Arts Manifesto – Planning Together, a National Theatre Recovery Strategy
Bella Caledonia is crowdsourcing an Arts Manifesto for post-covid, post-brexit, post-independence Scotland.
Over the next month Bella Caledonia will publish commissioned articles on policy ideas for this ‘post-everything’ Scotland. Leading figures in various sectors and backgrounds will outline their policy ideas. But we want you to get involved too, the artists, the audience and the army of people behind the scenes who make the magic happen. In the comments section below and after each published piece, tell us one policy that you think would make a difference. Our first commissioned piece in this series is by author and playwright Peter Arnott.
I am here to write about theatre and recovery. Neither of those terms means what it did a year ago.
Above all, when I say “theatre”, I am thinking about not a set of Victorian buildings in the centre of great cities, I am thinking about people – performers, writers, designers, stage managers, directors, marketing people – who live and work in lots of very different places, but all of whom possess what labour analysts call “skill sets” for making events happen that can be beautiful, funny, terrifying…and true. I am here to argue that these people and their immediate relationship with audiences and workshop participants in every size on venue offline and the world wide venue that exists now and forever online, are what we need to start talking about what we mean by “recovery.”
If the stages of recovery from an illness are appropriately transferable to an industry rather than an individual, “Scottish Theatre” is still very much in the early stages of convalescence…doing online facsimiles of live performance, keeping performance muscles from atrophy, learning some new lessons along the way about the potential of the forum we have been forced into.
But consciously or not, where we are now is well past the point where the phrase “back to normal” is anything other than a naïve slogan. “Normal” was another country where they did things differently. Normal is a place so far behind us as to be lost to the rear view mirror. We can no longer sustain a fantasy view of the future where someone will simply flick an epidemiological switch and restore our good old “used to be.”
At this moment, with the future’s exact shape unknowable, but with some political consensus of the need for renewal, the whole of society is asking itself, (or should be asking itself) what might that renewal mean for everybody’s life and work. For one thing, we are almost certainly heading into a prolonged squeeze on public finances. Audiences may take years to return to levels of attendance and the pattern of work and residence are likely to be profoundly affected for years to come. So the performing arts need a guide, a plan, a set of values to steer us through whatever exactly comes at us over the next few years.
So, my first imperative is that Recovery from Pandemic in the Arts must proceed on the basis of a National, Mandated Strategy to avoid being mired in a territorial fight between spending departments. The consensus that arts activity is a national good that sits alongside health and education as elements of what we are beginning to call “well-being”, needs to be translated through concrete policy into the Performing Arts becoming an integrated and accepted partner in the recovery and betterment of the environment in which all our citizens live, work, learn, relax and get sick and get better.
Make no mistake, in the arts as elsewhere, the sharp elbowed and the institutionally privileged are already on the case. Unless we put together a socially based plan for artistic activity across all of our communities, there is a real potential in my wee corner of the entertainment world, for a radical shift BACKWARDS, to a hierarchy of the theatre ”business” as wholly past a pyramid whose peak of aspiration and centre are both on Shaftesbury Avenue.
We need to lobby now for a specific and politically directed set of policies that come close to emulating the invention of the Scottish and English Arts Councils in 1946 and 47, and which led to the creation, in turn, of the Edinburgh Festival, the Royal Shakespeare Company, and , eventually, the National Theatre of Scotland as institutional structures for sharing the talents of “theatre people” in EVERY corner of the once upon a time national welfare state. We need to do that again. Just as after the Second World War, after Covid we need to reinvent the wheel to keep civilisation rolling forward on the basis of inclusive civic values and not slipping back to a place where “the new normal” looks and feels a lot like “the bad old days.”.
We are fortunate, then, that the pieces were already in place for such a re-invention before the pandemic, and have been reinforced and re-iterated as directions in which to travel.
To deal with what’s easy first, but which also might point a way forward, there has of course been a proliferation of good, bad and downright ugly online content of story-telling by performers of all kinds. Where it has been most successful is where it has been centrally promoted by broadcasters. (A success story I could mention has been the festival that Celtic Connections put together online, where a single subscription ticket bought access to a range of filmed performances.) We have learned on the other hand, that just recording stuff and whacking it onto You Tube is the artistic equivalent of a Hail Mary pass in American football, and is mostly a waste of time and public resources.
This brings me to my first concrete proposal for something we can start on right now that points a way forward.
We need the immediate creation of a single dedicated Scottish Arts Hub online, properly promoted and supported, to which subscriptions can be sought across Scotland and the world.
Every theatre performance, every stand up comic, every performance poet, every musician, should all be accessible online all the time everywhere on earth by means of a monthly or annual subscription to a single website.
This seems to me to be an absolute no-brainer. The internet gives us, potentially, access to a worldwide audience as well as a socially wider audience within Scotland itself. The same collective, national service can also be used to promote live events here in Scotland.
And there is, in such a National Online Hub, where locally produced content can be fostered and promoted, the germ of a model for how recovery might actually be imagined in the wider sense. The keyword again is “hub,” both for the provision of a continuity of employment for performers, and in terms of a continuity of access to arts activity whether as audience or participants for Local Communities.
