I suspected that this would be the least popular of the 3 conversations going on this morning, as the other rooms are offering more dramatic debates either about recent NPO funding decisions, or the fallout from past NPO decisions. But let the few of us here console ourselves with the realisation that while they debate the world as it is, we are debating the world as it might be in the future. Well, to be more accurate if the Theatre Ecology is likened to a garden they are talking about trimming a hedge or moving a shrub, while we are talking about planting some genuinely new seeds.
The majority of tax payers do not attend the theatre. If they think about theatre they think of a building - A Theatre - probably with a stage, on which actors speak another person’s words, while people sit in the dark and listen. But that is not Theatre - what it is, is one way of delivering one type of theatre. But Theatre is in essence, something that is created between people, in many places and spaces, in many forms and for many reasons.
The real enjoyable thing about theatre, and I may be divulging a secret here, is the making of it. As well know, from the time we are children, the empowering, heady and collaborative act of theatre making is addictively exciting. And underpinning this proposal is the idea that perhaps more people would support theatre if more people were involved in making it.
So the idea I am championing is that ACE is asked to ring-fence some Lottery money to support Community Residencies. To allow theatre makers to work in settings over a period of time, to encourage and support people to make theatre.
I did some research on Artists in Residents, and it was interesting to compare Playwrights residencies to other art forms. Googling, I found Resident Playwrights at the Lyric Hammersmith, with Paines Plough and at the Soho Poly - all the Residencies seemed to be with theatre buildings or existing theatre companies. Poets on the other hand have been resident in a Church, at Glastonbuury Festival, on the Great North Run and at Bristol University. Googling artists you find (and these are all taken from the first page), an Artist in Residence at Claridges, another Artists at a shopping centre, and then there’s MI6. Yes, artists James Hart Dyke spent at year painting and drawing the goings on at MI6.
But what do they do ? Well, the Bristol University Poet, a man called Andrew Jamieson, runs student workshops from 4.30 to 7 on Wednesday, offers consultations between 4.15 and 6.15 on Fridays, gives Public Readings of his work and organises showcases for other poets to present their poetry.
Could this work for Theatre Makers ? Could a theatre makers run workshops, offer consultations, show their work and arrange sharings of other work ? Well I think we have the workforce - the writers guild/theatre writers union has 2,500 members. Equity has 36,000 members and emerging from the 204 drama courses in the country are at least 1,000 graduates a year who are going to try to make theatre, somewhere. And of course there are places - 146 prisons, 223 Hospices, 3,000 libraries, 33,000 schools - and then of course there’s MI6. I came across some visionary people who are involved in running sheltered housing schemes and care homes for the elderly and who are calling for an Artist in every setting - deploying art to make meaning of life and to nurture the wellbeing of both patients and staff. That door is ajar and waiting for us to push on it.
So what are the gains ? Well employment for artists obviously, but also the long term political effect - a good news narrative for politicians to deliver and a direct connection to people who might never otherwise encounter theatre. But also, and this is what interests me most, the opportunity to create new theatre, with new theatre makers with a new aesthetic.
And what might be the blocks ? There is a training and support requirement, but the knowledge and experience is already within the sector. Then there’s money obviously - and this shouldn’t only be for ACE to solve - I think ACE should require those who are interested in partnering with a resident artist to pay a small proportion of the costs - say 10%, to demonstrate their commitment. But this could be a low cost quick win for ACE - 700 residencies at 10k each, would cost £7 million. The Grants for the Arts budget is currently £70 million a year. Think of the impact of 700 residencies. Even half that would change perceptions.
But the other block is the sector itself - are we willing to give up our secret, are we willing to suspend quibbling and whispers of “it’s not art” ? Are we able to consider - no, to allow, other - non building, non script based forms of theatre ?
This proposal invites us to broad-cast some new seeds in the garden. Some will of course die, some will be eaten by slugs. But some will flourish.
Jonathan Petherbridge, Creative Director, London Bubble.
PS Please respond with questions, challenges and/or support for this idea. Fin and I are planning to meet with ACE in September.