Up Yours 2016! Long Live Independent Theatre!

By Charlotte Jones, Chief Executive of ITC

2016 has been an unprecedented bastard of a year politically - leaving in its wake some massive uncertainties and real doubts in my mind about the essential goodness of humanity. The fiascos of Brexit and Trump leave me with a sense that politics has fundamentally lost its way – never has western democracy looked so completely dysfunctional and dangerous. The rise of the ‘popularist’ far right across the globe is deeply disturbing (and this while former Arts Minister, Ed Vaizey, complains of the arts being ‘relentlessly left-wing’ – long may it remain so!).

Faced with this gloom I turn to our ITC members’ directory for inspiration and hope. From the Hebrides to Land’s End (and in many rural communities, housing estates, industrial parks, schools, hospitals, prisons and even theatres in between) our 400+ hard-working, vision-driven, skilful member companies make their work and reach people in ways that inspire, raise awareness, open conversations, build alliances, help understanding, deliver meaning and offer reasons to be cheerful.

I am confident that the vast majority of our members are generous, committed to challenging oppression and unfairness, wanting to serve the disempowered and disenfranchised, raising awareness of injustice, putting people before profit, working for the benefit of people who can’t always pay – If that is ‘relentlessly left wing’ then ‘Yes – guilty as charged and proud to be so!’

In the face of post-Brexit xenophobia Shropshire–based Pentabus highlights the position of migrant workers in the UK and challenges racism in the countryside. In response to the escalating homelessness caused by the ruthless gentrification of our cities Cardboard Citizens are touring their modern remake of Ken Loach’s Cathy Come Home. To raise awareness of and money to relieve this year’s terrible refugee crisis Hoipolloi created and delivered their brilliant free show in Edinburgh The Duke. Belarus Free Theatre has worked to raise awareness of artists who are prisoners of oppressive regimes whilst performing their own ground-breaking work here in the UK.

Following the election of a self-declared sexual abuser as leader of the ‘free’ world misogyny has been given a free rein. Never has the existence of companies like Clean Break and Open Clasp been so important – challenging the oppression of women, telling their stories and working for positive change. I went on a Reclaim the Night March the week after Trump was elected (first time since the mid-eighties) – it felt necessary!

In addition to the relevant political engagement of our members I am also inspired by their generosity. Last week Sheffield-based Third Angel contacted me offering support and mentoring to new Arts Council National Portfolio Organisations (hoping of course that there would be some!) following their own experience of that journey. Touring Company, Dumbshow, came to talk with me about the crisis in small scale touring and offered to share their previous G4A funding applications (both successful and unsuccessful) in the spirit of transparency and assisting peers. New ITC member Slung Low hosted our touring forum in Leeds and told us about their facilities and support for new artists and companies to help them make their work (whilst packing their van full of supplies they had collected to assist refugees in the Calais Jungle). At our forums members regularly share knowledge, contacts, information, good practice and experience. It is encouraging to see how much small organisations with relatively little are happy to share. New Hub members Unity Theatre in Liverpool and The Lowry in Salford have recently hosted for free ITC training and networking events for new artists and small independent companies.

The resilience of our members is admirable. Many who lost their Arts Council England core funding in the last NPO round have reinvented themselves and are managing to continue their important work – Red Ladder in Leeds, Dark Horse in Huddersfield, Theatre Sans Frontiers in the rural North East, Big Brum in Birmingham (to name only a few) are finding new ways to work and still finding time to share generously with other ITC members – hats off to them all!

We are lucky at ITC to be based in the great creative hub of The Albany in Deptford accompanied by some excellent members. On Tuesdays we are inspired by Entelechy Arts brilliant elders project Meet me at the Albany. On Thursdays we can enjoy being surrounded by Heart N Soul’s amazing Allsorts events involving talented learning disabled young adults. Every day this week we have been vicariously enjoying the excitement of tiny, hi-viz clad primary school children arriving in large numbers to watch Tall Stories The Snail and the Whale. Here in not-quite-fully-gentrified-yet-SE8 we see the arts daily fighting the tide of despond and making the world a better place for a diverse range of people.

The hate and division unleashed (or maybe exposed) by Brexit and Trump need a counter culture. I am heartened by how readily, effectively and sensitively our great independent arts sector rise to that challenge and provide that counter force. This is no ‘Liberal Elite’ beating itself up over leaving people behind. This is a radical, grass roots movement accustomed to reaching people, listening to people, engaging people everywhere and kicking ass where needed.

So my final reflections on these last days of a shockingly awful year are Up Yours 2016! –Long live Independent Theatre! Thank you all for your dedication, imagination and bravery.