Thursday, 18 June 2020

Shouting into an echo chamber

When discussing the current unrest in the world somebody said to me the other week that things would definitely change this time because we now have social media raising awareness. It was said with utter belief and optimism that our timelines could change the world.  

If the current crises in our industry has taught me anything it's reaffirmed my long-held belief that we're all happy shouting about things in our own echo chambers. We don't actually want to be challenged on our beliefs and ideologies, do we? We want to put our thoughts out into the ether and have our 'followers' agree with us. What would a controversial posting be without people liking it and reposting it? The feeling of self-righteousness when we're reposted with a comment that supports our original idea can't be beaten. At that moment we've won the internet . . . well for an hour at least. 

It's not real though is it? We've been lulled into a false sense of security by choosing to follow like-minded people. My political views easily lean more towards the left than the right, and therefore my timeline is littered with like-minded people. Is that skewing my view of the world though, as I'm left thinking that everybody thinks the same as me, which is clearly incorrect, as Trump got elected and Brexit happened, both of which looked impossible given my timelines? 

The day that the results from the Brexit referendum came out my Facebook timeline was saturated with angry, sad people all reeling in disbelief. We (virtually) consoled each other and questioned how such a thing could have happened. Yet step outside your own timeline for a moment and you'll quickly discover that a parallel world has been running alongside it the whole time.

When the unthinkable happens and these two worlds cross paths (I've let go of the geometry analogy for a moment - don't judge me) we tend not to debate with the 'other side'. We shoot from the hip and attempt to shut them down adamant that we're right and they're wrong. They do exactly the same. We've lost the art of gentle persuasion and instead opted for shaming the difference. Then to compound this our mates all pile on thereby suffocating the argument whilst not actually changing their minds.

My timeline screams Black Lives Matter at the moment. I'm bombarded with graphic images of a world that I don't recognise, but a world that I'm determined to understand and attempt to change.  I read the threads of stories of personal experiences that leave me incredulous that friends and colleagues have had to experience such bias all because of their skin pigmentation (with centuries of oppression thrown in too of course), whilst I attempt to educate myself about their lives and their life experiences, lives very different to the world that I've inhabited. Yet I don't stop to think that for every one of 'us' there's one of 'them'. Somebody who is also reading those threads but seeing no wrong in them. I've attempted to chat to some of them online, but their side like ours simply shut down the debate with insults and hyperbole.

Currently, my timeline is also screaming with the cries of an industry going under. COVID didn't only target the vulnerable it targetted a number of industries - the arts being one of those. Shows closed, theatres went dark (except for the fabled Ghostlight), and an entire industry went into hibernation overnight. Nearly 4 months later there is no indication of that hibernation ending. Worse than that nobody except us seems to be talking about it. Yesterday the culture secretary made the first real public statement to mention us in passing. Rather alarmingly he was noting that he'd start to look at how he could help as he wouldn't let our culture just disappear, missing the fact that with each day we were slowly shedding our culture like a goose sheds its feathers, both of us grounded in time. Today a theatre goes dark, tomorrow a company folds, with each passing hour another person decides to leave the industry as their previously unsustainable world suddenly passes the threshold which renders it impossible. We're seeing major companies declaring that they've been forced into streamlining their operations in order to survive. 

I'm old enough to remember Thatcher's Britain. I lived through the coal strikes, the pit closures, the end of the steelworks, communities left in tatters by their hubs being dismantled seemingly before their very eyes. I'm the proud daughter of a steelworker. I saw first hand what those decisions did to families and communities. Fast forward a couple of decades and suddenly there's another cull. It might not have been politics that started it this time, rather a random global pandemic, however, it's politics that could save it, and right now it's not really being discussed.

We scream into our echo chambers that we're dying, that the arts are being dismantled and we hear the cries of our peers shouting straight back at us in agreement. We're not really weeping for the producers allegedly forced into these decisions, we're weeping for us. For the actors and stagehands, the wardrobe departments and casting directors, the agencies and creatives, and entire infrastructure from FOH to partner businesses that nobody but us really understands.

Then I nip across to that parallel universe and nobody cares. They don't think that it's 'their world'. They have no interest in the posh person's theatre world. They haven't made the correlation that 'this world' is also their world. It's the films that they're streaming, the music that they're listening to, the jokes that they're laughing at, the TV programmes that they religiously follow. To 'them' we've always been an elitist institution. 'They' have never stepped foot in the theatre and perceive it to be 'high art', 'hoity toity' if you like. 

Nobody has really joined the two worlds. The basic infrastructure and history of the UK theatre scene has unwittingly nurtured this divide. The government subsidises organisations like the National, the RSC, major ballet and opera companies, but what of the grassroots theatre scene? How much money really goes out to the provinces and the villages in order to create cultural hubs there? To build a sense of community, hell to contribute to communities.  For sure there's ACE money getting distributed but there's a certain language needed to fill out those forms, and the people and organisations that could really do with some of that money don't speak that language - they don't teach form filling in local comps.

When we speak about our industry we only talk in terms of the establishment. There's lots of talk around opening up our industry to a greater diversity, both of ethnicity and different social classes, yet when you check the various schemes that have started up to support this worthy cause, we're still telling people that the establishment should be the aim of the game - we the worthy can help you the needy reach the end goal . . . the heart of the establishment?  The monied give donations to the already heavily subsidised organisations. If the government does decide to support us who'll get first dibs at the recovery fund? I can tell you who won't be getting it, the small scale touring companies that truly do attempt to reach the masses and expand our audience base, the TIE companies who visit the schools in an attempt to squeeze theatre and theatre arts into the curriculum somehow, the youth groups that are transforming lives with their work. 

This could be the perfect opportunity for our industry to regroup and truthfully look at what's working and what's not. We won't though. We're crying into our echo chambers for the government to maintain the status quo, so that we can pick up where we left off. The brutal truth though is that we didn't leave it in a good place. The recent disclosures around institutionalised racism have really hit that point home over the past few weeks. Will we look at different companies and organisations to make the change? Not a chance, we'll spend our energy attempting to change the dinosaurs, grateful that the pandemic didn't wipe them out.

Our echo chambers facilitated Trump and Brexit, maybe it's time to open up the conversations to find out how we truly make our industry come back stronger and more diverse than ever?

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