Among a whole host of soundbites and buzz words that do the rounds these days, when it comes to extracting cash from that golden goose which is public funding, non can quite compete with that daddy of them all ‘inclusion.’ Just the merest whiff of the ‘I’ word is enough to have lottery chiefs scrambling for their chequebooks.
But what happens once those bounteous cheques have been cashed? What fate ‘inclusion’ once the public funding coffers have yielded up their golden eggs? What happens once those ubiquitous boxes on the Lottery forms have all been ticked?
One would like to think our regional theatres then share their resources with the rest of us in a joyous celebration of ‘inclusion,’ right? Well, not quite.
Take for example Liverpool’s Playhouse and Everyman theatres, both of whom are funded to the hilt by cash from bodies such as The Lottery Commission and Liverpool City Council. In common with many similar regional theatres, both venues bill themselves as belonging to the city, as being an integral part of the city’s culture and heritage. Sounds good. It’s certainly music to the ears of the public funding purse.
The same could just as easily be said of any number of regional theatres such as The Bolton Octagon and The West Yorkshire and Salisbury Playhouses all of whom claim to exist for the good of their own communities. Elitism is not on the menu, at least not if you want a generous dollop of lottery money it isn’t. Inclusion is the name of the funding game.
As far as the funders are concerned, theatres such as The Playhouse and Everyman are indeed ‘community’ venues, charged therefore with serving their respective communities. Theatres for the community! Now that is an exciting prospect. But before dashing off with your fellow creatives down to your own regional theatre to share in this splendid bounty, you might want to take a moment or two to reflect.
Because, as ever, the practice is somewhat different to the theory.
Our regional theatres are, after all, places of high culture and naturally they don’t exist to allow any old sort of riff-raff access to their environs. Believe it or not there is such a thing as being too inclusive, or so it would seem.
it is in fact quite shocking to realise that these publicly funded arts venues, far from being open to all, far from being ‘community’ resources, are, in reality, the sole preserve of just a handful of well-fed arts’ ‘executives’ and their ‘associates.’
Yet, cities such as Liverpool are actually home to a whole host of creative folk, from actors and directors right through to technically minded types, the vast majority of whom can only ever dream of utilising the generous resources on offer at ‘their’ home city theatres.
The lavishly refurbished Everyman Theatre may well be adorned with five floors of writers’ rooms and rehearsal spaces a-plenty not to mention the sumptuous performance space itself with its jaw-dropping technical resources, but you can bet your bottom dollar, even if they live to be a 100, the vast majority of the city’s creatives will never sample these delights, at least not first hand.
In fact, the current funding situation resembles nothing more than a cultural pyramid, where at the very tip sit a few well-paid individuals who have carte blanche over a city’s theatrical direction and resources. The rest – the vast majority of the city’s creatives – are marginalised, leading hand-to-mouth existences, scraping by sans location, sans funding, sans just about everything.
Unconvinced? Well, just try approaching the apparatchiks at your own regional theatre. Ask them if you and your local ‘community’ group or fellow creatives could possibly utilise ‘your’ theatre’s resources. Remind them about ‘inclusion.’ Ask them nicely. Guess what they’ll say…
But Hang on a second, aren’t our region’s theatres funded by the public purse? Our money? They’re supposed to be ‘our’ theatres, are they not? Something is not adding up here.
Oh there are a multitude of ways to satisfy the funders if you know how: youth theatres and disabled toilets are among the favourites. Lip service no doubt, but unfortunately more than good enough to satisfy the funding body application requirements.
To digress for one moment, take the example of your local swimming baths, facilities that are also funded by public money. Imagine if you will a scenario in which the pools are used by only a tiny minority of people – committee members and such like. Utterly preposterous of course. Almost impossible to imagine a community resource such as this utilised by the privileged few.
Imagine too, that while you and I are not permitted to swim ourselves, we are quite welcome to purchase tickets to watch those privileged few splash around having a rare old lark. Oh such fun. Uproar would follow. So what’s so different about publicly-funded theatres?
You can certainly buy tickets to watch productions at your regional theatre, they will allow you to do that – but isn’t that a wilfully restrictive definition of the term ‘inclusion?’ By the same token, should we not therefore be pouring squillions of pounds of public money into say Mutliplex cinemas, who also provide (a far more popular) form of entertainment? After all, I purchase my ticket, take my seat and watch the show. Mutliplex have thus ‘included’ me.
Could somebody therefore please explain to me the difference between a multiplex cinema and a regional theatre? Or at the least the reason why the former is expected to survive in the cut and thrust commercial environment while the latter is cocooned in public cash?
In 2015 surely nobody would have the audacity nor the sheer arrogance to suggest that one form of culture, leisure or entertainment is of more value than another, would they? The cultural superiority argument simply won’t wash anymore.
Let’s face it, effectively, regional theatres like The Everyman and Playhouse are tantamount to being the personal playgrounds of but a few individuals, a handful of artistic directors and associates, colossuses who bestride their narrow worlds distributing largesse among their inner circle.
