• Dr Margi Brown Ash

Theatre can show another way forward

I am a theatre artist. First and foremost. I have been in the world of theatre for over fifty years. I have seen things.

This post has been the result of reading Simon's article (link below) and chats with colleagues.

( I agree…we have not told our own theatre story well. Not at all. I have been in the world of the stage for 50 years and I have watched it become corporatized. I have observed it change from being a hub of enormous passion and excitement to being an exciting spreadsheet, employing many people on the administration side who are then forced to justify their employment by constantly creating change for the sake of change. I have watched theatre companies focus on numbers, rather than souls. I have watched as we have embraced every value, good and bad, of the business world (where is it written that the constructs of the business world makes our world a better place? Where can I see that?). I have watched theatre companies grow from a handful of extremely capable staff to whole floors of administration…and I have watched fewer and fewer artists get paid to create. Whereas initially my (naïve) thinking was “If the theatre companies get bigger then surely our industry will thrive?”, instead what I have witnessed is that in that growth, the opportunities for artists, and most particularly local artists, have been severely reduced. Yes, it looks all very good on paper. Yes, says the government funders, very good numbers. No one is looking at the artists, and this has become so blatantly clear throughout this pandemic. But I will put that aside for now. In this post I want to talk about the minuscule things that I have observed over the last few decades, the ordinary things or clues that have, from my point of view, landed us where we are today. I will leave it to others to discuss the larger issues for now… …this is about the little things that have added up to an atmosphere that has allowed the big things to foster…and the reason I focus on the little things is that is what I focus on in the arts therapy studio, it is often the incidental things that become the seeds for change...for example 1. I can actually remember the first time I saw a theatrical wear a suit: flippant you may say, but for me it was symbolic. I was shocked that someone would choose such restrictive clothing out of choice. The beginning of the corporatization. 2. I remember when we began to rehearse consistently from 9-5, or 10-6. Again, who cares? I do, because it was, for me, the beginning of the end of freedom of choice. We used to have the freedom to rehearse outside of these set hours, which would have saved artists hours of travel time, rather than getting caught in peak traffic and child care fees. Where is it written that we work best between 9 and 5? 3. I remember when we started to call our vocation work…work, rather than rehearsal. “But it is work” I hear you say. Yes, of course it is, but the word ‘work’ for me comes with ‘drudgery’…I still don’t call my creative practice work. I call it rehearsal, or studio time…yes, I think that calling it ‘work’ kind of legitimized us, but we didn’t need to be legitimized. We are what we are and we engage in our rehearsals and we create works that change the way people see the world. We definitely don’t do this sort of thing so that we can drive a spivvy car and live on the ocean. We work in ideas, not product…yes you can challenge that too, but for me, an independent artist out of choice, I deeply believe that we offer artistic processes, that is our expertise…and this process can be adapted by our audience…it can be ideas about health, philosophy, nature, spirituality, politics…so does it matter if we are walking around a theatre set that looks like it’s out of Belle magazine? Does it matter if I’m dressed in the ‘real’ thing? Glamour can be created out of autumn leaves (Emily Tomlins, one of our most treasured independent artists proved that in her post yesterday, a most amazing picture of herself, dressed in autumnal leaves)…what I am trying to say here, is that we do not need the bells and whistles, we need the heart and soul. Our theatre designers are extremely creative and they have an enormous capacity to create mystery with recycled materials, with ideas that spring from their imagination…an example here is Sarah Winter and her ability to create sheer magic every year at Theatre Republic for Brisbane Festival up at QUT where she builds a creative fairyland. Oh, remember when National Theatre of Scotland decided to move into the community? Rather than paying for buildings? Here is a cut and paste of what National Theatre of Scotland says about themselves: WE ARE … … SCOTLAND'S NATIONAL THEATRE We tell the stories that need to be told. … A THEATRE WITHOUT WALLS We take our work to wherever audiences are to be found. We showcase Scottish culture at home and around the world, telling stories in ways never seen before. … A THEATRE FOR EVERYONE We want to break down the walls that prevent people from engaging with our work, whether economic, cultural or physical. … A CREATIVE CATALYST FOR THE THEATRE SECTOR IN SCOTLAND Driving joined up talent development plans with partners across Scotland, to nurture theatre makers at all stages of their careers and reflect the diversity of contemporary Scotland. … ACROSS SCOTLAND AND BEYOND On the ferry and in the local pub. In the forests and tower blocks. In submarines and swimming pools. On the biggest stages and in the smallest community halls. Perhaps we need to return to theatre without walls. Now that would save some dollars that could then go to theatre artists.

Perhaps we can demonstrate workable systems that the business world can adapt and foster? Perhaps every corporation and business needs to contribute a portion of their profits to the arts sector? Perhaps the government needs to create (with external artistic input) an education program so that each and every citizen understands and contributes to their own artistic livelihood by investing in some capacity in the world of artistry? Perhaps we need to return to our own way of working, not adapting processes from the business world that so clearly have driven the world to destruction. Perhaps we need to once again treasure the richness of our unique way of being. Do it as we do it. Not as the business world dictates. Perhaps we need to reassess. Not tomorrow. But today. Perhaps.