Arts Funding Information
When I was artistic director of Sheffield Theatres, the first play I directed was The Romans in Britain. I’d wanted to revive this for lots of reasons, but one was that the first line of the play is "Where the fuck are we?"
It seemed like the right question to ask at the beginning of an artistic tenure. I’ve been asking it ever since. If we’re lucky enough to be in work as actors, or to be able to make work as directors, it’s a question which we should ask.
So where the fuck are we?
Well, we’re somewhere unfair. We’re in a world where it no longer raises eyebrows to say that the richest 400 Americans own as much as the poorest 150 million Americans.
We’re in a world where in 1978, two years before The Romans in Britain was first performed, the chief executive of British Aerospace was paid £29 000 a year and where in 2010 he got £2.3m; that’s a rise of 8000%. Meanwhile, BAE is making 3000 workers redundant.
We’re somewhere hypocritical. Somewhere where as Pete Sinclair says, “MPs fiddle expenses, journalists hack phones, bankers lie and defraud us - and the poor get blamed for the 'fabric of society' crumbling.”
We’re somewhere where false benefit claims costs the government £1.5bn a year and tax avoidance £70bn a year and the government goes after the benefit claimants first.
And we’re somewhere where satire is dead. Satire is dead when Rebekah Brooks says the coverage of her arrest for perverting the course of justice felt like an invasion of her privacy. Satire is dead when our Eton-educated Prime Minister, a man who owns four houses and whose father left a will of £2.7m in offshore accounts, cuts the benefits of young people and then lectures them on their ‘culture of entitlement’.
That’s where the fuck we are.
So where shall we go next?
Well, we could go somewhere much worse.
Charities tell us that we no longer relate to each other because our values are changing. Twenty years ago, a picture of a starving child in Ethiopia was enough to produce a flood of donations. Nowadays, people just see it as a situation that has to exist: to quote Howards End, "the poor are poor; one is sorry for them, but there it is.”
The trouble with the increasing gap between rich and poor in this country is that it threatens to grow so big that neither party is able any longer to understand the other. The life of the very poor to the very rich is so alien that they simply cannot understand how cutting five pounds a week from benefit could make a difference. The life of the very rich to the very poor is so alien that they can’t see how someone who earns billions doesn’t think that billions are enough.
Once the two camps hit mutual incomprehension and are no longer able to recognise each other as human, the door is open to real exploitation and hatred.
And that’s where we, as artists, come in. Because that alienation isn’t just a failure of government, it's a failure of imagination.
What is happening is that austerity is driving wedges between us. And what is at risk is society itself; the connections that make us human; the opportunities to become the people we can. Art can and must make those connections stronger.
Touring a show like Close the Coalhouse Door to York, as we did last week, might not be very different from touring it to Durham, as we did last month. But it’s quite different from touring it to Guildford, which we also did.
The constituency of Guildford doesn’t see many plays about mining Unions, especially ones that quote great wodges of Marx in act three. They may not like them, but they certainly come. And it’s arguable that at the end of the show their ignorance of the history of the North East is a little bit exploded. That a Geordie miner seems a little less like an alien being.
Now mining is dead; other industries, particularly service industries, have grown up in the meantime, and though they don’t breed communities or community spirit, or certainly Unions in the same way, many people make their living in them.
Those people might like to know that it was once different; that our predecessors fought to make things better. Revivals of plays are important, because they chart what has been robbed. Coalhouse is set in 1968. In 1968, within a few years of Harold Wilson becoming Prime Minister, we had comprehensive education, legalised abortion, legalised homosexuality, the end of capital punishment and the Pill available to unmarried women; an extraordinary rate of change. In the autumn of 1968, we’re only nine months from landing on the Moon. As Close the Coalhouse Door begins we’ve had twenty years of the National Health Service; twenty years of nationalised coal; Frank, the younger son of a miner, travels to a free university on a nationalised train; calls home on a nationalised phone. We must remind ourselves that nowadays a nationalised industry is a museum piece. This year it looks like we’ve lost the Royal Mail. I’m a stamp collector, with a standing order at the Philatelic Bureau that goes back decades. I cancelled it last month.
