Care of the audience took place from them approaching the theatre: they were given information as they went in about local groups they could contact and so on, which again were new. Rape Crisis was founded then, and I was one of the founder members in York. If I take one example, there was a play that we did in 1987, Kiss Punch Goodnight, which I’d written, which was about child sexual abuse in the 1970s: the reason that’s all come out now is because of the 2010 law on historic sexual abuse, but at that point there wasn’t even a language really to describe these things. There were 13 performers involved, all women, and we didn’t know when we worked with actors what their experiences were: it might be that they had experienced this. So it was about having those conversations – then they were also able to have those conversations with members of the audience.

The conversations that we had afterwards were really important. They were important for the actors because it was gruelling for them: one of the things we always did to take care of the actors was that they took their costumes off and became themselves again in front of the audience, and then sang a song which just said we’re together on this, so there was a process of cleansing that was in front of the audience. The audience then approached the conversation with the performers not as “the father who’d done the abuse” but the person who has acted this part.

Another similar project was called the Want Project. One of my first jobs was working at the university of Lodz in Poland in 1988: it was a time of communism collapsing and I was working with Polish feminists doing interviews with women to see what they thought about what was happening. As the revolutions happened I realised that women’s issues were going to get lost, so we got some money from the British Council and agreed that the theatre project that we would do, the Want Project, would tour cities in Britain and Poland. In Poland we linked it to something called Klobiet, and helped establish a network of women’s clubs, nascent feminist clubs. So people would go to the performance, they would become concerned after the performance about, for instance, the rescinding of the law on abortion, which was one of the things that the play tackles through the characters of three Polish women, and then from that they would begin to think about what can we do in our community.

I feel very strongly that theatre is there to entertain but it’s also there to provoke: that’s the privilege of being there live. And if you provoke you have a responsibility to enable people to have the next set of tools that they might need to do something about it. That’s the difference between, say, theatre and sitting back and watching the news on TV: so much of our lives are spectacular in that we’ll watch something horrific happening, we’ll feel bad about it and we won’t do anything about it because we feel we can’t – but it seems to me theatre can and that’s the whole point. But you still need to enable people themselves to see what resources they’ve got to do something further about it: that is part of taking care of people, that is part of a good night out, is this sense of empowerment, a feeling that you’ve connected with something, somebody. So it’s not just about putting money in a box, it’s about feeling alive in your life. Capitalism is so much about deadening people to become machines in what we do, and so it’s about enlivening us: theatre enable us to feel, and what do we do with that feeling? We want action from it.

M: It’s interesting that you frame that with words like care and responsibility: they’re things I often feel I don’t see in theatre. I had a conversation with someone recently about the play Violence and Sons at the Royal Court – a play that looks at casual and inherited misogyny, and the verbal and sexual violence against women resulting from it – who said they felt weird and wrong clapping the depiction of date rape at the end, but there was no conversation or space to process it, and nowhere else for those feelings to go.

I wonder whether that lack of space comes from an embarrassment, or a desire for today’s theatre to keep its distance from a kind of theatre that we might frame as educational or issue-based. You’re describing a period of feminist theatre, and gay theatre, in which those things were publicly declared: I wonder how much people feel confident or nervous around that declaration now.

A: I think it’s part of the whole trajectory since the 1980s, to depoliticise and disempower people. In a sense that’s what needs to be reclaimed. Part of the cash nexus which we’ve seen rolled out into the arts – and into education – since the late 1980s means that if we’re not careful we talk about audiences as customers: but an audience is an audience, it’s not a customer, just as somebody who comes to study is not a customer, they’re a student, that’s who they want to be in that transaction, if you like. We talk about value in terms of these cash-based transactions, when actually there’s something that’s so much more. The value of something is like throwing a pebble in a lake, the ripples will have all sorts of impacts we don’t know of, and being aware of that is really important.

In the 80s and 90s fringe theatre was seen to be a really positive force. It became depoliticised for all sorts of reasons and I think some of that territory really does need to be reclaimed. It’s about opening up a dialogic space – and making use of those spaces that are not usual theatre spaces. In the 80s and 90s, as a performer in those spaces, performing in pubs, people came up and talked to me directly and I realised that my understanding of theatre was not what people in that local community saw as theatre, because they hadn’t been to the theatre before. So I think that’s really important, that sense of involving people in theatre in different ways. Museums do this really well: they’ve moved from this idea of the museum space as one with walls to the museum without walls, and theatres are doing that more and better: the theatre-going audience are very used to using social network media, so it’s about making sure that we do that well – but that we also don’t exclude those people that don’t do that.

M: How long did Strip Search last?

A: We were doing stuff all through the 90s, and I’ve carried on writing where I can. Now I see it as integrated in what I do at the university. During my research leave I really want to think about the archive of work, because I think it’s really important: I don’t mean from an egotistical point of view, but because it was an extraordinary era in terms of things that were done and made and experiences that people had. You talk about earlier historical precedences for New Theatre in Your Neighbourhood and sometimes I do feel a bit frustrated that people are doing things which I think: ‘Actually this was done a long time ago, you just need to refer back to that history.’ Particularly as feminists actually: we’re very good at forgetting, we’re not very good at remembering.