It’s been a tough year for anyone working in the performing arts, and I want to pick apart something I’m hearing more and more, especially as theatres announce their re-opening programmes and projects.
In private I’m hearing an increasing number of brilliant artists – and in particular writers – saying that theatre isn’t a welcoming place for them any longer, and they’re seriously thinking of moving on.
Yeah, this is a background music for any creative person in any field. You often wonder whether you’re in the right gig. But I’m finding the sincerity and finality of a lot of the language properly alarming. What I’m hearing is heartfelt, practically minded, far from attention-seeking or self-pitying. It’s full of sadness and a love for what theatre could be reaching for, but isn’t.
And importantly, it’s not a response to the difficulties of the pandemic, but to things the pandemic has laid bare.
The practical issues of the last year have been as revealing as they were damaging. We’re living through an emergency that separates us socially, that requires great trust in science and progress, it’s an accumulative threat that incurs terrible debts every time we choose to ignore it. So just like the climate crisis, then, or the struggle for social justice. For a dramatist the pandemic is full of these supreme ironies. A mad old god could not be testing us in a more obvious manner.
In theatres themselves the conditions for institutions have been unbearable, and people have been working overtime to save their teams, their communities, their buildings, their livelihoods. All of which doesn’t mean there weren’t immediate lessons to learn right from the earliest moments of lockdown, and there’s a growing feeling that over a year later, the driving focus is to get back to business as it was before the pandemic – maybe, even, to take steps backwards.
That feeling’s compounded by hearing, over and over, industry leaders using the language of our oppressors as justification for business as usual. I’m so so tired of the assertion that The Arts need to be protected because ‘they give five pounds back for every pound put in,’ like some Gordon Gecko hokey cokey. It might be true, but the people we’re making this upward argument to simply Do. Not. Fucking. Care. There are easier ways to make profit, without the messy business of creating art that makes you think about things and feel stuff.
And worse, when the bottom line becomes the principle reason work is made, defaults rule. The idea of art being life-changing or surprising or transformative actually becomes a threat when the main thing you want to do is keep an existing base happy. Theatre stops being alive and becomes transactional. Experiences become about promises made in return for money, rather than invitations to be part of something new, or bigger. Even political plays stop being political and become ‘about the politics’ instead, worthy but inert, leading nowhere. (A good friend of mine has a phrase for this kind of theatre: “Oh, isn’t it awful about X?” Isn’t it awful about poverty? Isn’t it just horrible about racism? Say it in as posh a voice as you possibly can.)
The brilliant people who work for the theatres themselves are, from what I’m hearing, often just as frustrated and itching for change as freelance artists. They’re currently experiencing a perfect storm of austerity defunding and pandemic disruption. Many of them feel they generally have even fewer choices than artists, and fewer ways to speak up. We all know that one of the most insidious tricks of capitalism is the removal of empowerment by claiming the market is in charge: people just buy tickets for what they like, we follow that money to keep our theatres going. Even artistic directors talk as though they’re simply part of the system, and it is what it is.
Yet falling back too often on defaults means you stop asking the difficult questions about what exactly it is we’re doing, and how we’re doing it, and what we’re for.
Or put another way, the asking of difficult questions is consigned to ’emerging’ or independent artists. They take on the biggest risks as far as artistic progress and innovation is concerned – economically, practically, in their mental and physical health. Perhaps it’s hardly surprising that this takes its toll, and artists wonder whether they can keep it up, whether they’re valued, whether they’re welcome.
But in my experience, most of the people talking about leaving the game altogether do not exist solely in the ’emergent’ category, and many wouldn’t describe themselves as radical or experimental at all. In fact, most of them are on the borders, caught in between status settings – people whose successes are already palpable, people making new and interesting work that connects brilliantly with audiences, who have invested great energy and emotion into theatre and have come to the conclusion: theatres are not interested in what I have to give. And yes, there are many days when I’m one of those people.
But if you’ve read this far and think this is going to be me kicking theatre when it’s down for ten more paragraphs, think again. I want to make a different case.
To begin with, boringly enough, that involves me talking about myself for a bit. Because I don’t feel completely without hope here. More than anything else I want to persuade good people to stick around in theatre a bit longer, because, well, everyone needs friends, you know?