In Theatre of the Oppressed, Augusto Boal says “let us, in the present, study the past, so as to invent the future.” Reviving plays allows us to study the past; allows us to ask “what sort of society do we want to live in?”
This government is keen to push what it calls “retail solutions". Samira Ahmed tells us that “its consultant, Mary Portas, is rolling into towns like Margate, promising to revive the high street with her boutique-brand of advice. She has a TV crew in tow, and shopkeepers are required to sign strict contracts in return for the bestowing of her magic touch.”
What happens in the evenings, when the shops close? What makes a city live then? Stories. People; food; drink; but mostly stories. Government ministers and civil servants must understand that culture can and should be at the centre of urban life. That nothing is as good as a story which belongs to its audience.
I’m not often in agreement with Jack Straw, but one thing he said about London winning the Olympics made me cheer. London was a city of so many colours and cultures, so many languages and communities, he said, that you could guarantee that during the Olympics, no matter what the event or who won it, somewhere in London there would be a party. That’s why I love my city. That’s why the telling of stories, the appreciation of difference, the ending of fear and ignorance is so joyful and so necessary. We can all play our part.
I want us to make the case for the state, because the greater the role it plays, the more stable and civilised a nation becomes. I want us to take pride in the NHS, schools, museums, libraries, Universities, the BBC. And of course, in local theatres.
What, frankly, is the use of a day like this? It takes a lot of organisation, a lot of cash, a lot of petrol to get people together like this. How on earth can we justify it?
When I called Marcus last week to discuss what I might say this afternoon, he pointed out that we’d never met. That through a shared interest in the arts, through the arts funding website he’d set up and through being in York most of last summer filming a telly series (when we very nearly met) we had corresponded, but today was our first face-to-face meeting.
Doing things face to face is important. We can’t do everything via twitter. As Dick Penny has just said, digital can’t replace the analogue of coming together. Perhaps that is our justification.
But a caution, from the screenwriter Nora Ephron who died last month (a sad loss). A few years ago she wrote two lists - one of things she wouldn’t miss, which included:
Technology in general
And lower down the list
Email. I know I already said it, but I want to emphasize it.
The list of things she would miss included:
A walk in the park
The idea of a walk in the park
Shakespeare in the Park
“The idea of a walk in the park”; that's not some wishy-washy Hallmark Card phrase. It’s filling; it’s actual. It’s a vote of confidence in public imagination. Just as the idea of that first martini always tastes better than that first martini, we are sustained and nourished by imagination.
And imagination belongs to all of us; not just those who can afford to pay for it.
Laura Wade is a playwright. This is how she became one:
Laura’s Sheffield-born and bred. She’s wanted to write for The Crucible since she saw The Railway Children there when she was seven. The youth theatre put on her first play in the Studio when she was 18. The Crucible inspired her, nurtured her, and finally employed her: she did an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland on the main stage in 2010. Now her play Posh is in the West End, and she recently discovered that Jessica Ransom, who is in the West End cast of Posh, was a member of the Crucible Youth Theatre and operated the sound on Laura’s first play there all those years ago.
So that worked. How long will it go on working? How long will keen young amateurs living near a theatre which no longer produces its own work find their ambitions supported? How long before theatre, or art in general, becomes the province of the provinces, and the only people we hear from are those who can afford to live with their parents? In twenty years’ time, where will the plays be that those keen young amateurs might have written? Not in the West End, making money for the Treasury.
And who’s going to be in these plays? How will we turn out people to populate our repertoire, this 500-year history of dramatic literature unrivalled anywhere in the world? James Grout was one of our best supporting actors. His obituary was in yesterday’s Guardian. The son of a Wood Green shopkeeper, he went from grammar school to a scholarship to RADA, to the RSC and finally to Inspector Morse (he played Morse’s boss Chief Superintendent Strange); he was equally at home in JB Priestley, Shakespeare or Simon Gray. Where will we get our future Jimmy Grouts from?
