Theatre 2016: Group therapy for decision makers.

BON Culture did a great job with THEATRE 2016, getting everyone together on one platform, by everyone I mean everyone who matters except of course the creative lot -theatre artists, theatre makers etc. Wondering if this is some kind of hegemony being created where those who know how to run the business of entertainment – CXOs, CFOs, directors, administrators came together to share notes on how they could run the business of theatre better. Business dictating terms for an industry that has creativity at its core, can only mean more commercialisation and less creative freedom and experimentation.

Theatre in 2016 is ‘quite something’. BON Culture decided to organise a two-day conference: THEATRE 2016. Billed as an industry-wide gathering and dubbed the largest ever of its kind. Were organisers trying to get too many quarts into pint pots? In an ideal world everybody would have participated away from a heavily-sponsored platform and elite pricing structure, but we don’t live in an ideal world. The truth, as is the way with these sorts of things, is slightly different.

The conference took place in The Piccadilly Theatre, London where wheelchair access is only available on the Royal Circle level. It was an auspicious start. By turns thought-provoking, startling and fascinating.  The level of institutional discrimination, both passive ‘Oh I didn’t realise’ and active ‘too much money to convert’ in the arts remains an ongoing scandal – as does gender, race, sexual choice awareness and representation. So, it’s quite significant that after all these years we’re finally having an industry wide gathering, isn’t it?

Kicking off the afternoon mini conferences, everything seemed to click for me in the How Can Theatre Play A More Prominent Role In Key Issues Of National and International Debate? Lizzie Crump from the WHAT NEXT? spoke eloquently about lobbying politicians and how they, as a global movement, set out to contest spending cuts, make the case for public funding of the arts. This offered a captivating exposé of the often Kafkaesque mechanisms of arts subsidy, and the creative approaches that are a fact of life for every arts organisation today. Old financial models and guaranteed support from Arts Council England (ACE) and Local Authorities have been thrown off-balance. Organisations relationships with funders are imperilled and the argument that the theatre industry as a whole makes a net profit for the UK falls regularly on deaf ears. So where does that leave the artists– and indeed the audiences of tomorrow – when it comes to community or participatory opportunities, where often the work we see on vast stages is the tip of the iceberg? Glancing over the delegate list, just five (there were over five hundred attendees) people directly work in creative learning or participation. I was not at all surprised, but found it nevertheless truly shocking.

One of Theatre 2016’s aims were to give leading figures and arts fraternity the chance to hear and discuss the opportunities and threats facing the theatre industry, which is great because they’re the ones who can do. But you wonder where the future artistic directors, chief executives and producers of 2026 will come from if artists and practitioners working with communities somehow fall out of the equation, because those who break through without an education, access, and opportunities to have input into decisions are still few and far between. It’s very nice for playwright and academic Dan Rebellato to be the Keynote Speaker, but where’s the next Dan Rebellato coming from? To endure and flourish, the public arts sector needs to be more of an open space for community expression.

Louise Jeffreys

Louise Jeffreys. Photo: Camilla Greenwell

During the Meeting Ethical and Reputational Challenges panel discussion at The Arts Theatre London, The Barbican Centre director of arts Louise Jeffreys explained that the venue “failed audiences” when it cancelled a performance in 2014 following protests. The Barbican cancelled performances of Exhibit B which involved living tableaux invoking ‘human zoos’ of the 19th century, following allegations of racism. Numerous parties lobbied it to be dropped from the season and it was cancelled on police recommendation.

Jeffreys said: “The scale of the complaints took us by surprise… We offended those who thought the production was racist and those who thought we prevented freedom of speech when we made the decision on advice from the police to cancel the show.”

She went on to state that she believed that an attitude of solidarity was necessary in handling such circumstances. “I believe we’re too quiet about speaking out about other organisations when they’re presenting risk-taking work. If we’re complacent individually, we put everyone at risk.”

There are clear parallels with The Barbican’s predicament and Theatre 2016 unintentionally excluding the very people at the grass roots of this industry. In the world of reputation management, taking ownership of a debacle is a key strategy — and the earlier you do it, the greater the chance of minimising further grief. Director of BON Culture, David Brownlee reflecting on Theatre 2016 said: “We’re delighted with all the positive feedback we’ve had to date from delegates, contributors and sponsors. We learnt a huge amount this year that should mean that any future event is even better and more accessible. We’re keen to hear feedback from everyone who came and suggestions from those who couldn’t make it.”

In other words: we did our best, we’re trying to sort it out, and we’re listening.

In other words: there’s hope for us all.