Theatre 2016 was a packed programme for two days. The range of topics discussed was impressively wide with a focus on art not entertainment. Below are some reflections and key points from everyone at ITC which we will take away and do something about!
Research into the independent theatre sector
Dan Reballato presented some statistics on the state of theatre showing how new works have come to dominate our stages, tickets prices have continued to increase and female playwrights have hit a glass ceiling with 31% of the work on our stages in 2013 and 2014 being written by women. However the numbers failed to take into account the huge volume of work created by the independent sector. Following his presentation ITC had a useful discussion with Dan and his colleagues at British Theatre Consortium about the very specific challenges to conducting research in our sector and how these challenges might be overcome to make sure the important work of this sector is captured and understood. One of the main issues is ownership of data – touring companies often can’t access it. We agreed to work together to make this research happen.
Meeting the Refugee Crisis
Chris Sonnex showed an inspiring film about the Good Chance Calais project and spoke forcefully about the power of theatre to bring people together and restore ‘humanity’ in the appalling conditions of the Jungle refugee camp – this work needs to continue. What Next? is attempting to co-ordinate a cultural sector initiative to practically support refugees – we will help to engage theatre organisations in this.
Accessibility benefits everyone
During a brilliant provocation Richard Lee made the statement of the day. 'You're not disabled, theatres disable you. The more accessible theatres are, the more people come! It benefits everyone’. It is a statement that is completely obvious when said outloud but few theatres, particularly those in the West End have realised that they are losing out on bums on seats by alienating a large group of people. The advantage of not just accommodating but welcoming such a group was further supported by Jenny Sealey of Graeae, whimsically reminding the audience that that disability is diverse, ranging across all sectors of society and is not limited to ‘white middle class males’!
The use of captioning meant that, for once, I didn’t miss the words of even the most softly spoken, mike averse speaker or the Q&A sessions (thank you Stagetext). We hope that this event “normalised” the use of captioning a bit more and made delegates aware that it can be useful for everyone not just those who define themselves as Deaf, deafened or hearing impaired.
Influence, Influence, Influence
There were good discussions on censorship, freedom of speech and looming threats to power of the arts to influence. The conference raised awareness of these issues and ITC will continue to campaign against the anti-advocacy rules and threats to artistic freedom.
Who will pay for the value that theatre brings to Society?
A favourite comment from the floor was ‘the best form of crowd funding is taxation’ – We agree! If theatre brings value to society we need to make sure that it is paid for properly, by each according to their means, and to each according to their need. This means ensuring that theatre reaches the deprived, the disenfranchised , the ‘have-nots’ and young people in their schools. Limited access for theatres in schools was a wide spread concern throughout the conference, voiced by Jenny Sealey and later support by ITC member Tutti Frutti. We need to make sure that the excuse for not doing that ISN’T that there is not enough money whilst simultaneously subsidising corporate entertainment at the Opera House. Those who can pay should pay more and those who can’t, should have better access.
A more democratic configuration
Sheena Wrigley CEO of the Manchester based arts organization of ‘Home’ suggested looking towards a festival model. Theatres and performing arts centres, Wrigley argued, should cease to be the ‘plaything’ of Artistic Directors, who represent only one person’s perspective; often a ‘white middle class male perspective’. What would happen if regional producing houses were occupied by several companies offering diverse creative inputs? A performing arts centre based on festival could have more permeable walls, allowing more artists to pass through and for small companies and artists hoping to be programmed, there would be less far to climb to the top in order to be heard.
Reaching out means letting go of prejudices!
The theme of ‘opening up’ was picked up by Yinka Ayinde, producer of the Afrobeats production ‘Oliva Tweest’ who discussed the importance of engaging with the cultures surrounding a production and previous experience or even inexperience of the target audience. Of the audiences who attended Oliva Tweest, over 87% had never been to the theatre before. Ayinde specifically remembered one man who arrived very late to a performance of the show at the Hackney Empire because he thought there would be trailers. Ayinde urged the room to embrace and learn from this inexperienced theatre goers’ assumption. Maybe there should be trailers, live or digital before theatrical events? To combat the class divide that we continue to see in our workforces and out audience and to broaden our reach, we need to be more open. ‘Let's not invite new people to the theatre and tell them how to behave, let's meet them in the middle and be open to new trends’.
Overturn the Status Quo
There were some great speeches from Rebecca Atkinson Lord, Sheena Wrigley and Sam West with the common theme of over-turning the status quo. There are so many sacred cows in this industry, that it is time to decide which ones could usefully be turned into burgers or maybe a wholesome stew. We have to start properly examining the accepted norms, asking better questions and insisting on change, and we shouldn’t be scared. Libby Penn from @spektrix suggested we should talk about how to successfully programme creative risks into our activities, so perhaps the answer is to not see risk as a threatening outsider but embed it at the core of our ethos? It is evident that theatres, theatre makers, programmers, and producers from all ends of the spectrum and cultures need more than ever to find a way of working and coming together so perhaps a more democratic collaborative model that challenges the status quo is exactly what is needed. In the closing words of Vikki Heywood’s Key Note speech ‘'If theatre can't lead the way on working more effectively together who can? I think it's worth a try'.