by George Gunn
Recently the Society of London Theatres announced that in 2012 13.9 million people had paid £530 million through their West End collective box office, of which £88.3 million went to the UK Treasury in VAT. The average ticket price, they claim, is £37.86 and arithmetically this is true. In reality two “average” seats at any show will cost you £100 and you won’t get much change out of £20 for two interval drinks. If you are rash enough to go for a meal before or after then you can kiss goodbye to £250.00 (minimum) for a night out for two. For Mr and Mrs London West End Theatre goer this may be expected, acceptable, the average, the norm. For those of us who live in Scotland – in fact for most people between John O Groats and Land’s End – this cultural experience is beyond our means.
Many of our political leaders think this is as it should be. The theatre must pay for itself if it is to survive at all and the free market will determine which audience sees what. This despite the post-World War Two consensus which articulated that cultural provision, like health and housing, is a human right and not a luxury. We have seen since 1979 how that consensus has been attacked, undermined and dismantled by successive UK Tory and Labour governments. Unlike health and housing “cultural provision” has had a less clear articulation as a human right and is constantly in the business of being redefined, repackaged, reduced or simply and quietly done away with altogether. Ironically the latest instance of this reduction is the drastic measure taken by the Westminster City Council which has cut their entire culture and arts budget. This the very same local authority area in which the West End theatres are situated.
Aristotle had a word for this: mataxis, which means the participation of one world in another. However Aristotle thought that this radical duality was impossible or at least unintelligible. The idea that theatre must pay for itself through the box office, he would claim, is a “perfect idea”. In reality theatre has never paid for itself, not even in ancient Athens. Neither does, in reality, the West End: without constant product transferring form the subsidised sector most of their theatres would be closed. The real world is “imperfect”. On the other hand many conservatives who are the philosophical children of Aristotle insist that theatre and all the arts must pay for themselves or they have no right to exist. Westminster City Council is an example of this “real world” approach to the “imperfect” world. So £530 million is the price of an annual West End theatre programme and £0 is the value the local authority puts on arts and culture.
It is often ascribed to Aristotle that he believed that “art is an imitation of nature”. This is not the case. The term Aristotle applied to this idea in his Poetics is “mimesis”; which does not mean imitation, but rather re-creation. Nature, for Aristotle, was not the whole of created things anyway but the creative principle itself. So art does not, in fact, imitate nature; what it does is that it re-creates the creative principle of created things.
Which brings us to Scottish theatre: is it, culturally, merely an imitation of the re-creation – which is London’s West End – of the creative principle – which is theatre, art, nature? Economically it cannot compete with London although its mataxis is aspirational. Culturally the artistic practise of our leading producing companies is an imitation of London theatre. If we, for political use, translate nature into society then Scottish theatres rejection of mimesis is its failure to engage with and reflect contemporary Scottish social, cultural and political life. It does not address the “creative principle”. It is an imitation of an imitation.
If we look closely at Scottish theatre, at its manifestation in the imperfect world of real things: what do we see? In this regard it would be easier to paraphrase what one artistic director told me recently of a play he was producing, “Well, I’ll tell you what it’s not about!…” What contemporary theatre in Scotland is not about is Scotland now. What we are witnessing is a cultural disengagement from the national dialogue through artistic choices which have direct and indirect political motivation and consequences.
The season announced by the National Theatre of Scotland is a case in point. In themselves each production has its merits but it would take a cartographer with heightened psychic powers to detect on the map of this theatrical activity a charted course for Scottish theatre. The NTS has just lost one Artistic Director and is about to gain another one but it does not seem to have a direction for the art of theatre in Scotland. One would have thought, even subjectively, at this given moment in Scotland’s history that our national theatre company would be attempting to offer the people of Scotland a piece of theatre which articulated this search for the country’s “creative principle”.
This may be criticised for being a political aspiration on my part and that my gripe is that the National Theatre of Scotland is not doing what I want it to do. Well, I confess: this is true. What is also true is that the theatre is the people singing freely in the open air, it is where citizens go to see how their society is actually faring, where they enter into a dialogue with that “re-creation”. They also go to be entertained and if the theatre is doing its job that facet comes with the price of the ticket.
