Theatres must stop ghettoising outreach initiatives and instead make engaging audiences central to everything they do, writes director Thomas Hescott
A member of the board for a small scale touring company recently asked me how we could convince the public that the arts were good for the economy, and good for communities.
Most of the industry knows, and frequently quotes the social and economic success of theatre, and the arts in general, and yet this message rarely seems to get heard. Why is that? The short answer is we shouldn’t have to convince anyone. If our work were good enough, there should be no need to tell people — they’d already know.
Over the past decade, the work of education departments, creative learning departments, audience engagement officers, and a whole myriad of similarly titled projects has exploded. Massive education partnerships have dominated the landscape of subsidised theatres. Yet in May, research published by Arts Council England revealed that public support for government-funded arts has fallen from 52% to 44%.
After years spent engaging with the challenge of opening the arts up to a wider audience, it seems that as an industry we are failing to communicate a message that, far from being a disposable luxury that should be axed when times are tough, the arts play a vital role in the social and economic well-being of all communities.
So what’s gone wrong? If we’ve spent so much time and money engaging our communities with participatory projects, and education initiatives why do people still think of the arts as unnecessary - part of the problem not part of the solution?
The problem is just that - we’ve spent years trying to engage people through participatory projects and education initiatives. We’ve continued to ghettoise engaging our communities with specific projects and initiatives that are isolated from the main programming of a theatre. Increasingly, we have seen a large, diverse group of participants engaging with the education department, while a separate core audience attend the productions of the main house. We’ve seen the task of engaging our local community as separate to the task of producing high quality theatre.
Our creative learning and community ghettos have remained ghettos, just with better funding. And when times get tough, these departments — seen as separate to the core work of a theatre — get slashed.
Recently, Hampstead Theatre, facing cuts in funding, made the tough decision to cut its creative learning department. It is a logical and direct result of the council’s cuts. How can a theatre afford to engage its community if the community cuts the funds?
But maybe the question should have centred on whether theatres can afford not to engage that community when funding is slashed. How can theatre ever hope to elicit the kind of support that will justify council cash if it ignores its local people? Building those kinds of links within the community, building those connections isn’t something that can be picked up and dropped again when the funding allows. The optimism that, when funding allows it, Hampstead will be able to pick up its education initiatives where it left off is misplaced.
There are notable exceptions to this way of thinking. There are theatres whose dialogue with their audience is fundamental to everything that theatre does. At Contact Theatre in Manchester, a community of young people are at the heart of everything they do. It’s a similar story when you look at the programming of Oval House in London - a vibrant community that participates with every aspect of the theatre’s programme. At the National Theatre of Wales, Michael Sheen’s The Passion, an ambitious project, artistically and socially, saw Port Talbot empowered in front of a worldwide audience.
To participate with a theatre’s programme doesn’t mean simply to act in a youth theatre show, or to take part in a new writing scheme - participation can simply mean to have your voice heard by the artistic director, to have the opportunity to engage in a dialogue with those who run the venue and mount the work, to know that coming to see a production is an active pursuit, not passive. Sometimes this participation can be explicit, such as Theatre Royal Stratford East giving their audience the freedom to programme the work, but sometimes it’s less tangible. It’s about a shift in thinking that sees the questions, concerns and dreams of its audience as central its programming.
The future isn’t entirely bleak. A new generation of artistic directors, such as Indhu Rubasingham at the Tricycle, James Brining at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, and Madani Younis at the Bush are all distinctive for their focus on community when discussing their ambitions for their theatres - community it seems is starting to become central to our artistic ambitions and when it does we won’t need to shout about the importance of arts provision - people will already know.