I’ve come to accept that my work for the stage might be a slow business. This is partly because of the kind of theatre experience I love: transformative, emotionally complex, not announcing authorial intent from on high but instead allowing audiences to be generators of their own meaning… the latter in particular striking me as a modern kind of thing to do (not ahead of its time… just, you know, modern, sometimes hopeful.) Crucially I see the script as one component of the final production, not a comprehensive shopping list for its intentions. This attitude I have to the craft of playwriting is thoroughly against the dominant practice in the UK, so… yeah, it’s a hurdle. It’s often said that UK theatre has writers at its heart, but actually it has ‘the text’ at its heart, which is a massively different thing – and in my opinion, too often a soul-killer.
Instead, as far as the stage is concerned, I believe in magic. I work in the old traditions of mystery, the celebration of doubt as valid and life-giving, in joy for its own sake. Sometimes my scripts come in the shape of a drama and sometimes as a story of a different kind, or a portrait or a choreography or something that leans more on music and dark and light. I often like putting all of the above stuff into something that looks like a play but feels like something else. I’ve never had audiences tell me this is weird, or incomprehensible, or difficult in some intellectual way – quite the opposite. But pandemic aside, it’s a profound struggle to convince theatres to take on my writing. Given that I hope I’m not an irredeemable wanker who’s utterly horrible to work with  I’ve given quite a bit of thought to where the disconnect lies. I think part of it is about what we consider to be the proper, trustworthy routes of a career.
A while back I was told about a conversation between two good friends, both theatre directors, in which one said words to the effect of: ‘theatre seems to demand an unspoken loyalty.’ It struck me as very very true.
A good way of getting ahead on stage is to never leave the building. As with most collective cultures it can be hard for those within to be aware of the bias, but a resistance to ‘other crafts’ is something I sense more keenly in theatre than any other field I work in. Sure, when you enjoy (and need) to work across forms there’s always a trickiness in discussing the crossover between disciplines. Some people get it and love it, for others it’s a distraction. But among many conversations with folks in positions of power in theatres, I’ve found if I bring up my work in other fields and the possibility of it influencing processes for the stage, there’s usually a deep and confused silence as if I’ve just suggested killing a kitten in public.
Theatre culture demands a loyalty, and rewards it. Yeah, of course it rewards loyalty, nothing wrong with that per se. The problem comes when the loyalty is the only realistic way to build a career – because for most freelancers, working full-time for the stage is in no way realistic. The UK theatre community is absolutely tiny; the fees are not high; most folks, if wanting to make a life solely in theatre and become a tried-and-trusted practitioner, respected and regularly called upon, will need some back-up source of income or security. If your creative culture demands this kind of constancy – even unspoken – then you’ll always get a certain kind of artist, artists that thrive in your pre-existing system. The diversity will be limited. My feeling is the only way for theatre to be truly diverse in practice and scope is for there to be wildly different ways of considering a theatrical career, for institutions and artists alike. And I mean WILDLY. And I also stress: for institutions AND ARTISTS alike. Because the assumption of what it means to be a professional theatre-maker infects artists too. When artists fail the system on unspoken terms, we get depressed and upset about it, and we can’t always put our finger on why… because, duh, the demands are unspoken.
At the start of lockdown I heard one artistic director say their theatre was ‘not about to become a film production studio’. But in truth, those kind of skills and cross-disciplinary thinking were shown to be desperately needed the very second theatres started uploading what felt like 1 million appallingly made films. (I’ve made bad films, I know what they feel like, I know what they look like, do not @ me.) Understanding the confluences between art-forms, asking the crucial questions about new hybrids, is a skill and then some (Tanuja from Sleepdogs has been chipping away at these questions in intricate detail for much of the last year.) If you package a brilliant stage production into a bad film, all you’ve got is a bad film. You can’t just “make theatre digital”.
Worse news: unless the governments of the world enact a staggeringly sensible combination of policies in the next few years, this won’t be the last global pandemic of the century. The next one might be deadlier or faster-spreading, shutting down live performance for longer. All told, we might not want our theatres to entirely become film studios. But if we don’t regularly allow film-makers, and artists of other disciplines, into our theatre culture on progressive and free-thinking terms, to cross-pollinate and diversify the form, if we don’t modernise our concept of a theatre career, when the next virus comes we might as well just shut up shop and walk away.
Look, it’s OK to be critical of something you love, right? It’s not betrayal. It’s not hatred. It’s not surrender. It’s not a denigration of the intensely hard work already being done by good people, it’s not an automatic admission of some kind of deep-rooted evil, it’s Just. Fucking. Love.
