Tuesday, 7 July 2020

An Industry Under Attack


Whilst I've always understood the notion of an echo chamber it's really hit home this week in the most depressing of ways.

As the Tories went into overdrive to publicise their support for the arts via a £1.5billion investment I ventured outside of my personal chamber to see what the rest of the world felt about this. I had assumed that the whole of the UK was rejoicing, but boy was I surprised. My idea of the arts is now so far removed from civvy street I don't think that I've ever felt quite so 'cocooned' in my life. Seemingly we'd been fighting to save something that nobody else wanted or valued. More than that when I read what people's priorities were I had a stark understanding of how far I had traveled from my own start in life.

I whizzed back into my echo chamber wanting to be enveloped in the celebration that I'd left only to find that the celebration had already ended and now people were angry that the government had done so little so late. People who had literally posted an hour earlier about their relief were now angry.
More than that 'we' were self-policing exactly what people could and couldn't say and do. How dare some people thank the government, how dare some people not thank the government, the posts were being shot out like machine-gun fire, maybe indicative of how attacked everybody had been feeling prior to the announcement, whatever the reason I really couldn't keep up, nor did I want to. I imagined the same people that I'd virtually met outside my echo chamber the same night visiting mine. Admittedly a few people attempted to drag them in but always chastising them with a self-righteousness that's become the norm of social media during the lockdown.

We didn't stop there though - we started shouting about how we needed to build the system up in a different way when we returned. Even within our own echo chamber people and organisations that had been so scared for their future were instantly confronted with revolution without so much as a heartbeat between the announcement, relief and cries.  More this, more that all with brilliant intentions sure, but actually it's really easy to have those intentions when you yourself are cocooned. I noted the most ferocious advocates for immediate change and noted how they were very often the most privileged. 

There was no understanding of organisations losing millions and needing to break even quickly, it was all idealisms of what we should and shouldn't be doing. As if a major theatre that's been closed for 6 months is going to put on a cutting edge new work, by a new writer and cast a load of unknowns. Let's keep in mind that our understanding is that people are afraid to return to the theatre right now, so anything 'familiar' that can entice an audience back (and back quickly) will no doubt be produced. Only once we've got the confidence back of our audience can we entice them with all the brand new stuff that we've been concocting in our lockdown lives. Do I like this reality - absolutely not. I am a composer, a lyricist, I want to create new work and want somebody to put it on, however I am also pragmatic, I understand that some of these much-needed changes take a little while to implement.  More than that I understand that right now we don't have any sort of theatre so arguing between ourselves about what it should be when it returns is a middle-class fantasy. 

The theatre needs to be thoughtful with how it moves forward, somehow we need to be getting stuff on somewhere, somehow before our audiences forget what was so brilliant about us. The drive-in solution is great for some shows - at least it will remind people of what live entertainment is. Sitting resolutely with 'we won't open until the theatre is full' I fear could be part of our downfall. Being inventive and creative (which after all should be playing to our strengths) could be a quicker rebuilding of our industry.

Trust me I get the annoyance of the money going to the same old places. I've worked outside of the 'establishment' for 11 years now and believe me when I say it's bloody cold and lonely on the outside. All the funding goes to the people that have already got money. We cry out that we need more working-class actors at drama colleges, we demand greater diversity, we demand that they're more accessible but who's paying the bills for all of these ideals? It's been heartbreaking recently reading all the stories around racism during training, made harder to read when a lot of the colleges that have been called out for it have been actively attempting to entice a more diverse student group and have had the private financial resources to fund that target too - only to discover that when the more diverse group end up at these colleges they are being mistreated. 

Let's face it the establishment is as strong as always but we're the ones that are lifting it up. Individuals trying to work their way into the major buildings as opposed to creating art outside of those buildings,
well meaning campaigns and organisations that fail to celebrate the people & organisations that want to engage with them as they're too busy trying to put the 'other' (socio-economic, diversity, disability) into one of the big boys. 

These organisations be they colleges or buildings or companies will take years to change for the simple reason that they don't have to when everybody is knocking on their doors trying to be a part of it. If you want grassroots change in our industry then start supporting the grassroots companies, colleges, ensembles, and buildings that are already doing things differently. Create the change and let it spread, stop trying to turn the wheel the other way.

The middle class entitled cries from the left are not even penetrating the real issue. Be as worthy as you like but I'm sorry as a working class girl I can tell you that you're not even close to hitting the issues here. The bubble is losing oxygen and we're creating a vacuum. Reading somebody extolling the virtues of a theatre back in Wales whilst I know for a fact that that theatre is struggling as the locals have slowly become disenfranchised after years of Tory rule and decades of poverty. Your well-meaning post is not going to entice that town to support their theatre. They are being fed from food banks. We should be taking theatre TO them, not asking them to support us.

Where are the youth groups, where's the real community work that needs to be going on? Theatre and the arts saved so many and now the so many have no place to go. This isn't about the worthy opening up their doors, it's about the worthy getting out into those communities and understanding them. We have an amazing ability to think that we're listening but instead, we're nodding too soon saying that we understand.

Our industry is under attack, but I fear that most of the shots are actually coming from within (albeit unwittingly) We are fighting each other in the echo chamber and those bullets are going to ricochet off and hurt us. 

The only ones shouting about us are us. We haven't made a strong case to explain to people that 'we' are the music that they're streaming or the channels that they're hopping.  If we want to come back stronger than ever we need to step outside the safety of our own timelines for a moment and read how vilified we've become. We've stopped being arts for all, and have imploded into arts for us. 

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