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.

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?