2007 - 2020

‘Progressive Survival’? We need a Big Conversation

What I want to do here, for myself at least, is to move past mourning the theatre we can’t have anymore and trying to come up with a model for what kind  of Scottish Theatre we CAN have under the conditions with which we are going to find ourselves confronted and conditioned by for the foreseeable future…before we get to the “unforeseeable new normal” that is going to be our future.
I profoundly believe that we have the chance of fashioning a sectoral and strategic plan for our own small country … But I as strongly believe that if we leave responses simply to the individual initiative of individuals and producers, we might miss out on our own collective survival.  As with the virus itself, it is only concerted collective action that can protect some … perhaps most … individuals. But that this collective effort needs to be led. And it is leadership I think, however uncomfortably, we need to think about.
We know what the problems are.  If and when public spaces do re-open, it will have to be with social distancing on and off stage. We are not going to be re-opening the Tron or the Lyceum or Dundee Rep at full capacity for some time well beyond the immediate “fire-fighting” that the Westminster and Edinburgh governments have put in place for different kinds of employers and the self-empolyed who make up most of the workforce of the media … printed, broadcast, theatrical.  This may last a year … it may last two till a workable universal vaccine is in place.
(We hope!)
We will need a strategy that goes past “fire-fighting.”  And sector by sector, as we partially lift the lockdown, it is those who work WITHIN parts of our economy, from farming to tourism to Eden Court … we need to inform how it’s done …
This will mean, of course, the Scottish Government, among others, making a selection … more or less painful choices about which institutions to preserve and protect for the happy day, however long hence, that they can fully re-open their doors.
We could, of course, leave it to the marketplace … SOME form of selection is surely coming … but I fear if we don’t get organised NOW, Rupert Murdoch will end up owning whatever is left …
(Mr Potter buying up Bedford Falls after the Wall Street Crash springs irresistably to mind…which makes us the Bailey Building and Loan, if you follow the torturous movie reference)
Anyway…I think it is important that we establish a set of agreed social and artistic “values” around which this selection can be organised. Without those values, without leadership, without agreement…then I’m not sure survival can be done…or at least not done “progressively.”
It could be that “progressive survival” is the descriptive phrase for what I want to talk about for Theatre in Scotland.  But that it is exactly the notion of “progressive survival” that we need to coalesce around in the WHOLE economy…from housing to health to manufacture to fishing to the “Bide a Wee “ B and B. And that those who WORK in those sectors must inform the knowledge base for the recovery, as collectively agreed values inform the rationale.
In the meantime, back in MY area of expertise, if “sold out” means that the Lyceum has sold 125 tickets,  or the Tron has sold 50…(and the decision is made by local and national government that these economics are bearable in the medium terms for a limited number of spaces) we also have to think about what that means for the sector as a whole.
Longer runs of hit shows?  More performances? A core ensemble of actors at maybe six or seven high profile venues? Employing otherwise unavailable telly and movie stars?  A change in the balance of organisations directly in receipt of government support … and thus no longer reliant on the increasingly bust looking “reactive” model of Creative Scotland for strategic arts provision?
I think one way or the other, one way or the other, the centre will probably hold … given a few mortgage holidays…and maybe a hike in already uncomfortably high ticket prices.
BEYOND that, culturally, socially and and geographically … BEYOND those spaces whose importance to the great and the good will probably ensure some kind of survival…I think the NTS “Scenes for Survival”, the Scotsman’s short filmed performances and Pitlochry Theatre’s commissions of monologues ALSO point a way forward that I think needs to be explored STRATEGICALLY in the wake of the immediate impulse to stay alive.
This is where I think “vlog-casts” might come in.  Where I think we might get Sam Heughan or Karen Gillen to do fifteen minute story reading slots for download on mobile phones and broadcast on BBC Scotland, where “pop up theatres” might perform “survivors’ cabarets” in NON theatrical venues, where we look creatively at the spaces and technologies that are available…rather than longing for the creative spaces that are not.
In order to monetise and promote and pay for these activities…these opportunities…we need to think beyond our own bunkers…is all I’m saying. We need to look at pooled advertising revenue as well as government funding…and to do BOTH of those things, I do not believe it is possible NOT to act collectively.
Or indeed without the broadcasters…
It may well be that these conversations are already happening in the hierarchies above and beyond my paygrade as a freelance playwright with a drawer full of delivered and now un-performable scripts…. And that some folk who read this you are among the ones already doing the talking. But I have been inspired by being lucky enough to be involved in all three of the initiatives undertaken by Pitlochry, The Scotsman and the NTS.  I have also been hugely moved by some of the personal stories that I’ve been hearing on radio and TV and online. And all of these experiences have made me at least START to think positively about what the hell comes next?
Also, I have to say, the way that Nicola Sturgeon’s admonition to treat the public like adults has found a resonance, and the way that this line is now being parroted all over the UK, gives me hope that the leadership the likes of you can offer is going to find supportive echoes in the corridors of power. And her piece in the Herald on Sunday 26th April is a general call to which this open letter is a response.
Our conversations in the theatre isn Scotland, as elsewhere, need to be adult, wide, democratic and inclusive…and involve artists AND audiences.  To survive at all, let alone survive “progressively”, we are going to HAVE to get our heads together.
Then just maybe we can make something better than a Survival, and make something we’re proud of…that puts in a good place for the day after the day after tomorrow.

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  1. SleepingDog says:

    As far as I know, theatre was seen as a most serious threat to the British establishment for a period up until television became widespread. There was swingeing censorship in Elizabethan and Jacobean England (I have been recommended Art Made Tongue-tied by Authority: Elizabethan and Jacobean Dramatic Censorship by Janet Clare, but it is a hard book to get hold of), and Shakespeare’s Richard II was implicated in a plot to unseat the monarch (Elizabeth I, referring to the deposition scene which was cut from later performances, apparently said “I am that Richard!”). Playwrights played with fire, and some of them got snuffed out. The puritans objected to men and boys (some kidnapped under Royal impressment law and forced into sex work) playing women on stage (but neglected the obvious solution of women playing women on stage). Sedition bubbled, dissent uttered, kings were stripped naked on stage and ridiculed, and England had its Revolution, civil wars, tried and executed its King, then the revolution was betrayed by Parliamentarians and then by Royalists. Anyway, the fear of a mob of capital city theatre-goers being so incensed by a play that they (stopping for a quick quaff) pop round and sack Buckingham Palace or burn down Parliament seems to have been behind the political censorship of UK drama until the Theatres Act 1968.
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Theatres_Act_1968

    So, what’s on offer here and now? Anything we will look back on in fifty years and say: “The Revolution Started Here!”? And some old-timer might say “And I was in the audience!” Or mostly just a bunch of attention-seeking lovies?

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