“Whenever it starts is the right time.” So runs one of the maxims of Devoted and Disgruntled, Improbable’s annual conference about theatre, writes Matt Trueman.
Nonetheless, this year’s event seemed to fall with unfortunate timing. Taking place on the final weekend of January, as has been the case for the past few years, meant it fell directly in the eye of the storm.
For those unaware of Devoted and Disgruntled, it functions using open space technology, which allows any attendee to propose any subject for discussion by anyone present. As such, it sets its own agenda as it goes along. It is, in effect, a crowd-sourced conference.
Among those at the event this year were people from all areas of the theatre industry - representatives from Fuel, Forest Fringe and Theatre Royal, Bury St Edmunds, directors including Chris Goode and Jonathan Holloway and even the odd theatre critic, among a huge number of emerging artists.
But, while one sensed an itching urgency to eviscerate the issue of funding, the subject proved somewhat evasive. It popped up intermittently, but was rarely tackled head-on.
Had Devoted and Disgruntled occurred a few months earlier, it might have been able to address - and likely position itself against - the then forthcoming cuts to the arts.
Were it a few months later, when Arts Council England’s National Portfolio decisions will have been announced, it might have been able to respond to a new landscape of arts funding.
Falling between these two moments, however, left D&D caught between certainty and uncertainty. At this point, we know the overall fate of the sector - that cuts of 15% will be imposed and that, among other implications, a significant number of organisations will lose regular funding altogether - but we don’t know the actual fallout. If there was (and still is) a sense of the impending damage, it was impossible to know its particular toll.
All of which left a great deal couched in either hypothetical or abstract terms. Where concrete threats could be perceived, such as from local authorities in Darlington and Barnet, they were discussed as such, resulting in propositions for future actions.
Elsewhere, discussions took place on less solid ground. One session was entitled: Plan B: You have just lost your funding. What next? Others, such as Who will cut the umbilical cord?, were even more obscure, theoretical or generic.
Taken as a whole, though, the various discussions revealed something of a rift regarding financial matters.
On the one hand, there exists a determination to reject the funding system and find another way, independent of both state subsidy and commercial concerns. Sitting alongside that, however, is a desire to succeed within the existing structures for funding. Broadly speaking, one felt a constant fractious rub between idealism and pragmatism.
While it would be unfair to portray those at Devoted and Disgruntled as a singular congregation with a split personality, one can’t ignore conflicting currents swirling beneath the surface. In order to move forward in the current economic climate, reconciling these impulses and finding a middle way is necessary.
By way of example, how do we square collaboration with competition? To what extent ought individual organisations to concentrate on their own survival and development rather than those of the sector as a whole?
The arts sector functions as an ecology with limited resources that must be divvied up. Individual organisations must still justify their own share. Yet any self-preservation will inevitably come at the expense of others.
In response to the arts council cuts of 2008, the actor and director Sam West stood in front of Equity members at the Young Vic to oppose a 40% cut to the Bush Theatre. West called on the funding bodies to preserve text-based work at the expense of devised, street and circus-based theatre, which had, up until that point, been prioritised.
Such an argument, honourable though its intentions may be, seems rather unpalatable in its pointed negativity. It opts for attack as the best means of defence. Beneath even the most meticulously positive justification is an implication of us-not-them.
Hence the desire to exist outside of the funding system, to function without subsidy and support. To do so is to become self-sufficient, to exist with minimal impact on other organisations.
This particular debate is not the only one of its kind. Questions about instrumental or intrinsic value, of unpaid work against the exploitation of professionals, of self-sufficiency against subsidised growth exist in equally bipolar terms.
Each is underpinned by the conflict between devotion and disgruntlement, where the former involves continuing regardless of the latter, which, in turn, undermines the arguments for subsidy.
By falling when it did, Devoted and Disgruntled exposed such dilemmas in their raw terms.
Another of the event’s core maxims holds: “When it’s over, it’s over.” Until such quandaries can be resolved - which may be never - it’s not really over.
- This article appears in this week’s (February 17) issue of The Stage.