What Comes After: A Return to Form
By Joe Langabeer & Enya Menichini, Co-Founders of Art-Rising
With theatre venues on the verge of collapse, it is inevitable to wonder what will come after Covid. To answer this, we will now try to make a case for a new type of art and arts’ structure. Art-Rising’s main proposal for the survival of the arts is a network – under the guise of the Arts Council – of state-owned arts venues, companies, and organisations. But whilst we wait for this to become a reality, what theatre and art can be produced if their funding keeps being stripped to the bone? In this article we will be examining future possible alternatives taking inspiration from artistic works that saw the light in the 1970s and during a pre-thatcher government. The focus will be mainly on British theatre and its history, but international contemporary processes should also be considered, such as the ones presented by Thomas Ostermeier and Regietheater. By examining these theories of creation, we could develop an interim kind of arts that voices socio-political perspectives and resonates with working-class audiences. A kind of theatre that is not prescribed to the same neo-liberal economic logic of the past, but speaks of community, politics, and the current wave of existentialism, brought forth by the pandemic related anxiety of human mortality. This will eventually expand the working class’ political horizons and help to shape class’ consciousness.
Many books offer analyses of the neo-liberal turmoil that brewed during Thatcher’s government. Before that, theatre was healthily funded by the Arts Council which allowed political theatre companies to exist and produce highly experimental works. Even though the budget was limited, the shows presented were able to reach mass audiences. Keith Peacock’s Thatcher’s Theatre analyses the history before, during and after Thatcher’s reign, identifying companies devoted to political theatre that either criticised or appeased to her ideologies. Red Ladder Theatre Company, which still operates today, was at the forefront of political theatre. Red Ladder would put on performances in community halls and on the street, as their mission was to provide theatre to everyone. Unfortunately, due to funding cuts, Red Ladder had to change their economic model, by switching from a more collaborative approach to a system implemented by a board of directors that demanded profits. Other companies and creatives such as 7:84 and John Mcgrath decided to step down when the economic model changed.
Before the economic purge, 7:84 would perform shows in community halls, town centres and organise demonstrations as a way of politically motivating activists and working-class communities, and under the current economic circumstances this should be the way forward for theatre. The Art Council has already been defunded enough, New Labour’s politics in regards of arts funding did not shifted the tide, due to Covid-19 theatre and the arts will not be priority for people who are already staring to live through a disastrous economic depression. During the current crisis two primary arguments for defending arts funding have been presented: the intrinsic need for art, perceived as the cultural and emotional core of a country or community, and its economic benefits, an argument that will – and has – become redundant. As a matter of fact, the arts in Britain are nothing economically speaking when compared to the fields of finance and banking. Therefore, the focus must be shifted from arts’ economic value to its capacity to reflect and register socio-political and cultural events. Arts represent an extremely important way of documenting offered our history, and it gives us a tool to understand it and a concrete method to study dialectics from the perspective of artistic and historical transitions.
It becomes important then to treat and regard our rehearsal processes as dialectical observations. Observing not only the object or product, but the idea of their transformations and evolutions. We put too much value on the final product, as proved by the millions poured to stage a commercial main-stream West-End production. Rather, theatre should start looking at the process, as showed by international practices. Making Contemporary Theatre, edited by Jen Harvie and Andy Lavender, deals with the current trends of devised theatre approaches, and looks towards anti-directorial practices in the rehearsal room. Forced Entertainment, a British and German company, aims at making their performances a more collaborative process. They are known for focusing on examining the relationship between audience and performer, questioning why this relationship can be so dynamic. The company, however, still suffers from having a hierarchical structure which grants them the access to funding from different sources. Thomas Ostermeier, a German theatre director, developed the modern re-interpretation of regietheater by bringing it into the realm of realism, instead of adopting the post dramatic elements that dominated before it. Regietheater consists in adapting a piece of work and placing it in a contemporary setting. There are more ideas behind it, which, alongside the discussion of its influences and political power, shall be left to another article. Ostermeier’s production practices reflect an actor-performer and director collaboration which leads to the abolishment of hierarchy within the rehearsal space. Theatre-makers should become less possessive about their performances and products, as it is impossible to perfectly give shape to an idea exactly as it is conceived. Instead, they should pay attention to the making, allow a natural and organic process to occur during rehearsals, and regard this as a collection of dialectical experience. Having a concept is acceptable, but the current parameters of envisioning a “final product” will not serve the post-covid economical and statistical crash which is waiting around the corner.
What is the future like for theatre? The question could remain answered for a very long time. Like Alan Sugar, who’s interested in pushing people back to work so that businesses will pay for his commercially rented blocks in the Southbank, Andrew Lloyd Webber is calling for the return of theatre to supplement his wealth. The bottom line is people love theatre. Or do they? At this current moment in time, a small minority is calling out for the return and survival of the Arts, with high-status performers being the only ones to be heard. It is not, however, an overwhelming majority of the public. That is because it does not serve them. The commercial sector has made theatre London-metropolitan centric. In the time before Thatcher, theatre was performed all over the country and not specifically within theatre venues. As mentioned before, community halls and town centres across the country enjoyed a plethora of arts and culture. When money runs dry for small theatre companies, what will they do? They must return to form: bring back the politically engaged theatre that ran in the very same halls; make theatre about the process, rather than focusing on the profitable results; produce art that reflect – as it should – society. Commercial theatre might live on, but if that is the only answer left to theatre, then it will not be a true representation of what once was. Let’s fight this trend and fight for a new and better return to a world that may benefit society as a whole, and the not the wealthy few.