For here’s a thing: theatre is political. It is part of the sovereign art of politics which embraces all art. It is political because it is fundamentally a human activity and it brings people together in one place at a certain time for a specific purpose and that is a powerful combination. This children of Aristotle who run our lives know this which is why they desire to control theatre, turn it into something it is not by emphasising some elements – spectacle, sentimentality, comedy – over others – analysis, passion, tragedy. Theatre is all of these things at once or it is nothing at all.
But for Scotland now – and theatre is all about “now”, the perennial “now” – it is more than just what we do or do not put on our stages. Sometimes I think that how we train our young theatre professionals is like the new proposed high speed rail link from London to the north of England, but in reverse. We spend vast amounts of money teaching them at such august institutions as The Royal Conservatoire of Scotland – who thought that was a good name? – and watch as they fly south to London to fulfil the financial ambition of their newly found agents and to “make it” in London. What we in reality do is that each year we produce highly skilled barmaids and waiters. A more wasteful system would be hard to design.
We need to turn this train around if Scotland is to have a theatre culture which can sustain an industry that is both healthy and Scottish. We need to re-examine how we train our youngsters in the art of theatre making. We need a revolution of devolution. Large training factories in our biggest cities where only the rich and the otherwise subsidised can go is not the answer. Scotland is a varied place culturally and geographically and our training and education should reflect that. All producing revenue funded theatres should become centres for training and opportunity in order to refresh the acting pool and to reverse the talent drain to the English metropolis.
In Inverness, Aberdeen, Perth, Dundee, Edinburgh and Glasgow there should be dramatic colleges which between them, after three years, would produce up to 100 new hopefuls who could realistically expect to enter the theatre profession in Scotland. This 100 would include actors, designers, technicians, administrators, directors and writers. We are a country of over 5 million people. It’s a question of scale. By the natural processes of age and retirement our theatre profession can then be restored with the older professionals mentoring the younger as they begin their careers. The Scottish people may then begin to get some value for their money. We may then begin to realise our theatrical identity.
These 6 dramatic centres of learning should be kept small with 10 students being the average yearly intake per college. In the Highlands and Island, Aberdeenshire and the Borders there would be a necessity for outreach work but theatre, unlike literature, is not really suitable for distance learning: you do all have to be in the same room eventually. But we must look to our literary culture for our subjective inspiration. We must draw on every reservoir of cultural experience we can. We have to begin from the ground and work towards heaven. An economy of scale will concentrate our resources and maximise the cultural results by minimising financial and human waste.
This proposal may seem modest, naive, simplistic. I agree: it is. But Scottish theatre is floundering at a time when it should be thriving. Despite what management and administrative spin will have us believe all theatre producers are covering over the cracks and robbing Peter to pay Paul, or in some cases robbing Paul as well. The endgame of this is silence.
Since the emergence of the National Theatre of Scotland in 2006 we have seen the amount of real money invested in the whole of Scottish theatre production fall. This is not the fault of the NTS company but is a direct result of a lack of vision and nerve from the Scottish Government and the Scottish Arts Council at the time and now the current car crash which is Creative Scotland, coupled with a too eager tendency by local authorities to abandon even the slightest budgetary pretence that cultural services are see to be “adequate”. The Byre Theatre in St Andrews, one of the wealthiest parts of Scotland, has closed for all these reasons. How many more Scottish theatres will follow? How much longer will actors and writers be expected to subsidise the majority of Scottish theatres in producing work that ranges from being under-funded to not being funded at all? This, increasingly, is becoming the accepted tendency but it has no future.
There is a big and vibrant audience for theatre in Scotland. Theatre is something the Scots are brilliant at producing. Why can’t we give our young ones a decent training in an industry which can then absorb them and nurture and exploit their talents and in so doing create a genuinely Scottish theatre rather than what we have at the moment, which is an imitation of an imitation? We must allow the young to fashion the theatre of the future so that they then can secure that future and that of their society through their art. We can have the people singing freely in the open air and nobody can slap a price on that.
© George Gunn 2013