Tuesday, 4 June 2013

I Am British Theatre - a response

written by Toksvig

This post is a response to Fin Kennedy's blog post here:

I am British Theatre

I think the video project is a great idea.

I think this problem is massively widespread, and affects us in ways we don't often think about.

I write musicals, and every time a cab driver asks me what I do for a living, the conversation goes like this:

"I write musicals."

"Do you?! Anything I'd have heard of? Got anything on in London?"

The implication being that everyone who writes musicals must either have something massive on in the West End or, if not, be aiming for that.

I often hear myself saying "Yes, I really do. It's a ridiculous way to make a living" as if I somehow need to apologise for the fact that I do not have anything on in London, and I have not written anything with global renown.

For me, this is about some major misconceptions.

1. The misconception that the public has about who we are and what we do.
As in Fin's blog, and as in every conversation I've had with cab drivers, hairdressers, new neighbours, people at parties: the focus is invariably on the commercial paths of theatre - and this is especially true and especially inhibitive in the world of musical theatre.

"Two Act American Book Musicals for Proscenium Arch Fourth Wall Presentation" - catalogues, revivals and new work alike - is the most dominant path, and it has a commercial goal, the continuing perpetuation of which we, as an industry, must admit some responsibly for.

Yes, people must be paid. No, this should not be the only creative path upon which they are able to be paid.

2. The misconception about what we do: that it is somehow only entertainment, and therefore only to be judged as creatively successful if it achieves a broadly visible commercial success in an entertainment forum.

Most of my work has been for young people. I get emails from schools thanking me for my work, and telling me how much of a difference it has made to the kids who performed it. How much difference to their self-confidence, their collaboration and communication skills, the nurturing of their imagination, and more.

Theatre is not just entertainment.

It is a collective experience, and we have so few of those left.

It is an accessible way to communicate about vital issues.

It is an opener of dialogue, for each and every audience member, who will take their experience away with them and start conversations about it.

All of these things, and more, need to illustrated in order for people to notice them. Alongside the wonderful and vital subjectivity in our experience of theatre, wouldn't it also be great for us to have some objective awareness of the process? Audience and maker alike. Then we could start to use it as a social tool, which we are clearly not doing as well as we could right now, precisely because of these misconceptions.

3. The misconception for us as creative artists, that our success should be measured that way precisely because that is the popular conception of how it should be measured.

It is terrifying how many conversations I have with writers where I suggest that the show they're describing might be amazing in community theatre, and they react as if that would somehow be 'settling'.

There are massive opportunities to develop your writing craft in this country, and they all lie in youth and community theatre projects, yet of all the hundreds of writers I have ever said that to, only a handful pursued that option. Because it is seen as some kind of 'lesser' writing. Or different writing.

(It's not different. And in many cases, it's much, much greater.)

The longer we continue with this social attitude towards theatre, the more writers will succumb to the commercial path in order to pay bills - and who can blame them? - and the more our desire and our *ability* to take risks will atrophy.

It is not our fault, and all that, etc. The government, the recession, etc. None of those things will change. We need to make some change happen. And we can. We're very creative :-)

4. The misconception of many opportunity-makers within the theatre industry that the opportunities we need are ones which will take our work down that commercial path.

And by 'opportunity-makers', I mean all those of us, from producers to writers, who have the ability and the drive to push our own work forwards, to keep learning more about this stuff we do, and to co-nurture not only our own community and industry, but the broader social engagement with, and valuation of, theatre.

I mean me.

I mean you.

I mean us.

I am absolutely on board with your videos, Fin. I will support the project, engage with it, help you make it happen.

I suggest that we might find some support from within the world of film, where it's possible that everyone finds it hard to take risks in a culture of Hollywood Hits. If that's true, how about a collaboration that serves all of us? How about we all work on something collectively?

There is the potential for funding in this, from the Arts Council. Maybe from some kind of film fund? Maybe this isn't a kickstart: instead of asking for each other's money, maybe we ask for in-kind support, make it with a collective of co-creators, see if we can get some funding for the stuff that has to cost money.

We could co-create it in open space, gather a big group of volunteers together, let people come and go as much as they feel they can commit to it, with a few people committing to holding the space open?

Please do engage on Fin's blog if you want to comment or get involved, so he can keep track of responses.

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