And this comes from my own mistakes as well. From the times I’ve invited different kinds of artists into theatrical projects – or been part of inviting them in – and I haven’t asked the right questions, and sincerely regretted the confusion or the pain or the missed opportunities. I’ve gone down plenty of dead-ends, and dragged some really good people with me. But in those moments I’ve never, never dropped the learning and said “well, that was only temporary, a failed experiment, never mind. Cos theatre’s just a different country, right?” Instead, you ask better questions, and the mistakes turn into progress and hope.
Ah good, we’ve got to the bit about hope.
So. The causes for hope, as far as I can see them.
First of all, on the part of theatres and institutions, the hope comes in the shape of the questions we’ve all been forced to ask by covid. There are such amazing opportunities arising from this fantastically horrible situation.
It’s one of the oldest stories: a stranger has come to town, and changed everything, and the question now is, what next? Not ‘how to get back to normal?’ – that’s long gone. These aren’t ‘unprecedented times’ any longer – that’s a denial of emotion as well as reality. We need better questions than ‘what’s normal?’ What’s next?
Does anyone really like our reputation-driven, one-of-us idea of a career in theatre? Is it even realistic any longer, even for those who can afford it? And if you disagree fundamentally with my reading of the culture and think this ‘loyalty’ diagnosis is a crock of shite, that we already celebrate cross-pollination and pause and creative risk and surprise, my provocation is: do it more. Celebrate those things louder, say it even when it doesn’t feel like it needs to be said, show it, foreground it, make it stronger. Because there are so many brilliant exciting artists who aren’t feeling the love at all, and might be about to take their brilliance elsewhere.
But the other provocation I have, perhaps the bigger one, is to the artists, and especially those thinking of jacking it all in. The provocation is: we have to get better, too. We have to ask better questions of our own work. The cause for hope is: we’re artists, so we already have the tools.
The reason I’m going to stick around, stubbornly writing plays until someone puts one of the fuckers on, is because I think I have something to give, some wonder to share. The problem is, knowing exactly what that is from day to day. If you’re being truly creative as opposed to just selling yourself, identifying your own voice is the work of a lifetime.
My feeling is that asking better questions of your own work makes you a better collaborator. This isn’t a new thought by any means, but it’s easy enough to forget in a capitalist world that demands you announce your economic worth and then calls it identity.
The skill is in insisting that the culture is something you’re part of, rather than something done unto you. But we’re artists, so…
You’ve been invited to the dance, and it’s only reasonable to expect you’ll actually, you know, do some dancing. But we’re artists, right? So…
Your stubbornness is important, your insistence on emotional space and patience is important, and every time you chip away at a problem for what feels like ‘selfish’ reasons, you’re helping your colleagues and peers and co-workers in the long run. No-one is likely to give you explicit permission for these things, in fact they’ll often feel they don’t have the power to. You’ll just have to assume you have that permission. It’s not about being a dick, obvs, don’t be a dick, a really good question to ask is, “Am I being a dick or what?” But it might sometimes feel like you’re being, uh, unreasonable. It might involve – as it has for me – delays and cancellations and rejections, but it’s better to bring a slow, small amount of emotional honesty to the stage than a constant snowballing of professional panic and fear. It’s just not healthy to keep putting desperation in front of audiences under the guise of creative vitality.
One of the purposes of art is of course to make people feel stuff, and so it feels horrific whenever we’re working on art and we’re asked to suppress our emotions for professional reasons, or have our deepest feelings denied. It’s unrealistic to expect entire institutions to up their emotional intelligence game any time soon – not least because most people working for them are simply not trained or well paid enough to deal with it – so in the meantime, to play our part, here at Sleepdogs we’ve developed our own strategy for emotional survival, and it goes a little something like this:
Make all the emotional investment necessary in a project
Do not invest emotionally in every opportunity to get it made
Or perhaps: only bring it every last bit of your love once you know it’s really happening.
Easier said than done, of course. It’s an imprecise distinction, depending on your style and temperament, depending on where and how you work. The borders between those two sentences are wide, contested and mountainous. It only really works, of course, if you’re not reliant on one small field of play, hence my hopes that there might one day be a different idea of how we define people’s loyalty and commitment to theatre – I mean, that would just be better for people’s mental wellbeing all round.
But I began adopting this strategy late last year after a particularly profound and heart-wrenching rejection, one that came after a long roller-coaster of a journey. And as I’ve got slowly, gradually better at sticking to the instruction, it’s improved my state of mind to a remarkable degree. It’s contributed hugely to my resolution to keep writing for theatre, to persuade my friends to do the same… and that’s why I’m sharing it here.