The creation of corresponding “Local Community Arts Hubs” is, of course a medium to longer term aim. But again, we can lay the groundwork for such a thing right now by starting a process of consultation of artists and audiences…and tax payers and lottery payers…in order to aim for a national consensus based on a well- being and place- based agenda.
(I just dropped in a couple of hyphenated buzzwords there. But even before the pandemic, there was a lot of thinking going on in governmental, quasi-governmental and academic circles about what Well-being and Place-based might mean in terms of how we measure our national and local wealth and in directing social policies in an era when “sustainability” is a paradigmatic buzz word in the way that “economic growth” used to be post World War ll.)
My second concrete proposal for “right now,” then, is a “National and Local Creative Audit”, where, centrally organised by some national agency (a new one or a consortium of existing ones like the Federation of Scottish Theatre, The National Theatre of Scotland and the Playwrights’ Studio Scotland) can conduct a survey of needs and resources across the country, with a view to establishing locally what kind of structures would best deliver to each locality the kinds of activity that our social recovery (and doing better than recovery) demands.
If we measure of our economic and social health on the simple predicate of an attempt to make every locality in the country the best place to live it can possibly be, if our aim is to shatter the pyramid that directs all wealth in a single, central direction, then it is immediately obvious that theatre makers, both in public performance and other contexts of health and education to name but two big broad categories, can play an enormous part in “recovering” our country, cities, villages and neighbourhoods as “places to live a good and sustainable life.” It is also immediately apparent that such a strategic vision also includes sustaining artistic communities all across the country, professional performers and passionate participants, and can thus make secure the employment and social stability that has been smashed to tiny bits by the pandemic, the lockdown and the long term economic downturn.
Again, fortunately, there are already available precedents for the kind of local coordination we are going to need. The Dundee City Plan that was kick-started by developments on the waterfront in that great city, already involves the active and happy cooperation of everyone from Dundee Rep to the V&A among many others. I think we can see in it a model of how these local creative partnerships might develop. We can also see, we should note, that in the continuing employment of the performers and production staff of Dundee Rep the strength of a continuity of presence that has meant that the arts in that city have done well during the pandemic and are likely to come through it in relatively good and well organized shape.
We are looking at town centres being very different places in the future. We are looking at very different patterns of work and residence, and I think the arts can be a supremely flexible and robust part of delivering a quality of life agenda not only in this small country, but in every locality of this small country, providing that those artistic hubs are themselves integrated and robust. Cultural activity has to be conceived of as a right for everyone no matter where they live, as much as health care or education or housing or employment. Cultural activity is part of what it means to be alive and to live well, and we should be organising recovery on that basis. We need to imagine where we want to be in ten years, with local creative hubs that create employment and economic activity integrated within retail, leisure and tourism as well as health and education.
Some lucky places already look like that…they already have the high streets with the cafes and the performance venues and the generally groovy, if challenged, vibes we can aspire to. So of course, those retailers, those high streets need to survive and thrive. People need to want to live in them, even though the pattern of employment (for the middle classes anyway) has probably changed forever.
We all already know what a good place to live might look like.
Which brings me to my third and last concrete proposal. To deliver the first two points, to make that ten year plan of regeneration and equity, we need a dedicated artistic leadership. We need, I think, a National Cultural Partnership that can steer local development and effectively interact with national and local government. I think this will require a legislative basis in order to be effective and to react flexibly and vigorously to whatever the “New Normal” turns out to be.
We have inherited a divided fiscal set up where the “National” companies sit in direct relationship with government on one hand while the also rans…which is mostly everybody in the actual productive artistic community…all compete on a competitive tendering basis for whatever is left over from Lottery funding on the other. This is not the place to go into the tiresome contradictions of the artistic tendering process, but if the pandemic has shown us anything, it is that integration and purpose are ill-served by the existing structures and that those structures can be and should be repurposed and refocussed. This, in turn, requires the leadership that only an active policy-making body can give.
In conclusion, both in terms of where we are now and where we want to be, there is no better starting place than an honest assessment of what we want and need. We have to set about the tasks of agreeing and then delivering a national and local agenda, creating the governmental and managerial structures that can create and sustain that vision. This will require leadership, and leadership will require a mandate.
My terrible fear, of course, is that precisely none of this will happen, that we will be plunged into a disorganised recovery as unplanned and chaotic as the earliest days of the emergency. And that this chaos will take years to unravel and that it will be the aforementioned sharp elbowed and already privileged who will be the only ones left standing, and the only ones able to sustain a career in the arts in ten years time.
I genuinely think we are at a crossroads at this moment. We have a choice of futures, in this small corner of social activity as in all the other great big ones. And as with climate change and the economy, it is the decisions we make now and in the next few years that will decide what if any future we can imagine or wish or fear is inevitably going to be shaped. Change is coming whether we want it or not. Our only decision is whether or not to inform that change with democracy and an agreed set of positive values.