Some people may be good at football - and they might grow up to be footballers. Some may be good at physics - and we need more physicists. But some could be good playwrights, or actors, or designers. Those skills are no respecter of postcodes. All of us must have the chance to become who we can, no matter where we live, where we went to school and how much our parents earn.
So where next?
I want to answer that in two parts: where do we go in public and first, where do we go amongst ourselves?
Three things: Amongst ourselves, we should keep artistic directors at the helms of theatres. Our most successful – indeed our most bankable - directors (Richard Eyre, Trevor Nunn, Sam Mendes, Michael Grandage, Thea Sharrock) all started out running theatres. The producing tail mustn’t wag the artistic dog. With too much attention paid to how much the thing costs and how we sell it rather than what it actually is, theatre begins to look expensive, and even ‘unsustainable’. It’s not long before the whole idea of putting on a play becomes imprudent. After all, what do you get for it? Just a show running for a few weeks, that local people don’t have to pay a fortune to see. Sounds fiscally irresponsible to me.
If commercial theatre thinking is allowed to influence the subsidized agenda, this view of short-run shows in regional playhouses as indulgent, of limited appeal and no commercial viability will grow. We must fight against this, or the collapse will head upwards. The National Theatre, as the nation’s showcase, works on a subsidised repertory model. But if the regional repertory system goes, the National will have pressure put upon it to ‘live in a more commercial world’, just as the free-marketeering of Rupert Murdoch and Sky has infected and weakened the BBC.
Amongst ourselves, we should oppose a theatre based primarily on patronage. Patronage has an inherent conservatism at its heart that can sit badly with art’s main purpose – to ask questions, to challenge, to be a thorn in the side of our established ideas.
And finally, amongst ourselves we should occupy. The Theatres Trust this morning published its Buildings at Risk register; 49 threatened theatre buildings across the UK without statutory protection. Look it up. I call for sit-ins; we should occupy those buildings threatened with demolition, and those working theatres threatened with closure.
And where do we go in public?
I’m vice-chair of the National Campaign for the Arts, a lobbying organisation devoted to improving arts funding. But arts funding isn’t going to improve. The government is committed to reducing the size of the state. The same thing that is happening to art is happening to health and schools.
The NCA is trying to doing something that it is not possible to do. We have to find other ways to survive - principally by collaboration. Other ways to talk - not only of troubles but in celebration. We may be a long way from the German ideal of kunst, where every medium-sized town has a theatre and an opera house to rival London’s finest, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t keep it up there as an ideal - particularly if Germany decides, as they well might, that they can no longer afford to be that idealistic. The pendulum is swinging away. All we can do is be part of the movement to stop it quicker than it would otherwise stop, and make it come back quicker than it would otherwise come back.
The problem is we haven’t persuaded the electorate. There’s still a lot of that ‘poncy artist living off the state’ mentality. What we need is to get punters in - people who have found the arts made a difference to their lives - and together with the professionals who inspired them, say “this is how the arts changed my life”. Every funded organisation should have dozens, or hundreds of people they can call on to sing their praises, and to say why their existence makes life less boring.
And at the same time we mustn’t WHINE. We mustn’t, though I loath the phrase, be whinging luvvies. Let’s fight the pragmatic fight and pick our winnable battles. Let’s have a campaign to celebrate the arts, with culture and communication at its heart. Without being aggressive and confrontational - let’s bring the emotional and social forces together. Let’s fight the idea that the financial sector is the only dynamo driving the economy (that shouldn’t be hard in a week like this); actors, directors and designers are centres of energy too. Let’s get that message across.
Harriet Harman says: “tourists come to the UK for the culture” But that’s not the reason you shouldn’t cut it.
It’s not "art for art's sake" - that’s not the reason you shouldn’t cut it. Art for art’s sake is a circular argument; that’s just what art IS.
What it is, really, is art for our sake. We are about to lose something as valuable as the forests: potential. It’s not about a bold new season of Howard Barker plays. It’s about the way people live together. We must protect that, or our social foundations will disappear.
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