And it just gets worse, far worse. The vast majority of productions of these publicly-funded theatres fail to even break even! Yes, you heard it correctly. Awash with resources, ‘expertise’ and public money, they still can’t turn their productions into commercial successes! Thank heaven then for public largesse. But that’s another argument entirely.
It could however be so different, so very different. At the risk of spoiling the party of the current well-fed regional theatre associates, how about making these ‘public’ resources truly inclusive, truly public? Let’s make our publicly-funded theatres community resources in the true sense of the word, not just to satisfy the tick-boxes of the funding application.
Let community theatre groups and local creatives use these munificent resources, let them produce their plays on a rolling basis. Let’s share our city’s resources with our city’s creatives. Let’s welcome pluralism while at the same time consigning cliques to the theatrical dustbins of history. Pretty radical eh?
Of course there would be casualties, but progress has always involved casualties and always will. Granted, the tiny pool of actors, associates and even tinier band of artistic directors would certainly not be happy - in fact they’d almost invariably be severely annoyed - after all, well-paid contracts – permanent ones to boot - are very hard to come by these days.
Welcome to the arts sector, boys and girls. Welcome to reality.
Imagine for a moment such a scenario. No team of permanent highly-paid associates running what amounts to their own in perpetuity playground. In its place, imagine a truly inclusive theatrical space, utilised by an ever increasing amount of creatives, creatives who, under, the current closed shop system, would never get within spitting distance of these sumptuous resources.
Take a second to imagine the alternative: imagine a whole host of local creatives, able to develop and enhance their practice aided by world-class facilities and back-up, able to compete with the best theatre practitioners in the business. Who in their right mind could possibly argue against that? But that’s just my definition of ‘inclusion.’
No longer would we need to bear witness to the capriciousness of a single artistic director for a decade or more. In the case of The Liverpool theatres, gone too would be the so-called ‘touring’ productions from places as distant as Southampton Nuffield – part of a coterie of publicly-funded concerns who swap theatres and productions every so often for no better reason than they can.
Staying with Liverpool for a moment longer, it is liberating to think just how many different Merseyside creatives could be nurtured if access to resources was truly communal, truly inclusive. Of course such a co-operative model would invariably put a few noses out of joint, particularly those of the full-time salaried variety, but it would be a small price to pay in order to return our theatres back to their communities.
What if the current establishment ‘executives’ and ‘associates’ resisted such proposals, for resistance would naturally follow as sure as night follows day. Easy. Reduce funding. Better still cut it off completely. Make them survive in the commercial world like everybody else. See how far they get.
An ultimatum too far? Perhaps. But as long as these organisations receive public money then they ought to be public resources. If they don’t want the bothersome public hanging around - people who they’d sniffingly (and erroneously) refer to as mere ‘amateurs’, then they know what they can do: join the commercial sector – full time.
Actually, it wasn’t so long ago when regional theatres were up in arms when arts council cuts were being proposed. “We need our regional theatres,” they protested. “Take away our publicly-funded theatres and you create a cultural vacuum,” implored a whole host of people, most of whom were or had been beneficiaries themselves of public largesse.
It was a spurious argument then and still is. Publicly-funded theatres are not a necessity, they are a luxury. If you care to look, you will find theatre projects a-plenty all over cities like Liverpool, the majority of which do not rely on a single penny from the public purse. And, best of all, these guys somehow still manage to create quality theatre.
The key word here is ‘quality.’ For up in the lofty towers of our regional theatres sit a tiny minority who really do believe their own hype. Unshakeable are they in their resolve that they do theatre better than the likes of you and I and that should you and I ever got our hands on a resource such as The E & P we could only tarnish its very precious image. I kid you not. That is what they believe. They have to.
Hmm. Anyone who witnessed Sex and the Three Day Week at The Liverpool Playhouse this December gone, or The Everyman’s version of A Midsummer Night’s Dream recently, will know that you really shouldn’t believe the hype, especially your own. But that’s another essay entirely.
The bottom line though must surely be this: What sort of future should we envisage for publicly-funded theatre?
Do we want a situation in which our regional theatres remain little more than the playgrounds of a privileged few? Do we really want a scenario in which public money allows a tiny minority to indulge their own theatrical and artistic whims in what amounts to jobs for life?
Do we really want a scenario in which the majority of a region’s creatives are effectively excluded from their own theatrical resources? Do we want a scenario whereby ‘inclusion’ boils down to nothing more than a producer-consumer relationship (with an honourable mention of course for disabled loos)?
Thank heavens our regional theatre ‘associates’ don’t run our swimming baths. What a depressing affair that would be: the chosen few larking around in their very own private pool of public expense, with the rest of us ‘allowed’ to buy tickets to watch them.
What chance then of a swim in the pool of public funding which is regional theatre? The water really is lovely, so I’m told. And what better way to spend your working life, than in your own private pool with a few close friends and all at the expense of the public purse? Wouldn’t you just love to join them?
Well tough. You can’t. Because it’s not your swimming pool, it’s theirs. And trust me, they won’t be inviting any of us in for a dip anytime soon.